• Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave

    The British Museum’s exhibition of prints, paintings and books illustrated by the Japanese artist generally known as Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) is a revelation in three ways. First, the quality of much of the work on display; precise lines, dramatic colourings, realistic depictions and fascinating subjects. Secondly, the variety of formats, media and outlets in or for which he worked, telling of a highly mature, thriving and sophisticated art market in a country that, for all of of Hokusai’s life, had practised a near-complete isolation from the West but which was still rapidly urbanising. Finally, the sheer modernity, with its striking compositions, fresh arrangements and bold choices, connects directly and inescapably to today’s manga, which themselves explore as nuanced a world as did Hokusai.

    At the turn of the 19th century, Edo (Tokyo) had a population of a million and was larger than London. Although another half-century would have to pass before Matthew Perry’s expedition opened the country fully to the rest of the world, Japan had a rich and complex visual culture of its own and highly developed technical prowess in realising decorative and practical objects. An intimate relationship with China and a history of poetry, story-telling and myth all ensured fertile ground for artists seeking to satisfy demand and make their mark.

    Many of their images were intended for reproduction as single-sheet prints, often in more than one colour, or in illustrated novels, these in monochrome. Both involved the pasting of the original drawing face down onto a block of wood followed by an extremely challenging and laborious process by which wood is carved away either side of the artist’s lines, leaving raised equivalents that would later accept a printer’s ink. A fresh block was needed for each additional colour.

    The opening rooms of the exhibition therefore set the scene with a selection of Hokusai’s works from the early 1800s including the exquisite Woman Holding An Umbrella, whose detailed rendering in vibrant colours against a largely plain background introduce several elements of the style with which he is identified. A spread from the Bow Moon story is also shown, 29 volumes of which were published to such acclaim that Hokusai was able to buy a house from the proceeds.

    Here, too, we start to see the part played by the publishers in each of these ventures, since artists seeking maximum exposure and reward could not function alone. Publishers would identify a market and a subject, publicise the forthcoming edition and commission the works from the artists. Throughout the exhibition the relationship between these two parties is shown to be key, and extracts from their advertisements announcing such partnerships are nice insights into the time.

    The print-maker was also critical, and here perhaps the exhibition serves the visitor less well. Although short films explain the technique and several unused but ‘block-ready’ drawings are presented, I would like to have seen more material on the technical and artistic considerations involved and more too on the printing and colour-making.

    Undoubtedly Hokusai’s most famous engagement of this type is the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series from the early 1830s, its best known image becoming his signature in the eyes of many and lending the exhibition its title. The Museum’s own print of this is duly included, along with a number of other subjects, and even without much context their power is clear. The invention with which Hokusai treats each image, sometimes seeming to subvert Fuji’s profound significance with his choice of placement and size as much as he celebrates it, is matched only by the vibrant colour choices and crisp delineation of backgrounds and people, themselves often corralled into one part of the frame to emphasise the sacred mountain’s size or importance.

    Hokusai appears to have been aware of Western artistic traditions, perhaps through the Dutch East India Company which had in fact traded with Japan for decades, and this is seen for example in the transparency of a fisherman’s net, a village visible through its mesh. Other attempts to emulate Old Masters are for me less convincing, with shadows and smoother textures more reminiscent of the frustratingly ‘empty’ computer-generated imagery of today’s manga art.

    The term ‘manga’ was used in his own time to describe Hokusai’s books of stand-alone pictures, clustered many to a page and without any connecting narrative or indeed captions. He published hundreds of such images, to both demonstrate his skill and provide inspiration for others. They are stunning in their detail and particularly their compositional daring, arranged for example across a double-page spread requiring the reader to turn the book ninety degrees. That is also a legacy fully absorbed by today’s artists, seen most obviously in the science fiction works of Masamune Shirow (Appleseed, Ghost in the Shell, Dominion) or the contemporary crime dramas of Ryoichi Ikegami (Crying Freeman, Sanctuary).

    As a sub-strand of this work Hokusai also created designs intended specifically for use by the manufacturers of everyday objects such as combs and tobacco pipes; pattern books, effectively, that they could use to decorate their wares. This confirms the democratic nature of the market for art in the Japan of this time, a parallel of sorts to the Dutch Golden Age of some centuries before,

    Throughout his long life Hokusai was always keen to prove himself and, conversely, to put food on the table and clothes on his back, and as a result turned his hand to a wide range of subjects. Some of the most compelling in the exhibition, and arguably the most beautiful, are the pictures of flowers, birds and other fauna. Their dynamic colours and sometimes almost perverse compositions – in one a bullfinch is hanging upside down from a plant, in another a grasshopper is wittily hidden within the image as though camouflaged in its natural habitat – show a fresh side to his skill and remind us of the deep relationship the Japanese have to nature.

    The knowing manipulation of artistic convention on display across all of these types, sizes and periods should be stressed. Figures are cut off or seen almost entirely from behind, their heads obscured by their hats; elsewhere a samurai surveying what we would today call an infrastructure project states directly out of the page at the viewer through his spyglass. Three dimensionally-rendered boxes, bags and cases have their edges aligned at 45 degrees to the sides, top and bottom of the frame, like an isometric drawing. More fishermen, dragging their nets uphill, describe a diagonal path up through a painting, leading the eye.

    This is an absorbing, at times thrilling exhibition, worth attempting to see despite the sold-out status and crowds. With this, its awkward layout, lack of audioguide and wall texts that omit details such as size and acquisition number, it has the feel of a small show that has unexpectedly grown in popularity but that takes nothing away from its effectiveness as an introduction to the extraordinary breadth and talent of a man who bridged ages, countries and cultures and who still talks to us today.

    ‘Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave’, supported by Mitsubishi Corporation, continues at the British Museum. Great Russell Street, London WC1 until 13 August. Advance tickets are sold out but daily walk-up ticket sales occur from 9am. BM members can also access tickets.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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