Hokusai’s great wave that swept Europe

by

Contributing Writer

Innovative, creative, and immensely prolific, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was celebrated during his lifetime in his native Japan. His works were among the first major examples of Japanese art to be widely appreciated overseas in the second half of the 19th century.

“Hokusai and Japonisme” at the National Museum of Western Art highlights various ways the artist’s impact changed the course of European art. It brings together more than 300 items including prints, sketches and paintings by the master himself and, from Europe, everything from paintings, prints and sculpture to plates, vases, lamps and furniture inspired by Hokusai’s style.

The exhibition starts with examples of how early European diplomats and traders included reproductions of Hokusai works, in particular his woodblock prints, in their travel diaries and accounts of Japan. Uncredited, the works here were used less for their aesthetic merit than as illustrations of the life and customs of a strange, exotic land. In one book, Hokusai’s depictions of Japanese warriors were reproduced in reverse, as though they had been traced directly. Art dealers and critics in Europe, meanwhile, began championing Hokusai as a major artist, highlighting his work in book collections of Japanese art and dedicated publications.

While it’s true that Hokusai’s works in many ways formed the backbone of the burgeoning Japonisme movement, when we consider how, for example, Vincent Van Gogh was enamoured with the work of Hokusai’s contemporary Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), it can appear a bit much for the entire roots of Japonisme to be carried on one artist’s shoulders.

The exhibition is structured around Hokusai’s achievements in various areas such as the human figure, animals, landscape and his use of motifs, all of which caught the attention of European artists and connoisseurs.

Hokusai’s flower and plant motifs were thought to lent themselves perfectly to the adornment of glass and tableware, such as a 19th-century plate displaying a chrysanthemum and sparrow design by Felix Bracquemond and Francois-Eugene Rousseau, and a morning glory lamp (1904) by Emile Galle, whose use of Japonisme helped establish art nouveau.

While the origin of these designs, and, for example, the many items based on Hokusai’s masterpiece “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” (c. 1833) is obvious, the exhibition also highlights how other European artworks were indebted to Hokusai. Claude Monet is just one of such artists who placed strong vertical trees in the foreground of a landscape painting to break up the frame and explore different ways of presenting space — a technique lifted directly from Hokusai.

European art’s increased attention paid to the depiction of the human figure in a variety of activities and poses is also attributed to Hokusai, who keenly observed everyday gestures and habits of people and depicted them in his work. His “Hokusai Manga,” an early 18th-century collection of sketches of everyday life, featured throughout the exhibition, also influenced Edgar Degas, whose famous ballet dancers — such as one who stands with her hands on her hips — are compared to the poses in Hokusai’s studies of sumo wrestlers. Some of Degas’ paintings of race horses (1866-68) were also based on studies in the series.

In its investigation into Japan-inspired European art, “Hokusai and Japonisme” is rich, varied and exhaustive. One of its strengths is that it opens up the survey of Japonisme from the usual focus on Central Europe to include lesser-known examples from, for example, Poland. It offers a great showcase on how Hokusai’s talent itself swept over Europe like a great wave.

“Hokusai and Japonisme” at The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo runs until Jan. 28; 9:30 a.m. — 5:30 p.m. ¥1,600. Closed Mon. www.nmwa.go.jp/en/exhibitions/2017hokusai.html