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Learning from Hokusai

The influence of Hokusai on subsequent artists is truly huge; ranging from Degas, Van Gogh, Klimt, Picasso (he loved the octopus and pearl-diver all know which one :P ), Hockney, from Impressionism to Art Nouveau and modern art. Hokusai's is the only artwork to become an emoji... 🌊 and the logo for Quicksilver. So I'm just one of hundreds and possibly thousands of artists to yet again claim inspiration from him. So aside from being just a great artist, what is it about Hokusai that is so special to me personally?

My intention here isn't to write a full hagiography of Hokusai - you can read Wikipedia for the facts of his life etc - rather my aim here to explain my relationship with this artist, because my introduction to Asian art began with Japanese art, and specifically the art of Hokusai in my early teens. No other artist has quite so drastically changed the direction of my life. I didn't grow up in Japan, or have some connection with this distant culture. Yet after becoming acquainted to Hokusai's work, by some mysterious force my first job was working as an intern in the Japanese Gallery in London, and then as an Asian Art specialist at Bonhams auction house, and now as an artist too. Hokusai seems to have been with me all the way.

At the recent exhibition 'Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything', 2020

I'm going to be brave and show some of my very early work from GCSE art in secondary school, because it shows already how important Hokusai was for me. Like many who love drawing and art from an early age, I began by just copying pictures I liked, such as the one below.

Hokusai, Night and Day Album, 'Raising a Banner' circa 1817, MFA Boston

Edward Luper aged 14 copying Hokusai for GCSE project

Also, as a Tsunami survivor from 2004 (I wrote about it here), the 'Great Wave' print held a special significance for me. The great wave doesn't show a tsunami technically, but it is still in my opinion, one of the greatest representations of the raw power of nature - specifically the sea. Only when I see Hokusai's design of the wave, am I reminded of my own human frailty, mortality, and insignificance against the forces of nature.

Katsushika Hokusai, 'The Great Wave', circa 1830, British Museum, London

I suppose what makes Hokusai special to me is not just his art work, but the qualities that made him a great artist. I'm going to list a few traits of Hokusai that I admire most. Of course, I never met or knew Hokusai; I have only some biographical details and his work which I believe exhibit some of these traits:

1) Stubbornness

If you were collaborating with Hokusai as a publisher, printer or woodblock carver, he could prove exceedingly difficult to handle. He was a perfectionist that had a vision and refused to tolerate any alterations to his work. This can be most clearly seen in his letters to publishers that narrate how noses or eyes should be carved. At the time, carvers were the ones to make little changes or details according to fashion. For example, the print designer might make a drawing of a lady wearing a kimono and put some cross-hatch or star-pattern for the kimono design, but the carver would actually carve a proper pattern based on the latest fashions.

Kitagawa Utamaro, 'Three Beauties of the Present Day', c.1793, MFA, Boston

Ukiyo-e prints and depiction of faces in particular can sometimes be formulaic - just look at Utamaro's designs of women (they all look the same except for a slight difference in the curve of a nose here and there). Sometimes carvers would take liberties and change Hokusai's faces to fit with current trends. Hokusai's faces are unique in depicting a certain rusticity - note the snub noses and claw-like hands and toes. But unlike Hiroshige who was perhaps too agreeable, junior, or less stringent with carvers taking liberties such as this, Hokusai was strict. In his Hokusai's letter to a publisher he wrote:

"At the end of this letter I’ve set down some things I’d like the carvers to deal with. Eyes - carve them without the lower eyelid. Mind that the carvers don’t carve the lower eyelids with the point of their knife. Noses - carve like these two examples. Ordinary carvers carve noses in Utagawa’s manner. Noses like this are executed in the wrong painting style, so in my case do not carve that way, but like this. These types are in fashion but I don’t like them at all ...As my life, at this moment, is not public, I will not give you my address here."

Hokusai's letter to his publisher

Hokusai is irritably telling off his publisher. One can imagine the publisher reading this letter and rolling his eyes with frustration. This stubbornness is important for artists though. They stick to their guns, even against trends and fashion.

2) Humour

Hokusai Manga, 'Pulling Faces', early 19th century

Humour, with its silliness, can actually be quite a hard thing to achieve in the serious business of art. You not only have to be witty, but it takes a certain confidence that you can convey a joke to an anonymous viewer across time and space. Some artists have to think about their public reputation and strive to appear serious. Few would be brave enough to even think of depicting a person defecating and publish it; some artists just aren't funny; and sometimes jokes just don't translate well, but Hokusai captures humour with ease. I suppose like some comedians, you either have it or you don't.

Hokusai, 'Samurai in a latrine' from Hokusai Manga, c.1834, Welcome Collection, London

Some biographies of Hokusai depict a dour man (we have already seen how he could be cantankerous to his publisher above). It was said that if someone in the street greeted him, he would ignore them completely and carry on walking. Perhaps he was in his own world? Or perhaps this was just biographical convention to show how eccentric and non-conforming he was?

Nevertheless, his work is full of humour and shows an artist who was constantly seeing the funny side of the world around him. A world full of animals that look like humans, and humans that behave like animals; of humorous ghosts and demons; and the weirdness of human behaviour in general.

