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Who Ya Gonna Call? (Ghost Edition)

The House of Broken Plates from One Hundred Ghost Tales,
Katsushika Hokusai, (1760–1849); woodblock print; color on paper; S2004.3.210

The five ghosts from the published designs of a series titled One Hundred Ghost Tales (Hyaku monogatari) reflect an Edo custom of telling ghost tales in the dark. The ghosts are among the eeriest of Hokusai’s commercially published prints, and they express Hokusai’s interest in imagining the supernatural world, which began in his youth with a print of a haunted house.

Here, a woman’s head with a serpentine neck made up of a stack of dishes represents the ghost of Okiku, whose master threw her into a well because she had broken his favorite dish. At night the sound of smashing porcelain and a voice counting “one, two, three…” emanated from the well.

Happy Halloween from Freer|Sackler. And try not to break any dishes…

Posted by in From the Collections, Japanese Art | 1 Comment

Catch the Wave: Hokusai Closing this Sunday

Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji is closing on Sunday, June 17. In celebration of the exhibition, this video shows exhibition curator Ann Yonemura discussing two of Katsushika Hokusai’s most famous prints: Under the Wave off Kanagawa (better known as the “Great Wave”) and Red Fuji. Both have become icons of the art world.

Hokusai’s series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji became a landmark in Japanese print publishing when it was first published in 1831, incorporating innovative compositions, techniques, and coloration, and establishing landscape as a new subject. The images proved so popular that Hokusai continued the series and added another ten prints. The exhibition on view in the Sackler is a rare opportunity to see examples of all forty-six, culled from important collections around the world.

On Friday, June 15, from 4 to 5 pm, join Yonemura at the entrance to the exhibition for an informal conversation about Hokusai, Mount Fuji, and woodblock prints in Edo-period Japan. Don’t miss this wonderful opportunity to learn more about Japan’s most famous artist.

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Hokusai by the Book

Katsushika Hokusai, Imayō Kushi Kiseru Hinagata, 1823 (Popular Designs of Comb and Tobacco Pipes)

In honor of the exhibition Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji, Bento asked Reiko Yoshimura, head librarian at Freer|Sackler, to tell us a little about the Hokusai books in the library’s collection.

The Freer|Sackler Library has a collection of close to one thousand volumes of mostly Edo period illustrated books that originally came from Charles Lang Freer’s personal library. Freer collected these books along with other Japanese artworks that are now in the Freer Gallery of Art. The book collection includes many works by major Edo period artists as well as illustrated volumes on the tea ceremony and flower arranging. Among the most prominent works are books by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849).

Hokusai was as prolific a book illustrator as he was a painter and printmaker. The official Hokusai catalogue lists more than 260 titles of woodblock printed books, including novels, mad verses, painting albums, painting samples and instruction, tourist guides, erotica, and craft designs. Due to the wide range of subjects and genres, his books have been appreciated by an array of audiences, from scholars to children, long after his death. Hokusai is also known for his Hokusai Manga (Hokusai Sketchbooks), which was enthusiastically admired in Europe when it was introduced in the mid-19th century. The Freer|Sackler Library contains sixty-eight volumes of Hokusai’s books, representing most of the genres mentioned above.

Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji remains on view in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery through June 17, 2012. Charles Lang Freer had a special interest in the works of Hokusai and gathered an unmatched collection of paintings and drawings. Two complementary exhibitions in the Freer highlight these magnificent works. Hokusai: Paintings and Drawings closes June 24. Hokusai: Screens remains on view through July 29.

Posted by in Behind the Scenes, Japan Spring, Japanese Art | No Comments

You Ask, We Answer: Why is it so Dark in Here?

Thirty-six Views: Hokusai at the Sackler

A visitor recently wrote in our Japan Spring comment book wanting to know why it is “so dark” in the Hokusai exhibit. We asked Richard Skinner, F|S lighting designer extraordinaire, to field this one.

RS: Good question. Many of the objects on display at the Freer|Sackler are made with materials that can react to light, so it is necessary to carefully control what kind of light, how much light, and duration of exposure on these materials. The Hokusai prints are made with pigments that could easily fade or shift in color if overexposed to light. Curator Ann Yonemura has carefully selected the best copy available of each print—and to preserve these objects in their current pristine condition, the light level is restricted to 5 foot-candles of visible light. We carefully measure the light level at each individual object with an illuminance meter and also monitor how long lights are on each day using a digital data logging system. Typically, prints of this nature can only be displayed for a limited length of time before they must go back into storage.

Any more questions for us? Let us know in the comments!

Posted by in Exhibitions, Japan Spring, Japanese Art | 3 Comments

Animazing!

Still from Spirited Away, directed by Hayao Miyazaki

We’re just two days away from our tenth annual anime festival, this year titled “Castles in the Sky: Miyazaki, Takahata, and the Masters of Studio Ghibli.” It’s a celebration of Hayao Miyazaki, the master of Japanese animation who, along with Isao Takahata, cofounded the  influential Studio Ghibli. His Oscar-winning feature Spirited Away remains the highest-grossing film in Japan.

The festivities begin in the Meyer Auditorium at 11 am on Sunday, April 15, with free tickets available beginning at 10:30 am. While you’re here, don’t forget to visit the exhibition Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji in the Sackler, as well as displays of Hokusai’s paintings and drawings in the Freer. His works include a collection of manga, Japanese comics closely related to anime.

If you’re going all-out and dressing up as your favorite Miyazaki character, take a photo and post it to our Facebook wall!

Posted by in Exhibitions, Film, Japan Spring, Japanese Art | No Comments

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?”

Posted by in Exhibitions, Japan Spring, Japanese Art, Sackler 25 | No Comments

Fuji to Go: Making Tatebanko

In the Imaginasia Classroom: Tatebanko, Japanese Paper Dioramas

Rock. Paper. Scissors. Mount Fuji Style. In the Imaginasia classroom, people of all ages are learning how to make Tatebanko, Japanese paper dioramas, featuring landscapes from Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.

Posted by in ImaginAsia, Japan Spring, Japanese Art, Sackler 25 | No Comments

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.”

Posted by in Japan Spring, Japanese Art, Sackler 25 | 2 Comments

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.”

Posted by in A Closer Look, Japanese Art, Sackler 25 | 3 Comments

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.”

Posted by in A Closer Look, Japanese Art | 4 Comments