Katsushika Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave


This Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) exhibition, which is a version of the exhibition that originated at the British Museum in 2017, is now on show in California at the Bowers Museum. The highlight of the show is, of course, the print popularly called The Great Wave (Under the Wave Off Kanagawa). However, this exhibition offers much more than a chance to see the iconic prints by Hokusai that are instantly recognised around the world and have appeared on everything from cushions to pencil cases. They are also as depicted in living art – as seen in the rice paddy visual creations (tombo) that are so popular in Japan. It is a wonderful opportunity to explore in more depth the inner world of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) in his other less well-known works.

A selection of over 100 paintings, drawings, woodblock prints, and illustrated books are on show. These artworks provide insights into his early career, rise to fame, his fascination with the natural and supernatural realms, complicated personal life, and his quest for immortality through his art.

The print of the Great Wave is naturally from the British Museum’s collection and is a fine, early impression acquired in 2008 by the museum with the assistance of the Art Fund. Hokusai created this world renowned masterpiece when he was about seventy. Mt Fuji and its wider spiritual significance was a model for Hokusai in his quest for immortality during his later years. The print series Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji (published around 1831-33) revived Hokusai’s career after personal challenges of the late 1820s. The Great Wave, with its use of deep perspective and imported Prussian blue pigment, reflects how Hokusai adapted and experimented with European artistic style.

Tim Clarke, who was the curator of the Japanese collection at the British Museum from 1988 to 2019, and is now a research fellow at the museum, explained why he decided to focus on the work Hokusai created in later life for the London exhibition Beyond the Great Wave: ‘During the later period of Hokusai’s life, pursuing his art became an all-consuming spiritual conviction – a quest for immortality, even. He believed that the older he got, the greater he would become as an artist. Our exhibition agrees with that assessment. To quote Hokusai: “From the age of six I had a penchant for copying the form of things, and from about 50, my pictures were frequently published; but until the age of 70, nothing I drew was worthy of notice. At 73 years, I was somewhat able to fathom the growth of plant and trees, and the structure of birds, animals, insects and fish. Thus 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. Those of you who live long enough, bear witness that these words of mine are not false” (translated by Henry D Smith II). He lived until 90’.

Hokusai had a complicated personal life. In the late 1820s Hokusai suffered many personal challenges, including the death of his wife, illness, and financial woes caused by an errant grandson. His daughter Eijo (art name Oi, about 1800-after 1857), herself an accomplished artist, quit an unsuccessful marriage to return and care for her aged father, and to work with and alongside him. Hokusai also frequently moved house – by one account no less than 93 times in his life. However, he fervently believed that his skills as an artist would continue to improve the older he got.

The exhibition adopts a new approach to explore Hokusai’s later career in thematic as well as chronological terms and explores Hokusai’s personal beliefs and his spiritual and artistic quest through major paintings, drawings, woodblock prints and illustrated books. On show are the iconic landscapes and wave pictures, as well as depictions of deities and mythological beasts and flora, And there’s prints from fauna to beautiful women, from collaborations with other painters and writers to still lives. The works chosen for the exhibition are extraordinarily varied, with objects drawn, in the majority, from The British Museum’s collection.

For Hokusai and his contemporaries, the perceived world could connect seamlessly with a world of powerful ‘unseen’ forces and agencies. Ghosts and vengeful spirits inhabited a closely parallel world that was believed could easy spill into ours. Yokai emerged from rich imagination of the folk world and have been a common theme in Japanese art for centuries and can still intrigue the viewer with their unique forms, mysterious world, and extraordinary behaviour.

Yokai are strange creatures brought into being by fears of the mind, stirrings sensed in the darkness, or feelings of awe for nature, which can be seen in the word yokai itself, formed out of the Japanese characters ‘yo’ and ‘kai’, both of which mean strange, mysterious, or spooky (ayashii). This fascination for the supernatural can also be seen in a print in the exhibition, Kohada Koheiji, from the uncompleted series 100 Ghost Tales (1831-32), which tells the tale of Kohada Koheiji, a kabuki actor, who was drowned by his wife’s lover, but later came back to haunt the couple – his skeleton is seen here peering over a mosquito net haunting his wife and lover. This popular ghost tale seems to have circulated throughout the 18th century and eventually inspired a novel by Santo Kyoden (1761-1816), published in 1803, as well as several kabuki plays.

Throughout Hokusai’s career, and particularly in the later years, his paintings brought vividly to life an extraordinary bestiary of dragons, Chinese lions, phoenixes and eagles, and forcefully energised depictions of mythological figures and holy men. He also continued to use landscape and wave imagery as a major subject and he became increasingly interested in exploring in his art the mutability and minutiae of the observable world – particularly birds, animals and plants and other natural subjects. Hokusai based his exploration of the outside world on his subjective identification with his surroundings rather than any objectively ‘scientific’ or technical approach. The artist considered that he was passing on ‘divine teachings’ to his pupils, to craft artists and to the world. He published numerous brush drawing manuals, notably Hokusai manga (Hokusai’s Sketches, 15 vols, 1814-1878), which spread his artistic style and reputation widely throughout society.

By the mid-19th century, 10 years after Hokusai’s death in 1849, he was already celebrated in the West and particularly loved in France, where Hokusai Manga was considered as a great influence on European artist’s work in the ate 19th and early 20th centuries. His work also played an important role in the growth of Japonisme and this continuous popularity in the West can be said to stem from the rise of Japonisme that so successfully promoted Japanese aesthetics and philosophy to the world. Hokusai’s works have not only profoundly influenced European and American painting, design and popular culture, but also transcend historical and cultural boundaries that extend even into contemporary scientific fields, where his work is cited in journal articles on perception, creativity, fractal studies, chaos and turbulence theories.

Beyond Hokusai The Great Wave, until 7 January, 2024, at Bowers Museum, Santa Ana, California, bowers.org