Emil Nolde – Colour is Life

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Old Man and Young Woman(Man with Feather in his Hat) (Alter Mann und junge Frau (Mann mit Feder am Hut)), c. 1930s-40s
Watercolour on paper, 16.2 x 15.4 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

14 July – 21 October 2018

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern Two)

“Colour is strength. Strength is life. Only strong harmonies are important.” Emil Nolde, Travels. Ostracism. Liberation. 1919–1946.

Colour is Life presents a rare opportunity to come to grips with the undeniable vibrancy and jarring contradictions in Emil Nolde’s art. This illuminating retrospective features 120 paintings, drawings, watercolours and prints from the Emil Nolde Foundation in Seebüll, Northern Germany. Nolde’s images reveal the journeys of his life; from rural villages, domestic gardens and highly charged religious subjects, to the bustling, industrial port of Hamburg, the cabarets of Berlin and indigenous people of Papua New Guinea. His extraordinary land and seascapes are among the highlights of the show, together with his controversial “unpainted pictures” incorporating elements of folklore and the grotesque.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Landscape (North Friesland), (Landschaft (Nordfriesland)),1920
Oil on canvas, 86.5 x 106.5 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

Living on a shifting border between Germany and Denmark and with a lifetime (1867-1956) spanning two World Wars, there are inevitable conflicts in terms of how the artist saw himself and how he/his work has been perceived by successive generations. When this exhibition first opened at the National Gallery of Ireland in February 2018, The Independent ran with the headline; “Can you enjoy great art created by a Nazi? New Emile Nolde exhibition explores this dilemma.” The mistake we make too often in the age we are living in is making superior moral judgements that reinforce polarity rather than understanding, based on the assumption that the function of art is enjoyment. What I found fascinating in Colour is Life is human nature on display and how you must confront beauty and ugliness in full view of each other; in the comprehensive survey of Nolde’s work and within yourself as a viewer, or potential witness.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Martyrdom II (Martyrium II), 1921
Oil on sackcloth, 106.5 x 156.5cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

You can’t ignore the open declaration of antisemitism, distortion of human form and glowering colour in the central panel of Nolde’s Martyrdom triptych (1921, oil on sackcloth), nor can you deny the depth and emotional investment of colour in Nolde’s The Sea B (1930, oil on canvas). Nolde is all about dualism, stark juxtapositions and human impulses. His shield in the times he lived in, was to retreat into Nature and the primitive, forever pursued by the idea that the original garden itself was corrupt. The stupefied self-awareness on the face of Eve in Paradise Lost (1921, oil on sackcloth) comes from an artist mindful of human complicity in its own fall. One of the most affecting images in the exhibition is The Sea B, which is so darkly saturated with emotive colour that it becomes a twilight of the soul. This sunset seascape sees the purple density of cloud and light fading down into the horizon in an epic sweep of honesty. Green, orange, yellow and the white crest of waves contribute to an almost biblical churning of the waters. The sea takes on a kind of fearful solidity, what I can only describe as a conscious foreground of burnt ultramarine- though no such colour exists straight out of a tube. It lives in the complexity of human experience, a realisation that hits you when you get up close and see Nolde’s brush bristles, hitting the canvas like salt spray, stinging your eyes. It is as heartfelt an image as you are ever likely to see and regardless of the artist’s politics or beliefs, one worthy of attention on a variety of perceptive levels.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
The Sea B (Meer B), 1930
Oil on canvas, 73 x 100 cm
Collection: Tate, London, purchased 1966
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

Nolde was an artist seeking to build upon a golden age of German Art which he recognised in the work of Matthias Grünewald, Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein. He was also keenly aware of what he described as the “great” French “ice breakers”; Manet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Signac” and the work of contemporary Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, a pioneer of Expressionism. Nolde’s brief affiliation with German Expressionist group Die Brücke (Bridge) is often cited, however his allegiances run deeper than the revolutionary world of modern art. The key to works such as his 1912 woodcut on paper Prophet, lies in a more subliminal collective of seeing. It’s is the gouge into woodgrain, the raw, fecund material of the mythic German forest and the black and white heightened truth of religion. The contradiction of human aspiration and impulse (or desire) is fervently expressed in Nolde’s individual work.


Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Prophet, 1912
Woodcut on paper, 29.8 x 22.1 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

In his 1912 painting Candle Dancers, the ecstatic revelry and trance like state of the dance equates to freedom. The “primitive” is a central preoccupation in his art and this is as much about eroticism as it is about the purity of ecstasy, entering a different state of perception or being. Nolde’s painting Ecstasy (oil on canvas, 1929) is an unholy alliance of a middle aged male gaze and immaculate conception. Although I find this painting profoundly ugly, I can have no argument with the incandescent heat of purple and orange, the emotional intensity of colour-which leaves even the attendant angel Gabriel surprised. The problem isn’t with the expression ecstasy (personal or religious), or even the female body openly thrust forward, but with the doll-like face, a mask which renders the body devoid of any self-awareness or possession, either in piety or pleasure.  Nolde was 62 when he made this work and a child of the Nineteenth century, so it isn’t surprising that he simply renders the female figure as a vessel. His overwhelming use of colour (and all it means in Nolde’s art) presents me with a dilemma and ultimately prevents me from dismissing the image. Although the painting repels me, the contradictions in Nolde’s Ecstacy, are worthy of further examination and debate.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Candle Dancers (Kerzenttänzerinnen), 1912
Oil on canvas, 100.5 x 86.5cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

There are many such vessels in Nolde’s art. His interest in indigenous people and ethnographic art is another highly charged projection of “primitive” freedom. In 1913-14 the artist and his wife Ada made the epic journey on the trans-Siberian railway to Asia and then to Papua New Guinea.  Nolde’s paintings and drawings from this trip present the idea of noble warriors, seen in the form of head and shoulder studies with gravitas and stark simplicity. They may be naïve, in the way that many white travellers view other cultures as an escape hatch to an idealised, primordial paradise, however they also represent a more open and respectful view than one might expect, given Nolde’s later membership of the National Socialist party.

What Nolde hoped for, as a man/ artist in his 60’s by the time Hitler came to power. was a golden harvest, a new age of “let’s make [Germany] great again”!  Millions of people believed that twisted promise, not knowing, or perhaps not caring, consumed by self-interested Nationalism, what the cost of that iron melded vision would be. Misappropriation of ideals is the collective lesson here, not the mistaken belief or demonisation of an individual. Seeing this exhibition, I was reminded that historical hindsight is a privileged position, founded on human survival. At base Nolde’s use of colour as strength ensured his survival. Whilst I may be able to sit back and judge his politics /morality through 21st century eyes, what I also see in this work is an important confrontation with the extreme dynamics of his art and the prevailing Zeitgeist. You can’t neatly relegate this to the pages of history, because his art is so alive today. I’m glad of the discomfort Nolde’s work brings me, cast between the sun-drenched, vivid affirmation of blooming life in Blonde Girls (1918, oil on canvas) and the tormented purple skin of Soldiers (1913, oil on sackcloth) in uniform compliance, ready for war.

Emil NOLDE (1857-1956)
Self-portrait (Selbstbild), 1917
Oil on plywood, 83.5 x 65cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

In his autobiography, Nolde wrote about the “key role” of “Dualism” in his paintings and prints; “Both together and in opposition: man and woman, pleasure and pain, god and the devil. Colours were also placed in opposition to each other: cold and warm, light and dark, dull and strong.”

Dualism ultimately defines his life. On the one hand as a “victim” of The Third Reich’s cultural policies; branded a” degenerate artist”, banned from exhibiting, selling or publishing his work and on the other, an avid supporter of the party.  Nolde had over 1000 works confiscated in Hitler’s purge of Modern Art from Museums and Galleries. Nolde featured prominently in the infamous Degenerate Art Exhibition, held in Munich in 1937, which toured Germany and Austria. The aim was to ridicule and denounce Modern Art, but more than that- to clamp down on freedom of expression or any form of communication that did not further the party’s aims. The role of propaganda or controlling the visual should never be underestimated in bringing entire populations to heel. Anyone thinking that art is just entertainment are twice as primed to be duped. The head of Hitler’s Propaganda Ministry, Dr Joseph Goebbels would have loved the knee jerk control of Twitter. Although speaking entirely about his own work, Nolde’s statement in a 1905 letter to Hans Fehr that “harmless pictures are seldom worth anything” is chillingly prophetic.

