Hokusai: A World of Genius

Christine Kuan
Sep 22, 2013 4:44PM

Hokusai is not just one artist among others in the Floating World. He is an island, a continent, a whole world in himself. Edgar Degas

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was one of the most important Japanese artists, printmakers, painters, and illustrators of the modern period. His works, along with works by other Japanese artists of the period, were the catalyst for many of the modern art movements in the West in re-imagining the possibilities for complex pictorial composition, the use of color, and the fusion of spirit with nature. 

In Japan's Tokugawa Period (1600-1868), ukiyo ("floating world") described the meaningless pleasure-seeking and ennui of city life, particularly in Edo (Tokyo), Kyoto, and Osaka. Samurai, kabuki theater actors, gesiha, sumo wrestlers, prostitutes, and members of the merchant class participated in this ukiyo culture. Ukiyo-e are literally pictures of the floating world and they were avidly collected in Paris and Europe, including by artists such as Pablo Picasso.

Hokusai's works were widely published and he was a celebrity in his time. From 1810-1820, he adopted an alias "Taito" and produced some of his most significant erotic works, the "Spring Pictures" (shunga), including his incredible picture, "Diving Girl Ravished by Octopuses" (also known as: Kinoe no komatsu 喜能会之故真通, Pine Seedlings on the First Rat Day, Old True Sophisticates of the Club of Delightful Skills, or The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife).

In Europe, Japonisme took Paris by storm and artists were captivated by the aesthetics of Japanese art. Well-known artists like Seurat, Degas, Gauguin, and Picasso were all drawn to the flattened picture plane, complex compositions, and new expressions of modernity.

The exceptional range and sophistication of Hokusai can be explored more fully in the British Museum's online collections and in numerous publications. See also: Gian Carlo Calza: Hokusai (Phaidon Press, 2003)

Christine Kuan