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Book of the Week — Hokusai Manga

“Even as a ghost
my spirit will want to roam
the fields of summer.”
— The Old Man Mad about Art

Hokusai Manga
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)
Nagoya: Eirakuya Toshiro,1814-1878
NE1325 K3 H64 vol.14

To the modern Western world there is, perhaps, one image that stands out above the rest as being emblematic of Japanese Art. Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa — from his iconic series, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji — has been reappropriated and reproduced on t-shirts, coffee mugs, key chains, cell phone covers, pillows, tapestries, towels, plus a countless number of other items made and sold for the souvenir market. But how many know the name ‘Hokusai’? And do they know the additional thirty-plus names he went by in the nearly nine decades during which he was alive?

When Hokusai was born in 1760, he had received the name Kawamura Tokitaro. Born into a lower-middle-class family along the outskirts of Edo (modern-day Tokyo), certain financial difficulties might have led his family to put him up for adoption. At the age of four or five, he was taken in by the family of Nakajima Ise, an important artisan and mirror-polisher at the shogun’s court. Tokitaro then had his name changed to Tetsuzo, and thus began his long and winding journey to become the famed artist we know of today.

As with most Japanese families at the time, the young ‘Tokitaro’ would begin an apprenticeship as a mirror-polisher with his adopted father. However, is interests lay elsewhere. In his autobiography, Hokusai claimed that as early as six, he found himself in the habit of drawing all kinds of things. He would not go on to become a mirror-polisher and instead pursued his passion for art. It is said he briefly worked at a bookshop or a lending library before accepting an apprenticeship with a woodblock carver at the age of fourteen. A woodblock print, or ukiyo-e, was the joint product of three craftsmen: the designer of the original, the engraver, and the printer. According to Japanese trade regulations, each had to remain within his field. But the young Hokusai was not necessarily interested in carving, he wanted to create. His artistic career finally began in earnest, when, at eighteen, he joined the workshop of a prominent Edo ukiyo-e artist, Katsukawa Shunsho. 

The ukiyo-e prints, as practiced by Shunsho, focused on images of courtesans (bijin-ga) and kabuki theater actors (yakusha-e), who were popular in Japanese cities at the time. As a pupil of Shunsho, he imitated his style and changed his name once more to ‘Katsukawa Shunro’. Under this moniker he sold some of his earliest prints. These crudely printed portraits were aimed at a mass audience that could not afford the more deluxe works by his established teacher. Though his mind wandered, he remained faithful to his master for well over a decade. When Shunsho died, Hokusai was thirty-three years old. The school gradually disintegrated and Hokusai once again found himself seeking out new ideas — new ways of drawing. He secretly began studying with other masters, a practice which gave him the reputation of “dilettante,” or a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge. It was likely because of this, that Hokusai was expelled from the Shunsho school and left on his own.  

With the death of Shunsho, Hokusai began trying his hand at subjects other than actors and courtesans. He experimented with designs based on Japanese legends and classical Chinese themes. He also found another master to learn from, Tawarya Sori. With his newly adopted name, ‘Sori’, he now concentrated on scenes with delicate figures, almost completely foreign to the ukiyo-e tradition. His new passion was to recreate natural landscapes — scenes from the countryside surrounding Edo — and images of the daily life of Japanese people from a variety of social classes. This change of subject was a breakthrough in both ukiyo-e style and Hokusai’s career. In addition to his landscape works, Hokusai began illustrating novellas and selling surimono, a privately commissioned print for special occasions, similar to a greeting card. 

The details of Hokusai’s career have often been told and need not be repeated here, save to emphasize that he was continually changing. He experimented with different names and, subsequently, different styles. He moved on from master to master, studying under Kano Yusen of the Kano School, Tsutsumi Tori of the Tsutsumi School, and Sumiyoshi Naiki of the Tosa School, apparently never finding satisfaction. Until, that is, he came across a European copper-plate engraving, the likes of which had been very slowly filtering into Japan. These engravings opened up for him a new world of scientific perspective, of shading, and of realistic representation.

He changed his name once more, to ‘Katsushika Hokusai’. The former name refers to a part of Edo where he was born, the latter meaning “north studio,” in honor of the North Star, symbolic of a deity in the religion of Nichiren Buddhism. This was the name that became known all across Japan, but it wouldn’t be his last. In his early fifties, he abandoned the name Hokusai in favor of ‘Taito’, applying it to the characters and sketches in his new etehon, or art manual, series. This marked the beginning of the most prolific era in his life. The art manual was titled Manga — a word that is defined as “rapid sketches” or, “drawings that come spontaneously,” or, as Hokusai himself described, “brush gone wild.” When the first volume of Hokusai’s Manga was published in 1814, it was an immediate success, luckily for Hokusai, who was deep in financial troubles. But his publishers also quickly realized this was the kind of good fortune that could be easily repeated. Although the Manga was an enormous encyclopedia of Japanese life, it was also an ill-organized jumble, full of an old man’s whimsicalities. The book required no plan and no careful preparation of sketches. Before long, Hokusai was instructed to begin work on additional volumes. 

