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Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)

Life and Art of Katsushika Hokusai

Contributed by Daniel Atkison and Leslie Stewart

Long considered in the West to be the prime consolidator of the Ukiyo-e School, Katsushika Hokusai was infact, one of the last great figures in its development. In his career, this famous Japanese artist embodied the essence of the ukiyo-e print, illustration. sletch, and painting during their final century of development. His life is classified into seven periods.

Childhood (1760-1778) Born in the ninth month of 1760 in the Honjo quarter, just east of Edo (Tokyo), Hokusai took an interest in drawing from an early age. He was adopted in childhood by the prestigious artisan family Nakajima, but was never accepted as heir. This may support the theory that, although he was the son of Nakajima, he had been born of a concubine. As a youth Hokusai is said to have served as a clerk in a book lending shop, and from the age of fifteen to eighteen was apprenticed to a woodblock engraver. This early training in the book and printing trades left an immeasurable impression on his artistic development.

Shunro Period (1779-1794) At the age of eighteen, Hokusai became a pupil of the leading ukiyo-e master Katsukawa Shunsho. Hokusai's first published works appeared in the eighth month of the following year under the name "Shunro", the first of a long series of pen names. They were, quite naturally, prints of actors of the Kabuki theater, the genre dominated by Shunsho and the Katsukawa School. Hokusai's early work was directly derived from the style of Shunsho, but was already the equal of the master in all but originality. While Hokusai remained nominally within the Shunsho School for a dozen years, he came to be influenced as much by contemporaries Shigemasa and Kiyonaga as by his original master. Under his master, Hokusai produced several illustrated novelettes and a number of notable prints of actors, wrestlers and girls, as well as many historical landscapes in the pseudo-European perspective manner.

Sori Period (1795-1804) After Shunsho's death Hokusai, who was thirty-three, took the opportunity to escape from the confines of the Shunsho School and set out on his own. Tradition maintains that he was expelled from the group by Shunsho. If so, it is probable that Hokusai's lack of proper feudal regard for his school led to expulsion. The expulsion does not seem to have officially occurred until after Shunsho's death and then principally because of the exposure of Hokusai's period of secret study under the Kano-School painting master Yusen. From this school Hokusai learned the importance of brushwork in painting and and became adept at the world of Chinese imagery that flavored much of his sketching and encouraged his dullest work. In addition, he studied the ink painting of the ancient Sesshu (for a time he considered himself the "Thirteenth-generation descendant of Sesshu"); the decorative paintings in the Korin and Tosa styles of his contemporaries Torin, Sori and Hiroyuki; and the whole range of later Chinese painting, in particular the flower-and-bird paintings and figure paintings of the Ming and Ch'ing periods.

Katsushika Hokusai (1805-1810) Around 1805, following his experiments with Western techniques, Hokusai began a period of concentrated study of Chinese painting and illustration in connection with the illustrations he was preparing for the lengthy, Chinese novels (yomihon) then in vogue in Japan. The importance contemporaries attached to illustrations in these novels can be readily appreciated when we learn that great Japanese novelist Bakin had to be dismissed in the midst of the publishing venture and another novelist retained when Hokusai found himself unable to work compatibly with the former. His figure work became more powerful, but increasingly less delicate; there is great attention to classical themes (especially samurai and Chinese) and a turning away from the contemporary "floating" world.

Taito Period (1810-1820) Hokusai began using the name "Taito" from 1810. About 1812 his eldest son died. This tragedy was an emotional, but also economical event; this son, as an adopted heir to the affluent Nakajima family, had secured a generous stipend for Hokusai. The artist did not need to worry about his income, which up to this period was generally paid in the form of gifts. Hokusai turned from novel illustrations to the edhon (picture book), and partially to the type of woodblock-printed copy book designed for art students. During this middle period of the artist's life, from 1814 to well after his death, his dramatic series of erotic books, albums, and manga books of sketches were published.

