Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Hokusai - Japanese Master Artist

Pine Tree in Front of the Mountains
In the style of ukiyo-e
9 x 12 soft pastels on Canson Mi Teintes pink paper
Miki Willa
This is a long post, but it is by no means a complete biography of Hokusai. It is meant to whet your appetite. There are no images of his prints here because I am not sure about violating copyright laws in this area, and didn't know where to find copyright free images. If you hop over to Making a Mark (link below), you will find good examples of his and other artists in this style.
The artist we know as Hokusai was one of Japan's best known artists. He was born in 1760 in the Honjo quarter of the Katsushika district of Edo (present day Tokyo). This was a very poor district and Hokusai was born to a poor woman who named him Tokitaro. Although he took at least 26 different names during his life, I will refer to him as Hokusai as that is the name he is most well know by.
By six years old, Hokusai was already drawing the distant Mt. Fuji he could see on a clear day. His tools were bamboo sticks on a dirt canvas. He dreamed of on day walking among the flowering cherry trees at the base of the mountain with his mother. Unfortunately, his mother died when he was very young. He was sent to live with his uncle, Ise, who made and polished mirrors for the shogun's court. Hokusai was put to work polishing mirrors, which he loathed. He was more interested in the designs on the backs of the mirrors. Fortunately, since his uncle worked for the shogun, the children of the household were sent to be schooled by the Buddhist monks. Hokusai loved this part of his day. He excelled in anything having to do with a brush. When he was 12, his formal schooling ended, but his life as an artist began.
Hokusai wanted to study the great artists of the day so he talked his way into a job at a nearby lending library. At night, he would study and copy illustrations made by famous artists. By the time he was 15, one of his costumers had become pleased enough with his talent and Hokusai was offered an apprenticeship as a woodblock engraver in a print shop. He spent the next three years practicing the art of ukiyo-e. For a very informative post on the how-to of this art form, see this post at Kuniyoshicat. For information on the style of ukiyo-e, see these posts at Making A Mark. Katherine has a project on this subject going this month.
Hokusai mastered the art of engraving the delicate drawings into the wood that the Master Artist Shunsho would not let anyone else work with his drawings. By the time Hokusai was 18, Shunsho offered to be come his teacher. To honor his teacher, Hokusai took the name of Shunro. For many years, he was kept busy painting images of the Floating World - the world of tea houses, Kabuki theaters, and geisha. The art world at that time had very strict rules and Hokusai worked within them for a while.
Hokusai grew tired of painting the floating world. He came from the working class, and that is what he wanted to depict in his paintings. That and the natural world. The two subjects were not acceptable to the wealthy patrons who bought his art. After 14 years, and many fights, Hokusai left Shunsho's studio to follow his dream.
During that time in Japan, the ports were shut to the outside world. Nevertheless, Hokusai obtained copies of landscape engravings by Dutch artists. When he applied the values and perspectives of these engravings to his own landscapes, he was shunned and scoffed at by his fellow artists. Fortunately for us, he continued refining his art.
Hokusai was contracted to illustrate many books of both poetry and prose during his life. One of the best known is One hundred Poems as Explained by the Nurse. Another was about the art of crafting with bamboo. He also illustrated and published several books of his own work, the best known being Thirty six Views of Mount Fuji. Others include Fifty three stages of the Tokaido, Large flower, and his 15 volume Manga which he described as an art instruction book.
Hokusai died in 1849 at 89 years. For much of his life, he lived in poverty. He sometimes sold peppers and calendars to pay for his art supplies. He lived in 93 different places, created more than 30,000 print designs. When he was in his early seventies, he wrote a reflection on his work as an artist. There have been many translations. This one comes from the Ray book listed below.
From the age of five, I have needed to sketch the form of
things. Yet of all I drew prior to the age of seventy, there is truly
nothing of great note. At the age of 72, I finally understood something of
the quality of birds, animals, insects, fish, and the nature of grass and
trees. Therefore at eighty, I shall have made some progress. At
ninety, I shall have penetrated even further the meaning of things. At one
hundred, I shall have become truly marvelous, and at one hundred and ten, each
dot and every line will surely possess a life of its own.
For further reading:

Hokusai: The Man Who Painted A Mountain by Deborah Kogan Ray
Hokusai: A Biography by Elizabeth Ripley

My attempt at ukiyo-e design is from a reference photo of the Grand Teton mountains in Wyoming.


Katherine Tyrrell said...

Nice summary Miki - I'll link back to this when I did my Hokusai bio.

The drawing is also impressive. The style is more difficult than it looks isn't it?

Willa said...

Wow - what a difference! I like the style very much. Nice surprise for this morning!!!

Julie at Virtual Voyage said...

Fascinating post, Miki - I had read a little about Hokusai but did not know the background. I have enjoyed seeing his prints.

Kuniyoshi_Cat said...

Thanks for linking to my post. It is a genre of art that I will never tire of thanks to it's use of line, space, and subject mater. Sometimes so elegantly simple, yet others beautifully complex.

And great job on your piece!

Matt aka Kuniyoshi Cat

See more ukiyo-e at >>> Kuniyoshi Cat Blog