Pushing Paper: contemporary drawing from 1970 to now

A British Museum touring exhibition

2 April – 4 June 2022

The Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney

Detail-Nja Mahdaoui The Memory Triptych (2009 Indian ink, acrylic and gold on parchment) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum’s touring exhibition Pushing Paper: contemporary drawing from 1970 to now celebrates drawing as ‘a fully independent medium’ and reveals what a vital means of expression, innovation and renewal it can be. How we process ideas as human beings, what we know about ourselves, the world and our ability to reimagine it, is richly evidenced in this show. Pushing Paper is an exhibition of possibility and cross-pollination, which feels particularly timely, given that freedom of expression is increasingly under attack globally. Drawing is one of the oldest and most immediate forms of human expression with a deep, shared ancestry. It can be an artery of conscious and unconscious thought, a way of bearing witness and altering perception. Drawing reveals that there are many ways to be and see the world, and that the human mark matters, whether it is drawn, scratched, sculpted or walked. Even at its darkest, drawing is abundantly hopeful in what it enables us to see. Expanding the idea of drawing in its own right and making it more visible is arguably even more requisite in a post-truth digital age. Supported by the Bridget Riley Foundation (BRAF) this three-year project, co-curated with partner museums throughout the UK, is a fantastic opportunity to see contemporary drawing in its infinite variety. 

Drawn from the British Museum’s graphic collection of over 50, 000 drawings and 2 million prints, the collaborative approach to curation, in partnership with the Oriental Museum, Durham, the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea and the Cooper Gallery, Barnsley, has produced a fascinating and deeply moving show. Presented in five thematic sections: power and protest, systems and process, place and space, identity and time and memory, the exhibition features 56 diverse works by artists such as David Hockney, Philip Guston, Rachel Whiteread, Cornelia Parker, Tacita Dean, Anselm Kiefer, Sol Le Witt, Anish Kapoor, Tracey Emin, Grayson Perry, Peter Doig, Roger Ackling, Liliane Lijn, Minjung Kim, Susan Schwalb, Nja Mahdaoui, Hajra Waheed, Marcia Kure, Hamid Sulaiman and Rachel Duckhouse.

Detail -Susan Schwalb Untitled, 1980, (metalpoint with graphite and burn marks on prepared paper) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Susan Schwalb’s Untitled, 1980, (metalpoint with graphite and burn marks on prepared paper) creates an astonishing sense of drawing as a living, organic force. Rooted in the Renaissance tradition of silverpoint, practised by Albrecht Dürer, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, there is a flourishing, dynamic sense of becoming in Schwalb’s series of four images. The feathery, smoked and scratched marks are powerful and delicate, melding process and idea to such a degree that they become a point of ignition in the viewer’s imagination. There is an uncanny sense of movement, flickering into light and illumination, that really captures the human drive to make art. The hand-made mark often demands that we pause, question and engage our senses fully in what we are looking at, in a way that the scrolling images saturating our daily digital lives do not.  Schwalb’s work is such an invitation for active reflection.  Her four drawings suggest parts of a flower and therefore the propensity for growth, coupled with the fiery inference of potential destruction. The fascination found in a naked flame is invoked here as mark and line, fan and flume, expand the idea of Renaissance metalpoint as precision rendering. Schwalb presents a Renaissance of drawing in fluidity and abstraction. There are so many lines of potential enquiry emanating from Schwalb’s quartet, revealing what a hopeful, essential act drawing can be. The spirit of exploration and ancestry of the artist’s chosen medium evolves before your eyes, and it is a joy to see.

