My Sources of Inspiration: Hokusai
I’m starting a new series here on the blog, where I discuss my sources of inspiration. These are the things, and people that have inspired me over the years, both photographically and otherwise. Today I want to discuss the work of the great Japanese master Katsushika Hokusai.
Hokusai is a Japanese artist born in 1760, who is most famous for his woodblock prints, in particular, the famous “Great Wave” picture, but that is really just scratching the surface of his enormous body of work. I always admired the ukiyo-e style of art for some time, but I only became really passionate about it recently, when an exhibition of Japanese art from the period was on display at a local museum here in Dublin.
It’s all well and good to see images of these prints online, or reprinted in a book, but you really have to see them in person and up-close to truly appreciate the craftsmanship and artwork that goes into one of these prints. You realise that they have depth and texture. The paper itself is part of the artwork and you can see the embossing of the woodblocks and even the grain of the wood creating an additional layer of detail on the already incredibly detailed piece of artwork. When you consider how these prints were made, it becomes truly astonishing.
As someone with a keen interest in all things Japanese (some would say obsession) I’ve always known the name Hokusai, and I knew the image of the great wave. But it was only after watching the 2015 Anime Movie “Miss Hokusai” that I began to really be enthralled by what he created.
Hokusai, and ukiyo-e, in general, is credited with being the beginning of many things, including being a profound influence on modern graphic design. But the thing that always struck me most about his work, and that of other artists of the day, was that they were creating popular culture. It wasn’t art for the rich and nobility, it was art for the masses, something that wasn’t that common elsewhere at the time.
But even more than that, Hokusai himself was interested in the everyday scenes and the lives of the ordinary people. Not the aristocracy or the religious elite, but the average person on the street. He has a whole volume of work called “Hokusai Manga” (he’s also credited with being one of the founders of modern Manga) where he has drawing after exquisite drawing of everyday Japanese people going about their business. In my mind, this was in a way, a sort of precursor to “street photography”. I think that it also belies the importance of such depictions of the average person, as many years later, they become an invaluable insight into the culture of the time.
It is this philosophy and his approach that inspires me when I take photos, particularly street photography. I don’t claim to be doing anything quite as grand, but I feel like I understand why he was making art of ordinary people when I’m shooting in the street.
I could go on and on about it, but I’m no expert, and luckily there are some much better sources of knowledge on this subject than yours truly.
The British Museum did an amazing exhibit on his work last year, which I, unfortunately, missed (my wife and I actually tried to get tickets to it, but we couldn’t get in on the day that we were in London). It was actually groundbreaking and was featured on several NHK documentaries. They also produced a “behind the scenes” documentary on the exhibit which is available on DVD from the museum gift shop, and it’s an amazing documentary, and incredibly powerful. If you’re in London and in the museum at any stage, check it out. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find it for sale online anywhere (well, anywhere reputable).
If there are ever any original Hokusai pieces on display at your local museum, or that of other contemporary Japanese artists, try and make time to go see them for yourself. If you’ve never seen it before in person, I think you’ll be amazed. Of course, not everyone likes this style of artwork, but again, when you see how these are made, it kind of blows your mind.
Cover image via Wikimedia - Creative Commons
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