The ‘Great Wave’ that reached the West

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

Ukiyo-e prints could be found in Europe from at least 1795 at the Cabinet des Estampes at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. It was not until the 1850s, however, when trade between Japan and Europe began to flourish, that the craze for things Japanese began to crescendo.

The story goes that French printmaker Felix Bracquemond (1833-1914) encountered a picture-book by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) that arrived in France with a shipment of porcelain in the late 1850s. In 1859, a sourcebook by the potter and designer Eugene Collinot and Adalbert de Beaumont included Hokusai’s imagery.

By the early 1860s, French intellectuals such as Charles Baudelaire and Edmond de Goncourt began to take interest. And that most internationally recognizable Hokusai print, commonly called the “Great Wave,” has now come to stand allusively for the surge of European interest in Japanese printmaking that emerged from the latter half of the 19th century.

The first full-scale Hokusai exhibitionoutside of Japan took place in 1892 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in the curatorial department of the Department of Japanese Art (now the Art of Asia, Oceania and Africa Collection) founded by Ernest Fenollosa, who also became its curator, after his return from Japan in 1890. At least four prints from that exhibition 150 years ago are included in “Hokusai from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,” which is currently showing at Kobe City Museum. Many of the works on display came from a number of donations, though the largest was by William Sturgis Bigelow, who gifted approximately 40,000 works to the museum in 1911.

The exhibition covers the seven decades of Hokusai’s output in mostly chronological order with thematic groupings as an overview of his entire oeuvre. Hokusai debuted in the print world in 1779 when he was 19, but the exhibition begins proper with what is called his “Shunro period” from age 20 to 35. Shunro was an artist name he used throughout that time. The emphasis is on his apprenticeship when he was under the tutelage of the actor-print specialist Katsukawa Shunsho, though other influences came to him through other artists Torii Kiyonaga and Kitao Shigemasa. “The Warrior Nanba no Rokuro Tsuneto” is exemplary, made in Hokusai’s 20s, and no other copies are extant.

Another emphasis is on his use of Western one-point perspective in ukiyo-e prints, which Hokusai produced from his Shunro period to his maturation as an artist. His emulation of Western composition and design is evident in “View of Noboto Beach at Low Tide from the Salt Beds of Gyotoku,” with its script at top written in hiragana horizontally and Western-alphabet-like, rather than in the customary vertical composition. The work also has a printed brown frame surrounding the print subject, mimicking the appearance of the framed pictures of Western art provenance.

In his 30s to early 50s, Hokusai became a revered designer of surimono, a type of print that originated from the ritual of presenting New Year’s Day poetry to shrines. These were luxurious, privately commissioned prints that combined his designs with kyōka (playful) poetry in often witty combinations. He again turned to surimono in his later years, reaching peak output between 1818-1830. Several works from this period are on display, of which the illustrated poetry volume “Flower’s Elder Brother” is the only known complete copy in the world and is being shown in Japan, oddly, “for the first time.”

“Hokusai” (meaning “Studio of the North Star”) became his artist name in 1798, used from his mid-40s through his 50s. This coincided with a time when his commercial output greatly diminished during the final decade of the 18th century. But it was between age 61-74, when he used the name Iitsu, that he produced the vast output of ukiyo-e prints that have today come to define his popular image. These include the “Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji” and the iconic “The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa.”

Hokusai’s final period began in 1834 when he started using the name Gakyo-rojin Manji (Old Man Mad About Art) and he turned his focus from commercial prints to book illustration and brush paintings. He had though, been producing similar works earlier, such as “Red Zhong Kui (Shoki), the Demon Queller,” dated to 1811. Here, the Chinese mythological theme of the demon vanquisher Shoki is painted entirely in red, a symbolic color for a subject that was a kind of talisman protecting children from smallpox. The fact that the painting was created on the fifth day of the fifth month, a date known as Boy’s Day in Japan, speaks for itself.

As well as the changes in name and style, Hokusai was said to have moved residence more than 90 times. The conclusion of the exhibition thus has a tribute to stability through a single painting by Hokusai’s daughter, Oi. Devoted to her father and proficient artist herself, the curious effect is to want to see less Hokusai, more Oi.

“Hokusai from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston” at Kobe City Museum runs till June 22; open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Sat. till 7 p.m.). ¥1,400. Closed Mon. The exhibition travels to Kitakyushu from July 12-Aug 31, and then to Tokyo from Sept. 13-Nov. 9. For more details on all venues visit ukiyoe.exhn.jp.