Hokusai and the quest for perfection

The Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin is currently hosting Germany’s first major retrospective of the legendary Japanese artist Hokusai, featuring over 430 exhibits, many of which have never left Japan before. sign&sight have just published a review of the show, with a number of good reproductions. The opening paras are below; you can see & read the rest of the article here.

Germany’s first major retrospective of the legendary Japanese artist Hokusai features over 430 exhibits, many of which have never left Japan before. By Katrin Wittneven

Shunro, Taito, Iitsu, Manji – over the course of his long life the painter who was born with the name ofNakajima Tetsuzo worked under more than 30 different pseudonyms, each representing a different creative period. Most most of his work, though, was created under the name of Hokusai, pronounced “Hocksai”. It is under this name, which he borrowed from the polar star, that he entered the annals of art history, where he remains Japan’s most famous artist. His wood cut “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” from the series “39 Views of Mount Fuji” (1823-1829) has been reproduced so many times that it has become virtually synonymous with Japanese art. Hokusai, who was born in 1760, has inspired generations of artists, and the French Impressionists in particular. “He is an island, a continent, a world in himself”, Edgar Degas once said. It is a coup for the Berliner Festspielen that on their 60th anniversary they have managed to open wide a window onto this world. This is Germany’s first major Hokusai retrospective and many of the 430 or so exhibits, which include wood cuts, paintings, drawings and illustrations, have never left Japan before.


“Kusunoki Tamonmaru Masashige and Yao no Betto Tsunehisa”, ca.1830-34
, multicolour print
© Katsushika Hokusai Museum of Art


The young Hokusai drew actors, sumo wrestlers, children’s games and landscapes in subtle colours and the finest of lines. In this chronologically installed exhibition, Hokusai’s wide thematic spectrum is already laid out in the first room, providing fascinating insights into everyday Japanese life. When, in 1778 at the age of 18, he became an apprentice to the woodcut master Katsukawa Shunsho, he was quick to find his own style, and he would spend a lifetime refining it.


“Shrikes, Jays, Saxifrage and Strawberries”
ca. 1834, multicolour print © Sumida City

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