In a sprawling exhibition about the Japanese master painter Katsushika Hokusai, it’s telling to walk into the very first gallery and have to squint to find him at all. At the Museum of Fine Arts, an inky grayscale tsunami topped with pale froth towers to the right of the title wall, a monumental intaglio print from 2005-06 by Peter Soriano; to its left, dozens of white ceramic forms, indigo-spattered and bottle-shaped, cluster into a shimmering, off-kilter heave, a 2012 piece by Annabeth Rosen.
They’re both called “Wave,” which is your first clue — if the foam-capped undulations of the sea could be copyrighted, then Hokusai would have a better claim than almost any. Here, he’s modestly represented in the space with just one woodblock print of a russet-shaded Mount Fuji — another trademark — alongside a playful, same-scaled image closely modeled after his own by the Japanese contemporary artist Yoshitomo Nara. In Nara’s piece, a photocopy of a woodcut he made in 1999 — the artist frequently presents copies of his work as art, a conceptual bait-and-switch — an impish figure is skiing down the mountain’s face.
The title of the exhibition helps to explain: “Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence,” an enlivening if at times vexingly loose frame through which to view the MFA’s expansive collection of works by the iconic 18th- and 19th-century artist, which, at almost 2,000 pieces, stands among the world’s best. Sarah Thompson, the MFA’s curator of Japanese Art, and curatorial assistant Kendall DeBoer, who put the show’s more than 350 works together, deserve credit for being impious, not reverent. Among the many things they appreciate is Hokusai’s second life in the contemporary world as a meme, as prevalent as wallpaper and just as unprecious.
One of my favorite things here is a freehand graphite drawing by Andy Warhol from 1980-87 limning the clear contours of a Hokusai-an wave, a nod to the Japanese master’s enduring mass-market presence (“Warhol liked things everybody liked, and he liked us liking them together,” said DeBoer, aptly.). It hangs in a room anchored by a giant Lego re-creation of Hokusai’s greeting-card-and-t-shirt-famous work “Under the Wave off Kanagawa,” by Lego “Certified Professional” Jumpei Mitsui made in 2021. Hokusai’s 1830-31 print of its much-smaller namesake hangs on a nearby wall.
So, no: Precious, this show is not. Still, there are depths to be plumbed. A strong biographical thread runs through the show’s many asides. Some of the artist’s earliest works, as an apprentice in the studio of Katsukawa Shunshō, show a gift for precise Ukiyo-e figure painting of everyday Japanese life, Kabuki performers, and historical scenes. The exhibition also sets a stage for Hokusai’s eventually pervasive international presence; a revelatory passage on Dutch copperplate etching finding a foothold in insular Japan in the 18th century (Thompson explained that the Dutch were the only Europeans not bent on religious conversion, so they were allowed to stay) shows how the young Hokusai was always hungry for new styles and techniques.
More compelling than that, though, at least for me, is the narrative through-line that tracks how culture can become viral and diffuse, evolving across generations and centuries. Hokusai’s presence in contemporary culture remains exalted; his mastery is on full display in any number of works here. It’s also passively insidious, echoing through realms far beyond fine art. But “influence” is achieved by more than mastery, a truth the exhibition embraces.
Hokusai made many singular paintings for wealthy patrons, a few of which are on view here; but what made Hokusai Hokusai, an aesthetic staple of 19th-century Japanese life, was the mass production of prints and books. You could call him a brand, and a highly exportable one at that. William Sturgis Bigelow, the Boston Brahmin who gave the MFA the foundation of its Japanese collection in 1911 with a gift of more than 40,000 works, including more than 600 by Hokusai, was among those enamored with it.
The Ukiyo-e style, born in the early 17th century during Shogun rule as an art form for the masses — its name translates to pictures of the floating, or sorrowful, world — quickly became the dominant artistic language of the Edo era, transcending its low status. By the time it reached North America and especially Europe, it was highly developed, and mass produced for widespread distribution.
The aesthetic found purchase in the high and the low, infiltrating Western culture multifariously. The European worldview had long lumped Japanese art in with the cultural product of the many distant lands it chose to see as generically exotic. When serious artists and printmakers took an interest, the Ukiyo-e style blossomed in both commercial and artistic disciplines.
Hokusai’s influence on artists like Claude Monet and Paul Gauguin is well documented, and appears here in a series of one-to-one comparisons (Monet’s almost lasciviously beautiful “The Water Lily Pond,” 1900, a major painting from the MFA’s collection of a bridge swallowed by flower and vine at the artist’s home at Giverny, hangs next to a cluster of Hokusai prints of arched bridges garlanded in wisteria). But Hokusai had something more potent: commercial appeal.
By the mid-19th century in Europe, books and other printed materials with Japanese designs were being widely distributed for use by various artisans. A set of fine China from the “Rousseau” service made by the French manufacturer Barulet et Cie is shown here festooned with images of various flora and fauna lifted directly from just such a book. In the same space, a bolt of furnishing fabric first produced in 1890 attributed to John Illingworth Kay has the repeating form of a Hokusai-esque Mount Fuji.
As both a gifted artistic innovator and a market force, Hokusai comes as close to being all things to all people as an artist can, and the exhibition ends with a clarifying contemporary interlude. The term “Manga,” now associated with fantastical Japanese graphic novels, has its origins in Hokusai’s time — the dawn of mass publishing — and simply refers to an illustrated book, of which he produced many. But among his oeuvre are a slate of outlandish fantasy images that, in fact, underpin the genre of today — heroes and monsters of universes distant from our own; five prints of ghoulish creatures from his series “One Hundred Ghost Stories,” 1831-32, wouldn’t look out of place in any contemporary manga, or the second episode of the “The Last of Us.”
One Hokusai-an manga fantasy has been particularly pervasive: a manga book he made now commonly known as “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” in which the titular subject is pictured in romantic entanglement with giant squid. Around the vitrine where the book is splayed open, contemporary artists like Judith Schaechter and Emma Helle respond with a feminine retort. Those familiar with a popular strain of Japanese contemporary culture will see the connection immediately: Hokusai is, rather explicitly, the grandfather of tentacle porn.
It puts a very fine point on the exhibition’s core truth: There’s no need to revive interest in Hokusai. Pop, popular, and ever present, he’s never really left us.
HOKUSAI: INSPIRATION AND INFLUENCE
March 26 to July 16. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 465 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org
Murray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.