Essentially Nolde saw himself as a good German. The idea of “Heimat” or deep-rooted identity, which has no direct translation outside of the German language, is forever tainted by Nazi bastardisation. It becomes the rhetoric of “blood and soil”, just as the idea of “Volk”, people and lore, become contorted into cultural and biological superiority under the regime. Contemporary German artists such as Anselm Kiefer have been instrumental in unpacking these ideas, returning to raw materials of the earth and forest, to find the truth behind the lies. The idea of Volk informs works such as Nolde’s Market (1908, oil on sackcloth) with its circular huddle of farmers or Milkmaids I (1903, oil on canvas) reminiscent of Van Gogh’s many studies of labourers in the fields. Nolde’s turn of the century images speak of social cohesion and living close to the land in harmony with Nature and God. They represent the validation and virtue of honest, hard work according to the Protestant work ethic. When Nolde, born Emil Hansen, marries his Danish wife and changes his name to that of the village of Nolde in North Schleswig, it is a statement of identity, not just with place, but in terms of cultural belief.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Canal (Copenhagen) (Kanal (Kopenhagen)), 1902
Oil on sackcloth, 65.5 x 83 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

It is fascinating to witness the transformation of light and colour from Nolde’s Canal (Copenhagen) (1902, Oil on sackcloth) onwards and see the evolution of his mark.  The way that bold, beautifully observed human marks in the artist’s ink and wash drawings translate into colour is one of the highlights of the show. Tugboat (1910 Brush, ink and wash on paper) and Smoking Steamboats (1910 Oil on sackcloth) are particularly fine examples. The impact of smoke and heavy industry on the environment isn’t lost on the artist. Nature is rendered with energetic brushwork in yellow, green, blue and deep purple, fighting back to engulf the human presence on an eternally vital sea.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Tugboat (Schlepper), 1910
Brush, ink and wash on paper, 35 x 42.5 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Smoking Steamboats (Qualmende Dampfer), 1910
Oil on sackcloth, 57.5 x 71.5 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Solo Female Dancer (Solotänzerin), 1910–11
Brush, ink and wash on paper, 32.1 x 27 cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

Nolde’s drawings in Berlin cafes and cabarets display his immediate responses to the parade of humanity before him in eloquent, ink shorthand. Dancing Couples (1910-11 pen and ink and wash on paper) with its smitten body language and highly animated rhythmic marks of the crowd, present a self-absorbed microcosm of urban life.  The group of 1930’s and 1940’s watercolours on paper, known as the “unpainted pictures” carry their own mythological narrative. Rendered in technicolour washes and linear drawing this is a curious group of images populated by human grotesques, giants and hobgoblins. Yet the fantastical elements are anchored. There’s hints of satire and allegory in Three Fools, Two Animals or folklore and ethnography in Dance Around the Rock. The sublime elegance of movement in the Skater is stunningly precarious humanity on a blade edge. The “unpainted pictures” are those made whilst Nolde was banned from being a professional artist. We don’t know to what extent he was monitored as a branded artist by the Gestapo, but it is sobering to consider the climate of paranoia, at a time when the mere smell of dissenting oil paint could condemn and obliterate the maker. I imagine only three options for a branded artist; defiantly continue to work and face imprisonment or death, flee the country forever or be compliant with the regime and do what you’re told. Given Nolde’s generation and strong identification with the idea of a second golden age for Germany, I’ve no doubt that the easiest path for him,  ideologically and practically, was the latter.

Emil NOLDE (1867-1956)
Skater (Schlittschuhläufer), 1938-1945
Watercolour on paper, 25.8 x 18cm
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

He could still immerse himself in colour as life, even if the high German culture he revered and European civilization were progressively collapsing all around him. He still had “the painter’s basic materials: colours that have a life [and soul] of their own, crying and laughing, dream and joy, hot and holy, like love songs and sex, like hymns and chorales! Colours vibrating, with the sound of silver bells and the ringing of bronze, heralding happiness, passion and love, blood and death.”

