Reviews Simon Tait
Following Hokusai’s Floating World
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’.