Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave, British Museum is a fascinating look at a mysterious artist - review

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The terrifying power of nature: Under the wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave), Hokusai, colour woodblock, 1831
The terrifying power of nature: Under the wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave), Hokusai, colour woodblock, 1831

In the history of Japanese art, no-one has come close to the genius of Katsushika Hokusai. The 19th-century painter and print-maker’s passion for understanding the natural world, expressed in thousands of drawings, suggests an oriental Leonardo, and he is best known as the creator of The Great Wave, the most famous of all Japanese wood-block prints. It captures the terrifying power of nature in an image of supreme elegance and feels the ultimate in Japanese aesthetic refinement.

Yet as this fascinating exhibition makes clear, Hokusai’s most famous work was not only heavily indebted to western art, it also marked the start of a late creative flowering at the age of 71 (his determination to experiment well into old age puts him in a select band with other artists such as Titian and Matisse). It was an artistic journey in which, the show argues, painting was at least as important as the prints for which Hokusai is best known.

Hokusai was famed for his eccentricity: he changed his dwelling-place 93 times in his 90 years, and his name hardly less frequently. One of these aliases, Gakyo Rojin – Old Man Crazy to Paint – expresses, the exhibition argues, his desire to move beyond the popular printmaking in which he began his career to the more refined and individualistic medium of paint.

Boys’ Festival, Hokusai, ink and colour on old Dutch paper, 1824-1826

Far from being wildly experimental, the first paintings we see are rather static and inexpressive: for example. A Chinese immortal and her attendant dragon painted on separate panels. However, some Western-looking drawings depicting traditional scenes using very un-Japanese tonal shading, confirm that Hokusai was open to influences from many sources.

However, the exhibition alternates groups of paintings and prints, focusing on different aspects of Hokusai’s art – his interests in nature, history and the spiritual – while giving plenty of opportunity to marvel at his classic images.

His greatest series of prints, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, which includes The Great Wave – and which established landscape as a genre in Japanese print-making – used Western deep perspective to create a sense of space and distance. Misty layers of blue, seen in images of boats and fishermen around Mount Fuji, evoke an atmosphere that goes far beyond what you’d expect of a medium in which everything is cut from wooden blocks.

At the same time, Hokusai uses powerful, semi-abstract patterns to evoke transient natural phenomena, such as water, rain and smoke. Chiselled lines indicate banks of cloud beside the flat orange mountain in the so-called Red Fuji – an image that has become almost as much of a greetings card staple as The Great Wave.

It’s hardly surprising that these images had a world-changing impact on western modernists such as Monet and van Gogh (they began discovering his prints 20 years after his death in 1849). He, in turn, employed western notions of space, bringing the distant horizon into his images in a way that had never been seen in Japanese art, while retaining an Oriental aesthetic.

Waves, attribute to Hokusai, two ceiling panels for a festival cart, ink and colour on paulownia wood, 1845

In comparison, the paintings seem rather pedestrian and illustrative. A large Gamecock and Hen are lively in their strutting postures, but isolated on a gold background (and mounted, like all the paintings on long textile hangings), they lack the dynamic interplay of pattern and texture seen in the prints.

A humorous brush and ink painting of The Seven Lucky Gods has a playful spontaneity, but not half the vitality of a set of ghost story illustrations or some extraordinary notebook studies of people and their billowing kimonos in high winds. These impromptu drawings were turned into best-selling wood-cut books which would suggest that, paradoxically, Hokusai was most himself when the work had been mediated by other hands.

This exhibition gives a far more vivid and intimate sense than you’d expect of so remote a cultural figure. We learn of Hokusai’s rather rackety life-style, moving from one set of cheap lodgings to another – often penniless despite his fame – in the company of his daughter Oi, also an artist.

His adherence to mystical Nichiren Buddhism is shown in his designs for temples, and whole sections of a shrine painted by the artist himself. But it is also expressed in a more general belief that all life is inter-connected, a belief that is seen in his sketchbooks which contain scientifically accurate studies of animals, insects and birds.

The show ends with seven large paintings, all very varied in subject and treatment: a demon feasting, executed in brisk gestural brush-marks; a smiley tiger who would work well in a children’s picture book; a prayer scene covered in spattered black ink that lends an abstract expressionist feel.

If Hokusai’s mastery of different methods of painting is impressive, this array of works lacks one of the things we always look for in an artist: a powerful, unifying aesthetic – a quality that is instantly and irresistibly apparent in the prints. On the evidence of this exhibition, Japan’s greatest artist may have aspired to classical refinement, but he was, at heart, a populist entertainer.

Until Aug 13. Tickets: 020 7323 8181; britishmuseum.org