Sydney Morning Herald Column


Published September 1, 2017
You may have seen this one before somewhere...

If ever an image deserved to be called “iconic” it is The great wave off Kanagawa (1830-34), by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Everyone knows this famous print of two boats menaced by a monstrous surge of water that reaches out like a hungry predator with a hundred talons. This was exactly the way the picture struck Vincent Van Gogh. “These waves are claws,” he wrote, “the boat is caught in them, you can feel it.”
There are two states of The great wave in the National Gallery of Victoria’s Hokusai – this country’s first comprehensive survey of the work of the most famous of all Ukiyo-e printmakers. I’ve seen Hokusai exhibitions in London and Paris, but the Melbourne show is the best of the lot. It features more than 170 pieces, including five complete suites of prints. It also includes the 15 volumes of Hokusai Manga, the legendary drawing books that were best-sellers in their day. The originals are displayed in cases but the contents may be viewed on high definition screens.
This is a show that probably requires more than one visit. It feels vast and labyrinthine, although this is mainly a function of the scale and complexity of the works. Hokusai’s images are so inventive, so dense with detail, that visual exhaustion is likely to assail viewers before they get to the end – but it’s a fatigue mingled with that satisfying sense of having spent time in the presence of a master.
I’d recommend a quick walk through the show beforehand to get an idea of the journey. Be prepared to negotiate the crowds as well, because Hokusai is proving to be a massive draw-card.
In The great wave the artist almost certainly intended for us to identify with the tiny figures being overpowered by the forces of nature. In Hokusai’s mature work man is not the measure of all things, as the Greeks believed. More than any previous Ukiyo-e artist Hokusai gave a starring role to the landscape, relegating human beings to the status of elements in a composition.
The term Ukiyo-e translates as “pictures of the floating world” – a reference to the devotees of the theatre, the inns and bordellos. During the 18th century Edo (present day Tokyo) was one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with a dedicated “pleasure district” known as the Yoshiwara. Those who weren’t able to indulge took a vicarious pleasure from the images of actors, geishas and courtesans produced in cheap, plentiful editions by professional printmakers.

Suruga-chô, from the series The Dutch Picture Lens: Eight
Suruga-chô, from the series The Dutch Picture Lens: Eight

Hokusai started his career as an apprentice in the studio of a successful Ukiyo-e artist, making images of Kabuki actors and courtesans. By 1793, at the age of 33, he had left or been expelled, and began charting a more individual course. It seems he was influenced in part by western art, as shown by a set of woodblock prints called The Dutch picture lens: Eight views of Edo (c.1802). In the words of the catalogue, these optical devices “enhanced the illusion of perspective” – a quality largely absent from the Japanese art of the day.
These eight small views are dark and leaden by Hokusai’s later standards, but they lay the foundations for those landscapes which would exert a huge influence on the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.
Some have seen Hokusai’s turn to landscape as attributable to the Shinto religion, which attributes a spirit (kami) to rivers, trees and rocks, no less than to human beings. In Shintoism people exist within nature, they are not set apart as its conquerors. Although we know that Hokusai was a Buddhist, the Japanese have always been religious opportunists, willing to borrow elements of whatever doctrine they find useful or attractive. Christianity may have been persecuted during the 17th century, but by 1853 it was back in the mix. Today it’s common for people to have a Shinto marriage, celebrate Christmas annually, and leave the world with full Buddhist rites.
Hokusai lived his entire life under the Tokugawa Shogunate, (AKA. the Edo period), the last feudal government of Japan. The fiercely isolationist policy of the Shogunate meant that Japanese culture remained quarantined from western influence and vice-versa. The sole conduit to the west for more than 200 years was a small, artificial island called Dejima in Nagasaki Bay, where the Dutch were allowed to maintain a trading post. This was the origin of the perspective glass Hokusai was using in 1802.
Although he had been a prolific artist since his teenage years, Hokusai was something of a late developer. It’s been said that if he had died before the age of 70 he would have gone down in history as one printmaker among others, his most distinctive creation being the Manga books which he began in his 50s. In a famous self-assessment he wrote: “…of all I drew by my seventieth year there is nothing worth taking in to account.”
He goes on to suggest that by the age of 110 he will have achieved perfection. This may sound like the definition of optimism, but he’s actually being too hard on himself. Hokusai had staked an undeniable claim to immortality with the Thirty-six views of Mt. Fuji (1830-34), a series that proved so popular he added another ten views, bringing the total to 46.
The Thirty-six views’ was an inspired idea, with each print containing an image of Mt. Fuji lurking in the background. The mountain was (and is) revered in Japan, and Hokusai capitalised on its celebrity, but in most prints it looms serenely in the distance while the activities of life take centre stage. Hokusai’s theme is the interaction between humanity and nature, as we see pilgrims, samurai, farmers, builders, sailors, merchants, messengers, children, tourists and waitresses playing out their allotted roles in a landscape that changes with the seasons and the time of day.
Hokusai shows an awareness of European single-point perspective, but he doesn’t follow the rules slavishly. The perspective in many images is ambiguous, making us pause and think about what is near and what is far. He uses obstructed views, a sense of framing that anticipates the cinema, and a seductive balance of heavy detail and emptiness. Colour is employed sparingly and skilfully. The first five prints use only shades of Prussian blue. Other colours are introduced in a rising scale that makes one think of a slow-building overture or perhaps the progressive illumination of daybreak.
South wind, clear sky (Red Fuji)
South wind, clear sky (Red Fuji)

