Theater & art

Art Review

Japanese master Hokusai subject of brilliant MFA show

“Under the Wave off Kanagawa,” “a.k.a. “The Great Wave”
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
“Under the Wave off Kanagawa,” “a.k.a. “The Great Wave.”

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) had everything you could want from an artistic genius, in any epoch, anywhere: a masterpiece as well-known as the Mona Lisa (in the form of “Under the Wave off Kanagawa,” a.k.a. “The Great Wave”), a glint of madness and mayhem in his eyes, even multiple pseudonyms.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
“Woman Looking at Herself in a Mirror” is part of the “Hokusai” exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts.

But beyond all this, and over and above his virtuosity, inventiveness, range, and infectious sense of mischief, what this artist most forcefully conveys is appetite. Sheer, irrepressible greed for life. For me, there’s probably no finer quality in an artist.

The Hokusai show at the Museum of Fine Arts — more than 230 works from a career spanning seven decades — gives your eyes a good workout. But it leaves you mentally and spiritually elated.

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Despite its size, the show, which was organized by Sarah Thompson, the museum’s assistant curator for Japanese prints, is crisp, lucid, and manageable. The walls of each gallery have been painted a different color — vivid hues that change the mood of each room, and bring out prevailing colors in the art.

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The works are mostly prints, but also hanging scrolls, painted screens, albums, banners, fans, and even toy models. They are smartly presented, as we have come to expect at the MFA, with brilliantly written labels.

The exhibition, substantially enlarged from the show recently sent to four cities in Japan, is drawn entirely from the MFA’s collection. In variety, quality, and number, it is the finest collection of Hokusai works in the world. Around 80 percent of the art in the show was given to the museum by William Sturgis Bigelow, one of a legendary quartet of men who forged strong links between Boston and Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Like the MFA’s recent Goya show, the exhibition is organized by theme rather than chronology. So it’s in just the second room that we come upon the great print series, “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” (which includes, of course, “The Great Wave”), that Hokusai made at the age of 70.

It was revolutionary in Japan, and it looked thoroughly exotic in the West. But a lot about Hokusai’s approach to landscape, perfected in the “Thirty-Six Views” and the later “Tour of Japanese Waterfalls,” was in fact an inspired amalgam of the pictorial traditions of both.

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This becomes easier to grasp after seeing the first gallery, which contains a series of so-called “perspective pictures.” In these prints, made in the early 1800s, Hokusai explores principles of Western perspective first developed in the 15th century by Brunelleschi and Alberti.

Western-style single-point perspective had been introduced to Japan, via China, around 1740. But Hokusai and his contemporaries regarded it less as a whole new foundation for pictorial construction (with massive philosophical implications), than as simply a new trick in the illusionist’s chest — one among many.

He was fascinated by optics and optical machinery throughout his life. (The uncle who adopted him as a child was a mirror polisher in the service of a shogun.) So it’s fascinating to see, still in this first room, a series called “The Dutch Picture Lens: Eight Views of Edo.” Imitating copper plate prints in a Western style by a Japanese artist called Aodo Denzen, these small woodblock prints have vanishing points, low horizon lines, and clouds with Western style outlines.

Hokusai had an instinct for what his audience wanted — and an appetite to feed it — to rank with a Dickens or a Balzac. But he wasn’t just excited to think that there might be (as there was) an audience for this new vogue of picture-making. He was plainly fascinated by the actual mechanics of Western pictures.

The same series includes a depiction of a microscope, a reminder both of Hokusai’s fascination with optical technology and — suggests the wall label — his forensic interest in the life of the great city of Edo, modern day Tokyo.

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Getting a feel for Hokusai’s knack for merging the mechanics of Western and Eastern visual idioms helps us grasp the greatness of the “Thirty-Six Views.” It also makes it easier to understand why he suddenly became such a big hit in Europe: the Western influence in his pictures made them that much easier to plug into than traditional Japanese art.

It was in 1856, six years after Hokusai’s death, that the French artist Felix Bracquemond supposedly discovered a book of his sketches, or “manga,” lying around in a printer’s shop. The rest is history; Hokusai’s subsequent fan club included. . . oh, only Degas, Manet, Cassatt, Monet, Seurat, Gauguin, and Van Gogh.

The “Thirty-Six Views” (which actually amount to 46: like the director of a hit TV series pandering to an audience hungry for spinoffs, Hokusai generously added 10 more) are pure pictorial pleasure.

