SamaS installation at the Pavilion of Lebanon. Courtesy Zad Moultaka Studio at the Venice Biennale 2017: the Pavilion of Lebanon.
“At the Venice Biennale 2017: the Pavilion of Lebanon”
By David Darcy
The Pavilion of Lebanon is at the edge of the Venice Biennale – just beyond the edge, in fact, in a 16th-century boatyard called the Arsenale Novissimo.
To reach the site where SamaS, a display of the work of 50-year-old artist and musician Zad Moultaka is being exhibited and played, you board a boat that glides quietly across the Arsenale, the old fort where a section of the biennale is taking place until November.
Once there, you enter a massive, near-empty space illuminated by dim lights.
As choral music plays from speakers on the side walls, your attention is directed to the far interior wall, which is studded with shiny coins reminiscent of the surface of a mosaic. This is deliberate, as it was inspired by the gold mosaics of the Basilica of San Marco.
The thousands of coins include some with holes in them, suggesting bullet holes.
“This is a gold mosaic but with real coins,” says pavilion curator Emmanuel Daydé.
“It is money that makes war possible.”
The music – 32 voices, each coming from a separate speaker – creates a chorus of mourning and a whirr of energy. Each voice is delicately differentiated, as if pieces in a mosaic.
“This is a wall of lamentation,” says Moultaka, the pianist, painter and composer who designed the space. He expects some visitors might compare it to other commemorative walls, such as the monument honouring the victims of the 9/11 attacks in New York City.
Artist and musician Zad Moultaka, centre, with a model of his SamaS installation at the Pavilion of Lebanon. Courtesy Zad Moultaka Studio
The title SamaS is a palindrome, a word that reads the same backwards and forwards. It means “Sun Dark Sun” and is not the pavilion’s only paradox. The music was written for the Chorus of the Antonine University in Beirut. At times it sounds like the hum of an aircraft engine, and at others like what Daydé describes as “the song of angels”.
Some of that sound is the result of electronic manipulation by Moultaka. The choir sings in the ancient Akkadian language, “so ancient that it no longer needs to be in direct relation with meaning”, the composer notes in the exhibition catalogue.
The space seems almost sacred; yet it is also suggestive of a landscape ravaged by war.
In the centre of the space is an improbable object – an upright Rolls-Royce Avon MK 209 airplane engine from the 1950s, standing like a column and positioned to resemble a statue from the era of Hammurabi, who ruled Mesopotamia in 18BC.
His reign is known for some of the world’s most ancient inscriptions, including the world’s earliest descriptions of laws. Displaying the aircraft engine, an instrument of war, in place of a basalt column from Hammurabi’s time suggests conflict has been present in the region at least as long as the precepts encoded by Hammurabi.
Moultaka explains that the two columns – the code of laws and the airplane engine – “are exactly the same form. It’s incredible that, in the human mind, these forms can look so much alike, even if they’re being used for opposing purposes”.
Daydé adds the columns are used to ask pressing questions about modern life.
“The Middle East invented civilisation, with the first codes of law, the code of Hammurabi,” he says. “And now we’re asking the question: who makes the law in the Middle East? The planes that are bombing?”
The deep themes behind the exhibit made their mark on visitors. On the first day the pavilion was open to the public, some people emerged visibly overcome with emotion. Several said that the extra effort to reach it had been worth the effort.
This year marks the third time Lebanon has had a pavilion at the biennale.
Moultaka has exhibited in the Italian city before, but not in a national pavilion. He and Daydé collaborated on an exhibition of what he called “somewhat monumental paintings” in Venice two years ago, for a collateral event organised outside the 2015 biennale.
This year’s pavilion is the culmination of 15 years of work, says Moultaka.
“As a composer, as an artist, I’ve experimented in an enormous number of ways, looking for an identity, looking for a path,” he says.
“[As Arabs] we’ve been a bit locked into traditional music – which is fantastic, very strong, almost sacred – but how can you be modern with that? That leads to questions about form, and about all sorts of things. That’s where I started and I’ve been working for 15 to 20 years on that mission.”
