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Hokusai: The Man behind the Art of Block Printing - June 2008 Newsletter


Long before rubberstamping became popular, there was block printing, a process that involved cutting a raised design on a block of wood, metal or linoleum. Used to print text, images or patterns, the design would be coated with ink or dye and transferred by pressure onto paper, cloth or other material. It was a technique that originated in China and adopted by Japan solely for the purpose of printing text. Before long, however, it gained popularity among ukiyo-e artists who saw block printing as a way to produce small and inexpensive art prints.

Ukiyo-e, or pictures of the floating world, often featured landscape motifs, beautiful courtesans, sumo wrestlers and popular actors engaged in appealing activities. It was the main artistic genre of woodblock printing in Japan and its affordability was due to the fact that they could be mass-produced. At the time, distant landscapes were used in Chinese and Japanese paintings, but no one had yet attempted the style in woodblock print. Much of this was due to the fact that the people who purchased these paintings wanted images of street life and the city, not the countryside and the peasants who lived there. That attitude changed with Hokusai.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), a Japanese painter and wood engraver, is considered to be one of the prominent and outstanding figures of ukiyo-e. As an art student, Hokusai found himself under the same restrictions as other artists. Contact with Western culture was forbidden, but Hokusai still managed to discover and study the European copper-plate engravings that were being smuggled into the country. These engravings gave him the opportunity to learn about shading, coloring, realism and landscape, motivating him to introduce the same elements into woodblock and ukiyo-e art. Putting his newfound technique to work, Hokusai went on to produce as many as 30,000 book illustrations and color prints on a variety of subjects, taking his inspiration from the lives, traditions and legends of the Japanese people.

In addition to woodblock printing, Hokusai also produced sketches, silk paintings, manga and other works of art, but despite his successes, Japan viewed him with disdain. They felt his works of art were heavily influenced by the West at a time when the country valued tradition and shunned outside influence. It was also possible that his art style was subjecting to ridicule because of society's sentiment toward him. Ill regarded because of his quarrelsome, aggressive and cocky nature, Hokusai thrived on sensationalism and rejected conformity. In his 89 years, he changed his name thirty times (Hokusai was not his original name) and lived in ninety or more homes. This unconventional lifestyle suited Hokusai, who didn't care much about sensibility or social respect. As if to thumb his nose at society yet again, many of his last works of art were signed “The Art-Crazy Old Man” or “The Old Man Mad about Drawing.”

Despite his eccentricities, what set Hokusai apart from other artists was his introduction of the common man amid Japanese landscapes. At a time when only the upper class was deemed suitable as subjects of paintings and pictures, Hokusai's art work focused on society's denizens, the peasants. In his most famous picture, The Breaking Wave off Kanagawa, sometimes known as The Great Wave, fishermen are shown being tossed around under giant waves while the naturally enormous Mt. Fuji is reduced to a mere hill in the background.

While most Westerners would consider this image Japanese, the traditional Japanese considered it an example of Western influence. At the time, fishermen were considered lower class and hated by society. They would never have been subjects of a painting. The Japanese also ignored nature, and would not have painted it in perspective.

The Breaking Wave off Kanagawa was actually from Hokusai's later years. By the time he was in his 70's and fully developed in his artistic skills, he'd added a collection of work to his legacy, including a three volume book titled One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, a series of block prints known as the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji and a 13-volume sketchbook, Hokusai Manga. Japanese prints had become all the rage in Western culture and his prints were now studied and collected by impressionist artists such as Monet, Degas and Lautrec.

Mrs. Lin's Kitchen is proud to carry several pieces of Hokusai's work, including Mild Breeze on a Fine Day (The Red Fuji), from his Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji Series. His most famous woodblock print, The Breaking Wave off Kanagawa, is featured on several pairs of chopsticks, as well as a tea set and two different sake sets. Hokusai's influence can also be found in art works by artists like Ando Hiroshige, who many claim to be the master of ukiyo-e, but, according to legend, only became an artist because of Hokusai. Many more, however, will recognize Hokusai as the man who undisputedly revolutionized and invigorated Japanese art. 


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Hokusai's The Great Wave Porcelain Mug (T2010)

Hokusai Genius of the Japanese Ukiyo-e (10316)

Mt. Fuji Hokusai Woodblock Print Greeting Card (7202)

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