The British Museum is celebrating the most famous figure in Japanese art. Katsushika Hokusai was a prolific print-maker and painter who lived from 1760-1849.
His entire life was spent under Japan’s strictly hierarchical and isolationist Tokugawa regime.
From the late 17th century, interaction with the outside world was tightly restricted. Only China, Korea and the Dutch East India Company had the right to visit—and then only for commerce, at the tiny port of Dejima.
The country was finally prised open at gunpoint by the US Commodore Matthew Perry and his fleet of warships just four years after Hokusai’s death.
But as this exhibition makes clear, both capitalism and culture were increasingly lapping at Japan’s shores during this confinement—and eroding the regime’s strict controls.
Indeed, a key turning point in Hokusai’s practice occurs when merchants from the Dutch East India Company gave him a commission in 1824. They ask for a series of prints depicting life on the mysterious archipelago.
They may have hoped for something typically “Japanese”.
Instead the commission acted as a catalyst for Hokusai to integrate his new European influences with ancient Japanese traditions, and forge the style that would make his reputation.
He was inspired by the cheap Dutch and French etchings that other foreign merchants had used as wrapping paper for their goods. And he introduced European perspective yet abstracted his designs and colours in ways that no artist from Europe had thought of.
Hokusai’s best works of this time resonate with our own dialectical vision of the world.
He captured both the flux of nature and society, and their interconnectedness. And his techniques embodied the exciting new synthesis of eastern and western influences, giving birth to something entirely new.
Unfortunately the British Museum’s exhibition doesn’t focus on these exciting years. Instead, it tries to make an argument for a late creative flowering—and fails.
British Museum, Room 35, Great Russell St, London WC1B 3DG.
Until 13 August (closed 3-6 July), Tickets £12. britishmuseum.org