Another paradox emerges. This quest for modernisation coincided with preparing a project for Venice, a city that seems deliberately frozen in the past.
“Did Venice accelerate this process?” Moultaka asks himself. “I think that I’ve reached a place in my own development that coincides with being at Venice.
“This project crystallises something about where I am along this path.”
Venice did indeed play a role for Moultaka.
“It was at Christmas, in the Basilica of San Marco, and I saw all the gold around me,” he says. “How is it possible, with all this wealth, all this money devoted to something spiritual, that everything else around us is going in the other direction?”
The metal coins, the aircraft engine and the shadow of an airplane over land all combined in his vision.
“Obviously we build, we think, we tell stories – but the goal for me is always, always, emotion,” he says. “This is something that I learnt from Bach. The music of Bach has a sense of counterpoint and composition that’s overwhelming. It’s absolutely extraordinary. What’s comparable for me in painting are the compositions of Paul Klee.”
It still seems odd that the pavilion for Lebanon, a country that has been a cultural crossroads, would be located on the fringes of the biennale’s exhibitors.
“The project determined the space and where it would be,” says Dayde, who adds that he and Moultaka considered another site in a more central location in the main Arsenale.
“The idea was to have something of a pilgrimage, to cross the Mediterranean, as it were, from one shore to the other, like a rite that would be undertaken and repeated. That’s what got us here, on the other side of the Mediterranean.”
“You often hear a place of art described as a common ground,” says Moultaka, looking out on the water separating the pavilion from the Arsenale.
“This is art that is bringing down borders,” he notes, which is perhaps a curious way to describe an installation built around a wall.
“I’m happy that everyone finds his or her own meaning here. From the beginning, I wanted to create something that wasn’t simply Lebanese. Each visitor is finding his or her own story.”
Biennale Arte 2017: VIVA ARTE VIVA
57th Venice Biennale
May 13 — November 26, 2017
Biennale Arte 2017 Info: http://bit.ly/2r4nQAf
Artist Daniel Joseph Martinez with his scale reproduction of “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski’s cabin in the exhibition “Home — So Different, So Appealing” at LACMA. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
“Argentine slums and a Unabomber cabin: How ‘Home’ at LACMA rethinks ideas about Latin American art”
By Carolina A. Miranda
On the surface, the brightly painted shed recently installed in the galleries at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art couldn’t seem more appealing. Sherbet-y shades of orange and yellow greet the viewer. Around the rear, a belt of camouflage employs candy shades of purple. A door is rendered a grassy green.
But study this structure for a bit and it becomes unsettling.
The building is split down the middle, as if it’s about to fall apart. And if the design has echoes of the familiar it’s because you may have seen something like it on the news: The piece is a scale replica of “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski’s cabin in the Montana woods — except this one is painted in colors from Martha Stewart’s Signature paint collection.
The sculpture is a work by Los Angeles artist Daniel Joseph Martinez and it unites, in one fractured monument, the legacies of two highly recognizable American figures.
“One is Kaczynski,” Martinez says. “He believes that technology is a threat, so he blows up scientists — homegrown American terrorism. And there is Martha Stewart, who advances hypercapitalism.
“One sells us an illusion,” says the artist, gesturing at the bright citrus colors on his broken building. “The other sells us terror.”
“The House America Built,” as the piece is titled, is part of the new LACMA exhibition “Home — So Different, So Appealing,” which brings together artists from throughout the Americas who are using elements of the domestic (say, a cabin) to comment on larger social and political issues. In the case of Martinez’s shed, the state of the homeland.
“Home is a very broad concept,” says co-curator Mari Carmen Ramirez. “It’s something we associate with the everyday. But artists use it to communicate narratives that have been marginalized or repressed.”
Artist Daniel Joseph Martinez with his sculpture, “The House America Built” (2004/2017), inspired by the Unabomber cabin. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
The show is the first of the Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles/Latin America exhibitions, the regional series funded in part by the Getty Foundation, and more informally known as PST: LA/LA. “Home” is the early outlier in the series, which is set to officially debut in the fall, when an estimated 70 cultural institutions around Southern California will have programming related to Latino and Latin American culture.
