The aim of Hokusai, a Japanese artist, was to live – and work – beyond the age of 100. He said (young people, listen up) that “until the age of 70, nothing I drew was worthy of notice”. Every year he worked, he improved. Older meant better. “At 110, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.” A new exhibition at the British Museum in London covering the last 30 years of his life bears him out.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was a master-maker of paintings, drawings, woodblock prints and illustrated books. The Japan of his day was relatively closed off from other cultures but his hometown of Edo – modern Tokyo – was no backwater. At the time of Hokusai’s birth it was the largest city in the world. The production of prints and illustrations for books was fuelled by immense demand: at a time when roughly 40% of Europeans were literate, 80% of Japanese people could read. Prints were modish, popular and cheap. Hokusai was very attentive to how they were made, entrusting his drawings to skilled carvers who inked up the carved woodblocks by hand.
The popularity of Hokusai’s work didn’t save him from periods of serious penury. But his personal needs were modest and his working habits fierce. He was constantly exploring new ways of working and changed his artistic name often throughout his life, as if to slough off previous identities and adopt new ones. He took the name Hokusai when he was nearly 40; later, he styled himself Gakyo Rojin, which translates as “Old Man Crazy to Paint”. In the mid-19th century, when trade links between Japan and the outside world opened up, his works became intensely fashionable; Degas, Manet and Gaugin were among his collectors. Hokusai lived his last years with his painter-daughter in various rooming houses until he died at the age of 89. He didn’t make it to 100, but his artistic legacy endures.
“Sudden Rain in the Countryside” (1824-1826)
As in a virtuoso piece of cinematography, the workers in this painting are illuminated against darkness. It’s a comic mêlée packed with jokes. People run hither and thither, heads covered against the downpour. One man is swallowed up by his umbrella, another shelters under a straw bale half as big as himself. A wind-blown cape exposes a man’s bottom. Skinny white trees and branches spark the ground like lightning bolts. Hokusai was a swift assimilator of ideas. In this series of paintings of Japanese daily life, commissioned by the Dutch East India Company, he experimented with European-influenced techniques. The low horizon and dramatic light and shade are new.
“Famous Places on the Hokkaido Highway At a Glance” (1818)
The quotidian nature of much of his work is part of its strength. This is a map of the Hokkaido Highway, a 500-kilometre-long pleasure route from Edo to Kyoto dotted with inns, restaurants, lodging stations and beauty spots which Hokusai has compressed into a meander of roads, valleys, rills and ravines. The Japanese archipelago looks like a rock-pool but it is also a functional topography with all the sites carefully labelled. Mount Fuji is there as ever: spiritual beacon, monument and wayside marker. This is the Ordnance Survey of Japan as if seen in a vision.
“Clear Day with a Southern Breeze (Pink Fuji)” (1831)
In Buddhist belief, Fuji was a symbol of immortality and Hokusai returned to it again and again in his old age. This is an image of great simplicity. Atmospheric conditions are noted and coolly described in crisp lines and delicate fades. The air looks thin and snow tips the summit. Sunrise is a pinkish brown stain on the mountain’s flank and trees cling to the lower slopes like stubble. The simplicity of the image belies the skill involved. “Pink Fuji” is a wonder of restraint, a testament to the printmakers’ art.
“Hokusai Manga (sketches for a Sudden Gust of Wind)” (1814-1878)
Manga were compilations of artists’ sketches. They were intended as a practical and spiritual lexicon, books of drawings for aspiring artists to copy. Their makers aimed to represent everything on Earth and under heaven: demons, weapons, still lifes, warriors, plants, technology, scenes of daily life, man-made objects, landscapes. Hokusai’s manga set a very high bar. Made between 1814 and 1878, they spread quickly throughout Japan and beyond. The strikingly modern, animated figures in this sketch were developed into another important work, “A Sudden Gust of Wind”, in which sheets of paper flit wildly across a landscape.
“Under the Wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave)” (1831)
When Prussian Blue, an imported synthetic pigment, fell in price, Hokusai – ever the innovator – started to work with it. Popularly known as “The Great Wave”, this print is his most iconic work. It was made in 1831 as part of a series, “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji”, and it made him a small fortune. Hokusai was often drawn to natural forces. His landscapes are not tame and the human dramas within them are highly condensed. In this print, skinny boats in the lee of the waves are almost invisible. He was 70 when he made this. Van Gogh was very taken by it. “These waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it.”
Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave British Museum, London, until August 13th