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‘Hokusai: Beyond The Great Wave’ at the British Museum
Image Credit: '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.

‘Hokusai: Beyond The Great Wave’ at the British Museum

24 June 2017 Laura Garmeson

Katsushika Hokusai is widely considered to be Japan’s greatest artist. Known for his serene scenes of Mount Fuji and intricately minimalist style, he achieved international fame for his iconic print, ‘The Great Wave’, created when the artist was seventy. A new exhibition at the British Museum looks beyond the Great Wave and into Hokusai’s old age, focusing on the work he made during the extraordinarily fruitful last thirty years of his life. It reveals his spiritualism and artistic beliefs, his vision of Japanese society of the 1800s, and spotlights the astonishing paintings he continued to produce up until his death at the age of ninety.

One of the many remarkable things about Hokusai was his profound conviction that the older he got, the greater his art would become. ‘Until the age of seventy,’ he claimed, ‘nothing I drew was worthy of notice.’ Adamantly refusing to lay down his brush in old age, he rebranded himself as Gakyō Rōjin (Old Man Crazy to Paint) and continued to create art daily. By ninety, he hoped to see further into the underlying principles of art; by one hundred, he assumed he would achieve a divine state; and once he’d reached the ripe old age of one hundred and ten he insisted that ‘every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.’


Image Credit: Clear day with a southern breeze (‘Red Fuji’) from Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji. Colour woodblock, 1831. © The Trustees of the British Museum. 
 
He may well have been onto something. Hokusai: Beyond The Great Wave is a multi-faceted gem of an exhibition, spiralling around the central space of the British Museum and featuring over one hundred pieces: drawings, major paintings, illustrated books and iconic woodblock prints made during the artist’s latter years. Hokusai is one of the most prolific artists ever, said to have produced around 30,000 artworks over the course of a career spanning seven decades, so there’s a wealth of material to choose from, and many of the objects and works on display have never been shown outside of Japan.


Image Credit: Attributed to Hokusai. 'Boys’ Festival'. Ink and colour on old Dutch paper, 1824-1826. Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Leiden. 

Born in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) in 1760, Hokusai was adopted at a young age by an uncle who worked as a mirror-polisher for the shogun, ruler of feudal Japan, and it was assumed he would take over the family business. Yet it was an early aptitude for drawing that saved him from a lifetime of polishing, enabling him to join the studio of a ukiyo-e (or ‘floating world’) artist in his teens and embark upon a career in art. In later years he would move away from the ukiyo-e school, making a name for himself in the world of commercial art as a printmaker and illustrator, and eventually producing his iconic print series, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.


Image Credit: 'Dragon in rain clouds'. Hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper, 1849. Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet, Paris, given by Nobert Lagane ; 'Dragon rising above Mt Fuji'. Hanging scroll, ink and slight colour on silk, 1849. Hokusaikan, Obuse. 
 
For Hokusai novices, this exhibition should prove to be an eye-opening affair. Yes, a print of the famous Great Wave is here in all its muted glory (it is far smaller than you might expect), but there are so many other masterpieces on display that it pales alongside them. The Great Wave belonged to the artist’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji series, and other early prints are on display here, azure-tinged due to an imported Prussian blue pigment that had appeared in Japan for the first time. There are more of Hokusai’s undulating water scenes in the large twin paintings, Waves, depicting waters that roil and rage across the whole canvas. Elsewhere, prints from his One Hundred Ghost Tales series draw on folk-tale superstition and horror to create medium-sized ‘manga’ illustrations (meaning ‘sketches’), which wouldn’t look out of place in a manga comic book of today.


Image Credit: Attributed to Hokusai, with frame paintings completed by Takai Kōzan (1806– 1883). 'Waves'. Ceiling panel for a festival cart, ink and colour on paulownia wood, 1845. Kanmachi Neighbourhood Council, Obuse, Nagano Prefectural Treasure. 
 
There is an element of superstition that characterized much of Hokusai’s later work. In his early eighties, he is said to have dashed off a daily brush drawing of either a Chinese lion or a lion dancer, before tossing the drawing out the window. These were his ‘daily exorcisms’ to ward off misfortune (the drawings were thankfully rescued by his devoted artist-daughter, Ōi). The link between spirituality and art seems to have strengthened as Hokusai aged, when he began to paint more holy men, ghosts and protective deities. For the artist, the boundaries between mystical worlds and the real became increasingly porous, even imbuing his scenes of nature with an undeniably numinous quality.


Image Credit: 'Shōki painted in red'. Hanging scroll, ink and red pigment on silk, 1846. Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Mrs Charles Stewart Smith.  
 
Some of the most breathtaking artworks in the exhibition are indeed the paintings Hokusai made in his late eighties, right at the end of his life. Something about the simplicity of line, and Hokusai’s famed compositions, create an intensely focused mood or atmosphere: the gossamer grey mists enshrouding Mountain Landscape cast the painting in a spectral, otherworldly light, making it easy to miss the four miniature boatmen struggling to row upstream. The fiery oranges of Tiger in the Rain are intricately layered and exquisitely painted, as the snarling animal twists to glare at a wraith-like dragon. The obsessive precision of these paintings – a hallmark of Hokusai’s style and indeed a requirement for the woodcut technique – is surely almost unparalleled in Japanese art.
 
Hokusai: Beyond The Great Wave is an extraordinary retrospective of the artist’s later years, and clearly the culmination of a lifetime’s work.
 
Hokusai: Beyond The Great Wave is on display at the British Museum until 13 August. Tickets are £12.

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