This will include an exhibition about pre-Columbian societies at the Getty Center and work by avant-garde female artists at the Hammer Museum — as well as shows on Chicano muralism, South American kinetic art and historic illustrations of Latin American flora, among countless others.
Even the Los Angeles Philharmonic has gotten in on the action. The orchestra will present a series of concerts for PST: LA/LA featuring work by contemporary Mexico City composers. It will also collaborate with celebrated Mexican rock band Café Tacvba and L.A.’s La Santa Cecilia for a kickoff show at the Hollywood Bowl.
“Home is a very broad concept … But artists use it to communicate narratives that have been marginalized or repressed.”
— Mari Carmen Ramirez, curator
“47,547 Homes” (2009), by Livia Corona Benjamin, in the exhibition “Home — So Different, So Appealing,” the first of the Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles/Latin America series. (Livia Corona Benjamin / Parque Galería)
If “Home” is a harbinger of what to expect for the rest of the series, it has set the bar high.
Few museum exhibitions synthesize currents in contemporary Latin American art. And the ones that do often center on questions of identity — be it ethnic or regional — or around a particular artistic movement, such as abstraction.
“Home” explodes that idea.
The exhibition features roughly 100 works by some 40 artists from all over the continent — including Latino artists from various corners of the U.S. And it shows the ways in which these artists, who span several generations (there are works dating back to the 1950s) have explored a range of global concerns.
This is not a show in which Latino artists just dwell on being Latino. It is about ideas: ones that flow from south to north and east to west and vice versa. The show engages issues such as colonialism, migration, inequity, vernacular construction (of the sort that powers many Latin American urban centers) and the ways in which architecture can serve as a tool of the state.
A second prominent sculpture by Martinez, for example, looks at how the urban design of cities such as Irvine, Calif., with their dead-end streets and gated communities, influenced the layout of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories in the Middle East.
“Israelis took the concept of gated communities, which are already militarized — it has cameras, it has security,” explains Martinez, “and they took those designs and militarized them even further.”
“There are shared histories of language and colonialism and what it means to be Latino or Latin American.”
— Chon Noriega, curator
“Boy in Suitcase” (2015) by Julio César Morales, from a series that examines the ways in which immigrants are smuggled. (Julio Cesar Morales / Gallery Wendi Norris)
“Home” was organized by Ramirez, a curator of Latin American art at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, as well as Chon Noriega, of UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center, and Pilar Tompkins Rivas, director of the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College. In conceiving the show, the three say they stayed away from the idea of doing a show that was “about” Latin America.
“Instead, we decided to set everything aside and focus on the works that had stuck with us,” Noriega says. “And the concept that emerged when we looked at those pieces was ‘Home.’”
Ramirez points to an installation of a dozen illuminated light strings by the late Cuban American artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a 1993 work called “Untitled (North).”
“People think of it as minimalist work,” she says. “But really it’s about the lights that you see when you are headed north.”
In other words, the process of migration — the search for home.
“Políptico de Buenos Aires” (2014/2016), by the collective Mondongo, shows the disparities of wealth in the Argentine capital. (Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)
The exhibition, as Ramirez observes, is not a strict chronological survey of important works by important artists. Instead, it functions more as “a constellation” — “putting works in dialogue with each other across generations and countries” in ways that connect on the level of ideas or materials.“We wanted to see what work talked to other work,” Noriega adds. “We saw work talking to work from other countries — even if they might be 50 years apart.”
A pair of wall-hangings by Raphael Montañez Ortiz, a U.S. artist of mixed Caribbean and Mexican heritage who made some of his key works in the 1960s, for example, hang adjacent to an installation by Colombian artist Leyla Cardenas, who has been active for just over a decade. Both pry apart domestic settings to examine their psychological and historical roots.
Ortiz’s pieces, which he labels “Archaeological Finds,” consist of dismembered furnishings that he pries apart in violent acts. Cardenas uses elements of old architecture to conduct what amounts to archaeological digs.
Taking slivers of a decaying 19th century house from Bogotá, she’s peeled away layers of wallpaper to reveal decorative elements dating back to the early republic. The structure was made of wood and adobe, in the Spanish style, but the wallpaper added after independence is English. It marks a moment in which Colombia was searching for a new identity apart from Spain.
