Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, March 23, 1999

Fine Prints

Honolulu Academy of Arts
Details of Hokusai’s “The Great Wave.”

Woodblock prints of Hokusai
and Hiroshige come home after
their debut showing at the
San Francisco Asian Art Museum

By Tim Ryan


HOKUSAI and Hiroshige are coming home. Not the 18th-century artists, of course, but more than 200 of their world renowned prints which made their mainland debut last fall at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

"Hokusai and Hiroshige: Great Japanese Prints from the James A. Michener Collection" features the Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, and beginning Thursday will be presented in a series of five rotations at the Academy.

The first of the five rotations, continuing through May 9, will feature the works of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1840).

Michener's interest in Japanese woodblock prints began in the 1950s after he inherited a collection of prints from Georgia Forman who had been impressed with Michener's enthusiasm for the art form. The acquisition inspired Michener to begin collecting seriously.

He later acquired the collection of Charles H. Chandler, about 4,533 prints. Michener also wrote two books on the subject of ukiyo-e, "The Floating World" (1954), and "Japanese Prints from the Early Masters to the Modern" (1959).

Honolulu Academy of Arts
Details of Hokusai’s “Driving Rain at Shono.”

Michener originally intended to donate his collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but on the day of his appointment to sign over the prints, a police officer gave him a ticket in the Met's parking lot. Michener changed his mind, drove away angrily, and gifted the entire collection over several years to the Honolulu Academy of Arts. The collection is regarded as one of the finest collections of ukiyo-e prints in the world.

The Hokusai and Hiroshige exhibition will be augmented with additional prints from the Michener collection in each rotation. The first two rotations will include the work of Hokusai; the third, fourth and fifth rotations will be of Hiroshige's prints.

Among the treasures on view in the first rotation will be Hokusai's popular "Under the Wave off Kanagawa," one of the most famous images in world art, as well as other images from the series of "Bridges From All the Provinces."

Rebels in their own time

Katsushika Hokusai and Ando Hiroshige were innovators, says Julia White, the Honolulu Academy of Arts' curator of Asian art.

"The two artists were the chief innovators of a new motif in ukiyo-e prints where the landscape is an independent subject," she said.

But they also launched a new style, having learned about Western-style perspective through the copperplate prints that entered Japan with Dutch traders.

"Hokusai and Hiroshige joined that perspective with traditional Japanese conventions to produce images that appealed to both Western and Japanese eyes," she said.

Ukiyo-e woodblocks were produced for bourgeois city gentry who wanted images of sumo wrestlers and geishas. The countryside was ignored because it was for peasants.

Instead of shoguns, samurai and their famous geishas, Hokusai placed the common man into his woodblocks, moving the emphasis away from the aristocrats and down to the rest of humanity.

In his work "The Breaking Wave Off Kanagawa," also known as "The Great Wave," tiny humans are tossed around under giant waves, while enormous Mount Fuji is a hill in the distance.

This woodblock print is very peculiar: To Westerners, it seems to be the quintessential Japanese image, yet, it's quite un-Japanese.

Traditional Japanese would never have painted fishermen (one of the lowest and most despised of Japanese classes); they ignored the outdoors; they would not have used perspective; they wouldn't have paid much attention to the subtle shading of the sky.

"Hokusai took Dutch and French pastoral landscapes with their perspective, shading, and realistic shadows and turned them into Japanese landscapes," White said. "But he also introduced the serenity of nature and the unity of man and his surroundings into Japanese popular art."

Hokusai, born in 1760, is one of Japan's best-known artists and ironically is the country's least Japanese artist.

Japan's best known woodblock painting, Hokusai's "The Great Wave," is "very un-Japanese," White said.

The artist lived during the Shogun period. In a time of feudal regimentation and traditional Confucian values, Hokusai was quite Bohemian: cocky, quarrelsome, restless, aggressive and sensational. He fought with his teachers and was often thrown out of art schools.

Hokusai left more than 30,000 works, including silk paintings, woodblock prints, picture books, travel illustrations, erotic illustrations, paintings and sketches. Some of his paintings were public spectacles which measured more than 2,000 square feet.

He started out as an art student of woodblocks and paintings.

Hokusai discovered and studied the European copper-plate engravings that were being smuggled into the country. Here he learned about scientific perspective, shading, coloring, realism and the landscape perspective. He introduced all of these elements into woodblock and ukiyo-e art and revolutionized and invigorated Japanese art.

He didn't seem to care much for being sensible or respected; he signed one of his last works as "The Art-Crazy Old Man."

In his 89 years, Hokusai changed his name some 30 times -- Hokusai wasn't his real name -- and lived in at least 90 homes.

Hiroshige's portrayals of Japanese life and topography made him very popular in the West, and more than any other printmaker, was responsible for the Westerner's view of "quaint Japan," White said.

When the art of the Japanese print was rediscovered in Europe at the end of the 19th century, it was Hiroshige who gave Western artists like Whistler, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Van Gogh a new vision of nature, she said.

Hiroshige, born in Edo, Japan, in 1797, was the son of the warden of the fire department assigned to Edo Castle. He showed an early interest in art.

During this period he became interested in Western art.

At 15, he was rewarded with the "nom d'artiste" Utagawa Hiroshige, though Ando Hiroshige is his actual name.

In 1833, the year following his trip along the Tokaido as a minor retainer in an official mission of the Shogun of the Kyoto Court, he produced his famous "Tokaido Gojusan Tsugi," (53 Stations of the Tokaido Trail).

Hirsohige gradually gave up figure prints for landscape and "Kacho-ga", subject matter provided by many trips throughout Japan.

He was prolific and his total production numbers about 8,000 works of art.

On View

Bullet Hokusal and Hiroshige: Great Japanese Prints
Bullet Place:Honolulu Academy of Arts
Bullet Date: Opens Thursday
Bullet Tickets: $5 general admission; $3 seniors, students, and military. Members and children 12 and under are free. Complimentary admission is offered to the public on the first Wednesday of the month.
Bullet Call: 532-8700; Exhibition information 532-8701
Bullet Also: A fully illustrated color catalog of the exhibition including articles about the pieces is available at the Academy Shop

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