by Roderick Conway Morris

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Metropolitan, New York
Ejiri, Suruga Province from Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji by Hokusai, early 1831

The Many Faces of Hokusai

By Roderick Conway Morris
MILAN 27 November 1999


He was, and remains, a towering figure in his own country, his influence on Western art was enormous and his impact on graphic art worldwide was incalculable. He officially changed his name five times during his long career, but we have come to know him by just one of them: Hokusai.

These switches in the alias of the painter - and best-selling author of scores of books and thousands of prints - could be the despair of his publishers, but were not mere whims on Hokusai's part. The use of pseudonyms by writers and artists was an ancient practice in Japan, but for Hokusai his serial adoption of new ones carried particular significance as the markers of moments in his career when he felt he had fully explored one form or genre and was ready to embark on a new adventure in art.

Consequently, 'Hokusai: The Old Man Mad for Painting,' a sumptuous show of 60 paintings, 270 prints, 100 illustrated books and manuals, 70 drawings and a dozen letters, brought together 150 years after his death, is sensibly ordered chronologically to chart this complex series of incarnations within a single lifetime, rather than divided according to theme or medium. (It runs at the Palazzo Reale until Jan. 7.) Hokusai took his art seriously, but never himself, which secured his reputation as one of the leading eccentrics of his times. And the spontaneity and idiosyncrasy of his personality lent everything he did a freshness, a sparkle and, not infrequently, a mischievous, subversive humor.

He was a worker of prodigious skill and application in the more conventional fields of drawing, painting and providing designs for prints, but was also a pioneer of performance art. In 1804, at a temple on the outskirts of Edo (modern Tokyo), he laid out 200 square meters of paper and then went into action painting with the aid of a broom and wooden saki pail full of diluted ink. When the finished work was hoisted aloft on a specially built scaffold, the crowd was astounded to see a giant portrait of the Zen master Daruma.

He repeated this virtuoso escapade in 1817 at Nagoya on an even grander scale, and one of many amusing items on display in this show is a poster to advertise the event: a portrait with 18-meter-wide eyes, a 2.7-meter-long nose and 2.1-meter-wide mouth, while warning spectators that the happening would be postponed 'in case of rain.'

Like many leading contemporary artists Hokusai spent time as a producer of ukiyo-e, pictures of the Floating World, chronicling the pleasure districts of Edo, its beauty spots, Kabuki theaters, famous actors, glamorous courtesans - those ultimate arbiters of the fashionable and chic - and their lovers and admirers. He also contributed to one of the staple genres of ukiyo-e, erotic prints, creating the wildest image of all - a fisher-girl in faintingly ecstatic, troilistic congress with a duo of bulging-eyed octopi.

The Floating World was a milieu of a social broadness to match that of Elizabethan theater, and although the mass-produced prints that depicted it were not regarded as the acme of art, they were enjoyed and appreciated by men and women of every class.

The universal appeal of ukiyo-e provided an artist of Hokusai's talent but humble background - on occasion he signed himself Hokusai the Villager - not only to win recognition but also to move in educated and literary circles. He wrote poetry and was much in demand as an illustrator of Japanese and Chinese works in translation, and seldom lacked patrons.

And the manner in which the world of high culture met that of the wider public through the medium of Hokusai's art is nicely demonstrated in the exhibition by his depiction of the Chinese Tang poet Li Bai, spellbound beside a waterfall, which gave rise to, or certainly coincided with, his highly original series of popular prints, 'A Tour Through the Waterfalls of Japan.' A desire to share both his vision of the world, in which he found ceaseless delight and entertainment, and the techniques he employed to commit it to paper was a continuous thread running through Hokusai's life. He produced dozens of do-it-youself manuals, from 'Teach Yourself Solo Dance' to 'Excellent Paintings at a Glance' and 'A Quick Reference Pictorial Dictionary,' illustrated with the same vigor and enthusiasm that he applied to all his artistic output.

In the preface to his last great project, 'An Illustrated Book on the Use of Color,' he wrote: 'If the book is published in a cheap form, it is to keep the cost down so that everyone can buy a copy. And if this volume is followed by another, it is because I feel the need to convey all the experience of my eighty years.'

His last two decades were as productive as any and saw the creation of works that assured his enduring fame, including his 'Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji,' a book of waterfalls and 'Unusual Views of Japan's Famous Bridges.' The first of these contained 'Hollow of the Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa' - Mount Fuji seen from afar at water level at the instant it is about to disappear behind a gigantic rolling billow - which was to become the symbol not only of Hokusai but Japanese art in general.

The image is emblematic of his finest work: ingenious, witty, executed with breathtaking panache and so alive it continues to amaze and give pleasure after dozens of viewings.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024