Hokusai – Views of Mt Fuji and Figures in a Landscape.
For Jack A. who has walked up Mt.Fuji.
Self Portrait of Hokusai.
Lucky serf, recently went to the Hokusai Art Exhibition at the National Gallery in Melbourne, Down Under. What a wonderful display of the artist’s work, spanning Hokusai’s entire career, more than 150 works on display, wood block prints, paintings, manga, (illustrated books,) enough to take your breath away. I’m presenting here just a few of his later wood block prints from the ‘Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji’ and his ‘One Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse.’ But there’s so much more. Herewith, from Katsushika Hokusai:
“From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. By the time I was fifty I had published am infinity of designs; but all I produced before the age of seventy is not worth taking into account. At seventy-three I learned something of the structure of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. In consequence, when I am eighty you will see real progress. At ninety I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At one hundred, I shall really have reached a marvelous stage; when I am one hundred and ten, everything I create, a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign my self ‘The Old Man Mad About Drawing.”
Hokusai was born in the auspicious year of the dragon, 1760, in one of the largest and most sophisticated societies in the world, the metropolis of Edo, now Tokyo. Edo’s merchant population were consumers of the arts, of woodblock prints and poetry prints of high aesthetic and technical quality, somewhat like those earlier denizens of the Italian city states in the Renaissance. Hokusai himself grew up in a family that practiced skilled craft work. It is believed that as a child he was adopted by his uncle a professional mirror polisher to the Tokugawa shogun.
At the time, Japan’s population was one of the most literate in the world and Edo had a lively printing industry. Libraries were commonplace and as a youth Hokusai worked as an assistant in a library. A lover of classical poetry he would later use its themes in his own work, often playfully. Between the ages of sixteen and nineteen, he was apprenticed to a publishing studio as a woodblock carver. Although he didn’t create his own images, carving images and texts by other artists would have given him an intimate understanding of the print making process and of possibilities that he was later to explore in his own creative work.
In 1778 he left this employment to embark on a career as an artist, and entered the studio of one of the most fashionable ukiyo-e artists of his time. Ukiyo-e was an art movement, of the 17th – 19th centuries, depicting, in prints and painting, the everyday life and interests of ordinary people.
Something about Hokusai’s figures in a landscape that reminds me of Rembrandt’s etchings.(1) In technique Hokusai was influenced by Western art, he was the first to apply perspective in Japanese art. During the 18th century Dutch traders brought European viewing devices to Japan and local artisans were quick to make local versions of the devices. Hokusai includes an illustration of one of them in his work in 1802. In the 36 Views of Mt Fuji he was also one of the first to apply shading, using Prussian blue pigment, which is less prone to fade than conventional black paint.
Ukiyo-e everyday lives of the people. In Hokusai’s figures in a landscape, we see his delight in ordinary people. Like Rembrandt, Hokusai’s refinement of line reflects the artist’s humanity, up close, lovely details of hands and feet, movements of figures in the landscape expressive of their emotions. Hokusai’s people, though, are too active to express Rembrandt-like contemplation. In some of the views, Mt Fuji is mere background to the activities of figures in the landscape.
Concerned with his own longevity, Hokusai was fascinated by Mt Fuji, the immortal mountain, and he responds to it in his work as a symbol of Nature, a timeless force integral to his celebration of the intrinsic connection of nature and humanity, here within ‘Inume Pass in Kai Province.’
The powerful image, ‘Red Fuji’ lit up by early morning rays of sunlight is one of only three works in the series devoid of human habitation. In others we see Mt Fuji from different human perspectives, different seasons, different points of the compass, a different scale, close up or far away.
Here’s the cinematic ‘Fuji-view Fields,’ Mt Fuji framed within the man-made circle of the barrel.
Hokusai icon, ‘The Great Wave of Kannagawa.
Travelers in playful mood attempt to encircle the giant trunk of a giant cedar which in Hokusai’s composition dwarfs Mt Fuji.
Nature also in playful mood
Hokusai’s final great series of prints known by the unusual title,” One Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse,’ the nurse being surrogate mother or wet nurse for an infant, is based on a Japanese famous anthology of poems, ‘Ogura Hyakunin Isshu,’ compiled by a nobleman poet in 1235. Visual interpretations of these poems were traditionally depictions of Court life but Hokusai’s version as visually retold by the nurse is reinterpreted in the context of the daily life of common farmers, labourers, travelers, even abalone divers. The formal poem occurs in the patterned cartouche in the right hand corner of each print.
Echoes in this image of Brueghel’s famous painting in The Little Ice Age, ‘Hunters in the Snow.’ Hokusai himself was poverty stricken in later life, though his work sold well, he experienced hardship brought about by his irresponsible and financially draining grand-children. Though he didn’t live to one hundred years, and did not, for some reason, complete the One Hundred Poems Series, Hokusai continued working up to his death at the age of eighty-nine.
(1) Rembrandt etching. Detail of ‘Three Trees.’