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Woodblock art prints; Mount Fuji by Hokusai

Katsushika Hokusai lived during the Edo period in Japan, becoming known as a great creator of paintings and art prints, who developed the ukiyo-e art style beyond portraits of public figures, into broader studies of animals, plants, and natural landscapes. His career began in an apprenticeship with a wood carver, which switched to study under the ukiyo-e woodblock artist Katsukawa Shunsho, head of the Katsukawa school of art, who worked in a traditional style producing woodblock art prints of kabuki actors and courtesans.

Hokusai began publishing his own limited edition prints in 1779; the first a conventional series of kabuki actors, and over the following years developed a career from it. In 1793 Shunsho died and Hokusai began to explore other styles of art, looking at the work of Europeans, and the Kano school of artwork in Japan; the latter leading to his expulsion from Katsukawa, which proved to be an artistic revelation. He switched from traditional subjects to landscapes, and studies of the daily life of Japanese people, a complete break from the tradition of ukiyo-e woodblocks.

Moving to privately commissioned prints and book illustrations, free of the confines of any particular school of art, and focused further on developing ukiyo-e styles of landscapes and studies of nature. In 1800 he released two collections of landscape art prints, worked with the popular writer Takizawa Bakin on a series of book illustrations, and began to teach young art students in his approach and style.

The 1800s, and Hokusai’s Great Wave

As Hokusai’s fame grew so did his confidence; he experimented with erotic art, and made increasingly detailed demands of publishers of his work to ensure his art prints reflected accurately his vision as the artist. In 1812 he began producing a series of art manuals, which featured thousands of images, often with a humourous element to them, for young artist to copy and learn their technique from. Calling it the Hokusai Manga, little did the artist know these would be inspiration for the development of modern Japanese Manga art.

It was in the first half of the 1830s that he began working on his masterwork; Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji depicted the famous mountain through various seasons and scenes, with The Great Wave off Kanagawa the most famous print in the series. Landscape work was nothing new in Hokusai’s art, but throughout this series he brought together not only his technical mastery of the woodblock printing process, but also his diverse knowledge and understanding of multiple schools of art.

Perspective was of great interest to Hokusai when studying European art, and Great Wave reflects this; the picture has great depth, with the wave dwarfing the great mountain in the composition, and fishing boats half obscured by the layers of waves. All of this linear perspective was far from typical in ukiyo-e art, likewise the use of composition to suggest the volume and power of the wave and the bright blue colouring of the water. The prints throughout the series represented the work of a master at his height, expressing all that he had learned and discovered through his career as an artist.

The legacy of the 36 Views of Mount Fuji woodblock art prints

Throughout his career Hokusai sought to push beyond the traditional, while never losing the qualities of ukiyo-e that made it special. The cleanliness of line and broad style was only ever complimented by his increasingly complicated colour printing schemes, his widening of subjects and his fascination with the depth and perspective of European artworks.

An undisputed master of Japanese art, the influence of the series spread much further, with many of the impressionist artists in France drawing inspiration from it for their original artworks. The post-impressionist Riviere published a collection of prints called Thirty Six Views of the Tour Eiffel in 1902. Hokusai worked until he passed away in his late 80s, having produced over 30,000 paintings and woodblock art prints through his life. He changed forever the traditions of Japanese art, inspired elements of Europe’s modern art movement, and the modern world of Asian manga. Hokusai stands as one of the greatest artists, and his series as the most outstanding in Japanese woodblock print.

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