Among the artists whose work began to circulate in Europe and the United States was Katsushika Hokusai, known far beyond the limits of the art world for his most famous woodblock print “The Great Wave Off the Coast of Kanagawa.” An exhibition at the Freer Gallery of Art, “Hokusai: Mad About Painting,” focuses not on the long-lived artist’s abundant wood blocks but on his paintings and drawings, of which the Freer has the largest collection in the world. Given the strictures of the museum’s namesake patron, Charles Freer, many of these works can’t leave the museum, which Freer gifted to the nation in 1906.
The exhibition includes about 120 works, including rare preparatory drawings for the woodcuts, spectacular painted screens and books of drawings and prints. A second rotation of material will be installed this spring, amounting to a two-part festival of Hokusai over almost a year.
Washingtonians can give thanks, yet again, that the Smithsonian’s museums are free, because this exhibition is not to be absorbed or appreciated in a single visit. The show isn’t enormous by ordinary standards, but it is rich and full of subtleties and delights. Hokusai lived to be almost 90, and not only did he remain productive throughout his long career, his creativity seemed to gather force in his final decades. If nothing else, this exhibition overwhelms simply by giving abundant evidence of that creativity. One case contains 14 volumes of his books of manga doodles — incisive, detailed, perfect drawings of this, that and everything: trees, dragons, fish, sea life, shells, waves and churning water, along with a gallery of faces of all types bearing all manner of expressions.
A Dutch artist of the golden age might have taken one of these volumes and made a career of recycling its contents into different narratives. Hokusai, on the other hand, doesn’t seem in thrall to drama or narrative. He crafts vignettes and episodes, but even in his large screen paintings, which invite parceling out a story line across their panels, he opts for invention over all else. Why limit one’s world by focusing on a few dramatic agents when one can simply make new people, new things, new little moments in the flux of time? The effect is dizzying, and strangely liberating.
One of the most moving objects is a two-panel screen containing various scenes with no obvious connection. A duck rests on a plum branch, looking slightly plump and conceited while a farmer lolls on the ground and a worker paints a torri gate red. On the other panel, a dragon smiles smugly while a courtesan sits on the ground and a sketchy horse — composed of a few simple, perfectly placed brushstrokes — gallops into the background. What is going on? Schooled in the habits of Western art, you may look for a story, but the real answer is, simply, life. Life is going on.
Works like these had a tremendous impact on Western artists, who began to imitate the freedom that comes from abandoning strict rules of perspective and reflexive ideas about how to frame an image and build up a hierarchy of visual elements within it. Even today, with the innocence of our eyes thoroughly corrupted by the camera, it is still possible to be bewitched into seeing things differently through Hokusai’s inventive visual honesty. He often finds and stresses precisely the thing that we tend to edit out of our field of vision — the foreground branch that blocks the view, the incomprehensibly complex churn of water that our brain distills into a mere wave or river rapid.