“Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji”, which opened March 24 at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see all images in the most famous print series of Japan’s most famous artist, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).
Opening day events included a Hokusai-inspired family activity; a demonstration of the dramatic art of kabuki; and Japanese cuisine in bento boxes.
Seeing the complete series, which actually totals 46 woodblock prints, is “a once in a lifetime experience, even for me,” said exhibit curator Ann Yonemura, Senior Associate Curator of Japanese Art, Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
The series of 36 was so popular that Hokusai created another ten, “But the publisher saw no reason to change the title,” Yonemura told a press preview.
This exceedingly rare opportunity is part of “Japan Spring”, three extraordinary Washington exhibits of art rarely seen outside Japan. It’s an official part of the National Cherry Blossom Festival celebrating the centennial of Japan’s gift of 3,000 cherry trees to the nation’s capital.
Perhaps the most famous print in the Hokusai series, “The Great Wave” a.k.a. “Under the Wave off Kanagawa”, is misinterpreted as a tsunami, especially with this month’s anniversary of Japan’s disastrous tsunami.
However, Hokusai’s “Great Wave” is “very different from a tsunami,” Yonemura said. “It’s like a huge coastal wave that surfers love.” The curator explained that the emblematic image, with Mt. Fuji in the background is “actually about survival. Mount Fuji is stable. So it implies that in the world of nature and the world of humans, even when threatening things happen, things will be all right.”
Another familiar view is “Red Fuji”, alongside “South Wind, Clear Day”, an earlier very rare version in soft shades.
Mount Fuji has been sacred since ancient times in Japan, with even a cult of worship. “We don’t know whether Hokusai was part of that cult, but his publisher was,” Yonemura said.
This was the first major landscape series in Japanese prints in 1831, “and may be the most important series because Hokusai brought landscape, formerly the domain of painters, into the world of print,” Yonemura told me.
Before the Mount Fuji series, “Japanese prints had focused on celebrities — courtesans and Kabuki actors — like looking at ‘Entertainment Tonight’,” the curator said. “Hokusai’s work is different in that he focused on ordinary people, peasants and other laborers. Like elevating it into the realm of PBS.”
In one particularly striking image of peasants, an elderly man squats inside a huge barrel he’s making. In another, they lead oxen heavily laden with bundles of reeds.
She terms one print the “Pony Express or FedEx of its time,” showing Shogun messengers on horseback (“Sekiya Village on the Sumida River”).
Whether depicting the speed of horses, or a wave’s drops of water suspended in air, one of Hokusai’s numerous striking effects is capturing fast-action, a single moment in time. “It’s like freeze-frame by a high-speed camera. He created such an illusion with only lines, dots…” she said.
The series is astounding not only in its beauty, intricacy, and complexity, but also in its accomplishment despite Hokusai’s dire state when he created it.
“His wife had just died, he had had something like a stroke, was in financial strain,” Yonemura noted. “He had said, ‘I don’t know if I can make it if I don’t sell something soon.’ But he came out of it, and went into a period of great creativity.”
Katsushika Hokusai (“North star”), who changed his name for each of his many periods of creativity as an artist, and also a poet and novelist, wrote the following at age 73: “Prior to my 70th year, nothing I drew was of particular note. At the age of 73, I could somewhat understand … at 80, my art will have greatly improved, at 90, I will have attained real depth, and at 100 will be divinely inspired. At 110, my every dot and every stroke will come to life…”
Hokusai, who lived almost to age 90, prayed to Mount Fuji for longevity.
Yonemura confided that she has “looked into climbing Mount Fuji (about 14,000 feet high), but it’s a little beyond my experience.”
(For more Hokusai, the Freer Gallery adjoining the Sackler offers “Hokusai: Japanese Screens” through July 29, featuring a magnificent pair of six-panel folding screens of Mount Fuji, and “Hokusai: Paintings and Drawings” through June 24. Highlights include “Boy Viewing Mount Fuji”, and three masterworks of Hokusai’s last years, “Thunder God”, “Fisherman”, and Woodcutter”.)
Another once-in-a-lifetime exhibit in “Japan Spring” is “Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by Itō Jakuchū (1716–1800), which opens March 30 at the National Gallery. This is first time Japan’s Imperial Household has loaned all 30 scroll paintings of one of its greatest national treasures outside the country.
The third exhibit of “Japan Spring”, “Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples”, now through July 8 also at the Sackler, is a selection of 100 Kazunobu paintings, considered one of the most impressive feats of Buddhist iconography.
An additional not-to-be-missed exhibit that’s also part of the National Cherry Blossom Festival is the Library of Congress’ “Sakura: Cherry Blossoms as Living Symbols of Friendship”. “Sakura”, meaning blossoming cherry trees, includes watercolors of the 11 blossom varieties among the original trees; Japanese woodblock prints of landscapes with the blossoming trees; an accordion book with gorgeous Hiroshige works; and a 1939 Herblock drawing about an approaching world war.
To quote that exhibit’s co-curator Katherine Blood, the Library of Congress’ curator of fine prints, “The city is having a ‘hanafubuki‘ (cherry blossom blizzard) of art during this centennial year.
For more info: “Japan Spring”: “Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji” continues through June 17 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. “Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples” continues at the Sackler through July 8. National Gallery of Art. National Cherry Blossom Festival Events. “Cherry Blossoms: The Official Book of the National Cherry Blossom Festival” (National Geographic) by Ann McClellan, photographs by Ron Blunt. History of Japan’s 1912 cherry blossom gift: Trust for the National Mall and National Park Service. Embassy of Japan cherry blossom and arts events. Library of Congress’ “Sakura: Cherry Blossoms as Living Symbols of Friendship”.