The great wave is the most famous motif in the series but South wind, clear sky (Red Fuji) is scarcely less memorable, with its startling gradations of colour. We watch the grey-green woods at the foot of the mountain give way to a band of dazzling salmon pink, and then to a dark, purplish tip broken by rivulets of snow. That may sound horribly phallic, but it captures an impression of Fuji as a former volcano and a beacon of the spirit.
Just as striking is Ejiri in Suruga Province, in which a powerful gust of wind sends sheets of paper soaring skyward while travellers hang on to their hats and a spindly tree lurches painfully to the right.
Ejiri in Suruga Province
Ejiri in Suruga Province

These images have becomes part of the vocabulary of modern art. The Canadian photographer, Jeff Wall, has staged his own version of Ejiri, while The great wave has been almost continuously copied and parodied by artists from the moment it appeared in the west. In Australia, think of Brett Whiteley and Martin Sharp for starters.
The Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji is an exhibition in its own right, so it’s quite a bonus to have four other suites of prints to examine. One Hundred Ghost Stories (c.1831) reveals the debt to Hokusai owed by contemporary manga and anime artists, and by makers of Japanese horror movies such as The Ring (2002). But for sheer visual pyrotechnics it’s impossible to go past A Tour to the Waterfalls in Various Provinces (c.1832).
The title makes one think of those polite, topographical illustrations penned by British travel artists in the early 19th century. The reality is a body of work that seems almost psychedelic in its use of colour, light and shade. In each piece Hokusai appears to be striving to find a new way of depicting water or mist in compositions that send the eye zipping from top to bottom of the picture and back again. Look at The Amida Falls in the far reaches of the Kisokaido Road, in which a dazzling steam of white water pours from a circular aperture in which currents swirl and curve. The scene is set against a dark blue chasm, framed by tufty, green precipices. Incongruously, on one of these crazy outcrops a samurai and his two attendants are enjoying a picnic.
The Amida Falls in the far reaches of the Kisokaido Road
The Amida Falls in the far reaches of the Kisokaido Road

Hokusai described himself as a “mad old man”, and there are many stories that testify to his eccentricities. One of the most sought-after artists of his age, his life-long poverty reveals a non-materialistic personality utterly incapable of managing his finances. It’s us who are the richer for his efforts.
Perhaps you’ve got to be crazy to make such extraordinary work. Perhaps you’ve got to think of nothing but art, and let the world look after itself.
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne,
21 July – 15 October, 2017

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 2 September, 2017