The new Hokusai exhibition at the Mori Arts Center Gallery in Tokyo is a thorough and fascinating examination of this rightfully famous ukiyo-e master’s work. Featuring an astounding 480 prints, spanning the entire 70 years of his career, it’s a great overview for Hokusai fans as well as those with more a more casual interest in ukiyo-e, Edo Period (1603-1868) art, or Japanese art more generally.
Do not be misled by the exhibition’s title, however. “Hokusai Updated,” it is not. Though the exhibit does display newly discovered and rarely shown works, there is not enough context for the viewer to appreciate why these lesser-known works are important, or interesting. Without explanation, the new works do not present a new understanding or appraisal of this incredibly famous artist’s body of work.
Though an incredible number of high-quality works have been amassed, there is little explanation of the context or meaning of each piece, in Japanese or English. Prints featuring poetry do not have their words transliterated, translated or summarized. Works referencing tales do not have explanations of the stories, so viewers have no idea what the picture depicts. It is unclear why some works that seem easy to understand have explanations, while others that are genuinely interesting but hard to comprehend, do not.
Having said that, the exhibition does offer several lesser-known, fascinating pieces. Particularly interesting is a series of early works titled “Dutch Style Pictures: Eights Views of Edo.” Created between 1804 and 1806, the series shows that Hokusai had a clear interest, and somewhat of an understanding of Western-style art. It’s a rare look at pre-Meiji Era (1868-1912) Western influence in Japan.
Another fascinating series is the “Hokusai Manga.” A 15-volume set of some 4,000 black, white and flesh colored woodblock prints, these images depict everything from supernatural beings to everyday objects and scenes. These vibrant images are part of what made the artist famous in the West, and rightly so. There is a strong selection from this series, including images of ghosts and people swimming and washing themselves. Of note are some that show how Hokusai created natural-looking rounded figures using geometric shapes and analysis.
In addition, some of Hokusai’s lesser known paintings and prints from later in his life are on display in the final room. Particularly at odds with the rest of his work, though very interesting, is the hanging scroll painting “The Priest Kobo Daishi Exorcising a Demon.” Featuring a black background and Chinese-influenced painting, Hokusai is not the first artist that comes to mind when looking at this extremely large painting. Yet the fact that the same man who made tiny, fine images of animals would create such a bold strong image is striking.
If you are going to see one Hokusai exhibition in your life, this one is as good as any. You’ll see a good selection of the artist’s famous works, including “Hokusai Manga” and “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.” But do not go expecting a peek at the creative process of the man behind the masterful yet unfortunately now commonplace, “Great Wave off Kanagawa” print. Instead, enjoy the wide selection of prints and paintings and be impressed by the wide scope of work this one man created over the course of his life.
“Hokusai Updated” at the Mori Arts Center runs until March 24; ¥1,600. For more information, visit hokusai2019.jp.