Japanese Edo Master’s Famed Woodblock Series Includes “The Great Wave” and Other Icons of World Art
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Some of the world’s best-known images are on view this spring in “Hokusai: Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, March 24 through June 17. The exhibition highlights the most acclaimed woodblock print series by Japan’s most famous artist, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).
Visitors will have the opportunity to view the entire series created by Hokusai at the zenith of his career through extraordinarily fine examples selected from museum and private collections in an exhibition that emphasizes quality and encourages careful viewing.
The exhibition is a highlight of “Japan Spring on the National Mall,” a celebration of three major exhibitions of masterworks by distinguished Edo period (1615-1868) artists. It is hosted by the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries and the National Gallery of Art in honor of the Cherry Blossom Centennial.
The Mount Fuji series was the first major landscape series in the history of the Japanese print when it launched for the New Year of 1831. The images were instantly popular with the public, offering new and compelling images that are now icons of world art, including “Under the Wave Off Kanagawa,” also known as the “The Great Wave” and “South Wind, Clear Sky” or “Red Fuji.”
At the time of its launch, the print series was a phenomenal success driven in part by widespread Japanese devotion to Mount Fuji as a sacred site of pilgrimage and worship. Demand for the prints spurred Hokusai’s publisher to reprint the most popular designs and expand the series by 10, bringing the total number of prints in the series to 46.
Mount Fuji was an ideal subject for Hokusai to explore—a beloved backdrop to daily life in the bustling city of Edo (modern Tokyo)—a place that possessed a sense of innate power and sacred meaning. It enabled him to apply a lifetime of artistic ideas and experience to a subject that loomed large in the public’s imagination. The series established landscape as a new subject for Japanese prints, which had previously focused on courtesans and kabuki actors.
By the time he began work on the Mount Fuji series in the mid-1820s, Hokusai was a famous and respected artist who had studied and absorbed not only Japanese but also Chinese and European artistic
traditions. After decades of work and tens of thousands of images produced as a print designer, book illustrator and painter, the Mount Fuji series marked his return into the competitive world of inexpensive single sheet prints.
“Hokusai had passed the age of 70 when he created the series, but he felt that he had just arrived at the beginning of his artistic maturation,” said Ann Yonemura, curator of Japanese art. “It’s possible that he was drawn to Mount Fuji as a subject for its association with longevity. He had a fervent wish to become 110. By that time, he once wrote, every dot and line that he made would be alive. He believed that if he were to be blessed with a long life of at least 100 years, his art would become divine.”
Hokusai had studied landscape styles and experimented with composition, color, light, space and atmosphere for decades before he began work on the series, often incorporating striking landscapes into commissioned surimono (woodblock) prints and books of poetry, illustrated books and paintings.
Each image in the series reflects his vast knowledge of artistic styles, including classical and contemporary Japanese, Chinese and European. Hokusai took delight in incorporating Western ideas into his work: transitions between near and distant scenes and the use of framing devices that echo Mount Fuji’s triangular form in rooflines and in foregrounds.
Hokusai was also a supreme observer of the natural environment. The artist frequently depicted transient effects such as breaking waves, mist rising from a river, wind, how color is perceived at dawn and light reflecting from clouds.
“Hokusai expresses these observations in a very consciously artistic arrangement of line and color composition,” said Yonemura. “His genius is really about that remarkable combination of observation of natural phenomena and meticulous attention to arrangement of pattern and color that can’t be seen in the work of any other artist in Japan during his time.”
The exhibition contains some of the best examples of Hokusai’s blue monochromatic prints, created with the European synthetic pigment known as Prussian blue or Berlin blue (beroai), which was introduced to Japanese prints around the time the series was in development. The new pigment extended the palette of blues that had previously been limited to organic pigments and enabled Hokusai and the publisher’s block carvers and printers to create a greater range of hues and values in an image. Blue was particularly suitable for depicting water and sky, and Hokusai uses these blues to great effect in a number of prints to simulate the optical effect of light before dawn.
In addition to “Hokusai: Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” at the Sackler, the Freer Gallery of Art is exhibiting a selection from its outstanding collection of paintings and drawings by Hokusai, including screens, scrolls and final drawings for unpublished prints. For more information about related exhibitions and programs visit asia.si.edu/japan-spring.
“Hokusai: Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” is organized by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Funding for the exhibition is provided by The Anne van Biema Endowment Fund.
Also on view in the nation’s capital this spring is “Masters of Mercy: Buddha’s Amazing Disciples,” featuring masterworks by Kano Kazunobu through July 8 at the Sackler, and “Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by Itō Jakuchū 1716–1800,” at the National Gallery of Art March 30–April 29. Each exhibition features a distinctive and important Japanese artist of the 18th and 19th centuries, but also a masterpiece series—many never seen outside Japan—created by Kazunobu, Hokusai and Jakuchū over periods as long as a decade. All three exhibitions are free of charge and accessible on the National Mall between 12th and Seventh streets.
The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, located at 1050 Independence Avenue S.W., and the adjacent Freer Gallery of Art, located at 12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W., are on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day, except Dec. 25, and admission is free. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information about the Freer and Sackler galleries and their exhibitions, programs and other events, the public may visit www.asia.si.edu. For general Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.
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