Re­views Si­mon Tait

Fol­low­ing Hoku­sai’s Float­ing World

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Si­mon Tait

Hoku­sai: The Mas­ter’s Legacy, ed. Rosella Mene­hazzo, Skira Edi­tore, 2018, pp. 352, £40 (hard­back)

The early twentieth-cen­tury French print­maker and art his­to­rian Henri Focil­lon de­scribed Hoku­sai as ‘freely in­spired and ine­bri­ated by life and its phe­nom­ena’ at a time when the Ja­panese artist was in­flu­enc­ing not merely de­sign but very life­styles, hav­ing been barely known out­side his own coun­try fifty years be­fore.

Hoku­sai, who died in 1849 aged 90, led Ja­pan’s equiv­a­lent of the Im­pres­sion­ists, bring­ing the ev­ery­day, the beau­ti­ful, the com­i­cal and the erotic to a newly ea­ger gen­eral pub­lic as the coun­try en­tered a modern era, work­ing largely in a clas­si­cal medium, wood­block, in a rad­i­cal mod­ernist way.

In the last cou­ple of decades Kat­sushika Hoku­sai’s name has be­come al­most as fa­mil­iar world­wide as those of Cézanne and Monet, and his Great Wave off Kana­gawa has be­come the most re­pro­duced im­age in the world, while last year’s Bri­tish Mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tion, Hoku­sai: Be­yond The Great Wave, was a sell-out vis­ited by 150,000 peo­ple.

His re­cent rise in West­ern con­scious­ness is thanks to schol­ars like the BM’s Tim Clark, who cu­rated that show, and Rosella Mene­hazzo of Mi­lan Univer­sity. Af­ter more than twenty years study­ing the Ja­panese art of the late Edo pe­riod, she has edited the book which, while the Bri­tish Mu­seum’s ex­hi­bi­tion un­der­lined Hoku­sai’s stand­ing with the story of his long life, places him as a ma­jor in­flu­ence not only among his own con­tem­po­raries but on artists, from the east and west, to the present day.

Hoku­sai – the last of sev­eral names he adopted as he passed through phases of his life – was born in a district of what is now Tokyo, the son of a

mir­ror-maker from whom he in­her­ited noth­ing ex­cept a skill to de­sign the dec­o­ra­tion around mir­rors. At 14 he was an ap­pren­tice wood­carver and at 18 had be­come the pupil of an artist of the ukiyo-e style of wood­block prints and paint­ings that fo­cussed mostly on images of fa­mous geishas and Kabuki ac­tors. Me­na­hazzo trans­lates ukiyo-e as ‘Pic­tures of the Float­ing World’.

He be­gan to de­velop a rep­u­ta­tion for his spare and fault­less line, but re­garded his first sixty years as a prepa­ra­tion for what was to oc­cupy the last third of his life. ‘…un­til the age of 70, noth­ing I drew was wor­thy of no­tice’ he wrote in a trans­la­tion of his Manga by Henry D Smith III:

At 73 years I was some­what able to fathom the growth of plants and trees, and the struc­ture of birds, an­i­mals, in­sects and fish. Thus when I reach 80 years, I hope to have made in­creas­ing progress, and at 90 to see fur­ther into the un­der­ly­ing prin­ci­ples of things, so that at 100 years I will have achieved a di­vine state in my art, and at 110 ev­ery dot and ev­ery stroke will be as though alive. Those of you who live long enough, bear wit­ness that these words of mine are not false.

He ap­plied his ukiyo-e tech­niques to a much broader range of sub­jects, prin­ci­pally to na­ture, and es­chew­ing tra­di­tional prac­tice. He won a com­pe­ti­tion by paint­ing a sin­gle blue curve on a large sheet of paper and chas­ing across it a chicken whose feet had been dipped in red paint, say­ing that it rep­re­sented the Ta­tuita River with red maple leaves float­ing in it. In the 1820s, able to make use of im­ported Prus­sian blue, he pro­duced his sem­i­nal Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, fol­lowed by the three vol­umes of One Hun­dred Views of Mount Fuji, the last vol­ume of which was pub­lished in the year of his death.

At 50 he cre­ated his own ex­haus­tive man­u­als on how to draw, the Hoku­sai Manga, which in­cluded fa­cial types and chang­ing ex­pres­sions as well as of flora and fauna, street life and the su­per­nat­u­ral. There were twenty in all, five pub­lished posthu­mously, and they are still re­pro­duced and much-used ref­er­ences.

Me­na­hazzo puts Hoku­sai in the con­text of the mod­ernised Ja­pan of the late Edo pe­riod (1603-1868), which ended more or less with the open­ing up of trade to the West, and the other ukiyo-e artists that rose along­side him. His pupils Hokkei, Hokuba, Shin­sai and Gakutei, and his peers Eisen and Uta­maro es­tab­lished great suc­cess, but the most fa­mous of them, Eisen, al­ways ac­knowl­edged that Hoku­sai rep­re­sented ‘an ab­so­lute point of ref­er­ence for him in paint­ing’, Menegazzo writes.

Hoku­sai and his fel­lows were mak­ing art for pub­lic spa­ces and places, but also for pri­vate con­sump­tion, in­clud­ing the abuna-e – ‘danger­ous pic­tures’ – which were a tes­ta­ment to the lib­er­alised so­ci­ety of the late Edo they il­lu­mi­nated. Of­ten there were coy hints at sex­u­al­ity such as glimpses of red un­der­wear, red be­ing seen as a provoca­tive colour and for­bid­den for outer cloth­ing by the sump­tu­ary laws. But they could also be ex­plicit, such as Hoku­sai’s Dream of the Fish­er­man’s Wife which, writes Menegazzo, ‘only the con­sum­mate skill and wit of the mas­ter could ren­der so cap­ti­vat­ing and de­void of bad taste’.

A flood of Ja­panese art hit the West fol­low­ing the ar­rival of the Amer­i­can fleet un­der Com­modore Matthew Perry in 1854 and the trade deal sealed by the Con­ven­tion of Kana­gawa, co­in­ci­den­tally the site of Hoku­sai’s most fa­mous im­age. It in­spired de­sign­ers and artists across Europe and Amer­ica in the later nine­teenth-cen­tury and through the twentieth, with The Wave ap­pear­ing in Van Gogh’s Starry Night of 1889, and be­ing the im­age for the cover of De­bussy’s La Mer in 1905.

In the Tate Modern’s 2018 ex­hi­bi­tion Pi­casso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy, there is a sug­ges­tion that Pi­casso was in­spired by Hoku­sai’s The Dream of the Fish­er­man’s Wife, the las­civ­i­ous ten­ta­cles se­duc­ing the sleep­ing woman, to paint the se­ries of re­clin­ing nudes of Marie-Thérèse Wal­ter he made at Bois­geloup that year when his own work was be­com­ing more sen­sual.

The in­struc­tions of his Manga – the word means ran­dom or im­promptu pic­tures - in which the em­pha­sis was on the sim­plic­ity of the fewest pos­si­ble but per­fect lines to tell sim­ple sto­ries were seized on by the Im­pres­sion­ists,

among oth­ers, lib­er­at­ing them from ex­ist­ing as­sump­tions about how to draw and paint. It is the ba­sis of the modern genre that bor­rows the same word, the comics and an­i­ma­tions that have cre­ated world-wide mar­ket worth bil­lions of dol­lars. It is not too much to claim that modern art be­gins, at least partly, with Hoku­sai, and Rosella Mene­hazzo brings to the cur­rent era ‘the art of the Float­ing World in full bloom’.

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