Hokusai Katsushika wrote his autobiography when he was seventy-three years old. He dated the beginning of his drawing activities to the age when he was five or six years old. Hokusai is one of the greatest masters of Japanese woodblock printmaking of the 19th century. Designs like the 'Great Wave' and 'Red Mount Fuji' have made him immortal.
Katsushika Hokusai started an apprenticeship at a woodcut workshop at the age of fifteen. At the age of 18 he became a pupil of Katsukawa Shunsho and took the name of Katsukawa Shunro. The early Hokusai prints were actor portraits, produced under the influence of Shunsho.
He remained loosely connected to the art school of Katsukawa Shunsho for fourteen years. During that period, he also took lessons from another master, Yusen from the Kano school. It was in this period that the artist studied Western-style paintings - visible in the use of perspective for some of his prints.
The "flirting" with other art schools might have been the reason why he was expelled from the Katsukawa Art School after Shunsho's death in 1792.
According to his own biography, Hokusai changed his residence an incredible 93 times in his life. True or false - it is an expression of his restlessness. An average Japanese hardly ever moves more than once during his lifetime. He also changed his artist name several times - much to the distress of art historians and art experts.
The artist had little luck in his private life. His first wife died in 1793, leaving him alone with a son and two daughters. In 1797 he remarried. In 1812, Hokusai's eldest son died. His two daughters had an unhappy marriage, divorced and returned to their father's household.
Hokusai adopted his eldest daughter's son as his own. But the lad turned out to be a good-for-nothing. In 1828, the artist's second wife died.
The series 36 Views of Mt. Fuji are certainly the best known Hokusai prints. And critics agree, that it is also his best work. Although called "36 views", it actually consists of 46 designs. The artist had worked on this series for nearly ten years before the publication in circa 1830.
Another famous landscape series is Shokoku Taki Meguri - A Journey to the Waterfalls of all the Provinces. From 1814 onward, Hokusai published the series of fifteen Manga sketchbooks. They are what the title says, illustrations and sketches made by Hokusai with a wide variety of subjects from all walks of life - some comic, some serious.
Hokusai must be imagined as a person who was completely obsessed by producing ukiyo-e (Japanese prints). He lived for nothing else. He usually got up early in the morning and worked until after sunset. The art name Gakyo-rojin, which he used from 1834-1849 means old man mad with painting.
And this is what he wrote about himself in his autobiography. It is the quintessence of his art philosophy:
"From the age of five I have had a mania for sketching the forms of things. From about the age of fifty I produced a number of designs, yet of all I drew prior to the age of seventy there is truly nothing of great note. At the age of seventy-two I finally apprehended something of the true quality of birds, animals, insects, fish and of the vital nature of grasses and trees. Therefore, at eighty I shall have made some progress, at ninety I shall have penetrated even further the deeper meaning of things, at one hundred I shall have become truly marvelous, and at one hundred and ten, each dot, each line shall surely possess a life of its own. I only beg that gentlemen of sufficiently long life take care to note the truth of my words."
Hokusai was one of the most prolific of all ukiyo-e artists. At the end of his life he had produced more than 30,000 print designs.
This is the impressive list of the names used by Hokusai (after Sandra Andacht: "Collector's value Guide to Japanese woodblock prints", krause publications, ISBN 1-58221-005-5)
Author: Dieter Wanczura