Monthly Archives: March 2012

Hokusai: Performance Artist

Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji: Umezawa Manor in Sagami Province. By Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), The Mann Collection, Highland Park, Illinois

Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji is on view through June 17, 2012, as part of our Japan Spring celebration. In honor of the exhibition, Bento presents a series of posts on the life and times of Hokusai, the famed artist behind the esteemed series that includes the iconic print Under the Wave off Kanagawa, better known as The Great Wave. This article, the third and last of the series, was written by Victoria Dawson and previously appeared in Asiatica magazine.

Hokusai’s searching restlessness, as evinced by the shifts in style and name, subject matter and audience, reflects his enormous capability for self-renewal. “His demon, in a way, was that he always reached a point where he was becoming a caricature of himself,” according to art historian Roger Keyes. “He got facile—sort of like Picasso, who really struggled with that problem. But Hokusai found a short cut. Whenever he was in a rut, he changed. He just started doing something completely different.”

Hokusai seemed almost playful about the elusiveness of his public persona, on the one hand disappearing from patrons, publishers, and an admiring public and on the other engaging in feats of artist bravura. In 1804, at the age of forty-four, he decided to produce—at the Gokokuji in Edo—what he believed would be the largest painting ever created. On the day of the performance his assistants rolled out an expanse of paper fifty-five feet wide long and thirty feet wide—pieced together from smaller sheets of paper. At Hokusai’s signal, a team of assistants, dressed in black, began to scramble around the jerry-rigged canvas, wielding brooms for paintbrushes and working from tubs of ink—presumably following an outline by the artist. “The spectators said it was the damnedest thing—these people running all over the place,” Keyes says. When the ink dried and the painting was finally hoisted aloft, the assembled crowd beheld the head and shoulders of the Bodhidharma, the Indian patriarch of Zen Buddhism.

“Here,” adds Keyes, “Hokusai is a performance artist, right? So then he said, ‘You think that’s great? Well, check this out!’ The next day he got a grain of rice and, with his one-hair brush, drew two flying sparrows [on it]. Isn’t that great?”

Crying Fowl at the Freer!

A peacock struts his stuff in the Freer Courtyard circa 1923.

With Winged Spirits: Birds in Chinese Paintings on view in the Freer, we searched around for some more images of birds and found this photograph of a peacock in the Freer courtyard in 1923, at the time of the museum’s opening. Yes, there were live peacocks running around (okay, maybe not running), perhaps an oh-so-subtle reminder for visitors not to miss Whistler’s Peacock Room. At the time, three peacocks were lent to the museum from the National Zoo. They remained in the museum during the warmer months, but were returned to the zoo in the winter.

What do you think? Would you like to see peacocks in the Freer courtyard today?

Photo courtesy of the Archives of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Facing East: Kabuki in Honor of Japan Spring

The art of Kabuki in honor of Japan Spring; photo by H. Wicaksono

In honor of Japan Spring, traditional dance master Bando Kotoji demonstrates and discusses scenes from famous kabuki plays including “Yoshino-yama,” set on a famous Japanese mountain known for its cherry blossoms.The intricate art of kabuki involves costume, makeup, postures, and movement all supported by live music for shamisen, chanter, and percussion.

Japan Spring in the Sackler Gallery

Celebrating Japan Spring in the Sackler Pavilion; photo by Carly Pippin

Here’s the scene in the Sackler Gallery as we celebrate Japan Spring! There’s still time to grab some food and listen to the sounds of the koto. At 2 pm check out Imaginasia activities as well as Kabuki in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium.

Curator Ann Yonemura on Hokusai

Ann Yonemura, senior associate curator of Japanese Art; photo by H. Wicaksono

We have the honor of having Ann Yonemura with us today. Ann is the senior associate curator of Japanese art at the Freer|Sackler. She shares with us how special and rare it is to have the complete set of Hokusai prints on view, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, selected from seven museums and two private collections.

“It’s very difficult to bring the series together this way. It really is the first show of the full series that I have seen in my lifetime. It’s up for twelve weeks only, so it’s brief, just like the cherry blossoms. The prints are beautiful, and in excellent condition. Visitors to the exhibition will be seeing the prints as they would have appeared in the 1830s, when they were first published.”

Sketching the Koto Player

Sketching the Koto Player in the Sackler; photo by H. Wicaksono

Japan Spring is a feast for the ears as well as the eyes. Come listen to the sounds of the koto, the national instrument of Japan, happening now through 2 pm.

Cherry Blossom Origami

Making cherry blossom origami in the Sackler; photo by Hutomo Wicaksono

Not happy with the cherry blossoms outside? Come into the Sackler and make your own! Cherry Blossom origami happening now through 2 pm!

Hokusai: Making Waves

The Great Wave

Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji: Under the Wave off Kanagawa; H. O Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929, Metropolitan Museum of Art (JP1847). Image source: Art Resource, NY

Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji opens Saturday, March 24, as part of our Japan Spring celebration. In honor of the exhibition, Bento presents a series of posts on the life and times of Hokusai, the famed artist behind the esteemed series that includes the iconic print Under the Wave off Kanagawa, better known as The Great Wave. This article was written by Victoria Dawson and previously appeared in Asiatica magazine.

