Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji

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Editorial Review

National Gallery and Sackler exhibits honor National Cherry Blossom Festival By Danielle O’Steen Saturday, April 7, 2012

Most of the time, the vibrant animals of Ito Jakuchu’s realm live in darkness. The charged landscapes by Katsushika Hokusai do, as well. Like the cherry blossoms, their time in the limelight is brief, anticipated and luminous.

Unlike the blossoms, they’re still on view, at least for now.

The two exhibitions, “Colorful Realm: Japanese Bird-and-Flower Paintings by Ito Jakuchu (1716–1800)” at the National Gallery of Art and “Hokusai: Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, both honoring the National Cherry Blossom Festival’s centennial celebration, include centuries-old works so fragile that exposure to light is always an issue.

Hokusai’s prints from his famous woodblock series depicting Tokyo’s imposing peak must be rested for years between exhibitions. Even then, certain works retain colors so vivid they are rotated with a companion piece, such as the famed “Under the Wave Off Kanagawa,” nicknamed “Great Wave,” on view at the Sackler. ...

After the lyricism of Jakuchu, the Hokusai exhibition at the Sackler feels shockingly modern. Born in a later generation — three years after Jakuchu began work on “Colorful Realm” — Hokusai found his muse in the life of Edo, later called Tokyo, through the lens of its imposing Mount Fuji, at a time when the volcano was worshiped by cult followers. By focusing on the peak, he broke new ground: “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,” launched in 1831, was the first print series in Japan to center on landscape, previously the domain of painting, when other printmakers were churning out images of celebrities and actors. The shift set off a shock wave among younger figures such as Utagawa Hiroshige, and later affected Western artists such as Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh and Edouard Manet.

Certain images from this series have been well exploited over the years; you can buy just about anything, from a T-shirt to a tie, decorated with the “Great Wave.” For this exhibition at the Sackler, though, curator Ann Yonemura has sourced only the best impressions and earliest pictures. She was so selective that only one print from the museum’s collection made it into the show.

In this fresh look, the atmospheric rendering of mist in one print shrouding the houses and shops of Edo from the roof of a Buddhist temple is still crisply outlined. The scene continues right to the edge of the picture, a technique Hokusai used throughout the series to pull in the viewer.

These moments he captures, spontaneous and brief, of the life around Mount Fuji through the seasons, are steeped in the bustle of Edo that surrounded Hokusai. He shows an experience shared with other residents, offering a glimpse of that contemporary life, framed through the guise of a natural wonder.