Beyond the Great Wave and into the hidden depths of the artist Hokusai at the British Museum with a new show of rarely seen woodblock prints and drawings.

What a treat it is to go for total immersion into the deep, meaningful and often witty world of Katsushika Hokusai.  He’s Japan‘s most famous artist and the work he produced, a mere 250 years ago is as visually thrilling today it must have appeared when freshly printed.

The colours in the prints on show at the British Museum are rich and vibrant. Apparently the display will be rotated midway – it runs from 25 May to 13 August – so that none of the rare and fragile works are over exposed to light and none of them suffer from fading.

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Of course the most iconic of the images on show is the Great Wave, that spectacular image of a mighty wave rising threateningly above three vulnerable open boats, bearing down on the hapless crew with talon-like terror.  It’s not just a brilliant piece of art, expertly created by an artist who understood the complex processes involved in wood block printing, but it’s a picture with a narrative and drama and great swell of movement.

 

What this magnificent show also reveals is the way Hokusai spent years attempting to capture the movement of the sea.  There are many early versions which contain the key to the masterpiece and also the artist’s fascination with the pure cone of Mount Fuji in the background. His extraordinary composition – use of perspective combined with flat planes and strong foreground images – influenced later painters, especially the Impressionists.

But Hokusai was an artist who clearly loved people.  I would liken him to Hogarth or Rembrandt, both artists who were fascinated by faces and the way emotion can be captured through expression and gesture.  Hokusai draws men, women and children, rich and poor, military and civilian with the same detail, fascination and good humour. His drawings are a joy to stare at, each delicate line revealing some new detail or surprise.  The picture below is of a particularly gruesome operation. I love the concentration on the face of the bespectacled surgeon who presses on with his treatment unbothered by the commotion of people around him, not least, the patient.

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I recommend this show for the pure pleasure, good humour, spiritual richness and artistic excellence it offers.  A real treat indeed.

 

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