Japanese Painter and Printmaker
Summary of Katsushika Hokusai
Hokusai is widely recognized as one of Japan's greatest artists, having modernized traditional print styles through his innovations in subject and composition. His work celebrated Japan as a unified nation, depicting a diversity of landscapes and activities linked by shared symbols and stories. He was among the first artists to be shaped by and to shape globalization, drawing from international influences and, later, being embraced by European artists who borrowed his decorative motifs, his practice of working in series, and his vision of contemporary society. To this day, a plethora of artists continue to reckon with his legacy.
- Hokusai introduced European perspective to Japanese printmaking, often taking a significant focal point and arranging his prints around this. He used various framing mechanisms to emphasize these focal points and create depth in his images. While twenty-first century viewers are used to seeing prints arranged in this way, the technique was unprecedented in Hokusai's day and it was due to his influence that it became a widespread tactic in Japanese printmaking.
- Hokusai moved the Ukiyo-e genre, images of ephemeral pleasures, from traditionally being focused on people to highlighting landscapes and the changing seasons. His designs for prints encouraged audiences to bear witness to elusive moments of change in nature, capturing birds, flowers, and moving water, combining an attention to the fleeting with an awareness of the timeless.
- Mount Fuji was a central symbol in Hokusai's work and he found a wide range of ways in which to depict the mountain. This repetition created a unity between the different scenes of Japanese life represented by the artist. His ability to return to the same subject whilst creating a diversity of images shows his compositional and creative prowess.
Biography of Katsushika Hokusai
Hokusai’s most famous image is The Great Wave of Kanagawa which can be found across our visual culture - it continues to be sold as a print from homeware store Ikea. But beyond this masterpiece, numerous details in Hokusai's prints are well worthy of our attention.
Important Art by Katsushika Hokusai
In this woodcut, a woman is shown reclining, her head tilted back toward the left side of the frame and her black hair tied back, as two octopi envelop her body. The larger of these, on the right, is shown performing cunnilingus, holding the woman's body in place with tentacles wrapped around her legs, torso and arms, while the smaller octopus, close to her cheek, stimulates her left nipple and mouth. There appear to be rocks on either side of the group and the space around the illustra-tion is filled with tightly distributed text detailing a story in which an octopus informs a woman that he will be taking her to an undersea palace.
This image is a particularly impressive example of the erotic genre known as 'shunga,' which translates literally to the euphemistic 'pictures of spring,' which was particularly popular in the nineteenth century. The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife was and continues to be popular primarily due to Hokusai's skill in capturing female pleasure, with the open position of the woman's body, her reclining head, closed eyes and open mouth evoking her sense of abandon and inspiring viewers' own flights of fantasy.
In addition to providing titillation to viewers, such images were seen as offering protection to the owner. The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife was published in a volume of shunga published by Hokusai in 1814; he continued work in this genre until 1821, by which point he had published three volumes. While European critics have often mistakenly labelled the scene a rape, the text makes clear that this is a scene of mutual pleasure. It is likely that contemporary Japanese viewers would have been reminded of a popular story about a pearl diver who descends to an undersea palace, pursued by sea creatures, to save a stolen pearl belonging to her lover.
Hokusai's work improved as he aged, taking in diverse influences from both Japanese and European art. He became more ambitious after his brush with death at age fifty, in 1810, moving away from the kabuki prints that allowed him steady work and breaking new ground in printmaking. Due to this, The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife and the other prints for which he is best known were made fairly late in his career.
This comparatively simple print is dominated by the cone of Mount Fuji, which reaches its apex toward the right side of the composition. The mountain is shown in the deep red that occurs only during the rare sunrise in late autumn when the weather is clear and the wind is southerly, as is alluded to in the title, Fine Wind, Clear Weather. The red, accented with traces of snow toward the top of the volcano, is balanced by the adjacent blue sky, streaked with clouds, while the base features both a wash of light green shaded by a forest of darker dots. The steep, triangular mass of the mountain is carefully balanced by the rounded horizontal clouds to the left, while the parting of these clouds around the summit gives it emphasis.
