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Exploring Hokusai and the artists he inspired

Claude Monet’s “Mount Kolsaas in Norway” (1895), left, and Katsushika Hokusai’s “South Wind, Clear Dawn” from the “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” series (ca 1830-33)

By Mutsumi Morita / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterDuring his visit to Norway, Claude Monet drew a series of 13 pictures of Mt. Kolsaas in different color tones. “I’m drawing pictures of a mountain as well,” he wrote to his stepdaughter. “It reminds me of Fujiyama.”

The impressionist appears to have had Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) in mind, as he owned works from the ukiyo-e artist’s “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” and “One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji” series.

Monet’s paintings on Mt. Kolsaas are currently being displayed, along with “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,” at the National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, in an exhibition that explores how the Japanese master inspired artists on the opposite side of the world.

Running through late January, “Hokusai and Japonisme” brings together about 110 works by Hokusai and about 220 items created in the West. Japonisme refers to a craze in the latter half of the 19th century in which Western artists incorporated Japanese styles of artistic expression into their works.

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  • Georges Seurat’s “Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp” (1885), left, and Hokusai’s “Boat Fighting against Waves” (ca 1804-07), which is on show through Nov. 19

In the 1850s, the closing years of the Edo period (1603-1867), the Tokugawa shogunate ended its closed-door policy, bringing Western diplomats to Japan. They introduced ukiyo-e and other Japanese craftwork in their home countries, and Japanese art became much wider known following the 1867 world exhibition in Paris. Not only the shogunate, but also the Satsuma and Saga domains took part in the event.

At that time, European society had been quickly changing since the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution. Artists — particularly impressionists such as Monet and Edgar Degas — were looking for new styles of expression besides portraying things in perspective, which had been favored since the Renaissance.

Ukiyo-e features expressive, flat spaces with dynamic composition, such as focusing on a particular part of the subject rather than showing its entirety. This approach was something impressionists were aiming for — they were fascinated with ukiyo-e and eager to take on its elements for their own creations — and ukiyo-e served as a huge catalyst for the Western art world, which was hungry for change.

Hokusai influenced Western artists more than any other Japanese painter at that time, and his works were used quite often as accompanying illustrations for travelogues and other documents related to Japan. Numerous people discussed Hokusai, including French writer Edmond de Goncourt and American zoologist Edward Morse, who is known for discovering a shell mound in Omori, Tokyo. The ukiyo-e master received high acclaim on par with great artists such as Francisco de Goya, Eugene Delacroix, Honore Daumier and Jacques Callot.

Hokusai fascinated the Western art world “because he had outstanding skills and [drew] well-designed compositions,” said Prof. Atsushi Miura of the University of Tokyo, an expert on Western art and a member of the Society for the Study of Japonisme. “It was also because he left an overwhelming number of works and had the expertise to deal with any subject, from flowers and birds to famous places and beautiful women.”

“Hokusai Manga,” a 15-volume collection of woodblock prints, was compiled as a drawing textbook covering a wide range of subjects — from people and landscapes to architecture and caricatures. This collection was owned by not only impressionists, but also symbolic masters such as Gustave Moreau.

The exhibition has been divided into several chapters focusing on subjects such as human figures, plants, animals, waves and Mt. Fuji. Under these themes, Hokusai’s “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” series and other works are being showcased, along with masterpieces Western artists created based on inspiration from the Japanese master, including glassware and furniture, as well as paintings.

Visitors have an opportunity to enjoy Western masterpieces inspired by Hokusai and rediscover how fascinating Hokusai’s works are through the eyes of artists from halfway around the world.

“Hokusai and Japonisme” runs through Jan. 28 at the National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, in Ueno Park, Tokyo. The facility is closed on Mondays (except Jan. 8), Dec. 28-Jan. 1 and Jan. 9. Visit hokusai-japonisme.jp for more details.Speech

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