Hokusai and Mt. Fuji - Part I

Part I

Hokusai and Mt. Fuji
The Great Wave and the White Whale

Red Fuji, or Fuji in Clear Weather
Red Fuji, or Fuji in Clear Weather

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was an incredibly productive and versatile artist. Over a 70 year career he worked across multiple genres and media. The world knows him mainly for his prints but he was also a painter. He illustrated books, designed cutout dioramas and toys, produced the contemporary equivalent of modern greeting cards, sketched some 4000 instructional designs for his pupils and other artists, produced massive paintings presumably as publicity stunts, and even sketched designs for advertising household products like smoking pipes and combs.

In some respects Hokusai was a Japanese Leonardo da Vinci. Aside from their common artistic calling Hokusai was quite taken with scientific and technological gear - such as the lenses, microscopes, eyeglasses and telescopes which Dutch merchant traders brought to Japan. One reason for this fascination undoubtedly traces to Hokusai’s early employment polishing mirrors.

Hokusai was born in the Katsushika district of Edo (former name of Tokyo). He took many names during his career but you’ll probably find “Katsushika Hokusai” referenced more than any other. Like most artists of the period Hokusai’s actual birth name played no role in his professional career. My favorite is the name he chose in 1834 at the age of 74 - Gakyo-rojin Manji, or “old man crazy about painting”.

Hokusai created his first student print designs in 1779 at the age of 19, and produced his last work - a group of paintings - in 1849 at the age of 89. But it’s no exaggeration to say that virtually his entire fame rests with the landscape and floral prints he produced in the 1830’s. The landscapes include bridges and waterfalls, and his two great Mt. Fuji series - 36 Views of Mt. Fuji followed by 100 Views of Mt. Fuji.

(In the book review section of this website under Book Reviews - Art - Hokusai you’ll find reviews of some excellent books on his life and work, including one each on these two Fuji series.)

The rise of landscape prints in Edo era Japan
By the early 19th century previously dominant courtesan and kabuki actor prints began to give way to other themes - particularly landscapes, as travel and sightseeing became fashionable. For the better part of the two previous centuries Tokugawa shoguns had restricted both foreign and domestic travel (Japan’s famed isolation). The idea was to curb both importation of ideas which threatened shogunal rule and potential domestic plotting across domains. But with an increasingly educated and restive population policy opened up to domestic touring, if not to foreign travel.

This new fashion for touring and sightseeing affected more than Japanese leisure and entertainment. It opened up wonderful business opportunities for publishers, who began producing guidebooks which took much of the guesswork out of trip planning.

These guidebooks amounted to early forerunners of online travel services like Trip Advisor. They encouraged and promoted travel - describing local accommodations, scenery and restaurants. You could bring your family along and buy souvenirs like prints, which were the contemporary equivalent of picture postcards (though some rose to the level of art).

All of this translated to a similar business opportunity for publishers of prints, who merely needed to get cracking on publishing landscape prints, particularly those known as meisho-e - or pictures of famous places.

That is where Hokusai came in, and that is what made his reputation.

Mt. Fuji and its hold on Hokusai
Mt. Fuji is the largest mountain in Japan, at 12,385 feet. It last erupted over 300 years ago, in 1707.

Fuji embodies profound spirituality under the ancient Shinto belief that everything has a divine essence. This applies not only to people, but to ancestors - along with animals, inanimate objects, and everything natural - including trees, thunderstorms, and mountains.

As the largest mountain in Japan Fuji carries a particularly deep spiritual significance, easily attracting a devout being like Hokusai. His intense focus on that mountain also derived from the Taoist belief that Fuji is the source of the secret to immortality. Of course the modern world scoffs at this kind of unscientific belief. But it’s an undeniable irony that Fuji did grant Hokusai immortality, through his timeless portrayals of that sacred mountain in the 36 Views and the 100 Views which followed.

36 Views of Mt. Fuji
The 36 Views was published over the five year period 1830-34 and was the first major, financially successful Japanese landscape print series in the history of ukiyo-e. While there certainly were landscape-focused prints and series in the decades before this one, none are familiar today except to scholars.

Hokusai began work on the 36 Views when he was 70, which brings to mind his anecdotal deathbed remark twenty years later when he insisted that given another five years he would really master his art! Earlier he had written that nothing he produced before age 70 was worth paying attention to.

36 Views was so successful out the gate that the publisher ultimately decided to add 10 designs. So the title says 36 but in fact the complete set includes 46 designs. Here’s something else interesting about the series. It was inspired in part by a contemporaneous passion for aizuri-e, or “blue-printed pictures” based on Prussian blue - a synthetic blue developed in Berlin in 1704. (This color is also known as “Paris”, Parisian”, or “Berlin” blue.) As a synthetic color it didn’t fade easily, as did vegetable and mineral dyes, the mainstay of Japanese prints.

Prussian blue had been available for over a century in Europe. But its later importation into the huge Chinese market brought the price way down, making it a practical alternate color throughout East Asia. Japan began importation within the decade leading up to the 1830s publication of Hokusai’s first great Fuji series.

With a public entranced by Prussian blue, Hokusai’s publisher decided to gamble on converting the balance of the 36 Views not yet published to blue-printed pictures. This he began to do, but as the novelty of aizuri-e faded he returned to the standard multi-color approach. Subsequent editions whether from original or re-cut blocks are all over the lot in terms of colors chosen. Depending on source you may see a greater or lesser number of prints from this series in Prussian blue. That includes re-strikes right into the later 20th century.

Hokusai’s 36 Views are sometimes compared to Monet’s Haystacks (and the Rouen Cathedral canvases). Working 60 years after Hokusai began the 36 Views, Monet produced 25 paintings which explore haystacks at different times of day in different light, from different angles, and in different weather - exactly what Hokusai does in his series.

Is there a connection? We know the Impressionists were in awe of Japanese prints. We also know that Monet had a sizable collection, with a substantial helping of Hokusai. Some of Monet’s most admired work was directly inspired by Japonisme, the love affair with Japanese art and culture which took Europe and America by storm in the later 19th century.

That the 36 Views sparked a revolution in the Japanese print genre is no overstatement. If you’ve seen classical East Asian landscape ink paintings (and if not, they’re abundantly available online), you’ll know that the landscape itself is the focus. People and their activities are decidedly secondary, when they’re included at all. But the opposite is generally true in ukiyo prints which preceded the 36 Views, with landscapes subordinate to people and their doings.

The 36 Views changed all that, elevating the landscape print to major genre status and undoubtedly influencing Hiroshige to create his own great landscapes which soon followed. The late Edo period in which all this took place also witnessed creation of the historical warrior and battle masterpieces of artists like Kuniyoshi. His prints together with Hokusai and Hiroshige landscapes elbowed traditional courtesan and actor prints off to the side, though they continued to be important print genres on into the 20th century.

© 2018 Tom Silver