Hokusai: in the Master’s Footsteps

 Katsushika Hokusai: Red Fuji
Katsushika Hokusai: Red Fuji, from the series Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, 1830-1832 Kawasaki Isago no Sato Museum

The Master’s Many Names

ON THE BUS were several couples of all ages, a trio of young girls, some men on their own, some women on their own, a mixed group of students, five middle-aged women, a group of four boys barely out of their teens. Who knows which of them was the fan of Japanese comics and anime, or the one studying (or even maybe practicing) Buddhism, who knows who was the surfer, or the French impressionism enthusiast, or just the plain traveller. But there we were, travelling around Japan seeing famous places that should not be missed, or meisho.
We passed bamboo groves, pine trees, climbed a mountain and looked down on the roofs of houses. We marveled at seeing people in traditional attire performing traditional tasks: manufacturing rice paper, carrying water, going to the shrine, fishing, harvesting tea or rice.
And like everyone who travels in Japan, we could not help but notice the bizarre, ubiquitous presence of Mount Fuji. We had seen it while traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto on the historical Tōkaidō road, or passing through Sagami or Kanagawa, or crossing Tokyo’s neighborhoods Ryoguku and Nihonbashi… Wherever we went Fuji-san –as the Japanese affectionately call their sacred mountain— was there. Up close or at a distance, in the fog or lit bright red with the afternoon sun, Mount Fuji looked at us.

And so we looked back at Mount Fuji. Thrirty-six times, through the eyes of Katsushika Hokusai, in the extraordinary wood-block prints (ukiyo-e), a technique he came to master during his lifetime. The journey lasted a little over two hours, traveling inside the dim-lit rooms of the Museo dell’Ara Pacis and the exhibition Hokusai. Sulle Orme Del Maestro  (Hokusai: in the Master’s Footsteps).
As we read the vademecum, we note that curators at the Ara Pacis take the time to underline the many names (thirty, it is said) Hokusai used during his lifetime. At the young age of sixty, when he created the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, his name was Iitsu: One Again.

The feeble light further gives our journey an otherworldly mood. We are aware that colors in the wood-block prints must be preserved. After two hundred years, red is the most faded… but isn’t the work of Hokusai also about impermanence? The impermanence of color, of the artist’s name, of an ever-changing Japan… above all, the impermanence of those weightless, impossible things masterfully depicted by Hokusai: rain, smoke, fog, clouds, flyaway leaves, the river, ocean spray, falling water, blades of grass, snow, waves, moonlight. Thus we wonder: are we looking at thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, or at thirty-six ways of depicting water and air?
So in the feeble light, our moves are slow and cautious, more so than in a normal exhibition. Is it something else that’s making us move this way? We are aware that we are seeing a lost world, as in Hokusai’s days Japan was not yet open to the West, and what we see in Hokusai: Sulle Orme Del Maestro is pure, uncontaminated Japan, when Tokyo was still called Edo and Japan’s name was Nihon-koku.

Keisai Eisen: Momongawa, 1830-1844 Chiba City Museum of Art

We move on, ever so gently, to see the works by a handful of other artists which, as the title of the exhibition says, followed in the Master’s footsteps. Lavish scroll paintings of beautiful women by Katsushika Hokumei, Teisai Hokuba, Ryūryū kyō Shinsai, Gessai Utamasa, Totoya Hokkei. And then, more ukiyo-e from Keisai Eisen, who will follow in Hokusai’s footsteps as to finesse of technique but will choose different subjects. Eisen will ultimately combine portraits of beautiful women with landscapes in a clever painting-in-a-painting game, which further draws us into Japanese aesthetics. Elements in the print are floating against a white background, the woman in her ornate hairstyle and lavish clothes where each layer of fabric is depicted in magnificently complex detail; the furniture; the wall painting with –most likely- a view of Mount Fuji. Or he shows us landscape and architecture in his collection of meisho, with The Sixty-nine stations of the Kiso Kaidō, like a postcard collection.