I think it is too easy to judge Nolde’s work in terms of black and white morality and we do ourselves no favours as critics by dismissively waving the Nazi card, therefore distancing ourselves from the tough questions raised by his work. Demonising anything simply places it outside ourselves, abdicating responsibility and denying the possibility of change. Go and see this show, be elated and/or deeply troubled by it, whilst acknowledging that the world still needs such art. Whether it is in radiantly joyful blooms or in blackened caricatures that mirror our own prejudices, Nolde expresses what we are holistically capable of. There is no immunity. We too can get lost in the ecstasy of the dance. Nolde’s intense, contradictory work, together with the 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition catalogue on display, demand that we face what beauty, ugliness and complicity truly mean, right here and now.  The question is not whether we can enjoy the art of a Nazi, but whether we can afford not to see it.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/

British Museum presents: Hokusai

Dragon rising above Mt Fuji. Hanging scroll, ink and slight colour on silk, 1849. Hokusaikan, Obuse. On display from 25 May – 2 July.

Eden Court Cinema and in cinemas nationwide from 4 June 2017

Although I’m a firm believer that the best way to experience any work of Art is being present in the same space, clearly this isn’t always possible. As I and many others won’t have the opportunity to travel to London this summer, I was very excited to see that the British Museum’s current exhibition Hokusai Beyond the Great Wave (25th May to 13th August) was to be broadcast in cinemas. Having attended similar exhibition related events, re-examining the work of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Goya and Bosch, I was very much looking forward to rediscovering Hokusai up close on a big screen. He’s an artist whose work will be familiar to many people reproduced in poster form, but is less well known in terms of the substance, scope and subtlety of his Art. Seeing exhibitions presented on screen brings a different scale of viewing into play, at times allowing the audience to get closer than would ever be permissible in a gallery or museum, especially where fragile works on paper are concerned. Dependent on selective editing of original works, choice of interviewees, depth of commentary and the final documentary edit, filmed exhibitions can be truly insightful, inspirational, even revelatory experiences. As a continuous record of human thoughts, actions and aspirations lived visually, Art History demands constant reappraisal, not just within academic circles but in the public domain. The collective cinema experience arguably reaches a wider audience than any Art Historian ever could, either in print or on television and coordinated international distribution by More2Screen is huge step forward in terms of accessibility. Art reveals everything humanity is capable of, bringing us face to face with who we are right now (or could be) as part of an ever-expanding field of reference. The cross-border collaboration and investment necessary to stage such an exhibition, in the museum and on screen, reflects this shared inheritance, following in the footsteps of an artist who bridges East and West.

Weeping cherry and bullfinch. Colour Woodblock. c. 1834 © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is an artist of profound and lasting influence on global visual culture. When we have the opportunity to see his work up close, we begin to appreciate why in the truth and immediacy of our own responses. Although the film and exhibition will be a natural draw for anyone interested in painting, drawing, illustration, Manga, animation, design, Japanese history and culture, I think many more people would find the thinking and craft behind familiar images, examined afresh with the latest technology, a complete revelation. Some of the filmed images drew gasps from the audience! In tiniest accents of colour and variation of mark “Paint is not paint anymore but plumage”.  Hokusai has ducks swimming through paper, capturing the essence and spirit of the animal. His composition of a bullfinch about to take flight from a branch of cherry blossom is breathtakingly exquisite in its simplicity and connectedness, which is also the source of its beauty. Hokusai is an artist who continues to generate immediate, heartfelt responses in viewers across time and an important question to ask is why? He has much to teach contemporary artists, in many ways challenging not only how we view and value creative practice, but how Western 21st Century popular culture perceives the creative “I”, the aging process and the relationships between Humanity, Nature and Spiritually.  The appropriation of Hokusai’s Great Wave as an emoji is often interpreted reductively in a Western corporate / urban context as an individual emotive response or a branded illustration of activity and aspiration. However, as a visual symbol it has far more expansive capabilities on the artist’s own terms. Hokusai’s entire ethos of making, way of seeing the world and himself, is still a revolutionary wave of thought and practice. In the context of global affairs circa 2017, this renewed focus on his work and way of being in the world could not be timelier.

