Hokusai: a lesson in reinvention

Ross Hall

April 4, 2021
(Updated on July 21, 2021)

Detail of The Great Wave by Hokusai from a printed book

The Great Wave is one of the most iconic images to emerge from Japan. Produced in the early 19th Century, Hokusai’s block print of a wave crashing over fishing boats with Mount Fuji looking on, has been endlessly reproduced and adapted. It has appeared in arenas as diverse as serene gallery exhibitions, explosive TV adverts and the ubiquitous mobile phone cover. Nor have reproductions been faithful, as it is often twisted and turned to suit whatever political, social or commercial need is required.

This was the work of an artist at his height of his powers. Born in Edo in 1760, Hokusai carved a long career from his art. His is a diverse portfolio, embracing delicate studies of nature and amusing illustrations in popular novels.

Hokusai: a long-lasting, disposable brand

What’s as interesting as his art is his branding. Hokusai is only one of thirty or so names he used throughout his career. Each change brought with it a new style or project that he used to further his appreciation and mastery of his art. This need to reinvent himself was present throughout his life. He started as an apprentice to a mirror maker, progressed to block carving and then found his true vocation. Early works were simple portraits and reproductions as a junior apprentice before he fell out with his peers and went his own way.

A recreation of The Great Wave in Lego as seen in Osaka, Japan
The Great Wave has been recreated in many different forms. This Lego version was on display in Osaka, Japan.

When he created The Great Wave he was 70. Behind him was a career that had spanned humble “Beauty Portraits”, landscapes and erotic art. He had produced volumes of block prints and books and performed for Shoguns. Yet from a collection of 36 prints of views of Mount Fuji emerged this stunning image.

The painting he created is lost. Carving blocks for the print destroys the original as it is pasted onto wood and delicately carved out by artisans. What we see aren’t the brush strokes he placed on paper, but echoes that have spread out through the years. As those years have gone by and The Great Wave reprinted, so the blocks have worn, losing some precision from his vision and adding imperfections.

The Great Wave is an inspiration for more than its pure beauty of composition and the drama of the scene. Hokusai’s vision would have been a single painting reserved for those lucky enough to see it were it not for his desire to see it reproduced. He had to allow the destruction of his original and place his trust in the skill of others to carve wood and recreate colours.

Tastes change

Nor was this the work that was most popular amongst his contemporaries. Fine Wind, Clear Morning, a profile of Fuji-san basking in the glow of sunrise, was the more well known in Japan.

Yet it is The Great Wave that is most closely associated with the name Hokusai. It is this that draws in the crowds when it is on display with his other work and an original print is a moving image to see. Hokusai and the tendrils of the wave are synonymous.

Fine Wind, Clear Morning by the Japanese artist Hokusai and recreated in 2020
A modern reproduction of Fine Wind, Clear Morning

Hokusai did not stand still with the success of The Great Wave. The master of reinvention evolved again, producing more illustrations for popular novels and block prints that were lapped up by an eager public. Mystical dragons dominated his final works and it is said he started each day by drawing a dragon and throwing the picture out the window, much to the amusement of local children.

Was he a Master Artist? Hokusai would say not.

Hokusai maintained he would not be a true master until he reached the age of 110. He died when he was 90 and left a legacy in genres far wider than any Western contemporary could manage.

Born in the UK in the early 70s, I’ve enjoyed a diverse and eclectic career. I spent time in IBM, survived the dot.com bust, got myself well known in Insurance, and lived through more digital transformation projects than is healthy. In late ’20, in the middle of a pandemic, I upped sticks and moved to Kobe, Japan with my wife.

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