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Katsushika Hokusai didn’t worship Mount Fuji, Japan’s tallest and most famous peak, but his publisher did: Nishimuraya Yohachi was one of the tens of thousands of admirers who belonged to the Fuji cult. Hokusai himself may not have been of their number, but he could be considered their patron saint: “36 Views of Mount Fuji,” a series on view at the Sackler Gallery that the painter and printmaker began publishing in 1830, describes the centrality of Mount Fuji in Japanese life.
It’s also central to Japanese art—and Western art, too. The emergence of the modern Japanese painting style, prefigured in particular by Hokusai’s landscapes, is in some ways a story that tracks mountain worship itself—a story that captivated Western painters like Cézanne.
Hokusai’s “Dawn at Isawa in Kai Province,” for example, reveals the artist’s innovative experiments with composition and perspective. In this print, Mount Fuji is shrouded in mist, which Hokusai represents using raw, unprinted areas of paper. The negative space divides and establishes the perspective between the village and figures in the foreground and the mountain looming large in the background. A pair of adjacent prints, “Mishima Pass in Kai Province” and “Cushion Pine Tree at Aoyama,” completes a trio of full-color prints that best defines Hukosai’s investigation of scale. The artist probably adopted some of the representational strategies he uses, including simple white clouds, from the Dutch copperplate engravings that circulated popularly in Japan at the time.
The Sackler Gallery wants viewers looking up close at Hokusai’s work. As a big hint, the museum has provided magnifying glasses—a welcome gesture, as the lighting is too dark throughout. But a glass isn’t necessary to find one big Easter Egg in Hokusai’s most famous work, the endlessly reproduced “Great Wave off of Kanagawa” print, which makes stellar use of electric Prussian blue pigment and an evocative line to represent nature. Smack dab in the middle of the painting are pentimento, the painted-over lines showing where the artist had originally placed Mount Fuji.
More shocking than the gnarled fingers of Hokusai’s waves are the knotty figures of people who appear in his paintings—and how he relates them to nature. In Ejiri in Suruga Province, Hokusai shows people chasing after hats and papers caught by a gust of wind; here, as in every print, they are small and contorted, subservient to nature and especially Fuji—which he represents with a simple, singular outline.
A lot of recent research on turn-of-the-century Western painting has centered on sussing out the influence of what the painters themselves called japonisme. Hokusai prints exerted enormous bearing on painters such as Pierre Bonnard and Cézanne; the latter’s series on Mount Sainte-Victoire borrows compositionally, narratively, and spiritually from Hokusai. Cézanne and Hokusai both benefited from the advent of new technologies, too. The introduction of Prussian blue to Hokusai’s palette allowed his landscapes to make a vivid break with traditional Japanese portrait-prints of kabuki actors and court society. Hokusai arrived too early for the invention of the collapsible paint tube that enabled the advent of plein air painting and Impressionism, and Hokusai largely invented the travels his landscapes described. Together—with Japanese artists adopting Western technologies, and French artists benefiting from Eastern insight—painters from Occidental and Oriental traditions climbed the mountain to discover modernism.