I loved the Hokusai exhibition that is currently showing at the National Gallery of Victoria. I wasn’t familiar with his work, except for The great wave which, as is pointed out in the catalogue, is ubiquitous in modern culture. I first saw it on the wall of a friend whose father was part of the occupying forces in Japan after World War Two. Of course it’s being used as the face of the exhibition on t-shirts, scarves, mugs and other merchandise as well as on this handsome, hardback catalogue which is really worth getting. [NB: the photos in this blog are terrible, because it was hard to get a good picture of the prints as they were under glass. I've included some here to give a flavour of the exhibition. They clearly don't do the subjects justice. Click on them to get a fuller picture]

There is much more to Hokusai than this famous picture. The curator’s talk, by Wayne Crothers, was very informative and interesting, and it’s mostly replicated in the catalogue which also includes high quality pictures of the work on display. Hokusai was a painter and very skilled with the brush; the Japanese use a single brush for each picture which requires great dexterity. He was apprenticed at a wood block print workshop and so was familiar with the wood block printing process. He was also an innovator; trying out new techniques as they became available. As well as producing work across a range of different mediums including illustrating manga books and illustrations of famous actors. All of these factors contributed to the popularity of his work during his lifetime.

Examples of his early work, during which time he used a range of different names for various reasons, are included. Here is an example of his innovation, using European illustration methods to enhance perspective by copying a Dutch print that made its way to Japan in the early eighteen hundreds. It’s called The Dutch picture lens and is one of a series of eight. Another of his his earlier pieces is this one of ill-fated lovers produced in 1800.

The lovers Yosaku and Koman, twilight glow

While Hokusai’s career spanned seventy years, his most famous work was produced when he was in his seventies; over just six years between 1830 and 1836. This outpouring was to make money; poor financial management and a feckless family had left him destitute. Prints were published in series and were mass produced albeit made by hand. They were cheap and widely distributed. Most have been lost. The great wave off Kanagawa is part of the Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji series produced between 1830 and 1834 and sold in groups of five or more. In fact there were forty six views of Mt Fuji produced, given the popularity of the original thirty six but the series was not renamed. The actual sequence of the prints is not known, but it is thought the initial group of five is made up of those printed in Prussian Blue with those made subsequently expanding the range of colours used.

Each of the prints in this series is situated in a specific area, identified in the title, which would have been well known to the people buying them. I was fascinated by the detail; Hokusai focussed on ordinary people going about their day to day lives rather than the nobility and rather than depicting ceremonial occasions. So whilst each contains a view of Mt Fuji, it is mostly the activities depicted that attract attention. Sometimes I couldn’t see the famous view, even when it was staring me in the face. You see people doing all sorts of things; sawing wooden planks, building houses, replacing roof tiles, repairing barrels, sawing timber, picking tea, planting rice. Many include people fishing; and there are lots of people travelling either carried in palanquins, on horseback or on foot. There are pilgrims travelling to the mountain and tourists admiring it from afar in pavilions. People’s occupations are clear from the detailed rendering of their clothes; monks, tradespeople, servants. These prints offer fascinating insights into life in Japan at the time. They are historical documents; illustrating how things were done during the Edo period, what people wore, how they lived. You could spend a long time studying each print.

Many contain humorous details, like this one of papers being blown out of a woman’s kimono, a man losing his hat, another struggling to keep his on his head. Hokusai was interested in depicting wind and this is a good example of how he did it. The tree is also bending in the wind.

Ejeri in Suruga Province

There are only three prints in the entire series that exclude people. This one of cranes in wetlands beside the mountain, is one of them. Cranes being Japan’s most sacred bird and a symbol of longevity.

Umezawa hamlet fields in Sagami Province

Another is the Red Fuji which is actually the preferred print for Japanese people rather than The great wave

South Wind, clear sky (Red Fuji)


A feature of this exhibition is the showing, side by side, of two versions of The great wave, a rare occurrence anywhere in the world. An opportunity to see differences in prints made at roughly the same time; small differences, in tone, in shade and in the sharpness of the lines. For instance, the one on the left in the picture below, owned by the NGV, shows a smudge on the right hand side of the horizon, absent from one on the right (on loan from the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum); a careless printer! Such variations are characteristic of hand made wood block prints. Here is my attempt at a better look at the great work, which, even in this very poor quality photo, reflects the grandeur and power of the scene. It’s minus the smudge, so it’s the print owned by the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum. I’ve not been as aware, in the past, of the boats being tossed around by the massive waves. Observing closely you see the shape of the mountain is replicated in the shape of the first wave. Great skill is evident in cutting the line block to create the tiny, tentacles of the waves and the droplets of foam. The realistic portrayal of people in peril is thought to be one of the reasons this print is not as popular in Japan, where earthquakes and tsunamis are a reality, as in the West.

