Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 7, 2024
Sarah E. Thompson Hokusai Inspiration and Influence Exh. cat. Boston: MFA Publications, 2023. 166 pp.; 83 color ills. $29.95 (9780878468904)
Boston Museum of Fine Arts, March 26–July 16, 2023 Seattle Art Museum October 19, 2023–January 21, 2024

Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence is a sprawling, comprehensive look at Katsushika Hokusai’s career that probes beyond his famous wave. The exhibit makes a sustained argument that his artistic impact on Japanese and global art far exceeds any single image or print series. It builds context by combining Hokusai’s art with works by his master and students, his rivals and imitators, and modern Japanese and non-Japanese artists. However, the size and organization of the exhibit sometimes obscure the most salient arguments in favor of more deeply exploring Hokusai’s massive impact on Edo-era art and beyond. Hokusai is undoubtedly best known in the West for his print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, often simply shortened to The Great Wave or even just Hokusais Wave. However, limiting Hokusai to one image suppresses the incredible variety and output of his art. Instead, in Hokusai, one comes face-to-face with this polyglot of an artist, who executed a dizzying variety of artistic works from screens to calendars, and from woodblocks to illustrated European-bound books. He told and illustrated ghost stories, practiced linear one-point perspective, and nearly single-handedly invented the landscape genre within woodblock prints.

The exhibition is organized both by chronology and by thematic influence, which becomes both a strength and a weakness. Its wide breadth gives a strong account of Hokusai’s varied output and prodigious influence on subsequent artists. However, sometimes the specific threads of thought that bind together the exhibition fray and snap, and it becomes less clear who or what is being influenced by what. Ultimately, the exhibition continues a recent trend in art history to delve deeper into the historical significance of Edo-era print culture on modern and contemporary art. Hokusai makes a strong case to continue considering ukiyo-e as fine art as opposed to craft, and an important medium in the development of Japanese art.

The first image one comes face-to-face with in the exhibit is not The Great Wave, but instead South Wind, Clear Sky, also commonly known as Red Fuji. Next to it, contemporary Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara riffs on the same image, taking the iconic shape of Fuji, reducing it to a flat block of white, and adding a sketched image of a young girl skiing down the mountain. Despite reducing Hokusai’s composition down to only its shapes, the iconic parabolic slope of the mountain and clouds like so many torn pieces of paper, are enough to immediately evoke the Edo-era master. Yet this reduction does not remove all the associations with the woodblock masterpiece; instead, it shows that Hokusai’s prints seem to survive and thrive in any age and culture. The juxtaposition of Hokusai with a contemporary reinterpretation becomes a recurring theme in the exhibit, illustrating his profound influence on the artists that would follow.

The rest of the first room sustains this unconventional opening, displaying painted works by Hokusai and his teacher, rather than the woodblocks and illustrated books for which Hokusai is best known. Curator Sarah E. Thompson no doubt intended this to further shift our attention from his images of the floating world to his “higher” artistic pursuits.

Throughout the exhibition, Thompson establishes that in Hokusai’s time, woodblock prints were considered middle-class art; painting on silk or paper screens merited a higher standing in the artistic hierarchy. Ukiyo-e prints, or “images of the floating world,” focused on the idea of the impermanence of life, and encouraged indulging in pleasure and frivolity. During Hokusai’s early career, acceptable subjects for ukiyo-e prints included kabuki theater and geisha courtesans. By contrast, images of nature found favor with the ruling samurai elite and court nobles, and with those rich merchants who wished to emulate them.

Thus, it is notable that the first large images the exhibit presents are painted silk and folding screens of fashionable men and women enjoying a springtime fête. This illustrates that while Hokusai found fame through ukiyo-e prints for the non-samurai classes, he received training in the fine arts as well. Thompson connects these nature scenes to an early woodblock print by Hokusai entitled The Story of Minamoto no Yoshitsune and Jōruri-himi. A modern take on a classic romance, the scene takes place half inside and half outside. For the interior shots, Hokusai applies linear one-point perspective, though not to the exterior. Perspective had come to be one of the defining features of Western European art and came to Japan via Dutch traders in the city of Nagasaki, where it was employed as a visual gimmick, or a pleasing, if insubstantial trompe l’œil. This combination of traditional Japanese modes of depiction used for nature, and more imported Western modes of depiction for the interior suggest that even from a young age, Hokusai was willing to experiment and push mediums beyond their normal confines.

