The Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum (seen August 2017) displayed works from the last 30 years of Hokusai’s life when he is considered to have produced some of his most memorable works. Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) is widely regarded as one of Japan’s most famous and influential artists, producing works right up until his death at the age of 90.
At the age of 18, Hokusai was accepted into the studio of Katsukawa Shunshō. Shunshō was an artist of ukiyo-e, a style of wood block prints and paintings. Shunshō, focused on images of the courtesans and Kabuki actors who were popular in Japan’s cities at the time.
Upon the death of Shunshō in 1793, Hokusai began exploring other styles of art, including European styles he was exposed to through French and Dutch copper engravings he was able to acquire. Hokusai also changed the subjects of his works, moving away from the images of courtesans and actors that were the traditional subjects of ukiyo-e. Instead, his work became focused on landscapes and images of the daily life of Japanese people from a variety of social levels. This change of subject marked a significant change in the ukiyo-e style and in Hokusai’s career.
Hokusai was known by at least 30 names during his lifetime. Although the use of multiple names was a common practice of Japanese artists of the time, the numbers of names he used far exceeds that of any other major Japanese artist. In 1820, Hokusai changed his name to “Iitsu. It was during the 1820s that Hokusai reached the peak of his career. His most famous work, 36 Views of Mount Fuji, including the famous Great Wave off Kanagawa, dated from this period. Among the other popular series of prints he published during this time are A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces and Unusual Views of Celebrated Bridges in the Provinces. He also began producing a number of detailed individual images of flowers and birds.
Hokusai had a long career, but he produced most of his important work after age 60. His most popular work is the ukiyo-e series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, which was created between 1826 and 1833. His ukiyo-e transformed the art form from a style of portraiture focused on the courtesans and actors popular during the Edo Period in Japan’s cities into a much broader style of art that focused on landscapes, plants, and animals.
My thoughts on the Exhibition
It was wonderful to see Hokusai’s beautiful prints ‘in person’, especially the very famous ‘Mount Fuji Seen Below a Wave at Kanagawa’ (smaller than I thought it would be!).
However, for me the stars of the show where the pieces that Hokusai created at the end of his life, particularly the ‘Old Tiger in the Snow’ and the dragon emerging from storm clouds. Although there is some speculation that his daughter Oi may have assisted in creating these works, they are incredibly delicate and detailed. His tiger seems to be full of joy, bouncing through the snow, and his dragon, emerging from storm clouds, with it’s almost human face, is full of life and movement.
I also particularly liked all of his images of birds and animals as they were full of life and personality. For example, in the image ‘Weeping Cherry and Bull Finch’ the finch is not sitting passively on the cherry branch but is hanging almost upside down.
What really stood out for me with a lot of the works on display, was the sense of fun and joy in the images. I was quite surprised to see images of laughing ghosts and cartoon-like ‘manga’ figures. The images were all beautiful, delicate and a joy to see.