Liliane Lijn Hanging Gardens of Rock City 1970 (Collage of magazine cuttings touched with green crayon, on a support of a greyish photograph of the New York skyline) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Liliane Lijn’s Hanging Gardens of Rock City 1970 (Collage of magazine cuttings touched with green crayon, on a support of a greyish photograph of the New York skyline) presents a ‘utopian idyll’ of ‘green walkways suspended across the rooftops of Manhattan.’ Collage is an intuitive way of drawing that pivots between the act of cutting and sowing creative seeds of regeneration. Reconstruction of found images in this context takes New York Skyscrapers, temples of capitalism, and reappropriates them as accessible, linked green spaces. In Lijn’s hanging gardens, there’s no apocalyptic Babylon, but ancient wonder in imagination. Through a 2022 lens, Lijn’s Hanging Gardens of Rock City is a vision of what is needed today, platforms to reimagine and subvert dominant systems of power. Lijn also captures the spirit of awe and optimism in iconic New York architecture, ancient adornment repurposed for the New World, not as the domain of corporations and billionaires, but possessed of a different kind of inheritance and intention. The same year Lijn’s created her Floating Gardens of Rock City series of collages, the first Earth Day was held, a rallying point for US environmentalism and activism. Lijn’s Hanging Gardens bring an element of playfulness and ‘what if’? to this ongoing debate, gently suggesting an alternative trajectory in fantasy architecture. It is now widely acknowledged that capitalism/ consumerism has brought our planet to the brink of collapse, in the context of the Anthropocene period we are living through, Lijn’s Hanging Gardens optimistically heralds what still might be possible.

Minjung Kim (b. 1962), Mountain, 2009, ink on hanji paper © The Trustees of the British Museum Reproduced by permission of the artist

Minjung Kim’s Mountain (2009 ink on hanji paper) possesses a powerful rhythm of tonal ascension in wave upon wave of inky tidelines. Kim’s wet on wet technique is masterful in its acute understanding of material through touch. The way water absorbs, and ink reacts is part of the grounded nature of this drawing and the ethereal nature of this landscape. The singular ‘Mountain’ is made up of many successive peaks which gradually evaporate from dark to light. There is a strong lineage of traditional knowledge in this work, dating from the 1st Century BCE, in the ground of Korean Hanji paper, made from the Mulberry tree and in the artist’s reverence for the natural world. There is also the ‘Mountain’ in the mind of the viewer as an imaginative space in play.  It was interesting to see how this work was such a natural draw for people entering the ‘place and space’ themed room and how much time was spent in contemplation of the drawing. Something emanates from these magnificent waves of water, ink and paper which feels like a collective well of burgeoning consciousness. There is a sense of connectivity when looking at this work, of being part of something greater than ourselves. Kim’s drawing captures something essential about our relationship with nature, bringing the root of Eastern spirituality, Western Romanticism and wider belief in divine nature together. The energy in this work is timelessly circular and direct, something sensed and felt through the hand of the artist, the work on paper and in the heart/ mind of the viewer.

Before you read the adjacent label, Cornelia Parker’s arresting Rorschach- style blot Poison Drawing (1997, Rattlesnake venom and ink) floats darkly on the page in free association. The unsettling mirror brown stain could be dried blood clotted thoughts,unlocked from the viewer’s own psyche. Initially the singular drawing is a trigger and feels like a test of projected meaning, in the manner of the original Rorschach test, used to examine the psychological and emotional characteristics of an individual. In a linked pair of drawings, Parker’s obsession with opposites is crystallised in material venom and its antidote. It’s an interesting moral proposition that walking into the gallery, it’s the visual stain of ink and venom in Poison Drawing that first draws the eye, while the white ink and Diamond Back snake anti-venom in its twin, Antidote Drawing 1997, appears invisible. Human behaviour (and creativity) has a double face, the potential for toxicity and cure. The ambiguity of Parker’s work is part of its charm, there’s always intellect behind it. Equally the element of artistic control consistently shifts- the blot will do what it wants to do, making unexpected marks on the folded paper. The inherent danger or life-giving properties hinge on what you’re told each drawing is made of, its material truth. Here drawing meets conceptual art, like ouroboros, the serpent eating its own tail. In Parker’s own words ‘the work, as drawing, comes from the materials’ and that raw materiality, combined with concept and belief makes for endless connections and imaginings.

