Step into the floating world of Hokusai, whose Great Wave swept the art world

Coming to auction for the first time in 20 years, a complete set of the ukiyo-e master's 36 Views of Mount Fuji that unveils Japan’s profound connection with the majestic mountain and lively tapestry of Edo life

He’s one of the most illustrious names in Japanese art: Katsushika Hokusai, the masterful 19th-century printmaker. His tour-de-force works, such as The Great Wave and Red Fuji, established the widespread appeal of landscape woodblock prints in Japan’s Edo period. Over two centuries later, these scenes continue to cast a spell over the art world, having inspired artists ranging from Vincent van Gogh to Yoshitomo Nara.

On 19 March, Christie’s will offer Hokusai’s most iconic print series, 36 Views of Mount Fuji, as part of Japanese and Korean Art in New York. The first complete set of the series to be offered at auction in two decades, the 46 prints embody Hokusai’s mastery of ukiyo-e woodblock prints.

Ukiyo-e prints portrayed the ‘floating world’ of Edo (now Tokyo), depicting bathhouses, pavilions, theatres, and other scenes from the lively urban centre. Kabuki actors were amongst the genre’s most popular subjects, but Hokusai diverged from tradition. ‘He’s one of the first artists to work on landscapes rather than images of actors and beauties,’ says Takaaki Murakami, Christie’s Head of Japanese Art.

Published between 1830 and 1834, the series experienced immediate success in Japan. Perhaps most striking about the works is Hokusai's copious use of the newly accessible Prussian blue pigment, brought to Japan by Western traders around the turn of the century. Hokusai also drew significant inspiration from eighteenth-century Dutch manuals on perspective, incorporating linear perspective into the compositions.

Both of these novel elements are present in The Great Wave, where the brilliant blue captures the dynamic energy of the towering wave. Today The Great Wave stands as one of the most widely reproduced images in the world.

While 36 Views of Mount Fuji initially comprised just 36 prints, the series became so popular because of these new innovations that Hokusai added 10 more prints. In his day, these prints were inexpensive and were sold in great volumes throughout the markets of Edo.

Mount Fuji, Japan’s sacred mountain, remains a consistent visual element throughout the series. In the 12th century, it became the centre of training for ascetic Buddhism, and the mountain played a multifaceted role in the lives and imaginations of the Edo people. Across the 46 prints, Hokusai portrays the famous peak in various landscapes, seasons, and weather conditions.

‘His portrayal of Mount Fuji is versatile and complex,’ explains Murakami. ‘It varies by the mood and subject of each print. We see the mountain in drastically different sizes and styles. But overall, I believe Hokusai is deeply intrigued by the beauty and spirit of Mount Fuji and often presents it with a sense of humour.’

For instance, Sunshu Ejiri (Ejiri in Suruga Province) shows travellers navigating a narrow path who find themselves assailed by a gust of wind. Tissues, leaves and a straw hat are carried away. The looming presence of Mount Fuji in the background accentuates the profound sense of human vulnerability amidst nature’s force. ‘Nature was one of the most important things for Hokusai because it is something we cannot control,’ says Murakami.

Hokusai expertly blends the grandeur of the natural world with human activities, striking a harmonious balance and offering rare insight into Edo society. ‘It’s as if Hokusai is observing society with a bird’s-eye view, where he sees the exuberance of urban Edo reflected in the tea houses, commercial streets and bustling trades by land and sea,’ says Murakami. ‘Hokusai was keen to depict the real world he witnessed and experienced, instead of the inaccessible supremacy of royalty or the staged happenings of actors.’

For example in Honjo Tatekawa, workers labour at a lumber distribution centre above a canal that links the Sumida and Nakagawa Rivers. The towering stacks of lumber contribute to a heightened sense of movement, alluding to Edo’s burgeoning manufacturing sector. ‘Edo was a developing city during Hokusai’s time.’ says Murakami. ‘This scene would have been representative of what he saw daily.’

During the Edo period, Japan pursued a policy of isolation in its foreign affairs; the nation virtually ceased trade with other countries and imposed restrictions on travel in and out of the country. However, with the removal of the final Tokugawa shogun in 1868, Japan began re-opening its borders. Subsequently, ukiyo-e prints began to be exported to the West.

Hokusai's exploration of the sublime, where nature's beauty and its potential for awe-inspiring force coexist, has captivated artists around the world since then. As Hokusai' prints began appearing in Europe and in the United States in large numbers in the mid-19th century, they influenced artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the development of movements like Impressionism.

The Great Wave in particular has served as inspiration for countless 20th-century artworks. For instance, Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl which portrays a blue-haired woman disappearing beneath the silvery waves and Andy Warhol’s Waves (After Hokusai) which pays direct hommage to Hokusai’s work.

‘The traditions and techniques found in 36 Views of Mount Fuji are still being used and reinvented today,’ says Lindsay Griffith, Head of Prints and Multiples at Christie’s. Yoshitomo Nara’s In the Floating World (Set of 16) is a great example of this. ‘You see very similar iconography, the same sort of mountains and reinterpreted domestic scenes,’ Griffith explains. She also points to Helen Frankenthaler’s woodblock print series Tales of Genji, noting its resonance with Hokusai’s work in terms of its radiance and sense of soft colour.

‘36 Views of Mount Fuji comprises some of the most famous images in the print media, like The Great Wave, and it’s an incredibly important work to our field,’ notes Griffith. ‘When artists work in series, they can explore things from many perspectives all in one work — that will always be very meaningful.’

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