Influential art: exploring the world of Hokusai Katsushika

The Japanese artist known to the world as Hokusai Katsushika (1760-1849) was born Nakajima Tokitaro in what is now Tokyo’s Sumida ward.  In a career that spanned seven decades, he moved more than 90 times and used at least 30 different names.  His best known genre was the ukiyo-e print, but in fact he explored–and mastered–a number of different genres and styles.

During his lifetime he was regarded as Japan’s foremost expert on Chinese-style painting, and its influence can be seen in his work.  For his part, such well-known European artists as Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Degas counted him among their influences.  He is the only Japanese person named in Life Magazine’s 1999 “The 100 Most Important Events and People of the Past 1,000 Years.”

IMG_3228Last year the Sumida Hokusai Museum opened in Sumida-ku, just a short walk from the Edo-Tokyo Museum, to feature the life and work of this amazing son of Sumida.  The museum, housed in a fascinating modern structure, holds an extensive collection of Hokusai’s work. Some of the work is displayed in the permanent exhibition, while other work is featured in special exhibitions or lent to other museums from time to time.

As well as the artwork itself, the permanent exhibition features a number of interactive touch screens (various languages available).  The first one introduces places in Tokyo particularly associated with Hokusai, displaying them on a projected wall map.  Others throughout the exhibition provide additional detail on the featured artwork.  In the center are touchscreens that allow viewers to try their hand at “one stroke drawings” in the Hokusai style or flip through the pages of a number of his illustrated books.

A life-sized model of the room in his daughter’s house where he lived in his later years, constructed based on a drawing made by one of his contemporaries, was a particular treat.  Apparently the crumpled up rejects were a regular feature whatever room he occupied.


There is also a video demonstrating how multi-colored woodblock prints are produced, together with a display of the carved woodblocks.  It is fascinating to watch the process of repeatedly rubbing specially absorbent paper on inked blocks, having first painstaking lined up the paper on each block to ensure that the colors are accurately transferred to the correct location.

I was recently privileged to get to try the process for myself–although not at the museum–, and although my end product was monochrome, the result of only one rubbing, I was very pleased with the result!

In addition to the permanent exhibition, the museum host special exhibitions.  The current exhibition, through June 11, 2017, highlights Hokusai’s series on the 53 Stations of the Tokaido.

While Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858) is more closely associated with depictions of this famous route, between 1802 and 1806 Hokusai produced five series on the road.  As the exhibition makes clear, Hokusai’s work focused predominately on the people and activities on the route, affording a peek at the work and lifestyles of both place and time.

Hokusai produced a number of other series of drawings, including 36 views of Mt. Fuji (published when he was 75 years old!), 100 ghost stories and 100 comic verses.

The museum is open 9:30 am to 5:30 pm, Tuesday through Sunday (open Mondays that are public holidays and closed the following day).  Entry is JPY400 (JPY300 for students and seniors).  It is a 5 minute walk from Exit A3 of the Ryogoku subway station and a 9 minute walk from the East Exit of JR Ryogoku station.

The street running in front of the park/playground adjacent to the museum is known as Hokusai-dori, as it is believed the house where he was born was on this street.  If you have time, take a stroll along this street to check out the little local shops and various activities here.  Although most of the buildings are relatively new, there is a definite “shita-machi” feel.  Or perhaps I was just imagined it, having just immersed myself in Hokusai’s depictions of 19th century Edo.


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