Home > Arts & Crafts, Events, Reviews > Art Review: Hokusai: Beyond The Great Wave – An Exhibition At The British Museum

Art Review: Hokusai: Beyond The Great Wave – An Exhibition At The British Museum

Exhibition dates: 25th May – 13th August 2017



the great wave off kanagawa

Katsushika Hokusai was born Tokitarō in 1760 in Honjo Warigesui, the present-day Kamezawa area of Sumida City. He was adopted by Ise Nakajima, an artisan, who made and supplied metal mirrors to the Shōgun’s court and, according to “Katsushika Hokusai Den” (Biography of Katsushika Hokusai) by Kyoshin Iijima, a mother who was granddaughter to Kobayashi Heihachirō, an expert swordsman and high ranking retainer of Kira Yoshinaka, who was killed during the attack on Kira’s mansion by the Forty-Seven Rōnin, something which Hokusai apparently used to talk about. Hokusai married twice, both wives pre-deceasing him, and had two sons and three daughters, one of whom, Ōi, became an artist in her own right.

He spent four years working as an engraver’s apprentice from the age of fourteen and at the age of eighteen was apprenticed to the painter and printmaker Katsukawa Shunshō who specialised in ‘yakusha-e’ (actor prints) and ‘bijin ga’ (beautiful women prints) until, at the age of twenty-six, he left after a row with Shunkō, the senior apprentice, over a shop sign. From then on he scraped a living as a street hawker until 1804 when he gained attention of the Shōgun’s Court as he entertained a crowd by painting an immense image of the monk Daruma in the courtyard of a temple in Edo. Commanded to produce a picture for the Shōgun he created a sensation by immersing the feet of a cockerel in red paint and allowing the bird to walk all over a sheet of paper on which he had painted a large swathe of blue creating a river covered with the scattered leaves of the red maple. He would also, at the opposite end of the scale, create minute drawings on grains of rice.

In 1805 at the age of forty-five he began a tempestuous relationship with the novelist Kyokutei Bakin, illustrating amongst others Bakin’s translation of the Chinese classic ‘Illustrated New Edition of the Suikoden’ (The Water Margin) and ‘Strange Tales of the Crescent Moon’. The relationship ended in a violent quarrel.

Minamoto no Tametomo

Minamoto no Tametomo challenging the wild inhabitants of Onigashima island to test their strength against him
Hanging scroll of painted silk

At the age of fifty in 1810 he was struck by lightning and survived and then in 1814 the first of the Manga series, which he had begun under the roof of Boksen in Nagoya, was published. The series which would eventually extend to fifteen volumes, the last three being published posthumously, showing many different types of pictures in many different styles and were so well thought of that in the first volume’s preface they were referred to as ‘the things of Heaven and of Buddha’ and were used as drawing manuals.

The exhibition takes a close look at Hokusai’s post 1820 works, though this in itself detracts from his earlier extremely popular multiple volume manga series, no less the work of a genius.

At the age of sixty-one, in 1820, a point in life which in Japan marks the beginning of a second cycle of a renewed life, he took the name of Iitsu (One Again). It was around this time that Hokusai’s oeuvre also took on a new lease of life; perhaps as a result of his commission around that time from the Dutch East India Company, giving a revelatory new look to his Japanese style pictures but with a European perspective.

In 1827 he was struck down with paralysis but cured himself with a Chinese remedy of lemons boiled in sake. He subsequently published three sets of prints; ‘A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces’ (1833-1834), ‘Remarkable Views of Bridges in Various Provinces’ (circa 1830) and ‘Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji’ (1829-1833), the last revolving around his identification, as a devout Nichiren Buddhist, with Fujiyama as a personal spiritual motif for immortality.

It was as part of the last of these sets that the now most famous and revelatory of Hokusai’s prints, ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ was published. He used both Prussian blue, a Western import, and the more traditional Japanese Indigo, and a more Western linear perspective style which he had begun using with his Dutch East India Company Commission.

the great wave off kanagawa

The great wave of kanagawa

Clearly ‘The Great Wave‘ is not a tsunami but is rather what is called a plunging breaker; a wave with a crest that curls over on itself, the waves in procession from left to right using the Western convention. The threatening cloud formation in the distance reflects the wave’s shape, the Golden Spiral, aesthetically pleasing to the human eye yet ripe with potential, the tension in the wave and the distant clouds palpable, both pivoting around Mount Fuji’s slightly off centre solidity, the boats and crews subjected to the immense unbridled power of nature. The shape of Mount Fuji reflected in the wave in the foreground, a synthesis of fluid and solid. It is with this image that the mathematician Benoit Mandlebrot began to ponder what he called ‘fractality’ in Hokusai’s use of a repeating pattern of self-similarity in his pictures of clouds, trees and of course waves as part of his thinking about the natural occurrence of fractal motifs as art anticipating science and mathematics.

In 1834, as the first volume of ‘Hundred Views of Mount Fuji’ was published, he went into exile in Uraga on the Miura Peninsula south of Edo (as a consequence of a misdemeanour committed by his grandson) and it wasn’t until 1836 at the age of seventy-six that he was able to re-emerge, the second of the volumes of ‘Hundred Views of Mount Fuji’ having been published in the interim in 1835 (the last volume was published circa 1839). At the time of his reappearance there was a major famine and then his house burnt down leaving him nothing but his brushes. Though the demand for art during this period had diminished to such an extent that he survived by churning out cheap drawings he remained sanguine, existing in a state of poverty that he never really emerged from. Concentrating on his oeuvre he completely ignored hygiene simply moving home each time, a total of ninety-three times, when it became impossible to continue living where he was, in the latter part of his life accompanied by his daughter Katsushika Ōi, a fine artist in her own right.


