Saturday, June 07, 2008

Hokusai, Mangaka

1. Katsushika Hokusai's, Ejira in Suruga Province

From time to time we've looked at how difficult it can be to choose the precise moment to illustrate a situation. To be more precise we've seen many instances where illustrators sometimes seem to pick the exact moment before, or the exact moment after, but not the precise moment that sometimes looks like the artist has captured a moment in time.

Now I know what you're thinking: It's so ephemeral that capturing the perfect moment may be more down to chance than planning. Well no, I'd argue that can't be true, because some people manage to do it time after time, Turner for instance, and Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).

We're not going to concentrate on Hokusai's ubiquitous Great Wave Off Kanagawa, we're going to look instead, at another work from Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji, Ejira in Suruga Province. And we're going to look at that woodblock print from 1831 because we can contrast it with a modern work by Canadian photographer, Jeff Wall, from 1993 called A Sudden Gust of Wind(after Hokusai).

You're likely to have noticed that 'A Sudden Gust of Wind' has 'foregrounded' the wind, and ignored the spiritual centre of Hokusai's work, Mount Fuji. Mount Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan and it is located in Honshu, Japan's largest island. Known locally as Fujisan (note:this shouldn't be confused with the male honorific 'San'), Mount Fuji is a sacred mountain, steeped in history and ringed by lakes and forests, and has, for centuries, been the traditional goal of pilgrimage. In his book, Hokusai said, "It struck me that it would be good to take one thing in life and regard it from many viewpoints, as a focus for my being, and perhaps as a penance for alternatives missed".

So let's look at Hokusai's work again in light of what we now know. Mount Fuji, the sacred object, is the focus of the work, and yet it is hardly catching our eye. It is barely a line, so slight it could be an afterthought. The foreground on the other hand, the blades of grass, the scribes clinging to their hats, and their modesty, are much more detailed. Fujisan, in the distance, seems like a benign influence on the composition, almost an afterthought.

It is a strange composition in many ways. It almost seems, at first glance, too subtle. Not for a moment, do we look at the paper that the wind has ripped from the hands of the people and scattered over the sky and think, 'ah ha, the artist is using the flying paper to balance the canvas'. Perhaps we feel that if Hokusai had wanted a more balanced drawing he would simply have shifted his perspective so that the twin-trees moved further to the right, balancing the drawing. That he has chosen not to manipulate the scene suggests even more that what we are seeing is a snapshot in time. A moment of real contemplation captured in a moment as time itself stood still.

Now take a look at this perfect photo of Fujisan itself, by Japan-based photographer, and perhaps one of the greatest living chroniclers of modern-day Japan, Everett Kennedy Brown:

Everett Kennedy Brown/EPA

It is striking is it not? And I think we can now see, with the benefit of Everett Kennedy Brown's photograph, that Hokusai's rendition of the mountain with that one iconic line is simply perfect. In Myths and Legends of Japan, F. Hadland Davis says:

"Fuji dominates life by it's silent beauty: sorrow is hushed, longing quieted, peace seems to flow down from that changeless home of peace, the peak of the white lotus."

All of which brings us back to Hokusai's most iconic work, Great Wave Off Kanagawa. Look at the print below (click the picture below for a very large copy - 2.5megs). Many people who own the print on calenders or mats or tea-towels are unaware that mighty Fujisan is even part of the picture. And yet, when you do know it is there, you become aware of its power. Fujisan stands there, behind the waves, anchored, impervious to the dangers all around. It is a solid immovable, dependable, sight. Whilst the humans in their little boats are small and frightened, and at the capricious whim of nature and the gods, the great Fujisan looks serenely on.

Not that Fujisan doesn't have a darker side. Its foothills provided a secluded location for the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, who carried out the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground in the 1990s, and at the base of Fujisan lies the ancient forest Aokigahara, Japan's most infamous suicide spot.

2. Jeff Wall's, A Sudden Gust of Wind(after Hokusai).

A closer look at A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) by Jeff Wall, informs us that this vacuous photo, lacking any depth or spiritual connotations, is a tribute to the Art World who have invested value in it. It can be found in London's Tate Gallery, if you have half a mind to look.

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