EasyFrame

Wave Goodbye to Hokusai

By Paul Dunwell, writing for © EasyFrame
Copyright EasyFrame 2018

What This Article is About

‘Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave’ was a spectacular exhibition that the British Museum staged in 2017. So, sadly, it’s been and gone. Yet you can still download a documentary on the artist and printmaker’s life from www.more2screen.com/events/hokusai-british-museum/ and/or pop over to Tokyo and visit the Sumida Hokusai Museum though every nation on earth must be hosting a show of his work. Alternatively you might purchase one or more of Hokusai’s pieces in print from somewhere like www.allposters.co.uk and then speak with picture-framers EasyFrame about how to mount your own show. This article explains why the fabled – and occasionally salty – artist continues to make a big splash that’s worth your cash.

Hokusai's 'The Great Wave off Kanagawa' (1830-1832) with Mount Fuji behind
Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ (1830-1832) with Mount Fuji behind

Why Interest in Hokusai Never Ebbed

The ‘Great Wave’ title refers to an iconic impressionistic print that is thought by many to be the most famous of Oriental masterpieces, though the Japanese themselves seem to prefer Hokusai’s views of Mount Fuji. Actually it’s lucky we have the iconic ‘Great Wave’ since much of the artist’s work, and he’s said to have executed 30,000 pieces that amount to painting about one a day for a lifetime so he was prolific, was destroyed in a fire in 1839 – just a few years after ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ (which is today’s Yokohama, a city south of Tokyo) was created.

Hokusai's 'South Wind, Clear Sky'
‘South Wind, Clear Sky’ from the series ‘Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji’ is more popular with the Japanese

Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ encapsulates a timelessness and unarguably anachronistic element of his work. It still looks fresh, as if it were painted yesterday, and that owes something to its subject-matter. Peril on the sea is perpetual and permanent though Hokusai has, of course, captured a fleeting snapshot of a rogue wave’s menace. It’s a threat with which we’re all familiar though, in fairness, this is unlikely to be a tsunami. Who today has not gawped at the sea’s awesome capacity for destruction? Mount Fuji in the background likewise represents the eternal in respect of not simply topography but the promise of the endless life which was long said to be found at its summit. And the fragility of human life at the hands of the elements, the bravery of those who try to glean a living from the ocean, is plain to see. It’s almost like looking (maybe through one’s fingers) at one frame in a cautionary cartoon-strip. Indeed Hokusai is famous for his invention of ‘manga’ as a form of storytelling, a form which even Stan Lee of Marvel Comics (think The X Men, Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk and Dr Strange) would surely credit to him.

Stan Lee's creations
Stan Lee’s creations. Hokusai’s manga was a system of quick drawing and he taught classes in it for a quick buck.

An Object-Lesson for School-Leavers – Acquire the Skills and a Name will Follow

What do we know of Hokusai? He started to daub at 6 but was still painting when he died at 88, though he’d expressed an intention to live to 110 and – ever modest – reckoned that he’d need another 5 years before he could fairly claim to be an artist. He trained as a carver, acquiring skills that he certainly used for woodblock printing, though he later expanded his capacity to use other systems including copper engraving and really only hit his stride when he was in his 60s. And he was a fine artist who, in many ways, was able to capture every facet of contemporary Japanese life as if he were an archivist. (It’s worth remembering that, though the first photograph was only taken in 1814 when Hokusai was 58, and it was almost certainly only after his death that the camera found its way into Japan.) Indeed that role as an archivist may have owed something to his first job, which had been making woodblocks from which books were created in a library.

Startlingly throughout his career Hokusai used at least 30 names, as if to demonstrate that he was more interested in creating art that spoke for itself rather than trade on his burgeoning reputation. Contrast that 82-year stint with the kids of today who think they all deserve to be famous overnight though they don’t know why!

