Review: Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave, British Museum

Review: Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave, British Museum

It is monstrous. Against a parchment-grey sky, its white talons and navy guts promise to shred and swallow the wooden fishing boats below. Japan’s grandest mountain, Fuji, dwindles to a barnacle against its bulk.

Katsushika Hokusai’s (1760–1849) The Great Wave, hanging at the very heart of the British Museum’s latest exhibition, is perhaps Japan’s most familiar artwork. iPhone wallpapers, T-shirts, dog-eared posters in student halls, and, of course, the Pink Floyd embossed drum kit (currently on display at the Mortal Remains exhibition at the V&A) all testify to its celebrity. We know Hokusai’s woodcut so well that we no longer stop to consider its magnificence.

But Hokusai: Beyond the Great wave casts a refreshing new light onto the prodigiously productive last thirty years of Hokusai’s life. Quite clearly, he is so much more than just water and waves.

Concentrating on his output between 1820 and 1849, the exhibition highlights Hokusai’s personal beliefs and his spiritual and artistic quest for sublimation. A display of major paintings, drawings, woodblock prints and manuscript books, drawn predominantly from the British Museum’s own collections, illustrate the artist’s fascination with the half-imagined in his later years.

One Hundred Ghost Tales, c.1833, sums up Hokusai’s penchant for the etherial in a series of medium-sized woodblock prints. Inspired by the popular Japanese custom of telling ghost stories by candlelight on hot summer nights, the colour woodblocks are as disturbing as they are intriguing. The highlight piece depicts the ghost of Kohada Koheiji creeping up on his sleeping wife, who drowned him to elope with her lover. His grimace, claw-like talons and bulging blood-shot eyes are just short of terrifying.

Painter and print-maker Hokusai has contributed to Japan’s visual language perhaps more than any other artist. His landscapes, bestiaries, dreamscapes and wave imagery on display bring to life an incredibly vivid world, half-observed. For Hokusai and his contemporaries the perceived connected invisibly with a parallel world of powerful ‘unseen’ force: vengeful spirits, ghosts and imps was never far away.

The exhibition makes clear that Hokusai was, above all, a commercial artist. During his lifetime, he sold his work by the bucket-load — more than 8000 impressions of The Great Wave were sold, for the price of little more than a double-helping of noodles. But in 1859, after more than 200 years of relative isolation, Japan opened its borders. Hokusai’s prints suddenly flooded European shores. Vincent van Gogh is said to have been a big fan. Indeed, Japonisme, the European appropriation of Japanese decorative motifs and symbols in art, became the height of fashion and epitome of luxury nineteenth-century artistic taste.

But all this is explained in one small wall panel in the final room. Given London is staging an exhibition on Hokusai and his woodblock prints, a little more detail on the man, his influcene in the West and the traditional process of woodblock printing itself, would have been much appreciated. Unless you happened to have studied the Edo period at great length, nineteenth-century Japanese art, or are an out and out Japanophile, this traditional technical process, to which he dedicated his life’s work, may be a mystery to you — it definitely was to me.

But criticism aside, the exhibition is lovingly curated and the display opens up a path of plentiful discovery. Hokusai’s mastery of his craft is undeniable and his intricately painted woodblock prints are quite beautiful. If you’re after an intellectual challenge, this is the pick of the bunch.

by Lucy Scovell

Originally published at