For many years this was one reason why his work was considered too 'plebeian'. His toilet humour, along with other Edo period masterpieces such as the 'Fart Competition' scroll and essays by Hiraga Gennai (1728-1780) 'On Farting', meant that in the eyes of Japanologists, the entire Edo period was relegated to the rubbish bin of Japanese history and culture: especially when compared with the elegance of the Heian period. Fortunately nowadays, art historians have lightened up a bit.

3) Dedication

Hokusai, Ink drawing of a lion

Hokusai Manga, 'painting with hands, mouth and feet'

In his later years, Hokusai painted an auspicious shishi lion every day, to ward off evil spirits. He may have been superstitious but the practice shows outstanding dedication. Most artists (and I include myself in this) struggle to do a drawing a day for Inktober! Indeed, Hokusai called himself the 'Old man mad about painting' (Gakyo rojin manji 画狂老人卍). He was extremely prodigious and produced thousands of drawings, paintings and prints. He was a man obsessed with drawing and painting until his dying breath. At the age of 90, he still wished he had more time to draw:

'If heaven would grant me ten more years of life...or even five more years, perhaps, I could become a true artist'

4) Erudition and Curiosity

Some might forget that Hokusai began as a book-lender, lending out books door to door as a child. This must have allowed him a surprisingly good education because Hokusai seems to have been exceedingly well acquainted with Classical Japanese and Chinese poetry and literature to a degree above most of his contemporaries.

Hokusai, 'Map of China' before the age of Google maps

His 'Picture Book of Everything', recently exhibited at the British Museum, was intended as a visual Wikipedia of the time. It required intimate understanding of the broad-range of topics he was depicting. If you were told by a publisher to depict an obscure moment from Chinese history - Lord Zheng of Wei holding a party - for example, how would you go about it today!? I did a doctorate in Chinese literature (Ming dynasty poetry specifically) and couldn't even find this story online, let alone try to imagine it and draw it.

Hokusai, 'Virudhaka struck by lightning', British Museum, London

Hokusai was erudite and had to be. He was often invited to poetry parties and gatherings where he would design privately commissioned surimono or little 'printed things' for participants, illustrating the poems they had written. It required not just a poetic sensibility but a wide knowledge of Japanese and Chinese poetry to make clever allusions, rebuses and puns.

Hokusai, 'Chinese Boys Watching Tigers Cross a River', 1806, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale

The above surimono print was done for just such a poetry gathering. It narrates a Chinese story (hence the Chinese boys), about a tiger and three cubs trying to cross a river. However, the mother cannot leave the naughty cub with the other two cubs, otherwise it will attack them. The puzzle is explained by Timothy Clark at the British Museum in a YouTube video here. It shows that Hokusai had a comprehensive knowledge of stories and literature from China.

The Hokusai Manga, itself an encyclopaedic work, apparently began when Hokusai was invited to a party in Nagoya, and participants would yell out a subject or topic which Hokusai would draw - a kind of artistic circus trick. it grew into the Manga, that incorporates drawings of the natural world, human world, scenes from history and myth etc, and shows an incredibly broad and enquiring mind.

Here we can see studies of Western style perspective and beneath that, drawings of peoples from Java
Section of the Hokusai Manga

His curiosity never left him and he was forever learning and seeking inspiration and ideas from the furthest boundaries of human knowledge available to him at that time. In his day, when Japan was largely cut off from the world, the Dutch, trading in Nagasaki were the only link to faraway Europe. Hokusai drew much inspiration from Dutch-imported European etchings and studied Western single-point perspective and shading, incorporating these elements into his own work. In the annual Dutch East India company (VOC) trip to Edo, to pay tribute to the Shogun, Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866) took the opportunity to commission Hokusai to paint scenes for him of Japanese life. The result was a hybrid style of Japanese subject matter painted on ‘Dutch paper’ with western perspective and shading techniques - utterly revolutionary for its time in Japan. Hokusai was an artist of great daring and restless experimentation.

Hokusai, 'Year-end accounts', 1824–1826. National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden.

He was fascinated by new technologies and discoveries which can be seen in his depiction of telescopes, microscopes, karakuri automatons, machines, guns, and illustrations of animals based on European studies.

Hokusai, 'Microscope and Butterfly'

I could go on and on, but this blog would be too long. I would add one more quality however, that I think is rare and important among artists.

5) Humility

Hokusai was famous and well known within his own lifetime and although he was difficult and demanding: sometimes rude and irritable; he was never pompous or self-important.

Compared with how later artists have sometimes imagined him: as an emotionally distant father (see the anime Miss Hokusai; which by the way doesn't mention how Hokusai lost his house paying for his grandson's debts), or an angry sex maniac (see Shotaro Ishinomori's manga Hokusai), these images don't match with how Hokusai saw himself.

The few self-portraits he does (very few, compared to say Rembrandt), show a very humble but contented man. He depicts himself sometimes as a fisherman, or a little cartoon-like figure bowing down with his face hidden, or a madman, or as an excited old man gesticulating at some drawings he has done and submitted to a publisher. He was always happiest when he was drawing and he was not particularly interested in profit. All artists can learn from him still. He wrote in a poem:

"At the year's end,
Those obsessed with profit
are busy lions, but I,
who have discarded greed,
am a happy lion.'

I hope to be a happy lion too.

Hokusai, self-portrait

Hokusai, self-portrait

Hokusai, self-portrait



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