The Top of Mount Fuji
It being the 258th anniversary of his birth about now, it was only recently when doing some reading on the Japanese artist that I learned Katsushika Hokusai was the inventor of Manga.
Prior to that, as I assume so many fans of manga still do, I had understood a modern origin, perhaps post 1945, of the often technologically themed form of Japanese comic art, further brought into modernity with its animated protégé, Anime. So it came as quite a surprise to find it was Hokusai who was the progenitor of the form, not least because he died in 1849.
This origin began with the artist working under one of many pseudonyms that he adopted from time to time to coincide with new phases of work, in this case the name Taito was adopted to produce a series of art manuals.
Egrets from 'Quick Lessons in simplified Drawing' by Hokusai
Numbering 15 in total, the artist published the first intended to be references for aspiring students of life painting, in 1812, having begun work on them a year prior to that date. These Manga, feature many thousands of sketches and caricatures of animals and people produced in a deliberately ‘quick’ style denoting the title given to the first volume ‘Quick Lessons in simplified drawing’.
Already in his fifties by this time Hokusai produced his first prints around the age of 18 in the Ukiyo-e style, being at the time apprenticed under Master Katsukawa Shunshō.
This technique involves the carving of wood blocks to depict scenes of Japanese life focused around the activities of the courtly figures of Kabuki actors and courtesans. The wood blocks are then used to render the prints, which are sometimes developed further by freehand painting.
Travelers passing through a village by Hokusai
Telling in the path of the artist is that he defined the development of his own style by moving away from tradition, far from how we would consider him with our modern perspective on such works as the instantly recognizable, The Great Wave of Kanagawa.
Having been expelled from the Katsukawa school by the now deceased master’s chief disciple, one Shunkō, under accusations of European influence, which was justified, and allegedly because of studying at a rival school, Hokusai was motivated to develop further in a unique direction by the sheer embarrassment suffered from his exclusion.
By his late thirties the artist had transitioned away from further schools and had become an independent artist for the first time using the name we would recognise in part as Hokusai Tomisa.
Mice in Council by Hokusai
His development and success is equally modern when you come to learn, that which for me is the most interesting part of the rise to prominence of Hokusai, that it was the union of showmanship with his great technical skill that gave him such acclaim.
An example of his legend includes once chasing a chicken across his canvas in the court of a shogun who had invited him there to compete with a more traditional artist.
The chicken, whose feet were repeatedly dipped into red paint by the artist were used to depict red maple leaves floating in the Tatsuta River, which the artist had rendered as a blue curve with his brush. Hokusai was adjudged the competition winner.
Ink study of a Tiger by Hokusai
Another would see him paint a 600ft portrait of a Buddhist priest at a Tokyo festival using a broom and buckets of ink.
In a foreshadowing of the artist Monet, so famed for his repeated renditions of a single subject to emote the changes of colour and light depending upon atmospheric conditions and season, Hokusai also embarked on a series of One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji.
Continually striving to improve, it is said he professed on his deathbed at the age of 87, "If only Heaven will give me just another ten years... Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter."
View of Mount Fuji by Hokusai
Fox and Chave have developed some fantastic Hokusai inspired products to honour this iconoclastic Japanese painter including the powerful Hokusai Phoenix Poshmina, which is a unique printed satin stole lined with a brushed silk.
A version of the same design, the Hokusai Phoenix crêpe de chine silk scarf, is also available as well as the Hokusai Wave silk scarf also in crêpe de chine and is inspired by his perhaps most instantly recognisable work.