All of this she presents as a 4-inch-wide slice of a room that looks like a laboratory specimen on an architectural scale.
“From a piece of the room, you can reconstruct not just the room, but the house and the city and the country and what was going on at any given time,” she says. “It fits with the show, which offers a transversal look at the concept of home.”
A carpet from Carmen Argote’s childhood home — titled “720 Sq. Ft. Household Mutations – Part B” — is on view at LACMA. (Carmen Argote / LACMA)
Other galleries tackle the urban realities of Latin American cities.
A 2014-16 sculpture — modeled on Jan van Eyck’s 15th-century Ghent altarpiece — by the contemporary Argentine collective Mondongo, for example, portrays Buenos Aires’ glittering downtown within view of the shantytown known as Villa 31. In the same gallery hangs a piece by Antonio Berni, also Argentine, who in the 1960s made assemblages out of detritus that chronicled slum life.
A couple of rooms over, a large installation by prominent Mexican contemporary artist Abraham Cruzvillegas explores the related idea of autoconstrucción, or self-construction. Cruzvillegas grew up in a squatter community outside of Mexico City in which everything was built, over time, by the residents. It offers an intriguing counterpoint to Martinez’s sculptures about Israeli settlements: the creation of home from the ground up rather than top down.
Also intriguing is the exhibition’s ready blending of the work of Latin American and U.S. Latino artists — breaking with a long-held curatorial convention that frequently displays the work of the two separately. (For much of its existence, for example, the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach did not show work by Chicano artists.)
Representing the U.S. are figures such as Martinez, as well as Puerto Rican American Juan Sánchez, who explores the political status of Puerto Rico in his mixed media paintings (a timely subject), and Carmen Argote, a Mexican American artist from Los Angeles, who has turned the rug from her childhood home into a massive wall sculpture that plays with form and memory.
“Excerpts for John #4” (2012), an oil painting by Vincent Valdez in the exhibition “Home — So Different, So Appealing.” (Vincent Valdez / David Shelton Gallery)
In the museum’s gardens, an installation by Cuban American artist María Elena González examines the architecture of public housing in the United States. Her piece, looking like a giant magic carpet, depicts to scale the layout of the apartments at Nickerson Gardens in Watts.
As with other artists in the show, her concerns are as local as they are international.
Ramirez says that the historic divide between the Latino and the Latin American has historically had to do with issues of class. “Latin American artists are seen as citizens of nations,” she says. “Latino artists are seen as citizens of a marginalized group.”
But in the age of the Internet and globalized everything, the strict separation no longer makes sense — especially with Latin American artists pursuing degrees in the U.S., and Latino artists traveling to Latin America for exhibitions and residencies.
“For younger artists, they’re dealing with home as an idea of the transnational,” says Tompkins Rivas.
“There are shared histories of language and colonialism and what it means to be Latino or Latin American,” Noriega adds.
“There is so much back and forth,” Ramirez says. “You can’t really distinguish between the two. There’s a blurring.”
The show — along with others that will be part of PST: LA/LA, such as the Hammer’s “Radical Women”— is looking to close the gap between the Latino and the Latin American.
“Latino artists have had a low visibility in Latin American circles,” Tompkins Rivas says.
Curators Mari Carmen Ramirez, Chon A. Noriega and Pilar Tompkins Rivas stand next to a work by the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres at LACMA. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
The curators’ aim is to change that. “Our agenda,” Ramirez says, “is that over the next decade, that people see the affinities between these groups.”
“Home” represents an intriguing argument for the more nuanced ways in which U.S. institutions can present work by Latino and Latin American artists, whose representation in major museums is often weak.
“I’m excited for all of these exhibitions, for the attention they will bring to Latino and Latin American art,” Tompkins Rivas says. “It might convince museums to further integrate these ideas into their programs.”
For curators around the country, perhaps it’s a good time to pay Los Angeles a visit.
