Wednesday 14 June 2017

Life begins at 60: Hokusai at the British Museum by Lesley Downer

In pre-modern Japan the belief was that we start a whole new lifecycle at the age of 60. The Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum focuses on the celebrated artist’s work after this seminal age. Katsushika Hokusai (1760 - 1849) was in his early seventies when he created his iconic Great Wave and he looked forward to making more and more progress as he got older.
The Great Wave at Kanagawa by Hokusai 

He wrote, ‘Until the age of 70, nothing I drew was worthy of notice. ... When I reach 80 years I hope to have made increasing progress, and at 90 to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at 100 years I will have achieved a divine state in my art and at 110 every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.’

The exhibition begins with a few pictures he did as a mere youngster, before the age of sixty, which are of course spectacular. One of these brilliantly-brushed works depicts a pop-eyed dragon with long whiskers like a gargantuan shrimp, bursting through clouds clutching a koto - a Japanese zither - in its long curved claws.

Dragon by Hokusai 1798
In the 1820s, when Hokusai was in his sixties, he was commissioned to create some prints by the Dutch East India Company, the only westerners allowed in Japan at the time. This brought him into contact with western art with its intriguing use of perspective. Traditionally in Chinese and Japanese art distant objects like mountains were painted at the top of the picture. Hokusai began to play with perspective in his own work, making distant objects smaller, depicting Fuji seen through the curve of the Great Wave, for example, or rather humorously through a barrelmaker’s hoop. Depicting the mighty mountain as a small cone is the running gag of his Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji, of which The Great Wave is one.

The Dutch also brought over the fabulous new paint colour, Prussian blue, which Hokusai used to dramatic effect in the Great Wave.

Fisherman rinsing rice for his morning meal -
 from Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji
These Hokusai prints are the very first to spring from the meeting of eastern and western traditions. The influence soon began to flow the other way as well. Ten years after Hokusai’s death, in 1859, Japan opened to the west. The British Museum bought its first Hokusai in 1860. In 1871 Claude Monet was on his first trip to Holland, in a shop in Amsterdam, haggling over a piece of Delft porcelain. ‘Suddenly I saw a dish filled with images below on a shelf,’ he wrote. ‘Japanese woodblocks!’ The merchant, unaware of their value, threw them in as a job lot with the jar. By the end of his life Monet had collected 231 woodblock prints and they much influenced his work. Many western artists were hugely influenced by Japanese art - the emphasis on line, on design, the extraordinary perspectives - including Van Gogh who in 1888 wrote, ‘All my work is based to some extent on Japanese art.’ To his brother Theo he wrote of the Great Wave, ‘These waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it.’
Debussy's La Mer

Hokusai’s prints are art for the people. The Great Wave cost the same as a couple of bowls of noodles. While the rich beautified their alcoves with incredibly expensive hanging scrolls, Hokusai made long narrow woodblock prints which were much cheaper, so ordinary folk could have a beautiful image in their alcove too.

The focus of the British Museum exhibition is the Great Wave but there’s much more than that, fabulous prints displaying Hokusai’s crisp, sharp brush strokes which, having studied Japanese ink painting myself, I am in awe of. There are many examples of his incredible imagination and sense of humour, his quirky way of looking at the world, wonderful scenes of everyday life - not the life of samurai but of the humble workers who surrounded Hokusai and were a part of his world.

In his later years Hokusai lived with his daughter Oi who was a fine artist in her own right. She may well have designed some of the prints that are signed with Hokusai’s name. Obviously they’d go for far more if they were signed with the master’s name, not hers. There are works signed by her in the exhibition, portraying the courtesans of the pleasure quarters, for example, through a woman’s eyes.
Dragon rising above Mount Fuji
day of the dragon 1849

In the end Hokusai didn’t live quite as long as he’d hoped. When he died at the age of 89, he left a death poem:

‘Maybe I’ll unwind
by roaming the summer fields
as a will o’ the wisp.’

His last picture was of a dragon soaring above Mount Fuji, as his spirit soared off into eternity.

Lesley Downer's latest novel, The Shogun's Queen, is set in Hokusai's Japan and comes out in paperback on July 27th. For more see her website,


Carolyn Hughes said...

Fascinating post, Lesley. Thank you. The Hokusai exhibition is definitely on my to-see list for a London trip this summer.

Ann Turnbull said...

Wonderful! Thank you for this post, Lesley. I too hope to get to London to see the exhibition.

Sue Purkiss said...


Miranda Miller said...

This is fascinating, Lesley. I'm going to see the exhibition tomorrow. I look forward to meeting you next week.