Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave Back

One might be forgiven for feeling that the great Japanese artist Hokusai doesn’t quite fall within the usual remit of our Criticks reviews. For one thing, his art is often supposed—erroneously, as it turns out—to have been produced in isolation from the European cultural influences that so often occupy us on this website. There is also the question of whether he belongs to our long eighteenth century at all. Although he was born around 1760 and was publishing his own prints by the late 1770s, many of the works that have defined his legacy came very late in his career. ‘Under the Wave off Kanagawa’, name-checked in the title of the British Museum’s new exhibition, became something of a calling card for the artist in the final decades of his life, launching his most popular series of prints, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji in 1831. The exhibition catalogue notes the widespread availability of the image in affordable print format, such that inhabitants of Edo (Tokyo) at the time could purchase one for “the price of a double-helping of noodles”. This is an important fact that the exhibition returns to repeatedly. For all his incredible skill, Hokusai was also a professional, dedicated, public artist, who depended on craftsmanship as much as inspiration for his success. It is with this in mind, rather than through any strained comparison of respective romanticisms, that we can assert his position in a transnational eighteenth-century tradition. His British equivalent, should we feel compelled to insist on one, would be found among the likes of Hogarth, Blake and Gillray, rather than in more rarefied circles.

Hokusai parallels such artists not only in his professionalism but in his love for the grotesque and the powerful use of humour in his works. It perhaps isn’t obvious from the self-serious way that the British Museum has advertised their exhibition, but it is a wonderful showcase for the artist’s witty social observations, his self-deprecating quirks and the absurdities inherent in his playful use of perspective. The last are central to the ‘Great Wave’ itself—how else can you explain a view of Mount Fuji where the great mountain is diminished to an ant-hill beneath the roaring torrent? Of course, there is a solemn truth behind the humour also—a recognition that the seemingly vulnerable mountain will actually outlast the wave, the oarsmen and the artist himself—but this truth is all the more affecting for the mischievousness of its articulation. We see a similar effect in a lesser-known work from the 1820s, The Seven Lucky Gods. This silk scroll was a collaboration between Hokusai and six of his pupils, each artist depicting one of the titular deities and thus representing both their individual identities and a collective ethos. The god representing Hokusai himself is the only one without human form. He contents himself with a spear and helmet to indicate his presence within the pantheon. It is at once a self-effacing gesture and a cheekily self-aggrandising one. Given its apparent implications of respectful withdrawal or retirement, you need to be careful to remember that this predates many of Hokusai’s greatest accomplishments. He would continue to produce work of astounding quality and quantity right up to his death in 1849.

The exhibition is particularly strong when giving insights into Hokusai’s daily routine and the way that his work as a teacher informed his identity as an artist. One lovely anecdote details how he would in later years always begin the day with a hasty drawing of a lion or of a lion dancer; these he called his “daily exorcisms” and they would no sooner be completed than hurled out of the window into the street. It is apparently thanks to the diligence of his daughter and apprentice Oi that at least some of these were recovered and survived. Two of them are included in the exhibition—breathless testaments to Hokusai’s mastery of his art, but also poignant in their insistence on art’s ritualistic value. It is great to see that Oi herself occupies a prominent position towards the end of the exhibition. The organisers acknowledge her centrality to her father’s life and work, her likely involvement in many of his late masterpieces, and her role in safeguarding his reputation for posterity. The few of her own works that are included here show her building on and branching out from Hokusai’s style in fascinating ways. Display Room in Yoshiwara at Night, a shadowy depiction of Edo’s pleasure district, at first seems more European in its lighting and perspective than anything produced by her father. But there are points of continuity all the same. Oi’s arrangement of this scene recalls genre pieces commissioned from Hokusai’s school by the Dutch East India Company in the 1820s. These works, normally housed at the Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, are generally attributed to Hokusai himself but probably benefited even at that stage from the involvement of Oi and other students.

All told, the British Museum must be applauded for bringing together such a remarkable range of important works. I do, however, have some reservations about the way the exhibition has been constructed. This is hardly the fault of the curators, but the exhibition space itself is very cramped and crowded, often giving the impression of one long queue that visitors are expected to follow throughout. It certainly didn’t seem like it would be easily navigable for guests with accessibility requirements. Perhaps placing further restrictions on ticket numbers would allow people to engage with the art in a more leisurely fashion, though this would inevitably leave many more prospective customers disappointed and bring in less revenue. If the shape of the space and the entrance policy are beyond the scope of the exhibition organisers, then I think they could at least have done slightly more to clarify the narrative they are telling. Placards are often placed counter-intuitively so that it is difficult to tell which works they describe; and the placards offering general analysis are not sufficiently differentiated either in size or font from those connected to individual items. It was disappointing also to notice the large number of Hokusai’s sketchbooks assembled here but exhibited, in the case of most of them, unopened. Presumably, this was likewise due to the pressures on space and practical concerns surrounding the condition of the binding, but I think there’s limited interest in seeing a collection of closed notebooks behind glass, even if those notebooks were part of the everyday artistic routine of Hokusai himself.

Still, many of these issues are relatively minor complaints, and certainly should not detract from the overall accomplishments of the exhibition. It is a rare opportunity to savour the full scale and variety of one of the eighteenth century’s great artistic careers.

Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave is at the British Museum, London, from 25th May to 13th August 2017.