WORCESTER— A protean creator and master of many styles, a virtuoso of line, a punchy personality — the Japanese artist Hokusai (1760-1849) was in many ways the Picasso of his day.
Like Picasso, Hokusai was insatiably curious. He was as adept at reviving classical forms of beauty as he was at inventing new expressions of the erotic and the grotesque. He delighted in the possibilities of graphic invention. And his emotional range was never predictable: He could be — just like the Spaniard — utterly in earnest one moment and incorrigibly mischievous the next.
His influence, in broad terms, was similarly limitless. Just as Picasso affected art-making in provinces way beyond his native Spain and adopted France, Hokusai revolutionized picture-making far from the shores of Japan.
His influence (like Picasso’s) was great in this country. But it was particularly pronounced in France, where Hokusai played a central role in the onset of the style known as “Le Japonisme.”
There was, however, at least one genre to which Picasso contributed very little, whereas Hokusai reached his peak in it. That genre is landscape.
Hokusai didn’t explore landscape with real vigor until he was in his 70s. Despite past periods of prestige in Japanese art, landscape had been disregarded by ukiyo-e artists of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. It never really registered as anything more than background filler.
Hokusai turned the given order of things upside down. He produced his greatest work in this genre, including the series “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.” One of those “views” is, of course, one of the most famous images in world art: “Beneath the Wave off Kanagawa,” often referred to as “The Great Wave.”
But despite the renown of “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji,” and the subsequent, three-volume “One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji,” some say the real high point of Hokusai’s achievement in landscape was a series of eight woodblock prints called “A Tour of Waterfalls in the Provinces” (also known as “A Tour of Japanese Waterfalls”).
The Worcester Art Museum, which owns a rare set of first edition impressions of these prints, has provided a welcome chance to study all eight of them in a temporary show “Pilgrimage to Hokusai’s Waterfalls,” displayed in its newly redesigned Japanese gallery.
The first thing that leaps out at you is the preponderance of blue in these prints, amid a great deal of lush summertime green. In his “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji,” Hokusai, who was deeply curious and informed about European art, made use of a blue — Prussian blue — that had only recently made it to Japan from Berlin. He seemed infatuated with it. Turning his attention to the subject of waterfalls feels almost like a deliberate strategy to ramp up the possibilities of Prussian blue.
The second thing you notice is the variety of graphic stylizations Hokusai uses to render the waterfalls themselves. Some look like the roots of trees spreading out from above, others like loosely cascading hair. Some are predominantly white, evoking the froth of churned-up water. Others alternate white vertical stripes with different shades and thicknesses of blue stripes, almost in barcode fashion.
One — the “Kirifuri Waterfall at Mount Kurokami in Shimotsuke Province” — evokes nothing so much as the eerie extension of a slime-covered monster’s hand, descending from on high. But these waterfalls, it’s worth pointing out, were and are real waterfalls, some of them very well-known.
Hokusai may not have seen all of them with his own eyes. But in an era that witnessed the possibilities of internal travel in Japan opening up, he saw at least some of them. And he made many specific observations that appear in the prints. Not just cliff formations and surrounding vegetation, but temples in grottoes halfway up the falls, guesthouses at their base, hints of local commerce (men carrying baskets of shellfish on a yoke, for instance), and bridges affording fine views.
Yet Hokusai was no mere realist. Yes, he delighted in the natural world, particularly as he grew older, and he had a fond, ironic, and seemingly smitten interest in the small but busy world of human affairs — bathing, making pilgrimages, hawking goods, and so on.
He was also a fantasist. He had a strong spiritual dimension, and an animist’s belief in the powerful, mercurial, sometimes benevolent, sometimes treacherous forces of the natural world. And what could express these forces more directly, more impressively, than waterfalls?
These prints depict inner dreamscapes, then, as much as specific places.
One of the waterfalls series, “Roben Waterfall at Oyama in Soshu Province,” shows a group of men wearing loincloths holding prayer boards and washing themselves at the foot of a large fall. It’s a reminder that water has a purifying function in Shinto rites, as it does in other religions. (One such rite consists of praying upright under a waterfall.)
But Hokusai wasn’t just illustrating the sacred nature of waterfalls. He was finding ways — incredibly inventive ways — to distill into graphic form these immense and mercurial spiritual forces. Hence the abruptly different mood of each print and all the surprising pictorial inventions (none more remarkable than the flat, patterned circular design at the mouth of the waterfall in “Amida Waterfall Remotely Beyond the Kisokaido”).
You can well imagine the effect these works, with their clear outlines, simple color blocks, non-Western perspective, and unlabored stylizations must have had on artists like Manet and Degas, let alone Gauguin and Van Gogh. But how did Hokusai catch on in France in the first place?
Hokusai was, throughout his mature years, a great teacher, the author of 19 how-to manuals. Copies of his “Manga” (Random Sketches) were discovered by the artist Felix Bracquemond on the premises of a Parisian printer less than a decade after Hokusai died. Bracquemond, who later took great pride in his discovery, was unrestrained in his enthusiasm. He showed the “Manga’’ to everyone he could.
His proselytizing fell on very receptive ground. Much about Hokusai — not just his inventiveness, but his personality, which bordered (willfully) on madness — chimed with Romantic notions about the role of artists and the nature of genius. The interest in Hokusai grew to such a degree that, between 1896 and 1914, three different biographies had been penned in France, two of them by France’s leading art critics.
There’s a temptation to neutralize the impact of an individual artist like Hokusai by thinking of the French interest in Japan as the symptom of something broader — a superficial fad, a taste for the exotic.
In reality, the pictorial innovations we attribute to Manet, Degas, Monet, Seurat, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and yes, even Picasso are all very hard to imagine without the example of Hokusai. Degas expressed best the admiration of his peers when he described Hokusai as “not just one artist among others in the Floating World” but rather “an island, a continent, a whole world in himself.”
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.