At Home in Hokusai’s Floating World

Great Wave off Kanagawa
Great Wave off Kanagawa Wikimedia Commons

Artists draw us in not only with their work, but also with their colorful charisma. Of all those in the art world who fulfill such creative archetypes, the most endearing character may well be Hokusai, the witty Japanese woodblock printmaker of “The Floating World" period, who once published under the pseudonym Gakyo Ronji Manji, “The Old Man Mad With Painting."

Hokusai worked within a printing tradition that flourished around Tokyo between the 17th and 20th centuries. “The Floating World" refers to the cosmopolitan ambiance in which such woodblock prints grew, and contrasts with “The Sorrowful World" espoused by Japanese Buddhists at the time. In "The Floating World," earthly pleasures come to life in landscapes and narratives that depict or elaborate upon historical scenes, folklore and traditional poetry. Japanese woodblock art was made for the masses, and it has a distinct look: pearly paper, sharp edges, and vivid, carefully composed planes of color. The art grew within a luminous, distinctly Japanese cultural bubble, which was pierced by the introduction of Western influences in the early 20th century.

For 89 years, Hokusai worked in good-humored tumult within this peaceful bubble. “The Old Man Mad With Painting" assumed 26 pen names throughout his life, depending on his particular station; even “Hokusai" is a pen name, meaning “North Star Studio," a reference to the Buddhist sect to which he ascribed. He outlived his family and moved 93 times—many accounts of Hokusai became as floating and varied as soap bubbles.

Ever prodigious, Hokusai remains most well known for his “36 Views of Mount Fuji," (1826-1833) which shows vignettes of his contemporaries at work in Tokyo; Mount Fuji, snow-capped and often pale blue, appears in each print, unifying the series. Hokusai invents freely here: his dynamic compositions all nest Mount Fuji, the icon of Japanese Buddhist spirituality. His most famous work, "The Great Wave at Kanagawa" shown above, was created for this series (note Mount Fuji in the background.) Other print series include “One-Hundred Poems." Here, Hokusai illustrates famed traditional poems, but he does so with great irreverence, sometimes assuming the persona of a semi-literate nurse who misinterprets the poem with hilarious illustrative results.

Hokusai may have coined the term “manga." Today manga is a wildly popular Japanese comic book form, but for Hokusai, the term meant whimsical picture. Hokusai filled his notebooks with thousands of drawings of daily life, just trying to get his rendering skills right. He introduced whimsy to ordinary scenes of daily life and also to creatures such as a rhinoceros, which he never saw in person—much like Albrecht Durer, the Early Northern Renaissance artist who also drew a famous rhinoceros, which he never actually saw. In this sketch book, one can believe in Hokusai’s legend: at nearly age 90 on his deathbed, he said, “If I had another five years, even, I could have become a real painter."

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