Hokusai: Beyond the Great wave casts a refreshing new light on the prodigiously productive last 30 years of the artist’s life. He is so much more than waves and water.
Concentrating on his output between 1820 and 1849, the exhibition highlights Hokusai’s personal beliefs and his spiritual and artistic quest for the sublime. A display of major paintings, drawings, woodblock prints and manuscript books, taken largely from the British Museum’s collections, illustrate the artist’s fascination with the half-imagined.
One Hundred Ghost Tales, 1833, sums up Hokusai's penchant for fantasy in a series of medium-sized woodblock prints. Inspired by the popular Japanese custom of telling ghost stories by candlelight on summer nights, the colour woodblocks are as disturbing as they are intriguing. The highlight piece depicts the ghost of Kohada Koheiji creeping up on his sleeping wife, who drowned him to elope with her lover. His grimace, claw-like talons and bulging, bloodshot eyes are just short of terrifying.
Painter and print-maker Hokusai has contributed to Japan's visual language perhaps more than any other of the nation's artists. His landscapes, bestiaries, dreamscapes and wave imagery bring to life an incredibly vivid world, only half-observed in normal life. For Hokusai and his contemporaries the perceived connected invisibly with a parallel world of powerful ‘unseen’ force: vengeful spirits, ghosts and imps was never far away.
What becomes loud and clear is that Hokusai was, above all, a commercial artist. During his lifetime, he sold his prints by the bucket-load – more than 8,000 impressions of The Great Wave were sold for the price of little more than a double-helping of noodles. But in 1859, after more than 200 years of relative isolation, Japan opened its borders. Hokusai’s prints suddenly flooded into Europe. Indeed, Japonisme, the European appropriation of Japanese decorative motifs and symbols in art, became the height of fashion and epitome of late 19th-century artistic taste, especially in France and Britain.
But all this is explained in one small wall panel. Given this is a London exhibition, a little more information about the man, his influence in the West and the traditional process of woodblock printing, would have been useful. Van Gogh was a huge fan. But unless you studied the Edo period in great detail, and are an avid fan of Japanese 19th-century art, or are an out-and-out Japonophile, the man and his techniques may be a mystery to you – as they were to me.
But criticism aside, the exhibition is lovingly curated and the display opens up a path to plentiful discovery. Hokusai's attention to detail and mastery of his craft are second to none, and well worth an international showcase. If you're after an intellectual challenge, this is the pick of the bunch.
|What||Review: Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave, British Museum|
|Where||British Museum, Great Russell St, London, WC1B 3DG | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Russell Square (underground)|
25 May 17 – 13 Aug 17, Saturday –Thursday 10.00–17.30 Friday 10.00–20.30 Last entry 80 minutes before closing time
|Price||£12.00, children under 16 free|
|Website||Click here for more information|