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Hokusai’s wit outshines his wave

George Pendle on a jaw-dropping show in Boston

George Pendle | April 7th 2015

Nearly 200 years on, its threat has not diminished. Its massive precipitous curve still overwhelms the thin straight boats beneath it. Tendrils of foam still reach out like a thousand white hands ready to smash them into matchsticks. In the distance Mount Fuji, its snowcap mimicking the froth-tipped waves, is still dwarfed by this watery mountain range. Katsushika Hokusai’s “Under The Wave of Kanagawa” (1830-31), better known as “The Great Wave”, is one of the most recognisable works of art in the world. Yet in the jaw-dropping new Hokusai exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, “The Great Wave” isn’t accorded any special status. It’s actually somewhat overshadowed by the rest of the work on display.

Hokusai was born in 1760 and was apprenticed to his uncle, a mirror polisher, at an early age. However, he soon left to become a ukiyo-e artist, a depicter of the “floating world” of actors, sumo wrestlers and courtesans. His first trade would show up in his early masterpiece, “Woman Looking at Herself in a Mirror” (c.1805). This painting on a silk scroll, with its luxurious furnishings and opulent fabrics, is as sumptuous and tangible as any oil painting by Ingres. Yet it also displays the weird eccentricities and playfulness that characterise Hokusai’s work. The woman faces away from the viewer and observes herself in a mirror at her feet—a common theme—but between her lips she holds a cherry. Her lips shimmer with a slight green tinge, her teeth are blackened to accentuate her white face, and her long languid fingers play tantalisingly with the wisps of hair on the back of her head and neck. It is an irresistibly sensual and intoxicating image, and coming near the start of the show prepares you for some of the pyrotechnics to follow.

“The Great Wave” originally appeared as one of a series of prints known as “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji”, and here all 36 are on view in one room. The effect is startling. At the time of their creation Japan was still closed off to the rest of the world, but it had begun to import a new synthetic pigment, Prussian Blue, that could provide a wider range of vivid blues than ever before. Hokusai was in his seventies when he discovered the colour, but he seized upon it with glee. All the prints in this series are drenched in it, so that stepping into this room one feels enveloped—a bit like the boatmen in that famous print—by a sea of blue. Anchored by the constant of the mountain—sometimes far away, sometimes close up—these woodblock prints depict a cornucopia of life in the foreground as barrel makers cut wood, cranes flutter their wings and boys fly kites. One might think the subject matter would act as a restriction on the artist, but the sheer variety of life and nature on view suggests that Hokusai could have chosen to paint 36 views of his thumb and the effect would have been equally astonishing. The Mount Fuji series was immensely popular and gained Hokusai lasting fame. It also established landscape painting as a major subject of Japanese art.

The show has been arranged in themed rooms—landscape, nature, fantasy—the better to try and contain the burgeoning abundance of his work. Hokusai had a whirling visual imagination that encompassed not only differing subject matter, but different tones and forms as well. He drew people, houses, mountains, flowers, birds, trees, warriors and ghouls for comedic, poetic, aristocratic, proletarian or sometimes simply decorative purposes. He drew picture books and how-to-draw books, designed playing cards and board games. He loved creating elaborate cut-out dioramas and this exhibition also highlights his remarkable facility with lanterns and fans. He accepted commissions from poets and drew advertisements for the manufacturers of white face powder. And he was not above a little showmanship either, creating gigantic paintings in public (some of which measured over 2,000 square feet) in order to promote a new book of prints. One representative story of his quicksilver wit and technical brilliance tells of him being asked to demonstrate his painting skills before the shogun himself. Hokusai painted a long blue streak on a sheet of paper, then picked up a chicken he had brought with him, dipped its feet in red paint, and let it run across the paper. The result, he announced, was a painting on the traditional poetic theme of maple leaves on the Tatsuta river.

It is this wit that is the perennial characteristic of his art. Perhaps only Goya—the subject, coincidentally, of another recent blockbuster exhibition at the MFA—can hold a candle to Hokusai for sheer virtuosity and frisk. The highlights are too many to mention: “A Tour of Waterfalls in Various Provinces” (c.1832), a series of eight prints, manages to depict water in a variety of almost surreal ways—sometimes like tree rootssometimes like a steel girder thrusting out of the cliffs—while the visual trickery of “One Hundred Bridges in a Single View”(c.1823) is equal parts M.C. Escher and Where’s Wally? Just when you think you might be glutted by this profusion, his nature studies provide the perfect palate cleanser. Indeed his clear, pure pictures of flowers could be a show all on their own. Devoid of background, they show the delicacy of the petals and the attendant wings of a bird or butterfly. The MFA gave Hokusai his first museum show in 1892. Whether with a wingbeat or a wave, 120 years on he still knocks you sideways.

Hokusai Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to August 9th

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