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Ingenious Hokusai

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Over a century and a half after his death, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is still by far the most popular of all Japanese artists. A major source of inspiration for the Japonisme craze in Europe and America in the late nineteenth century, his work continues to be known and loved around the world today. Contemporary artists make witty references to such iconic works as the color woodblock print nicknamed The Great Wave, from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, secure in the knowledge that the image will be understood by their own audiences. A prolific and versatile artist, Hokusai was not only a brilliant designer of single-sheet prints and illustrations for printed books, but also a superb painter and a gifted teacher, who passed on his skills directly to his many pupils and indirectly to the far more numerous readers of his how-to-draw books. As he drew, the self-styled "Man Mad about Drawing" must have been thinking constantly about how best to present his subjects -- how to depict human bodies in motion, how to combine figures and landscapes, how to represent three-dimensional objects on two-dimensional surfaces, when to use the techniques of illusionism, and when to adjust reality for greater visual or emotional effect.

Under the Wave off Kanagawa (kanagawa-oki nami-ura), also known as The Great Wave, from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjurokkei), about 1830-31
The Great Wave

This print, nicknamed The Great Wave, is not only the most famous of all ukiyo-e prints, but arguably the most famous image in all of Japanese art in the eyes of the world. The majestic curve of the towering wave has inspired hundreds, if not thousands, of visual references, both humorous parodies and serious homages. No other image evokes the beauty and terror of nature as this one does. Hokusai's print has even affected the popular image of a tsunami, which many people around the world picture as the gigantic breaking wave seen here, although a real tsunami is similar to an extremely high, rapid tide--hence the older term tidal wave.

Hokusai had been thinking about the pictorial problem of depicting an enormous wave for some thirty years. Two similar scenes can be found among his early Western-style landscapes: Express Delivery Boats Rowing Through Waves (Oshiokuri hato tsusen no zu) and View of Honmoku off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki Honmoku no zu), both made around 1804. All three prints show the express cargo boats that crossed the bay from the fishing grounds of Awa Province to bring fresh fish to the city of Edo, braving rough water to deliver the perishable cargo in good time.

Only this version of the scene, however, includes a view of Fuji. The glimpse of the great mountain beyond the curve of the wave--the only visible land in the picture--is both the perfect finishing touch to the composition and a symbol of hope that the boats will come through safely.

Two Carp in Waterfall, about 1834
Carp in Waterfall

Like some other freshwater fish, carp swim upstream to spawn in the springs. They are known as powerful swimmers and can even jump over barriers. According to Chinese folklore, a carp that could swim up the Yellow River as far as Longmen, and leap up over the falls there, would turn into a dragon. In both China and Japan, a carp swimming upstream became an auspicious symbol of success as a result of great effort, and the subject was depicted in many paintings. Hokusai's version of this theme is unusual because he shows not only a carp swimming up the waterfall, but also a second carp at the bottom of the fall who seems to be swimming downstream. Is this carp waiting for its turn to ascend the falls or perhaps deciding to go in another direction altogether? The second carp adds an interesting element of narrative ambiguity to the familiar theme.

The print is from an untitled series of five probably published at the end of 1833 for the New Year holiday season of 1834. Although the prints lack titles, they are believed to be a set because of their identical signatures and their similarities of format and subject matter. Their size and their auspicious themes--horses and hawks for martial valor, turtles and cranes for longevity, and carp for persistence leading to success--would have made them elegant New Year decorations, a less expensive substitute for hanging scroll paintings.

Poppies, from an untitled series known as Large Flowers, about 1833-34
Just as the great success of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji made landscape an important print genre for the first time, the untitled series known as Large Flowers did the same for bird-and-flower prints. Like landscapes, bird-and-flower prints had previously been a minor subject within ukiyo-e, but Hokusai elevated them to the status of a major genre, and his lead was soon followed by other artists such as Hiroshige. Bird-and-flower painting had developed in China during the Song dynasty and was appreciated by the educated elite throughout East Asia. Hokusai's close-up views of flowers are strongly influenced by the printed illustrations in Chinese painting manuals. His skillful depictions of flowers in his own book illustrations and colorful prints were extremely influential in turn among Western artists; the Art Nouveau movement in particular was indebted to works such as the Poppies.

This striking design is often considered the finest composition in the Large Flowers series. The curve of the poppies as they bend in a strong wind has been compared to the curve of The Great Wave. Since horizontal images in Japanese art are normally read from right to left, both of these left-to-right curves create a sense of surprise and drama for the viewer. Poppies in Japan (and elsewhere) were most often enjoyed not as potted plants but as wildflowers filling entire fields with their colorful blooms. Hokusai's extreme close-up implies a viewer lying on the ground among the poppies, looking up at especially fine blossoms against the blue sky and feeling the breeze that makes them bend so gracefully.

         Throughout his long life, Hokusai was intensely aware of the world around him. He constantly sketched scenes of nature and of human activity, publishing his drawings on their own in works such as Hokusai Sketchbooks (Hokusai Manga) and incorporating scenes of daily life into his landscape prints as well. He paid attention to technological developments in the printing industry, most notably the introduction of a new colorant, Prussian blue, which greatly facilitated the production of color landscape prints because of its resistance to fading. He was well aware of the work of other artists and was willing to copy their ideas, but he always added personal touches, so that his work outshines his sources. The wit, charm, and skill of Hokusai's works, and his ability to provide his viewers with pleasing surprises, captured the attention and admiration both of his contemporaries and of millions more viewers distant from him in space and time but united in visual delight.
Written by Sarah E. Thompson, Assistant Curator for Japanese Prints. Edited for the web by Jacob M. Rochford and Maggie Loh.

Click below to purchase the prints featured in this blog post, or explore our whole collection of Japanese woodblock prints to find more masterpieces by Hokusai and others, including Kuniyoshi, Hiroshige and Hasui.


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