Most of us don’t get any better with age. After our twenties we just get uglier, fatter and more useless. But Katsushika Hokusai was like a seriously fine wine. He was in his early seventies when he created ‘Under the Wave off Kanagawa’ – a work that would become one of the most iconic images in all of history, and he just got better. His whole life as an artist led to that single moment, and then the world blossomed and unfolded in front of him.
The Great Wave – a woodblock image – was printed in its thousands, making a star out of lowly Hokusai. It’s a gorgeous little picture, a swirling maelstrom kaleidoscoping around the tranquil mountain as boats crash and clatter in the waves. Later on in the show, two big ceiling panels focus in on the wave. The twisting shapes and spitting foam create mini galaxies that completely overwhelm you in their abstraction. He was taking nods from western art, and in the process, he’d go on to shape the work of Van Gogh and Monet in countless ways.
But it’s not all waves and water. The show takes in his prints, of course, but also his books and his one-off paintings. It’s a journey through countless mythological worlds, lush unfolding landscapes, ghost stories and scenes of everyday life. But most of all, it’s a journey through the mind of a master, desperately trying to wring every last drop of art from his brush. You just wish the museum had dimmed the lights a little bit and given the show some atmos.
The final works are sad and forlorn: a grizzled old demon, cold and barren landscapes, then finally a dragon disappearing into a cloud of smoke above Mount Fuji. Hokusai making peace with his mortality. In the inscriptions he basically begs for more years, pleads to live to 95 or 100, so he can finally achieve true greatness. The fact is, he didn’t need to worry, he got there years before.