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Fugaku sanjurokkei (Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji)

Fugaku sanjurokkei (Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji)
A complete set of forty-six prints, each signed Saki no Hokusai Iitsu hitsu, Hokusai Iitsu hitsu or Hokusai aratame Iitsu hitsu, published by Nishimuraya Yohachi (Eijudo), c.1830-4
Horizontal oban, various sizes(46)

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Takaaki Murakami (村上高明)
Takaaki Murakami (村上高明) Vice President, Specialist and Head of Department | Korean Art

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Lot Essay

The Ever-Continuing Impact of Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

With no less than three absolute masterpieces in its first instalment of ten prints, Hokusai’s series of the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, Fugaku sanjūrokkei, first took Japan by storm and later the world. Yet, nobody at the time, including Hokusai (1760-1849) himself, could have imagined that his In the Hollow of a Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki namiura), popularly known as the Great Wave, would, until this very day, become the most iconic work of art of all times, with no potential contender in sight. One of the more recent examples of its world-wide impact would be professional LEGO builder Mitsui Junpei (born 1997) re-making the design in Lego bricks. Just a brief look at his work, where he manages to emulate the original design three dimensionally, may also help us see TeamLab’s Black Waves as just one step further, however two dimensionally, letting the waves roll on, potentially endlessly. We can similarly appreciate The Great Wave, the glass mosaic by German glass artist Lutz Haufschild (born 1943), decorating the International Departure Lounge of Vancouver International Airport as just another interpretation of endless waves.
We would obviously need less imagination in the case of the memorial for the victims of the 1996 TWA Flight 800 crash, created by David Busch Associates and erected on a granite wall at Smith Point County Park, New York. One side of the 365 x 850 cms wall has the names of all 230 passengers and crew, on the other is an amalgam of Hokusai’s print from the Fuji series and a later bookplate from his Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, 1835, the wave, understandably, made up of 230 gulls. Serving as a memorial and annual meeting point for relatives, the association is obviously with drama.
We also see this association in an illustration by Tony Abruzzo (1916-1990), adapting Hokusai’s Wave in a 1962 issue of the romance comic Secret Hearts, which, in turn, inspired Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) to make Drowning Girl, one of his most important paintings only a year later, in 1963. Both Abruzzo and Lichtenstein capture the wave and give it a dramatic twist that Hokusai never, I believe, intended, and which was never on his mind. I would rather agree with Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) who, writing to his brother Theo from Arles in September 1888, already remarked that he was trying to observe everything as if it were ‘through Japanese eyes,’ noticing ‘Just think, isn’t it almost like a religion that we can be taught by these unsophisticated Japanese who live surrounded by nature as if they themselves were flowers’ – indeed meaning that ‘nature’ imposes no threat whatsoever, as Hokusai demonstrates in all of his landscapes. But it is, of course, also Lichtenstein’s artistic freedom to zoom in on Hokusai’s Wave and go for the drama that Edmond de Goncourt in his monograph study of Hokousaï of 1896 already saw in ‘the crest of the wave torn apart and dispersed in a rainfall of drops in the shape of animal claws.’ As for that, in his 1990 lithograph ‘The Wave,’ David Hockney, born 1937, despite its abstraction, remains closer to Hokusai’s design. We can imagine seeing boats among his waves that are, in turn, also slightly reminiscent of the sky in Van Gogh’s Starry Night of 1889. A year earlier, in 1989, Hockney had already shown his keen interest in Hokusai in his large painting of A Bigger Wave. Anyway, still today Hokusai’s iconic In the Hollow of a Wave off Kanagawa lends itself to endless variations.
