“Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave” at the British Museum is a tribute to the vitality of old age. The exhibition covers the artistic achievements of the last thirty years of the great Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s life. Hokusai, who was ninety years old and still prolific when he died in 1849, produced in his final year the hanging silk scroll Dragon Rising above Mt Fuji, signing it “Brush of Manji, old man of ninety born in the dragon year of Hōreki 10, [1760].” In the ink picture, a large dragon climbs into the sky within a curling band of rising dark smoke that emanates from behind the pure white cone of Mount Fuji in winter. The band of smoke twists back around the frozen landscape at the base of the mountain. In Japanese visual culture, an ascending dragon signified both success and aspiration—Hokusai, convinced that he improved with age, aspired to become a centenarian and achieve perfection in his art at that pinnacle.

Yet the most striking achievement of his last year was Li Bo admiring a waterfall (1849), painted on a silk scroll and signed “Old man crazy to paint, aged ninety,” a true precursor of abstract modernity. The waterfall is a single unbroken vertical wall with the admiring Li Bo, the Tang dynasty Chinese poet’s conical hat looking like no more than a tiny mushroom at its base. We can see how much Hokusai had progressed in the last decades of his life if we compare this one with his earlier woodblock of Poet Li Bo (1833–1834). Yet even in this earlier work, a stylized waterfall in vertical parallel streams of blue and white, interrupted by a protruding rock from which grows a Japanese tree, takes up an entire half of the scroll. Li Bo stands precariously and unsteadily close to the edge of another rock, gazing in rapture at the waterfall, his head full of poems (and perhaps alcohol). Two small, young servants prop him up and hold him back, lest his total aesthetic absorption should lead to a sudden tumble and a wet death. Looking at the stressed youngsters, one hopes that they will not unkindly leave the sage; they did not and thus Li Bo’s poems about the waterfall survived. They were much prized in a Japan where the cultivated citizens of the capital read and appreciated classical Chinese poetry with the same ease and familiarity that their English counterparts brought to Latin.

Katsushika Hokusai, Under the wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave), 1831, Color woodblock, British Museum

Two years before his death, Hokusai produced two contrasting scrolls of ink and color on paper, Monk Nichiren and the Seven Headed Dragon Deity (1847) and Zhuang Zhou Dreaming of Butterflies (1847). The scrolls reveal two great influences on Hokusai: namely, his devotion to Nichiren Buddhism—whose sutras he would chant while walking about the streets of Japan’s huge capital city Edo (now Tokyo)—and his respect for the artistic culture of ancient China. In Monk Nichiren, the titular figure sits on a high rock reading from a sutra roll while a dragon deity hovers above within a black storm cloud. At the very center, the holy monk almost floats, his serene oval face and bright red robe alone caught in the light. The pure white of his scroll gleams in contrast with the dirty white of the deliberately spattered sky behind him. Below him we can see nothing but the huddled heads of his congregation as they crouch together, crushed by awe. This imaginative portrayal of a scene from 1277 AD is an expression of Hokusai’s devotion to Nichiren Buddhism, a distinctively Japanese sect which sought to grapple directly with the problems of this world rather than to follow the traditional Buddhist path of withdrawing from the physical universe of suffering by relinquishing desire.

Whereas the scroll of the preaching monk is crowded with detail, Hokusai allows the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou to occupy only a small part of the long paper scroll that bears his name. Above him is a long empty space with just a hint of the butterflies about which the sage is dreaming—indeed dreaming that he too is a butterfly. Half waking, the philosopher sits impassively on his mat in reverie, wondering whether perhaps it is he who is just part of the dream of a butterfly. The real or possibly imagined butterflies have been drawn high above him and then but faintly.

Hokusai’s woodblock Under the Wave off Kanagawa (The GreatWave) (1831) well deserves its iconic status, even though Hokusai was a mere seventy-two when he produced it. In it, a deep Prussian blue wave curves high above two vulnerable small boats. The foam of its breaking white crest grasps at them likes claws. Yet between the alarming waves we can see in the distance the sacred steadfast summit of Mount Fuji, an eternal mighty fortress beyond the immediate world of swirling uncertainty. Hokusai’s use of Western-style perspective gives a striking degree of depth and bulk to this masterpiece.

Hokusai was esteemed in Japan for his Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, a series of prints that show the mountain’s conical form in many seasons and colors. Particularly well known is his Clear Day with a Southern Breeze (Red Fuji) (1831), which shows the mountain in late summer with little snow, its black cinders caught in the pink light of the early morning. Here, Fuji becomes a block of color caught between the green forests below and a blue, clouded sky.

The Great Wave and his Fujis are Hokusai’s best-known works, but there is so much else in this exhibition: his depictions of birds and animals, flowers and trees, imagined landscapes and scenes from everyday life. Hokusai was an artist of infinite variety. The only items missing are his vivid and explicit erotic woodblock prints known in Japanese as Shunga, or “spring pictures.” Perhaps in the winter of his life his attraction to this subject was ebbing even though his art flourished. In any case, erotic scenes taken from Hokusai’s book Pine Seedlings onthe First Rat Day (Old Time Sophisticates of the Club of Delightful Skills) (1814) had been the star items on display in a 2013 exhibition at the British Museum, Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art.

Katsushika Hokusai, Sazai Hall, Five Hundred Arhat Temple, 1832, Color woodblock, British Museum

There is often a degree of humor in Hokusai’s work, touches of which have already been noted. We can see it in Ejiri, Suruga Province (1831), which presents Mount Fuji in silhouette, reduced to a single line interrupted by two slim trees. On the ground, however, a high wind not only pulls leaves off the trees but lifts and scatters the papers and kasa hats of travellers struggling along a remote path. Perhaps too there is just a hint of humor in Sazai Hall, Five Hundred Arhat Temple (1832). Well-dressed city dwellers lean awkwardly against the rail of the temple’s viewing platform so that they can admire a tiny Mount Fuji on the horizon. Flopped down on the floor behind and to the side of them are two heavily laden and exhausted pilgrims on a journey, glad to let down the massive back packs that they have just finished carrying up the steep stairs of the temple. One of them peers round to catch a glimpse of Fuji through the rails, but the other looks away blankly and contemplates the hard wooden floor onto which they have both collapsed.

Hokusai’s work came to the attention of European artists in the early 1860s after Japan opened its ports to international trade. His work had a great impact on the emerging impressionists escaping from European academic tradition. But the isolation of Japan had never been complete. Traders from the Dutch East India Company had always clung on there—the red beards, extensive body hair, strange clothes, and hats of these burly Batavians greatly fascinated and amused Japanese artists. Hokusai is said to have learned new ideas about perspective from the Dutch engravings merchants imported, and both he and his talented daughter Katsushika Ōi provided Japanese genre paintings for Dutch officials. What he had learned from the Dutch was amply repaid, as Hokusai was to inspire the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh who declared “all my work is based to some extent on Japanese art.” This time, Eastern ideas about perspective had moved westwards.

The British Museum has produced a truly insightful tribute to the greatest of Japanese artists.

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