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Hokusai

Category: Artist and sculptor

Hokusai as puppet

Katsushika Hokusai (1760 –1849) was a Japanese artist, ukiyo-e painter and printmaker of the Edo period.  Born in Edo (now Tokyo), Hokusai is best known as creator of the woodblock print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (c. 1831) which includes the internationally recognized print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, created during the 1820s.

According to Wikipedia “Hokusai created the Thirty-Six Views both as a response to a domestic travel boom and as part of a personal obsession with Mount Fuji”  Except he didn’t, because every print that Hokusai produced in this series and for that matter many of his other works is of the Floating world – they are spiritual pictures, symbolic, which is why they were so popular, because they were produced at a time of great spirituality when Shinto was at its most developed.

Hokusai’s spirituality was inherited.  Hokusai's father was the “mirror-maker Nakajima Ise, who produced mirrors for the shogun,  his work on mirrors also included the painting of designs around the mirrors”.  Mirrors have deep symbolic significance and the maker of mirrors with the scenes of the spiritual world around the edge must have also been capable of spiritual experience to be able to produce them. Hokusai's mother was a Geisha.

At the age of 12, he was sent by his father to work in a bookshop and lending library,  where reading books made from wood-cut blocks was a popular entertainment of the middle and upper classes. At 14, he became an apprentice to a wood-carver, where he worked until the age of 18, whereupon he was accepted into the studio of Katsukawa Shunsho. Shunsho was an artist of ukiyo-e,  and head of the Katsukawa school which tended to images of the Geisha and Kabuki actors.

After a year, Hokusai's name changed for the first time, when he was dubbed Shunro by his master [a sign of spiritual progress and ascent on the spiritual path]. It was under this name that he published his first prints, a series of pictures of Kabuki actors published in 1779.

During the decade he worked in Shunsho's studio, Hokusai was married to his first wife, about whom very little is known except that she died in the early 1790s. He married again in 1797, although this second wife also died after a short time. Thus he may have had inherited talent but Grief probably played a significant part in keeping the spiritual door open.

He fathered two sons and three daughters with these two wives, and his youngest daughter Sakae, also known as Oi, eventually became an artist. Another indication that inherited genes played a part in his inspiration.

Upon the death of Shunsho in 1793, Hokusai began exploring other styles of art.  He was soon expelled from the Katsukawa school by Shunko, the chief disciple of Shunsho, possibly due to studies at the rival Kano school. This event was, in his own words, inspirational: "What really motivated the development of my artistic style was the embarrassment I suffered at Shunko's hands."– so we have humiliation as another driver.

Hokusai changed the subjects of his works, moving away from the images of Geisha and actors that were the traditional subjects of his original school.  Instead, his work became focused on landscapes.  What it actually enabled him to do was move into true spiritual painting, as opposed to depicting those who could have spiritual experiences. 

The next period saw Hokusai's association with the Tawaraya School and the adoption of the name "Tawaraya Sori". He produced many brush paintings, called surimono, and illustrations for kyoka ehon (illustrated book of humorous poems) during this time. In 1798, Hokusai passed his name on to a pupil and set out as an independent artist, free from ties to a school for the first time, adopting the name Hokusai Tomisa.

By 1800, Hokusai had adopted the name he would most widely be known by, Katsushika Hokusai, the former name referring to the part of Edo where he was born and the latter meaning, 'north studio'. So he was well on the way to dawn and the east.

That year, he published two collections of landscapes, Famous Sights of the Eastern Capital and Eight Views of Edo. He also began to attract students of his own, eventually teaching 50 pupils over the course of his life.

In 1811, at the age of 51, Hokusai changed his name to Taito.  In 1812 he produced  Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing.  In 1820, Hokusai changed his name yet again, this time to "Iitsu,".  At this point he was probably nearing the end of the spiritual path he had been travelling.  Each stage is marked by a name change and it is noticeable that his paintings at this later stage are indeed extremely special.  Some look as though they were produced by out of body experience.

It was during the 1820s that Hokusai produced Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, as well as A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces and Unusual Views of Celebrated Bridges in the Provinces.  He also began producing a number of detailed individual images of flowers and birds, including the extraordinarily detailed Poppies and Flock of Chickens.

The next period, beginning in 1834, aged 74, saw Hokusai working under the name "Gakyo Rojin Manji" (The Old Man Mad About Art). The choice of the term Old man may be symbolic.   It was at this time that Hokusai produced One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji.  He himself said

From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie.”

Self-portrait at age of 83.

 

In 1839, disaster struck as a fire destroyed Hokusai's studio and much of his work. But Hokusai never stopped painting, and completed Ducks in a Stream at the age of 87. Constantly seeking to produce better work, he said on his deathbed,

"If only Heaven will give me just another ten years... Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter."

 

He died on May 10, 1849 (18th day of the 4th month of the 2nd year of the Kaei era by the old calendar), and was buried at the Seikyo-ji in Tokyo (Taito Ward).

 

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