Fine Wind, Clear Weather is from Hokusai's best-known series, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. Mount Fuji had long been a site of veneration, but in Hokusai's time the demand for images increased as pilgrimages became accessible to the growing middle-class population of Edo. This print elegantly captures the grandeur of Mount Fuji; the simplicity of composition, with no distractions from the central subject, serves to emphasize the height and steep slope of the mountain, while the small trees at the base provide a sense of scale. There is no sign of human presence in the image, positioning nature as complete in itself, requiring no additions. The scene is at once fleeting, due to its meteorological precision and the rare nature of the light, and timeless, able to repeat across centuries and requiring no human intervention. Hokusai, here, positions the viewer as if they are a traveler, bearing witness to the spectacle of nature.
This series became well-known and popular internationally. Its influence can be seen in France, where Henri Rivière, in 1902, created a series of prints directly based on Hokusai's Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji entitled Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower. Rivière borrowed Hokusai's ap-proach, drawing scenes from a range of vantage points, but replaced Japan's natural landmark with France's industrial symbol, then relatively new. More recently, Jeff Wall has reconfigured Hokusai's work in his photograph Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai), which replaces the delicate cone of Mount Fuji with a flatter, dull landscape outside Vancouver.
In Fujimigahara in Owari Province, from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, a man works on a large barrel against a backdrop of fields, trees and Mount Fuji, framed in the distance by the circular frame of the barrel. The man, kneeling on the barrel as he works, appears old and wizened; his shoulders rise above his head and his limbs are characterized by sinewy lines. He wears a headband, ragged clothing around his waist and simple sandals. The colors used in the print are pale, with the land, the barrel and the man himself represented in light yellow and beige tones and the sky above streaked incompletely with blue, while the dark green foliage creates a central line over which the cone of Mount Fuji, in blue and white against a beige sky, peeks.
This print celebrates the everyday life of the worker, with his inadvertent framing of Mount Fuji, behind his back, providing both compositional satisfaction and a dose of humor, as the man turns away from the very spectacle that his barrel, and the print, frames. Ukiyo-e, as a genre, often focused on scenes of ephemeral pleasure, and Hokusai's depiction of the barrel maker simultaneously did this, giving the figure the appearance of contentment in both his facial expression and in his apparent ease working outdoors with minimal clothing, and subverted this, offering a scene in which rural life is presented as timeless and unchanging, with no visible indicators of modernity in dress, landscape or industrial process. The symbol of the mountain, appearing in each of the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, serves to unify disparate regions, landscapes and ways of life in Japan and links the archipelago's past and present, further solidifying its status as a national symbol.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Katsushika Hokusai
- HokusaiOur PickBy Rhiannon Paget
- Hokusai: A Life in DrawingBy Henri-Alexis Baatsch
- Hokusai: Beyond the Great WaveBy Roger Keyes ed. by Timothy Clark
- Hokusai's Lost MangaBy Sarah Thompson
- Hokusai: The Master's Legacy HardcoverBy Rossella Menegazzo and Donatella Failla
- Ukiyo-eOur PickBy Gian Carlo Calza
- 7 things you didn't know about Hokusai, creator of the Great WaveOur PickBy Abigail Cain / Artsy / October 21 2016
- Everything You Need to Know About Hokusai, the Painter of 'The Great Wave'By Emma Taggart / My Modern Met / January 17, 2018
- Hokusai: A Most Influential AlienBy Edward Lucie-Smith / Artlyst / May 30, 2017
- Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave review - the mastery simply amazesOur PickBy Laura Cumming / The Observer / May 28, 2017
- Hokusai: Examining the enduring allure of a Japanese iconBy Alex Martin
- Hokusai: The Great Wave that swept the worldBy John-Paul Stonard / The Guardian / May 19, 2017
- Hokusai: the influential work of Japanese artist famous for 'the great wave' - in picturesThe Guardian / July 20, 2017