By Ellis Tinios.
Hokusai (1760-1849) is the best-known Japanese artist on the world stage and enjoys equal renown in his homeland. The appetite for his art appears to be insatiable — ‘Hokusai’ exhibitions invariably draw huge crowds. His print image ‘The Great Wave’ is firmly established as a global icon. The Hokusai manga (Hokusai’s sketchbooks) are widely if erroneously cited as precursors of modern-day Japanese comics.
His working life spanned 75 years. His output as painter, print designer and book illustrator was prodigious. His creativity and productivity remained undiminished through the closing decades of his long working life: his very greatest achievements were produced in the last 25 years of his career, following on from his 65 birthday.
Hokusai’s primary occupation was that of painter. His paintings were brushed onto paper or silk and range from the briefest sketches on a scrap of paper to elaborate pairs of standing six-panel room screens. They encompass a wide range of subjects. Most characteristic are his depictions of beautiful women and of legendary figures from China and Japan. His animal paintings are also often startling in pose and composition. His finest landscapes are sublime. His paintings were highly regarded in his lifetime and remain so today but they were expensive products aimed at a more restricted audience of wealthy connoisseurs unlike his printed works on paper, which were created to delight a mass market.
At the very beginning of his career, Hokusai served for three years as a trainee block cutter. That experience provided him with an understood of what was possible in print that served him well in later years. He knew how best to convey his intentions to the block cutters engaged by his publishers to translate his finished drawings into printing blocks.
Hokusai reached his widest audience through his book designs. He illustrated a wide range of genres ranging from elegant, elaborately produced multi-color poetry anthologies to crudely printed, line-only satiric booklets. Between these two poles he produced dynamic images for lengthy novels that conveyed serious moral messages, explicit, nothing-left-to-the-imagination erotica, and a plethora of model books for craftsmen and aspiring artists, each of the latter containing hundreds of captivating images.
His unique vision of China, grounded in the close study of imported Chinese books and paintings, informed his illustrations for Japanese editions of Chinese classical texts, Chinese poetry anthologies and Chinese vernacular fiction, which were all very much in vogue in Japan in his lifetime. He crowned his achievements as a book illustrator with a small group of books that existed for their images alone. The latter category includes four titles devoted to heroic warriors of China and Japan, and his extraordinary One Hundred Views of Fuji’s Peak (Fugaku hyakkei) in three volumes.
Throughout his career Hokusai was also a prolific producer of color woodblock prints. He only concerned himself with actor prints and prints of beauties in the early decades of his career. They are entirely absent from his output after c.1800.
In addition to commercially issued prints intended for a mass market, Hokusai designed many prints, known as surimono, on commission for amateur poetry circles and for private individuals. Poems provided the starting point for the imagery of these prints, which were exchanged among friends to mark the New Year and other auspicious occasions. Every refinement of printing and the finest papers and pigments were employed in their production. They rank as luxury goods. Hokusai displayed a particular talent for creating designs that interacted in subtle, witty ways and unexpected with the poems delivered to him.
His most extraordinary achievements in the field of commercial prints all date from the 1830s, when he was in his seventies. In the first of his great late print series, Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji, he made extensive use of Prussian blue. This was a pigment only recently available in Japan at a price that made it possible to employ it in the production of relatively inexpensive color woodblock prints intended for a mass-market. Lack of a stable, malleable blue had long stymied Japanese print designers. The fall in the price of Prussian blue suddenly changed that. Hokusai took advantage of its availability to create landscapes dominated by vast expanses of sea and sky such as had never been seen in Japan before. He followed the Thirty-six views with prints series devoted to famous waterfalls and then the famous bridges of Japan. He also turned his hand to prints of birds-and-flowers with remarkable results.
Hokusai was born in 1760 in Edo (present day Tokyo) and spent his entire life based in that city. The constant in Hokusai’s life was his passion for drawing. In middle age he gave himself the art name ‘Man mad about painting’; in his later years he modified it to read ‘Old man mad about painting’. He was an eccentric. He lived in disorder if not outright squalor, changing his rented accommodation 90 times in the course of his 89 years. His youngest daughter, Oei, lived with her father in his last years after divorcing her husband. An artist herself, she assisted him in the completion numerous commissions for paintings and book illustrations. Only in recent years have serious efforts been made to determine the full extent of her contribution to her Hokusai’s oeuvre but no reliable means of distinguishing the work of the daughter from that of the father has yet been established.
In an autobiographical note that appears in his One hundred Views of Fuji’s Peak Hokusai remarks that before his 70th year he had not really produced anything of very great note. In his seventies he had began to grasp the true qualities of living things and the vital energy of the plant world. He expressed the hope that in his nineties he would have succeeded in penetrating into the meaning of things and that at one hundred and ten each dot, each line from his brush would possess a life of its own.
From the first arrival of his books and prints in Europe in the late 1850s Hokusai’s art captivated Western artists, critics, connoisseurs and collectors. This love affair shows no sign of abating.
Ellis Tinios is the author of Japanese Prints: Ukiyo-e in Edo 1700-1900, available now from the British Museum Press.
Miss Hokusai will be released by Anime Ltd as an Ultimate Edition Blu-ray/DVD set as well as on Blu-ray and DVD from 14th November 2016.