As a student I was introduced to the work of the leading practitioners of the Ukiyo-e style of printmaking: Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Ando Hiroshige (1785-1864). I recall I was awestricken then (and still am) by the work of these three artists, along with a handful of others. What I did not know back then is that a century earlier, a large number of Western artists and art collectors in Europe and the U.S. (Frank Lloyd Wright, for example) admired and collected the work of these artists in a tsunami-like wave of influence called Japonisme. Dating from the 1890s, there is a studio photograph of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec dressed in a kimono and holding a Japanese doll and a fan. And as virtually everyone knows, there are Ukiyo-e prints, paintings of peacocks, vases, shoji screens and other Japanese artifacts in the backgrounds of paintings by Edouard Manet, James A.M. Whistler and their contemporaries. Van Gogh repeatedly made attempts to paint copies of these prints, in the hope that he might learn about the principles of composition.
In this book, which is breathtaking just to hold (how often are we treated to a volume that provides us with 700 reproductions, 500 of which are in color?), the focus is primarily on Hokusai, whom everyone remembers for his ubiquitous image of "the great wave" (titled Beneath the Wave of Kanagawa), a print from a series called Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (c. 1834-1835). Hokusai was already world famous 40 years ago, and a flood of books and studies about Ukiyo-e, Japonisme and Hokusai has been produced in the meantime. Nevertheless, this book is a welcome addition, surely because of the excellence of its many reproductions, but also because it includes eight very interesting essays (informed by the latest developments in the practice of art history) on aspects of the life and work of Hokusai, with studies of his youthful work, his Western influences, his murals, his erotic art, the relation of art to literature in Japan, his late works and his letters. Of particular value to readers is an annotated list of works that runs for more than 75 pages and includes invaluable details about the context and interpretative signs for each of the book's reproductions. Text and reproduction space is given to Hokusai's many caricatures, his "how-to" diagrams about pictorial composition, his influence on Western artists and his effusive depictions of lovemaking (the so-called spring pictures or shunga), as in such fantastic scenes as The Jeweled Merkin and Diving Girl Ravished by Octopuses. Whatever topics chosen by this astonishing master, he always made powerful images that so far have survived the dreck of more than 150 years of art criticism-and will assuredly still be admired far into the future.
(Reprinted by permission from Ballast Quarterly Review, Volume 20, Number 3, Spring 2005.)