Arts, Off Campus

From Traditional Woodblock Prints to Demon Slayer, MFA Boston’s ‘Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence’

Apple’s wave emoji is a popular choice among iPhone users, but perhaps even more popular is the woodblock print that serves as the origin of the emoji, Hokusai’s “Great Wave.” 

The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston, Mass. is displaying the original version of the “Great Wave” as part of a special exhibition titled Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence, from March 26 to July 16.  

Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence presents a comprehensive survey of Hokusai’s life project in both traditional and modern contexts. As the title suggests, the exhibition not only showcases some of Hokusai’s most renowned works but also sheds light on his contributions to woodblock printmaking techniques and Japonisme imagery, which may be familiar to contemporary audiences. 

The exhibition is located in the Ann and Graham Gund Gallery, below the MFA’s main chamber. The curation is simply clever—dim lights and ocean blue walls submerge the audience into a visual pool of the Japanese seascape. The deliberate blue tinge of the layout reflects Hokusai’s extensive use of blue in his artwork, including traditional indigo for contour and Prussian blue for shades of sea and sky. Right off the bat, the gallery’s ambiance successfully encapsulates the unique mood of Hokusai’s body of work. 

Undoubtedly, the most notable artwork on view is the “Great Wave,” formally known as “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” Visitors took photos and posed with the art piece, which was more so discreetly placed in between other variations of wave art. Among others, the wave room included Andy Warhol’s wave sketch and a LEGO rendition of the masterpiece. The image depicts a towering wave crashing down on three fishing boats with Mount Fuji visible in the background.

The majestic curve of the wave is arguably the most famous ukiyo-e print. The piece is displayed in the latter half of the exhibition in a room dedicated to water-themed art, perhaps for dramatic effect, but the gallery hints at the monumental work from the entrance—suggesting the importance of the piece in securing Hokusai’s fame, both in Japan and overseas. 

The “Great Wave” is an integral part of Hokusai’s revered collection of woodblock prints: the “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.” The series includes prints depicting the sacred mountain from many locations, in various seasons, weather conditions, and times of day, and constitutes the bulk of the exhibition. Another notable composition from the “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” on view is “Fine Wind, Clear Weather.” Nicknamed “Red Fuji,” the image represents a stunning natural phenomenon that occurs when the red light of sunrise caresses the mountain. 

While the “Great Wave” is Hokusai’s magnum opus and arguably the most familiar Japanese artwork to the modern audience, “Red Fuji” acts as the sidekick that emphasizes Hokusai’s devotion to capturing the natural beauty of Japan. The MFA’s deliberate inclusion of “Red Fuji” and other artworks from Hokusai’s renowned body of work highlights the artist’s versatility and widespread influence. 

Throughout the exhibition, the scattered placement of individual pieces from “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” diverts the viewers’ attention to the works of Hokusai’s pupils and modern renditions. Sketches and prints by, among others, his daughter Katsushika Ōi and his contemporaries Hiroshige and Utagawa Kuniyoshi exemplify how the Japanese printmaking era constantly drew motifs and technique from Hokusai’s body of work. 

As the exhibit leads through different rooms, the MFA emphasizes Hokusai’s modern influence through artworks such as the famed “Drowning Girl” by Roy Lichtenstein. The placement of “Drowning Girl” depicts a swirling wave enveloping his heroine and serves as a pleasant surprise that juxtaposes Hokusai’s traditional techniques with modern pop-art aesthetics. 

Toward the end of the exhibition, the audience is introduced to a wider variety of artworks that represent unique connections to Hokusai’s life project, including a Demon Slayer poster. Whether the artwork reflects Hokusai’s technical aesthetic or merely the motif of Japanese landscape, the MFA’s special exhibition invites the audience to explore Hokusai’s artistic legacy from a variety of perspectives. 

The MFA’s special exhibition Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence takes a fresh approach to this endlessly talented Japanese artist by exploring the mark he left during his lifetime and beyond.

April 23, 2023