Katsushika Hokusai, “Under the wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave)” (1831) from Thirty-six views of Mt. Fuji, color woodblock, (all images courtesy of the British Museum)

LONDON — About a third of the way into the British Museum’s survey of the latter thirty years of Katsushika Hokusai’s life in Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave the unmistakable sublimity of his “ Under the wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave)” (1831) looms into view. It is arguably the image that westerners most commonly associate with Japanese, or even eastern art in general. That print has been so endlessly reproduced in a myriad of incarnations littering popular culture (even on a drum kit currently displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition on Pink Floyd), that to see in the flesh its simple dynamism — the simultaneously still yet crashing wave forming an arc of crisply circling foam above a fishing boat nearly hidden by the brilliant blue sea — is a powerful moment, not least because the British Museum has kept its copy of this celebrated woodblock print off display since 2011, due to its fragility.

Installation view of Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave at the British Museum

Few may know that Hokusai completed this iconic image well into his seventies, circa 1831, or that he already had a successful artistic career behind him. The “Great Wave” represents a pinnacle in a revitalized career characterized not by decline and retrospect, but bounteous improvement and exploration. Believing that his art would improve the longer he lived, from his sixties Hokusai’s paintings and prints begin to accelerate in ambition and sophistication, leaping between styles and subjects, informed by European influences on perspective or reverting to tradition as required, and moving away from traditional woodblock production to more painterly practice. Throughout his life his profound spirituality informed this constant renewal of styles and artistic endeavors. In fact, his devotional practice shaped his life in other profound ways. He had not always been known as Hokusai; he took the name Hokushinsai meaning “North Star Studio” at age thirty-nine. The Nichiren sect of Buddhism, of which he was a member, believed the North Star was associated with the important deity Myoken. Hokusai continually renamed himself accordingly to his spiritual pursuits, artistic goals or life events. Names he took included Manji (meaning “ten thousand things” or “everything”) and Gakyo Rojin (“Old Man Crazy to Paint”).

Katsushika Hokusai, “Shōki Painted in Red” (1846) hanging scroll, ink and red pigment on silk

To define his late-in-life acceleration a blossoming is to discredit the successful career preceding it. Such is the confidence and skill permeating the variety of styles in the display’s prelude of a brief introduction of early works that curator Tim Clark nearly threatens to undermine his own purpose. Hokusai trained in his twenties in the “Floating World” school of art, which reflected the hedonistic culture of its base city Edo. Here in his “Beauty on a Summer Morning” (ca. 1810) a woman brushes her hair before a mirror in a crisp, flat rendering on a decorative scroll; illustrations of adventure stories are fashioned in the organized chaos of popular comic books. Already, Hokusai is fully accomplished and by his fifties adept at an eclectic range of styles.

Attributed to Hokusai, “Boys’ Festival” (1824–1826) ink and color on old Dutch paper

The prelude is required however, to establish the historical status quo against which Hokusai’s subsequent astounding artistic achievements may be measured. Examples from his “36 Views of Mount Fuji,” commissioned in 1831 at a time of great hardship for Hokusai — having recently suffered a stroke — proved so popular that a further ten designs were published. Clark suggests that such was their success that through them Hokusai had effectively introduced landscape views as a major new genre, and the variety in perspectival, painterly, and color treatment present here supports this view. Where one composition posits us in the point of a view of fishermen on a boat tossing in the sea, its hull receding away towards the mountain in a thunderously dynamic composition, another adopts a ground level perspective watching little figures on a stationary platform staring even further away at the tiny mountain in the distance, all stillness and peace. Such perspectival sophistication indicates Hokusai’s knowledge of Western practices, which he utilizes to dramatic effect here. “Red Fuji” (1830-32) on the other hand, does away with perspectival inventiveness and reverts to the two-dimensional tradition: presenting the mountain as a gorgeously deep red triangle cutting into a deep blue background, its lower half bisected by green wash, simplifying the composition in almost geometric terms.

Katsushika Hokusai, “Clear Day with a Southern Breeze (‘Red Fuji’)” (1831) from Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji, color woodblock

In the “Great Wave” Hokusai makes full use of Prussian blue pigment (typically a tool of western practice) lending an intense depth to this already dynamic work. To convey the popularity of “36 Views” images like the “Wave” may have run to 8,000 impressions, each one sold for little more than the price of a bowl of noodles in his time. For Hokusai however, the series is the product of his increasingly concentrated artistic and spiritual interests. Fuji was a devotional place to which Hokusai attached great religious significance; his artistic endeavors visible in these images were intrinsically bound with his spiritual goals — to see the divine as present in every element in the physical world — and so commercial success was unimportant. Because of this commitment, he was known to have happily lived in relative poverty.

A second installation view of Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave at the British Museum

From the age of 88 Hokusai began using a red seal with the character meaning “100” on it, expressing his wish for older age, saying in 1848, “From ninety years I will keep on improving my style of painting.” His output accordingly showed no sign of slowing down. He produced a series of flora and fauna of varying scale — isolated renderings of cockerels on decorative display scrolls, or a leaping carp in a waterfall — that show unbelievable consistency, painterly confidence, inventiveness, and minutely observed detail. “Watermelon and Knife” of 1839 is an exquisitely beautiful yet enigmatic depiction of a simple ritual, the fruit sitting under a translucent sheet of paper, wafer thin twirls of just-cut flesh hanging above. He illustrated “One Hundred Poems,” (ca 1835) and “One Hundred Ghost Tales” (1833). He made model books of varying purpose for students to copy and study. Since the Japanese were forbidden to travel abroad from 1615–1868, he made a bird’s eye view in “Picture of Famous Places in China” (1840) minutely labelled, as well as decorative images of heroic, ancient Chinese mythical figures.

Katsushika Hokusai, “Self-portrait, Age Eighty-Three” (1842) drawing in a letter, ink on paper

For the latter stages of his life Hokusai lived with his daughter Katsushika Oi who worked as his production assistant. Oi was also an accomplished artist in her own right, represented in the exhibition by some of her own surviving works. Together they devoted their waking lives to art-making. In a self-portrait sent to his publisher in 1842, Hokusai mirthfully shows himself an old man creased with age, winking laughter in his eyes, lacking any pretension; literally an “Old Man Crazy to Paint.” There is no artist’s ego, only the search for the divine in every tiny detail of ordinary life, visible here throughout every inch of these breathtaking works, from humble cut watermelon to the famous “Great Wave.”

Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave continues at the British Museum (Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, London) until 13 August 2017

London based Olivia McEwan is a trained art historian with BA and MA degrees from the Courtauld Institute, now a freelance writer focusing on the London art world; this academic background contributing...