HOKUSAI, by Gian Carlo Calza. London: Phaidon Press, Ltd., 2003, 336 pp., 700 illustrations, $59.95 (cloth).

It was the West that first discovered the art of the Japanese woodblock print. Though popular in Japan, the prints were denied any kind of artistic standing until it became understood that abroad their reputation was much higher than at home.

In the same way, one of the most representative of these artists, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), was first given aesthetic recognition in Europe and America. In 1880 the short but important “Notes on Hokusai” by Edward Morse had appeared, and between 1896 and 1914 three biographies had appeared in French — those of Edmond de Goncourt, Henri Facillon and Marcel Revon.

In Japan there was no such interest. There had been an 1817 pamphlet about how Hokusai had managed to paint the famous big picture of Dharma, but no truly comprehensive monograph appeared after Iijima Kyoshin’s 1893 compilation, itself consisting of mainly biographical anecdotes. What did appear were mainly compendiums of chronological data. Narazaki Muneshige’s 1944 monograph was the first serious work on the artist.

The first Hokusai exhibition was also in the West. It was held by the Fine Arts Society of London in 1890, and was succeeded by one in Boston in 1893. The first in Japan was arranged by Ernest Fenollosa and Kobayashi Bunshichi in 1900. In the following year the largest ever exhibition held took place in Vienna. It included, among other things, nearly 600 prints.

People had, of course, been collecting Hokusai earlier than that. Some members of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry’s expedition, which occurred only five years after the artist’s death, brought back examples. And even earlier, in 1832, Philipp Franz von Siebold, the pioneer of Japanese studies in Europe, had apparently seen and coveted one or two. Fenollosa and his friends were the most industrious of the later collectors, contributing to what is now the world’s largest collection of Hokusai prints in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It was only later that the paintings were appreciated and consequently the largest, or at least the best, collection of these is on display in the Freer Gallery.

There is thus a logic in that this, the finest of the new publications on Hokusai over 150 years after the artist’s death, should be European. Gian Carlo Calza, professor of East Asian art at the Ca’Foscari University in Venice and director of the International Hokusai Research Center in Milan, brings together contemporary knowledge about the artist, and writes the introduction and essays that incorporate Hokusai’s career, describes his accomplishments, and accounts for his great influence on late 19th-century European art.

Calza has also invited a number of fellow scholars to write essays, which detail the career he has explicated. Roger Keyes writes of the young Hokusai; Matthi Forrer, of Western influences in Hokusai’s art; and John Rosenfield examines several of the artist’s painting manuals. Richard Lane writes of Hokusai’s erotic art; Asano Shugo examines the literary circles the artist frequented; Tsuji Nobuo writes of the late works; and Kobayashi Tadashi of the letters.

All of this is beautifully presented with a wealth of illustration including a number of works never before reproduced. Calza is at present working on a catalogue raisonne of the paintings, and we can see in this publication — with its wealth of pictures we have never before seen together — what an important edition this will be.

This new Phaidon volume (based on the Electa Milano 1999 edition) gives us a true idea of the great range of Hokusai’s work and its enormous variety. Though the artist himself said that nothing he had done before the age of 70 was worth considering, virtually everything he did at whatever age is full of an imaginative vitality.

This is seen not only in acknowledged works such as “Beneath the Wave off Kanagawa” and “Red Fuji,” but also in the slightest of his sketches. Though all the old favorites are here, there is also the ample richness of the unfamiliar.

As discovered by the West and acknowledged a master there long before he achieved a similar standing in Japan, Hokusai became, in a way, a prototype for the ideal Japanese artist. Calza explains that “over and above his strictly artistic abilities, Hokusai’s characteristics were such that he could hardly avoid arousing the fascination of Western critics. His approach to art, at once passionate and disenchanted, was also tinged with the eccentricity (bordering on madness) that the 19th-century sensibility regarded as the mark of true genius.”

Hence, Hokusai himself went on to influence Western artists — Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Georges Seurat — and thus also it is fitting that the finest compilation on the artist so far has been put together by a Western publisher and presented by a Western scholar.

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