To Western eyes, nothing in art is more mysterious or exotic than that which comes to us from Japan. And, while the art of watercolour is quite common in Japanese culture, it is the woodblock colour print that seems to most fascinate western eyes and appeal to the Japanese themselves. These subtly coloured, highly refined compositions have a delicate, lyrical quality unlike anything of American or European origin. In the late 1800s, they absolutely delighted the French Impressionists from Manet to van Gogh as they discovered them in the form of packing materials used in shipping fine Japanese porcelains. Little is known about many of these talented, master-craftsmen with the exception of one, Hokusai Katsushika.
Hokusai was born in 1760, the son of a maker of engraved mirrors. In the Japanese culture of the time, landscape painters could only come from the noble class. Being the son of a common craftsman, Hokusai was trained as a wood engraver. His job was to carve the woodblocks used in printing the designs of the landscape painters. Sometimes as many as 12 different blocks were needed to render a single design. It was a trade requiring a very high degree of skill in the carving, inking, and printing processes. As an artist of common ancestry, any painting he did was limited to work depicting genre scenes of peasants.
But not unlike Cézanne’s scenes of Mount Saint Victoire a century later, Hokusai broke free from tradition. He designed a series of 36 views of Mt. Fuji, the most famous of which is entitled The Breaking Wave off Kanagawa. It depicts a massive, frothy, clawing wave about to break over two, canoe-like Japanese vessels, while in the background, Mt. Fuji rises in a majestic cone like yet another wave. As he grew old, Hokusai came to relish the wisdom of his years. At the age of 75, he wrote: "Although from the age of 50 I have published my pictorial works, before I was 70, none is of much value. At age the age of 73, I was able to fathom slightly the structure of birds, animals, insects, and fish... Thus, perhaps at 80, my art may improve greatly; at 90 it may reach real depth, and at 100 it may become divinely inspired. At 110, every dot and every stroke may have a life of its own." He died at age 90 with a brush in his hand.