Dragon in rain clouds. Hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper, 1849. Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet, Paris, given by Nobert Lagane. On display from 25 May – 13 August.

The British Museum exhibition Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave includes prints, paintings and illustrated books from the last 30 years of Hokusai’s life on loan from public and private collections in Europe, Japan and the USA. To have these exhibited together with works from the British Museum collection is exceedingly rare and due to light sensitivity, some works can only be displayed for a limited time. In the interests of conservation, the museum will rotate half of the works with the exhibition closing between 3rd and 6th July to facilitate the changeover- an excellent excuse for a second visit if you happen to live nearby or visit London regularly! The show is the result of curatorial collaboration with Dr Shūgō Asano, “leading Hokusai scholar and Director of the Abeno Harukas Art Museum, Osaka, where a similar exhibition Hokusai – Fuji o koete will be shown from 6 October – 19 November 2017.” Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave is also “underpinned by research undertaken by the British Museum and Dr Angus Lockyer, Lecturer in the Department of History at SOAS University of London”, as part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project Late Hokusai: Thought, Technique, Society(April 2016-March 2019) “focusing on Hokusai’s last three decades”. The exhibition is a remarkable achievement, demonstrating the importance and value of continuing art historical research, education and international collaboration, bringing new perspectives to work of global importance. It is also the culmination of a 10 year ambition shared by Tim Clark, head of the Japanese section in the Department of Asia at the British Museum and Art Historian/ Hokusai scholar Roger Keyes to honour the consummate skill, artistry and vision of the artist in presenting his finest works. The Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries (Rooms 92–94 in the British Museum) containing objects from ancient porcelain and Samurai armour to Manga comic books, compliment the blockbuster exhibition focus on one of Japan’s finest artists.

British Museum presents: Hokusai. Screen shot courtesy of More2Screen.

For cinema audiences worldwide, the 90 minute documentary British Museum presents: Hokusai co-produced with NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) with support from the Japan Foundation and Mitsubishi Corporation, enables viewers to examine and enjoy the artist’s work as never before using 8K Ultra HD video technology. The first part of the film directed by Patricia Wheatley looks at the artist’s life, work, techniques and context ,drawing on the perspectives of contemporary British and Japanese artists, while the second part directed by James Norton is a private view of selected works from the British Museum exhibition with commentary from Art Historian Andrew Graham Dickson, artists Grayson Perry, Kate Malone, Maggi Hambling, curator Tim Clark and art historian Roger Keyes who has studied Hokusai’s prints for over 50 years.

Learned credentials aside -what impressed me most, particularly as an art historian, were the genuine, immediate emotional responses to the artist’s work which communicated with such excitement, enthusiasm and actual tears, why this artist’s work is so important, enduring and meaningful to so many people around the world. Not because the artist is a name, a brand, a fortune in the auction house, or part of a canon, but because his work still speaks resoundingly for itself, transcending the time in which it was made and the artist’s persona. Speaking personally about the effect, influence and sheer joy of his work to camera, Maggi Hambling, Grayson Perry and Hokusai scholar Roger Keyes reveal much about the three pillars of Hokusai’s practice; Nature, Humanity and Spirituality, suggesting multiple pathways into his Art. My only disappointment was that there weren’t more standalone views of works in the exhibition, simply to be able to spend more time with them! There’s a balance to be struck between specialist commentary and unguided access to an artist’s work, but overall the documentary succeeds in helping to “relocate Hokusai from niche to world stage.”  This is largely due to the natural dynamics at work in Hokusai’s Art, his rapport and regard in relation to everyday subjects and Nature, which people can readily relate to, complimented by the passion, honesty and devotion expressed by the interviewees. Film presents a unique opportunity for direct interpretative responses to original works as opposed to receiving an illustrated lecture. Whilst editing certainly shapes our view, there is perhaps more scope to come to terms with Arts as Humanities in a broader sense. Something that often strikes me in academic circles is the tendency to write about Art in a way that says more about the writer than their subject, the spark of what drew the author or commentator to the visual artist in the first place is regrettably absent. Thankfully here, that vital energy connecting the artist, work and viewer to something greater than themselves alone is heartily celebrated on screen, one of the very best ways to encourage people to seek out the original work for themselves and make their own connections with it.

