The floating world of Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849)

by Anna Schultz // Aug. 30, 2011

“Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; … refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world (…)”
Asai Ryōi, in his Ukiyo monogatari (浮世物語 “Tales of the Floating World”, c. 1661)

Hokusai’s art epitomizes and reflects upon the flourishing and confidently bourgeois culture of Edo (1603 – 1867), present-day Tokyo. He is best known for his ukiyo-e (literally: pictures of a floating, or transient world) woodcuts, but a truly remarkable exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau now sheds light upon the many more facets of the oeuvre of this most famous and influential Japanese artist.

With 440 works on display, the exhibition is by far the most comprehensive retrospective of Hokusai yet in Europe and is structured and presented in a refreshingly unpretentious way. Negata Seiji, curator and allegedly the greatest connoisseur of Hokusai, has laid out a straight-forward display, leading the visitor through a series of rooms with the works arranged chronologically and according to particular themes.
The layout is unpretentious, perhaps a tad conservative – but this comes as a great asset, offering the chance to study the objects closely, void of any overbearing or exhausting concept.

Hokusai worked frantically, even on his deathbed; he died, third on the Japanese national List of Elders, aged 89 (that’s 90 according to Japanese counting – with a head start in the womb) with a career which stretched over 70 years. Of as many as 30 assumed pseudonyms, which he changed frequently throughout his career, one label stuck: he continued to use the name Gakyôjin Hokusai, which fittingly translates as Hokusai, obsessed with painting. This obsession is constantly evident throughout the exhibition.

An astonishingly talented draughtsman and painter, Hokusai’s bravura technique is most tangible in his painted silk scrolls and calligraphic brush sketches. The undulating brush strokes, tapered lines- perfectly controlled and applied with ease and spontaneity, are gobsmackingly beautiful. More accustomed to Western reference points and traditions of seeing I was repeatedly reminded of draughtsmen such as Rembrandt and Claude Lorrain. Hokusai, though seldomly mentioned in the same breath as these European über-figures, duly deserves his place amongst the grandmasters of sprezzatura. His influence on European artists, most famously French painters like Manet and the Impressionists, but also Whistler and Picasso, peaking between 1860 and 1920, is well documented and has been studied extensively in numerous publications on Japonisme. The catalogue, worth getting, if mainly for the images, unsurprisingly features another retelling of this tale.

Artists’ fascination with Hokusai also prevails and is evident in contemporary works such as Abe Koya’s take on Bronzino’s Andrea Doria as Neptune with a Hokusai-twist, or Jeff Wall’s A sudden Gust of Wind , which, composed of more than 100 digital photographs taken over the course of more than a year, transports Hokusai’s ukiyo-e woodcut from Ejiri in the Suruga Province (駿州江尻) to a cranberry farm near Vancouver. Perhaps less promising (judging from the design of the invite) is Udo Kaller’s cycle of oil paintings which will open at the Museum of Asian Art in Dahlem on 1 September – but we shall see.

Hokusai’s drawings and ukiyo-e prints predate the invention of photography, though owing to their forms and composition- his choice of asymmetrical angles and their inherent flatness (owed to the application of colour on the printing blocks) – they are often reminiscent of photographs. The artist’s ability to capture a fleeting moment and dynamic movement in space and time is incredible. Gushing waves, bricks, leaves and other objects in free-fall, sheets of paper twirling through the air, are all depicted as though they had been captured through the lens of a camera.

Fascinating are Hokusai’s map-like birds-eye views of cities which he published during the Taito period, around 1810, and his etehon – art manuals such as the illustrated book on the usage of colour, offering “the precise painting methods for depicting an octopus, abalone and a live fish among seaweed all explained” or instructions on drawing insects by systematically constructing bodies from simple geometrical shapes which eventually converge into remarkable likenesses.

