‘The Great Wave’ is one of the most widely recognisable and reproduced images in the world. The man behind the masterpiece, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), worked as an artist up until he died at the age of ninety and made the iconic ‘The Great Wave’ when he was around seventy. Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave, supported by Mitsubishi Corporation, will feature the British Museum’s fine early impression of the print acquired in 2008 with the assistance of the Art Fund. The exhibition will explore the breadth of work Hokusai created from 1820 to 1849, his prodigiously productive final years, and his personal life during that period.
As a lifelong devout Nichiren Buddhist, Hokusai’s faith served to keep him spiritually focused and attuned. Hokusai had long felt personal identification with the North Star, a fixed point in the cosmos (Hokusai means “North (Star) Studio”). In his later years he also identified with Mt Fuji, the sacred source of water and life. Hokusai strove for an ever-longer life and a further perfection in his art with the ultimate goal to reach immortality.
Hokusai often changed his art names usually to reflect new departures in his life and art; this includes the name Gakyo rojin (‘Old Man Crazy to Paint’). For much of his career Hokusai was busy with being a commercial artist. Publishers would employ him to design detailed block-ready drawings for colour woodblock prints and book illustrations. In his later years Hokusai would increasingly withdraw from the commercial world, particularly in his last three years when he worked on extraordinary hanging scrolls. Painting was a more personal medium, and he created many sublime painted works right before his death. The exhibition will include Dragon in rain clouds (1849) a large painted hanging scroll on loan from Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet, Paris. The work includes a signature “brush of Manji, old man of ninety”) and the seal “Hundred”. A dragon ascends from a tornado into the heavens while creating a blue-black rain cloud around, and Hokusai has depicted the dragon with such an intense expression that it almost appears human.
Even in the later years of his life Hokusai accepted commissions from wealthy patrons, including one made in his 87th year of Red Shōki, the demon-queller, who could protect your home against the scourge of smallpox. During an epidemic of smallpox in Edo (now Tokyo), a wealthy patron hoped the work would protect his family from the disease. For Hokusai and his contemporaries the perceived world could connect seamlessly with a world of powerful ‘unseen’ forces and agencies. Ghosts and vengeful spirits inhabited a closely parallel world that was believed could easy spill into ours.
In the late 1820s Hokusai suffered many personal challenges, including the death of his wife, illness, and financial woes caused by an errant grandson. His daughter Eijo (art name Ōi, about 1800-after 1857), herself an accomplished artist, quit an unsuccessful marriage to return and care for her aged father, and to work with and alongside him. In his old age Hokusai became more dependent on Ōi to prepare final drawings for block cutters and to assist with paintings. Hokusai considered that he was passing on ‘divine teachings’ to his pupils, to craft artists and to the world. He published numerous brush drawing manuals, notably Hokusai manga (Hokusai’s Sketches, 15 vols, 1814-1878) which spread his artistic style and reputation widely into society. He is considered to be the father of modern manga. One of Hokusai’s pupils Tsuyuji Iitsu III made a vivid sketch of Hokusai and Ōi, recalling a visit he had made to their home decades before the finished sketch when Hokusai was 83 or 84. Tsuyuji Iitsu III shows Hokusai partially obscured by a pillar in an effort to paint with Ōi watching intently from his side.
Hokusai died in the fourth month of his 90th year, 1849, with Ōi and other pupils by his side.
Many rare painted works have been loaned from Japan for Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave and this is a unique opportunity to see them, since many have never been displayed in the UK before. There will be a rotation of about half the artworks midway through the exhibition run for conservation reasons. Due to their light sensitivity some works can only be displayed for a limited amount of time, to preserve the vivid colours. Each rotation will tell the same story, but there will be the opportunity to see a selection of different works in each half. The exhibition will be temporarily closed from 3-6 July 2017 for this rotation.
Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave, supported by Mitsubishi Corporation, is open from 25 May to 13 August (closed 3-6 July). There is an accompanying book, edited by Tim Clark, curator of this exhibition, and published by Thames and Hudson in collaboration with the British Museum.
The British Museum
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