Hokusai Meets NGV

It’s official. A true art master has come to town. 

Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai once said, “If heaven had granted me five more years, I could have become a real painter”. Talk about being hard on yourself, because he was one of the most influential and creative minds to come out of the Japanese art world. He was admired by the likes of Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Degas, so clearly Hokusai has the art of being humble well and truly mastered. Long story short, he was really a bit of an overachiever.

The National Gallery of Victoria’s latest international exhibition includes 176 works from Hokusai’s illustrious 70 year career; which brought to life the culture and splendour of the Edo period in Japanese history – and I got to experience them at the NGV.

His ability to combine a knack for distinct social observations and incredible brushmaster skills was almost second to none, and this exhibit is a lovely celebration of every chapter of his genius. As a collaboration between Japan’s Ukiyo-e Museum and the NGV, the pieces on display include seven of his major works, a selection of other rare prints and paintings as well as three sets of illustrated books.

The bulk of this exhibit revealed one of Hokusai’s dirty little secrets… he had a bit of an obsession with Mount Fuji. To us westerners, this is probably just another mountain that every Japanese guidebook recommends in the sightseeing section. But for Hokusai, it was much more.

The 3776 metre high volcano is the highest peak in Japan and its dramatic shape and seasonal beauty captivated painters, poets and ordinary people throughout Japan – including Hokusai. His most famous series titled 36 Views of Mount Fuji was one of the many fruits of his obsession, with Mount Fuji being portrayed in different seasons and weather conditions from different perspectives and distances.

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Artwork by Katsushika Hokusai. Image source: The National Gallery of Victoria

This section also included a family reunion between two copies of his most famous print, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. During the 20th Century, this image was the single most famous image in the world of Asian art, so praise certainly doesn’t come much higher than that. Each one had its own specific intricacies that only experienced art critics would likely see.

Carrying on that trendsetter aesthetic, Hokusai’s A Tour To The Waterfalls in Various Provinces was the first series about waterfalls to be published in Japan. Waterfalls were spiritual iconography in Japanese society because they were related to Shinto nature worship and Buddhist iconography.

The art pioneering just keeps on coming as you move through each of the halls. The Eight Views of the Ryukyu Islands series from 1832 and 1833. He created eight intricately detailed prints to introduce the mysterious Ryukyu Kingdom to the world… without setting foot in the place. You know an artist is next level when all he needs to create a compelling and colourful world is some poetry and a bunch of black and white sketches.

But, if large woodblock prints aren’t your thing, then Hokusai also dabbled in book illustration during his time. The Hokusai Manga is chock full of whimsical and cutting-edge observations of nature, inventions, architecture, historical figures and mythology.

The book One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji sees even more mountain inspired designs choices from Hokusai. Admired as one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of book illustration, it’s all about that dramatic and edgy monochrome feeling with pencil drawings and a tonne of lines to create those intricate details.

His imagination is astounding, which is something you need when you are drawing something 100 times. Nothing ever seems repetitive! How does he do it…

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Artwork by Katsushika Hokusai. Image source: The National Gallery of Victoria

By this point, it is evident that Hokusai liked jumping on the trends of the time. Quite a popular theme in Japanese storytelling, folk traditions, religion and the performing arts – was talking about ghosts, demons and the supernatural. These creepy stories inspired Hokusai’s 1831 series of spooky prints One Hundred Ghost Stories.

Each one had quite an unnerving visual narrative, with the stories behind the pictures doing enough to make anyone squirm. Their evocative and chilling vibe make them unique; even for the king of quirky art himself.

This Hokusai exhibit is a long one, so make sure you chuck on some comfortable shoes if you don’t want your experience to be ruined by aching feet. But, by the end, you do understand just how talented Katsushika Hokusai was. He was a pioneer in every sense of the word. It’s official. A true art master has come to town.

Words by Emily Burkhardt

IG – @miss_memphis98

Art by Rochelle Oh

IG – @therochellefish

 

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