Katsushika Hokusai was born in 1760 under the gaze of the snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji in Japan’s capital, Edo — at the time the world’s largest city, and the precursor to modern-day Tokyo. He changed his name no fewer than 30 times during his life, altering his artistic style with each new persona. He also famously declared that he would live until the age of 110. Scholars argue that his work reached its peak when he was in his 70s and 80s.
Hokusai made a name for himself designing ukiyo-e woodblock prints of Edo’s ‘floating world’ of bathhouses, pavilions and theatres, as well as landscapes and figurative illustrations to accompany poetry anthologies.
‘His revolutionary style incorporated elements of colour, shade and perspective inspired by French and Dutch engravings that were smuggled into Japan when contact with the outside world was forbidden,’ says Takaaki Murakami, Christie’s Japanese Art Specialist. Cheap to produce, his prints were bought and sold in volumes in the markets of Edo and became hugely popular during the artist’s lifetime.
Perhaps the best known of Hokusai’s volumes was his Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. Painted in dense hues of Prussian blue and indigo — which both flooded the market after Japan opened its ports to outsiders — the images depict the sacred mountain from town, sea and sky in all four seasons and ever surrounded by life.
‘The volume was made between 1831 and 1834 and was a remedy to Hokusai's financial problems, which had forced him from his home after his wife's death,’ says the specialist. ‘The work proved such a success that its publisher, Nishimuraya Yohachi (Eijudo) commissioned several editions, which accounts for the slight alterations in colour between examples.’ Existing heavily-worn wooden printing blocks also remain as testament to its popularity.
The cornerstone of Hokusai’s oeuvre in the west is his In The Well of the Great Wave off Kanagawa — the first of the 36 views. Depicting a seascape in early spring framed with pink cumulus clouds, the summit of an anchored Fuji watches over Tokyo Bay as skiffs battle crashing waves. Eight men scull each boat, as opposed to the usual four, suggesting that the intention of the trip was to deliver a valuable catch of bonito to the markets of Edo. ‘The question of whether or not they will make it, as each hunkers down amidst the storm, is the work’s enduring legacy,’ observes Murakami.
Hokusai’s prints caused a sensation when they were exhibited in Paris in 1867. Artists including Van Gogh, Cézanne, Degas and Manet all paid homage to his art in their paintings. Monet kept a print of the Great Wave in his house at Giverny, and Rodin’s private secretary, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), composed his poem De Berg (The Mountain, 1906-7) in tribute to Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji and the following book, One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji. Scholars such as Angus Lockyer argue that without Hokusai’s sense of imagined perspective, Impressionism, and perhaps even modern art itself, would have taken a different route.
Hokusai never made it to 110 years old, dying in 1849 at the age of 88. ‘If only Heaven will give me just another ten years... Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter,’ he said on his deathbed. Today, versions of his Great Wave, which has become one of the most reprinted images in the world, can be found in many major museum collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The British Museum, while his images fill the pages of Japan’s national passport.