Hokusai, a Manga Master at the Grand Palais, Paris

This article was originally to be called ” Don’t miss Hokusai at the Grand Palais” so seduced I was by the exhibit. Unfortunately, the numerous back and forth with Réunion des musées nationaux (RMN) to get access on images (photos were indeed prohibited at the exhibit) and the time difference between Paris and Montreal ( which does not really help) prevented me from publishing something before the end of the exhibition. It has indeed closed on Jan 18 and was worth the visit because of the volume and variety of the artist’s presented works.

This exhibit really made me discover Hokusai. I’ve learnt that apart from his famous painting, the Great Wave and his series of the Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, he had also mastered the art of manga (diverse drawings), reality-based short comics from which we learn more on the art of sumo, how to makeup or simply discover daily lives from this Japanese era.

With the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji and especially the Great Wave, Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849) is now probably the most famous Japanese artist in the world. Even if his works were part of various exhibitions, this was the first time the public could have access to such a large and breathtaking monography at the Grand Palais.

The exhibition highlights both life and work of this extremely prolific artist, who changed his artistic identity repeatedly during his long career.
Painter, draftsman, printmaker Hokusai produced during his long life thousands of works which quality is matched only by the diversity of courtesans portraits of kabuki actors, scenes of everyday life, refined greeting cards, stories and illustrations of popular myths… It is nevertheless with the publication of his great series of landscapes that he influcences the deepest Japanese art. This series realizes an original synthesis between traditional principles of Japanese art and assimilation of Western influences to compose landscapes of stunning beauty .

RMN has put on a great spread for this exhibition. An (freemium) application is dedicated to the artist and the exhibit and a website helps you find your Samunraï name (BTW my name is Ayukawa Takatoki, well-known for his compassion, lol ) . The mobile application, free to download (but with paying content: RMN follows the freemium trend in this field) gives a good overview of the artist’s career by avoiding too small and unaccessible cartels because of the inevitable crowd from such exposure . Indeed, this exhibition was and is (apparently) the only outside of Japan from this artist.

A multidisciplinary artist

Hokusai, like many artists before and after him, had experimented many trends that led to get interest in different subjects or even to change his own name ! Thus, he begun to work on prints, quite commercial and cheap at that time.

It was at this time that Hokusai took the name of Katsukawa Shunro, since he worked  in Katsukawa Shunsho studio, famous for his portraits of kabuki actors (an absolutely beautiful art by the way. I have had the chance to see one show at the Chatelet Theater in Paris in 2013 with the most famous kabuki actor – declared national treasure in Japan – Tamasaburo Bando).

Born in 1760, Hokusai was at that time in his 20s. He then dedicated himself in his thirties to illustrated calendars ( egoyomi ) and one-sheet prints for private use ( surimono ). With his new name, Sori, he parted away from commercial art and started to produce private orders.

In 1805 he had become Katsushika Hokusai, when he dedicated himself to reading books (Yomihon), strong epic intrigue and very demonstrativecartoons for about 5 years. These books naturally preceded his period Hokusai manga, manga meaning “various drawings”. He designed illustrated manuals for artists, artisans but also women, sumos, etc. A series of fifteen books and more than 3900 drawings now perfectly describe daily life in the Edo period (Edo is the ancient name for Tokyo, when it was Japan’s capital until 1867).

Middle-aged, Hokusai published painting manuals and fortified by his fame, he became willing to his art with as wide an audience as possible (not just artists and apprentices): this is know as his Taito phase. But it is for his works of the floating world (including his 36 views of Mount Fuji) painted around sixty years-old, his Iitsu period, that we know him today. His most famous work, which also illustrates the exhibition poster (cover of this post) is part of these thirty-six views. Each of them is a pretext to describe local life (real or invented) or metaphored stories with Fuji-san in the background (Mt. Fuji).

When he had turned 74 years-old, Hokusai began to call himself “Manji, the old man fond of painting” and stated his willingness to live more than 110 years to reach his full artistic maturity. Unfortunately he died at the age of 89, not bad at that time.


A stunning exbihit, although a bit deceptive for a museogeek

The exhibition is simply beautiful. The purified scenography (but not really inventive) perfectly highlights the exhibited works. These are also so breathtaking that it would be a shame that the arrangement of the exhibition steals the show.

6.salle fin expo

Last room of the exhibit – engravings © Mirco Magliocca pour la RMN-Grand Palais, Paris 2014


On my way to the second part of the exhibit © Mirco Magliocca pour la RMN-Grand Palais, Paris 2014

My main disappointment lies in the fact that the RMN encourages visitors to share their experiences during the exhibition on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #hokusai. However – as I discovered while in the exhibition – photos and videos are prohibited. Hence the lack of visuals in this article (the photos of the works being authorized for the press during the exhibition, so you will need to satisfy yourself with external links, views of the scenogaphy and embed photos from Getty Images).

When asked, the RMN defends itself not to respect the charter of photography in the museum published earlier year:

The Ministry’s charter concerns national collections. The RMN-Grand Palais goes beyond the recommendations of the charter since it negotiates for temporary exhibitions the possibility forr its visitors to take pictures and share them on social networks. However, for some artists this is not possible (due to issues with assignees’ rights, foundations conditions, the status of some private collections, etc. ) . This is the case for Hokusai. And we regret it.

And finally, in that regard the statement on the flyer is a generic text (too bad).

But thanks to my few finds online (thank you Getty Images) I can share with you some of the masterpieces that made me either laugh or plunged into contemplation (if only there was less people ! : ) ) .

In short, a magnificent exhibition that one should not miss. Hoping that Japan would change its mind somehow and sometime and will organize another exhibition abroad on this artist who deserves to be discovered for all the other aspects of his art.

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