In print after print, Hokusai sets distant views of Japan’s great symbol against looming foreground shapes: a gigantic block of timber, propped up diagonally; a cherry tree in bloom; an avenue of gnarled pines; a large junk; a canal lined with shops (receding in Western perspective); a waterwheel; the prows of two boats; the curving parabola of a bridge, or the wooden ring of a huge barrel under construction.

All this is brilliant, and endlessly inventive. Moving from print to print, we’re seduced by the sheer variety of human activity, posture, and expression; by the interplay between solid, static forms and fleeting movement; and by the gorgeous harmonies between the prevailing shades of blue and the more localized greens, pale yellows, and rusty reds that Hokusai applied more liberally as the series progressed.

Although it inspired great artists as far apart as Utagawa Hiroshige and Vincent Van Gogh, the “Thirty-Six Views” remains a unique achievement. But as I looked at them, it occurred to me that if Hokusai has a (distant) spiritual twin it might be his English contemporary, John Constable. Although he worked in oils and watercolors — and with nothing like Hokusai’s range — Constable has a similar penchant for views that teem with life; a similar feeling for the variety of nature and for shifts in weather and atmosphere; and a comparable curiosity about human labor, the tools it employs, and the things it builds.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
“The Amida Falls in the Far Reaches of the Kisokaido Road.”

As a recurring motif, Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral is a sort of spiritual equivalent to Hokusai’s sacred Mount Fuji. Above all, both artists express an unbridled love of their homelands. Constable’s England is his own. So is Hokusai’s Japan. Their pictures are fired with feeling.

Of course, part of the point of this show is to remind us that there is more to Hokusai than Mount Fuji, or than landscape views in general. It’s a slight but unavoidable pity, in this context, that we see so little of the famous manga, Hokusai’s prodigious outpouring of sketches, which functioned both as how-to manuals for budding artists and extraordinary displays of graphic versatility, humor, and scientific investigation. The show includes just one volume of the manga, opened to a page showing sumo wrestlers doing daily household chores.

It’s a pity, too, that, apart from one image showing dildos and various other sex toys, none of Hokusai’s equally famous erotic prints (or “shunga”) are displayed. Free from prurience and shame and full of ardent invention, these works make up a significant part of Hokusai’s oeuvre, and include at least one image, of a diving girl ravished by octopi, that is almost as well known as the “Great Wave.”

Such images remind us, too, that Hokusai was no mere servant of life as it looks and is lived, nor merely an exemplary stylist.

He was also a superb storyteller and fantasist. The final gallery, which contains the great eight-panel folding screen depicting a phoenix, is filled with many reminders of Hokusai’s taste for literary allusions and fantasy.

Examples of his wonderful “One Hundred Ghost Stories” series are here, with demons and ghosts vying for attention with severed babies’ heads and snakes. There are also a number of hanging scrolls, including the ravishing “Woman Looking at Herself in a Mirror,” and “Li Bai Admiring a Waterfall,” which shows the Chinese poet at the foot of a huge waterfall. Look out for the small servant, perhaps a child, propping up the drunken poet, preventing him from falling in.

Some of the most impressive and likable works are the luxury “surimono.” These highly refined prints, often with embossing, metallic pigments, and accompanying poetry, were sometimes used as greeting cards and circulated only among an elite audience. Peppered with clever allusions, they were a great chance to exercise wit and invention, and they suited Hokusai’s talents perfectly.

”Stone.”
”Stone.”

“Daikoku Lifting Rice Bales, With Chickens,” showing the god of wealth lying on his back and lifting a bale of rice and a chicken with his feet; “Stone,” showing the pampered daughter of a wealthy household making a tray landscape from sand; and “Duck, Abalone Shell, and Parsley,” showing the ingredients for a delicious soup, are all wonderful examples.

At the age of 70, Hokusai famously wrote: “yet of all I drew by my seventieth year, there is nothing worth taking into account. At seventy-three years I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects, and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants. And so, at eighty-six I shall progress further; at ninety I shall even further penetrate their secret meaning, and by one hundred I shall perhaps truly have reached the level of the marvelous and divine.”

Toward the end of his life, haunted, like Rembrandt, by creditors and family strife, Hokusai moved around a great deal. But facing death, at 88, he seemed unbowed: “Though as a ghost,” he wrote in his final poem, “I shall lightly tread the summer fields.”

It’s a vow, I’m quietly confident, that he has kept.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.