Floating world

Floating world

different strokes

Floating world

In Japanese, ukiyo means ‘the floating world’. In his long and illustrious career spanning over seven decades, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) produced thousands of ukiyo-e, or pictures of the floating world.
The Buddhist concept of ukiyo refers to the transitory nature of human experience. It espouses that nothing in life — including thoughts, actions and emotions — is permanent; human suffering is a result from this impermanence. A world full of fleeting moments and transient gratification — be it in the form of a landscape, historic tale, theatrical performance or an incident in a pleasure house — forms the core of the ukiyo-e art.

The production of ukiyo-e was not simple; it involved a host of specialised craftsmen like the artist-designer, block carver, and printer; the entire process was financed by the publisher who also marketed the printed image.
Hokusai was a master of ukiyo-e and his most famous image was the woodblock print titled ‘Kanagawa oki nami ura’ (‘In the well of the great wave off Kanagawa’). It was part of a series called ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’ created by Hokusai between 1826 and 1833.

The artist was well into his 60s when he set out to ‘capture’ the sacred mountain in different seasons, weather conditions and from various vantage points. Expressive lines, superb draftsmanship, graceful blending of colours and mystifying patterns highlight the strength, splendour, and spirit of Mt. Fuji in his images. As significantly, the intriguing compositions also investigate and highlight the subtle but undeniable relationship between man and nature.

Hokusai is said to have created more than 30,000 compositions during his lifetime; but it is the series on Mount Fuji which remains his most prominent and highly celebrated body of work. It is said that the series was so popular that his woodblocks were used repeatedly until they wore out and new blocks had to be carved. Further, the first 36 works included in the original publication became so highly admired that 10 more were added to the series bringing the number to 46.
‘The Great Wave’, in particular, is an incredibly dramatic image with spiritual and philosophical connotation. It shows brave sea-men huddled in boats, facing the onslaught of a huge curling wave. Amidst all the action and drama, a firm and unwavering view of Fuji emerges in a distance. The picture pays homage not only to the sturdy yet serene mountain but also to the indomitable spirit of man fighting against the fury of nature. 

‘The Great Wave’ is arguably the most famous woodblock print of all time. Last year, when a 24.7 x 36.5cm. print of ‘The Great Wave’ came up for auction at the Christies, it was lapped up for a whopping sum of $68,500 (including buyer’s premium) as against the original estimate of $ 20,000.
Born in 1740 in Edo (now Tokyo) as Tokitaro, and orphaned at a very young age, Hokusai lived in poverty but taught himself to draw. How he outshone his teachers and became one of the most important and influential artists of the world is a fascinating story in itself.
During his lifetime Hokusai was known by at least 30 artistic names; he is also said to have changed over 90 residences! Equally well known is the fact that he was a fearless artist who ceaselessly questioned and broke traditional forms, thoughts and methods. Even as he attracted the attention of the elite, he remained poor but unwilling to comply to the demands of his wealthy clients. It is said that when he died, Hokusai possessed nothing more than a kimono which covered his body.  
The versatile artist, who also wrote poetry, was a great experimenter and retained a lifelong passion for new methods and techniques. He could simultaneously paint very large pictures and create a miniature on a grain of rice.   
One particular incident is often quoted to in Hokusai’s life. In 1804, at a temple on the outskirts of Edo, Hokusai took a bamboo broom and a pail of diluted ink and started working. As the dumbstruck crowds watched, what emerged was an evocative portrait of Bodai-Daruma, the patriarch of Zen Buddhism which was as large as two hundred square meters!

Known for his many eccentricities, Hokusai was prolific and worked on many series like ‘Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido Road’ (1806); ‘Hokusai Manga’ (1814 -34) — 15 volumes of illustrations; ‘A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces’ (1827 -30); and ‘One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji’ (1834-35). Among his many provocative works is ‘The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife’ (1820) , an extremely erotic wood block print depicting a woman in the company of a pair of octopuses.

Such was his dedication and commitment to art, that at even at the ripe age of 80, Hokusai lamented that he had not learned enough about the art of drawing. In one instance, he confessed: “From around the age of six, I developed the habit of sketching from life. From 50 on, I began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of 70 was worthy of attention. At 73, I began to grasp the structures of birds, beasts, and insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am 86, so that by 90 I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At 100, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at 130 or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this comes true.”
Hakusai was 89 when he died. His work influenced generations of artists the world over. “Hokusai is not just one artist among others in the Floating World,” acknowledged Edgar Degas. “He is an island, a continent, a whole world in himself.”