Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave

The great Japanese artist said life began at 70. John Westbrooke sees a new exhibition

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Old age held no fears for Katsushika Hokusai. In 1834, already 74, he wrote: “From the age of six I had a penchant for copying the form of things, and from about 50, my pictures were frequently published; but until the age of 70, nothing I drew was worthy of notice.”

He wasn’t being fair to himself. As the prologue to the British Museum’s new exhibition of his late work points out, he’d been a prolific and talented artist long before that, particularly in the field of Ukiyo-e, “pictures of the floating world” – woodblock prints of beautiful women, kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, entertainers, in the transient life of Tokyo.

But he fell on hard times. He had a stroke, his wife died, he was hit by lightning, his grandson was in debt through gambling. He wondered if he’d make it though the next winter. And then about 1830 he was commissioned to produce a series of prints: Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji. It saved the day, and it made him world-famous.

The most famous of the lot is Under the wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave), the best known of all Japanese works. Amid a turbulent ocean, one huge, almost semicircular wave towers over three small boats – not gods of the deep, just fishermen trying to get their catch to market. And there in the middle of the vortex, the calm eye of the storm, is Fujiyama, the flecks of foam from the waves looking like snowflakes falling on its peak.

One of the reasons for its international fame may be that Hokusai had absorbed western influences. Traditionally, distance was indicated by putting the nearest things at the bottom, the most distant at the top, but Hokusai had painted some scenes of Japanese life for merchants in the Dutch East India Company, and had experimented with European style: perspective indicated by the use of vanishing points, a horizon near the bottom.

There are examples on display of this experimentation, and even an earlier, stiffer version of The Great Wave, in which the foam rises up but doesn’t curl, it just stands there.

There are also more prints from the Fuji series (there were actually 46, not 36), the first ones of them in blue, notably Prussian Blue, an exotic new European chemical pigment that doesn’t fade, alongside the more usual indigo, to reflect the appearance of the mountain at dawn. Other colours were used in later prints to represent changes in angle or time of day: a Pink Fuji and a Red Fuji are the same print, but the latter has had stronger colours used in later versions. There’s a Fuji seen through a barrel, a Fuji seen from a viewing deck – with its perfectly conical peak, it was regarded as sacred – and, the only close-up, a picture of some pilgrims actually climbing the mountain.

It’s not precisely correct to say The Great Wave made Hokusai’s name, since he had about 30 names; Japanese artists seem to have rebooted themselves frequently, and for this work he signed himself “Hokusai, changing his name to Iitsu”. He was known as Tokitaro as a child; “Hokusai” dates from 1798 and means “Northern Studio”, evidently a reference to his religious devotion to the North Star. Later he called himself Manji or Gakyo Rojin (“Old man crazy to paint”).

Nor was The Great Wave an instant success; though 8000 copies were printed, each just a little more degraded than the last, such prints sold for about the price of a bowl of noodles (they’re a lot more now) and were not highly prized. Not till Japan opened to the west in 1859 did it become known abroad, immediately influencing Impressionist painters. Monet’s house at Giverny has one. The British Museum has three: the one now on display is the earliest and best, but is usually kept in storage.

The exhibition title promises to focus on Hokusai’s late work, but it doesn’t quite. He was as busy as ever: there are depictions of demons and spirits (one revenant, Kohada Koheiji, has influenced many of today’s Japanese manga comics), flowers and birds, history and legends; but they’re not noticeably different from his earlier work. The most striking is a pair of wooden panels he painted as the ceiling for a cart: essentially, they’re The Great Wave again, this time just the swirl of water and fingers of foam without any background at all. The one big change was that he gave up prints and turned to painting, often spiritual in tone.

He doesn’t seem to have got any richer, though. He moved from one rented home to another with his daughter Oi, herself a fine painter – one of her works is on show, Hua Tuo Operating on the Arm of Guan Yu, a blackly funny piece depicting a stoic general having a bone removed while his attendants try not to faint. Portraits on display show Hokusai as an old man with big ears. His hope, he said, was that “at 100 years I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and at 110 every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.” In fact he died at about 89; but his work got near enough.

Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave runs at the British Museum until 13 August 2017, but will close for a change of exhibits on 3-6 July: many of them are too fragile to display for long, though all of those in the slide show above will be there for the full run. Admission £12; free under 16.