The Great Wave and the Great Hokusai at the BM


We are now in the final week of the Hokusai Exhibition at the British Museum and what a hit it has been. With five star reviews coming in one after the other, this exhibition certainly built up expectations. Given that I was only able to get a timed ticket slot for 9am on a Sunday morning, it would seem that the world and his wife had come to see Hokusai, one of Japan’s most prolific artists.

Being an Italian Renaissance girl at heart, I felt I was going in a little blind. I knew about ‘The Wave‘ picture which Hokusai made 1829 – 32 but that was about it. This image, almost the Mona Lisa of Japan (dare I say it), has been reproduced thousands and thousands of times and even features as an emoji. I mean – even Da Vinci can’t boast such an accolade.

Hokusai, Under the wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave) from Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji. Colour woodblock, 1831.

The British Museum has used The Wave as an anchor point. By entitling the exhibition “Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave”, they have provided us with something to which we can refer or perhaps recognise.

The exhibition starts with an introduction to the artist and the period in which he lived. We learn that over his 90 odd years of life, Hokusai had as many as 30 different names all related to certain periods of his life. This gives an indication of the type of man he was –  incredibly spiritual and modest, not to mention commercial at the rate he was producing his prints. It seemed that this was a man who would rarely be seen without a paint bush in his hand or a design drawing ready to be passed on to the woodblock cutter.

“…But all I have done before the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75 I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvellous artist…” Hokusai seemed to think of himself as a fine wine – only getting better with age!

It was during Hokusai’s lifetime that Japan opened its borders to the West, that is, they allowed trade with Europe and the U.S. This not only had an impact on Western Art with men like Van Gogh and Whistler falling in love with Japanese art, but it also affected Hokusai’s art. One of the most important changes in terms of this exhibition and the Great Wave is the introduction of Prussian Blue. Prior to opening its borders, this pigment was not available to artists in Japan. Hokusai dived in and laced his prints with this deep blue colour to give his work more depth and long-lasting vibrancy.

Hokusai_Umezawa Mani in Sagami Province 1831
Hokusai, Umezawa Manor in Sagami Province from Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji. Colour woodblock, 1831

So it is from the very beginning that we find this is not going to be a simple ‘ooo’ and ‘ahh’ at the exhibited pictures. Oh no, this exhibition requires you to look close and marvel at the detail, to pay attention and read about the incredible symbolism of every object in the composition and to take note of the meticulous design of each work.

The exhibition runs chronologically and guides you through the different styles and topics which Hokusai explored. There are the prints of one of his most famous series – 36 Views of Mount Fuji (including the ‘The Great Wave’) which are beautiful – the subtle gradations of colour are stunning and the sense of calm, even on a windy day, seeps out of each image. There are also his delicate and intimate prints and paintings of flora and fauna where he has featured small birds fluttering among the blossoms or large eagles glaring out from their gilded scrolls.

Having seen Hokusai’s talents in depicting misty, mountainous landscapes, his fascination with the sea and his insight in his portraits of animals, you are next introduced to his imagination. There is a selection of his prints illustrating Japanese myths and ghost stories. Ghouls and ghosts leer out at you with bloodshot eyes and drooping mouths. You begin to realise how suspicious Hokusai was, to the point where every day he would draw a lion guardian and throw it out of the window to protect his house from bad spirits. It is thanks to his youngest daughter, Katsushika Ōi, who went out to pick them up, that we can see them today.

Ōi becomes a more prominent figure towards the end of the exhibition. She was a recognised artist in her own right and was particularly skilled at painting women. There are works attributed to both artists as well as just to Ōi on view, and they are just as impressive and beautiful as her father’s. The two lived together until Hokusai’s death and it seems they were as much fellow artists as well as family, respectful of the other’s artistic abilities. Ōi was known to enjoy a drink or two, at one point writing ‘tipsy’ on the side of a rowdy image of Japanese society and, whilst likely relating to the subject, could quite easily be a cheeky note on her own state when making the picture!

“…when it comes to paintings of beautiful women, I can’t compete with her – she’s quite talented and expert in the technical aspects of painting.” Hokusai on his daughter Ōi’s artworks.

Oi_Beauty fully cloth in the Moonlight
Katsushika Ōi, Beauty Fulling Cloth in the Moonlight, 1850

As a whole, the vast size of the exhibition together with the lack of an audio guide results in leaving you rather overwhelmed. After being exposed to woodblock prints, paintings, manuscript books and drawings, your brain is well and truly saturated as you stagger out of the exhibition, mole-like blinking at the light. There is a lot of info intake and a lot to look at, making the whole experience a complete immersion as opposed to dipping your toe in. I think an audio guide might have helped me along a bit.

The tickets are now all sold out but you can still go if you buy BM membership. It is worth seeing, given that these artworks, due to their fragile condition, are rarely on show. Plus it gives you a proper introduction to not one but two great 19th century Japanese artists. If you’re up for the intellectual challenge you’ll love this but even if you’d just like some access to Japanese art, then this is a great opportunity to see some of the finest stuff out there. I would recommend a listen to Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time Hokusai podcast beforehand to give you some background info. Or, the V&A does have some beautiful objects in its Japan rooms – a sort of aperitif to the British Museum’s main course Hokusai exhib.

Whilst Hokusai may well have asked on his death bed for five more years so that he could truly become a “real painter”, it seems like he did a pretty good job with the time he did have, producing some of the world’s most recognisable images of Japan.

‘Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave’ is currently at the British Museum until 13th August 2017.


2 thoughts on “The Great Wave and the Great Hokusai at the BM

  1. You are amazing in the clarity of your writing. You take the reader on your journey and keep the trip entertaining as well as informative. Who knew that the girl who would relate her days touring Genova to me each evening was this talented. Nice job, Ellie.

    Liked by 1 person

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