Tokyo hasn’t had a big exhibition on Hokusai for a few years—possibly because, after the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami, the image of a large wave might have been a little hard to sell.
Finally, Japan’s greatest acknowledged artist of the Edo period is back in town with this reasonably-sized exhibition of around 140 of his works at the Ueno Royal Museum.
Adding extra poignancy is that the works are not mere pieces collecting dust on Japanese museum walls, but from the collection of the Boston Museum, a pioneer in collecting and promoting Japanese art in the West.
It may seem strange that Boston has such a wealth of Japanese art, but it comes as a result of Japan’s particularly close ties with 19th-century New England. New England’s whaling industry brought first its schooners to the northwestern Pacific, but the relationship between both nations developed through missionaries and professionals such as Ernest Fenollosa and William Sturgis Bigelow—the latter a doctor who donated 40,000 Japanese works to the Boston Museum.
Hokusai is a Japanese artist known the world over, thanks to pieces such as the iconic The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa from the “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” series.
What is striking is Hokusai’s lack of artistic integrity—a trait that is refreshing when most modern artists obsessively strive for a distinct style, such as Kusama Yayoi’s dots or Takashi Murakami’s geek-chic aesthetic. Hokusai, on the other hand, was content with trying his hand with any subject, and his methods and style frequently changed—as did his name.
Some of his works seemingly imitate Chinese styles. Others mimic the perspectives and other characteristics of Western art: View of Noboto Beach at Low Tide from the Salt Beds of Gyotoku was even printed with a brown edge replicating a Western painting frame. He was a polymorphous artist of the people—a master of popular tastes.
With art covering the seven decades of Hokusai’s career, there’s plenty to appreciate and enjoy from the man whose creativity was like a tsunami: picking up different things and creating ripples extending around the world.
Until Nov 9, ¥400-1,500, Ueno Royal Museum. Open Sat-Thu 10am-6pm, Fri 10am-8pm. 1-2 Ueno Park. Ueno. www.ueno-mori.org