Even a year’s worth of Hokusai may not be enough to display his genius

Philip Kennicott

WASHINGTON (The Washington Post) – There are a lot of origin points one might pick for what we now call modern art in Europe.

There were changes in science, industry, politics and everyday culture that came with the spread of electric light and the camera.

Then there was the arrival of the United States (US) Navy in Japan in the 1850s, an undiplomatic episode of bullying and force majeure that “opened” Japan to the West. That meant exposure to Japanese art for Western artists and collectors, and the impact was enormous.

Among the artists whose work began to circulate in Europe and the US was Katsushika Hokusai, known far beyond the limits of the art world for his most famous woodblock print The Great Wave Off the Coast of Kanagawa.

An exhibition at the Freer Gallery of Art, “Hokusai: Mad About Painting,” focusses not on the long-lived artist’s abundant wood blocks but on his paintings and drawings, of which the Freer has the largest collection in the world.

Given the strictures of the museum’s namesake patron, Charles Freer, many of these works can’t leave the museum, which Freer gifted to the nation in 1906.

ABOVE & BELOW: Hyakunin isshu uba ge etoki: Kisen Hoshi; and Mount Fuji by Katsushika Hokusai. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

Boy Viewing Mount Fuji by Katsushika Hokusai

The exhibition includes about 120 works, including rare preparatory drawings for the woodcuts, spectacular painted screens and books of drawings and prints.

A second rotation of material will be installed this spring, amounting to a two-part festival of Hokusai over almost a year.

We can give thanks, yet again, that the Smithsonian’s museums are free, because this exhibition is not to be absorbed or appreciated in a single visit.

The show isn’t enormous by ordinary standards, but it is rich and full of subtleties and delights. Hokusai lived to be almost 90, and not only did he remain productive throughout his long career, his creativity seemed to gather force in his final decades.

If nothing else, this exhibition overwhelms simply by giving abundant evidence of that creativity.

One case contains 14 volumes of his books of manga doodles – incisive, detailed, perfect drawings of this, that and everything: trees, dragons, fish, sea life, shells, waves and churning water, along with a gallery of faces of all types bearing all manner of expressions.

A Dutch artist of the golden age might have taken one of these volumes and made a career of recycling its contents into different narratives. Hokusai, on the other hand, doesn’t seem in thrall to drama or narrative.

He crafts vignettes and episodes, but even in his large screen paintings, which invite parcelling out a story line across their panels, he opts for invention over all else.

Why limit one’s world by focussing on a few dramatic agents when one can simply make new people, new things, new little moments in the flux of time? The effect is dizzying, and strangely liberating.

One of the most moving objects is a two-panel screen containing various scenes with no obvious connection.

A duck rests on a plum branch, looking slightly plump and conceited while a farmer lolls on the ground and a worker paints a torri gate red.

On the other panel, a dragon smiles smugly while a courtesan sits on the ground and a sketchy horse – composed of a few simple, perfectly placed brushstrokes – gallops into the background.

What is going on? Schooled in the habits of Western art, you may look for a story, but the real answer is, simply, life.

Life is going on. Works like these had a tremendous impact on Western artists, who began to imitate the freedom that comes from abandoning strict rules of perspective and reflexive ideas about how to frame an image and build up a hierarchy of visual elements within it.

Even today, with the innocence of our eyes thoroughly corrupted by the camera, it is still possible to be bewitched into seeing things differently through Hokusai’s inventive visual honesty.

He often finds and stresses precisely the thing that we tend to edit out of our field of vision – the foreground branch that blocks the view, the incomprehensibly complex churn of water that our brain distills into a mere wave or river rapid.

This seemingly unedited processing of sight is somehow more ocular than photographs or Western paintings, more like the world as we see it when we first open our eyes in the morning, or as it appears when lying on our side on a summer day, with one eye obscured by the grass.

We can trace much of what the impressionists tried to do to the work of Japanese artists of this period, including Hokusai and others who built on and imitated his work later in the 19th century.

But if Western artists were paying attention, they might have found equal inspiration in his skills of social observation.

His figures are fully animated, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny and often, when captured unawares, deeply moving in their private reveries.

A vertical painting, River Landscape: Ferry Boat and Mount Fuji, shows the snowy cone of the familiar Japanese landmark in the upper right, a few sketchy boats in the far distance and a fully laden ferryboat in the near ground.

For another painter – including many of the best-loved landscape painters of the West – the people in the boat would have been an afterthought. For Hokusai, they are fully realised little sketches, some of them comic.

They are as essential to the foreground as Mount Fuji is to the background, and the longer you stare at the painting, the more these two areas seem paradoxically independent of, yet bound up with each other.

Among the printed volumes on display are three books that belonged to Frank Lloyd Wright, containing one of Hokusai’s most important collections, the 100 Views of Mount Fuji. Wright worked in Japan, and was a smart collector of Japanese prints, some of which he used to pay off debts and assuage angry or ruffled clients.

It’s easy to see his interest in Japanese aesthetics showing up in his architecture. But he also may have sensed a kindred spirit in Hokusai. They were both prolific and turned on the world a fire hose of invention.

And yet, I can imagine the egomaniacal Wright’s emotions were mixed on the subject. Even Wright must have acknowledged that Hokusai was in a different league.