“Home — So Different, So Appealing”
Through October 15, 2017
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles
One no longer need be young to be an emerging artist. The news that artists over the age of 50 are, for the first time since 1991, once again eligible for the Turner Prize partly reflects wider efforts to reassess artists who have been unduly neglected, often because their race or gender has excluded them from the dominant narrative of post-war art. But it is also a welcome reminder that, when it comes to art, innovation and potential are not merely the preserve of younger generations. Critics who have complained that the prize risks becoming a lifetime achievement award overlook the fact that, although lifetimes may share certain inevitabilities, their different rhythms of opportunity, experience and inspiration mean that they are otherwise far from uniform.
Take the case of Phyllida Barlow, selected at the age of 73 to represent Britain at this year’s Venice Biennale. In anengrossing recent profile of the artist for the Guardian, the writer Charlotte Higgins set out how Barlow spent decades squaring her time in the studio with the demands of raising a family and teaching at art school, and how her retirement from the latter has coincided with new prospects for her work. Only now, with the backing of a blue-chip gallery, does she have the freedoms of time, space and budget to produce large-scale sculptures. These are works that have an urgency, and even a poignancy to them, for having been made possible at this stage in the artist’s life.
Part of Phyllida Barlow’s installation at the British Pavilion in Venice. Photograph: Ruth Clark / British Council / Courtesy the artist / Hauser & Wirth
It is satisfying to know that the Next Big Thing is now just as likely to be an artist born in the 1930s or ’40s as one born in the 1990s. The new retrospective approach, combined with a growing critical interest in ‘late style’, allows us to assess bodies of work that have been produced over extended periods of time. We can view them at a distance from the expectations that we frequently impose on young artists.
In the case of Frank Bowling, interviewed in these pages, the growing institutional interest in the artist’s work ought to bring deserving public recognition to an influential figure who has long been respected by his peers, but whose specific artistic achievements have rarely been given their due. Reading about his sustained experiments with paint, which continue today, I wonder whether his most inventive work has not at least partly been made possible by a career that has, until now, largely developed at a remove from the more dizzying altitudes of the market.
It can only be healthy, I think, for artists in their twenties and thirties to look to the example of the growing band of ‘emerging’ older artists and realise that their comparative anonymity at this point, though it may dishearten them, is neither a conclusive judgement on their ability nor an impediment to future acclaim. This is hardly likely to mitigate the challenges that most artists face in making a living from their work; but it may dampen their craving for early success, which brings with it different types of pressure to perform in an art world (and market) that is not always as caring as it seems.
There is an element of cynicism, perhaps, in the race between big commercial galleries to sign up and promote artists who are nearing the end of their careers, and who may have much work in storage, but whose market has yet to be established. All the same, these businesses are to be praised for focusing their resources on lesser-known artists and giving them an unprecedented prominence. So long as conflicts between commercial and institutional interests are carefully managed, it is clear that private galleries can also support museum programmes in bringing unfamiliar artists to a far wider public. The new-found interest in centenarian Carmen Herrera, who last year had an acclaimed exhibition at the Whitney, seems to owe much to the efforts of Lisson Gallery.
The combination of youth and talent is not about to lose its allure. At Apollo we promote it – and are proud to do so – through the annual Apollo 40 Under 40 list, featuring artists who may be hot property today but promise to be established stars in the future. But I increasingly think about whether an Apollo 40 Over 40 might be just as optimistic, and even more useful.
Thrilling seascapes … Hokusai’s Great Wave. Photograph: British Museum
“Hokusai: the Great Wave that swept the world”
‘He called himself Old Man Crazy To Paint and made his best work in his 70s. As his dragons, deities, poets and wrestlers go on show, we look at the obsessions of the poster-boy for Japanese art’
By John-Paul Stonnard
Had Katsushika Hokusai died when he was struck by lightning at the age of 50 in 1810, he would be remembered as a popular artist of the ukiyo-e, or “floating world” school of Japanese art, but hardly the great figure we know today. His late blooming (the subject of an exhibition, Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave, opening at the British Museum next week) was spectacular – it was only in his 70s that he made his most celebrated print series, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, including the famous Great Wave, an image that subsequently swept over the world. “Until the age of 70,” he once wrote (self-consciously parodying Confucius) “nothing that I drew was worthy of notice.”