Prussian blue

THIS EXHIBITION owes its works to public and private collections and two Japanese, plus one Italian, museum. But much is also owed to two absent-minded chemists, Johann Konrad Dippel and Johann Jacob Diesbach, who at the beginning of the eighteenth century in their Berlin laboratory, by pure chance, discovered the pigment that came to be called Prussian blue. Before, artists had to use the very costly ultramarine blue, made from grinding the lapis lazuli gemstone. Now a new blue pigment was inexpensively available, the Berlin formula was copied in China and from there smuggled into Japan. Once in Japan, it went on to feed the dozens, sometimes hundreds, of copies of images printed in ukiyo-e ateliers.
In Japan, crafts are taken to sublime heights by the men and women who dedicate their lives to mastering them. Today, those craftsmen who excel in their trade and perpetuate Japanese traditions are indeed called living national treasures, or Ningen Kokuhō. In those times ukiyo-e was far from being considered an art form, no more than any other standard craft. Who would have thought that in time such an inexpensive, albeit popular, form of communication and expression would attain the prestige and admiration it did once it reached the West? Meisho, courtesans, kabuki actors, manga… these are the type of items that can be found in modern newspaper kiosks. Or we can call them postcard series, pictures of sexy girls, comic books, celebrity posters. Nevertheless, they have been transformed by time and their creator’s dedication into the fascinating works that today we look at in awe.

Katsushika Hokusai: Carp and turtle, 1839

“Nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention,” writes the Master fifteen years after his thirty-six views, when his name was again changed, this time to Gakyō Rōjin Manji, The Old Man Mad About Art.   The limits of woodblock printing are many, as by its nature it allows little else than line contours and solid color. Every child that has been put to paint with markers or crayons knows the limits of the medium, and if he wants some shading, he will have to turn to other techniques like oil, pastel, watercolor. Nevertheless, a skilled ukiyo-e printer is able to achieve nuances, which are used austerely on just a few elements like the sky or the faraway mountains. The expertise is in the sketching, the wood cutting, the spreading color on the blocks, the pressing of the paper, the shading… and the uncanny capability of the artist’s eye which can see mountains as solid blue, water as white, Fuji-san as completely red, or a moonlit sky as a totally white surface. To the Master, white shapes with a thin black contour can be haze, or smoke, or nimbus clouds. We look at them and there is no doubt in our minds that those white shapes are what the Master wants them to be. The Master takes us by the hand and we too, helpless, follow in his footsteps.

We pass some prints called surimono, which are greeting cards and invitations, by Hokusai and Eisen. We pass more scrolls, including two breathtaking scrolls with koi (carps), one by Eisen and one by Hokusai. Finally, we arrive to the Hokusai sketches, or manga, which are fifteen picture books created by Hokusai to teach other painters how to draw. Four boys barely out of their teens are scattered around the room moving from one book to the other, pointing, saying “Hey, look at this!” Probably Hokusai’s pupils were less flamboyant. The books depict different human figures in different postures, architectural elements, elements of nature, animals.
To this day we can clearly see Hokusai’s influence— in animation works by Hayao Miyazaki, for example— with the mysterious, unsettling quality of characters like immortal creatures, spirits, ghosts. In some of those two-hundred-year-old sketches, the only thing missing is the big eyes typical of contemporary Japanese manga. Tradition has a strange way of being carried on.

Katsushika Hokusai: The Great Wave off Kanagawa
Katsushika Hokusai: The Great Wave off Kanagawa, from the series Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, 1830-1832 Kawasaki Isago no Sato Museum

AS WE LEAVE THE EXHIBITION, I feel as if coated with a silky nostalgia. Maybe it was the dim lights, or the time travel to a world of beauty, that I have just experienced. We pass the shop from where the objects on sale give us a last glimpse of Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, one of the thirty-six views. This work is arguably the most iconic work of art depicting the sea, with a threatening wave about to crash and, upon closer examination, a faraway Mount Fuji and two ships half-hidden by water. We stop to look at it one last time: who knows when it will be back in town, or when we will have a chance to go to London, New York, Chicago, Melbourne, Los Angeles or Giverny where other copies are kept, in order to see it again…
To think Hokusai created it using only four blocks of wood. Four blocks of wood and some Prussian blue, enough to leave an indelible mark on the minds of artists and art lovers worldwide, including Monet and Van Gogh. Four blocks of wood and some Prussian blue… and the spirit of The Old Man Mad About Art.

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Hokusai. Sulle Orme Del Maestro, from 10/12/2017 to 1/14/2018, Museo dell’Ara Pacis, Roma

Hopelessly devoted to pursuing happiness through travel, art, and words, Paola de Santiago Haas has been formerly employed in design, television and tourism before becoming an independent business consultant and facilitator in the media industry. She has written two books, including No Road, Just Us: A Journey’s Notebook.

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