Apart from the Wave off Kanagawa as the most obvious source of inspiration, it must have been the simple concept of the peerless mountain with its ideal symmetrical shape that fascinated Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) in her Untitled (Mt. Fuji) of 1960. In her painting, Mt. Fuji is seen rising from a mass of white, its top all in white against a pink sky above what might represent a band of mist. It thus seems to echo Hokusai’s design of South Wind and Clear Dawn (cat. no. 2). It is well-known that the Canadian artist Matthew Wong was fascinated with the color blue. To what extent Hokusai may have inspired him to create a highly imaginative landscape in blues with a curving path leading to a snow-capped conical mountain in the distance, a work dating from 2019, the year he committed suicide, and titled Unknown Pleasures, and whether he was imagining some kind of Fuji as his Shangri-La, we cannot know, alas. Inspired by a lesser-known design from Hokusai’s series of Mount Fuji, Jeff Wall (born 1946) in his A Sudden Gust of Wind of 1993, a color photograph projected in the Tate Modern, London, at the size of 250 x 397 cm, presents what seems to be Jeff Wall’s translation of Ejiri in Suruga Province, complete with papers and even a man’s hat flying in the air. And most conspicuously, there are the tall trees to the left that also fascinated both Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and Henri Rivière (1864-1951), among others, in quite a few of their works.
One of the reasons for the overnight success of Hokusai’s series of views of Mount Fuji was that it was the first large-scale series of landscape prints in the full-size ōban format, an absolute novelty. It is only then that landscape prints become a new genre in the already more than a century old tradition of Japanese woodblock prints, dating from around 1700. Coming out in several annual instalments from the year 1830, its immediate success enabled Hokusai to find his publishers ready to issue more series of prints of landscapes in these years, five of which were in the same full-size ōban format, three others in various both smaller and larger paper formats. Soon, Hokusai would also be joined by his contemporaries Hiroshige (1797-1858), best-known for his series of Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō Highway of 1832-34, Keisai Eisen (1790-1848), and Kuniyoshi (1798-1861). The latter would in the early 1840s, still during Hokusai’s lifetime, design a series of prints titled Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji Seen from the Eastern Capital (Tōto Fujimi sanjūrokkei), published by Murataya Jirōbei, of which, alas, only five designs are known. And Hiroshige would use the concept of ‘thirty-six views of Mt. Fuji’ at least on four occasions. Two of these are series of printed fans issued in the 1840s, both probably incomplete, though that is always difficult to know in the case of such items that are normally used one summer season only and then thrown away. Then there is a complete series by Hiroshige of the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji in the small chūban format, published by Sanoya Kihei, and a quite impressive series in the upright full-size ōban format, published by Tsutaya Kichizō in mid-1858, the year Hiroshige died. Obviously, Hokusai’s print In the Hollow of a Wave off Kanagawa, popularly known as the Great Wave, was already at the time recognized as a commanding masterpiece that not only inspired Hiroshige in at least two of his designs, but also quite a few other artists.
As the prints of the Fuji series reached Europe and later also the United States, not only the Great Wave was an eye-opener, it was also the way Hokusai viewed the three-dimensional reality, capturing this surprisingly effectively in his two-dimensional prints, albeit quite differently from the European practice. Van Gogh, knowing Hokusai’s print, had already in September 1888 shared his observations with his brother Theo, writing that, ‘as you say in your letter: these waves are claws and we feel that the boats are caught in them.’ Hokusai’s design must obviously have been on his mind when painting his Starry Night around June 18th, 1889, generally considered one of his greatest works of art. We also know that Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Henri Rivière owned a copy of the print of the Wave, the latter even making a set of color-lithographs titled Thirty-six Views of the Eiffel Tower in 1902. And in a totally different medium, three symphonic sketches by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) published under the title of La mer in 1905, were also inspired by Hokusai’s print of the Wave of which, he too, owned a copy.
