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Saturday, 18 December 2021

‘HOKUSAI: THE GREAT PICTURE BOOK OF EVERYTHING’

British Museum, London



“Hokusai has produced everything from Daoist immortals, Buddhist Gods, scholar-officials and women, to birds, beasts, plants and trees. Nothing is lacking. He captures deities with a wave of his brush.”
- From the preface to ‘Hokusai’s Sketches’, 1814

So the British Museum is back with the great Japanese print artist Hokusai, just three years after dedicating a large show to him. Which, in exhibition time, is no time at all. All due to a trove of original art, which recently turned up. And that’s more remarkable than it sounds…

From my days in comics fandom, folk were ever-keen to see original art. It could offer valuable insights into a creator’s intentions and working methods. This is a rare chance to do the same for Hokusai. In fact, exceedingly rare. The working method for prints back then was for the engraver to trace over the artist’s linework when carving into the block - creating an accurate reproduction but destroying the original. ’The Great Picture Book of Everything,’ thought to have been created between the 1820s and 40s, only survived because it was never published. We get to see this stuff precisely because his contemporaries didn’t.

You inevitably miss his use of colour, so bold and expressive. And it is a surprise to discover the size of his originals, or rather the lack of it - they’re smaller than your hand. It’s a little like imagining you’re going to see a film in cinemascopic technicolour, only to find it’s showing on an old black-and-white TV. A few are blown up onto banners, and the show even makes a point of telling us “the composition would retain its integrity on almost any scale”, but there really should be more.

As the name might suggest, this seems to have been somewhere between an encyclopedia and a Boy’s Own annual. Charmingly, it seems to make no distinction between scientific observation and myth, but bounces readily between them.

Unusually for Hokusai, but presumably because of the brief, the drawings are of figures rather than environments. Some you can even picture in an encyclopedia, ’Various Minerals and Shells’ for example is diagrammatically functional, with each individual element carefully labelled. While many are pairings so bizarre you’d think you’d wandered into some Surrealist show - ’Donkey and Seahorses’, ‘Phoenix and Peacock’, ‘Rhinoceros and Merperson’ (below), and so on.


Foreign travel was then banned in Japan, and it’s thought Hokusai never even visited its outlying islands. So when he draws things he knew to be real but wouldn’t have seen next to the entirely mythical, it’s hard to know how to respond. We’re told, for example, camels had been brought to Edo (Tokyo’s historic name). But when he depicts a rhinoceros with a shell on its back? Popular misconception, perhaps based on the notion they were related to dinosaurs? Personal artistic metaphor? Pure guesswork? Most likely, we’ll never know.

Some drawings seem executed almost like cave art, seeking more to convey the essence of its subject than place it anywhere. While others are more captured moments, such as ’Wild Boar Hunted And Shot in the Snow’ (below).


The show makes much of Hokusai’s ability to portray motion, pointing out ’A Bolt Of Lightning Strikes Virudhaka Dead’ (below) “prefigures modern manga by about a century”. Motion lines probably arose in Western comic art independently. But here they were normally used more sparingly - as flourishes, embellishments to an otherwise integral piece of artwork, like accents can only exist around letters. Whereas in Manga, they can - and do - dominate the artwork. Here, we see the radiating blast lines almost before the figure. We’re also told Hokusai distinguished between three speeds of brush stroke - formal, informal and rapid. (With ‘formal’ meaning something like ‘deliberative’.)


But there’s a twist to this. First he displays poise as well as he does movement. For example ’Two Cats By Hibiscus’ (below) accurately captures an arch-backed feline stand-off. Action scenes normally scrimp on detailing incidental objects, fearing they might distract, pushing them to the periphery of attention or eliminating them entirely. Whereas here the leaves of the bush are given as much detail as the two protagonists, as if Hokusai has no hierarchy of interests, his scrutinising eye being all-expansive.


And at times Hokusai isn’t just comic art but out-and-out comical. In ’Zheng Zhilong Threatens A Sea Monster With A Gun’ (below) our hero struggles with the weight of an impossibly massive blunderbuss, which straddles most of the frame and leaves no room for the sea monster he’s theoretically threatening.


Given the brief, the show potentially tells us as much about the culture of the time as the brushwork. Though how much that culture we’re getting raw and how much is being filtered through Hokusai’s sensibilities is anybody’s guess.

And so what’s absent can as interesting as what’s present. And what’s most obviously absent? That would be us. Japan was by this point trading with the West, but holding it at arm’s length. Instead China and India appear aplenty.

Now the smartarse kids of my schooldays were keen to tell you that the popular Japanese shows ’The Water Margin’ and ’Monkey’ were actually based on Chinese legends. Which, given the subject matter here, seems pretty typical.

It’s an arguable point that civilisation effectively spread from China to Japan. (Tea and rice, for example now seem staples of Japan but originated in China.) Just as is spread to Britain from the continent. And Britain has been permeated by Greek myths and culture, in a way it hasn’t by, say, Egypt. The British Museum building itself is evidence of this, with its iconic columns and all. 

