Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Friday, April 07, 2006

Japanese woodblock artist Hokusai

This is an excerpt from an article in the NY Times. It's an art review of an exhibition of the Japanese Woodblock artist Hokusai, whom I've previously written about. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full article, which includes more pictures. Enjoy.

Art Review

Hokusai in Washington: A Retrospective of the Restless Japanese Master
Published: April 7, 2006

BECAUSE so many of the works are on paper, the lights are low throughout much of the consciousness-altering Hokusai retrospective at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Such conservational precaution seems visually fitting for once. In this exhibition, Katsushika Hokusai charges out of the dimness of art history as if on a golden chariot, glittering and clattering with genius, armed to the teeth in talent.

Hokusai, who was born into an artisanal family, said he started drawing at 6. His career, which had great periods of success and also of neglect, spanned 70 years of unremitting activity in painting, woodblock prints and printed albums. This show of 150 works barely scratches the surface of his output, frequently described as sufficient for at least a dozen artists.
Famous as a precursor to Impressionism, Hokusai (1760-1849) may be the best-known Japanese artist in the West. His woodblock prints began to influence artists and designers in Europe almost as soon as they began to be seen there in the 1850's. Especially influential were his "36 Views of Mount Fuji," from the early 1830's, especially "The Great Wave," a work almost as widely quoted, imitated and parodied as Munch's "Scream."

"The Great Wave," from the final half of Hokusai's career, is prominently displayed in the exhibition's introductory gallery, which briefly encapsulates his range of mediums. It is a fierce physical image, and only slightly less daunting than the opening work: a late hanging scroll of a levitating demon with red skin like live embers, who swirls out of a coil of smoke and cinders.
Represented here by an unusually fine imprint, "The Great Wave" shows a monstrous form curling over three small boats like a huge paw thrust out of the earth. Its repeating curls of foam suggest multiple claws, fully extended; spumes of spray may as well be flying clods of dirt. Fuji, snow-capped, low and distant, almost reads as another whitecap, but the famous landmark could be the last bit of dry land glimpsed by the boats' panicked fishermen. The wave's deep trough reflects the influence of European perspective, which Hokusai gleaned from engravings and printed books that circulated in Japan. You can also see signs of things to come: van Gogh, Gauguin and Art Nouveau.

This exhibition, which has been organized by Anne Yonemura, senior associate curator of Japanese art at the Freer and Sackler galleries, expands our understanding of Hokusai's achievement far, far beyond "The Great Wave." It gives his development and sensibility a depth and detail that is still too infrequently accorded Asian artists of the past, and anoints him as an unusually immediate art historical giant: a leading figure in Edo Japan and a point of origin not only for Impressionism but also for large chunks of popular culture — an ancestor of comic books, animation and action figures.

The show's variety is almost too much to take in, and its organization — half chronological, half thematic — can seem a bit hectic at first. But the palpable restlessness is mostly Hokusai's. Something close to an electrical current courses through his art as he moves from style to style, subject to subject and even name to name.

Though he spent nearly his entire life in the thriving metropolis of Edo, the future Tokyo, he moved 93 times, by his count, during his 89 years and changed his name with each shift in interest, as if confidently posting his latest sense of self. No subject — plant, animal, mineral or supernatural — was beyond the reach of his skills, sense of humanity or powers of observation, or for that matter beyond his interest in history, literature and poetry. All styles seemed open to him — Japanese, Chinese and Western. And in nearly any image involving living beings, there is always an element of humor, however gentle, that enlivens his subjects, giving them the force of individual personality.

Hokusai had great luck when he needed it. In 1779, at 19, he entered the studio of Katsukawa Shunsho (1726-1792), one of the greatest artists of the ukiyo-e prints, inspired by the pleasures of city life — the "floating world." (Several of Shunsho's prints are on view through today at Sebastian Izzard on East 76th Street, one of several fine exhibitions lingering from Asia Week.) Shunsho named his talented acolyte Shunro; under that pseudonym Hokusai displayed a gift for innovative poses in the portrayals of the courtesans (or geishas) and actors that were the staple subjects of ukiyo-e.

"Hokusai" is at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, (202) 633-4880, through May 14.

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