Veronica Redgrave numéro 248

In the BBC documentary on Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave, the exhibit at the British Museum, contemporary artist David Hockney comments that the Japanese artist was a ‘‘prodigy.’’ Indeed, after viewing the show one came away amazed at his artistic vision and technical virtuosity.

By the age of 6 Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) ‘‘had the desire to copy the form of things.’’ In his early years the artist portrayed ukiyo-e – “pictures of the floating world” – art that celebrated the pleasures of Edo now Tokyo. Lounging ladies with detailed kimonos and ink-black chignons, landscapes and folklore scenes were the main themes of his wood block prints. In the Museum exhibit there were also beautiful examples of his supreme ability with ink and colour in his kacho-e; bird – and flower-themed prints such as Hawk and Cherry (1833-34). In addition, the artist depicted deities and fabulous mythological beasts capturing their ominous allure with sinuous lines and threatening grimaces.

In 1807 at 47 years of age, Hokusai demonstrated his innate genius during a contest at the Shogun Court. He dipped a rooster’s feet in red ink and had it walk across paper he had painted with a blue curve. The result he called Autumn Leaves on the Tuksan River. Shown at the Museum, the work is still a vanguard piece over 200 years later.

Hokusai’s graphic sense and his manipulation of geometry and scale are paramount in his compositions. In Fisherman’s Family (1824-26) a massive darkly hued anchor sits across the frontal plane, its strong diagonal echoed by eccentrically shaped rocks. These strong forms are balanced by soft figures: Children clamber playfully over the anchor which thrusts upward from the bottom corner of the work. Throughout the exhibition the artist’s use of radical cropping is evident. Although many scenes focused on daily life and working people, they were always portrayed from a fresh perspective and unconventional point of view.

Without a doubt Hokusai is renowned internationally for his iconic work The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. Part of the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji woodblock prints (1830-32), the series was commissioned due to growing interest in travel within Japan. Each of the views shows Fuji from innovative angles, stretching all possible vantage points. It is estimated that up to 8,000 impressions of the series were printed. Initially the most popular was The Red Fuji in which the mountain is front and centre in all its massive majesty. However research by Hokusai scholar Roger Keyes proved that the original print actually had paler shades that beautifully captured the delicate blush of early dawn light. Keyes discovered what is now known as The Pink Fuji, in which the mountain is far paler. He realized that the earliest impressions were harder to print due to the delicacy of the tonalities. Often later prints were published without the subtleties, so they could be printed – and sold – faster.

Now the most renowned print of the series, The Great Wave pays homage to the mountain through the elemental power of nature. The immense wave’s towering sense of menace is stabilized by the perfect poise of Mount Fuji. Its snowy flanks are symbolically connected to the water via tiny white dots: Bits of wave spray morph into snowflakes. Hokusai’s dramatic sense of depth shows the mountain as a small peak in the background. The viewer is drawn to its far-away calm in the centre of the storm. The distilled moment before the wave crashes is caught with an incredible dynamism that is almost anthropomorphic: The foaming crest has claws. The famed wave with its animistic reach dwarfs the three narrow fishing boats sliding through its maelstrom. What also strikes one in this complex manipulation of scale is the colour blue. Indigo blue is used in the outlines and three shades of Prussian blue for the sea. Newly arrived from Europe, this synthetic pigment gave a deep saturated colour.

The closing works at the Museum revealed Hokusai’s love of nature later in his life. In his Duck Swimming in Water (1847) the beautifully plumaged bird makes its way through a stream depicted with subtly refined gradations that wave their way down the length of the exquisite silk scroll. Shot in Ultra HD, the BBC documentary on the exhibit allowed the viewer to see the artist’s precise choice of brushstrokes and colorations resulting in a work that is brilliant in more ways than one.

Sponsored by Mitsubishi, the exhibition demonstrated the extraordinary range of Katsushika Hokusai’s abilities. As an “old man crazy to paint” – a name he styled himself when he was 40 – he was astonishingly prolific. He produced over 30,000 works including board games and his famous manga (“random sketches”), a foundation for contemporary manga. Working daily on his art, he believed that he would improve as he grew older. “Until the age of 70, nothing I drew was worthy of notice. At 110 every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.” In his Self portrait, aged eighty three, Hokusai’s unerring sense of line capturing minutiae and the essence of his subject matter, had not diminished in the least. Before passing away at 88, he commented ‘‘If only Heaven would give me just another 5 more years; then I could become a real painter.’’ The world in awe of his talent would beg to differ. He was a ‘‘real painter’’ all his life. 

Hokusai – Fuji o koete
Abeno Harukas Art Museum Osaka, Japan
October 6—November 19, 2017