Pictures of the Floating World

Article excerpt

Sweeping up from the Pacific Ocean, Mount Fuj i ,«* highest mountain in the Japanese archipelago, has served as muse for countless writers, poets, and artists since ancient times. Among them is Katsushika Hokusai, a Japanese painter and woodblock print artist who could see the sacred mountain from his home in Edo (now Toyko). During the 1 83Os, Hokusai painted Fujisan from many perspectives, at various times of the day, and in every season.

"Mount Fuji was an important pilgrimage site during the Edo period ( 1 6 1 5- 1 868) in which Hokusai was active." says Sawako Chang, project manager and Japanese art research assistant for the Honolulu Academy of Arts. "Miniature versions of the mountain were built around the country for those who were not able to climb its sacred slopes."

Beginning September 23, an exhibition of Hokusai's work, including his collection of block prints known as the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji that includes his most famous print, The Great Wave OffKanagawa, will be on display at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. For the first time in a decade, the academy will display the complete set of forty-six prints (the series was extended with an additional ten prints), considered one of the most influential of the ukiyo-e, or "pictures of the floating world" school of Japanese printmaking. Over the course of a career spanning more than seven decades, Hokusai is thought to have made at least 30,000 woodblock prints, paintings, and book illustrations,

"Of all the woodblock printing projects he completed, Thiny-six Views of Mount Fuji is one of the most ambitious, and it represents that pinnacle of his career as an artist," says Chang, who curated the exhibition. "Hokusai's Great Wave, together with the rest of the Thirty-six Views series, is arguably the most influential graphic design ever made. Not only did the series inspire younger contemporaries in Japan, including Utagawa Hiroshige, who later did his own Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji - examples of which will be included in the exhibition - but it also reached Europe in the nineteenth century, where it was immediately recognized as an important source of inspiration, suggesting new directions in Western art."

Hokusai's works were prized by Impressionist and post-Impressionist artists such as Edgar Degas. Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. French composer Claude Debussy was so inspired by The Great Wave OffKanagawa that he created his work, La Mer (The Sea) in 1 905. "By the early twentieth century, The Great Wave already was arguably the most immediately recognizable Japanese woodblock print design in the world, a distinction it holds to this day," says Chang.

The majority of prints in the exhibition come from the collection of American novelist James A. Michener and his wife, Mari, who donated over five thousand Japanese woodblock prints to the academy. Michener took up residence in Honolulu in 1949 and became involved in Hawaiian civic affairs. Ten years later, he finished writing his epic novel Hawaii on the day Congress voted Hawai'i into the Union.

"Michener developed his woodblock print collection with the intent to illuminate the influence of East Asian culture in forming the distinctive culture of the Hawaiian Islands," says Chang.

In his book Japanese Prints: From the Early Masters to the Modern, Michener wrote. "Hokusai holds a special place in my affection, and I carry the memory of his prints in my mind wherever I go."

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