Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hokusai - Artist, Paparazzi, and Crazy Old Art Man of the Tokugawa Period

My first introduction to the Japanese artist Hokusai was by random chance. I was perusing the non-fiction section of my local library and a small, white book jumped out at me. It was Hokusai: One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji by Henry D. Smith II.
Having done more research on the artist, I realized that I had seen Hokusai’s work long before this - on everything from pencils to journals sold at the big book store chains.

    The Great Wave off Kanagawa is well known in the Western world, and is thought to be a prime example of Japanese art.  In reality it is a prime example of Western art as interpreted through genius Japanese eyes. Even though he lived during Japan’s last isolationist period, he was influenced by the art of Dutch artists such as Rembrandt van Rijn, Jacob van Ruisdael, and Jan van Goyen which were smuggled into Japan.
Hokusai began his career at the age of six, under the man thought to be his father, Nakajime Ise, a mirror-maker for the Tokugawa shogun. His name was Tokitaro. At 12 he was sent to a bookshop where they made books from wood-cut blocks - a popular pastime for the upper classes (Tales of Genji anyone?).
But at 18 he was accepted into the Katsukawa art school, where painting famous kabuki actors, courtesans and other high-ranking individuals were the popular items to have in the large Japanese cities. The Katsukawa art school also introduced Hokusai to ukiyo-e, a style of wood block prints that Hokusai would master.    However, Hokusai was a rebel, and a little argumentative which led to him being kicked out of the Katsukawa art school, and a few others.
This was probably a good thing in the long run, as he changed his focus from the ‘high society paparazzi’ pictures of courtesans, and began to focus on landscapes and other topics that interested him. It is also interesting to note that he began to add in views of the common man and everyday life in his artwork.

    Hokusai was a modern artist before there were modern artists. Move over soup cans, Hokusai won an art competition with a single blue curve, red paint and a chicken. The story goes like this - Shogun Iyenari held a competition in his court, of which Hokusai was one of the participants. He painted the blue curve on his paper, dipped the chicken’s feet in red paint and chased it across the paper! Hokusai’s explanation - it was a view of the Tatsuta River with falling maple leaves.
Hokusai lived to be 89 and left behind more than 30,000 works, including ukiyo-e style, silk screen paintings, and mangas - a collection of sketches, not the story-based manga of modern day. To list every style or work would be impossible, but he is an artist of note and worthy of further investigation.
On a more bawdy note, Hokusai also dabbled in erotica art, and is considered perhaps one major inspiration of the tentacle sex genre with his painting of The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife.

A perfectionist to the end, in his postscript to the 100 Views of Mt. Fuji he wrote,
    “From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie.”
    Hokusai died in 1849, four short years before Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay, signaling the end of the Shogunate, and the end of Japan’s old way of life. But Hokusai’s influence still lives on today.

Self Portrait from 1839

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