Spyglass by HokusaiFrom 1st October 2014 till 18 January 2015 more than 500 prints, paintings and drawings by the world best known Japanese artist Hokusai are shown in the “Grand Palais” in Paris. This exhibition allows us to admire the wide variety of his work and to understand its evolution during his long career. It should be one of the main exhibition in Paris this winter.

The Grand Palais, formerly known as the “Grand Palais des Beaux Arts” or Grand Palace of Fine Arts, was built for the Exposition Universelle of 1900, the world’s fair held in Paris between the Champs Elysées and the Esplanade des Invalides. At that time entering the 20th century was synonymous with scientific and technological advances and it was widely believed that human condition could only get better and better. Many buildings were created on the occasion. The Grand Palais is a huge building in the “Belle Epoque” style using ashlar masonry and a huge dome of steel and glass, needing the use of the last modern means of the time: gantry cranes, steam engine machines… The most impressive part of it is the glass roof and its large dome: 8.500 tons of steel and glass! It was very successful during the fair and hundreds of thousands of people visited it. This success never stopped and dozens of major events have drawn millions of people ever since. So it comes as no surprise that the Hokusai’s exhibition takes place in this beautiful and ideally located museum.

Katsushika Hokusai probably is Japan’s most famous painter and drawer. He was born in 1760 in Edo now called Tokyo and died 89 years old defining himself as “Gakyo Rojin Mangi”: The Old Man Mad About Painting! He devoted his life to his art and at the age of 70 he said that all his previous work wasn’t worth much and that he was only beginning to reach a fine technique. Just before dying he begged to have ten more years or at least five more to have time enough to reach his goal. If the series of prints called “Thirty six views of Mount Fuji” among which “The great wave off Kanagawa” is his most famous work, he made tens of thousands of prints, paintings and illustrations. His sources of inspiration were endless: landscapes, all kinds of animals, courtesans, Kabuki actors, legends and mythical characters…

In 1858, nine years after Hokusai’s death, a friendship and trade treaty was signed between France and Japan and all kind of Japanese artefacts began to be seen and sold in France. When the French painter Felix Bracquemont found a book illustrated by Hokusai used as wrapping paper for ceramics, he got a cultural shock! The Japanese prints, the Ukiyo-e, soon fascinated the art collectors. Many French artists got inspired by this Japanism: Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, Rene Lalique, Emile Galle… It was also very popular among ordinary people who were able to buy vases, plates, teapots or cups copying Japanese patterns. Several of these artefacts can be seen in the first room of the exhibition.

Changing name was a common practice of Japanese artists and Hokusai did it many times: he had at least 30 names during his lifetime, each one related to different periods of his artistic production and style. It’s only logical that the exhibition follows a chronological order showing how his work changed and progressed.

At the aged 15 Hokusai started his artistic work by engraving blocks of wood-block prints. A short film showing the skill and the artistic sense required by a Japanese engraver can be seen during the exhibition. He soon started an intensive training for drawing and painting and produced plenty of cheap printed books.

In his thirties’ he built a reputation by producing elegant and luxurious illustrated calendars and single-piece paintings. In the fifth room one of his most famous work is displayed: his Manga, a word that is widely used now for Japanese comics books but that takes its origin in Hokusai’s work. Having a growing number of admirers and disciples he created manuals for artists and craftsmen from 1810 onwards. These Hokusai’s manga were published in 15 volumes and contained over 3900 drawings describing an amazing variety now considered as an encyclopaedia of daily life in Edo during the early 19th century.

It was between 60 and 75 that he created his most famous work: Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji and we all have seen at least once “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” where his mastery in this genre reaches perfection. In his older years Hokusai asked to live until 110 years old to complete his life’s work. He died at the age of 89 and we can hardly imagine what he would have created if only his will had been fulfilled!

Many of these works are very fragile and can’t be displayed for a long time even in dim light. So the exhibition will be closed from the 21st till the 30th of November to replace the woodblock prints by other ones, issued from the same series, except for the two famous prints « In the trough of one wave off the coast of Kanagawa » and « The red Fuji » which will be replaced by copies of the same views. The visitor coming just one time, will see the whole exhibition, what could be the date.



Text © Annick Dournes

Photos of Grand Palais © Frederic de Poligny


Photos of Hokusai’s works:

« Le Pavillon du turbo cornu » ©X

from the series: “Trendy sites in the four directions of the East capital”

Japan, private collection

« Seller of cool drinks »  © Katsushika Hokusai Museum of Art

Katsushika Hokusai Museum of Art

« Spyglass » © Galerie Sebstian Izzard LLC

from the series: “Seven obsessions of inelegant young ladies”

Private collection

« In the trough of one wave off the coast of Kanagawa »

©Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Bruxelles

from the series: “Thirty six views of the  Mount Fuji”

Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Bruxelles