A sketch circa 1842 of Hokusai’s lodgings at Sumida’s Hannoki Baba (Han-noki Riding Ground) by one of his pupils Tsuyuki Kōshō (aka Iistu III) of Hokusai and his daughter in one of their rented lodgings and a life size recreation at the Hokusai Museum, Sumida, Tokyo. The notes on the sketch explain that Hokusai would remain inside and never emerge fully from the kotatsu (a heater covered by a blanket) from September to April not even if he had visitors. Hardly ever changing his clothes he was covered in lice which, anecdotally, he would pick and throw at people who upset him.

However in 1842 Hokusai began a series of visits to Obuse in Nagano Prefecture, courtesy of his patron the Obuse merchant Takai Kozan,who became his pupil and provided him with a studio. It was here at the age of eighty-five that he painted the stunning ceiling panels of the two floats for the Kammachi and Higashimachi Festivals two of which are on display at the exhibition on loan from the Hokusai Museum in Obuse.


Kammachi float with ‘Doto’ (angry waves – masculine waves and feminine waves) http://www.book-navi.com/hokusai/art/art-e.html

He managed to create a vast oeuvre … …large commercial prints (oban), private bespoke prints (surimono), multi-coloured brocade prints (nishiki-e), hanging scrolls (kakemono)… …the mundane, the sacred and the lyrical… …east and west… …over 30,000 pictures over the course of his lifetime in spite of adversity; lightning, paralysis, exile, and nearly a lifetime spent in poverty. Certainly his living amongst the common folk made necessary by his frequent poverty helped to keep him (perhaps a little too) grounded, and as a consequence in touch with the common folk so often the subject of his brush, the lightning strike in 1810 perhaps influencing his use of a another recurrent theme, that of human beings and animals as a part of yet subordinate to nature and its dynamic forces.

In his preface to his ‘Hundred Views of Mount Fuji’ he says, ‘From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the forms of things. By the time I was fifty I had published an infinity of designs; but all I have produced before the age of seventy is not worth taking into account. At seventy-three I have learnt a little about the real structure of nature, of animals, plants, trees, birds, fishes, and insects. In consequence when I am eighty, I shall have made still more progress; at ninety I shall penetrate the mystery of things; at a hundred I shall certainly have reached a marvellous stage; and when I am a hundred and ten, everything I do, be it but a dot or a line, will be alive. I beg those who live as long as I to see if I do not keep my word. Written at the age of seventy-five by me, once Hokusai, today Gakyō Rōjin, the old man mad about drawing’. He passed away in 1849 at the age of eighty-nine and was interred in Seikyoji Temple in Tōkyō’s Moto-Asakusa District.

It was the French painter and etcher Félix Bracquemond who, fortuitously, brought Hokusai to the attention of the West when in 1856 he discovered a book of Hokusai manga at the print shop of Auguste Delâtre that had been used as packing material for some Japanese porcelain. He wasn’t able to acquire it at the time but eighteen months later traded for it with the engraver Lavieille into whose possession it had come.

His legacy in the West persisted in the work of such luminaries as Van Gogh, Degas, Whistler, Renoir, Monet, Pissaro, and Gaugin, and the post 1867 World Fair (where Japanese arts and crafts had their own pavilion) popularity of Japanese art resulted in the 1872 aesthetic movement known as Japonism though it wasn’t until around 1859 that Japanese prints began to appear on the European market.

Though there were some areas where the display layout caused visitor bottlenecks overall the exhibition is a delight, the skill on display astonishing. This sort of exhibition doesn’t happen very often so go, linger, relish, devour and delight in Hokusai’s work as much as he obviously enjoyed creating it.

Running concurrently from 26th May and alongside the British Museum exhibition is a smaller exhibition at the Japanese Embassy in London entitled, ‘Hokusai and His Vision’.



The Tōkyō Hokusai Museum is located in Sumida in the area where Hokusai was born. The closest station is Ryōgoku on the Oedo Line.


The Obuse Hokusaikan Museum is in Nagano Prefecture (see website for access details)


Hokusai’s grave is located in Tōkyō’s Motoasakusa District’s Seikyoji Temple. Nearest stations are Inaricho on the Ginza Line and Shin-Okachimachi on the Oedo Line.

The site of Hokusai’s lodgings at Sumida’s Hannoki Baba, the subject of Tsuyuki Kōshō’s sketch, is at Hashibami Inari Shrine in Ryōgoku. Nearest Stations are Ryōgoku on the Sobu Main Line and Ryōgoku on the Oedo Line.

Reviewer Profile:

Trevor Skingle was born and lives in London where he works in the field of Humanitarian Disaster Relief. He is a Japanophile and his hobbies are Kabuki, painting and drawing and learning Japanese.

Related Posts:

Art Exhibition: “Ukiyo-e Pop” – Ukiyo-e & Contemporary Japonism At ICN Gallery London

Art Exhibition: Masaktsu Kondo “Whenever I Am Silent” – All Visual Arts Gallery London

Art Exhibition: “What is Ukiyo-e?” – ICN Gallery London



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