At 75 Katsushika Hokusai changed his name to Gakyo Rojin which meant 'old man crazy to paint.' Having renamed him self more than 30 times during his life it wasn't an unexpected move rather one that showed a wry sense of humour and a steely determination. The paintings in the Hokusai show at The British Museum carry many of his pseudonyms and always the age at which he painted them. Hokusai lived during the mid 1800s in Edo, now Tokyo and had an unwavering and hugely inspiring determination to continue to work and improve his craft until his death in 1849. It was during his 70's that Hokusai produced The Great Wave, one of the most recognised images of all time. A phenomenal self publicist and clearly not averse to repetition if it made money Hokusai produced over 8000 prints of The Great Wave, one of which could be bought at the time for little more than a double helping of noodles!
The British museum first purchased a work by the artist in 1860. Japan, through its isolationist policies, had been closed to trade and travel between 1639 and 1854 and this was the beginning of the use of ‘Japonisme’ as decoration by Western craftsmen and artists. The influx of ideas also worked the other way, inspiring Japanese artists. In the early 1800’s Prussian blue found its way to Osaka, Japan and was marketed as ‘bero’. This pigment revolutionised the palette of Hokusai’s work. It was darker and more vivid than the traditional and lighter indigo blue and Hokusai was one of the first of his craft to use this vivid blue in his work. Japanese prints were shown in Paris at the end of the 1860’s and had a profound effect on the work of the impressionists. Vincent Van Gogh wrote in 1888 'all my work is based to some extent on Japanese art.'
It worked the other way too. The opening up of the outside world also excited Hokusai. Two paintings in the show depict Japanese life on noticeably thicker paper. Officers from The Dutch East India Company (the VOC) had provided this thicker paper and commissioned Hokusai to paint Japanese life, previously a subject unexplored. These commissions revolutionised Hokusai's work and my favourite painting in the show is ‘Ejiri, Suruga Province’ from the series Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji, 1831. It depicts people walking in high wind along the main road towards Mt Fuji , paper and debris is blown into the air and the people desperately hold their heads to stop them disappearing into the Fields on either side. This way of painting every day life had been completely unexplored in Japan and Hokusai’s work caused a stir.
Its true that he worked incredibly hard throughout his life and, though successful, never lived in grand style or slowed pace. He moved house over 90 times in his life to various humble dwellings around Edo (Tokyo) and though good at self promotion he seems to have been realistic and self effacing about his work. Aged 83 in 1842 he wrote to his dealer a letter that included a drawing of himself. It included a package including drawings from his early 40s. Perhaps, he suggested, they might be usable even though they ‘were created by an immature artist’. I was lucky enough to view the show before the British Museum opened two days ago (wonderful and rather spooky to see it so empty). I met Tim Clark who produced the show and we discussed Hokusai’s work ethic. [He was] 'not thinking about death, always thinking about life, retirement was not an option!' Clark notes with a wry smile before hurrying off into the depths of the museum that had begun to fill up as people streamed in to see the show.
The show is on until the 13th August
Written by Beatrice Hasell-McCosh