Katsushika Hokusai: Japanese artist with a rich legacy
Modern Tokyo Times
Lee Jay Walker
Japanese art in all its majesty can be viewed in abundance by the lifework of Katsushika Hokusai. Hokusai was born in 1760 and he died in 1849 and despite living in the Edo period he was a free spirit from a very young age.
Hokusai was a sublime Japanese artist, printmaker, and ukiyo-e painter and the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji represent a visual majesty of creativity. This series of artwork includes The Great Wave off Kanagawa and it was created in the 1820s.
The Great Wave of Kanagawa is a masterpiece and art lovers all over the world will know this acclaimed artwork.
Indeed, it was this print-series that made Hokusai an international figure because The Great Wave of Kanagawa and Fuji in Clear Weather showed the stunning natural beauty of Mount Fuji and the potent power of nature.
Hokusai often changed his name and while it was common for artists to do this in this period it is clear that he took this to a different realm.
At the age of 18 he joined the Katsukawa Shunsho studio after being a wood-carver apprentice between 14 and 18 years of age. Shunsho practiced ukiyo-e and the central theme was images of kabuki actors and courtesans which was common for the time.
Sadly, in the personal arena his first wife died very young and the same fate awaited his second wife. This must have impacted on Hokusai who had 5 children from both marriages.
Ironically, Hokusai developed after he was expelled from the Katsukawa School and it was during the same period that Hokusai’s interest in western art began to increase.
Hokusai stated that “What really motivated the development of my artistic style was the embarrassment I suffered at Shunkō’s hands.”
Hokusai by being forced out of Katsukawa School began to develop his own style because he now focused on landscapes and daily life in Japan and this cut across the social barrier.
After joining the Tawaraya School it dawned on him that he needed freedom from structures which while helping to enhance his skills; it also held him back from reaching the heights that were within him.
After Hokusai published two collections based on landscapes called Famous Sights of the Eastern Capital and Eight Views of Edo. He began to attract attention and now students began joining him in order to enhance their respective careers and to learn from a high quality artist.
The early 19th century saw Hokusai in increasing demand and for a short period he collaborated with the novelist Takizawa Bakin starting from 1807. However, the illustrated books that they both worked on came to an end because of a clash of personality but it is notable that the publisher remained loyal to Hokusai.
In 1814 Hokusai, now named Taito (changed his name in 1811), published his manga sketches and for an artist like Hokusai this was a good way to earn money quickly and to gain more students who admired his work.
Bｙ1820 he had published 12 volumes of manga and added another three and these consisted of thousands of drawings and many had wit within the drawings he did. This form of manga was very popular and many drawings focused on ordinary people, religious figures, and animals and had a natural charm within the simplicity.
The 1820s would become a period of growth and in time this enabled him to obtain an international legacy but not at the time because of isolation during the Edo period. Hokusai was now over 60 years of age but like the most delicious wine he matured magnificently and once more he had changed his name to Iitsu.
During this period he completed the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji and the unforgettable and powerful Great Wave off Kanagawa was part of this celebrated masterpiece. He also published other quality prints in the same period and this applies to Unusual Views of Celebrated Bridges in the Provinces and A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces.
In 1834 he now changed his name to Gakyo Rojin Manji and in this period he also did major pieces of art in the area of landscape. This applies to the One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji which added to his stature and the longevity of Hokusai also witnessed a greater spiritual dimension, where nature and the landscape seemed embedded within the soul of Hokusai.
During the last few years of his life other artists like Ando Hiroshige were emerging and in 1839 Hokusai’s studio was destroyed by fire and the fire ravaged much of his lifelong work.
One year prior to his death he had completed the Ducks in a Stream at the ripe old age of 87 and on his deathbed he uttered the words that “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years…Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.”
Hokusai died in 1849 and Nichiren Buddhism, Mount Fuji and the mountains had served him throughout his life and these forces combined to make him what he became and he expressed this through art.
After death and with the opening up of Japan he would influence many European artists alongside other notable Japanese artists like Ando Hiroshige.
Hokusai, just like the mountains and nature surrounding Mount Fuji, is timeless and today people from all over the world get great pleasure from his art. This especially applies to the 1820 and mid 1830s period whereby Hokusai expressed such stunning landscape images.
This article is part one of several articles about Hokusai and the next article will focus on the erotic side of Hokusai’s work.