After watching a TV programme on BBC last night I am totally enamoured with the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849) who most people know for iconic print “The Great wave off Kanagawa”. I’ve been to Japan a few years ago and was aware of his beautiful artwork but it was only since seeing more of it his work in more detail on the television arts programme that I am absolutely besotted with the clever simplicity of his artwork.
Hokusai was born in Edo (now known as Tokyo) and is best known for his woodprint series “Thirty six views of Mount Fuji” which he started when he was 70, and which expanded to 146 due to its popularity, continuing until his death at the age of 90. I love the depictions of everyday life of that time, with Mount Fuji sometimes just a small part of the background, underlining the way that the mountain is such an important part of the geography and people of Japan.
Hokusai was known by at least thirty names during his lifetime, which was normal practice of Japanese artists of that time and was related to the changes in his artistic production and style. He was born to a family of artisans and started painting at the age of six and I love the fact that he wanted to improve all the time, and felt that if he lived to the age of 110 he might just achieve it.
He started working in a bookshop and lending library at the age of 12 where reading books made from woodcut blocks were popular with the middle and upper classes. At 14 he started working as an apprentice to a wood-carver until he was 18 when he started working at the studio of Katsukawa Shunsho which specialised in the wood block prints and paintings that Hokusai would eventually master.
Erotic images of courtesans, and images of Kabuki actors were popular at that time, but after some years Hokusai moved away from these traditional subjects to landscapes and the depictions of the daily life of Japanese people from varying social levels.
He illustrated books of humorous poems and, published collections of landscapes and taught 50 pupils in the course of his life, becoming increasing famous. But in his own words he felt that he drew nothing of consequence until he was 70. He never stopped painting, even when he lost his studio and much of his work in a fire in 1830, and described himself as “The old man mad about art”.
I love the way that he wanted to improve all the time, all through his life, and never felt that he had achieved perfection as an artist. I love the simplicity of his drawings and the was that I can instantly see the cleverness of the designs, the way the landscape is drawn to lead your eye into the picture, the way the people depicted in the landscape illustrate the geography of the land as much as the other landmarks in it. I adore his use of negative spaces in the pictures that are masterful in their use.