Making waves - Japanese artist Hokusai
Hokusai's iconic print The Great Wave has its own emoji and even inspired a recent Trump parody. But a new exhibition in London - and a companion film coming to cinemas here - show the 19th-century Japanese artist also had a profound influence on modern art
'Even if you don't know Hokusai's name, you know The Great Wave," Timothy Clark, curator of a new Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum in London, insists. "It will always be an ambassador for Hokusai's art. It's emblematic not only of the power of the sea, but also of the power of nature."
While it may not be Katsushika Hokusai's first famous work (that was his 15-volume Manga), nor his biggest in Japan (Fine Wind, Clear Morning - otherwise known as 'Red Fuji'), the 1831 woodblock print is the one that has most deeply infiltrated popular culture. Many of the 5,000 to 10,000 original prints are housed in prestigious galleries around the world. But it can also be found in the emblem for surf brand Quiksilver, and parodies are rife - the most recent being a New Yorker cartoon with Donald Trump's hair as the great wave. The iconic image has even inspired an emoji ('the wave'), surely the highest of modern-day accolades. In the ubiquitous image, the dramatic claws of the waves are seen enveloping boats full of people, while Mount Fuji stands calmly in the background.
Dr Angus Lockyer, a Japanese history lecturer at the SOAS University of London whose research informed the exhibition, explains why it has become the most famous of Hokusai's works.
"The Great Wave took off in the 1890s when the world was going through a rocky period, and the oceans opened up to the world. The composer Debussy used The Great Wave as the sheet music cover for La Mer, so there's a series of resonances in which people were thinking about his work.
"But it also works as a metaphor. We quickly notice the wave, but Hokusai's point is the relationship between the wave, and the mountain and the people in the middle. All around is a very turbulent force of nature, and in the middle you have these tiny human figures suspended. That's what it means to be human: you're between in a world of internal things like gods, dragons and sacred mountains, yet you live in a world where you're dwarfed by massive forces, and that's how you try and make your way in life. And they do. They're not going to sink; this isn't a tsunami, which is a wall of water. This is a big windswept wave.
"Later, Monet gets waves completely wrong, but we've just found out Hokusai depicts the precise mathematical formula of two different kinds of waves. The first person to really analyse waves was William Kelvin (the Belfast-born physicist), who was two years old at the time of The Great Wave's creation."
The work was part of his woodblock print series, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, commissioned during a time of personal hardship for the lifelong painter. He had suffered a minor stroke, his second wife had passed away, and his grandson's gambling debts had left him penniless. Perhaps with his legacy in mind, the works were a homage to the mountain, which holds great significance in Japanese spirituality and to Hokusai personally, as it is believed to be the source of immortality - his ultimate desire.
A companion film to the exhibition, British Museum Presents: Hokusai, comes to Irish cinemas next week and is followed by a 30-minute walk around the exhibition itself. Among the scholars and artists interviewed in the 60-minute film are Grayson Perry, Kate Malone and David Hockney.
The exhibition brings together Hokusai's later works from Japan, Europe and America, from hair-comb designs to large paintings. But a relatively early (and thus better quality) print of The Great Wave, bought by the British Museum for £130,000 (€150,000), takes centre stage.
The exhibition and documentary also explore influence is other works and artists is also explored.
"I'm starting to think that maybe Hokusai has invented animation in that image," says curator Timothy Clark. "He's done many waves early in his career, but none of them have that power: he's caught the wave just at the moment it's about to fall, so there's a kinetic energy embedded in the image. So much graphic art of the world has learnt from that image."
Indeed, Hokusai has had a significant impact on modern art, as his work was the first to combine western techniques - learned through his early commissions from Dutch East India Company - with Japanese and Chinese styles. This defied Japan's isolationist outlook and as a result his work quickly gained popularity in London, Paris and America (the British Museum's first Hokusai piece was acquired in 1860, 11 years after this death).
"Without Hokusai, there would not be modern art," says Angus. "You need someone like this to shock you into a new wave of seeing. And the impressionists and post-impressionists are explicit in their debt."
Central to Hokusai's career was his belief that he would flourish with age. At 90, already double the life expectancy in Japan at the time, his last words certainly support this.
"If only Heaven will give me just another 10 years," he said.
"Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter."
This ambition can be seen in his intricately painted scrolls created in his final years: willing himself to his desired age, each is signed '100'.
"He articulates this thought on quite a few occasions, most famously when he was 75 and entering deep old age," explains Clark. "He basically says that nothing he did before he was 70 was worthy of note. He anticipates future progress up to 110: if he lives up to 110, every line, every dot would be alive.
"There's an importance in using the brush every day, and accumulating incredible, almost instinctual abilities as a painter - that's what makes his later works even more powerful."
I wonder what Hokusai might have achieved if he had lived to his desired age of at least 100.
"There was still more to see with him - he just had this appetite for new ideas," says Angus. "He still felt he has 20 more years to give, even though one cannot imagine him getting any better."
British Museum Presents: Hokusai opens in selected cinemas across Ireland on June 4