Katushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is one of Japan’s most internationally renowned artists. From mythical beasts to landscapes to the divine, he was painting right until his death. In fact, his career peaked when he was in his sixties, after which his most important works were produced.
The British Museum’s ‘Hokusai: the Great Wave’ exhibition is the first in the UK to focus on his later works. It’s running until 13 August and tickets are just £12.
This is a particularly interesting exhibition not only for its art and scale (we spent a good hour and a half inside) but also for its storytelling. The exhibition is structured so that it takes you through key moments in Hokusai’s life and tells the story of his personal beliefs and spiritual and artistic quests through paintings, drawings, wood block prints and illustrated books. Whether or not you know anything about Hokusai or Japanese art, this exhibition is inviting and accessible.
An early impression of Hokusai’s most iconic print, ‘The Great Wave’, will of course be on display and people will be crowding around it like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre! It’s a wonderful print and it’s worth waiting out the crowds so you can get up close and see the detail. Other particular stand-out works on display are the print series ‘Thirty Six Views of Mt Fuji’ and painted ceiling panels emblazoned with phoenixes and mythical beasts.
Hokusai’s later works are so varied and stand out not only due to his talent but also the hardships he faced in life. A stroke, the death of his wife and financial worries deepened his interest in the divine and spiritual. As well as great landscapes and the creatures and plants inhabiting them, Hokusai captured dragons and demons in his works. The range of work on display really is impressive and it’s easy to forget the same man was behind them.
Hokusai took on over 30 names as an artist in his lifetime. Although it was common for artists to adopt new names following a significant life event, he did it far more often. My favourite name is ‘old man crazy to paint’. The exhibition also gives a nod to Hokusai’s daughter Oi, who following her divorce returned to live with her father to care for him in his later life. She did in fact work alongside him!
At the time of posting this blog, the exhibition will actually be undergoing a rotation, meaning there will be some new works on display very soon. Each rotation features around 110 works, so I’m intrigued what new things will be available to view for those who visited after the first group!