In the next room, Thompson has gathered an expansive collection of surimono prints by Hokusai and his students, as well as several of Hokusai’s illustrated books, or manga. Surimono prints, in contrast to mass-produced ukiyo-e prints, are generally smaller, more detailed, and produced in extremely small quantities for a single patron to share with guests. Amateur poetry societies would often trade surimono prints at New Year’s celebrations. The exhibition explains that Hokusai relied on these commissions for financial stability. His desire for smaller, more limited releases, as well as his prodigious painting output, perhaps further points to his desire to be considered a fine artist, as opposed to an artisan. 

It is only at the halfway point that one comes face to face with the iconic Hokusai’s Wave which the artist’s career is so often reduced to. Here, Thompson places it in conversation with contemporary images and photographs, and climate change. And while it is interesting to see what modern artists have come to associate with the wave, it does separate the print from its historical context.

The Great Wave is part of a series of prints entitled 36 Views of Fuji, produced between 1830 and 1832. The series is a watershed moment for woodblock printing by establishing landscape as an economically viable subject for prints, as well as for its inclusion of European-style perspective and imported European blue pigment. The specific shade of blue that forms the wave is Prussian blue, a chemically synthesized pigment that is far bolder than traditional Japanese indigo. A Japanese commoner purchasing a print from this series would have immediately recognized the “otherness” of Hokusai’s blue. However, in order to learn about this phenomenon, one must visit a separate room where six other prints, all made predominantly with Prussian blue hang together. Perhaps this is a part of the exhibit’s attempt to expand Hokusai beyond the image of the wave, but it feels like a missed opportunity to explain how this image may have been consumed in its original context.

These other “blue prints,” clustered together in an adjoining space, discuss that prior to the massive commercial success of the 36 Views series, landscapes were not seen as a major genre of ukiyo-e prints. Afterward, however, images of meishō, or famous places, came to a place of preeminence in printing. One of Hokusai’s rivals, Utawaga Hiroshige, credited Hokusai with allowing a new generation of artists the freedom to depict things outside popular urban culture. Hiroshige even went as far as to cite Hokusai as the inspiration for several prints. Both Hokusai and Hiroshige’s landscapes have come to be some of the most iconic images of their age and medium, and yet landscape was hardly accepted as a print genre prior to Hokusai.

Unfortunately, conversations about the significance of the series fade into the background of the exhibition. To return to The Great Wave, not only does the print utilize imported European blue pigments, its perspective, of looking towards the shore from the sea surrounding Japan, places the viewer of the work in the position of a foreigner. As Catherine Guth argues in “Hokusai’s Great Waves in Nineteenth-Century Japanese Visual Culture” (2011), at this point in Japanese history, ocean-going vessels were strictly prohibited. The ship under the wave is a fishing boat incapable of traveling far from shore, thus the perspective of the viewer is even further out to sea that could only have been of foreign design. The Great Wave is, inherently, an image about foreigners. It utilizes European perspective to show Fuji’s distance from the viewer, Prussian blue pigment, and utilizes a horizontal structure uncommon in Japanese prints. Most critically, it places the viewer of the work in the unusual position of looking “into” Japan. However, the loose structure of the exhibition and the huge quantity of materials muddies this important point about how Hokusai’s works may have been consumed in their own time.

By its very existence, Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence implies there are waters deeper than Hokusai’s Prussian blue waves to delve into. In this regard, the exhibition excels by gathering a diverse collection of artistic mediums, both created by Hokusai, his students, his rivals, his imitators, and his emulators, past and present. It is also perhaps a continued defense of Hokusai, the fine artist. Woodblocks, by virtue of their quantity, and mechanized production, have historically been dismissed as commercial art without theoretical grounding that challenges the status quo. Here too, the exhibition makes a strong case that Hokusai himself tried to skirt the edges of market competition by continually incorporating new ideas into all his works. Ultimately, the show joins the British Museum’s Hokusai: Beyond the Wave and Osaka’s Beyond Fuji exhibitions in pushing for a deeper, more holistic study of Katsushika Hokusai.

Jamie Sullivan
University of Washington