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  • Hokusai and His Age: Ukiyo-e Painting, Printmaking and Book Illustration in Late Edo Japan
  • Kendall H. Brown (bio)
Hokusai and His Age: Ukiyo-e Painting, Printmaking and Book Illustration in Late Edo Japan. Edited by John T. Carpenter. Hotei Publishing, Amsterdam, 2005. 357 pages. $125.00.

Both an iconic figure in premodern Japanese art and an emblem for its impact on modern Western art, Hokusai is doubtless the best-known Japanese artist. Famous in Europe since his Manga series was introduced in the 1850s, Hokusai was the subject of the first American exhibition catalogue devoted to Japanese art, Ernest Fenollosa's Hokusai and His School of 1893. A century later, Hokusai's appeal is still growing among collectors, the public, and scholars. For instance, in 1997 Hokusai's "Red Fuji" print brought a record price of £90,000 at auction. And in 2005 a Hokusai show at the Tokyo National Museum was the best-attended art exhibition in the world that year, in just six weeks drawing 333,934 visitors—some of whom surely recalled director Shindō Kaneto's 1981 biopic Hokusai manga. The catalogue of the National Diet Library in Tokyo lists hundreds of publications on Hokusai in Japanese and 93 books and catalogues on him in Western languages. Although having a long history, Western scholarship on Hokusai has expanded exponentially since the late 1980s when impressive monographs by Matthi Forrer (Hokusai [Rizzoli, 1988]) and then Richard Lane (Hokusai: Life and Work [Barrie and Jenkins, 1989]) launched a new era in Hokusai studies. Gian Carlo Calza's establishment of the International Hokusai Research Center at the University of Venice around the same time led to a series of symposia on Hokusai's painting. The second of these, held in 1994, provided the genesis for this volume of essays. [End Page 521]

Comprised of chapters by 15 prominent scholars, the volume is divided into two parts. The first, containing revised essays by some of the participants at the 1994 conference, constitutes a companion piece to Calza's Hokusai Paintings: Selected Essays (University of Venice, 1994). The second part expands the scope to look primarily at Hokusai's work in surimono, kibyōshi, and illustrated painting manuals—areas little studied relative to his famous print series. Several of the essays are amended versions of works published in Japanese in the 1990s (and one in French in 1989). Despite the lack of freshness, the volume successfully brings together a broad range of recent studies in a profusely and beautifully illustrated book. The thoughtful and elegant design by Peter Yeoh shows the images to maximum effect. John Carpenter is a sensitive and engaged editor; his dialogue with the other authors is evident in the notes and in the addition of sentences within each article drawing the reader's attention to related material in other essays.

There is an understandable tendency in Hokusai studies to become awed by the artist's prodigious output, stylistic polymorphism, and thematic power (if not perversity), with the result that Hokusai often ends up standing outside his time and place as a kind of divine talent. The other extreme is kind of reductive flattening in which one aspect of his work, for instance the adaptation of Western motifs and spatial illusionism, is isolated in order to make Hokusai more manageable. The most fundamental contribution of Hokusai and His Age is its combination of breadth and depth, giving insight into most areas of Hokusai's artistic production and doing so from multiple perspectives. Perhaps the one substantial area of art historical analysis given short shrift is the audience, although a few essays touch on the reception of Hokusai's work by later artists. In sum, Hokusai and His Age demonstrates the substantial development in Hokusai studies since the new wave of scholarship began in the late 1980s.

Because of the varied nature of the 15 essays, it is useful to briefly summarize their subjects, but, rather than following the order of the book which balances chronology with subject, this discussion groups them thematically as a way of highlighting some of the broader ideas in the volume. In keeping with the focus of the first symposium publication...


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