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16 July 2017updated 17 Jul 2017 11:09am

Hokusai beneath the wave: meet the real artist behind the world’s most plagiarised image

An exhibition at the British Museum takes us beyond the Japanese artist's iconic, and excessively reproduced, artwork.

By Rudy schulkind

The British Museum exhibition of the work of the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai shows the playfulness and energy of his twilight years in the first half of the nineteenth century. It mainly covers the period after his “rebirth” at the age of 61, but in reality, he was reinventing himself throughout his life, changing his name as often as his style.

The museum’s odd curation recognises the significance of Hokusai’s late work, but not enough to grant each piece the space it deserves. The impressively large collection is packed into a small area, partitioned by angled walls, with viewers snaking round in an orderly queue.

Much like the Tate Modern’s deployment of Alberto Giacometti’s stick figures, this exhibition saves the work for which the artist has made a name for midway through the exhibition. In Hokusai’s case, the degree to which the artist has come to be defined by a single part of a single work is astonishing.

“It’s the most reproduced image in the world now, it’s the most plagiarised image in the world, you’ll see it on the cover of The Economist twice a year,” says Angus Lockyer, a lecturer at Soas who is currently working on the research project “Late Hokusai: Thought, Technique, Society”.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa doesn’t disappoint. Wooden fishing boats navigate a storm, their gradual, elongated curves sit vulnerably beneath the sharp curves of the waves. It’s immensely powerful – Van Gogh was moved to say “these waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it”. Through the hollow of the wave sits mount Fuji, eternal and immutable. It’s a recurring theme – the “great wave” comes at the end of a series of woodblock printed “views of Mount Fuji”, where people’s lives and violent weather run their course beneath the volcano’s immortal shadow.

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Lockyer says that the exhibition was called Beyond the Great Wave to highlight not only his other works, but also previously hidden elements in this most famous print. “There are three things going on in the picture. There’s the wave, there’s Fuji, and there’s the people. And often when it’s plagiarised they leave it out. You eradicate Fuji and you get rid of the boats… So for us, it’s simply the wave,” he says. “And what we’re saying is, look at the whole thing, and think about what he’s trying to say here.

“There’s this incredibly powerful, dynamic, threatening world – he likens the water to muscle sinews – and there’s Fuji, the unchanging, eternal thing,” he adds. “And what it means to be human is to be between these two things… you fix your gaze on an unmoving thing, you anchor yourself. So there’s a philosophical proposition here.”

But the most striking thing is how little it stands out among Hokusai’s other works. He produced two huge wave paintings much later which really stun the viewer. Their giant, whirling, coral-like strokes, in deep blues and faded greens, produce a violence and magnitude unparallelled in previous waves. The exhibition guide suggests it is a representation of the Daoist notion of the “supreme ultimate” – from which everything originates – and you can see why.

Image: British Museum

Other landscapes give minute detail in the foreground which drifts imperceptibly into vague horizontal lines in the distance, where mountains arise out of a void, or soft pink clouds. His series of “ghost stories” is a hypnotising precursor of surrealism – yellow figures with melting faces, a bejewelled skeleton half shrouded by mosquito nets.

In Tiger in the Snow, produced in the year of his death, Hokusai joins Henri Rousseau and William Blake in capturing the simultaneous power and innocence of this beast. Its joyous grin belies an exaggerated muscular build and lethal claws.

The exhibition fulfils its promise in taking us beyond the great wave, and reveals an artist who grew ever more inspired and obsessive in his old age. Famously, he said:

“Until the age of 70, nothing I drew was worthy of notice… Thus when I reach 80 years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and at 90 to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at 100 years I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and at 110, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.”

He sought immortality, and on his deathbed, he begged: “If heaven could give me just five more years, then I could become a real painter.”

Hokusai’s influence on the European art world was unfortunately outside the scope of this exhibition. After Japan opened up its markets in 1857-58, much of Hokusai’s work ended up in Paris. “Van Gogh acknowledges it and basically says the whole of modern art comes from Japanese art,” says Lockyer. “The reason is that what happens when European artists see this is, they realise that you can break with representations. That you don’t actually need to spend all this time depicting the world accurately, then you can actually abstract, to heightened effect… Hokusai is the linchpin of the whole story, and we need to rewrite the history of art.”

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