‘Under the wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave)’ from ‘Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji’. Colour woodblock, 1831. Acquisition supported by the Art Fund. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

A Whole World in Himself

2nd June 2017

The name of the artist may not be familiar, but Hokusai’s image ‘The Great Wave’ is globally recognised. Jack Watkins visits a new British Museum exhibition dedicated to the Japanese artist’s latter years…

To some, it’s known simply as The Wave, or The Great Wave. It’s a wood-block print that has so transcended national boundaries that it has become an international motif, ideal for recycling as an advertising logo, a simple yet elegant depiction of power and motion. To the man who created it – Katsushika Hokusai – it was an expression of spirituality, however. He called his picture Under a Wave off Kanagawa, and it was no one-off masterwork, but belonged to a series of illustrations in a book in which the central point of focus was not, in fact, a giant wave, but the pyramid-shaped mountain in the background, Mount Fuji itself.

At 12,000 feet high, the mountain had been worshipped as a sacred location by the Japanese since Shinto times. So while the eye of the viewer is taken by the towering wave which seems poised to break on top of and capsize the two boatloads of helpless rowers beneath it, it is Fuji – aloof in the distance – that is the true focus: offering, perhaps, a spiritual symbol of permanence, contrasted with the futile striving and fleeting nature of human existence.

Depicting Mount Fuji was something of an obsession for Hokusai, who had returned to sketch and paint it repeatedly before it appeared in his book Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji, published in the early 1830s. It’s also fair to say that it came at a time when the artist was enjoying something of a renaissance of interest in his work, and the demand for pictures of this type was high.

You might even suggest that Hokusai was tapping into his own country’s curiosity about its past and its sites of antiquity in much the same way as JMW Turner and other artists were doing in Britain around the same time, with their paintings of romantic ruins and scenically located castles and cathedrals. Japan in the early 19th century, after decades of being closed off to its neighbours and the rest of world, was beginning to stir from its slumbers. As its middle classes began to thrive in the more relaxed conditions, the appetite for travel created a market for pictorial guidebooks, and it was this that gave the old Japanese master Hokusai, now entering his 70s, the chance to take his art to new exploratory levels.

One of the most remarkable things about Hokusai was his longevity, not just in terms of his actual lifespan – he was 90 when he died – but also of his creativity. Aged 75, he once stated that he wanted to go on living on past 100, so that he could truly perfect his skills. “When I am one hundred and ten, each dot, each line will possess a life of its own.” he said. Even on his deathbed he was pleading for “just five more years.”

In that respect, he was a kind of Picasso of the Far East – if, as a follower of Buddhism, somewhat more spiritually motivated – and this is why the British Museum’s new exhibition is dedicated to the last decades of the man whom many consider to be Japan’s finest artist, looking at his career from the late 1820s up to his death in 1849.

A Self-portrait shows him at 83, a little wizened, but still bright and curious of demeanour. Examples abound of how delicate his touch remained, and how vivid was his use of colour in his pictures of birds and flowers, such as Weeping cherry and bullfinch and Poppies, and in illustrations that ‘told a story’ like The Waterfall where Yoshitsune washed his horse in Yoshino, or Amida waterfall, deep beyond the Kiso highway.

Hokusai may have been painting for an increasingly sophisticated, modernising Japan, but he never lost interest in his homeland’s traditional concerns with dragons and ghosts, and these you can see in a series of hanging scrolls like Dragon in rain clouds and Dragon rising above Mount Fuji. From the book One Hundred Ghost Stories, the woodblock Kohada Koheiji is a weird depiction of a skeletal looking ghost peeking over the edge of a mosquito net. In this and so many other images you can see why the work of Hokusai was exceptionally attractive to European artists of the Impressionist period.

Hokusai himself saw enough of European art to experiment with its ideas about perspective, but the strangeness of Japanese art to European eyes, with its quaint figures and costumes, odd juxtapositions and colours, presented a refreshing spectacle for young artists trying to escape the more detailed approach of the 19th century academies. So Hokusai, with his fluidity and minimalist approach, eliminating superfluous detail and saying so much with just a few strokes of his brush, became a hero to the likes of Edgar Degas who said that Hokusai was “….not just one artist among others… He is an island, a continent, a whole world in himself.”

Of course, that adulation never actually benefited the man himself. He had been poor throughout his life, and in his later years his daughter Oi even gave up her own career as an artist to look after his needs. Hokusai was used to finding the going rough. Born into an impoverished family in Edo, now Tokyo, he spurned a relatively secure future in the mirror-making business of the family that had adopted him when he was orphaned at the age of five, for the more uncertain one of artist and printmaker. He endured many lean years, and was frequently forced to take other forms of employment to secure a living.

He was also an early master of what we’d now call the PR opportunity. Something of an itinerant, he changed his place of residence 93 times across his life, though it’s probably safe to say that these ‘homes’ were never more than temporary lodgings. Hokusai realised that having a reputation for eccentricity was unlikely to harm his popularity. He had a series of alternative names, one of which was Old Man Crazy to Paint (Gakyo Rojin), and his crowd-pleasing approach included breezing into a new town, and rolling out a large sheet of paper over which he’d dart about with a broom and an ink-filled bucket. After a few frenzied minutes he’d hold up the resultant picture before the marvelling throng that had gathered to watch him. On one occasion, he arrived in the company of a chicken whose feet he dipped in red ink before letting it run all over a sheet he had covered in blue paint. The result, he triumphantly announced, was Maple Leaves on a River.

Sad as it is that Hokusai died in poverty, at least he was able to work right to the end on something he loved, rising early in the morning and working late into the night. And though he had died twenty years before it happened, his name became revered in the West even beyond the world of painting. Claude Debussy said his beautiful musical seascape La Mer was influenced by The Great Wave, and more recently Apple have utilised the image for an emoji. Hokusai may not have succeeded in his wish to live to 100, but that picture seems immortal.

Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave is at the British Museum until 31 August. The exhibition is supported by Mitsubishi Corporation.

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