In the 1850’s—the decade after Hokusai’s death—Japan was opened up to the West and paintings and prints began to flow to Europe and into America. Over the next fifty years, Hokusai gradually emerged in Western eyes and in the Western imagination as the Asian artist par excellence. Much has been written about his influence on designs of European and American artists in the late nineteenth century. Indeed, in Vienna, at the 1873 international exhibition, a major exhibition of Hokusai works underscored the high degree of popularity that he enjoyed in the West. But through most of the last century, beyond a relatively small group of researchers and collectors, the artist was largely identified in the popular imagination as a print designer. His most famous work, The Great Wave from the print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (circa 1830–33), is virtually synonymous with Japanese art—and so ubiquitous that it can be found almost anywhere that ink can adhere to a surfave—from tote bags to magnets. [The print can be seen at the Sackler Gallery as part of the exhibition on view from March 24 through June 17, 2012.]

Hokusai was someone with a very deep sense that wherever he was, it was not the final place—he was always looking for something beyond. He was an individualist whose art seems infused with a sense of irony, hauntedness, and a search for meaning. His prolific productivity, his cherished independence, and his groundbreaking visual techniques suggest a man who was obsessed with something other than money or social standing.

Then, as now, there were scores and scores of artists who were content with the status quo, satisfying rather than challenging the expectations of their viewers. Not so Hokusai. Consider, for example, the contrast between two prints of waves, created within several years of one another. In The Great Wave, Hokusai presents a rather generous vision of sweeping waves with Mount Fuji in the distance. A print he created only a year or two later offers a claustrophic alternative: In Chosi in Shimosa Province (circa 1833–34, from the series One Thousand Pictures of the Ocean) the waves cleave to a sharp diagonal line, crashing against the jagged rocks and shoals. A second, distant fishing boat offers none of the reassuring stability that Mount Fuji provides in the earlier print.

“There is no escape. Visually, Hokusai doesn’t allow it,” says Jim Ulak, senior curator of Japanese art at the Freer|Sackler. “He seems to say, ‘Well, you were comfortable with The Great Wave? Now, I’ll give you something to be afraid of—a darker vision, a sense of being trapped.’ Why would Hokuasi have done that? Not to make the viewer feel comfortable. You can always expect him to pull the rug out from under you.”

Hokusai: A Mad Man Before His Time

Hokusai: 36 Views of Mt. Fuji opens Saturday, March 24, as part of our Japan Spring celebration. In honor of the exhibition, Bento presents a series of posts on the life and times of Hokusai, the famed artist behind the esteemed series that includes the iconic print Under the Wave off Kanagawa, better known as The Great Wave. This article was written by Victoria Dawson and previously appeared in Asiatica magazine.

What could be more intriguing than the image of a man so unsettled that at the end of his long life he had lived in ninety-three places? Or an artist who changed his professional name so often that one of his contemporaries remarked “no artist ever had more names”? And how can one resist the determination of one who, on his deathbed and with faltering breath, implored the gods to grant him an extension of just five or ten more years—so that he might yet become a true artist? Even an inventory of this man’s possessions—one earthenware pot, two or three teacups, and a single cotton robe—exerts a curious hold on the imagination.

In approaching the art of Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), one of Japan’s most renowned artists, it is tempting to linger over the engaging and eccentric facets of his life. Indeed, such colorful images provide ready toeholds as one attempts to grasp the scope of a visual master endowded with boundless creative energy and technical virtuosity. “He was seemingly oblivious to the practicalities of everyday life. Not because he was absent-minded, but because he was single-minded in his devotion to uncovering the truth through the use of his brush,” says James Ulak, senior curator of Japanese art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

Hokusai had an abiding desire to excel—not in a competetive worldly way, but as a means for sharing. “For Hokusai, transmission was what art was all about,” says Roger S. Keyes, an art historian and consultant for the 2006 Hokusai exhibition at Freer|Sackler. “It’s what he got out of art, and it’s what he hoped to accomplish through art. It was about transmitting the conviction of what he knew through his experience to others.”

The sheer volume of Hokusai’s brushwork beggars both the imagination and the intellect. Over the course of seven decades, which included occasional periods of profound personal distraction, this “man mad about painting,” as he called himself, created an estimated thirty thousand images—and wrote novels and poetry as well. He turned out ink drawings, paintings, and prints that varied greatly in both subject and format—actor portraits; landscapes; beautiful women; the spiritual and supernatural; legendary figures and historical tales; still life; nature, including birds and flowers; erotica; surimono (highly refined, privately commissioned prints); fan paintings; manga; illustrated albums, books, poetry anthologies; and novels; teaching manuals for artists, and even performance art. His illustrated books alone number some 270 volumes. “There is so much you have to look at before you get a sense of this artist,” says Keyes. “I’ve never caught up with him.”