Tuesday, 18 July 2017
Hokusai at the British Museum
The Great Wave of Kanagawa. Hokusai, 1831
About ten days ago, I went to the British Museum's exhibition Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave (until 13 August, but check ticket availability if you're interested in going).
Hokusai (1760-1849), one of the greatest Japanese artists of the creatively rich Edo period (1603-1868), is best known for The Great Wave of Kanagawa, one of a beautiful series of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. The exhibition featured many of these famous prints but it also highlighted the unusual European influence in many of his works and the extraordinary range of his art. I saw cherry blossoms whose petals were so soft and multifoliate that I wanted to touch them, birds that seemed photographic but with a hyper-real beauty, swirling dragons, sharply defined bridges and lakes like something out of Tolkien, wry and delicate self-portraits.
Hokusai was also very close to the poetry world. He provided illustrations for poems, and depicted poets, in the series A True Mirror of Chinese and Japanese Poetry and One Hundred Poems Explained By the Nurse. In this particularly beautiful example, Poet traveling in the snow, the rider may be the Chinese poet Du Fu (or Tu Fu; 712-70), one of the greatest figures of Chinese literature. It's suggested that he could also be the poet Su Shi (1037-1101), who was famous for writing poems about snow.
Hokusai's work became more and more extraordinary in the last years of his life. In the final room, looking at the paintings on silk from the two years before he died, I found myself struggling to breathe, then in tears. I saw a dragon with desperate human eyes emerging from rain clouds, diving ducks transforming beneath the surface, a joyous tiger bounding upwards through the snow. Shortly before his death, Hokusai reportedly said "If only Heaven will give me just another ten years... Just another five years, then I could become a real painter."