Hokusai had said that this series marked a new starting point in his art, and that everything he had done before he was fifty was actually worthless and should be wiped out. In his Manga, he gave full expression to the sense of magic which action and movement had always inspired in him. After the success of volume one, nine subsequent volumes were published under this title over the next five years, providing a compendium of Japanese life and society that included numerous legendary and historical figures. Block printed in three colors (black, gray, and pale flesh), the Manga is comprised of thousands of images with “nothing in Nature unattempted.” The first ten volumes constitute the chief portion of the work and are most intimately associated with Hokusai personally. Five additional volumes were produced from 1819 – 1878. Volumes 13 and 14 were published posthumously in 1849. A fifteenth volume appeared after a considerable lapse of time, but as there was not in existence enough material to fill it, and none of the pupils of Hokusai had survived, contributions were obtained from other artists of Nagoya — the most notable being Kyosai, who signature is attached to two plates. 

Each volume also included its own preface, written by an admirer, a personal friend, a prominent author, or sometimes Hokusai himself. In the preface to volume fourteen, seen here, master calligrapher, Hyakkei-o writes, 

Prose is the implement for affecting human understanding. Painting is the device for transmitting form. However, if the prose is unskilled, how can the understanding be affected? And if the picture is unskilled, one can hardly expect the form to be transmitted. Thus, for example, to draw a tiger, but to have it look like a dog!

All that Hokusai draws transmits true form. Even a child of two seeing these pictures will understand what they represent. In view of this fact, were we not in the presence of a real master of the brush, how could all the constraints of the universe be recreated with such reality?

The popularity of the Manga volumes was tremendous. Probably no other serial picture album of the nineteenth-century went through so many reprints — to a degree that the woodblocks had become severely worn. But who, exactly, was buying these books. Among the Japanese upper class of the cultured and educated, Hokusai’s prints in general, but the Manga in particular, were treated as vulgar and despicable. As an artist, he was always held in contempt. To put it in perspective, if one hundred copies of his Manga had been sold in the streets, at least ninety-eight would have been purchased by the citizens of the middle and lower classes and only two, at most, by the wealthy elite. The triumph of the series has therefore been the victory of the common citizen, who saw in Hokusai a rugged artist who created an art that a commoner could comprehend and enjoy. That fact is revealed by the sign that Hokusai himself had affixed to one of his many dwellings — Hachiyemon — Peasant. He was always, consciously and proudly, an artisan, a member of the Lower Order in the social scale. He was poor all his life, in spite of the not inconsiderable earnings of his brush. He dwelt among the poor and lived as they did. They were his chief clients.

So how did a peasant artist from Japan become so renowned in the Western world? 

Owing to the extreme isolationist policy of the Japanese government, which for centuries practically prohibited communication with the rest of the world, the West had little or no acquaintance with the arts of the country until after the American expedition under Commander Matthew C. Perry in 1853. However, the Dutch had been given some allowance with their trading post of Dejima in the port of Nagasaki. One of the visitors to Dejima was the German physician, Philip Franz Siebold. Siebold had collected a number of Japanese materials during his stay, including the sketchbooks or manga of Hokusai. When he returned home to Holland in 1828, Siebold drew upon the sketches for several illustrations in his own massive compendium, Nippon Archiv Zur Beschreibung von Japon (1831). By the mid-nineteenth century, Hokusai’s works were steadily trickling into the West. His Manga and the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji were hailed as great discoveries and likely instigated the craze for collecting Japanese art. “Japonism” became a prominent trend and had a strong influence on the early Impressionists such as Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, and Claude Monet. It also impacted the Post-Impressionists such as Vincent van Gogh, and Art Nouveau artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. 

Today, no other Japanese artist’s works are so well-known around the world by such a large, non-specialist public. And for good reason. When we count up other series of designs accomplished by the great masters  — the woodcuts of Dürer, the etchings of Rembrandt and Whistler, the portraits of Holbein, the Liber Studiorum of Turner — we cannot deny a place among them to  Hokusai. 

In his epilogue to A Hundred Views of Fuji, Hokusai wrote: “I have been in love with painting ever since I became conscious of it at the age of six. I drew some pictures I thought fairly good when I was fifty, but really nothing I did before the age of seventy was of any value at all. At seventy-three I have at last caught every aspect of nature — birds, fish, animals, insects, trees, grasses, all. When I am eighty, I shall have developed still further, and I will really master the secrets of art at ninety. When I reach a hundred, my work will be truly sublime, and my final goal will be attained around the age of one hundred and ten, when every line and dot I draw will be imbued with life.” 

It is probably correct to assume that Hokusai lived entirely for his art. His production was enormous, amounting to over 3,500 designs for print alone, plus illustrations for more than two hundred and fifty books, and a considerable amount of paintings. At the end, he is said to have taken a deep breath and expressed the wish that he could have another ten years. There was a pause, then he muttered haltingly: “If I had another five years, even, I could have become a real painter!” He died in May 1849 at the age of eighty-nine (or ninety, by Japanese custom). His ashes were interred at the Seikyo-ji temple at Nagazumi-cho in the Asakusa district, where his grave still stands to this day.

The rare books copy of Hokusai Manga, volume 14, is a gift from Gabriel Rummonds.

Recommended Reading:

The Hokusai Sketchbooks
Katsushika Hokusai
Rutland, VT : C. E. Tuttle Co., 1958
NE1325 K3 M47


1 Comment
  • Alexander Jolley
    Posted at 21:39h, 27 January Reply

    What I find most exciting is how this ‘low-level’ art became the canonical Japanese style because this was what was first smuggled out of the country by westerners. Although not shown here, the muted pastel of ’36 Views of Mount Fuji’ is a fine example of an artists’ magnum opus. I agree that Hokusai should be considered among the pantheon of great cultural works.

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