Publication Announcement – Mad about Painting

Mad about Painting (ekphrasis), By Katsushika Hokusai. Introduction by Ryoko Matsuba, May 2023, David Zwirner Books

In April 2016, I joined the three-year AHRC funded research project ‘Late Hokusai–Thought, Technique and Society’, which was led by Timothy Clark, then Head of the Japanese Section at the British Museum, and Angus Lockyer, then Lecturer in the History of Japan at SOAS University of London. This project led to the major British Museum exhibition ‘Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave’ in 2017.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) had a remarkably long and productive artistic career that stretched over seven decades. It was in his seventies that Hokusai produced his most well-known prints, including The Great Wave. If Hokusai had not lived such a long life, the history of Japanese art could have been different. The Late Hokusai project provides an in-depth exploration of his works, personal correspondences, and other pertinent records within this prolific period from his sixties onwards.

Over the three year research project, we held a series of Skype workshops collaborating with scholars and students from Japanese universities, including Ritsumeikan University, Gakushuin University, and Osaka University. These workshops were concerned primarily with transcribing texts written by Hokusai and his contemporaries, and translating them into modern Japanese in order to decipher their meaning. Following this work, we embarked on a translation of these texts into English. As the project reached its conclusion in March 2019, fourteen texts had been translated by Alfred Haft and Tim Clark, curators at the British Museum. These texts consisted of prefaces, afterwords, letters, and the introductory sections to Hokusai’s final illustrated volume, “All about Painting in Colour”.

The texts we translated were written in 19th-century Japanese cursive style, known as “kuzushi-ji”. Transcriptions of these texts by various scholars exist, but we considered it prudent to scrutinise the original texts to ensure that their transcriptions were accurate.

Furthermore, over the three year project, the majority of texts we encountered were prefaces and afterwords, in which authors endeavoured to employ a highly literary language and a stunning calligraphic style (fig. 1). This at times posed challenges in reading and deriving meanings. Moreover, given the fluent writing style, some texts lack explicit punctuation, such as full stops and commas. The lack of such punctuation can sometimes lead to misinterpretations. Therefore, it proved incredibly advantageous to involve Japanese experts who could validate the transcriptions and initially translate them into Modern Japanese.

Figure 1: Preface by Ryūtei Tanehiko (1783-1842) and calligraphy by Matsumoto Tōsai (died 1870) in “One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji” volume 1, by Katsushika Hokusai, 1834. © The Trustees of the British Museum (1979,0305,0.454.1)

While the process of interpreting the words of Hokusai and his contemporaries turned out to be a truly rewarding experience, progress was slow due to our careful deliberation over the precise meaning of the texts. Despite our best efforts, the volume of translations produced within the three years fell short of the quantity necessary for a publication. Upon the project’s conclusion, I held onto these translations. Having them in hand prompted me to consider how we could make these valuable outcomes of our project publicly accessible.

In the spring of 2022, an editor from David Zwirner Books invited me to contribute a volume devoted to Hokusai’s writing to their enticing ‘ekphrasis‘ series. Hokusai would be the first Japanese artist to feature in this series, and this invitation provided us with an excellent opportunity to revisit our earlier translations and produce new ones. The publication schedule also aligned well with the exhibition ‘Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence‘ at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which runs from March to July 2023. My role in the publication was to review and, where necessary, revise the pre-existing translations, and to translate most of the untranslated texts in “All about Painting in Colour“.

Hokusai’s final book, “All about Painting in Colour“(fig. 2), stands as a painting manual that Hokusai meticulously devised. This guide elucidates the master’s unique way of colouring, encompassing all facets of nature. It is clear from his words that Hokusai intended to produce more volumes to offer comprehensive guidance, but unfortunately only two volumes were published in 1848, prior to his passing in 1849.

In this book, Hokusai explains all the techniques he employed when colouring birds and flowers, animals, landscapes, kimono patterns, and fictional creatures. He also explains how to use or create pigments and much else. Hokusai often used a fine shading with red colour on plant stems to raise their joints. If we simply look at plants, we normally see just one fresh green colour, but looking closely can sometimes reveal a hint of red on plant stems. Hokusai also adds a hint of red between the fangs of animals. When you paint animals in colour, this technique enables you to present a vivid image of an animal biting down. When he colours birds, Hokusai adds many layers of shading on their feathers, while still understanding their inner structure and the role of each individual feather. Hokusai repeatedly stresses the need to colour objects accurately; if you get a colour wrong, the objects cease to be themselves. By studying ‘the way of colouring’ as explained by Hokusai, we gain a clear sense of how Hokusai saw the world.

Figure 2:  ” All about Painting in Colour ” volume 1, by Katsushika Hokusai, 1848. © The Trustees of the British Museum (1979,0305,0.465.1)

An intriguing, yet challenging task was to take the specific words from “All about Painting in Colour“, linked to traditional Japanese colour painting techniques, and translate them into English. This had to be done while ensuring they matched with the technical language used in Western art.

In “All about Painting in Colour”, Hokusai frequently utilised the suffix -“kuma” as a way of describing a particular way of applying colour. A direct translation of -“kuma” would be ‘gradation’, but after examining some of Hokusai’s actual paintings, I realised that this term does not always fully convey Hokusai’s original intent. In English, terms such as shading, highlight, shadow, and tint may be more appropriate in particular contexts. Varying our translations according to context enables the English-speaking reader to more fully understand the process and, perhaps, even replicate Hokusai’s colouring techniques. Not being an artist myself, understanding these terms was indeed the most challenging part of the project.

British architect Josiah Conder (1852-1920), who lived in Japan and directly learned painting techniques from the Japanese artist Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889), published the book “Paintings and Studies by Kawanabe Kyosai” in 1911. This work provides full explanations of Japanese painting techniques, materials, and tools. It proved an invaluable aide when translating “All about Painting in Colour”. Sadamura Koto, a former Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow and member of the Late Hokusai project, introduced this book to our research group. These translations are truly the result of a group effort. 

As is the nature of translation, we have to remain open to improvements and corrections that might arise from future Hokusai research and suggestions from other experts. I also look forward to lively discussions with other artists and scholars that will undoubtedly enrich our understanding of the text even further.

On a final note, it is with great pleasure that I was able to include an interview with the artist, Ikeda Manabu (b. 1973), within the pages of this book. Our conversation took place in 2017, yet the opportunity to publish his insights was not immediately available. I am grateful to him for his valuable contributions and his kind permission to feature the image of his exceptional painting, Foretoken.

Lastly, I express my gratitude to the editor and publisher, David Zwirner Books, for giving me the opportunity to participate in this project. Mad About Painting is now available to purchase and more information about it can be found here.

Matsuba Ryoko
Lecturer in Digital Japanese Arts and Humanities
Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures