The British Museum galleries are initially cramped – closer to muggy than balmy – as throngs of people lean in to the small rectangles of blue that dot the walls. The crowds seem to be inescapable. The work is that of an acclaimed artist after all, and the extensive promotion for the British Museum’s latest exhibition has promised a rare insight into the nature of Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. This popular summer show does not disappoint: indeed it reveals the unexpectedly erratic and eccentric nature of a man dedicated to his art.
Hokusai lived a nomadic existence in Edo (now Tokyo) with his daughter, changing his name almost as often as he did his dwelling. It seems that his life of constant movement and flux reflected his perpetual struggle for artistic mastery. He worked like a man possessed, producing a staggering array of work.
The pinnacle of this is his woodblock print series, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (c. 1830-32), containing the infamous image adorning the posters and adverts promoting the exhibition, ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ (1829-33). These prints are hung early in the exhibition and were pivotal in Hokusai’s life, saving him from severe debt and poverty. The artist elevates Mount Fuji to a deity to be worshipped here, shrouded in the modern synthetic pigment of Prussian Blue. The rich hue saturates the mountain and its sprawling landscape to unnatural and dizzying degrees, set in sharp contrast with the stark white of the gallery.
The globally celebrated image of ‘The Great Wave of Kanagawa’ proves the cornerstone of the exhibition. A print of small boats ride a vast swell at the point of breaking, its individual ripples like claws that will come crashing down over the men and attempt to pull them under. It seems to encapsulate the futility of man’s endeavour when faced with the roaring ferocity of nature: these men almost appear to be bowing down to this startlingly dynamic cresting wave.
Hokusai used the Western concept of deep perspective in this image, creating a sense of space between the almighty wave and the ubiquitous mountain behind. The spray that emanates from the wave almost becomes snow falling on the eternally snow-capped Mount Fuji.
This fusion of Western and Eastern artistic techniques has since become a crucial feature associated with the work of Hokusai, one that marked him out from his contemporaries. His use of a single light source – a European tradition – was wholly new to the colours and designs of Japanese art. The meeting of the two traditions as such, has been heralded as the birth of modern art. Some have even mused that the thick outline of his prints, and their dynamic movement, was a precursor to the vibrant animation of Disney films.
The most engaging element of the exhibition is how it charters Hokusai’s frenetic rise, and showcases his dramatic alteration in style, as he approached the apex of ‘The Great Wave’ print. Early versions of this watery swell on display here demonstrate how Hokusai evolved as an artist in the interim, progressing from a static, two dimensional image to the forceful result.
The failing of the exhibition lies in its titular assertions. It is a misleading suggestion that it will delve into the artist beyond the masterpiece, and unveil the later gems of his work. The displays talk of the fevered genius Hokusai demonstrates in his twilight years, yet there is scarce evidence of this evolution. While the illustrious silk scroll paintings that conclude the exhibition are impressive, they do not seem to offer something which supersedes the superb Mount Fuji series.
Nonetheless, the exhibition certainly succeeds in showing fresh aspects of Hokusai’s repertoire, from a chilling set of ghost story illustrations that exude vitality to animated images of people trudging across a series of bridges. Hokusai dedicated several prints to the depiction of humble men and women at work. These scenes of everyday life and toil become charged with significance as he attempts to capture human existence in the framework of the Japanese landscape.
The exhibition also expertly captures his character for the crowd. He was a man who, when his house caught fire in his final years of life, jumped out of a window carrying nothing but a paintbrush. He was dedicated to his art to the end, and truly believed in the maxim that one only improves with age – maintaining that as he reached his centurial birthday, he was approaching a eudemonia of talent. Unfortunately, he never got there, dying shortly before his ninetieth birthday. However his devotion never floundered, as he continued to paint through his last days.
Hokusai: beyond The Great Wave is exhibited at the British Museum from 15 May – 13 August