Feast From The East

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Aspirit floating on the wind, looking ethereal as mist.

A crashing wave whose foam is like a mass of clutching fingers, coming up against a cliff that seems more yielding than it.

An image of a picnic by a waterfall that could almost be a work of angry abstract art.

The most elegant of courtesans, out promenading, rendered in a zigzagging line that fractures her serenity.

The only problem with the works of Hokusai, the great Japanese painter who made all the pieces described above, is that it's too easy to adore every one of them -- and he turned out at least 10,000 images.

Taking in the major Hokusai show that recently opened at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery, you go from picture to picture wondering when this artist's inventiveness will fail.

It never does.

From the time of his first works as an independent master, around 1790, nearly up to the moment of his death at 89 in 1849, virtually every image he produced was a miracle of vibrant composition, color, line and texture, as well as being a wonder of artistic observation, both natural and social.

All that must be what gave an earlier edition of this survey, shown last year at the Tokyo National Museum, the highest daily attendance of any exhibition in the world, according to the Art Newspaper's 2005 census -- the highest, in fact, since the annual tally was launched a decade ago.

A mastery of perspective and receding planes: The woodblock print commonly called
A mastery of perspective and receding planes: The woodblock print commonly called "Great Wave" is perhaps Hokusai's best-known work.(Arthur M. Sackler Gallery via Associated Press)
The Sackler's new version of the Hokusai show, which includes many rare and crucial pictures that aren't allowed to leave Washington, deserves at least equal public adoration.

It certainly doesn't take a Japanese eye to appreciate Hokusai's genius. If there's a failing in his art, it's that it demands so little labor, even from the most insular of Western viewers. Where European greats such as Titian or Cezanne win you over by the challenge they present, Hokusai does all the work for you.

It's easy to imagine that Hokusai simply gets his pictures right , in some culture-transcending way. Could it be that he ties into basic harmonies of picture-making that literally cannot fail to please? His off-kilter compositions, especially, seem to have a lilt and inner energy that almost no one else's do, anywhere.

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