Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 3, 2006
Nihon Keiza Shimbun, Inc. and Yuriko Iwakiri, eds. Hokusai Japan: Nihon Keizai Shimbun, 2005. 400 pp. Paper (1588342395)
Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, Japan, October 25–December 4, 2005. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. March 4–May 14, 2006

The historic exhibition Hokusai contains almost 500 works (about 310 woodblock prints, 130 paintings, 40 published books, and 20 drawings) by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), arguably the best-known Japanese artist outside Japan and the creator of the Great Wave (ca. 1831). According to the Tokyo National Museum press materials, there had been one other Hokusai exhibition of this scale, which was in Vienna in 1901. However, the exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum reflected a century of subsequent international scholarship. The exhibition follows a more focused Hokusai: Prints and Drawings (1991) at the Royal Academy of Art, London, with 133 prints and drawings (with a catalogue by Matthi Forrer published by Prestel). Of the nearly 500 works on display at the Tokyo National Museum, only about 300 works at a time were actually shown, as most of the works required changeover with other examples of the same or similar images to minimize exposure to light. Still, the sheer volume of works was rather daunting, and a notice at the entrance of the exhibition advised visitors to plan their viewing. The visitor was also provided with a list of works indicating the display period for each work. This same list was available from the website so visitors would know before their visit which works would be on display in any given week. For example, the Great Wave from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, was only shown during the first two weeks, and was thereafter replaced by one from the Tokyo National Museum collection; according to the website, the curator of the exhibition had examined the condition of each Great Wave from collections around the world and determined the Met impression to be the best. In fact, most of the prints in the exhibition were carefully selected early impressions that have retained crisp lines and subtle colors. This underscored how good impressions of ubiquitous images (such as the Red Fuji [ca. 1831]) provide a fresh understanding of how special they actually are.

The large number of works were divided into six periods of Hokusai’s seventy-year career, during which he adopted and discarded a number of (artist aliases). During the first period (1778–94), he became a pupil of Katsukawa Shunshō, a popular ukiyo-e artist specializing in actor prints, and worked under the Katsukawa Shunrō;. Works from this period include actor prints in the style of his master and book illustrations, as well as a number of images using linear perspective, a style known as uki-e or “three-dimensional pictures.” After Shunshō’s death, Hokusai left the Katsukawa school. During this first period of independence (1794–1804), he began various experiments, including Utamaro-like “large head” format prints (which he did not continue) and the “Dutch-style” bird’s-eye-view landscapes and surimono (privately issued prints, many of them commissioned by poetry groups), in addition to paintings of poetry-related subjects. It was also in this period that we find images of towering waves tossing helpless boats, depicted in a realistic manner. These “experiments,” while not always striking images on their own, certainly have retrospective value as material evidence of Hokusai’s spirit of inquiry.

It was in the third period (1804–10) that the artist began working as Katsushika Hokusai. This period is characterized by a large output of storybook illustrations, influence from Chinese paintings, and some stunning paintings; he was depicting everything around him—people of all social strata in their chores and delights of daily life, animals and plants, as well as mythical creatures and religious figures—sometimes with poetic sensitivity and other times with unrestrained boldness or abundant sense of humor. In the fourth period (1810–20), when he adopted a Taito, he began publishing copybooks, including the famous Hokusai Manga series (15 vols., 1814–78). The Hokusai Manga was so popular that ten volumes were published by 1819, and five more posthumously. All of the fifteen bound volumes were shown at the exhibition with pages open. The rich array of paintings from these two sections are executed sometimes in minute detail and sometimes with swift brush strokes.

From 1820, when Hokusai changed his to Iitsu, to around 1833, Hokusai produced many printed masterpieces, including the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (ca. 1831) and Waterfalls of Various Regions (ca. 1833). In terms of the number of works, this was the largest section of the exhibition, even though only selections from each series were shown. The Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji is characterized by the extensive use of “Berlin blue,” the imported chemical pigment that became cheaply available from China (Timothy Clark, One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, London: The British Museum, 2001, 46). The entire series, consisting of forty-six prints (due to its popularity, ten prints were added), was included in Hokusai and Hiroshige: Great Japanese Prints from the James A. Michener Collection, Honolulu Academy of Arts, shown at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and the Honolulu Academy of Arts in 1998 and at the 2001 British Museum exhibition, which then traveled to Sydney in 2002 (Clark, 46; Julia White, personal contact, 2006). For those visitors who had gone through Hokusai’s earlier works, their patience would be paid off by the satisfying discovery that the stunningly original Great Wave was, after all, a result of the artist’s relentless pursuit of new expression rather than a sudden inspiration, and that it closely relates to his masterly brushstrokes. It is also in this period that one finds Hokusai’s most delicate “bird-and-flower” prints in which the plants, birds, and insects are captured in a moment of interaction with the surrounding air—crisp, humid, still, or moving.

The sixth and last period in the exhibition began in 1834 with the publication of the three-volume book One Hundred Views of Fuji (1834–ca. 1835) and the unfinished print series One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets (ca. 1835). His paintings from this period are increasingly powerful and animated. The last item in the catalogue, displayed for the last two weeks of the exhibition, is a painting of a dragon rising with a black cloud over the snow-capped Mt Fuji—painted in the last year of his life and often interpreted as an image of the artist himself. Hokusai died at the age of ninety (according to the old calculation in which a person is one year old at birth).

The Tokyo National Museum houses the best and largest collection of Japanese art from the prehistoric to the early twentieth century. In recent years, the museum has transformed itself from an intimidating place to a much more visitor-friendly, enticing cultural institution, a change that became particularly noticeable after the reopening of the main building (permanent collection) in 2004. I was pleased to find that the change was also reflected in this exhibition, which made one feel welcome rather than an intruder. But the most difficult part for a visitor like me, who did not have a whole day to view the show, was the fact that many of the works were small and completely hidden by the heads of the visitors, and the low level of light (while necessary) did not help. The exhibition was curated by Seiji Nagata, Deputy Director of Ōta Memorial Art Museum, with the help of two collaborating curators, Tadashi Kobayashi and Shūgō Asano; altogether, they are three of the most renowned scholars in the field. The fully illustrated Japanese catalogue is a bargain: the essays give a completely updated account of the artist’s work and person, while the quality color plates—in sections with succinct introductions translated into English with the list of works—will be a standard reference for many people around the world.

Although the exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum has concluded, it was only one half of this major project, organized by Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Nikkei) Newspaper to mark the company’s one hundred-and-thirtieth anniversary; the other half is a separate exhibition, also titled Hokusai, currently on display at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC. It features the significant collection of Hokusai paintings owned by the Freer Gallery of Art and not shown in Tokyo. The U.S. exhibition will include some of the works shown in Tokyo. For this project, the Hokusai collection at the Freer has been thoroughly examined by Asano and two other experts. Some of the results of this research are included in the Japanese catalogue, but the full report will be published in English in the Sackler exhibition catalogue—something to which people in the United States can look forward.

Chiaki Ajioka
independent scholar, Sydney, lecturer (casual), University of Sydney