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hokusai-wave-kanagawa1st July 2017 

The celebrated Japanese artist known as Hokusai (1760-1849) believed that when humans reached the age of 61, their life cycle began again. It follows that his best known work, Great Wave (1831), was produced when he was in his 70’s. Changing his name many times during his long lifetime, he settled on the name he called himself after the North Star, also meaning North Studio.

Hokusai lived in Edo, the former name for Tokyo, with his daughter Oi. They were constantly moving due to poverty. A fervent Buddhist, he produced hanging scrolls of Monk Nicheran sitting on a rock (1811). Everywhere he went, he recited a mantra. 

His most notable works utilised Prussian Blue, a newly acquired import into the Japanese market in the early 1900’s. He blended this pigment with indigo to produce the finest and widest shades of blue. It was the series of 36 views of Mount Fuji that finally gave him a living and made his name. Fuji features in the background of Great Wave and prominently in Red Fuji where the mountain is coloured a fiery orange-red.

At the end of his life he had more than 200 students and would throw his drawings out of the window as good luck charms, fortunately these were retrieved, along with many of his letters. When he was 90, he wrote that just 5 or 10 more years of life would make him the perfect artist. But, he already was a great artist, his unceasing quest to understand form enabled him to recreate the unlimited perfection of nature with a brushstroke.

Hokusai believed that all phenomena have spirit and is interconnected. You just have to look at his nature paintings such as Peonies with Canary, Azalea and Lesser Cuckoo (1834) and his series of Waterfalls to see that. He attributed life-giving powers to Mount Fuji, his talisman and symbol of immortality. He died at 90, his last painting a poignant scene of the spirit of a black dragon ascending his beloved mountain. 


An exhibition of his work is on display at the British Museum until 18th August 2017