Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 3, 2006
Ann Yonemura Hokusai Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2006. 251 pp. Cloth (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
Katsushika Hokusai. Portrait of a Courtesan Walking. c. 1815–19. Hanging scroll; ink, color, and gold on silk. 110.4 x 41.8 cm. Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Though he is best known in the West as a master of landscape printmaking, Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) not only designed prints of every subject, he also illustrated books and painted works ranging from formal screens and hanging scrolls to studies and sketches. The previously limited view of his art as a printmaker will be overturned by this exhibition, which provides an unprecedented opportunity to view the full range of Hokusai’s painting and to fully appreciate the diversity and talent of this major master of ukiyo-e. Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919) assembled an unmatched collection of paintings by Hokusai, and this exhibition celebrates the one-hundredth anniversary of Freer’s gift of Asian and American art to the people of the United States.

Hokusai is the most comprehensive exhibition of Hokusai’s paintings since exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1893, and in Tokyo in 1900. From September to December 2005, a major retrospective of Hokusai’s prints, including some of the paintings exhibited here, broke attendance records for ukiyo-e at the Tokyo National Museum; but Freer gathered the largest single collection of Hokusai paintings, and they could not be sent to Tokyo. Restrictions on Freer’s gift prevent their exhibition at other sites, so this will be the only venue in the world for this extraordinary show, which includes many works on loan from Japanese, European, and U.S. collections. Divided between two floors, beautifully designed and superbly illuminated, the exhibition includes a total of 166 paintings, prints, drawings, and books of the absolute highest quality, though for conservation reasons many can be exhibited only for limited times. Rotations are scheduled throughout the exhibition period, and in order to see most of the works, visits before April 9 and after April 14 are suggested. A smaller exhibition of related works by other ukiyo-e painters, “Artists of Edo 1800–1850,” is simultaneously on display in the Freer galleries through May 29.

The exhibition begins in a slightly disorienting series of smallish spaces punctuated by diagonally oriented walls painted in a deep red intentionally coordinated to the very first work seen in the show, the Thunder God painting of 1847. Clearly written explanatory panels describe both the biography of the artist and the context of the times in which he worked, and the first floor of the exhibition is organized around the diachronic evolution of names used for signatures by the artist we have come to identify as Hokusai. Sections linked to the names Shunrō (used from 1794–99), Sōri (1795–98), Hokusai (1798–1809), Taito (1810–19), Iitsu (1820–33), and Manji (1834–49) mingle paintings, prints, and books to show the full range and evolution of Hokusai’s art. Of course, such iconic prints as the Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji (1830–31) are included, but lesser known books and drawings supplement the paintings on which the exhibition centers.

Downstairs, the wall color shifts to a deep green, and the focus narrows to paintings. The works here are arranged thematically rather than chronologically, and include handscrolls of teaching images, finished works in hanging scroll and screen formats, and rare shita-e underdrawings. In the exhibition’s Humanity section, a row of bijinga images of beautiful women in fine clothing allows the viewer to appreciate how many ways a single subject can be treated by one artist, from the sketchy impressionism of the Sōri period (e.g., Woman Walking beneath a Willow Tree; cat. no. 12; 1795–98) to the densely meticulous, heavily colored pair of genre scenes in New Year Customs (cat. no. 16; 1806–11). Sections entitled The Natural World, Literature and Legend, and The Spiritual and Supernatural Universe are illustrated with human, superhuman, and natural images. The powerfully limned animals, birds, demons, gods, landscapes, flowers, and fish that populate the densely mounted gallery produce a sumptuous feast for the eyes. This much strength of imagery might be overwhelming, but the design of the exhibition is masterful, with an alternation of formats—hanging scrolls, screens, album leaves, and framed fragments—that establishes a very satisfying rhythm. The light levels are kept low for conservation reasons, but the judicious placement of spotlights allows the viewer, by moving around the works, to see many details invisible in reproduction, such as sprays of ink splattered over background washes to both texture the surface and imply atmospheric depth. The exhibition ends (early in the rotations, at least) with an important, unique work from the Freer collection—Country Scenes (cat. no. 110; 1830–32), a pair of landscape screens that show the breadth of Hokusai’s skills. Like a postscript, the wall of the exit corridor holds a single line summing up Hokusai and his life: “Though as a ghost, I shall lightly tread the summer fields,” reportedly the last poem written by this prolific artist.

The exhibition catalogue, illustrated with full-color plates and numerous details, was written by Ann Yonemura, senior associate curator of Japanese art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. A second version of the catalogue, in softcover with additional academic essays, will be available shortly. Hokusai was co-organized by the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, in cooperation with the Tokyo National Museum. Yonemura led the considerable effort arranging for the loan of works from public institutions on three continents, including among others the Tokyo National Museum, the Osaka Municipal Museum, the British Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as from private collections. Events coordinate with the exhibition include gallery talks, children’s programs, and a symposium scheduled for May 12–13 titled Hokusai: Breaking Boundaries, Making Waves.

Visitors to the exhibition will take away with them new understandings of the diverse genius of Hokusai, the full development of his strong imagery, his complete mastery of painterly technique, and his profound genius for graphic design.

Frank L. Chance
Associate Director, Center for East Asian Studies, University of Pennsylvania