Friday, 24 August 2018


The British Museum, London
(The latest in a series of fashionably late art exhibition reviews)

”Creation is my master.”
-Hokusai’s seal

Culture Always Flows

Were I to start this review with a comparison of the great Japanese artist Hokusai to Akira Kurosawa you might be tempted to ask whether I was dragging Yoko Ono into it as well. Kurosawa was, after all, not an artist but a film director, and one even born until more than a century after Hokusai’s death. There are in fact two reasons for this. And indeed the first is to set things up as they’ll go on. I really don’t know much about Japanese art, even less than the little I normally muster, something which should be borne in mind for what follows.

The second is less to do with let-downs. Like almost everyone else in the West, when I first got into Kurosawa’s films I excitedly imagined I’d hit on some authentic expression of Japanese culture, without really wondering how Hollywood had found him so easy to borrow from. Only now, in what Laura Cumming calls “a revelation of the show”, do I discover that he was himself influenced by Western cinema, so of course I was readily taking to him.

And now here I am finding out the same thing about Hokusai. He lived under the policy of Sakoku, an imperially decreed policy of culturalisolation, where Westernmerchants could only visit outlying islands. Yet ‘Under The Wave Off Kanagwa’ (c. 1831,above), to give his well-known Great Wave it’s actualname,not only uses a bold composition, butWesterndevices such as perspective and a naturalistic light source. Further, it’s a captured moment, the titular wave poised to crash down.Even the dominant colour, often employed by Hokusai, is Prussian Blue – as the name might suggest, literally a Western export. (And Hokusai took to this shade so much some works employed it solely.)

But as with Kurosawa, and particularly given the straitened times in which we live where petty nationalism is painted as a refuge from the big bad world, rather than mourn the absenceof any supposed ‘authenticity’ we should try to see thingsthe other way up. It shows the creative spirit to be ever-restless and always heterogeneous, always seekingout new influences and inspirations,defiant ofof barriers or boundaries.

Let’s contrast Hokusai to one of the works from Victoria and Albert’s ‘ Masterpieces of Chinese Painting’ exhibition. (Which, to my shame, I never got round to blogging about – not even late.) Let’s not try to fill in the gaps between himand Gho Zongshu’s ‘Summer Palace of Emperor Ming Huang’( below) which was made over a thousand miles away and hundreds of years earlier, or even comment on one being a painting and the other a print. Instead, let’s focus on those contrasts.

There’s not just Zongshu’s characteristic disinterest in colour to focus on. Formally, without perspective being employed, it’s mist which getsstrategically displayed over the joins. Yet there’s aworldview behind this device, just as much as there was with perspective in theWest.The work’snot just undynamic but the very opposite of dynamic – serene, harmonious. Ostensibly secular subjects thereby come to conveya religious purpose. Itconveysrealms, separate and yet linked by that mist. 

It becomes like a kind of cosmic map in microcosm, to showhow ordered the world under heaven can be. In fact, withthe V&A show, when Western perspective arrived all that seemed vital and unique about the work seemed to spill over that vanishing point. (In‘The Story of Modern Art’, Gombrich suggestspainting was then seen as purely functional in purpose, a meditational aid rather than something aesthetic.)

And look again at the Great Wave. The human figures are dwarfed, reduced to ciphers, as they mightbe in a Western Romantic work. So much so viewers don’t always spot them. You might even see themas prostrating themselves before the mighty one. And the Wave (it seems to deserve the capital letter)looks almost poised about the boat, like a cat anticipating the moment it pounces upon the mouse. As they descend, the waves almost becomegrasping fingers.The show quotes Van Gogh: “the waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it.

Influence is normally a two-way street, and 
(jus tlike Kurosawa) having been influenced by Western art Hokusaiin turn went on to influence it right back.In 1859, a decade after his death, Japanese isolationism was brought to an end and the British Museum had bought their first of his prints as early as the nextyear. He was particularly taken up by the Impressionists and pos-Impressionists. Jason Farago possibly oversells it when he says “Without Hokusai, there might have been no Impressionism”, forImpressionism’s rise was not soley down to outside influences. There had to be a domestic impetus to make people receptive to those outside influences. But he chronicles and details the influence well.

For example ‘Ejiri In Shunga Province’ (1831, above) has a proto-Impressionist sense of verite, a moment snatched from everyday life. You can almost imagine the classic ’Beano’ sound effect “sudden gust of wind”, as the hats and papers of the peasants are borne aloft. While under the seeming simplicity and spontaneity is an accomplished composition, the curving path echoed in the side of the mountain, the upwardly jutting trees providing a cross feature.

While ‘Poppies’ (1831/2, above) shows flowers not as a merely decorative feature but a microcosm of nature, bent against wind, their edging not prettily crinkled but jagged. And, as the Van Gogh quote above shows, this view of nature as raw and powerful, somewhere in the overlap between animist and anthropomorphised, was widely taken up in the West.

Perhaps significantly, Hokusai would often visit nature to depict scenes but lived in Edo (present day Tokyo), at the time the largest city in the world. Which does start to sound like the Impressionists, boarding newly installed trains to rural stops, a Romantic nature of the mind whose frame was always urbanism. Perhaps his seeming exoticism masked deeper similarities.

