Animals in Hokusai

The wind rustles flower blossoms. A nearby butterfly adds motion, scale and drama to this mini-universe.

Katsushika Hokusai. Tree-peony and Butterfly, ca. 1834

This is an example of Kacho-e: Japanese bird, flower and insect pictures. According to notes from the Ronin Gallery, the genre reflects Shinto and Buddhist value for the natural world. Scholars suspect the image alludes to the legend of Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, who awoke from a dream and remarked, “I don’t know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”

Here is another striking instance of scale, where a cluster of flowers feels like a jungle to the half hidden grasshopper.

Katsushika Hokusai. Blossoming Irises and Grasshopper, ca. 1830

Speaking of camouflage, can you spot the frog?

Hokusai’s morning glories look wild and haphazard, with young buds and tendrils seeking to expand outward from the compact centre.

Hokusai is a master of details, but makes the viewer work to find them.

Katsushika Hokusai. Telling details

How does the artist distinguish sky from ground?

Katsushika Hokusai. Bird Tracks, ca. 1820

Through overlapping scattered tracks, Hokusai gives a sense of bird behaviour as well as appearance. The detailed feet and tail feathers contrast with the solid black of the fowl’s body. Tucked head and one eye add to the furtive quality of a bird that’s rarely still.

Hokusai’s Manga experiments with design. The turtles appear in a swirling watery environment, while the small creatures are arranged like an info graphic.

Are these turtles above or below water? This image of mother and baby turtle is enlivened by a current that passes right through their bodies. There is a marvellous feeling of floating, tranquility, harmony of large and small, old and young, animal and environment. In the drawing on the right, the frog, snail and insects have bodies coiled for motion. They’re ready to jump, crawl, climb or fly as they manoeuvre for space on the crowded page.

Hokusai. Lion Dancer

A great number of Hokusai’s drawings of animals are fantastic or imaginary. This playful image of a lion dancer hints at a favourite Hokusai theme: the transformation from one state to another.

Katsushika Hokusai. Blind Men Examining an Elephant, from Manga, volume 9, c. 1818

The above image illustrates the parable of blind men examining different parts of an elephant’s body. One man feels the tusk and declares it’s a knife. Another man examines the tail and concludes it’s a rope. A third man feels a leg and is certain it’s a pillar. A fourth man feels the trunk and announces it’s a snake. The story is a cautionary tale to beware faulty first impressions, especially the hasty judgments of self-appointed experts. Substitute a work of art for the elephant and art critics for the blind men and you have a contemporary political statement. Hokusai has drawn a particularly old massive elephant, his ears worn and frayed, his eyes wrinkled and sad, yet the creature shows great forbearance and a gentle spirit. He reminds me of Hokusai, the old man who keeps drawing despite all outward circumstances.

Hokusai’s Mountain

Katsushika Hokusai’s series of travel prints, 36 Views of Mt. Fuji, 1830-32, was so popular, so critically acclaimed, there was demand for a sequel. But not so fast, the younger artist Utagawa Hiroshige published his dazzling series of travel images, 56 Stations of the Tokaido, 1833-34, putting pressure on his rival to do more than just repeat himself.

Hokusai responded with his most ambitious project, 100 Views of Mt. Fuji, 1834-35. It was a book of woodblock prints, published in three volumes, using only black and one or two shades of grey ink. Whereas the 36 Views, printed in full colour, represented real places, with recognizable landmarks and features, the 100 Views largely dispensed with place names. These landscapes of the imagination, meticulously rendered, made use of closely observed details gathered over a lifetime of travel and study.

Two prints by Hokusai of a dragon ornament, a finial or shachihoko on the roof of a castle, with Mt. Fuji in the distance. Left, from Hokusai’s Manga. Right, from 100 Views of Mt. Fuji.

In a great many cases, the details come from Hokusai’s sketchbooks, his Manga, which he published in 15 volumes from 1814-32. The Manga contain drawings of every imaginable subject. Compare the two drawings above. In the initial drawing it is much clearer that the dragon figure is an ornament attached to a roof. We are shown roof tiles and a ladder, which takes us high above the ground. The dragon is conceived as a sea monster, with fish tail, scales and fins. It is an absurd fish out of water, monstrous and humorous at the same time, but exquisitely balanced with a beautiful curve to its body. In the drawing this body opposes the curve of Fuji and hangs in the air free of the mountain’s mass. In the print, the dragon’s body is encased by the mountain (as if the dragon receives its life energy from the mountain) and the curving shapes align. The dragon is larger in the print and the humour is heightened with the addition of a bird perched on the dragon’s tail, making him seem not quite so frightful after all.

