Exhibitions, Japan Spring, Japanese Art, Sackler 25

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?”