Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave at British Museum

Quick! Quick! Roll up to Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave at British Museum.  Don’t worry, it is open until 13 August 2017 but it is closed from Monday 3 to Thursday 6 July 2017 to swap out some of the more fragile works.  So, you will miss some of the works if you don’t go this weekend.  I didn’t take a careful note of all the works that are “25 May to 2 July only”. Year-End Accounts, an early highlight, is one, Suspension Bridge on the border between Hazen and Etchū provinces is another, but I’m not sure of the rest.  I’m thinking of going back again to see the new set in any case but I realise that might not be possible for everyone.

Katsushika Hokusai was an artist in Japan in the late 18th and early 19th century.  This exhibition focuses on the last thirty years of his life, a period that includes one of his best known works, The Great Wave.  The exhibition is in Room 35, the Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery, the circular exhibition space built over the old reading room in the centre of the Great Court.  It costs £12, details on the website here which also shows ten highlights of the exhibition so it is worth looking there before attending.

They have turned room 35 into a long corridor.  It’s a slow labyrinth of a gallery as a result but if you follow the line of visitors patiently you will find treasure! This could be somewhat claustrophobic but it is perhaps the only way to allow the number of visitors in to see the works.  There is some good context from the wall panels but they are a little small and sometimes on the far side of a work which is hard to get to.

The first section of the exhibition deals with examples of art from Hokusai’s earlier work, paintings and prints, and introduces the idea of his calling himself by different names as he went through his life.  This is good background.  It also shows how he developed his art.  There is an interesting explanation of how he studied and used European techniques, for example, the difference between European perspective with a vanishing point and Japanese perspective where further away things were shown above nearer things and, also, the idea of showing one side of an object in a lighter tone creating the impression of a light source from one side or the other.  One example of Hokusai demonstrating his ability to do both is New Year Scene, created in 1824-26 for the Dutch East India company, it shows a Japanese street scene with a man and children ready to fly kites in the  foreground and others with kites already aloft and the impression of buildings receding into the background.  Light hits them from one side.  It is beautiful.

The second section then builds up to the print series, 36 views of Mt Fuji.  This is followed by sections on landscapes, flora and fauna, followed by supernatural beings; then a little section about his daughter before final very late artworks.

The 36 Views of Mount Fuji was a piece of work that saved Hokusai’s finances at a difficult time.  The views seek to show the growing light from darkness and show landscapes and seascapes from all over Japan but each one featuring Mount Fuji, which plays a significant role in Japanese culture.  Sometimes Mount Fuji is a small distinct shape in the background.  For example, a barrel-maker carves the inside of a huge barrel, resting on its side, and above his head you can see a tiny triangle.  Other times, it dominates the scene.  The prints used Prussian blue, newly available in Japan, as well as the more common indigo.

The Great Wave, Under the wave off Kanagawa, to give it its full title, is one of the 36 Views.  It shows three open rowing boats in high seas with Mount Fuji in the distance.  The shapes of the waves echo the slopes of the mountain and the biggest of the waves rears up almost like a beast waiting to devour the boats.  Earlier in the exhibition, you can see Cargo Ship with Wave from 1805 where the wave seems almost wooden and immobile.  In the later work, the foam falling from the wave resembles the claws of an animal, still not quite figurative but representing the power of the wave.  It is certainly worth seeing in person.

There is a certain stylised quality to all the art work, less noticeable in the images of flora and fauna but certainly there in the landscapes and the depictions of people.  I wondered if Japanese people, particularly of the period, interpreted the images as stylised or saw them as accurate depictions of the individuals.

For us now it seems very alien except for an unexpected similarity to the illustrations in the Discworld books, particular the original artwork on the UK editions of the first 26 books.  Josh Kirby is the name of this artist.  Warrior Hero Tametomo, painted in 1811, is one example where we saw this likeness.  You can see this painting here.

I saw this cartoon quality in many of the prints.  That is not said to diminish them but to recognise that they have a particular style that is found more in that genre these days.  Occasionally it doesn’t work for me.  For example, Rainstorm Beneath the Summit has some striking and brightly red jagged lines in its bottom right quadrant.  This is meant to show lightning accompanying rain on the slopes below the summit.  However, for me it looked like a lava flow, which could have made sense, given the fact that it is a volcano.

