Why to love Hokusai

The Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) is usually recognized for a single image—Great Wave Off the Coast of Kanagawa, which is an icon in the global art world. When we recognize the work, it is as if the unpredictability of the sea holds our attention when a mighty wave breaks against the beach. We are lucky, since The National Museum of Asian Art has had a commitment to build its Hokusai collection. The institution is now showing an exhibition Hokusai: Mad About Painting in the museum’s Freer Gallery of Art.

In commemoration of the centennial of Charles Lang Freer’s death in 1919, the Freer Gallery presents an exploration of the prolific career of the artist Katsushika Hokusai. Freer himself recognized the richness of the artist’s works assembling the world’s largest collection of Hokusai’s paintings, sketches, and drawings.

Like the Great Wave, many of Hokusai’s paintings convey his interest in the every-chancing ocean in motion, including its fishermen and sea creatures. The artist created thousands of works throughout his long life. He worked mainly in Edo (modern Tokyo) period with a proximity to the Pacific Ocean.

Above on the left, we see one of the wave paintings Breaking Waves (Edo period, 1847), created by Hokusai. It is apparent how the rough curving motion really brings the sea to life. The artist was able to masterfully capture the ocean’s free spirit making it the focus of his works. On the right, another Japanese artist of Edo period, Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) depicts Edo landspaces in his work consisting of six panels. A detail of his work Famous Sites of Edo, spreads in the screens in which each panel has a separate painting that is mounted to one panel of the screen. The coastline and sea are visible through these panels illustrating landscapes. Interestingly, during the life of the two artists, by the early nineteenth century, the city of Edo had grown to a metropolis with a population of more than one million.

Hokusai, Egret on a Bridge Post
Edo period, ca. 1801-1802
Ink and color on paper
H x W (image): 85.8 × 25.5 cm (33 3/4 × 10 1/16 in)
Gift of Charles Lang Freer
Freer Gallery of Art

Hokusai showed interest in nature through many of his works. One of them, Egret on a Bridge Post, shows a white egret at night with moonlight illuminating the bird’s pale form. He illustrated the bird on top of a bridge post. Egrets are still seen in Japan’s rivers looking for food.

The works in the exhibition, including Hokusai’s humorous manga about the everyday life, activities and faces of Japan, shows the vastness and the creative mind of an artist, who thought he might achieve a true mastery in painting, if he lived to the age of 110.

During his eighties, Hokusai painted several mythical creatures known as dragons. The ultimate interest for him might have been in the character’s energy as the artist himself was ageing.

One of these works, Dragon and Clouds (Edo period, 1844), was painted when he was at the age of eighty-five. The painting shows energy and vibrancy in the form of mighty mythical creature. The work is an important addition into documenting Hokusai’s life and art.

Hokusai, Dragon and clouds
Edo period, 1760-1849
Ink on paper
H x W (image): 88.2 x 35.6 cm (34 3/4 x 14 in)
Gift of Charles Lang Freer
Freer Gallery of Art

Visit and explore more about the exhibition: Hokusai: Mad About Painting

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