Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was an innovator for his time. He had a great influence on the development of Japanese art. He was innovative in his use of color, composition and subject matter, and his work influenced many subsequent artists. Hokusai’s depictions of landscapes, nature, and the everyday have become almost synonymous with traditional Japanese art, and his influence can be seen in everything from anime and manga to contemporary graphic design.
From now until July 16, 2023, the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Boston presents a new exhibition, Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence, featuring this beloved Japanese artist. Hokusai, one of the most famous and influential artists of all time, is widely recognized for his iconic Under the wave off Kanagawaor The big wave (1830-31), which is recognizable everywhere from brand logos and Lego sets to emoticons and Japanese anime. The exhibition explores Hokusai’s influence, taking a new approach to this infinitely versatile and creative artist, both during his lifetime and after. The MFA writes, “More than 100 prints, paintings, and illustrated books by Hokusai are exhibited alongside some 200 works by his teachers, students, rivals, and admirers, creating juxtapositions that demonstrate his influence across time and space.” In addition to his own works, you can experience the full extent of Hokusai’s lasting legacy in works by, among others, his daughter Katsushika Oi and his contemporaries Utagawa Hiroshige and Utagawa Kuniyoshi.
He was a prolific artist who produced a vast body of work during his long career spanning more than 70 years. He was born in Edo (now Tokyo), Japan, to a family of craftsmen. Hokusai’s father was a mirror maker and as a child Hokusai was apprenticed to a wood carver. Working to learn the craft of woodblock making, by the age of 18 he became an apprentice in the studio of Katsukawa Shunshō, a prominent ukiyo-e artist. Under Shunshō’s tutelage, Hokusai learned the traditional techniques of ukiyo-e, which translates as “pictures of the floating world,” a woodcut style that depicted the pleasures and distractions of urban life in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868). But Hokusai was not content to simply follow in his master’s footsteps. He constantly experimented with new styles and techniques and soon began to develop his own distinctive style as an inventive artist.
In 1814 Hokusai published Hokusai manga, a collection of sketches, drawings, and cartoons that showcased his immense artistic range, the title of which eventually influenced the modern form of Japanese comic books known by the same name as “manga.” The book was an immediate success and Hokusai became known throughout Japan as a master of the art of painting. Over the next several decades, Hokusai produced a vast body of work, including paintings, prints, illustrated books, and manga. As a master of the ukiyo-e style, Hokusai’s depictions of landscapes, nature and everyday life have become synonymous with Japanese art. The peak of his artistic career occurred in the 1820s, when he created the most widely known series of landscape prints, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fujiincluding the famous ones Big wavewhich presents the iconic volcano from different viewpoints and under different weather conditions.
Hokusai’s work was not only influential in Japan, but also played a significant role in the development of Japonisme, the French art movement that emerged in the late 19th century. Japonism was characterized by a fascination with Japanese art, culture, and aesthetics, and had a profound influence on Western art, especially the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements. Hokusai’s use of bold colors, flat perspectives, and complex patterns was particularly influential in Japonisme, and his work helped shape the way Western artists thought about art and design. His distinctive style has influenced artists around the world, from Vincent Van Gogh to contemporary artists such as Takashi Murakami. Hokusai’s work has also been the subject of numerous exhibitions and publications, and his prints remain highly collectible and sought after by art lovers and collectors alike. On March 23, 2023, a version of The Great Wave sold for a record $2.8 million at Christie’s auction.
Despite his enormous success, Hokusai’s life was not without its struggles. He suffered numerous setbacks throughout his career, including personal and financial problems, and was forced to move frequently throughout his life. However, he never lost his passion for art and continued to create works of extraordinary beauty and power until his death in 1849.