A sea storm from Hokusai’s Manga.

Here is another example from the Manga. Was this scene of storm waves and water crashing on rocks something that Hokusai observed or is he making it all up out of his head? I suspect both are true: Hokusai observed actual storms, but he used his imagination to create the feeling of a storm. Changing seasons and shifts in the weather help give the 100 Views a sense of time passing and epic journey.

Katsushika Hokusai. One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji, plates 87 and 83.

In the image above left, the mountain is barely suggested through sheets of rain, as a procession of travellers recede from view. The image is anticipated earlier in the series when we meet a man selling umbrellas. His display creates a wonderful pattern of overlapping round shapes. As the viewer seeks out Fuji, the collapsed umbrellas in the foreground mimic the mountain’s cone shape and camouflage its presence.

Hokusai. Fall and Winter from One Hundred Views, plates 72 and 43.

The spider has caught a stray leaf in his web–but it looks as though he’s also caught the mountain. By placing tiny and large together, Hokusai suggests unity to all of nature. Japanese scholar Henry Smith calls this image “visual haiku,” quoting lines from the poet Basho:

Hey spider! How do you sing?

In what key?

Wind of autumn.

I’ve paired this fall scene with a winter scene of a heron perched on the snowy branch of a pine tree. Neither image has a human presence. In the winter picture, Hokusai modified an exercise from Chinese painting: to paint three things all coloured white: usually bird, flower and snow. Hokusai has substituted Fuji for the flower.

Pinhole effect: Plates 99 and 100 from One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji.

In the image right above, Mt. Fuji projects upside down on a screen inside a house (through a tiny hole in the closed window shutters). This is the camera obscura effect. According to Henry Smith, the Japanese were aware of this effect, but didn’t make use of it as a drawing aid as Western artists did before the invention of photography. On the facing page, Hokusai’s shoreline, strewn with seaweed and waves, shows Fuji through a keyhole-shaped opening in a protruding rock.

Hokusai. Well and Banners, Plates 32 and 38, 100 Views of Mt. Fuji

To add variety to his views, Hokusai included a wide array of human activities. Above left, a man cleans out his well. Right, banners that have been freshly dyed, hang to dry in the open air. One fabric is lifted by a stick to its place on the rack. While no person is shown, human activity is evident. The strips of cloth make the picture seem especially tall like the mountain beyond.

Hokusai. Priests cross a pine tree bridge. Plate 63 from 100 Views of Mt. Fuji

A spreading pine–a dense meandering tree–was said to cover a large area on Mt. Nantai. So large was the tree that priests walked along its branches as part of their spiritual practice. Hokusai has turned this legendary pine tree into a fantastic bridge. A shrine is perched along the way, so high it breaks out of the top border of the picture. In an earlier series of travel pictures, Hokusai had featured famous bridges in Japan, but none as whimsical as this. If Fuji appears small at the bottom, it is because Mt. Nantai was 100 miles distant, the furthest vantage point of all the views.

Hokusai. Details of Plate 27, “Fuji with a Hat” from 100 Views of Mt. Fuji

The above image, called “Fuji with a Hat,” reflects the way weather systems gather at the summit of the mountain. In Hokusai’s mind, it’s as though the mountain supports a burden, just as people and domestic animals carry loads on their backs while fording a river. In the distance, oxen carry lumber, a woman with a hoe carries a baby, the woman behind balances a spinning wheel and bundle. In the foreground, a performer supports his dragon costume.

The 100 Views stretch our notions of what is a landscape. Some of the images illustrate stories and legends. Others make humorous analogies or display a kind of visual haiku. Throughout the series, the terrain changes, the weather changes, occupations change, and our views and perceptions change. It would be foolhardy to resist this change. The way the artist hides his mountain from one image to another feels like a game. Hokusai suggests we are all participants in this game and it’s ours to enjoy.

