17 Nov

Hokusai was born in Katsushika ward of the old town of Edo in the days before it became the mega-cluster of neon towers we know today as Tokyo. It was 1760. From the age of 6, he tells us, he drew all sorts of things. Adopted by a mirror-polisher to the Shogun’s court he went to work in a bookstore before his 15th birthday after which he was prenticed, learning to cut wood blocks to serve in Edo’s thriving publishing industry. At the age of 19 he was taken on by the artist Katsukawa Shunshō, learning to draw the designs from which the prints were made.


The Ukiyo-e tradition of Japanese printmaking lays claim to being the first visual form that was both ‘high art’ and a mass-produced item for popular consumption. From the beginning of the 19h century access to these prints grew from the wealthy merchant class to anyone with a bit of spare cash. The Western world doesn’t know the name of Hokusai but they know his imagery. For the West it is Hokusai that defines not only Japanese, but East Asian art, much to Chinese consternation.

Ukiyo-e was to its original consumers like magazines these days; famous actors and beautiful women were the favorite subject matters. There were hundreds of publishers in Edo pumping out what were then the finest colour prints in the world. Thousands of artists vied for success amongst the tempestuous competition.

As a young man Hokusai was something of a rare bug. He didn’t fit in. He tried one school, then another, then another. He was thrown out and fired and often: couldn’t plug into any of the various master-styles then dominant. He went back and studied the old Chinese masters. He followed Shiba Kōkan to Nagasaki to check out the Western styles contained in printbooks owned by Dutch traders there. At one point he was flogging drawings on the street. In his 89 years he’s said to have changed address 90 times. But slowly he got somewhere, established a studio, carved a niche in the market: actors, beautiful women, pornography; the Japanese print genre of Shunga was the one pornographic form that lays an uncontroversial claim to ‘high art’ status. Hokusai’s octopus design is this genre’s most famous image:

Hokusai octopus

The Japanese are weird man! 🙂

He had for a time turned his attention to the depiction of landscapes. In China the mark of the great artist was to leave the page almost blank, less was more. Ancient Chinese painting depicted the bare minimum: a single branch, the moon, a single brush line indicating mountains. He hacked out imitations; working year in, year out thru his 30s, 40, 50s, 60s…

In the year 1829, however, there was no output and then from 1830 came a stream of publications that would define Japanese art, change Western art forever and lay the template for the myriad forms of commercial illustration worldwide from Manga to Marvel, from Disney to Studio Ghibli. Until 1830 he’d been a hack: pumping out pictures, writing short novels and poetry. Then, suddenly, he became great. He was 70.



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