Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave review – the mastery simply amazes

By Laura Cumming

British Museum, London
It wasn’t until his later years that the Japanese artist did his greatest work – the focus of this mesmerising show

The Great Wave – that stupendous blue breaker flexing its claws over a tiny Mount Fuji – is the most famous image in Japanese art. It deserves its universal popularity. Three little boats struggle against the roiling tide in a brilliant game of pictorial hide-and-seek that threatens to conceal the white-capped mountain as the wave freezes in its ever-rising moment, scattering foam that doubles as snowfall. A humble print, first sold for the price of a double helping of noodles, has become a mass-market icon (even an emoji) a billion times over.

The woodcut was made at the beginning of the artist’s “final years”, as this magnificent exhibition defines them. Hokusai (1760-1849) was 70 when he began the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, which stars The Great Wave. He already had a long career in ukiyo-e – the art of the floating world – with exquisite prints of scuttling pedlars, kimonoed courtesans and pilgrims spellbound by the moon over his home city of Edo (modern-day Tokyo). But the last three decades of Hokusai’s life go far beyond The Great Wave. This show reveals a restless genius, constantly inventing new kinds of image – an origin for impressionism and art nouveau, for action figures and graphic narrative, but also a late painter of startling Rembrandtian depth.

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