Adel Daoud Charbon de Chair (2014, Charcoal on cardboard) © The Trustees of the British Museum

One of the most powerful works in the exhibition, one that stopped me in my tracks and that I keep returning to, is Adel Daoud’s Charbon de Chair (2014, Charcoal on cardboard). It is a summation of the civil war in Syria, a conflict that has claimed over 500,000 lives since 2011 and of incalculable loss, but there is also a powerful feeling of resistance in this work, a visceral frenzy of marks that insists we do not forget. Despite human erasure, a process of collective amnesia mirrored in the drawing, the artist in exile and the object remain living witnesses. Like Goya’s Disasters of War or Otto Dix’s Der Krieg series of prints, there is horrific trauma and life affirming strength in every line. Daoud’s drawing and its title ‘human charcoal’ is a pure expression of human annihilation and destruction, lived experience that perhaps only drawing could give voice to. With the Syrian war still raging and current obliteration of human remains by the Russian army in Ukraine to conceal war crimes, Charbon d Chair translates to sites of war and genocide around the globe. The danger of forgetting begets compounded horror in repetition. I was reminded when looking at this work of the words of Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel; ‘To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.’ The need for art to bear witness and act as a trigger for memory, not just in the artist’s own time but for all time, has never been greater. It is all too easy to change channels, keep scrolling, press delete or spread denial to millions on social media. Being in the intimate presence of a drawing, an immediately tactile object with its own history, that may be very different from our own, demands that we make sense of the human marks we see before us and grapple with where we stand. A great drawing makes its mark on the mind, soul and heart of the viewer and is never forgotten. The value of such work is incalculable, and I am glad that as part of this touring show, Adel Daoud’s Charbon de Chair will be seen by many more people throughout the country.

Pushing Paper – British Museum collection at Glynn Vivian, Swansea 24th September 2020. Foreground-Nja Mahdaoui The Memory Triptych (2009 Indian ink, acrylic and gold on parchment). Photograph courtesy of the British Museum.

Nja Mahdaoui’s The Memory Triptych (2009 Indian ink, acrylic and gold on parchment) is a brilliant evocation of human memory, how it shifts and evolves, realised in a fusion of drawing and sculpture. There are forms within forms in this drawing, from the tall clear glass vases containing three rhythmically charged parchments, to elements of Arabic calligraphy hidden by partially burnt, curvaceously twisting forms. The letterforms resist semantic reading, yet language, culture and identity are resounding present, not in being pinned down as absolutes, but in enabling growth and freedom of expression. The capture of this billowing movement of memory feels miraculous and precious, with gold overwritten on parchment. There is something very beautiful in what is hidden and revealed simultaneously in this work, about the way that we edit, revise and revel in memory as humans. The delicacy and refinement of Arabic calligraphy is rendered elusive, poetic and tangibly real in this multidimensional work. I would love to see works like Mahdaoui’s Memory Triptych displayed permanently within the British Muesum and partner museums, as an unexpected trigger for reflection on the evolving memory of other works in their collections.

The importance of touring collections, outside London to the rest of the UK and internationally, should not be underestimated. I was delighted to find, in the world class venue of The Pier, an exhibition who’s sensitive and thought-provoking curation made me feel connected to the world once again. Rather than being relentlessly overwhelmed by global events, the sensitive and thought-provoking curation encouraged connective reflection. Many of the chosen works restored my faith that we can in fact, out create destruction.  The marks we make remain crucial. As the amazing diversity and integrity of practice exhibited in Pushing Paper testifies, Drawing stands resoundingly as both noun and verb.

https://www.pierartscentre.com/current-upcoming-exhibition/pushing-paper-contemporary-drawing-from-1970

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. (c)British Museum. (2)

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.

pink-fuji

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/