Hokusai: Paintings, Drawings, and Woodcuts

Hokusai: Paintings, Drawings, and Woodcuts

Hokusai: Paintings, Drawings, and Woodcuts

Hokusai: Paintings, Drawings, and Woodcuts

Excerpt

'The delight of studying Hokusai is that he is such a vast world in himself.'

Fenollosa

The history of western appreciation of the pictorial art of Japan can be studied in all its phases in relation to the work of one man, Hokusai: first, unreasoning veneration for the new and exotic; next, a reaction and revaluation as knowledge grew and comparison was made with classic western art; and lastly, fresh admiration as we came to understand the intuitive expression in Japanese art of tenets that modern European art has evolved so laboriously. At the first discovery of Japan as a new-found land of painting in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the pioneers became the devotees of what amounted to a cult, in which the worship of Hokusai, as the greatest of the Japanese masters, was one of the first ordinances. Despite the warnings of one or two high-priests of the cult, like Anderson and Fenollosa, to whom, with their better knowledge than most of the works of the great classic masters of the past, such worship was excessive, if not misplaced, there was generally an uncritical and indiscriminate acceptance of the vast, and correspondingly uneven, output of an artist prolific even by Japanese standards.

To us today, he seems to have been praised for the wrong things: for his realism, or for his immense industry, or for his encyclopaedic record of the Japan of his day. De Goncourt even called him the 'true creator of Ukiyo-ye, the founder of the Popular School', whereas, in fact, he came at the very end of a long line of Ukiyo-ye artists, and in his latest works at least, was scarcely classifiable as Ukiyo-ye at all. He was blamed, if at all, with equal irrelevance. There were always those few voices that, more in sorrow than anger, and more in echo of the native censure than the result of personal conviction, were raised against his vulgarity, his lack of the noble detachment of the finest Kanō and Chinese painters' work: but usually there was the old confusion between subject and treatment, and even if we agree that his gods lack divinity and his commoners fine sentiments, few would now deny his finest landscapes, the 'Fuji in Clear Weather', the 'Wave', the 'Amida Waterfall', a nobility that is above mere class distinction. Yet even so serious a critic as Revon laid this charge of vulgarity almost entirely on the evidence of that olla podrida of sketches, the Mangwa, and left the 'Thirty-six Views of Fuji' completely out of account.

In the first twenty years of this century there was a re-evaluation, based on a wider acquaintance with the colour-prints of artists of all periods. The taste of print-collectors veered more towards the Primitives and the masters that closely followed, like Harunobu, Kiyonaga and Utamaro, all of whom had the quality of exquisiteness that now appealed. Hokusai, outside of his landscape and bird- and-flower prints, was, if not disparaged, at least somewhat condescendingly given a high place. Ficke, typifying the great American collectors of his generation, wrote, of the Mangwa, 'There is something vulgar, childish, under-developed in the mental attitude revealed; it seems a coarse greed for all experience, unlighted by the power to judge . . .

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