Hokusai

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Katsushika Hokusai (October-November 1760 — May 10, 1849) was an Japanese artist of the Edo period who is now the most influential and best-known Japanese artist worldwide. Japanese woodblock prints form his most important work, although he also painted.

He was one of the most innovative and creative masters of the art of woodblock printing (or ukiyo-e, "pictures of the floating world", as they are called in Japan). He made the landscape genre a major division of woodblock prints, broadening a form that until then had consisted mostly of images of Kabuki actors and portraits of women (bijin-ga, in Japanese). Unlike most other Japanese artists of the Edo period, Hokusai's drafstmanship was completely unique and instantly recognizable by most viewers.

Along with only a few other ukiyo-e artists (and unlike most other Japanese artists), his work has significantly influenced non-Japanese art. His work, along with artists such as Hiroshige, had a profound impact on the Impressionists. He is now an integral part of the common global artistic heritage.

Biography

Hokusai was born in Edo (now Tokyo) in the 9th month of the 10th year of the Horeki period (October-November 1760); he was originally named Tokitaro. His family were artisans; his father, Nakajima Issai (or Ise, sources and transliterations vary), was a mirror-maker.

Around 1774 he was renamed Tetsuzo and apprenticed to a wood-carver where he worked until 1777. His training as a woodcarver would stand him in good stead in years to come, when it gave him an insight into woodblock prints unavilable to most other woodblock artists. Some of his still-extant sketches contain long and detailed instructions to the carver, in his own hand.

In 1777, he was apprenticed to the woodblock artist Shunsho of the Katsukawa school, an earlier major woodblock artist, and by 1779 Hokusai had completed his apprenticeship, and was given the name Katsukawa Shunro by his master.

Shortly thereafter, in about 1785, he broke with Shunsho and was apparently forbidden to use the name Katsukawa. The cause is unclear, but it may have been linked to Hokusai's lifelong interest in new methods and techniques, a contrast to Shunsho, whose output varied little from the start to the end of his career. Although from time to time Hokusai studied various styles, he always maintained stylistic independence.

The next decade is not very well documented, but apparently he experienced a period of financial duress, and hawked small items in the street to help support himself. He apparently studied classical Japanese painting during this time, as well as the first Western art, which was then just beginning to appear in Japan.

It was just at the end of this period that he started using the name Hokusai. It was common for Japanese to change their names, and even more common for artists, who had go ("art-names", much like Western pen-names for authors) as well as their formal names. Hokusai outdid them all, thought to be a sign of his life-long restlessness. In the period 1798-1806 alone, he used no less than six.

During the last decades of his life, he travelled extensively inside Japan, staying in both Osaka and Kyoto, as well as Edo. Some problems with a scapegrace grandson resulted in Hokusai's exile from Edo from 1834 until 1836.

In 1839, at the age of almost eighty, he suffered the calamity of the loss, by fire, of all his paintings and drawings. However, it seemed only to spur him on, and he continued to produce more works, principally brush-painting, for the next ten years. The quality did not match his earlier works, though.

Although he must have gained sums for his work which might have secured him comfort, he remained poor, and to the end of his life proudly described himself as a peasant.

He died in 1849, at the age of ninety, and his last words reportedly were:

"If only Heaven will give me just another ten years ... Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter."

Artistic career

'from Hokusai's preface to One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji 

From the age of six I had a penchant for copying the form of things, and from about fifty, my pictures were frequently published; but until the age of seventy, nothing that I drew was worthy of notice. At seventy-three years, I was somewhat able to fathom the growth of plants and trees; and the structure of birds, animals, insects and fish. Thus when I reached eighty years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and at ninety to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at one hundred years I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and at one hundred and ten, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.


Like many other woodblock artists, Hokusai started work on book illustrations, then moved on to actor prints, and later bijin-ga, all in the classic woodblock style. During this period he apparently was heavily influenced by the most popular leading woodblock artist of his day, Kiyonaga, who specialized in bijin-ga.

Around 1796, he produced a small illustrated book. Over the next few years (1796-1798) he began to create surimono (refined prints produced privately in small numbers, many for private poetry clubs); this was his breakthrough as a woodblock artist.

During the period shortly after, he secured his place as a successful woodblock artist, doing several series on the theme of the Chushingura (the Kabuki play based on the story of the 47 Ronin). Between 1796 and 1802 he executed perhaps as many as 30,000 book illustrations and color prints, for which he often drew inspiration from Japanese ordinary life, traditions and legends.

During the period 1807-1819 he moved back to illustrating books, including the Manga, a 15-volume collection of sketchbooks for aspiring artists, the first of which came out in 1814. The series features some of his best drawing, covering full scenes, as well as individual elements like faces, bodies and animals - in his own words, "everything in the Universe".

He produced most of his important work after the age of sixty; from 1820 to 1833 he created the landscapes and "bird and flower" prints which are now considered his greatest works.

Although Hokusai had done landscapes in small formats before (some as early as 1806), in 1823 he commenced the series which was to secure his place as one of the great artists of all time, the 'Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji' (Fugaku Sanjurokkei). The series actually contains 46 prints, as ten extra prints were added after its great commercial success; it was completed in 1833.

In these, Hokusai conceived a series of masterpieces that have affected the art world ever since. They display the influence of both classical Japanese painting and the Western art he studied years before. His most widely known work is from this series: "In the Hollow of a Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa", which has imprinted itself on the popular imagination as the canonical Japanese woodblock print. The scene is of a great wave about to devour the men and boats, with the distant Mount Fuji minimized by the size of the wave.

In the period 1827-1830, while this series was still coming out, he simultaneously began his other famous series, such as 'Waterfalls', 'Bridges', and the bird and flower series. His last great work was a series of black and white books entitled 'One Hundred Views of Fuji', produced in 1834-1835. While they lack color, they more than make up for it in his unique draftsmanship and composition. Jack Hillier says of this series:

"Looking through the pages, we cannot fail to be impressed by the inexhaustable originality in presentation..."
-- Hokusai: Paintings, Drawings and Woodcuts, London, 1955

His last notable work was a series entitled the 'One Hundred Poets', begun in 1836, when Hokusai was seventy-six; many were as good as any of his earlier work. Although only 27 were released, the designs for at least another 64 were completed.

Influence

After his death, copies of some of his woodblock prints, along with those of numerous other Japanese ukiyo-e artists, were sent to the West. There, they all caused a sensation among Western artists, many of whom collected them, in particular Vincent van Gogh. They were popular among impressionists such as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Paul Gauguin, as well as later artists such as James McNeill Whistler, all of whose works bear signs of influence by Japanese art.

This was somewhat ironic turn of events for Hokusai in particular, as he had been heavily influenced by the ideas of European art, particularly in technical areas like perspective.

The 15-volume collection 'Hokusai Manga' is often considered a major precedent to modern manga; the influence of the style of its caricatures can be seen today.