It might sound a corny to say that artists live through their works, but in the case of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), whose lengthy life story is mired in muddles, myths and myriad name changes, it is his art that speaks with the clearest voice and that provides the scale with which to weigh the words describing his life.
This not only gives art historians and academics something to do, but also opens up and clarifies story lines in the life of the artist routinely hailed as Japan’s greatest. The exhibition “Siebold & Hokusai and his Tradition” at the Edo-Tokyo Museum until Jan. 27, 2008 is a case in point.
It centers around a highly likely, though unconfirmed, meeting of the great artist with Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866), a German who served as physician to the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki from 1823 to 1829, the year he was expelled from the country accused of spying. (Siebold later became known for his books on Japanese flora, fauna, and ethnography.)
The exhibition is divided into two parts. The first, “Siebold and Hokusai,” curated by Dr. Matthi Forrer of Holland’s National Museum of Ethnology, uses works from that collection and Bibliotheque nationale de France to make the case for the meeting. Most of the works are drawn from a series of hand paintings originally commissioned in 1822 by two Dutch traders from the colony at Nagasaki who visited Edo (present-day Tokyo). The paintings were received four years later by Siebold and the colony’s CEO, Kapitan Willem de Sturler.
Intriguingly, a version of this meeting seems to have been recorded — although with some confusion over dates and details — by Edmond de , the late 19th-century Japanese-art enthusiast. In his 1896 book “Hokusai,” he mentions an apparent row over money between Hokusai and a doctor from the Dutch colony.
“Hokusai applied all his care and expertise to painting the four scrolls, which were finished at the time when the Dutch would depart” Goncourt writes. “And when Hokusai delivered his paintings, the kapitan gladly paid the agreed sum of money, but the doctor, pretending that his salary was lower than that of the kapitan, only wanted to pay half the money.”
Whatever the details, the result was that Siebold and de Sturler ended up with several dozen paintings on Dutch and Japanese paper that later found their way into two respective collections.
The brief that Hokusai was given was apparently to depict normal people, objects and various scenes designed to satisfy foreign ethnological curiosity. As a consequence, some of the paintings, such as the realistically detailed “Various Implements Used with Firearms,” look as if they belong in a catalog.
Others, such as “Women Divers,” a painting in sumi ink and pigments, which imaginatively follows mermaidlike ama — female divers — down to the seabed, show much more artistic interpretation. This work in particular has a surreal, dreamlike quality that must have impacted powerfully on the 19th-century European consciousness.
The exhibition also points to the influence of Western art on Hokusai. “New Year’s Day at Kasumigaseki” shows an obvious use of vanishing point, while even in “Running Horse Riders,” where the background is sketchy, Hokusai applies perspective to the horsemen whizzing by to help create a strong realistic sense of centripetal dynamism.
We can infer from Hokusai’s often quoted summation of his lengthy career that the Dutch commission came at an important point in his career.
“Little of what I painted before my 70th year was truly worth of note,” he wrote in the colophon of his ukiyo-e (genre painting) series of woodblock prints “One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji” when he was 75. This was no idle sophism, as most of the major series of prints for which he is remembered were produced after this commission, coming at a time when Hokusai’s career had entered artistic doldrums; he was spending less time on his art and more writing senryu, the Japanese equivalent of the limerick.
It may be possible, then, that the paintings the kapitan paid for, and that Siebold haggled over, acted as a spur to shake Hokusai free from a case of “artistic block.”
Whether this is true or not, the exhibition makes great efforts to show that many of the elements from these paintings later surfaced in his major print series, many of which can be seen in the second part of the exhibition. The horses and riders from “Running Horse Riders” with their billowing garments and characteristic headgear, were later transposed with some changes to “Sekiya Village on the Sumida River,” one of the classic scenes from “The Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” (1831-34) that can also be seen at the exhibition.
This attention to detail makes this one of the most educational exhibitions on Hokusai in a long time. And in its central thesis that a tight-fisted German doctor helped spur a talented Japanese artist to a new lease of life, it is certainly one of the most daring.
“Siebold & Hokusai and his Tradition” is at the Edo-Tokyo Museum till Jan. 27, 2008; admission ¥1,300; open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (closed Mon.). For more information, call (03) 3626-9974 or visit www.edo-tokyo-museum.or.jp