The Great Wave, 1831, is not just Hokusai’s masterpiece, but one of the most iconic images in art. And standing in front of it here, in this new exhibition at the British Museum that focuses on this great Japanese artist’s later works, you are struck by how small the original is.
We are so familiar with this image, reproduced thousands of times (and parodied almost as much), that we imagine the original must be a vast canvas. But no. It’s a small colour woodblock print and, here, it is on display in a modest wood frame and placed rather discreetly mid-way through this delightful exhibition.
And yet, the benefits of being drawn in to this smaller-than-imagined artwork should not be underestimated. It allows us to become familiar once again with its details – the vast wave towering over the sacred Mt. Fuji, a subject that Hokusai returned to often. And to the three fishing boats on the water, tossed by the force of the waves. Nature overwhelming Man. And Man hopeless and vulnerable in the face of such powerful natural forces.
Hokusai created his masterpiece when he was about seventy. It was not an isolated piece either, but part of a wider series of works, Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji, that revived his career after a series of personal challenges in the 1820s (including the death of his wife, illness, and financial woes caused by an errant grandson).
Mt. Fuji and its wider spiritual significance was a model for Hokusai in his quest for artistic immortality during these later years. Yet these works demonstrate how revolutionary an artist he was, even at this late stage. The Great Wave, for example, with its use of deep perspective and imported Prussian blue pigment, reflects how he adapted and experiments with European artistic style. And all this at a time when Japan, in its Edo period, had very strict controls on travel abroad (completely forbidden), and where study of European innovation could only be obtained through books and limited supplies bought from Dutch traders.
Many of the exhibits on display in this show have never been seen before in the UK. From iconic landscapes and wave pictures, to deities and mythological beats, from flora and fauna to beautiful women. From collaborations with other painters and writers to still lifes… Not only is Hokusai’s variety of output so impressive, but it also demonstrates an insatiably curious mind, even in his advanced years.
The exhibition also sheds light on Hokusai’s personal beliefs, as well as his spiritual and artistic quest. A particularly intriguing story is that, so superstitious was Hokusai that each morning he would start with a quick brush drawing of a Chinese lion then throw this drawing to the wind in an attempt to ward off evil spirits. Incredibly, one of those drawings is on display here, and shows not only what a talent Hokusai was, but also how committed his daughter was as she often ran out to pick up these discarded drawings when her father’s back was turned.
There’s a couple of quibbles I have with the curation. The British Museum isn’t known for having the most dynamic curating team and that’s pretty much evident here. Great drawings are framed in uninspiring thin pale wood frames or housed behind dusty vitrines.
Little effort or expense has been set aside for creating a dynamic visual experience and, as a result, it is possible that some visitors may find the experience dull or uninspired. That would be a shame as, if you look past this, the works on display are exciting and revolutionary. I do wish the British Museum would invest a bit more in their curation, though. Perhaps add fresh blood to the team? It’s all a bit evocative of old school trips to boring museums.
But, this aside, this show is a revelation. Not only does the British Museum ably demonstrate that Hokusai was prolific in his later years, but that the works produced were revolutionary. So fresh, so modern. No wonder, when Japan opened up in the 1860s, and Hokusai’s works flooded on to the market, these wondrous drawings would go on to directly inspire the likes of Van Gogh, Degas and Gauguin.
British Museum, London, to August 13, 2017
(Closed 3-6 July for a partial changeover)
Admission: £12 (concessions available)
See more images from the exhibition in my Facebook album.
1 Under the wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave) from Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji. Colour woodblock, 1831. Acquisition supported by the Art Fund © The Trustees of the British Museum.
2 Attributed to Hokusai. Boys’ Festival. Ink and colour on old Dutch paper, 1824-1826. Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Leiden.
3 Clear day with a southern breeze (‘Red Fuji’) from Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji. Colour woodblock, 1831. © The Trustees of the British Museum.
4 The waterfall where Yoshitsune washed his horse in Yoshino, Yamato province from Tour of Waterfalls in Various Provinces. Colour woodblock, 1833. Bequeathed by Charles Shannon RA. © The Trustees of the British Museum.