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Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave’ in Honolulu

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“The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” from the series “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,” Japan, Edo period, c. 1830-1834, color woodblock print. Honolulu Academy of Arts: Gift of James A. Michener, 1955

His name may not be as familiar as Monet or Picasso, but Katsushika Hokusai created one of the most recognizable–and most reproduced–pieces of art in history, the Japanese woodblock print “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” From now until January 3, 2010, and for the first time in ten years, the Honolulu Academy of Arts is displaying the print alongside Hokusai’s entire “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” series. The late novelist James Michener gave the series to the Academy, which is one of only a few other museums in the world own an entire set. (If you can’t make it to Oahu, you can see the entire series online at Sheila Sarhangi spoke with Shawn Eichman, Curator of Asian Arts for the Academy, who co-curated the exhibit with Sawako Chang, to find out more about the prints, and Hokusai himself.

Hokusai’s “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” series is an example of ukiyo-e Japanese woodblock prints. What is ukiyo-e?

The term ukiyo literally means “floating world” in Japanese and was originally developed as a Buddhist term. It was used to refer to the impermanence of the world, and the suffering that results from this impermanence. In the Edo period, which occurred from 1615 to 1868, this concept of impermanence was celebrated. The basic idea behind ukiyo-e woodblock prints is that they are images that show the impermanent and ever-changing world, and the beauty that comes from that impermanence.

How were ukiyo-e woodblock prints made?

It was a multi-staged process that involved a lot of different people. The artist would prepare the designs, which would then be given to a block carver. The block carver would paste the design onto the woodblock and carve it into the wood. When he did that, the original design would actually be destroyed. After the main block had been carved, one block would be carved for each color that was used in the prints. In some cases, depending on the number of colors used, as many as 20 or 30 blocks would be carved for a given print. At that point, the blocks would be turned over to another group of people who specialized in printing. They would be responsible for applying the colors onto the wood and putting the paper down on the blocks to make the print. The final step was that the person who paid for all of this (who typically was not the artist, but was rather a publisher) would distribute them for sale to the public.

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Thunderstorm Beneath the Summit,” from the series “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,” Japan, Edo period, c. 1830-1834 color woodblock print. Honolulu Academy of Arts: Gift of James A. Michener, 1970

Who was the publisher of the “Thirty-six Views” series and what market were the prints intended for?

It’s an interesting topic. The publisher, Eijudo, was one of the major publishing houses at the time the series was issued. Japanese woodblock prints were often bought as souvenirs by people who were visiting Edo, Japan’s capital, or what’s now known as Tokyo. People who lived in the capital would also buy prints like those in this series because they wanted to have different views of their own city. It’s possible that those who had made a pilgrimage to Mount Fuji may have also bought prints as a remembrance of their trip.

Why does the series revolve around Mount Fuji?

Well, the first thing to keep in mind is that Mount Fuji is Japan’s tallest mountain, so it is the most prominent geographical feature on all of the islands in Japan. Mount Fuji became an important cultural symbol as early as the 11th or 12th centuries in Japan, if not earlier. However, one of the important things that happened during the Edo period was that the capital was moved from Kyoto, which is quite far away from Mount Fuji, to Edo, which is very close to Mount Fuji. When we think of Tokyo today, of course, we think of massive skyscrapers and Mount Fuji is only very rarely visible. But in 19th-c Edo, Mount Fuji would have been visible from many places in the city. So, it was really the most prominent landscape feature for people who were living in the new capital.

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Fujimigahara (“Fuji-view Fields”) in Owari Province, from the series “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji”; Japan, Edo period, c. 1830-1834; Color woodblock print; Honolulu Academy of Arts: Gift of James A. Michener, 1991.

The portrayal of the mountain changes in every print. Sometimes it’s shown as a mere silhouette, in other prints it’s the focal point. What’s the symbolism?

The series definitely has different sub-themes, and the prints that have received the most attention show Mount Fuji as a symbol of the overwhelming power of natural forces. A classic example of this is the most famous print from the series, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”.