Attention to detail is evident in other Hokusai works. I was very taken with the Remarkable Views of Bridges in Various Provinces series. Nine of the full series of eleven prints are on display. Three of the bridges are still standing today, and in the curators talk we saw photos of them. The prints are architecturally accurate. Unlike the Mt Fuji views many of the bridge locations would have been unfamiliar to the general population and so some of the depictions in the prints are a combination of reality, historical literature and imagination. They are all wonderful. This print is of one of the bridges that is still standing today.

The Drum Bridge at Kameido Shrine

And this is one of the longest bridges built in Japan during the Edo period. The picture shows crowds of people crossing over the nearly dried up river. All true to life.

Yahagi Bridge on the Tokaido Road

And here is another bridge that is still standing today. In this one the artist has depicted driving rain which means the figures on the bridge have their heads down and covered.

The Kintai Bridge in Suo Province

Finally, from this series, here is a close up of a horse in one of the pictures.

Detail from Fukui Bridge in Echizen Province

Here is another photo, trying to show the detail in Hokusai’s work from his series entitled One Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse series. These are abalone divers.

Detail from Sangi Takamura (Ono no Takamura)

Here is the full picture depicting this poem written by a counsellor to the Emperor on the eve of his banishment to an isolated island: O’er the wide, wide sea, / Towards its many distant isles, / Rowing I set forth. / This, to all the world proclaim, / O ye boats of fisher-folk! I like that Hokusai has come at the story aslant, if you like, including the exile’s boat and the fisher folk referred to in the poem, but concentrating on abalone divers who would have been present at the scene, but who aren’t included.

Sangi Takamura (Ono no Takamura)

I loved all of the Poems series which make up Hokusai’s final great series of prints. They are based on a famous Japanese anthology of poems published in 1235. Here is another print illustrating this poem: At the present time, / Since no offering I could bring, / See, Mount Tamuke! / Here are brocades of red leaves, / At the pleasure of the god. It’s about a visit to a temple by the poet who has failed to bring the correct offering, and so wrote the poem instead. Such rich colours. Beautiful.

Kan Ke (Sugawara no Michizane)

Another great series, that seems so modern, and is said to have influenced Western art movements, including Art Deco is A Tour to the Waterfalls in Various Provinces. These are completely different to the prints shown above. They were made after the success of the Mt Fuji series, and his success in depicting water in The great wave off Kanagawa. Hokusai was interested in taking the theme of moving water to a new, unprecedented level. He made prints of eight actual waterfalls, which in Japan are not only scenic attractions but have spiritual significance related to Shinto nature worship and Buddhist ideology. In the curator’s talk we were shown pictures of the actual waterfalls. The beauty of these prints is the imaginative way the artist represents the falling water. This reminded me of the illustrations in Tolkien.

Falling mist waterfall at Mt Kurokami in Shimotsuke Province

And this one must surely have influenced artists creating the Art Deco movement.

The Amida Falls in the far reaches of the Kisokaido Road

Another series, Birds and Flowers draws on classical Chinese painting traditions. It was divided into Large Flowers of which this is an example

Chrysanthemums and horsefly

These were not very popular, and not many were printed. But others in this series, described as Small Flowers were so popular they were being recut and printed in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Cuckoo and azaleas

The colours were not as strong in the prints in this series and I was not as keen on them as on the other works described above.

There are other series on display, not reflected above. These are: One Hundred Ghost Stories; really strange images illustrating ghoulish stories both real and imagined. I didn’t like them. Snow, Moon and Flowers; just three prints but not quite as interesting as the others.A True Mirror of Chinese and Japanese Poetry; more incredibly detailed and richly coloured prints. Eight Views of the Ryukyu Islands; similar to the other prints but interesting because he copied from other images, trying to cash in on a visit by members of the Ryukyu Kingdom to Edo. There are also a large number of his Manga illustrations in a series of incredibly frail looking books, which it would take ages to absorb; so much detail!

The exhibition is really worth a visit. It’s on until 15 October. Go before it gets too crowded.


One Response to Hokusai

  1. Helen McDonald says:

    Love this review, thanks Jenny. You’ve inspired me to book the babysitter and get on down there! Hope you’re well.

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