Yet Japan seems much more preoccupied by China, as if it were the home of mythic time. An English-language Boy’s Own book would doubtless retell Greek myths, between gung-ho accounts of Trafalgar, taxidermies of birds and so on. But it would be understood those myths were not literal truth. This book of everything does seem much more a book of everything.

Why might this be? I’d honestly tell you if I knew! Perhaps some clue is the strong association of China with Daoism. Perhaps ancient wisdom always has to come from somewhere else, not the workaday world we inhabit.

And the India drawings have if anything a still-heavier emphasis on religion, this time Buddhism. (It’s thought both religions reached Japan before the development of Shintoism, despite the latter being native. We know Hokusai had his own Buddhist shrine.) And in the West Buddhism is associated with peaceful meditation, with looking inward not worldly change. It’s sometimes even used as an interchangeable term with pacifist.

Whereas these drawings are often of warriors! ’Buddhist Guards With Buddhist Sayings’ displays the sayings with some weapon-toting guards. Whereas AvalokiteĊ›vara is shown in the eyes-closed meditation pose so familiar to us, but seated above a flying dragon (below).



The small number of finished prints prevents this from being a good introduction to Hokusai. Apologies to those hearing this now, but that was really the earlier show. But for those of us who saw that, this is a worthy sequel which does expand your knowledge of a great artist important not just to Japanese, not just to Eastern but to world art history. 

There’s a companion mini-exhibition of, I kid not, Hokusai NFTs. I tried to not let that dampen my mood too much…

Saturday, 11 December 2021

“THEY WANNA MAKE AN OUTLAW OUT OF YOUR NEEDS” (A PLAYLIST OF CLASSIC PUNK!)


After looking at it’s Seventies East Coast roots, we reach that Punk kind of Punk! As Spotify provides us with seventy minutes of sonic reduction, bad attitude and sick humour. (Because punk had humour, so-o-o much more humour than official accounts made out.) From the time when a song seemed your three-minute chance to change the world. Like the man says, don't need no-one to tell me what I don't already know.

(The illo’s of the ever-awesome Guerilla Girls, who may not make music but are more punk in attitude than most mohawked no-hopers.)

Eddie & the Hot Rods: Do Anything You Wanna Do
The Saints: This Perfect Day
John Cale: Leaving It Up To You
Stiff Little Fingers: 78 RPM
Flux of Pink Indians: Tube Disasters
Mekons: Where Were You
Half Man Half Biscuit: The Trumpton Riots
Alternative TV: How Much Longer?
Television Personalities: Part Time Punks
Huggy Bear: Teen Tightens
The Ex: White Liberals
Siouxsie and the Banshees: Suburban Relapse
Sex Pistols: No Fun
The Snivelling Shits: I Can’t Come
The Cravats: Who’s In Here With Me?
Pere Ubu: Life Stinks
Melt-Banana: Picnic With Panic (Long Version)
Atari Teenage Riot: Sick To Death
The Damned: Smash It Up (Pts. 1 & 2)


Coming soon! And after Punk, then what?

Saturday, 4 December 2021

PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

Concorde 2, Brighton, Sat 27th Nov

Pigs x7 (an officially approved abbreviation) are a metal/psych rock band from Newcastle. Contents are: a guitarist who seems to have stepped straight from Steppenwolf circa 1972; a singer who cheerfully if a little self-depreciatingly describes himself as “a pound-shop Freddie Mercury”, whose highly theatrical and equally eccentric stage moves often look like his morning exercises; and three other more anonymous members. (Shouldn’t that make them Pigs x5?)

It starts ably enough, with a strong rhythm section laying down some thumping riffs. Though the singer has a more declamatory bellow than Ozzy’s wails, there’s a strong Black Sabbath influence, which is often a healthy sign. It’s good. Just not great.

Then a few numbers in they start up a much more meditative beat, over which the guitarists lays sharp bursts of sonic scrawl, like graffiti on a wall. Then from there things go… well into *more* of a Sabbath direction. With Ozzy and his associates, it would be hard to miss those riffs. But equally important was their sense of dynamics. Tracks would take changes in direction which seemed unguessable in advance, yet perfectly natural as soon as they were on them. 

Pigs can at times achieve similar dynamics, but with added free-from elements. They’re kind of post-Sabbath, in the way people talk about ‘post rock’. But it’s only at times. The singer abandoning his keep-fit and shifting side-stage to take up the electronics becomes a sign that’s what’s coming up will be something good.

A reliable source of gossip states: “Earlier releases tended toward longer, drawn out tracks while the more recent releases… are predominantly shorter works.” And somewhat limited on-line listening seems to bear this out. So my hypothesis is that the band were originally like free-flowing lava, which over timed ossified into something more fixed and regular. And the tracks that stand out in their set-list are now the oldies. I’d tried to see them a few times before, but life has a habit of intervening. It may be that those were the days were Pigs were flying, and I was simply not there to see.

Could we start an on-line debate over the best way to pronounce their name? I think I favour “Piiiiiigs!!! Pigspigspigspigspigspiiiiigs!!!” You?

From Sunderland, for those of you watching in black and white. Nearly two years ago, before the singer got that Freddie tash.  (Yeah, two years ago. You lot know there was a bit of an impasse as to gig-going, right?)