It’s this period of his life that a new exhibition at the British Museum seeks to display in an exhibition entitled ‘Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave’.
(Read the passage given below)
It’s this period of his life that a new exhibition at the British Museum seeks to display in an exhibition entitled ‘Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave’. In his 70s, Hokusai would adopt a new name—Manji, meaning “ten thousand things” or “everything”. This was exactly what he wanted to draw.
An understanding of the “form of things”—the Japanese Buddhist belief that all things, living and material, have a spiritual connection to one another—and the desire to portray—it was these that drove Hokusai in his *quest* for immortality as an artist.
Born in 1760 in Edo, modern Tokyo, Hokusai published his first Ukiyo-e prints in 1779. Meaning ‘floating world’, Ukiyo-e woodblock prints took *hedonism* and pleasure as their subjects, depicting gijin-ga (courtesans), yakusha-e (actors) and shunga (erotic couplings) in detail.
Hokusai’s work was no exception. But, in a career that saw him symbolically change his name 30 times, other themes began to interest him. Hokusai drew everyday life, images from ancient Japanese and Chinese mythology and nature, besides experimenting with new techniques.
Hundred years of art
He insisted he would achieve greatness only if he *honed* his craft till he turned 100. “I wish to work so that at one hundred years I will have achieved a divine state in my art,” he once wrote.
The ink he would use for Under the wave and other works was formed by blending traditional Japanese indigo with the newly available Prussian blue to create a fantastic deep, saturated colour that would define his most famous creations. One can almost feel the spray of the ocean in Kajikazawa in Kai Province , composed in early 1831. In Rainstorm beneath the summit , the deep blue at the top gives a real sense of the scale of the image, with the mighty Mt. Fuji nearly touching the heavens.
The mountain, sacred to both Buddhists and Shintoists, was a recurring subject in Hokusai’s work, appearing most famously in One Hundred Views. In drawing the famous mountain, Hokusai was also searching for his own permanence, for his legacy to bloom like a sakura tree and never wilt.
Fuji View Plain in Owari Province, printed in 1831, is vintage Hokusai: here, the mountain is but a small wedge on the horizon, the sky dissected into ocre, white and shades of blue. But the key element is the worker in the foreground. Hard at work, he is uninterested in the view behind him. Why would he be? For him, the spectacular has become *banal*.
That attention to the mundane— the worker’s tools drawn with as much detail as the delicate, wispy leaves of the tree beside him—is characteristic of Hokusai. For him, the pedestrian was worthy of commemoration. He captured urban life in Japan with a level of precision that would later inspire Western artists to do the same.
The father of modernism
Before he died aged 90, Hokusai changed his name one last time to Gakyo Rojin, the ‘old man crazy to paint’. He revisited themes, places, and mythology with the same *fervour* he had displayed decades earlier.
But how did Hokusai become so famous? Why is it that he became a household name while some of his contemporaries, like Ando Hiroshige and Kitagawa Utamaro, did not? Japan was in tumult during the last years of Hokusai’s life. The last shogunate was collapsing, and ensuing Meiji Restoration would irrevocably change the country and its place in the world.
Enterprising merchants visiting Japan for the first time in the 1850s saw great value in the Ukiyo-e prints, and sent them back to art markets in Europe. Hokusai and his peers’ works were initially undervalued; indeed, the first prints were initially used as packaging material for other art works. But all that changed in 1867, with Paris’ first Exposition Universelle, which boasted the first-ever Japanese pavilion in Paris. A key attraction? Hokusai.
The Orientalist construction of Japan as an exotic land of beautiful women, with a deep connection to nature, and of solemn warriors clinging to codes of honour amidst blooming cherry blossom trees, also played its part in popularising him.
But this wouldn’t last. So long as Japan was evocative, but weak, it provided a source of inspiration to European artists looking for a different creative process. When that changed in 1905, after Japan triumphed against the Tsar’s imperial forces in the Russo-Japanese war, the country was rudely transformed in Western consciousness to that of a world power.
This may be why later artists like Picasso turned to Africa in search of their primitivist fantasies. After all, while escaping the constraints of Western art, as the Impressionists did, may have required gazing at worlds outside of Europe, they could not bear it when the people of those worlds stared right back at them.
Nearly 170 years later, Hokusai’s works are still admired. His legacy has contributed to some of the world’s most important art movements. He’s even on your Smartphone: there’s a wave emoji, and last year’s wildly popular app, Prisma, can “wavify” any image you want.
In the end, the old man crazy to paint did find the immortality he was looking for all his life.
(Source: The Hindu)