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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.

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.

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.”

Rudy Schulkind is a Danson scholar who recently graduated in philosophy and politics from St Anne's College Oxford.

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If you don’t know who Willy Vlautin is, you should

Vlautin is one of literature’s greats: so why is he still not a big-hitter in contemporary American fiction?

Over four previous novels Willy Vlautin has quietly crafted a body of work a world away from the perceived big-hitters of contemporary American fiction. Yet any one of his books offers as valuable an insight into the day-to-day grind of existence in a country whose dream has long turned sour as anything published this century.

In small scenarios he tackles big themes such as loss and loneliness, almost always against backgrounds of transience, poverty and the endless battle of simply getting by. His characters are not restless wanderers, but rather survivors questing towards the chance of a better life. Their situations are harsh but, crucially, never entirely devoid of hope. Vlautin’s debut The Motel Life concerned two brothers on the lam after a tragic hit and run accident, while Lean On Pete (adapted for a forthcoming film by the British director Andrew Haigh) beautifully explored the relationship between a teenage boy and a failing racehorse. As in his songs (as a musician Vlautin is best known for his work with the band Richmond Fontaine) these are lives that pivot on luck or resourcefulness, with reviewers drawing comparisons to Steinbeck and Carver, though I’d stir Denis Johnson, Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen into the mix too.

Don’t Skip Out On Me tracks the journey of 21-year-old Horace Hopper, a half-Paiute Indian, half-white Nevadan ranch worker who was abandoned as a child to a “a grandmother who drank Coors Light on ice from 11am until she fell asleep on the couch at nine, who chain-smoked cigarettes, who ate only frozen dinners, and who was scared of Indians, blacks and Mexicans”.

Horace is also an aspiring boxer. He finds employment and surrogate love from good-hearted ageing rancher Mr Reese and his housebound wife, who want to gift him their family business, but his ambitions in the ring prove too great. Reasoning that all the best fighters are Mexican he moves to Tucson, Arizona, where he reinvents himself as “Hector Hidalgo” by adopting Hispanic clothes, eating spicy food that he dislikes and finding a Mexican trainer, who rips him off.

Fights come his way, brutal undercard battles in which Horace/Hector takes frequent beatings, but is often saved by his big-punching abilities. Rarely has the aftermath of boxing been so well portrayed: the sobbing in the shower, the reset noses, the constant need for codeine. And the emotional scars too.

For at the core of Don’t Skip Out On Me lies a deep well of existential emptiness that is distinctly American. The expansive mirage of the country – “Texas is just a line in the dirt,” shrugs one character – and the empty promise of consumerism found in drab retail parks and fast food diners amplify the young Horace’s solitude and his slim chances of success. Vlautin is hardly the first to note the overwhelming sadness of a neon sign flickering in the darkness or miles of empty car parks where fields once stood, but his are scenes bathed in pathos. Alone beside a strip mall Hector watches the cars pass by: “Every single person in every single car had a TV, a phone, a bed, and ate chicken and got the runs. How many chickens got killed every day?”

Food features heavily throughout, but it is only ever cheap and functional, consumed for quick gratification and always with a nauseous belched-back aftertaste. Stifling heat plays its part too; the pages of this book almost feel slick with the border states’ sweat. The prose smells of synthetic sugar, salt, frying oil, locker rooms and desperation.

Vlautin is particularly adept at fleeting encounters and sorrowful glimpses that add a Homeric dimension. An immigrant shepherd tending to Mr Reese’s flock has a complete mental collapse high in the mountains. A pregnant woman and her toddler are stranded at a Greyhound bus stop, her diaper bag and the child’s stuffed rabbit continuing the journey without them. When he discovers two teenage stowaways in the back of his truck en route to Mexico, Mr Reese sees that their maltreated dog has worms, an eye infection and an injured paw, and buys it off them for $50. A desperate life is made a little better. Such moments are what elevate Vlautin to literary greatness: he understands the necessity for compassion through small acts of kindness.

Ultimately, Horace’s core strength is engulfed by his overwhelming alienation when he washes up in Las Vegas, the vulgar end-point of America’s briefly glorious boom-time. Vlautin’s characters are the walking wounded yet manage to carry themselves with dignity, and only a reader with a heart of anthracite could be unmoved by their situations. They continue to live on long after Don’t Skip Out On Me has ended in devastating style. 

Don’t Skip Out On Me
Willy Vlautin
Faber & Faber, 304pp, £14.99

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game