Hokusai Beyond the Great Wave – review: a genius imprisoned by his greatest hit

By Jonathan Jones

The Japanese master’s youthful works are sublime. So why is the British Museum’s show obsessed with his twilight years?

There is a moment in this exhibition when, without any fanfare or drama, you see the birth of modern art. It happens as naturally as a sudden gust or a spring shower. Afterwards people go on carrying bundles over bridges or chatting in the pleasure district, but everything has changed. A new kind of beauty is born.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) was one of the most renowned of Japan’s woodblock print artists, whose influence on European avant garde in the age of Van Gogh is famous. Yet these brilliant designers who emerged from the pleasure district of Edo (now Tokyo) in the 18th and 19th centuries remain curiously enigmatic. What were they really like as individuals? How did Hokusai develop, and how does his art express his own life?

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