Two ’blockbusters’ in springtime London, David Hockney at Tate Britain and Katsushika Hokusai at the British Museum, were both packed with visitors queuing to buy posters and T-shirts and magnets, might there be a common thread linking their success?

Although their lives are two centuries apart, each artist passionately pursues his vision to a very late age, be it of the next wave with Hokusai in his seventies or of the next cool pool with Hockney, 80 this year and still going strong. Both artists are truly great painters but above all they are real ‘techies’: both obsessed with techniques, with experimenting the latest medium, ever ready to shift their perspectives, literally and metaphorically. Where Hockney slips seamlessly from paint to print to digital photography, Hokusai, the self-declared ‘old man crazy to paint’ cuts a polymorphous figure in the British Museum show, intensely engaged with drawing, painting, book illustration and print design, he would have leaped into digital if it had evolved a bit earlier.

Born in 1760, Hokusai came from a modest artisan background working first in a bookseller’s shop before serving an apprenticeship with a woodblock-cutter (1774-77) and then joining the ‘Floating World’ school of artists in Edo. This city was made the capital of Japan by Ieyasu in 1603 when the Shogun moved there with thousands of retainers followed by artisans, tradesmen and servants to supply the needs of the affluent ruling class. The ‘floating world’ of Ukiyo-e unfolds a panorama of political and intellectual allegiances of the period where ranges of class and taste reveal a hybrid heritage.

The official Kano school of painting has its origins in two sources: sumi-e, black ink style depending on Chinese sources and reflecting the aristocratic taste of the shoguns and Yamato-e, native Japanese painting in a realist idiom using outline and flat colour. Their fusion of styles in landscape and figure painting forms the background to the Ukiyo-e school of artists who designed the wood-block prints. These suited the market of the new bourgeoisie since they reflected the demi-monde lifestyle of this period, portraying the sites and subjects of the pleasure quarter of Yoshiwara (nightless city). Detailed drawings of tea-houses, ‘green’ houses, shopping arcades and theatres are frequented by licensed courtesans, wealthy merchants, writers, artists, Bunraku actors, wrestlers, artisans and idle samurai (out-of-work warriors). Like Indian miniature paintings, the Japanese woodcut prints were not made to be framed and hung on the wall but rather to be passed round a group of admirers in an album. Unlike the miniatures, their context was popular rather than elitist since production was on a commercial scale with thousands of print impressions selling at a reasonable price, and pragmatism was a necessary check to Hokusai’s phantasmagorical imaginary. Curiously, despite his growing success he was constantly struggling, due to illness and family problems, as illustrated by his letter to publishers in 1830: “No money, no clothing, barely enough to eat; if I can’t make some arrangement by the middle of next month, I won’t make it to another spring.’ Fortunately his fate, at the ripe age of 70, was to be saved by the Prussian ‘blue revolution’: a pigment first synthesized in Berlin and imported into Japan by the Chinese. The mode for blue prints prompted the publishers Nishimura Eijudo to announce in 1831: ‘Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji by Hokusai, decorated with Prussian Blue’. It is this technical information that seems to have been the stimulus for Hokusai’s ambitious project. It was conceived ten years earlier in 1821 at the age of 61 when he wrote: ‘Life begins again’ and changed his name to Iitsu, a frequent habit of this eccentric painter who used up to 50 different signatures and seals.

Edo was soon to become the largest city in the world and its rapid technological development was an endless source of fascination for Hokusai whose formation sustained his lifelong approach as an artisan/artist. This is made explicit in the data-packed exhibition alternating woodblock prints with silk brush paintings and sketchbooks to show how much the Japanese appreciation of craft contrasts with its depreciation in western ‘Fine Art’ history. Hokusai produced endless albums with exquisitely drawn designs of crafted objects such as hair combs or tobacco pipes for artisans to copy. His prolific range of techniques and styles allowed him to work on several projects simultaneously, often zooming from micro to macro, as shown in his large format prints of map-paintings with aerial views. One meticulous drawing, ponderously entitled: ‘Wondrous Views of Famous Bridges in Various Provinces’ (1834) shows multiple suspension bridges across a panorama recalling early Flemish landscapes thereby revealing his awareness of the Rangaku or Dutch studies.

Initially banned by the Tokugawa Shogunate, these were liberated in 1720 to be translated by Japanese scholars avidly researching western humanities and sciences such as navigation, astronomy, medicine and perspective. Edo ukiyo-e popular prints often featured exaggerated perspectival structures and Hokusai was quick to exploit European spatial structures. He was particularly inspired by the artist Shiba Kokan (1747-1818) whose experiments with scale through perspective and shadows in his copper plate etching and oil painting offered a terrain for Hokusai to play with his chosen sacred symbol: Mt. Fuji.