Iitsu Period (1820-1833) Upon his sixtieth birthday, in 1820, Hokusai adopted the art name "Iistu." The new name was used for thirteen years and focused on edhon (picture books) during the first half of this period. He also left numerous shikishi format surimono masterworks. The most remarkable work from this period are the oban format paintings and the nishiki-e print series. Starting around 1830, he painted a multitude of surimono prints based on landscapes, flora, fauna and ancient legends. This period also saw the publication of his best known and most unified print series: "Fugaku sanju-rokkei" (Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji), which with a supplement, was to number forty-six prints in total. In this series the sacred mountain was viewed from every conceivable distance and angle, in all seasons and moods. Hokusai himself must have realized its significance later when he wrote of this period, "I finally apprehended something of the true quality of birds, animals, insects, fish and of the vital nature of grasses and trees."

Manji Period (1834-1849) Hokusai was already seventy-three when Hiroshige, thirty-seven years his junior, published his popular landscape series "Tokaido Gojusan-tsugi" (Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido). This inspired Hokusai to surpass his series with a three-volume picture book, "Fugaku hyakkei" (One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji) published in the following years. Republished in London in 1880, it had notable influence on European art. In 1834 he adopted a new name, "Gakyo rojin Mangi" (Old man mad with painting). He completed several major series of prints in a new style that never matched his earlier acclaim. Dying in 1849 at the age of eighty-nine, he left this haiku verse: "Even as a ghost/I'll gaily tread/The Summer moors."

"Kanagawa-oki namimura" (Under the Wave of Kanagawa)

from the series of Fugaku sanju-rokkei (Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji),

early 1830's


Turner Collection T830068


Probably the most celebrated of all ukiyo-e prints, Hokusai's "Great Wave" contrasts majestic nature and diminutive mankind. Though Western concepts of perspective are employed, there are many classical overtones harking back to Chinese painting, which deal largely with mountains and water coupled with the small presence of humans.

The fleeting beauty of nature and Japan's famous scenic places have been the subject of Japanese literature, poetry, and art for centuries. However, landscape as a theme in ukiyo-e was relatively minor until Hokusai published this series.

Many of the works in this series glorify the beauty of the sacred mountain, but in this print Mt. Fuji is reduced to part of the background, whereas a generation or two earlier, artists would have had to present Mt. Fuji in the foreground. This is the print that astonished and inspired the Impressionists and Post Impressionists in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century. It is said that Claude Debussy used it as his inspiration for the orchestral piece La Mer (1905).

by Daniel Atkinson


"Hi-etsu no sakai tsuribashi" (Suspension Bridge Between Hida and Etchu Provinces), 1831

from the series of Shokoku meiko kiran (Wondrous views of Famous Bridges in all the Provinces)


Turner Collection T810404


This is one of a series of eleven prints that depict bridges from famous provinces of Japan, famous due to their unusual constructions and beautiful settings. In this particular print, heavily laden farmers balance precariously on a suspension bridge. Though there is no major action taking place, harmony is established through the tension of the bridge coupled with a misty sweep of clouds, both below and in the distance. Hokusai, through a very innovative sense of composition and perspective, creates a feeling of depth by placing the tops of the trees in the foreground. This, in turn, lessens the importance of the human presence in the print, as well as in nature.

by Daniel Atkinson


"Blind Men and Elephant"
from the Hokusai manga series ("Random Sketches"), volume VIII, Pages 13,14


Turner Collection T810403

The print shows a group of blind men trying to describe how and elephant looks from touching only parts of it; they will reach different conclusions. This is a Buddhist parable for teaching people how limited their knowledge of reality can be.

The image is spread over two pages of the book. This is due to the fact that the traditional Japanese books were bound along the loose ends of folded sheets of paper. The engraver had to carve one half the image on the second (right) fold of a preceding sheet (page 13 in our print) and the rest on the succeeding one (page 14). The volume title, its number and pages are engraved along the center of the folds, so that the binder would know the exact sequence of pagination. (On how this works, see complete books by Hokusai in the center case display).

Hokusai produced a series of fifteen-volume manga books; this print is from the eighth volume of the series. The term manga means variety pictures. This series is based on random, or variety, sketches Hokusai kept, which were originally intended as a set of copybooks for art students. They attracted the attention of publishers who saw them as marketable. The images in the manga volumes show Hokusai's acute and often humorous observation of human activities.

by Leslie Stewart


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