Roger Keyes’ devoted study of Hokusai’s work is truly inspirational and his response to works in the exhibition deeply moving.  This is not the artist as a brand or style but something more lasting and authentic, fully integrated into life. In the words of Keyes from the age of 6 to Hokusai’s death at the age of 90 “he never gave up”, never stopped making work and considered in each vital decade of life that the best was yet to come. In Western popular culture, we’ve become accustomed to a permanent state of denial of death and aging. Age is increasingly seen as a burden rather than an asset to society or another stage of positive growth, experience and maturity. Japanese belief in the 60 year zodiac cycle whereby aged 60 one enters a new phase with renewed purpose, informed Hokusai’s conviction that everything he’d done up to the age of 70 “wasn’t worthy of notice”. The iconic work Under the Great Wave off Kanagawa (Colour woodblock, 1831. Acquisition supported by the Art Fund. © The Trustees of the British Museum) known to many as The Great Wave and the most famous of his series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, was simply another beginning. The intention to continue to draw and paint in his 80’s, 90’s, even beyond 100, never wavered and this spirit of renewal through creativity is inspired.

Although in the West creativity is often percieved, branded and marketed as a product of ego justified by the right to individual expression, Hokusai’s Self orientation was defined by his religious beliefs and connectivity to a more expansive reality. When I look at Under the Great Wave off Kanagawa I don’t see the fishermen cowering in their boats in the face of a potential maritime disaster. Perhaps influenced by the Western Romantic tradition grasping the Great Wave as a Sturm und Drang force of Nature, I see them bowing in reverence, held in awe and stillness, meeting the sheer power and wonder of Nature. That frozen moment of consciousness in the unfurling wave connects to the eternally sacred presence of Mount Fuji which is the subject, vanishing point and spiritual core of the whole series.  The feeling of motion and belief caught within the image is anchored to the mountain and although the crest of the wave looks like a giant, animal-like claw that could easily crush the boats below, an attitude of worship permeates the entire composition.  Toweringly sublime Prussian blue and white touching the mountain peak, with subtle background washes conveying an attitude of contemplation. In Hokusai’s Great Wave, Human scale is completely dwarfed by Nature and whilst this could be a fearful admission of vulnerability, it is the relationship between all the elements of the image, as part of an entire system or cosmology, which Hokusai enables us to feel. The force of the momentous wave is being itself; an overwhelming presence certainly, but also part of the ebb and flow of life forever suspended before our eyes, in our minds and the universe. As artist Maggi Hambling very perceptively observes on camera, today when confronted by Nature people are inclined to “take a photograph of themselves standing in front of it” rather than being fully present. Belonging to Nichiren sect of Buddhism, Hokusai demonstrates a progressive way of being throughout his life’s work.

Clear day with a southern breeze (‘Red Fuji’) from Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji. Colour woodblock, 1831. © The Trustees of the British Museum. On display from 25 May – 13 August.

Clear day with a southern breeze (‘Pink Fuji’) from Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji. Colour woodblock, 1831. . Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet, Paris. On display from 25 May – 13 August.

Apprenticed to a wood carver as a young man, by the age of 18 Hokusai was under the tutorage of Master ukiyo-e printmaker Katsukawa Shunshō. What isn’t often appreciated in a digital age is the complexity and artistry of original printmaking in terms of crafting the image and it was wonderful to see footage of this as part of the documentary. There is physicality in carving a woodblock that in Japanese Art demands more than starkly gouged strength of line. There is supreme delicacy in broken lines conveying the qualities and feeling of movement in air, clouds and water. Hokusai’s early woodblock prints reveal multi-layered treatment using 3 or 4 blocks with varied inking techniques to achieve an incredibly nuanced effect. Clear day with a southern breeze (‘Pink Fuji’) from Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji. (Colour woodblock, 1831. Musée national des arts asiatiques Guimet, Paris) and Clear day with a southern breeze (Red Fuji) (Colour woodblock, 1831. © The Trustees of the British Museum), demonstrate the artist’s finely rendered treatment of tone, hue and texture contrasted with mass reproduction in heavier blocks of colour and greater uniformity of line. The art of “capturing the brush line in wood” and “the subtlety of the ink mark with pigment running out” so “prized in calligraphy” presents an interdisciplinary understanding of the artist’s chosen medium, linked to a wider cultural and spiritual perception of the world. In Pink Fuji the forest isn’t treated as a flat graphic pattern but vibrates with life in multi-layered marks and the inking process. True to his Faith there is life in all things, “animal and mineral”, sublime gradients of colour and light in the landscape, in the smallest insect, birds, blossoms and the eternal snow-capped mountain. Hokusai’s stunning Thunder Storm print achieves a highly animated flash/ “strobe effect” to rival CGI We can hear the thunder reverberating as the trees incline with air pressure and people take shelter from the oncoming storm and lightening, achieved with the highly directional light and bleached colour palette.

