The Humility of Hokusai

Woodblock print The Great Wave by Katsushika Hokusai
The Great Wave by Katsushika Hokusai

One hundred and seventy-six elegant woodblock prints by Japanese nineteenth century artist Katsushika Hokusai are on display in Melbourne at the NGV. It’s a huge exhibition and a popular one. What is it about these images, from a culture aeons from mine in sensibility and almost two centuries in time that are so riveting? And why do they remind me of Turner, Freidrich and Cozens – those Northern European painters for whom landscape was a metaphor of transcendence? What could a Japanese printmaker have in common with a Romantic painterly sensibility?

Printmaking and painting are fundamentally different forms. They require such separate ways of constructing an image, that art schools have usually trained artists in either one or the other. Woodblock, a subset of printmaking is firmly based on drawing – that is – on line and pattern. Painting is much more about volume and colour.

‘A monk by the sea’ Caspar David Freidrich 1810

 Hokusai’s images are beautiful, and beauty needs no explanation for its ability to hold us, mesmerised if only for a moment. His forms are sinuous, his line embracing.  Likewise those Romantics left us in no doubt about the power of beauty with their breathtaking tonal volumes and sublime colour. But there is something else happening here – there is a kinship in the way these artists are looking at the world that rarely finds a parallel in our own.

Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji, and it is never dull. Hokusai’s ability to invent landscape compositions seems inexhaustible. Now Mt Fuji looms over us, people scurry in its shadow; next it is a small shape against a distant horizon, a background to built forms and human activity. Its omnipresence speaks to an idea of the divine. An ever present deity, sometimes foregrounded, other times receding to a speck against the concerns of daily life.

Turban Shell Hall, Temple of Five Hundred Arbats. Hokusai 1830 -34
‘Turban Shell Hall, Temple of Five Hundred Arbats’ Hokusai 1830 -34

This speaks to me at least if not to you. One’s perspective in life is in flux, as surely as Hokusai’s viewpoint. He swings his forms through space with a combination of the careful and the cavalier. No laws of perspective hold him – those roof lines may tip up towards the horizon or down towards a valley. But his pictorial space is always coherent. His world feels orderly, finite. Everything seems to have its place. And human activity is always a part of that.  People harvest crops, watch sunsets, build buildings, rest from travel. There is a strong sense of belonging in his world.

Woodblock print A sketch of the Mitsui shop in Suruga street in Edo. Hosukai 1830-34
‘A sketch of the Mitsui shop in Suruga street in Edo’ 1830-34. Hosukai

The Romantic painters (who were working at the same time as Hokusai) also found a place for people in the landscape. Unlike their Japanese counterpart, their figures often seem to exist merely to expound the idea of vast volumes of space – they are a foil, not a feature. And unlike their forebears, the Renaissance painters for whom landscape was merely background to human activity, the Romantics painted the landscape large, with the figure reduced to a trivial onlooker. Our place in the natural world remains as central an issue in our own time as it was in theirs. Our own imagery tends to depict it as both paradise (think of landscape photography) and paradise lost (contemporary art in general). Where we fit in is contentious – but a common narrative is that we’ve been cast out of paradise for wrecking the joint.

'Snow storm - steam boat off a harbour's mouth. J.M.W Turner 1842
‘Snow storm – steam boat off a harbour’s mouth. J.M.W Turner 1842

But to return to Hokusai: his kinship with the European painters is not in the means – painting and printmaking are very different – but in the motive. These artists share a feeling of the world as something much larger than themselves, and they seem to belong to it. In our narcissistic age, where we delude ourselves daily with the hubris of our modern meritocracies and bear a burden of guilt about our impact on the planet, these are significant differences.

Their world – on both sides of the globe- appears stable, whole, entire. In fact theirs was a world of sudden death, oppressive politics, war and revolution.  The Romantics painted during the period of the Napoleonic wars and the Industrial Revolution. Hokusai worked under the rigid isolationism of the Edo period in Japan, and within memory of the deadly 1792 Tsunami. Yet that uncertain world in which their actual lives were lived gave birth to these astoundingly coherent and beautiful pictorial worlds. The sense of forces beyond ourselves in Hokusia’s Great Wave  and  Turner’s Snow Storm Steam boat off a Harbour’s Mouth , in no way diminishes humankind. The bravery of the mariners in both scenes is clear. But a sense of the smallness and fragility of the human frame is also very evident. Our activities are tiny. Perhaps this will jar with our sense of importance; perhaps you could argue it is a retrograde political attitude. Or perhaps we are the ones at odds with history.


The ancient Greeks had the Fates to keep them humble.  A sense of forces that do not bend to human will was integral to their sense of tragedy and is what made their heroes like the rest of us. Perhaps both humility and belonging are some of the deeply appealing things about Hokusai’s prints. In our age, humility is – to paraphrase Oscar Wilde – like a happy marriage; everyone has heard of it but no one has ever seen it. We live in an epoch of display. On a personal level at least, humility is an antidote to anxiety, which might be exactly what our times require.

But don’t go to this exhibition to see philosophy or as an aid to self improvement, although art allows us tantalising glimpses of how other times and places saw the world. Go to see Hokusai’s impossibly beautiful, simplified forms of a land located a long way from now. You won’t be disappointed.

If heaven had granted me five more years, I could have become a real painter. Hokusai

Alexandra viewing Hokusai's 'Great Wave' at the National Gallery of Victoria
Viewing Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave’ at the National Gallery of Victoria