Katsushika Hokusai is one of the most well-known Japanese artists in the world. This brilliant artist created his works about 200 years ago, and has made a significant impact on art in Japan as well as the whole world. Even in the present day, any exhibition displaying work by Katsushika Hokusai will be visited by a large number of people for many days. This just goes to show how popular he is. Katsushika Hokusai was a highly influential figure in art around the world, but what was he like as a person?
“HOKUSAI” Attracts Popularity Across the Globe
Katsushika Hokusai lived and created works some 200 years ago, yet he has many devoted fans around the world in the present day. In 2017, the British Museum in London, U.K. held a special exhibition about Katsushika Hokusai called “Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave.” This exhibition gathered artworks by Katsushika Hokusai usually housed in Japan, Europe and other places around the world, and displayed them all in one place. It was so popular that there was a long queue of people lining up before the museum was even open, hoping to buy an entrance ticket for that day.
In 1998, a famous magazine from America called “LIFE” held a special issue titled “The 100 Most Important Events and People of the Past 1,000 Years,” and Katsushika Hokusai was the only Japanese person selected for the list.
Katsushika Hokusai’s Impact on Art in the West
When talking about Katsushika Hokusai, it is essential to understand a traditional form of art in Japan known as “Ukiyo-e.” Ukiyo-e refers to pictures printed in many colors using woodblocks. This style of art was highly popular in Japan around the 18th century, and pictures depicted the customs and manners of that time. Around this period, the word “Ukiyo” (literally, “floating world”) was used to refer to the variety of enjoyable events in society and daily life, and the term Ukiyo-e (literally, “pictures of the floating world”) is derived from this word. Ukiyo-e works were also used for advertisements and posters. As such, they were a familiar aspect of culture for common people in Japan at the time. Katsushika Hokusai worked mainly in producing Ukiyo-e artwork.
The story of how Ukiyo-e first came to the West is an unusual one. When exporting pottery to the West in the 19th century, people used Ukiyo-e pictures as wrapping paper to ensure that the products would not break on the way. Ukiyo-e pictures were distributed as advertisements within Japan at the time, and so they were not valued very highly as works of art in Japan. However, people in the West were awestruck by the novel visual techniques that they witnessed in the Ukiyo-e used as wrapping paper.
Ukiyo-e was highly acclaimed in the West as a completely new style of art. Reasons for this strong reaction include its dynamic visual composition that defied ideas on perspective that were commonplace in Western art, as well as its unique colors that could not be achieved in oil paintings.
The Paris Exposition of 1867 included many kinds of handicrafts from Japan for its exhibits, such as silk goods, pottery, and Katana swords. The exposition also featured Ukiyo-e pictures. People were captivated by their beauty, and a movement called “Japonism” came into force.
There are a large number of Ukiyo-e pictures, though Katsushika Hokusai’s works were some of the most influential among them. Katsushika Hokusai had excellent observational skills, and his pictures depicting landscapes or people are all filled with vitality and life. Many artists in Europe gained inspiration from his stunning abilities.
The Ukiyo-e art created by Katsushika Hokusai and others is said to have significantly influenced Impressionists such as Monet, Manet, Renoir, and Van Gogh. These Impressionist painters created many works of art based on Ukiyo-e, incorporating its visual style and compositional techniques.
In this way, Katsushika Hokusai’s Ukiyo-e artworks had a significant impact on Western art, and they still make a fresh impression on people across the globe.
Katsushika Hokusai’s pictures captivate many people worldwide with their distinctive compositions and beautiful use of color. But what kind of life did he lead?
Katsushika Hokusai’s Masterpieces: “Fugaku Sanjurokkei”
Katsushika Hokusai lived up to the age of 90, despite the average estimated lifespan for Japanese people at the time being 50. “Fugaku Sanjurokkei” is the name of his most well-known series of works. This series was published late in his life, when he was 72.
“Fugaku Sanjurokkei” means “36 landscape pictures depicting Mount Fuji as seen from different places in Japan.” Mount Fuji is Japan’s tallest and most beautiful mountain. It is loved by many people in Japan, and has been an object of worship since ancient times. It has also been registered as UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013. This series was initially published with 36 different pictures, as the title would suggest, though an extra 10 works were added later following the series’ popularity, adding up to 46 in total. Each artwork in the series is highly individual and offers unending appeal, with vivid depictions of Mount Fuji as it changes with the seasons and presents a different appearance depending on the geographic setting of the picture.
Katsushika Hokusai began creating many pictures of Mount Fuji after an event that happened when he was in his fifties. He left Tokyo to visit an apprentice about 350 km away to the west in Aichi Prefecture, and he stopped at several inns located on the way as he travelled by foot. During this journey, he sketched views of Mount Fuji as seen from each inn. For many years afterward, he refined the compositions of the sketches that he drew at each location. Through these efforts, he went to create “Fugaku Sanjurokkei,” as a collection of many refined works of art.
One of his most famous works of art is “Fugaku Sanjurokkei: Kanagawa-oki Nami-ura” (Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji: The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa). This picture depicts Mount Fuji—a mountain that represents Japan—behind a large and powerful wave. Featuring intricate detail in how the water splashes, as well as a beautiful contrast between blue and white, this work gives a stunning impression. The picture shows a view of Mount Fuji from the sea at Kanagawa Prefecture, about 100 km east of the mountain.
Mount Fuji can also be seen from Edo (now known as Tokyo), Japan’s capital city. This work depicts a landscape as seen from Nihonbashi, an area at the center of Edo. Edo Castle can be seen behind the lively cityscape, and served as the location for the government at the time. Looking in the background, your eyes come across the subtle presence of Mount Fuji, poised above the city as if it were watching over it.
This work looks upon Mount Fuji from Yamanashi Prefecture located nearby. Mount Fuji appears bigger here in comparison to the previous two pictures, and a huge tree is included in the foreground owing to a bold move by the artist. The composition uses mainly blue and green hues, and features a bright, summery landscape decorated by new leaves.
Katsushika Hokusai is said to have created some 34,000 works over his lifetime, including the “Fugaku Sanjurokkei” series. In this way, he truly dedicated his whole life to pictures.
Hokusai’s Appeal Can Be Found Outside of Ukiyo-e
Ukiyo-e pictures illustrate their subjects with exaggerated proportions or perspectives, and do not use the realistic techniques common to Western paintings. The simple line art and lively depiction of people and landscapes resemble the visual style found in modern Japanese manga and anime.
Katsushika Hokusai is one of the most well-known Ukiyo-e artists from the late Edo period (1603 to 1868). However, you may be surprised to know that he also used many other techniques that were completely different to Ukiyo-e, such as paintings and watercolor pictures, and continued to make a wide variety of artworks throughout his life.
One notable example of these creations is a work called “Hokusai Manga.” This is a collection of sketches assembled by Katsushika Hokusai as a guide for drawing pictures. It features some 4000 drawings, including people and features of daily life, as well as animals and plants.
The depictions of people in Hokusai Manga all feature a humorous touch, with a wide variety of poses and expressions. These numerous amusing—yet accurately drawn—sketches have several aspects in common with modern Japanese manga.