Monday, August 31, 2020

The Nature of Hokusai

This post features no fossils.  There is some consideration of how the natural world is treated in works by the late 18th and early 19th century Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai.  Mostly, though, this post is an excuse to show some of the remarkable prints Hokusai created and to suggest that time devoted to their consideration is time well spent.

In this time of upheaval and uncertainty, I have found that the art of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), one of the great masters of the Japanese ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”), offers a welcome respite.  His woodblock prints of a bygone era in Japan foster a salutary perspective on our current period.  Hokusai was a careful and sensitive observer of the natural world and the place of human beings in it, a place he seems to suggest is never quite secure.  Yet, so often people are depicted as persevering against natural forces.

Hokusai is best known for his Under the Wave Off Kanagawa (referred to with various other names, including The Great Wave.).   A copy of the print is shown below.  This and all subsequent images of Hokusai’s prints in this post are in the public domain.  They were all downloaded from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.  Highlighted titles provide links to online versions of the prints.

Under the Wave is part of the series of prints titled Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji published in the early 1830s and subsequently expanded with an additional ten views of the mountain.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website provides high resolution images of these and other prints by Hokusai.  A wonderful print volume titled Hokusai:  Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji with helpful text by Amélie Balcou is published by Prestel Publishing (2019).

This series is, to me, quite compelling, not only for the world that each print reveals with study, but also because of when in the author’s life they were published.  The late 1820s were a seemingly never ending onslaught of difficulties for Hokusai:  he suffered serious financial loses, particularly from trying to address his grandson’s monetary woes; he had what was possibly a stroke; and his wife died.  His daughter, Eijo, an artist in her own right, moved back home to life with him.  (See, Julyan H. E. Cartwright and Hisami Nakamura, What Kind of Wave Is Hokusai’s Great Wave Off Kanagawa?, Notes and Records of The Royal Society, Volume 63, February 2009; and Francesco Carelli, Hokusai:  Beyond the Great Wave, London Journal of Primary Care, Volume 10, Number 4, 2018.)

Yes, Hokusai had compiled many sketch books over the years which he could draw upon, but the significance remains that it was likely during a time of existential challenge that he drew the Thirty-Six Views together.

Jason Farago’s interactive article titled A Picture of Change for a World in Constant Motion that appeared in The New York Times on August 7, 2020, is a particularly enjoyable and informative introduction to one of these views and to the impact the entire series had internationally.  Farago focuses on the print titled Ejiri in Suruga Province (shown below).

He is a perceptive guide, noting that, although this is not one of Hokusai’s best known prints, “I love it most for how it captures an instant, with an exactitude that feels almost photographic.  Here.  Now.  A country road, two trees, daytime:  hold onto your hats.”  The subject matter is quotidian and the people in it struggle against the wind.  A simple, washed out Mount Fuji sits in the background.  Farago describes Western influences on this print and others in the series, and then, in turn, shows some of Hokusai’s influence on Western art.  There is a great deal going on here, beyond just the action it depicts.

For me, this particular view well captures aspects of many of the series’ views.  In a majority, the outside world is, to varying degrees, a cultivated world.  What Farago calls an “ordinary, little marsh” is tamed by a winding path on an embankment that rises above the grasses.  In this and other views, the people often struggle against natural forces, working hard to climb a steep path up a mountain, seriously leaning (as here) into a strong wind, hunkering down to keep boats from succumbing to ocean waves (as in Under the Wave above), . . . .  And so, despite evidence of  “domestication” of some of the landscape, nature continues to exert her power.

The role of the natural world seems to vary from print to print; at times people appear to be at its mercy, at others, they seem at one with nature or, indeed, in the process of taming away much of the wildness in the landscape.  The omnipresent Mount Fuji offers, I sense, a subtle warning that any stability in the scene is contingent upon the quiescence of the natural world whose overarching agent is this active stratovolcano.

One of the Thirty-Six Views I particularly like speaks to this juxtaposition of cultivated nature and the potentially destructive natural world.  Titled Cushion Pines at Aoyama, it shows a father and son climbing the path to Ryōan-ji Temple; the father is motioning to Mount Fuji in the distance.  A group of people are picnicking on an outcropping overlooking the famous Zen gardens of the temple.  To my mind, those gardens designed for purposes of meditation are the essence of the taming and shaping of nature.  The trunks of the pines visible in the print (lower left) are uniform, almost artificial.  Indeed, at one point, there is a trunk that appears to rest perpendicular to the others, creating a lattice.  And, lest there be any confusion about this, at the far lower left is someone, mostly hidden by the trees, carefully raking the ground around the trunks.  It’s a stunning view because, from the cultivated and tamed foreground, one encounters a middle ground with nothing but mist, while rising sharply in the background is Mount Fuji, looming over it all.  For me, this print is about perspective on the permanent and ephemeral, on the here and now and what is to come.  Sit and gain clarity by meditating on the gardens, or continue the climb to the temple.

Novelist James A. Michener, a connoisseur and collector of Japanese art, characterized Hokusai’s prints as “really one of the most impressive accomplishments in ukiyo-e.”  (Japanese Prints:  From Early Masters to the Modern, 1959.)  Though he proceeded to describe the prints with adjectives that confound me because I disagree with most of them vehemently (e.g., “static” and “unreal” – to my mind, the prints are anything but that), he, nevertheless, ended up where I do.  Michener wrote that Hokusai’s prints “sing of nature.”  Amen to that.

There are myriad prints by Hokusai besides the Thirty-Six Views.  Indeed, there are many, many additional views of Mount Fuji, sketchbooks brimming with scenes and people, what appear to be guide books for those artists who might emulate him, and on and on.  It’s quite overwhelming.  But from this treasure, I have drawn a few prints that have helped to show me how nature does sing at Hokusai’s hand.

He was capable of capturing some part of the natural world in exquisite detail.  To take just a couple of the multitude that might be selected, I offer these two images from his Random Sketches, a publication that ran to 15 volumes with the first published in 1814.  Clearly, he was a close observer of the natural world around him.  He used a delicate touch here to depict these creatures, yet each of these animals is wonderfully robust and alive.

One of my favorite sketches approaches the relationship of humans to nature with a humorous touch, at least that was my initial reaction.  Here is a man (gentleman?  warrior?) contemplating two butterflies.  This comes from A Realistic Sketchbook (1814).

The man may be gaining something important by pausing to contemplate the two butterflies fluttering just out of reach.  Perhaps he is finding some perspective on his problems and cares, or on his status?  Are they suggesting some sense of missing balance?  Is he receiving some message about ephemera?

So, there can be whimsy in Hokusai’s art, including his take on the natural world.  Perhaps no more than in the following print from Fugaku Hyakkei (One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji) which is dated to 1834-35.  That's Mount Fuji "caught" in the spiderweb.

Hokusai, in the afterword to Fugaku Hyakkei, addressed the relationship of his artistry to nature with a spirit that I long to internalize, one that I believe carried him through the dark times.  He signed the work, “Gayko Rojin Manji” which means “Manji the old man mad about art.”  And so, at age 74, he wrote:

Since the age of six, I had a habit of sketching from life.  From fifty onwards I began producing a fair amount of art work, 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 only I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature.  At one hundred, I hope I may have a divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and ten I may have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive.  May men of great age and virtue see that I am not hoping for too much!

(This text is translated by Julyan H.E. Cartwright and Hisami Nakamura, and appears in What Kind of Wave is Hokusai’s Great Wave Off Kanagawa?  Of note, the authors demonstrate quite convincingly in this article that the Great Wave print is not of a tsunami.)

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