The great wave

A few months back, in a workshop I was running, a participant included an image of The Great Wave by Japanese artist Hokusai in their presentation. I was the only person in the room not to have seen it before and thereby not to recognise it. The shame of it. Where had I been? Coincidentally, that same week, I saw an advertisement for a screening of a documentary from the British Museum about the artist and his work. The first two were sold out but I managed to get tickets for the screening in March.

In the months that followed, I forgot all about it. When the day dawned, I was up to my tonsils – a litany of meetings strung together like beads on an abacus all totting up to a controlled frenzy. But we had tickets. So we went. To Várkert Bazár, billed as ‘a renovated 19th-century Neo-Renaissance complex of exhibition halls, theaters, gardens & restaurants. I’d not been before and the venue was another reason I’d chosen to go. But wow… Hokusai! Where have you been all my life?

Hokusai was painting right up till his death, some four months after his 90th birthday (depending on which page you read on the WWW). And by his own reckoning his best work was the work he did shortly before he died.

From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie.

Interestingly, a variation of this translation also appears on the web. Or perhaps he was paraphrasing himself.

When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100, I shall be a marvellous artist. At 110, everything I create; a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age.

There’s a good biography of his life on the Katsushika Hokusai website, which says that he changed his name more than 30 times during his career, a practice common to artists of that era in that part of the world. My favourite was Old Man Mad (Crazy) about Art (Drawing): Gakyō Rōjin Manji. The Guardian ran a piece on him last year and included some pictures of his prints. It’s worth checking out.

It’s said that Claude Debussy was inspired to write La mer after seeing The Great Wave, and while it’s arguably his most famous print, I was more taken by Poppies. I can feel the wind as I look at it. Amazing stuff.

Of course, I changed my mind a million times as the documentary went on. And then, when we got a virtual tour of the exhibition in London, I changed it yet again. I was very taken with this one but I’m not so sure I’d like it on my wall. But how alive it is. Those eyes. Still, after all the back and forth, I’m sticking with Poppies as my all-time Hokusai fave.

If you get a chance to see the documentary, make the time for it. If you’re one of the lucky ones who got to see the exhibition somewhere in the world, I’m suitably envious. It’s possible to order hand-painted reproductions of all his work from Japan, and with a 365-day return policy. Once I’ve decided what size I want my Poppies, I’ll be doing just that. What a man.

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