It was a good boast but not quite true – he had begun his manga, woodblock print books of sketches that were wildly popular, in his 50s. They stretched to 15 volumes (the last three published posthumously), and covered every subject imaginable: real and imaginary figures and animals, plants and natural scenes, landscapes and seascapes, dragons, poets and deities combined together in a way that defies all attempts to weave a story around them. Leafing through the manga in the original or a facsimile is a mind-expanding experience, one that should be prescribed for all aspiring artists. In their observation and invention they have been compared to Rembrandt and Van Gogh, and rightly so for the thrilling panorama they provide both of the world and of Hokusai’s imagination.
If the manga made Hokusai’s name, the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (there are in fact 46 prints in the series) ensured his fame. Hokusai’s obsession with Mount Fuji was part of his hankering after artistic immortality – in Buddhist and Daoist tradition, Fuji was thought to hold the secret of immortality, as one popular interpretation of its names suggests: “Fu-shi” (“not death”). I saw the mountain for the first time last year, from the window of the Shinkansen bullet train. You quickly understand how it dominates the landscape, as the train curves around, revealing it over woodlands and cities, behind buildings, over the plains – and why Hokusai returned to it so often, like a pivot for his restless imagination.
Ejiri, Suruga Province, colour woodblock, early 1831. Photograph: British Museum
Fuji appears in Thirty-Six Views in many different guises, sometimes centre-stage, elsewhere as background detail. The first five in the series were printed entirely in shades of blue (a combination of traditional indigo and Prussian blue, a recently invented chemical pigment), suggesting views of the mountain at dawn, seen now from a beach, now from a neighbouring island, now as passenger boats and cargo vessels head out over Edo bay.
Hokusai gradually introduced colour into the series, delicate pinks and darker shadows, to show the illumination of the world as the sun creeps up over the horizon. The print Ejiri, Suruga Province shows early morning on a desolate patch of the Tōkaidō highway, Mount Fuji drawn with a single line, while in the foreground a group of travellers are struck by a gust of wind that sends hats and papers flying in the air. It is one of my favourite of the Thirty-Six Views. In Japan the best-loved print is Clear Day with a Southern Breeze. Included in the British Museum exhibition, an early impression of this print shows the delicate atmospheric effects of sunrise, lost in later printings probably made without Hokusai’s direct supervision.
Early impressions of the Great Wave, or Under the Wave off Kanagawa, are just as subtle in their colouring: atmospheric pink and grey in the sky, deep Prussian blue in the folds of the sea. Fishing skiffs are lost in the waves, while the great wall of water, with its finger-like tendrils, threatens to engulf both them and the tiny Mount Fuji in the distance. That the Great Wave became the best known print in the west was in large part due to Hokusai’s formative experience of European art.
Prints from early in his career show him attempting, rather awkwardly, to apply the lesson of mathematical perspective, learnt from European prints brought into Japan by Dutch traders. By the time of Under the Wave, the sense of deep space was far more subtle. The rigid converging lines of European perspective drawing become the gently sloping sides of the sacred mountain. In all other ways it could not have been further from anything being made in Europe at the time.
I would love to see an impression of Hokusai’s delicately coloured print hung next to Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, painted just over a decade previously, in which a similar large wave is about to crash down on frail humanity. The contrast, and extreme modernity of Hokusai’s print, was certainly on the mind of those post-impressionist painters who so admired his work. You can still see prints by Hokusai, alongside Utamaro and Hiroshige, lining Monet’s dining room at Giverny; Rodin and Van Gogh were also enthusiastic collectors.
Hokusai signed his Thirty-Six Views with the name Iitsu, adding for clarification that he was “the former Hokusai”. It was common in Japan, as in China, for artists to adopt different names throughout their careers, marking different stages of life, and perhaps also as a way of refreshing the brand. He adopted the name Hokusai (“North Studio”) in his late 40s, when he became an independent artist, leaving his teaching job and striking out on his own.
