Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave – The Great Master of Japan

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa (c. 1830) from the Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji series 1826-33 colour woodblock 25.7 x 37.7 cm (image and sheet) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
The Great Wave Off Kanagawa (c. 1830) from the Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji series 1826-33 colour woodblock 25.7 x 37.7 cm (image and sheet) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Great Wave 2

Under the wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave) from Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji. Colour woodblock, 1831. Acquired with the assistance of the Art Fund. On display British Museum 25 May – 13 August 2017

The British Museum has announced a new Summer exhibition showcasing the work of Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849), one of the Great Masters of Japanese art. Hokusai was a prolific artist, and the exhibition will include prints, paintings and illustrated books displaying his work.

The iconic ‘Under the wave of Kanagawa (The Great Wave)’ introduces this wide-ranging exhibition comprising classic ukiyo-e subjects – stunning landscapes, flora and fauna, private domestic scenes, and supernatural creatures. The extraordinary technical skill with which Hokusai has executed each of these works is sure to be a joy to behold.

Hokusai was born on 30 October 1760, or the 23rd day of the 9th month of the 10th year of the Horeki era in the old Japanese calendar. His childhood name was Tokitaro and after starting to paint aged six, worked as an apprentice to a wood-carver from the age of 14 until 18, when he entered the studio of Katsukawa Shunsho, a ukiyo-e artist.

The ukiyo-e style of art was popular in Japan during the Edo period (which ran from 1603 until 1837), and translates as ‘picture of the floating world’. Ukiyo-e artists produced many beautiful and ethereal works of a variety of subjects, initially of kabuki actors and courtesans, but later expanding to include travel, landscapes and everyday scenes from life, for which Hokusai played a part. Depictions of history and folk tales, flora and fauna were also common. Hokusai mastered the ukiyo-e style during his time at Shunsho’s studio, and also took on his first new name – Shunro.

Year-end accounts. Ink and colour on old Dutch paper, 1824–1826. National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden. On display British Museum 25 May – 2 July 2017

Year-end accounts. Ink and colour on old Dutch paper, 1824–1826. National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden. On display British Museum 25 May – 2 July 2017

Hokusai was known by at least thirty different names during his lifetime. Being known by a number of different names was fairly common amongst Japanese artists at the time, but thirty was considered quite unusual. Each new name tended to indicate a new period of Hokusai’s life, and the different artistic styles he was pursuing at the time.

Hokusai worked under Shunsho for more than a decade, but after his master’s death in 1793, Hokusai felt free to explore other styles of art, including French and Dutch styles. He also broadened his chosen subjects, from the traditional ukiyo-e themes of kabuki actors and courtesans, to landscapes and scenes of the people of Japan going about their daily business.

These subjects will be on display in the upcoming exhibition, including ‘Year-end accounts’, a delightful depiction of a rather mundane and almost universal annual task.

Weeping cherry and bullfinch 2

Weeping cherry and bullfinch. Colour woodblock, c. 1834. On display British Museum 7 July – 13 August 2017.

Also on display will be the strikingly beautiful ‘Weeping cherry and bullfinch’. The vibrant blues in the negative space compete with the intricate floral designs and the charmingly placed bullfinch to create an exquisite work of art.

By the year 1800, Hokusai had adopted the name by which he is known – Katsushika Hokusai. Katsushika refers to his birth place, and Hokusai means ‘north studio’. During the first few decades of the 19th century Hokusai became increasingly famous in Japan, as he created works which took many different forms, including a collaboration on a series of books with Takizawa Bakin, a popular novelist; the creation of manga, a form of sketches and caricatures, which influenced the modern form of comics also known as manga; and Hokusai is even reported to have created a portrait of Daruma, a Buddhist priest, which was 180 metres long, using a broom and buckets of ink!

‘Under the wave of Kanagawa (The Great Wave)’, the centrepiece of the British Museum’s exhibition, was created in the 1830s as part of the series ‘Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji’. At the time Hokusai was in his sixties and continued to abundantly paint and create, with many of his best works produced later in his life, when he called himself Gakyo Rojin Manji, which translates as ‘The old man mad about art’.

‘Under the wave of Kanagawa (The Great Wave)’ is a magnificent work of creative imagination and technical skill. The print on display was acquired by the British Museum in 2008 with the assistance of the Art Fund, a wonderful British fundraising charity that does marvellous work supporting museums and galleries by helping them to acquire and display works of art.

Umezawa Manor 2

Umezawa Manor in Sagami Province from Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji. Colour woodblock, 1831. On display British Museum 7 July – 13 August 2017.

A number of the ‘Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji’ will be on display during the exhibition, including the picturesque ‘Umezawa Manor in Sagami Province’, a delicate work depicting the tranquil landscape surrounding Mount Fuji. ‘Clear day with a southern breeze (Red Fuji)’, another of the ‘Thirty-six views’, will also be on display. This work has a very different feel, with the intense red colour of the mountain illustrating Fuji at dawn in late summer.

Clear Day 2

Clear day with a southern breeze (Red Fuji) from Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji. Colour woodblock, 1831. On display British Museum 25 May – 13 August 2017.

Mount Fuji fascinated Hokusai, and he would find himself returning to this subject matter many times throughout his life. The mountain was said to represent eternal life, a topic which resonated with the artist. Hokusai was gripped with a constant need to create, and to improve.

He reportedly said on his deathbed, at the age of ninety, “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years … Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.” The upcoming exhibition at the British Museum is sure to show that Hokusai very much succeeded in his wish, and was indeed a truly great artist.

Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave opens 25 May and will be on until 13 August 2017 at the British Museum, London. Tickets are now available to purchase online. A number of the artworks will be changed half way through the show, due to the light sensitivity of the pieces. The new works will be similar, and will not detract from the flow of the exhibition. The galleries will be closed from 3 – 6 July to facilitate this change.

Belinda McDowall, Deputy Editor & Special Features, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017

Snowy morning, Koishikawa from Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji. Colour woodblock, 1832, courtesy British Museum

Snowy morning, Koishikawa from Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji. Colour woodblock, 1832, courtesy The British Museum

Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave

25 May – 13 August 2017 (closed 3 – 6 July)

The British Museum,
Room 35, Great Russell Street,
London, WC1B 3DG, United Kingdom

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