British Museum presents: Hokusai. Thunder Storm Print. Screenshot courtesy of More2Screen.

It is not surprising that in the mid Nineteenth Century, when Japanese colour wood block ukiyo-e prints by artists including Hiroshige, Kunisada and Hokusai began to be exported to Europe as mass reproductions that they caused a sensation. Artists such as Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Whistler and Picasso saw the world of European perspective reimagined, influencing the course of Western Art History with the bolder form of inking several steps removed from the artist’s exacting hand. In our own century technology has further smoothed variations of line and mark to the point where studio based computer generated animation often feels like uniform plastic. Hokusai’s understanding of the woodblock process realises the concept that “only a human hand has the awareness to make such a mark in the world”. His illustrated book 100 Views of Mount Fuji in three volumes (I 1834, II 1835, III 1849) expands this idea, stretching the image in terms of perspective and composition in dynamic response to his chosen subject as the spiritual anchor of the ‘Floating World’. During the Edo period in Japan (1615-1868) mass-produced prints of famous actors and actresses, courtesans, landscapes, legends and folk tales were extremely popular. Hokusai’s apprenticeship in ukiyo-e carving and printing techniques grounded him in a Craft with a social dimension, combining the mythic with the everyday. As highlighted in the documentary two streams of Hokusai’s practice, his book illustrations and random drawings without narrative combined are precursors of modern Manga.

Shōki painted in red. Hanging scroll, ink and red pigment on silk, 1846. Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Mrs Charles Stewart Smith. On display from 25 May – 13 August.

Moving fluidly between Nature, Humanity and the supernatural, the artist’s paintings and prints of ghosts, mythological creatures and deities are among the exhibition’s filmed highlights. Shōki painted in red (Hanging scroll, ink and red pigment on silk, 1846. Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Mrs Charles Stewart Smith. On display from 25 May – 13 August) a demon-queller who offers protection against smallpox stands steadfast, an expression of powerful benevolence and determination on his face. His character is reassuring to the viewer, perceived in the fiery overlapping folds of his robe which animate his advance mentally and physically into our foreground. Ready for battle but not showing his hands which are hidden in the billowing sleeves of his robe, there’s a feeling of heated anticipation in every bold, assured mark. The heroism of the figure isn’t communicated by a drawn sword but is carried inwardly, allowing the audience to feel unconsciously protected. The seal on the lower right takes the pictorial form of an erupting volcano which also informs our view of the figure and his strength as protector. Emotionally and psychologically the image operates way beyond illustration.

Kohada Koheiji from One Hundred Ghost Tales. Colour woodblock, 1833. Purchase funded by the Theresia Gerda Buch bequest in memory of her parents Rudolph and Julie Buch. © The Trustees of the British Museum. On display from 25 May – 13 August.

Hokusai’s wonderful vision of Kohada Koheiji from One Hundred Ghost Tales (Colour woodblock, 1833. Purchase funded by the Theresia Gerda Buch bequest in memory of her parents Rudolph and Julie Buch. © The Trustees of the British Museum. On display from 25 May – 13 August) sees the mosquito net pared down like pink flesh from the bone with the skeletal ghost of a murdered/ drowned husband peering over an edge between worlds. Although most of the flesh is decayed from his face revealing expressively stark bone, beyond the ghoulishness we know he has been wronged. His bare teeth mirror the squared form of Buddhist beads around his neck as he stares down at his wife and her lover completely out of frame, the tale empathically alive in the viewer’s imagination. This quality of allowing the viewer to complete the image expansively in their own minds is one of Hokusai’s greatest gifts to audiences past, present and future.

