The Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) is widely recognized for one iconic image—Great Wave Off the Coast of Kanagawa. In fact, he produced many mini masterpieces during his long and accomplished life spanning almost ninety years (1760- 1849). Before he died, his final words were “If heaven would only give me five more years of life, I could become a truly great painter.” In this day of modern convenience and attention deficit, it’s a wonder that he regarded his seventy years of professional painting as mere apprenticeship.
As I turn a year older and face the inescapable reality of middle age, the need to age gracefully edges into consciousness. Elders remind me that things come together when you are older – and one is blessed with instinctive wisdom and experience. This is not convincing. People don’t necessarily gain wisdom as they age: it takes immense self awareness and conscious disciplined effort to retain an open heart, open mind and a twinkle in one’s eye. In that regard, Hokusai has much to teach us about keeping one’s mind and heart active with creativity and conscious painstaking effort over decades. If only for this, Hokusai has much to teach us about keeping one’s mind active and creative over decades.
The Sackler and Freer Galleries on the Smithsonian Mall in Washington DC are known for their world-class Asian art collections and even more illuminating exhibitions. Sadly, COVID has meant that most of this has to be seen online. The silver lining is that it is accessible to all with a few clicks of an internet button.
The Freer boasts the largest collection of Hokusai’s works. Their latest tribute to Hokusai showcases a variety from six-panel folding screens and hanging scrolls to paintings and drawings. These include rare hanshita-e – drawings for woodblock prints that were adhered to the wood and frequently destroyed in the process of carving the block prior to printing. Wood block prints were often used at that time as they were inexpensive and could be reproduced in large quantities. Among the many featured works are Hokusai’s manga or “doodles”, his often-humorous renderings of daily life in Japan. These varied from scenes of landscapes, caricatures to animals and the spirit world. Together, these works reveal an artistic genius who thought he might finally achieve true mastery in painting—if he lived to the age of 110.
One can see the striking use of a luminous blue – whether through Hokusai’s soaring waves or Van Gogh’s swirling sky
The exhibition is abundant evidence of his creativity and adaptability with the times. One case alone contains 14 volumes of his books of manga doodles —firmly drawn, detailed drawings of anything and everything that appealed to him: sad faced dragons, trees, fish, sea life, shells, waves and churning water, along with a gallery of faces of all types bearing all manner of expressions.
From 1795 he produced many designs for surimono, deluxe single-sheet prints of poems with illustrations, distributed privately, rather than in book or print shops. Over his career he experimented with wood block painting, sketching and painting in different dimensions and materials. My favorite piece was the Boy at Mount Fuji, showing a young eating a pear and facing Mt Fuji across an open ended vista; a moment of juvenile calm before the storm.
What is lesser known is the impact Japanese artists had upon the Impressionists – and vice versa. Hokusai studied European art himself. On the other side of the world, as Japanese art became fashionable, Vincent Van Gogh learned the art of Japanese print making. Van Gogh would have undoubtedly seen Hokusai’s work and had an enviable collection of over 600 Japanese prints, some of which he hung as inspiration to himself to see the world through a different dimension. In a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh described Hokusai’s waves painting: “These waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it.”
Starry Night, one of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings, was completed in the summer of 1889. When looking at both paintings side by side, one can see the striking use of a luminous blue – whether through Hokusai’s soaring waves or Van Gogh’s swirling sky.
Recent art historians have also floated similar theories – though who can tell how art impacts us subconsciously? Before he died, Hokusai adopted the pseudonym Gakyo Ronji Manji, “The Old Man Mad With Painting.” This could easily apply to Van Gogh himself as he painted Starry Night when incarcerated in a mental asylum.
The sign of a true artist is one who makes the world a different place. For me Hokusai epitomizes a life a life well lived. Over the course of ninety years he was hugely productive, leaving a legacy of over 30,000 pictures. In addition to the illustrations which he had contributed in over five hundred books, he married twice, sired several children, moved house ninety six times (floating as frequently as the the floating world of many of his paintings) and changed his name twenty times. I would have loved to have watched him paint live – reputedly he was an improvisation artist – and painted temples using naturally available materials whether straw, brooms or sacks of rice.
In his own words – and one I intend to keep as a mantra for myself as I age:
“From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was fifty I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the age of seventy is not worth bothering with. At seventy-five I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. 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 be a marvellous artist. At 110, 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 myself The Old Man Mad About Drawing.”
Participating in a wonderfully curated private tour was a fascinating experience to get exposure to the wonderful variety of paintings and designs over Hokusai’s long career – and for us to pay homage to a man whose madness brought sanity to our COVID struck world.