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From the archives: Hokusai's colour woodcuts have long been admired in the West for their elegance and poetic representation, but his little-known ink paintings are the true masterpieces of imagination, argued Victor Rienaecker in October 1950.

In popular culture one individual can often be held representative of an entire group. Such appears to be the case with Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), who in Western society is the best, and frequently only known Japanese artist. The subject of an exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris (until 18 January 2015), Hokusai first came to attention outside his native country when discovered by the Impressionists: around 1856 the well-connected etcher Felix Bracquemond famously came across Hokusai's mass-produced woodcuts, in use as packaging for a consignment of oriental porcelain.

It is evidence of Hokusai's enduring acclaim that publicity for another show, held last year at the Old Truman Brewery in London's resolutely fashionable Shoreditch, proposed him as being 'the acknowledged inspiration for today's influential Japanese pop culture movements such as manga and anime'.

What might art historian Victor Rienaecker have made of such an audacious assertion? In the October 1950 issue of Apollo, Rienaecker provided a more nuanced evaluation of the Japanese master's life and work, paying tribute to his outstanding qualities while also recognising his limitations. Early in the text, Rienaecker noted: 'It is one of the great misjudgments of contemporary public opinion that, as a painter and draughtsman, Hokusai was not during his lifetime regarded by the Japanese to be in the first artistic rank.' Almost 65 years later, this fallacy continues to be propounded: the concept of a prophet passing unappreciated in his own land retains widespread appeal. In fact Hokusai enjoyed ample fame and success while alive, although he does seem to have been dogged by financial troubles. But truth has always been in conflict with myth and the image of him struggling for recognition still holds sway.

Likewise Rienaecker observed that while much of Hokusai's output was inspired by 'the humdrum life of the ordinary people' he was by no means the first to produce work of this kind, generically known in Japan as ukiyo-e ('pictures of the floating world'). The genre had emerged in the early 17th century and was long established by the time Hokusai entered the studio of Katsukawa Shunsho, one of its greatest practitioners. However, the possibility that he could have had predecessors is antithetical to the vision of the artist as solitary innovator. And so, in an unintentionally amusing online feature run by the Huffington Post in October to celebrate the Grand Palais show, Hokusai is lauded as having 'stood out from his contemporaries for his interest in everyday life. Instead of solely depicting glamorous geishas and heroic samurai, Hokusai rendered everyday workers, fishermen, and other urban scenarios that weren't yet immortalised through art.' Generations of artists who had previously represented such scenes are swept out of sight lest they spoil the legend.

What makes Rienaecker's appraisal especially thought-provoking is the high value he places on Hokusai's monochromic pictures. In the West the artist is most revered for his colour prints, not least the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji which includes The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Rienaecker ordained that in Hokusai's colour work, 'the pigment is sometimes coarse and hot'. His preference for subtlety is evident in the citing of Henri Bergson's observation: 'Every feeling experienced by us will assume an aesthetic character provided it has been suggested and not caused.' From this Rienaecker went on to argue that colour could destroy 'the power of suggestiveness; while monochrome painting compelled the spectator to co-operate with the artist in the exercise of his imagination. Only by making direct appeal to the imagination can the art of the painter be said to perform its highest function. Only by exacting the maximum co-operation from the spectator can communion between the spectator and the creating mind of the artist be established and the things unseen be perceived within the outer form.'

Rienaecker was aware that belief in the superiority of monochrome over colour ran counter to received wisdom in this part of the world, where 'paintings in simple ink appear lacking in the sine qua non of pictorial art and hence imperfect; inasmuch as painting in its primary purpose is assumed to be distinguished from other branches of the visible arts essentially in point of colouring'. But, he insisted, Hokusai's ink paintings demand 'a reading not only of the brushstrokes but of the unpainted spaces. And this power of perceiving the relationship between solids and voids in monochrome painting taxes our aesthetic sensibility to the utmost ...'

Advising that an exhibition is liable to tax aesthetic sensibilities is unlikely to encourage high visitor numbers: accordingly the more challenging aspects of Hokusai's work continue to receive little attention. Despite the efforts of Rienaecker and others, the myth remains intact.
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Title Annotation:Katsushika Hokusai
Author:O'Byrne, Robert
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Dec 1, 2014
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