Hokusai Buddhist Priest
A contemporary image of Hokusai painting a 600-foot image of a famous Buddhist priest (he was a Buddhist himself) using a broom and buckets of ink.
Hokusai Self Portrait
One of Hokusai’s self-portraits on what we must hope was a bad-hair-day, though he wasn’t vain. Born in 1761 he died at 88 in 1849.
Hokusai Waterfall
One of Hokusai’s many studies of waterfalls. In later years his daughter, also an artist, drew the bold lines

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Black, Blue and Green

Actually Hokusai died in 1849, just 4 years before Japan’s long period of self-induced isolation (called ‘Sakoku’) expired. So he never realised his work would find a global market and, though he was well-known in Japan, he died poor like his similarly-talented European contemporaries Vincent Van Gogh and William Blake.

The story of how fame overtook him is interesting and relevant. In 1853 the USA’s Commodore Perry turned up with his so-called ‘black fleet’ of 8 steam-powered heavily-armed vessels and practised a little ‘battleship diplomacy’. America wanted coal for its new steam-engines as well as a slice of the trade that Japan had actually been conducting anyway with Korea, China and the Dutch East India Company. Indeed one beneficiary of that trade during the isolation was Hokusai himself, since he had been using a form of Prussian blue that had really been invented by Swiss and German scientists (hence the name ‘Prussian’) though the Chinese had pinched the formula and then flogged the product to the Japanese legitimately through the port of Nagasaki. (Historically the Romans had lost the recipe for so-called ‘Egyptian blue’ after which making it from crushed Afghan lapis lazuli was seen as too expensive, but good blue was tough to source.)

Thus, when Japan broke its isolation, Hokusai’s vibrant woodblock prints started turning up in Europe where their form, colours and vivacity caused quite a stir. But, ironically, initially his prints were considered vulgar by his own compatriots (some were sexual, but most were just perhaps too simplistic for their tastes) and therefore used as wrapping-paper to protect exports. Maybe his prolific output was the problem; perhaps the Japanese just hadn’t understood that a true genius can create a masterpiece in moments because they have a feel for form and colour. So, anyway, Hokusai was posthumously propelled to stardom almost by accident. And before long his ‘ukiyo-e’ (‘pictures of the floating world’ featuring everyday life in Japan) were influencing the envious French and Dutch impressionists (and post-impressionists) Degas, Monet, Gauguin, Lautrec and Van Gogh. Indeed Van Gogh and his brother apparently collected dozens of Japanese prints, many of which were probably Hokusai’s work. The Japanese master similarly inspired Art Nouveau’s Mucha, Klimt and Lalique (so Hokusai’s original training in 3D work seems to have gone full-circle in its reach). A lot of this was because Hokusai’s routine use of just 4 colouring blocks provided the simple colours and bold outlines which appealed to those who emulated him in the West.

Versatility

Hokusai is also famous for depictions of bridges, landscapes, performers and VIPs, courtesans (his mother may have been a concubine since his father, a mirror-maker for the imperial line, did not accept him as his heir), fish, birds and other animals, craftsmen and more. Indeed the celebrated great wave off Kanagawa wasn’t the only one that Hokusai painted, since he recorded others in Chōshi (which is in Shimōsa Province), Kajikazawa (in Kai Province) and elsewhere.

Hokusai 1

Hokusai 2

Hokusai 3

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Hokusai was well-known for his capacity to titillate in an era when his work equated to today’s top-shelf mags.

Conclusion

Japanese art, like Japanese architecture and gardens, has no equal. And in Hokusai it found an exemplar whose capacity to engage and enthral is as evident now as it must have been almost 250 years ago. Since his work was designed to be printed, and because he left behind many thousands of creations, you have almost-infinite opportunities to acquire eminently-frameable and very-affordable examples of his genius that would grace any home, office or workplace. Indeed they may complement Japanese-style furnishings such as futons, paper screens, tableware and lamps.
PS It seems apposite to end with an haiku to Hokusai, written with his own description of himself – and what he might have made of the Internet on which his work is now browsed 24/7 in every nation on Earth – in mind:

Haiku to Hokusai

Ah so, Hokusai,

Old man mad about drawing,

And pixel-free surf.

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