The master’s talent of exploring his subjects with an objective yet intimate view is most poignant in his studies and observations of nature. In prints such as the flamboyant Poppies he captures all characteristics of the plant’s fleeting beauty: its subtle colour, leaves covered in prickly hair, delicate petals unfolding from the bud, flowers weighed down by the fruiting body containing the seeds, and the stems withstanding and reacting to the gentle breeze. Hokusai represents the essence of things – and he does so with great verve, precision and with a focus on the typical, as well as individual features.

In some figurative works, diverse and universal feelings such as jealousy, rage or smugness are detectable; others depend heavily on a knowledge of Japanese iconography, literature and folk tales. Some of these gaps are filled by the labels and catalogue entries. On the whole, the explanatory panel texts offer more a glimpse than an insight. The ignorant spectator is fed the basic facts and left with plenty of room for interpretation and a growing desire to fill the blind spot created by the assumed eurocentric ways of seeing and experiencing art. Alternatively, the lack of knowledge could be felt as an enhancement; I, for one, rather enjoyed exploring the works with blissfully innocent eyes.

Alienating perhaps to western principles of portraiture, many figures, and more specifically their faces by and large lack specific features; the bijin-ga, idealized female figures, are types rather than individuals, whilst the protagonists of the ukiyo-e are employed as signifiers or commentators on everyday life, set within a narrative construction or a scene set in a particular moment in time.
Visually appealing but heavily reliant on a context which often challenges the viewer and require decoding are the striking manga images. These comic-like illustrations of folk tales, often featuring actors and ghosts, are vividly coloured, having retained their appeal for more than a century. The ghost who, having been poisoned by her unfaithful husband has returned to haunt him, serves as just one example of these weird and wonderful works.

As works spanning Hokusai’s entire career are exhibited, the absence of some of the more explicit shunga images (literally translated as images of spring, a euphemism for overtly sexual and pornographic imagery) is all the more surprising. Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (ca. 1820), probably the second most famous work by Hokusai (after the Great Wave), is nowhere to be found. The spectator thus has to do without this remarkable image of a woman, more precisely a shell-diver or ama, tenderly embraced and apparently rather enjoying receiving cunnilingus from a giant octopus whilst his smaller tentacled companion is fondling her nipple. We shall not keep this from you however, here you are:

Perhaps a discrete display in a ‘naughty’ booth, preferably in the shape of the bath house represented by a cut-out-sheet (of which a recreation, true to scale, is displayed alongside some playing cards designed by Hokusai) might have been an idea?

Traditionally, Japanese woodcut printing requires a team effort: The draughtsman (eshi) provides his model to the engraver (horishi), who transfers the work onto wood before giving it to the printer (surishi). Hokusai however, was trained as a carver from an early age- a one-man-enterprise who by and large, fulfilled all of these tasks himself. Although the exhibition features a rather lengthy film, the technicalities of Hokusai’s print production are strangely side-lined in the exhibition.

In 1833, by the time Hokusai had finished his iconic series of Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji (富嶽三十六景), the comfortable isolation of the Japanese islands and flourishing Edo-culture was beginning to crumble.
The economic exchange with the outside world was accompanied by an invasion of European approaches and ideas which soon entered artistic practice. These left a tangible mark on Hokusai’s works, for example, the breathtakingly vibrant blue of the most famous image from the series, the Great Wave (神奈川沖浪裏), is printed with colours imported from Europe- a synthetically fabricated Prussian blue – a pigment imported from Holland since 1820.

Additional Information

Hokusai Retrospective
Exhibition: Aug. 26 – Oct. 24, 2011
Niederkirchnerstraße 7 (click here for map)

Anna Schultz is a print historian with a soft spot for 19th century artists and a passion for old paper. She has studied art history at Christie’s Education, the Courtauld Institute of Art and UCL in London and worked at the British Museum in the Department of Prints and Drawings. She is currently based in Berlin, working at the Kupferstichkabinett on a research project exploring the drawings of Karl Friedrich Schinkel.

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