Sacred yet profane through commodification as an icon in the Edo period, it was venerated by both Shinto and Buddhist faiths and became the focus of popular religious cults and self-help confraternities. A Fuji cult mandala or sacred map charted 108 of such groups and, as a devout Nichiren Buddhist, Hokusai might well have been a member. The icon doubtlessly became his talisman, he continued treating it in an illustrated book: ‘One Hundred Views of Mt Fuji’, changing his name to Manji (100x100 = ‘infinity’) and in his final days produced a stunning hanging scroll, ’Dragon Rising Above Mt Fuji’, seen as a possible self-portrait, like certain images from his bestiary series including caricatures of mythical creatures and wild animals.

His ‘36 views’ (eventually 46 due to its success) shows a vast range of vantage points, times of day and seasons, forty years before Monet’s studies of Rouen cathedral. His handling of the gaze, inviting the viewer to identify with the contemplating spectator, is simultaneous to the Romantic landscape painter, Caspar David Friedrich, yet hardly as tragic. A touch of irony informs Hokusai’s sense of the sublime, each view is named according to its site. For example, ‘Suruga St in Edo, the Mitsui Store, Simplified View’ (1831) presents hilarious figuration through detailed incidents, foreshadowing animated filmorvideo games, so it is not surprising to learn that his first master, Shunsho, was a designer of theatrical prints. Hokusai made many prints of Kabuki actors and illustrations for novelettes called ‘yellow backs’ after the colour of their covers. His eccentric personal style, stimulated by studying Chinese art, also characterized his popular ‘surinomo’ prints that accompanied light verses.

Ironically, and possibly due to this vernacular success, Hokusai was not revered by established Japanese connoisseurs until his legendary stardom in the west. This resulted from the mode for ‘japonisme’ arising with the Impressionists’s discovery of Japanese prints leading to a massive impact on their practice.

Its consequential hype is ambivalently sustained by this small show’s concentration on the ‘Great Wave’ that illuminates the subject but blurs its spin-off. The diverse wave examples could almost service catalogues for hairdressers or surfers, but the tight focus risks camouflaging (or drowning) Hokusai’s stupendous versatility outside printing. His drawings, either in sketches, or as preparation for the block prints, have in common a vigour and vitality although they may differ in mood and style. Where some appear to be serious studies, thoughtfully and methodically executed, others are spontaneous, seizing the moment, brushed with intuition rather than tuition. Fine details prove an ultra-sensitive level of observation yet his lines simply flow with ease as if they are leading him on a journey he is ever ready to follow. For these reasons, the drawings today excite more than his prints, charged with a technique that weighs them into a static statement: precisely the aspect that was to influence early western modernism, but that contrast is not given enough space in this show, where the ‘beyond’ seems missing.

Perhaps his most extraordinary production was the ‘manga’ or ‘Miscellaneous Sketches’: a thirteen volume encyclopedia of Japanese material culture, comprising figures and objects amidst references to legends and ghost-lore, and described by Hillier as ‘an ill-organised jumble full of an old man’s whimsicalities’. Manet adapted some of these images of plants and animals in his illustrations of a poem by Mallarme, he had grasped the sumi technique but, like his fellow Impressionists, it was the flatness and design sense of the blockprints that inspired his drift towards asymmetrical compositions and abstraction. In 1890 Maurice Denis stated: “...any painting is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.” The attraction of the Ukiyo-e was its fascinating fusion of social realism its content and decorative stylization in its form, no textural play, no shadows, but patterns of bold linear rhythms and flat colour, as Pissarro wrote in 1893: “These Japanese artists confirm my belief in our vision.” Van Gogh’s joyous discovery of the block prints radically transformed his vision, writing to his brother Theo in 1888 from Arles, which he saw as a virtual ‘absolute Japan’: “Here my life will become more and more like a Japanese painter’s, living close to nature like a petty tradesman...describing his bedroom painting: “here colour is to do everything...shadows are is painted in free flat tints like Japanese prints.”

The last 30 years of Hokusai’s life are often said to be his best period although he always felt he could do better, on his deathbed in 1849 at almost 90 he sighed and said: “ If only I could have just another 10 years... then a bit later: ”...just another 5 years, then I could become a real artist.”

In attempting the impossible task of defining the differences between Eastern and Western art practices, western art historians have often resorted to dualist views such as F.S.C. Northrop’s comparison between the eastern ‘aesthetic’ and the western ‘theoretic’, or Michael Sullivan’s contrast between the western ‘theistic’ and the eastern ‘atheistic’. Hokusai’s play of craftsmanship and philosophical reflection confuses such dichotomies; he shares with Rembrandt a global cultural curiosity and, with Hockney, an ever-inventive technical research.

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