Katsushika Hokusai and his Work10/04/2019
It is finally time to introduce a new artist. “New Artist” if you want, it’s probably the most famous Japanese artist in the world. His work has amazed millions of people since the 19th century. European artistic currents have been widely influenced by him. His paintings take part of the imagination and transport you to incredible worlds. Some of his work is so well known that describing it in a few words is easy. If I just tell you: a wave and Mount Fuji, I am sure that 80% of you have already guessed. And again, 80% is below the truth. Even if I surely took the simplest example you would understand where I am getting at. Yes dear friend, today we are going to talk about Katsushika Hokusai: the “The Fool of Drawing” (gakyôjin) and creator of the Great Wave Off Kanagawa painting.
Who was Katsushika Hokusai?
The life of Katsushika Hokusai
Birth and beginnings
Katsushika Hokusai is born in October 1760 in Edo (present-day Tokyo). He is adopted around the age of three or four by his uncle Nakajima who is a mirror manufacturer for the shogun’s court. Hokusai, then known as Tokitaro, shows his aptitude for drawing and curiosity for painting. After an internship in a woodcutting studio between 1773 and 1774, he integrates the studio of Master Katsukawa Shunsho (ukiyo-e painter, specialist of portraits of actors). It is here that he really begins his work with cheap drawings and prints.
However, he leaves the workshop at the death of his master in 1792.
It is a period of great poverty for him after that, during which he studies the techniques of the schools of Kano Yusen, Tsutsumi Torin and Sumiyoshi Naiki. He is also influenced by Western art and discovers perspective through a Japanese artist, Shiba Kokan, who frequents the Dutch people, the only ones allowed to moor in Nagasaki port.
Around 1794, he returns to a classical school: Rimpa School.
He produces and illustrates several poetic collections. It is at the same time that he adopts the name of Hokusai and in 1800 he gives himself the nickname of Gakyōjin Hokusai, “The Fool of Drawing”.
It is from 1812 that he begins to travel out the country.
His trips allow him to meet other artists such as Bokusen. Following his advice, Hokusai publishes two years later his Manga: Collections of his numerous sketchbooks, original and marginal studies. The publishing of this series of picture books extends until 1834 and includes twelve volumes.
1831 sees the publishing of one of his major work
The series of prints Fugaku Sanjūrokkei or Thirty six views of Mount Fuji earned him international recognition. This collection of prints, “36 views of Mount Fuji”, includes especially the most popular of all his work, and perhaps of all Ukiyo-e movement: The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. This series shows Mount Fuji in different seasons and from a variety of places and distances. It consists in reality of 46 prints, created between 1826 and 1833. To the 36 prints that were in the original publication, 10 were added later.
In the same period, he produces several series of prints that all break with the tradition of ukiyo-e. Thus, in the early 1830s, the series of Cascades, Bridges, Birds and Ghosts (the latter interrupted at the end of the fifth board) are completed.
His death and inheritance
He dies in 1849, and his ashes are deposited in a grave at Seikiō-ji Temple, in the popular Asakusa neighborhood of Edo, where he has spent most of his life. On his deathbed, his last words were: “If heaven had granted me another ten years of life, or even five, I could have become a true painter.”
He leaves behind him a work that includes more than 30,000 drawings.
His artistic names.
Throughout his life, Katsushika Hokusai repeatedly changed his name. There are more than 120 of them. Some of them are better known than others and are in parallel with the different stylistic parts of his life. Of these main names stand out mainly: Sōri (1794-1798), Katsushika Hokusai (1805-1810), Taito (1810-1819), Iitsu (1820-1834), and Gakyo Rôjin Manji (1834-1849). Many are not names so to speak. These are more formulas and expressions. Sōri aratame Hokusai means “Hokusai formerly Sōri” and Hachijūhachirō Manji could be translated as “Manji at the age of 88”.
Hokusai (“North Workshop”), however, remains his most famous name. He chose this name, as a tribute to the Buddhist deity Myôken, incarnation of the star of the North, to which he devoted a particular cult.
Hokusai, such as Kawanabe Kyosai, can be related to Ukiyo-e’s artistic movement, which is considered as the Golden Age of Japanese painting. He is even the most recognized figure of this movement today. If you ask someone to give you one of its name, you are sure that the first answer will his. But what is Ukiyo-e’s style? The Ukiyo-e Style (“image of an ephemeral and floating world “) is a Japanese art style that appeared between the 17th and 19th centuries.
Works by periods
As mentioned above, out of the one hundred and twenty names of artists and pseudonyms used by Hokusai, there are six main ones that punctuate the most important stylistic periods of his work and correspond to the six major phases of his career:
1779-1794: Katsukawa Shunrô ("Splendor of spring").
During his training period, he produced portraits of courtesans, actors, cheap commercial prints and illustrated many popular novels (kibyoshi).
He abandons Katsukawa School and creates a personal style, full of lyricism, while being under Chinese and Western influences. By spending time with a cultural elite, he publishes calendars and surimono (prints not for sale) with private distribution.
1799-1810: Katsushika Hokusai.
He asserts himself as an independent and renowned artist, arousing students and imitators. Alongside his production of surimono, polychrome prints and paintings, he illustrates a large number of yomihon roman-fleuve inspired by Chinese legends.
He favors picture books, didactic textbooks and model books, and publishes the first ten volumes of his Manga.
The 1830s set the peak of his career. He has an exuberant activity, perfectly mastering the art of landscape, revealing the majestic beauty of nature. His most famous series of prints date from this period: the thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, the Views of the famous bridges, and the Cascades of different provinces.
1834-1849: Manji ("Ten thousand years").
At that time he publishes Mount Fuji’s Hundred Views in three volumes and two famous series illustrating anthologies of classical poetry.
Like many Ukiyo-e artists, he lost interest in printmaking at the end of his career and devoted himself above all to painting.