Mount Fuji is just a faint line in the background in some of Hokusai’s woodblock views; in others, it is wreathed in clouds, towers above the ocean, or appears as a tiny white triangle on the horizon.
In the most famous of his “36 Views of Mount Fuji,” series, it is dwarfed by a wave and showered with its spray, highlighted against a forbidding gray sky. “The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa” shows the mountain, like the waves, capped with white. Below, it is a deep blue -- a color borrowed from Prussia, and known as Berlin blue in Hokusai’s Japan.
The woodcut is among 450 exhibits in a vast retrospective of Hokusai’s art -- the first in Germany and billed as the biggest ever in Europe -- at Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau. Many of the works have never before left Japan.
Hokusai borrowed colors from Europe and, in return, he exerted a huge influence on 19th-century European artists, inspiring Gustav Klimt and Claude Monet among others. He is the most important exponent of the Japanese “ukiyo-e” art tradition, or the “pictures of a transient world.”
His oeuvre is vast, in part because of his longevity. He was born in 1760 in Honjo, a district of Edo (now Tokyo), on the eastern bank of the Sumida river. He lived, in an era of Japanese prosperity, to be almost 90, and produced some of his best-known work -- including the views of Mount Fuji -- in his 70s. He said that it was only at 73 that he mastered the anatomy of animals and the life of plants.
“If I make the effort I should have made further progress by the time I am 80, and at 90 I shall be able to uncover the final secrets,” he said.
Though the views of Mount Fuji are among Hokusai’s most famous works, the Berlin exhibition reveals the extent of his range. His early woodblocks offer fascinating insights into the cultural life. Even in Hokusai’s lifetime, flourishing Edo had a population of 1.3 million, probably the world’s largest city.
There are images of Kabuki theater, lavish firework displays, children’s games, temple crowds, jostling markets and teahouse celebrations as well as elegant ladies in richly decorated kimonos with an arsenal of hairsticks in their elaborate coiffures.
Hokusai shows attention to human detail as well as humor: In the theater, a man is climbing between the rows of the audience to deliver bags of food during a lengthy performance. Not everyone is focused on the stage; some audience members are turning to chat to their neighbors.
New Year Bustle
“Preparations for New Year in a Yoshiwara Teahouse” (1811) is abuzz with activity as presents are packed, guests entertained and stoves loaded with fuel. The swish of a tail-end of kimono disappearing up a staircase is a wonderful detail to suggest bustle and movement.
Traders would sell millions of copies of Hokusai’s woodblock prints across Japan. Hokusai also illustrated novels, handbooks for art students and produced roll paintings of astonishing beauty and economy.
One such ink print on silk has just a blush of red for the sun and a flash of white sails on three boats setting off at dawn. Birds, boats and a dramatic cliff and mountain backdrop are instantly identifiable, yet hardly there.
The Hokusai retrospective is at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin through Oct. 24. Information: http://www.gropiusbau.de.
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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