Hokusai: ‘Mad about painting’ exhibition in Washington

He called himself a “man mad about painting.” Japanese master Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) created some 30,000 works in his long life, proving his claim.

Illustration of reptile (© Katsushika Hokusai/Freer|Sackler Gallery of Art)
“Ascending Dragon,” (1845) one of a pair, is another dynamic example of Hokusai’s late work. (© Katsushika Hokusai/Freer|Sackler Gallery of Art)

And so the artist gives the apt title to a new exhibition of his works at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington.

“This museum is such a window into Asia, especially Japan,” Japan’s Ambassador to the U.S. Shinsuke Sugiyama said at the exhibition opening in November.

The exhibition marks the 100th anniversary of the gallery namesake’s death. It also celebrates the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, which Japan will host.

Equally important is the longtime partnership between Japan and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Asian Art.

Obsessed by painting

Illustration of red figure (© Katsushika Hokusai/Freer|Sackler Gallery of Art)
In “Thunder God” (1847), Hokusai, age 88, is at the height of his skills. (© Katsushika Hokusai/Freer|Sackler Gallery of Art)

Hokusai’s best-known work is Great Wave Off the Coast of Kanegawa. It is not at the Freer, although other “wave” prints are.

Hokusai was a compulsive painter with “an insatiable urge to paint anything and everything, both real and imagined,” said curator Frank Feltens. “Hokusai truly was a man obsessed by painting.”

And he was versatile. His books of sketches, collectively called the Hokusai Manga, are notable treasures. The series depicts daily life in Japan with insight and humor. He even illustrated dance lessons, examples of which are in the exhibition.

Hokusai also experimented with Western art styles. He blended them with traditional Japanese approaches.

He wanted to be a legendary artist, and he became one. But Hokusai criticized his “early” work prior to age 70. He aimed to create works that appeared to miraculously come to life.

Hokusai produced his most famous works between age 70 and his death at 89.

The exhibition continues through November 8, 2020.