At the Heart of It All...

It’s a tribute to the Great Wave that it’s so iconic. But, as the show’s title suggests, this does mean we can abstract it from its context. Let’s look at another feature the casual viewer can miss. Poking up in the background is Fuji, Japan’s tallest mountain here reduced to a stub caught between sea and wave. Add the similarity of it’s snow-covered cap to the foam-crested wave, and no wonder so many don’t see it. But it gives us a context in quite an immediate sense, for the work’s part of a series - ‘Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji’.

Hokusai himself regarded this series as pivotal. Financially, it rescued him from mounting family debts. But it’s significance was also artistic. Despite embarking upon it in his early Seventies, he essentially came to see all that had come before as mere juvenalia.

This series includes works such as ‘Sudden Rain Beneath the Summit’ (1831, above), where the emphasis is clearly on Fuji. But also ‘Fuji View Field in Owari Province’ (1831, below) Here Fuji is framed inside the workman’s barrel, but not centred, and the workman himself has his back to it. And these varying views of Fuji are very much the point.

Hokusai liked to tell the tale that, after praying to the Buddhist deity Myoken for artistic talent, he was struck by lightning.And Myoken wasassociated with the North Star, the fixed point in the sky and so the centre of the universe. Hokusai itself, the most famous of the manythe names he took,means ‘North Studio’.

And as above, so below. Fuji echoes the North Star on the earthly map. (Earlier, Hokusai had created‘Famous Places on the Tokaido Highway’, 1818, a panoramic view of Fuji dominating the locallandscape.)In mythology the Axis Mundi has a double purpose. It’s the centre of the earth, the point around which all else revolves. But that central place also makes it the connection between earthly and celestial realms.

So, in Japanese culture, was Fuji seen as the Axis Mundi? Tall mountains often are, such as the Kunluns in China. 
Signs point to yes. But don’t actually arrive there. Slightly bizarrely, the Wikipedia entry is illustrated by a photo of Fuji, but makes no mention if it in the text. The show claims Hokusai“identified with Mt Fuji as a source of long life, even immortality.” WhileSimon Schama, covering the artist in the recent ‘Civilisations’ series, described Fuji as “a talisman of immortality”, possibly meaning something closer to ‘eternal’.

Holy Men and Ghosts

But, even as we see Hokusai as someone both influenced by and influencing the West, we should also look at the ways he remains uniquely Eastern. Those outside influences must have seemed revelatory at the time, like the world had suddenly opened up. Yet their great wave never overturned his boat. Certainly, while he strove all his life to become a better and better artist (hoping to live to a hundred in order to “be without equal”) he doesn’t seem to have separated artistic endeavours from Buddhist enlightenment.

As such, his art doesn’t seem particularly concerned with self-expression. There are a few self-portraits, but the work isn’t one extended self-portrait the way it was with, say, Gauguin or Picasso. Nor does he seem keen to develop a personalised signature style, as if he’d rather be everywhere doing everything. And on the subject of signatures he changed his name over thirty times, something it’s hard to imagine a Western artist doing. They reflected changes in his art, and may even be suggestive of reincarnation – the idea that existence is at root a learning process.

And this variation gave him elbow room. As the show points out: “the boundary between this and the worlds he imagined was often porous. As old age advanced, Hokusai regularly painted holy men, protective deities and terrifying ghosts, invoking and releasing their power through the force of his art.”

’Ono Waterfall, Kiso Highway’ (c. 1833) is so accurate a depiction the show asserts he must have visited the scene, en plein air like the Impressionists. Yet the way the waterfall spans the depth of the work, and the way the mountains to the right disappear into some very traditional mist, suggests the idealised spiritual maps of Zongshu. The water is depicted through alternating white and blue lines, a device echoed in the stream on the lower right, suggesting what’s being depicted is the symbol of water rather than the runny stuff itself. Finally, the bridge over the stream is one of many bridges in Hokusai’s works, which may have stood for the connections between the different realms.

’Poet Li Bo’ (1833/4, above) is if anything more traditional, the waterfall less realist and more dominant. The poet is physically separated from the waterfall, yet the protrusions of both rocky outcrops work against this. In particular, his long dangling sleeve seems an echo of the craggy rock above him.

And if they’re the holy men here’s the ghost… Hokusai had begun is career effectively illustrating pulp adventures, and this spirit never quite left him. ’Kohada Koheiji’ (1833, above) is based on a traditional story of a murdered husband whose spirit returns to confront his wife. Perhaps assuming the viewer will know this story, Hokusai removes the wife to concentrate on the confronting ghost. (Though contemporary viewers may have recognised the thing he pulls down as as mosquito net.) It’s his grimacing expression that makes the work, as if he’s tauntingly calling “darling, I’m ho-o-ome!” With this image, I think you might agree, there’s no great overlap with Monet. However, it’s strangely prescient of the black humour of the later EC comics.

This is, it should be agreed an inadequate overview of Hokusai. Not least, while his medium was prints, it mentions this only in order to not mention it. It takes him too much at his own word in skating over his early years. It's references to 'Eastern' art are not exactly unpacked. And much else. But perhaps overviews are doomed to be inadequate, he was so prolific, so varied and so ceaselessly inventive there’s no real capturing him. Creation was his master.

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