In this print, you can see a number of boats struggling to stay afloat and not capsize as they are being tossed and turned by the wave. All the while Mount Fuji stands by, serenely in the distance, as if it were indifferent to their survival.

What’s interesting is that the other major sub-theme shows Mount Fuji as a protective symbol of the people of Edo and Japan. The mountain is displayed almost as if were a patron deity of the people, who are seen going about their day-to-day activities in the foreground and not paying any attention to the mountain at all.

A good example of this is “Fujimigahara in Owari Province”.

The print shows a barrel maker working inside a very large barrel, which forms a circle and occupies the whole middle of the print. The barrel also frames a very tiny Mount Fuji in the background and the barrel maker actually has his back turned away from the mountain. It’s showing someone in really the humblest of activities.  

Why did Hokusai create so many scenes showing people? What’s the symbolism there?

Hokusai had a great interest in human activity and he was a terrific observer of human nature. In the series, the prints show virtually every activity you can imagine, from people repairing roofs to washing dishes.

Because a lot of the scenes take place in his hometown of Edo, Hokusai is also showing his own people. He displays a very careful observation of what they are doing, and he also shows a great sensitivity to these people, because these are the activities that he would have seen everyday from his window or when he stepped outside of his door.

What do we know about Hokusai’s character as an artist?

Hokusai was a very prolific and very driven artist. In his lifetime, it is thought that he created as many as 30,000 designs. To give you an example of the type of artist he was, there was a period in his career where he began producing book illustrations. He was so prolific at making the illustrations that publishers couldn’t find authors to keep up with him and write the books. So, he actually started to write his own books to go along with the illustrations because nobody else could keep up with the pace that he was producing.

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Sazaidö at the Five Hundred Rakan Temple” from the series “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,” Japan, Edo period, c. 1830-1834, color woodblock print. Honolulu Academy of Arts: Gift of James A. Michener, 1991

It’s said that Hokusai changed his name more than thirty times during his career. Why?

Hokusai was a great experimenter with different artistic forms, so every time he would enter into what he would consider a new artistic phase in his life he would take on a new artistic name. The fact that he had over thirty artistic names goes to show how many times he changed the artistic styles that he was working with.

As for the name Hokusai, he used it during a fairly important artistic period, that’s why it has come to be known as his primary name. At the time he produced the “Thirty-six Views” series he was using the name Iitsu.

Because he changed his name so often, the audience couldn’t keep up with him. To fix this, all of the prints in the series have the signature, “Iitsu, formerly known as Hokusai.”

What do we know about Hokusai’s life in general?

He went through periods of great success and periods of significant poverty. He changed his residence more than 90 times during his life and it’s very likely that in some of those instances, he may have moved in order to avoid creditors, who were pursuing him. It’s not because he couldn’t get work, he was very commercially successful during his life, but we have to remember that the profits would have gone to the publisher and not the artist. He would’ve been paid just a flat fee for the design he produced.

The other factor is that he basically had the mentality of the city people of Edo at the time, which was that since life was impermanent, it was better to enjoy what you could today than to save for tomorrow. There is a story that says that he died in poverty and the only thing that he had when he died was his kimono.

He sounds like a very eccentric, very strong personality. Do you think he was proud of his work?

When Hokusai was in his 70s, about the same time that he started the “Thirty-six Views” series, he looked back on his entire artistic career, and decided that he hadn’t produced anything that was worthwhile. There is actually a quote from him when he was in his mid-70s where he says that he only started to really be able to produce art when he was in his 70s, and that he hoped that he would live to be 100 years old because he believed that it would take him another 30 years to become a really talented, superb artist. Unfortunately, he died when he was 89 years old. Today, however, and despite his own opinion, he is one of the most successful and talented artists that ever lived.

The Katsushika Hokusai exhibit runs through January 3, 2010.

All works: Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), from the series “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,” Japan, Edo period, c. 1830-1834, color woodblock prints. Courtesy of the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

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