Arguably one of Japan’s greatest artists, Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849) was an ukiyo-e painter and printmaker of the Edo period. Born in Edo (now Tokyo), Hokusai is best-known as author of the woodblock print series “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (1831)” which includes the iconic and internationally recognized print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, created during the 1820s. Hokusai created the “Thirty-Six Views” both as a response to domestic travel boom and as part of a personal obsession with Mount Fuji.
It was this series, especially The Great Wave and Fuji in Clear Weather prints, which secured Hokukai’s fame both within Japan and overseas. As historian Richard Lane concludes, “Indeed, if there is one work that made Hokusai’s name, both in Japan and abroad, it must be this monumental print-series…”.
Hokusai’s obsession for Mount Fuji
Hokusai’s choice of nom d’artiste as well as frequent depiction of Mt Fuji, stem from his religious beliefs. Hokusai was a member of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism. For Nichiren followers, the North Star is associated with the deity Myoken (妙見菩薩). The name of Hokusai means “North Studio (room),” (北斎), an abbreviation of Hokushinsai (北辰祭) or “North Star Studio.”
Mount Fuji has traditionally been linked with eternal life. This belief can be traced to the *“The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (Taketori monogatari)”, where a goddess deposits the elixir of life on the peak. Henry Smith, a professor at Colombia University, expounds, “Thus from an early time, Mt. Fuji was seen as the source of secret immortality, a tradition that was at the heart of Hokusai’s own obsession with the mountain.”
* In the last scene of the “Taketori monogatari”, – when the Kaguya Princess returns to the moon, she leaves an elixir of immortality for the elderly Emperor. Seeking out the Princess the Emperor journeys to the closest heavenly point, Mount Fuji’s summit, where he burns the elixir in the hope of her return, and in doing so Mount Fuji is said to have become the mountain of “immortality”.
Hokusai left a lasting impression
Without the Japanese printmaker Hokusai, French Impressionism might never have happened! After Hokusai’s death in 1849 at the ripe old age of 89 years his prints found their way to the West. During his lifetime Japan was still subject to the isolation of sakoku. By Shogun decree during the Edo period (1603 – 1867) Japan was isolated from much of the rest of the world. Contact with Europeans was severely limited to a small Dutch enclave in Nagasaki called Dejima.
However this changed dramatically with the Meiji Restoration in 1868. With the opening of Japan to foreign trade, an influx of Western ideas and culture entered Japan, and a similar export of Japanese art and culture began to Europe and America. Of particular note was of ukiyo-e woodcut prints that were produced in large volume and found their way across the seas to the West
To western observers the work of the Edo period epitomized the Japanese tradition. Artists such as Manet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Monet and van Gogh were all heavily influenced by this Japanese art. Ukiyo-e with its lack of perspective, clean lines, flat areas of colour and fleeting human gestures influenced many Western artists. Impressionism, Art Nouveau and Modernism all drew inspiration from traditional Japanese art. It is commonly believed that without such influence Impressionism, as we know it would not have existed. The work of artists such as Hokusai and Utamaro were to have a profound and lasting affect upon Western art.
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Next week I will be talking about the best vantage points for Fuji-san.