In hip hop music, there is “sampling”, the premise of finding inspiration from, say, an old jazz record, and reinterpreting it into a new song. In jazz, there are “standards.” These are songs that are technically or sonically agreed to be a rite of passage for upcoming singers or session players to prove their musical prowess. In art, well, many painters would apprentice a master, following their techniques until they developed their own style. Every new work of creative artistry has been inspired by the works of those that have preceded them. The fun part is when these inspirations seem impossible or improbable, producing a sense of awe that expands our understanding of what’s possible.
One of the most prevalent yet under-recognized intercontinental transmissions of influence involves eccentric Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, perhaps best known for “Under The Wave Off Kanagawa” (colloquially known as “The Great Wave”), an ukiyo-e woodblock painting produced as part of a larger series of works titled ‘Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji’ around 1830-31. The breadth of this collection is impressive, especially when considering Hokusai was 70 years old when he chose to create the series—an inward reflection on the meditative beauty of Mount Fuji in a country still relatively isolated from the encroachments of the West.
This all changed with The Treaty of Kanagawa around 1853, a treaty between Japan and the U.S.A. that established limited trade between the two countries, and later the forced reopening of foreign trade between Europe and Japan in 1858. When Japan opened trade with western merchants from various countries, among the silks, teas, and spices exported was Japanese art, which eventually made its way to the interior of France and found many fans. Among them was a rising painter named Oscar-Claude Monet, who was exploring how best to capture our perceptions of the natural world using new techniques of light and color. The imports of ukiyo-e style woodblock paintings of landscapes captivated Monet, who by 1860 had amassed a collection of some 231 woodblocks in his Giverny home, with Hokusai’s work prominent among his collection.
Like any of us, when you like something enough to collect it, you’re not quiet about it. Monet shared these prints with friends and contemporaries, while carrying out his own prolific works, spreading this influence of the Japanese approach, to others: Edgar Degas certainly had Hokusai in mind when composing “Woman in a Tub” (1886), and Utagawa Hiroshige for “Woman Combing Her Hair” (1888-1890); Monet drew upon Hokusai for “Water Lily Pond” (1899) and the other eleven “Japanese Bridge” paintings, while his wife modeled in a kimono for “La Japonaise” (1867); and Mary Cassatt found inspiration in Kitagawa Utamaro for “The Coiffure” (1891). Even in music, Claude Debussy cited Hokusai when composing “La Mer” (1905), requesting that “The Great Wave” be used as the sheet-music cover when published.
This excitable appetite for Japanese culture and influence on the Impressionists grew so great it became its own cultural phenomenon known simply as Japonisme, a French term that refers to the popularity and influence of Japanese art and design among a number of Western European artists in the nineteenth century. Van Gogh, in a letter to his brother Theo, summarizes Japonisme as an art of appreciation, remarking how Hokusai “examines every blade of grass… But this blade of grass leads him to draw every plant, then the seasons, then the grand vistas of the landscape, then the animals, then finally the human figure. Thus he spends his life, and his life is too short to achieve anything.”
But achieve things he did. Hokusai lived many lives, relocating some 93 times throughout his lifetime, changing his artistic moniker some 30 times across his practice. These name changes normally indicated a shift in his perspective of the world, and his approach along with it. First dubbed ‘Shunrō’, Hokusai published his first prints (a series of Kabuki actors) in 1779. After the tragic death of his first and second wives, as well as that of his artistic master, Shunshō, he became motivated to explore other forms of art, studying French and Dutch copper engravings, inspiring him to develop his artistic style even further. Hokusai’s subject matter shifted from actors and courtesans to natural landscapes and pastoral scenes, a breakthrough for the ukiyo-e style, and for the artist’s career. Around 1800, he adopted the moniker he would become most widely known by: Katsushika Hokusai — “Katsushika” in honour of his birthplace in Edo, and “Hokusai” in honour of the North Star, a significant symbol in Nichiren Buddhism. His growing fame was attributed to his talent, but even more so to his relentless showmanship and self promotion.
After decades of prolific output, Hokusai remained relentless in his artistic practice, accomplishing much of his most important work across his later years, producing thousands of drawings known as the ‘Hokusai Manga’, or sketches. A series of fifteen volumes was published between 1814 - 1878, filled with his signature drawings of the supernatural, serene landscapes, and segments of everyday life. Hokusai produced (and influenced) so much work across this period that his publisher released three posthumous volumes filled with unreleased creations and adjacent work by other artists, all in his signature style. While these archival volumes flow more as ‘stream-of-consciousness’ than the storyline-driven manga of today, Hokusai’s Manga stands as a testament to the influence of his “picture manuals”: not as a way of making art, but as an artful way of seeing the world.
It is said that from his deathbed he wrote a poem asking for “ten more years, five more years, so that I might become a successful artist.” And yet, Hokusai’s unique perspective, his understanding of light, shadow, and depth, his unique stroke, sense of movement, and meticulous attention to detail, had already influenced global culture around the world, and continues to do so—exerting its influence as an expression of unparalleled artistry and personal perseverance.
Written by Jason E.C. Wright, Burntsienna Research Society
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