Having said that, I liked the examples of the 36 Views that I saw (the exhibition does not show the whole set).  The dominant blue colours do suggest early dawn.  The varied landscapes of Japan are beautiful.  If you want to see them all or to prepare for a visit, have a good look at the Wikipedia page to prepare for the riches.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty-six_Views_of_Mount_Fuji

I was intrigued by the prints entitled Clear Day with Southern Breeze.  There was a “Pink Fuji” and a “Red Fuji” with that title, each taking its nickname from the colour of Mount Fuji in the print.  The interpretations explain that the printing process means that the lighter coloured ink is normally the earlier impression and is understood to be closer to the artist’s intention.  It was certainly true that Pink Fuji has a subtlety and details that Red Fuji lacks.

This does suggest a question.  For prints, who should get the praise: the original artist or the engraver and printer who renders that onto the page?  Is it a combination of the vision of the second and the detailed technical skill of the first?  Neither can produce the work without the other.  There is a film shown on two TVs about the printer’s craft.  Maybe you can decide.

I was particularly fond of the Mishima Pass in Kai Province.  A group of travellers is taking a break from the road.  Some are hugging a tree to try to gauge its breadth.  Another is having a quick smoke and washing his feet.  They are charming.

After the 36 Views, the later sections show some wonderful depictions of life, some fantastical, some realistic.  I really wished I had a magnifying glass to appreciate the details although I am not sure that would have been popular with my fellow visitors.

The supernatural pieces can be quite grotesque and we miss out on some of the effect if we aren’t familiar with the stories depicted.  However, it is the right time of year because, apparently, it is on hot summer nights that Japanese people tell one another ghost stories.

One landscape is called 100 Bridges at a Glance.  It is the sort of painting where the more you look, the more you see.  However, don’t worry if you start to count: apparently, he painted only 50 bridges not the eponymous 100!

There are quite a few bridges in the exhibition and lots of water and waterfalls.  I guess Japan has a lot, given that there are also lots of prints entitled “sudden shower of rain”.  Suspension Bridge on the border between Hazen and Etchū provinces is one of the bridges and you can see it only until 1 July.  If you miss it, I can tell you it looks quite precarious, a walkway that dips with the weight of the two figures on it and no handrails that I can see!

Hokusai’s waterfalls look very solid.  Conveying the impression of water in paintings has long been a topic that has interested painters – David Hockney amongst them.  I don’t know that Hokusai succeeds but, on the other hand, waterfalls, at least in spate, can look very solid so maybe he has a point.

The last section has some wonderful, larger format paintings.  I particularly liked the Tiger in Rain hissing at the Dragon Tornado to his right.  These paintings are companion pieces but are rarely shown together, which is a shame because they look good side by side.

The paintings are presented on scrolls, the painting itself a panel within a highly decorated larger piece of material.  I suppose it is like the frames we find on European paintings but these scrolls are very elaborate.  I can’t tell if they have been themselves painted or embroidered or woven but they are covered with complex patterns in colours that, at their best, complement the painting. For example, towards the end of the exhibition in the mythological section, the gold, red and blue of the scroll picks out the colours within the painting itself, enhancing them.

The exhibition claims to “lead you on an artistic journey through the last 30 years of Hokusai’s life”.  It allows you to “explore Hokusai’s personal beliefs and gain a fascinating insight into the artist’s spiritual and artistic quest”.  I’m not convinced I gained such an insight into his quest although I saw the evidence of what he produced during the period.  In other words, he painted lots of landscapes and supernatural pictures but just by seeing them I am not any wiser as to his motivation.

Here is the big question that has been bugging me: what are the boundary lines between a museum that, I think, seeks to understand the diversity of the human condition and an art gallery that focuses on the “artistic” response to it?  In other words, why is the British Museum hosting an exhibition of art from early 19th Century Japan?  Does it cause conflict and angst amongst the different museums and galleries as they jockey for the right to host major exhibitions?  Could we perhaps have expected more from the British Museum in demonstrating context, not just putting some of the context into the wall panels and hard-to-read labels?

At the end of the day, I’m not sure that it matters that much to me.  I’m just glad that we have the exhibition here in London and I’ve been able to see these lovely pieces.  I hope you enjoy them too if you manage to see them.

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