A fisherman tends to his daily catch in a ragged wooden boat missing an oar. With a turtle tethered to its reigns, a donkey staggers down a crooked path under the rays of a blistering sun. Remnants of a wave crashing against jagged rocks at the foot of a mountain splash into the bitter sea, whilst high above a canopy of trees the moon tumbles across a mossy blanket of leaves. In these images, both real and imagined, Hokusai introduces us to Mount Fuji and her surrounds in his collection, ‘Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji’.
Katsushika Hokusai, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji: The Great Wave off Kanagawa, c. 1830
“If heaven gives me ten more years, or an extension of even five years, I shall surely become a true artist.”
Known predominantly as a painter and printmaker of the Ukiyo-e movement, Hokusai is widely considered one of the most acclaimed artists in Japanese history. The calibre of his creation is unrivalled. He produced over thirty thousand works in his extraordinary career, spanning a broad array of artistic pursuits. From poetry to printmaking, and from surreal and serene landscapes to erotic manga, his work is simultaneously familiar and refreshing. It reminds me of art seen in Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Kyoto, or even of more recent Japanese anime from the likes of Hayao Miyazaki and Osamu Tezuka; impeccably detailed yet somehow still refined and simple.
Hokusai’s works, however, carry the weight of a Japan that is more personal and more secluded. If you are acquainted with his aforementioned series Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji, then you will be familiar with Hokusai’s delicate brush strokes and the particular emotions his work provokes.
Many in Japan have long considered Mount Fuji a place of spiritual awakening. People from all over the country—and world—have made a pilgrimage here just to witness the sun rise from over her frost covered peaks, or to catch its fall as it rests at the foot of the mountain overnight. But in his dedication to Fujisan, Hokusai makes one of the grandest and most overwhelming monuments of nature often seem small, almost irrelevant. His attention in this series is devoted to life around the mountain, to rural Japanese towns and the daily rituals of those living on the fringes of Japanese society. A print of a lone worker sweating over his labour imparts an innate feeling of sadness and exhaustion, whilst an image of young girls exulting over a fresh sprinkling of snow at the steps of a ryokan makes me more joyous than even real snow often does. In this way, Hokusai ensures his work is felt, and not just seen.
Katsushika Hokusai, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji: The Nihonbashi in Edo, c. 1830—1834
“Hokusai is not just one artist among others in the Floating World. He is an island, a continent, a whole world in himself.”
A sign of the artist’s unrest, Hokusai is estimated to have changed his name thirty times throughout his life, and to have moved ninety-three times. The hidden secrets of the country he explored, and of the people he met, are evident throughout his entire body of work. When we think of Japan, our mind will most frequently drift to the bustling metropolis of Tokyo; to the bright lights and the sardine crossings of Shinjuku. We think of busy markets in Hiroshima and packed ski slopes further north. Occasionally our mind might shift to more isolated areas: an onsen set amongst a backdrop of mountains or fishermen working in sleepy coastal towns. It is in these areas that Hokusai mostly draws inspiration, displaying an animal-like ability to locate, then present, the intersection between people and nature, like a cat presenting a mouse.
Even Hokusai’s less appreciated work highlights Japanese culture and customs. Early prints of mystic golden lions are influenced by ancient Japanese beliefs that the lion is a talisman for good health, whilst later prints of birds and flowers are heavily informed by Japanese and Chinese poetry. It is said that Hokusai ended up drawing a small mystic lion (known as a Shishi) each day to foster good health and creative prosperity.
Katsushika Hokusai, Warber and Roses (Kôchô, bara), c. 1834
“Though as a ghost, I shall tread lightly on the summer fields.”
Though Hokusai never quite reach his desired age of one hundred, his work has lived on and informed the creations of generations to come. He is heavily credited with influencing Japonism, Jugenstil and Impressionism movements, and his work is still shown in major galleries and exhibitions around the world. As a showman dedicated to his craft, the curiosity and craze of “the old man mad about drawing” lingers on in his print.
“I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign myself ‘The Old Man Mad About Drawing’.” — Hokusai/The Old Man Mad About Drawing