In focus: Hokusai

(P.C. the above photo is a creation by Aylien over at  TeePublic UK, to whom all rights of the featured image belong).

Hokusai was a wavy guy – his art, nothing short of remarkable. So when I found out that the British Museum would be exhibiting his work, I was buzzing. I’d be seeing the most famous of his series ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’, ‘Under the Wave of Kanagawa’, more commonly known as ‘The Great Wave’, which although it is one of the most recognizable artworks in the world, has been kept from public view since 2011.

The exhibition tells us the story of Hokusai, the self-proclaimed Gakyõ Rõjín (Old Man Crazy to Paint), who according to Tim Clark, the head of Japanese Art at the British Museum, would, at one point, sell some of his most famous impressions in woodblock prints for “just a bit more than a double helping of soba noodle”.

Emerging from the floating world (ukiyo-e) school of art, a young Hokusai, then known as Tokitarõ, was adopted by a mirror maker and would have been destined for a career as a mirror polisher. During his teens however, he trained as a woodblock cutter, and at age twenty, was accepted into the studio of Katsukawa Shunshõ, who was one of the most prominent artists of the floating world.

While he has been known by at least 30 different names throughout his lifetime, he is most commonly known as Hokusai, meaning ‘North Star Studio’. This name, translating to the one point in the heavens which does not move, and so is a fixed point, reflects a potential source of spiritual strength for Hokusai. In fact, perhaps what I loved best about the exhibition was the fact that it was able to express how significant Hokusai’s faith was to his work.

When he was a young boy and could not draw or paint too well, it is said that Hokusai came to the temple to pray for 21 days so that he would become one of the greatest artists of his time. Returning home on the 21st day, the sky turned dark. He was struck by lightening and fell into a rice field. After this, he flourished and became an established artist.

So well known did Hokusai become that not only did he become well acquainted with men of wealth and power in Edo, picking which writers with whom he would produce illustrated literature (manga!), he even caught the attention of the shoguns.

The shogun put out the word that he wanted the artist to carry out a demonstration of his work. Also attending would be one of the leading painters of the time, Tani Buncho. Buncho went first. He painted mountains of a breathtaking beauty.

Then it was Hokusai’s turn.

He spread out a huge piece of paper, getting a whole pot of blue paint and painted the length of the long piece of paper with this. People looked on, bewildered as to what he was doing. And then he opened a basket, let loose a rooster, dying his feet with a red ink and chased it across the length of the paper.

When the rooster had done his thing, Hokusai said that this was his depiction of Japan’s Tatsuta River. Buncho, sitting nearby remarked: “I could not keep my palms from sweating”.

Today, Hokusai is undoubtedly recognized as being one of the greatest artists to have lived, with his ‘The Great Wave’ being the most famous image to come out of Japan. Having seen the work before my very own eyes, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to articulate its sheer magnificence – I mean the detail, man, it was beautiful.

I’ve written about some of his high points, turning points, if you like, in his career. Here’s the thing about Hokusai though:

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I would be a terrible liar if I told you that his work wasn’t the first thing that attracted me to him, but when I think of Hokusai and his life, I think about what he teaches us about the beauty that comes from the virtue of perseverance.

His life was a testimony to the power of manifestation and self belief; he never gave up, he kept experimenting and this is what allowed him to peak (even if this may have been in his old age).

And so I smile whenever I think of Hokusai, because yes, his work is phenomenal and yes, I got to marvel at it firsthand, but I smile more-so because there’s more behind the paintings. There is the story of Hokusai, the man of humble beginnings who through diligence and perseverance makes it. He makes it, against all the odds.

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