Indeed, when the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji reached the Parisian circles of both collectors and artists, painters of various traditions also started experimenting with these novel concepts of perspective, often creating a bold contrast between foreground and background, or also cutting short their compositions. Thus, we find paintings with, for example, just the head and the left arm of a man seen on the back (Edgar Degas). And the painting of Garden at Sainte-Adresse of 1867 by Claude Monet is reminiscent of Hokusai’s composition of the balcony of the Five-hundred Rakan Temple (cat. no. 33). In his Wooden Bridge at Argenteuil of 1872, Monet was obviously inspired by Hokusai’s plate of Mount Fuji under the Mannen Bridge at Fukagawa (cat. no. 4), as was James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) in his Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge of 1875. And a little earlier, Monet’s Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea of 1871 may well remind us of Hokusai’s Sunset over Ryōgoku Bridge (cat. no. 32). Moreover, could it be that Paul Cézanne’s (1839-1906) many attempts to paint the Mount Sainte-Victoire near his house by Aix-en-Provence where he lived from 1885, were also inspired by Hokusai’s series of views of Mount Fuji? In at least one of these, a real great work of art with a large pine tree in the foreground, dating from around 1887, we cannot help being reminded of Hokusai’s design of Mishimagoe in Kai Province (cat. no. 16).
We may, naturally, also wonder how and why Hokusai came to work on this epoch-making series of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. As for the theme, it is good to realize that Mount Fuji had from olden times been considered a sacred mountain by the Japanese, as Hokusai also demonstrated in his albums of A Hundred Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku hyakkei, 3 vols. 1834-c.1842) with an opening plate introducing the mountain as an abode of the gods. Japan’s native religion, Shintoism, regarded the mountain as the dwelling place of the goddess Konohana Sakuyahime, whereas also Buddhism saw the top as a metaphor for spiritual enlightenment, referring to the summit as the ‘perfect meditative state,’ zenjo. Indeed, there are numerous religious paintings of the sacred mountain, the so-called Fuji Mandala. It was the Shugendō sect, originating in the ninth century, that started climbing Mount Fuji from the fourteenth century (Cat. 000). Especially since Edo was established as the capital of Japan, this cult became very popular, pretending to heal the sick and bring peace and prosperity. In the early nineteenth century, their members, amounting to some ten percent of the commoners of the city of Edo alone, were organized in ‘Fuji-associations,’ Fuji-kō.
Nishimuraya Yohachi, the publisher of the series of the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, is known to have belonged to one of these associations, which may also explain his readiness to work with Hokusai on this unprecedented and possibly risky project. In the format of popular illustrated books, we only know of two predecessors, one of which is a collection of 31 double-page plates in line and tones of gray by Ōishi Shūga, titled The True Shape of the King of Mountains, Sannō shinkei, published in 1822. The other is Kawamura Minsetsu’s A Hundred Fujis, Hyaku Fuji, first published in Edo by Nishimura Genroku in 1771, and reprinted in Osaka in 1818. Hokusai was certainly familiar with this book, as is obvious from at least ten of its plates that appear to have inspired him. A quite interesting example is Minsetsu’s plate of Hodogaya where we see some travelers along the Tōkaidō Highway, including a man leading a horse, the road lined with a row of pine trees, in short, the basic elements that we also see in Hokusai’s plate of Hodogaya (see Cat. 27). And then he must have noticed Minsetsu’s plate of the Hakone Mountains in Izu Province, again with a row of pine trees, but this time real high and towering over distant Mount Fuji. And that was exactly what he badly needed in his series: the bold contrast between foreground and background that also struck the nineteenth century artists when they first saw this absolute miraculous series of prints, a masterpiece by the artist Hokusai who, living with his daughter Oei, was, mind you, just seventy years old.
Possibly the earliest note on all the prints in the Fuji series is Edmond de Goncourt in his monograph study of Hokousaï. Paris 1896, pp. 162-169. Another such list is to be found in Laurence Binyon, A catalogue of the Japanese and Chinese woodcuts in the British Museum. London 1916, nos. 97-145. Then, there are numerous publications reproducing the complete series, a most interesting recent one is by Andreas Marks, Hokusai. Cologne 2022.
I can also recommend Christine M.E. Guth, Hokusai’s Great Wave. Biography of a global icon. Honolulu 2015.

Dr. Matthi Forrer
Senior researcher Japan Collections, the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden

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