A few years ago my partner bought me a book, ‘Hokusai – One Hundred Poets’, and it is probably the best art book I have. I constantly refer back to it when I need guidance in printmaking, composition, melding text to image, balancing colour, atmosphere… or just when I have the pressing need to dissolve myself in some really cool, harmonious work. To me Hokusai is a master at all those things, his work is incredible.
There is no piece in particular I can draw on as being ‘the one’ for me, because this whole body of work is all so powerful and rich, it just depends on my mood which one I will take a fancy to today. Hokusai’s prints are woodcuts, many uncoloured, and many coloured by colourists after his death who were familiar with his style and intent. The uncoloured, raw pieces are probably my favourites because of the visual depth in them. While the coloured pieces highlight atmosphere and composition the best, the uncoloured ones have a wealth of secrecy to them. You can see the marks of blocks and devices used in the printmaking process pressed through into the image, making the ‘secret’ process of creation very visible… but not made a show of, visible only to those who pay attention closely.
His aim was to create 100 prints to accompany 100 poems (not written by him). His prints are well known for their strange and at times completely cryptic interpretation of the poem. Sometimes poem and print match seamlessly without hidden meaning, but in most the poem is so twisted in the painting it is a mindgame just to see the relation. Many poems and prints I simply cannot see the relationship between because of my lack of familiarity with Japenese language. The interpretations and explanations provided in the book for each print/poem however are very good and comprehensive.
On the left is an image I regularly refer back to – ‘Sarumaru Daiyu’. The poem and print both depict the lonely and anguished cry of a stag, although in the poem the stag is without mate, and in the print the onlookers marvel at the stag and mate on the hilltop. The colour is vivid yet soothing, and reminds me of a better time and place that only exists in my head, soft rounded psychedelic shapes, clouds of fog simplistically depicted as rounded rolls or fingers. Here we can see some isometric drawing, which is another reason I have chosen to focus on Hokusai. He does not employ perspective, what he uses is closer to isometric, particularly in his depiction of buildings. Regardless, Hokusai actively blends background with foreground, bringing the background forward and confusing the two. Imagery in the background is the same size and detail as foreground, as seen in the trees in this print. The composition flows and zig zags down gently, like fog rolling down the hill.
Below that we have Bunya No Yasuhide, another image I often refer back to. In this is an example of visible artefacts from the printing process, just above the top corner of the flag. I think this is a working sketch, not a finished image, but it is these marks that really fascinate me – seeing the working process. Now another thing I love in this image is the double meaning. When full page in colour, we see this dramatic scene, huge banner message and red dots. It all feels very dangerous and political, communist propaganda being erected, something terribly frightful is happening and people are going to die. But no that is not the case that all! The banner is for the spring festival, and the red dots are cherry blossoms caught in a gust of wind. I’m sure the planting of this double meaning is intentional, and it is this double meaning and richness that make Hokusai’s work so fascinating to come back to time and time again.