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Beyond the Great Wave — Hokusai at 90

The great Japanese master Hokusai expresses a sense of a life well-lived in these two paintings — of a woodcutter and a fisherman.  A conversation with Dr. Frank Feltens, The Japan Foundation Assistant Curator of Japanese Art, Freer Gallery of Art and Dr. Beth Harris, in front of Katsushika Hokusai, Fisherman, 1849, ink and color on silk, 113 x 39.6 cm and Woodcutter, 1849, ink and color on silk, 113.6 × 39.6 cm (Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Charles Lang Freer in 1920, F1904.181 and 1904.182).  Visit the Freer Gallery.

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Video transcript

(soft piano music) - [Beth] We're here in the storage room at the Freer Gallery of Art, looking at two exceptional paintings by a Japanese artist the we mostly know through his woodblock prints. But here we're looking at his paintings. And paintings made at the very end of his life. - [Frank] Oh, we are looking at a deep take by the famous artist Katsushika Hokusai. - [Beth] Hokusai lived to be a very old man. - [Frank] Hokusai all writes about his desire to live even up until the age of 110, was wish appears from One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, he writes "I started sketching everything "around me at age six" and wishes to live up until the age of 110, when he thought his abilities would reach such a level that every line that he paints comes to life. - [Beth] It's such a prolific artist. He's produced so much that any other artist would have felt so accomplished. - [Frank] As he saw his end approaching, he experiences this final birth of creativity and the medium that he chose was painting. - [Beth] And so, we can think about these are expressing something more personal for Hokusai. - [Frank] Let's talk about the "Woodcutter" first. This may be based on a Noh play, in which a imperial emissary was sent out to find the spring of eternal life. The emissary comes across a woodcutter, and asks him "Have you heard of such a spring?". And the woodcutter sends him to that spring and the emissary can return with happy news to the emperor. - [Beth] So this is a folk tale, and we can identify that this particular woodcutter is likely from that folk tale because of the gourd that he has around his waist, which he would have used to collect the water from the spring of the eternal life. - [Frank] But in combination with the "Fisherman", another theory was also raised. There is a ancient Chinese story about a woodcutter and a fisherman conversing about the meaning of life, because both of them are men of nature, and tune with the world around so they become the symbol for the perfect balance between the world, the cosmos and a life. - [Beth] It's important for us to recognize that although these are figures that have simple professions, what's going on here there's something much more serious for Hokusai at age 90. - [Frank] This distant mountains are taken from the Chinese tradition where distant pics served to create a sense of spacial death. But do they also are part of the woodcutter's natural environment. He goes into the mountains to gather wood and bring it back to the village. Whereas the "Fisherman", this vast expanse of the ocean as being eluding to by leaving the upper portion of the painting blank. And in their combination, it makes perfect sense to have these Earth by one creature that's the woodcutter beneath his toting pics whereas the fisherman is casing out into this emptiness asking us what am I looking at, what am I thinking. - [Beth] The image of the fisherman feels much more contemplative. I've immediately wondered whether this was a self-portrait of Hokusai. He's sitting on this wonderful wicker basket that's overflowing with fish and feathers and behind him there's seaweed and then, although he is very simply dressed, a sense of abundance, of a life well lived, but also a feature that's unknown. - [Frank] Both of this paintings may have being created as quiet as a self-portrait of Hokusai. The feathers have puzzles colors for as long as these paintings have been known. Why would a fisherman have feathers in his basket? Or are these real feathers? Are those fins? This maybe references to another play of the Noh theater. The fisherman comes upon a feathered rope hanging from a tree and he takes it home because he finds it beautiful. One night, a heavenly being comes to him and says "Give me back my robe, "because without it, I can not return to the heavens". The fisherman says "Why should I give it back to you? "It's now mine and I like it. "But if you dance for me, "I'll return it". So she performs a heavenly dance and he obeys the bargain and gives her back her robe. - [Beth] So perhaps, he's looking out at the dancing supernatural figure? - [Frank] Perhaps. Or he's trying to find another (both chuckle) feather robe to take home with him. But what I always find so striking about these paintings is this smile on the fisherman's and the woodcutter's faces. There is this satisfaction with the world around you and also with yourself. - [Beth] The way that he leans forward has a very positive feeling to it. And I'm thinking until just about the kinds of infirmities that happen when one is 90. The difficulty of holding a brush steel, of creating fine lines. - [Frank] The woodcutter is a very moving image. Hokusai, of course, was an extremely accomplished painter, one that could draw any line he wanted. But looking closer, you find a certain hesitancy in these black outlines of the robe. Brush that is not held quite steady. But it also gives the painting the certain sense of vibrance, because the robe by those staggering lines also seems a little crumbled. It almost enhances this feeling of an unaccomplished day of work. - [Beth] At the same time, he is also showing us this mastery that we see throughout his career and creating figures that have a sense of very natural stick movement. And also different textures on struck by the fuzziness of his hair comparing with the fabric that he wears around his head. - [Frank] He really was one of the most accomplished painters, both in his own time or the entire Edo period, or perhaps if enough entire history of Japanese art. - [Beth] Or perhaps of the 19th century broadly. - [Frank] Exactly. The signatures in border in his paintings record Hokusai's age, literally the signature has "Old man aged 90". Below this a Buddhist symbol. In Japanese you pronounce this "Manji", which was Hokusai's last artistic name. He didn't always call himself Hokusai. And at this very late stage in his life he called himself "Manji". Beneath this, define a seal reading "A hundred". And in that seal Hokusai is declaring "Okay, I'm 90, but actually "I do wanna live until the age of 100", and sadly that was not to be. The signature also reverberates perhaps Hokusai frail health, because the characters are not in a full straight line. There is a hesitancy on the brush, he had to pause midway in the strokes whereas a few years ago, this would have been a swiftly brushed signature. And among those 12 paintings that he made at age 90, we don't know which one came last. But personally, I choose to believe that this deep take with discontentment with his sophistication may perhaps even be one of the last, if not the last paintings of Hokusai. (bright piano music)