Viewing Hokusai

Katsushika Hokusai, Japan’s greatest artist, was born in 1760. This was the year Suzuki Harunobu introduced the “brocade print,” multi-coloured woodblock printing, setting off a boom of high-quality mass produced ukiyo-e. Hokusai apprenticed at a lucky intersection of new craft, receptive audience, and high standards among competing artists. The capital Edo, with its million inhabitants, was the world’s largest city. Townfolk and visitors sought out images of famous actors, sumo wrestlers and courtesans. Hokusai introduced two new subjects: books of manga–quick sketches of all manner of subjects, often humorous, caught unawares in daily tasks– and landscapes.

Katsushika Hokusai. “Picture Book Hokusai Manga, Volume 12″

Hokusai’s manga may have served as drawing manuals for student artists, but they are as entertaining as instructive. Take the example above. Ghosts interact with a musician and salesman. The salesman hopes to sell a pair of glasses with three lenses to the spectre with three eyes. The long-necked beings waft through the air like smoke from their pipes.

Katsushika Hokusai. Various ways of drawing rocks and mountains. Hokusai’s Manga. These exercises generated ideas which the artist later worked into his 36 Views.

Hokusai worked in the Edo period, which lasted from 1603 to 1868. This was a time of stability and prosperity for Japan. The ruling shogun introduced a unique bit of nation building–foreigners were not admitted into Japan and Japanese were not allowed to travel abroad. With their new wealth and free time, people looked to travel within Japan, taking advantage of improved roads and increased safety. Travel books were popular, none more so than Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, 1832, begun when the artist was 71 years old.

How is a kite like a mountain?

Katsushika Hokusai. Flying Kites in Edo, from Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji, 1832

The string of the kite echoes the shape of the mountain’s slope, as do the cluster of city rooftops. But how ephemeral a bending string in the wind is compared to a centuries old mountain! In the foreground, a worker repairing the roof of a fashionable clothing store tosses a bundle of tiles to his companion.

Here is another string that mimics the mountain emerging from the mist. Hokusai is famous for his ingenuity in evoking the motion of waves. He is no less experimental in his concern for sky, cloud and mist effects and how they change with altitude and time of day.

Hokusai. Fisherman with his son in Kai Province, from 36 Views, 1830–33.

How does this mountain differ from its reflection in the lake?

Katsushika Hokusai. Fuji reflects in Lake Kawaguchi, seen from the Misaka pass in the Kai province, from Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji, 1832

The mountain is imperfect with its competing peaks and jagged crumbling surface. It’s a dull brown in the summer light. The reflection has a single resplendent peak, the winter’s snow hides all rough edges.

Katsushika Hokusai. Woman Looking at Herself in a Mirror, detail c. 1805

Hokusai’s father was a mirror craftsman, a trade to which Hokusai was exposed at an early age, before chosing art and print-making. Reflections and optical effects often find their way into his images.

What time of day is this?

Katsushika Hokusai. Red Fuji, from Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, 1831

The mountain glows with first light of morning, as the peak ascends through an opening in the clouds. The design is daring and kinetic: the asymmetry of the slope and mass of its red-hot body balanced by the scuttling motion of the blue-tinged clouds.

Imitation is the sincerest form of robbery. This modern take by Seattle- based artist Yumiko Kayukawa uses creatures from the natural world to suggest an unnatural world of hyper-reality. The appealing design returns ukiyo-e to its origins in pop culture.

Yumiko Kayukawa. Red Fuji, c. 2010

French Impressionists loved Hokusai. They copied his subjects and flat colours. They may also have been influenced by his working methods, that is, painting a favourite landmark or object over and over in a series of clever variations. Monet painted cathedrals, haystacks and his garden pond in just this obsessive way. The post-impressionist Paul Cezanne, like Hokusai, choose a mountain as his central subject. In Cezanne’s case, it was Mont Sainte-Victoire, which he depicted a total of 87 times (44 oil paintings, 43 water colours). In a letter to his friend Solari (from Talloires, 23 July 1896), Cezanne wrote: “For a long time I have remained without power, without knowing how to paint the Sainte-Victoire, because I imagined a static shadow, like others who do not look, while, look, the shadow moves, it flees from its centre. Instead of being compressed, it evaporates, becomes fluid, and participates in the air’s breathing.”

Paul Cezanne. Mountains in Provence, 1886