British Museum presents: Hokusai. Chicken Feet Screen Shot courtesy of More2Screen.

Hokusai’s work also reveals humour and a lively personality, demonstrating his Art by action painting blue ink onto a long sheet of paper, then dipping the feet of a rooster in red pigment and having it walk across it, announcing the visualised concept of autumn leaves falling on the Takusai River to his wowed audience. “He could draw onto a grain of rice”, was “childlike” in the playful spontaneity of drawing subjects called out at parties, collaborated with other artists and writers and as early as 1822 was experimenting with a hybridised style of European perspective in paintings commissioned by Dutch officials. Formal trading relations began in 1609 between the Netherlands and Japan and this influence informed Hokusai’s melding of Eastern and Western perspectives. As artist David Hockney keenly observes during interview, Hokusai understood that in depicting space “on a flat surface everything is abstraction.” This relates not just to pictorial elements of perspective, line and colour as part of formal composition, but the holistic spirit behind those human marks. Van Gogh felt a kinship with the devotional in Japanese art, attuned to what he saw as the Divine in Nature and everyday labour. Writing to his brother Theo from Arles, 15 July 1888 he stated that; “all my work is based to some extent on Japanese art”, seeing it as part of a shared lineage, which he describes in September 1888 like that of “the Primitives”, “the Greeks “and “our old Dutchmen, Rembrandt, Potter, Hals, Vermeer, Ostade, Ruisdael. It doesn’t end.” [1]When Van Gogh uses the word “primitives” in this context it is a mark of authenticity, Humankind’s unique creative drive to make sense of the world and ourselves, with the hope and possibility of reimagining and renewing both.

Self-portrait, aged eighty-three. Drawing in a letter, ink on paper, 1842. Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Leiden. On display from 25 May – 13 August.

The soul of this artist is belief, the rejuvenation of name changes throughout his life accompanying his development as a man and artist. Hokusai is the “North Star” a fixed point in the heavens within and without, the “North studio” of Craft and identity who becomes the “old man-crazy to paint”.  He wasn’t struck by the legendary lightning strike of egoistic talent but by Nature as the vital spark of his own inner nature. We see that communicated in his progressive work, reaching its zenith between the ages of 70 and 90 when he frees himself, engaging fully with the connectivity of every vibrating mark, making approaching death simply another threshold. He becomes the Dragon rising above Mt Fuji. (Hanging scroll, ink and slight colour on silk, 1849. Hokusaikan, Obuse. On display from 25 May – 2 July.) Equally there’s humility in his drawn self-portraits such as Self-portrait, aged eighty-three. (Drawing in a letter, ink on paper, 1842. Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Leiden. On display from 25 May – 13 August) with no affectations towards nobility or greatness. Hokusai isn’t afraid to depict himself as an old man and flawed human being, delighting in the expanded possibilities of perception through experience, even in reduced circumstances and the abject poverty he suffered in later life. There’s joy, reverence and power in his Art which speaks to people very directly, regardless of belief. Like the work of Rembrandt, it’s the artist’s humanity which irrepressibly shines through.

There are many pathways into and extending beyond Hokusai’s Art in the way we interact with the world and in relation to further research. The documentary includes a tantalising glimpse of the work of his daughter Eijo “(art name Ōi, about 1800-after 1857) an artist in her own right who “quit an unsuccessful marriage” “to care for her aged father” working “with and alongside him.” Given that Manga is a female dominated Art Form this also begs further investigation in the public domain. There is so much for visitors to the exhibition and cinema audiences to explore and contemplate in relation to Hokusai’s extraordinary, prolific and varied work. If you can’t get to the British Museum in London then get yourself to the nearest cinema screening, for the price of a cinema ticket you’ll be very glad you did!

[1] Inspiration from Japan, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/stories/inspiration-from-japan

British Museum Exhibition website: http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/hokusai.aspx

More2Screen: http://www.more2screen.com/events/hokusai-british-museum/