Hokusai prompts great wave of admiration

The admiration in the West for the classic works of Japanese art shows strongly in the critics’ response to a new exhibition at the British Museum by Katushika Hokusai. Nearly all the newspapers have published enthusiastic reviews. Many writers have noted the way Hokusai’s work influenced European painters, especially the French Impressionists, and they hold him up as one of the world’s great eccentric, creative minds.

Some critics attempt to explain the context in which Hokusai worked in Edo period Japan, when the country was largely closed off from outside influence. For example, John T Carpenter, Curator of Japanese Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, suggested in a lecture at the British Museum that Hokusai’s most celebrated painting, The Great Wave, could imply a fear of a malevolent foreign force threatening the relative safety of the islands of Japan and its sacred mountain, Mount Fuji.

Hokusai lived from 1760 to 1849 and many of his best works were completed in his old age. He died at the age of 89 at a time when average life expectancy for a man in Japan was the late forties.

The Spectator magazine claims that on his deathbed, Hokusai, attended by his doctor, said a prayer. ‘If heaven will extend my life by ten more years… then I’ll manage to become a true artist.’

Hokusai produced a great range of work, from a whimsical picture of chicks to be sent as a greeting card to bloodthirsty images of war and religion.

The Guardian’s critic John-Paul Stonard says Hokusai was a thoroughly commercial artist, relying on a large turnover of sales of his low-cost prints and the many illustrated books he produced throughout his life. Despite his success, he seems to have been permanently on the brink of bankruptcy, largely a result of financial ineptness.

The historian Simon Schama in the Financial Times shows apparent disdain for the customers who bought Hokusai’s pictures: “To keep out of mischief, the nobility was required to stay in Edo,” he writes. “Inevitably, as at Versailles, an emasculated, over-dressed, politically pointless class compensated for its impotence with stupendous, conspicuous consumption.”

I flinched when I read that description. I study the way in which the international media covers Japan and I have found it to be depressingly common for foreign writers to contrast the supposed frailty and impotence of Japanese men with the erotic allure of Japanese women. I believe it forms part of a narrative by which Westerners emasculate Japanese men and imply that virile, sophisticated foreigners are superior.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want Simon Schama’s remarks about the decadence of Edo to put anyone off from seeing this wonderful show and drawing their own conclusions about culture and gender.

I agree with the case the Daily Mail makes for the exhibition: “This is a simply joyous experience, an introduction to one of the greatest of all artists at his most liberated.  Try to find a quiet morning – many of the exhibits reward patient attention to detail – but go.”

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