By the time he created his second great tribute to Mount Fuji, three volumes comprising One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji (in fact there were 102 views) he was using the artist names Gakyō rōjin (“Old Man Crazy to Paint”), and Manji (“Ten Thousand Things”, or “Everything”). There is indeed a spirit of crazy comprehensiveness to One Hundred Views, all the mad invention and curiosity of the manga combined with the exquisite technique of the Thirty-Six Views. Timothy Clark, the curator of the British Museum exhibition, describes One Hundred Views as “one of the greatest illustrated books” ever printed, and it is difficult to disagree. The drawings are brilliantly conceived, and the prints beautifully made, the woodblock carvers reproducing Hokusai’s line so accurately that we think we are looking at the drawings themselves, rather than carved and printed copies.
Sumo wrestlers by Hokusai, from a collection of woodblock print sketches begun in 1814. Photograph: Corbis via Getty
It’s important to remember that Hokusai was a thoroughly commercial artist, relying on a large turnover of sales of his low-cost prints and the many illustrated books he produced throughout his life. Despite his artistic success, he seems to have been permanently on the brink of bankruptcy, largely a result of financial ineptness. After the death of his second wife, in 1828, Hokusai’s daughter, Katsushika Ōi, returned to live with her father and provided him with support. Ōi was herself a talented painter and worked alongside her father in their cramped and messy studio.
An image of their situation is preserved in a memory-sketch by Tsuyuki Kōshō, one of Hokusai’s pupils, showing the master in rented lodgings, covered by a quilt, hunched over an ink painting on the tatami mat. Ōi watches him intently, smoking a long tobacco pipe. An inscription on the drawing says that rubbish was piled in the corner of the studio, food wrappings and other detritus. On the wall hung a sign: “We strictly refuse to paint albums or fans” – although you can imagine them taking on the work anyway.
The sketch of Hokusai with his daughter Ōi. Photograph: British Museum
The small handful of Ōi’s paintings that survive show her prodigious talent as an artist. Recent research has shown how she might have contributed to her father’s late paintings, which contain elements of her style such as elongated fingers, and depictions of beautiful courtesans (drawn from life in the pleasure district of Yoshiwara, if the 2015 anime film Miss Hokusai is anything to go by).
One of her most impressive paintings, Hua Tuo Operating on the Arm of Guan Yu, a scene from the Chinese historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, has a violent intensity and macabre quality quite unlike her father’s painting. Blood spurts from the arm of the general Guan Yu, who has taken nothing but a bowl of rice wine as anaesthetic, and continues with a game of go. It is one of the few authenticated paintings by Ōi, who disappears from the records following her father’s death in 1849.
Set alongside his prints, Hokusai’s rarely exhibited late paintings – large hanging scrolls on silk and paper – strike a different note. The subjects are often fantastical: a great dragon writhes in a rain cloud rising above Mount Fuji; a seven-headed dragon deity flies in the sky above the monk Nichiren (Hokusai was a devout follower), sitting on a mountain top reading from a sutra scroll.
In small reproduction (the only form I have seen them in), they can appear a little like commercial illustrations, lacking the sense of emotional and atmospheric depth of his prints. A grinning tiger bounding through the snow, painted just a few months before Hokusai’s death, looks almost too quaint and jolly. All the more reason to make the journey to the British Museum and see them in the flesh. As with Hokusai’s prints, the real qualities of colour and surface, of detailed brushwork and painstaking construction, reveal themselves only on close and lingering inspection.
In his 80s, Hokusai was said to draw a Chinese lion or lion dancer every morning, throwing it out of the window to ward off ill luck. A number of these “daily exorcism” drawings still exist (probably thanks to Ōi running out to collect them up), and they are among his most lively and charming works. Hokusai’s only bad luck was to die 10 years short of his century, and never in his own mind to reach the state of artistic immortality, which he estimated would occur at the age of 110 when, as he once wrote, “Each dot, each line, will possess a life of its own.”
•Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave is at the British Museum, London WC1B, from 25 May to 13 August, and at the Abeno Harukas Art Museum, Osaka, from 6 October to 19 November.
“Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave”
May 25 — August 13, 2017
British Museum, London