We think we know Hokusai. His image of the great wave is perhaps the most famous image to emerge from Asia. It’s even an emoji 🌊 and the logo for Quicksilver.
But what about the man behind the wave?
Below are a few facts you perhaps didn’t know about him:
Hokusai was a marketing genius
In 1817 Hokusai was an impoverished artist already in his mid-forties and lacking fame. He concluded that some dramatic gesture must be used to attract attention. Accordingly he lined off an area before a temple in Nagoya and prevailed upon a group of loafers to help him paint the largest picture so far seen in Japan. With rocks he weighted down a pasted-up sheet of heavy paper containing 2,250 square feet, an area larger than ten average- sized Japanese rooms. One end he lashed to a huge oak beam to which ropes had been fastened so that when completed the monster picture could be hauled aloft. Then, with big vats of ink and tubs of colour, with brooms and swabs of cloth tied to sticks he went to work. Tucking his kimono up about his waist and kicking off his sandals, he ran back and forth across the huge paper, outlining a portrait of Japan's best-loved saint, Daruma, who once sat so long in one position contemplating the nature of world and man that his arms withered away. Of Hokusai's portrait it is recorded that a horse could have walked into the mouth of the gigantic saint. Soon the temple court was filled with people of Nagoya marvelling at their mad painter as he sped about with his brooms, slapping colour down in tremendous and apparently unplanned strokes. By dusk the portrait had taken form and when men at the ropes hauled the oaken beam into position, the vast expanse of paper rose into the air and disclosed Hokusai's miracle, a portrait of Daruma nearly sixty feet high. The artist had accomplished his purpose. He was talked about. He became known as Hokusai, who painted pictures so big that a horse could pass into the mouth of the subject. Not content, Hokusai soon painted with an ordinary brush the picture of two sparrows so small they could be seen only with a magnifying glass. These exploits were reported at court and Hokusai was summoned to exhibit his unusual powers, which he did by unrolling a huge scroll on the floor, smearing it with indigo ink and catching a rooster, whose five-pointed feet he dipped in red ink. Shooing the bird onto the flat scroll, where his tracks produced an impression of red maple leaves, Hokusai cried, "Leaves in autumn on the blue Tatsuta River." Long before Instagram and Tik Tok, he gave public demonstrations during which he drew from bottom to top, from right to left and painted with a finger, an egg, a bottle or a wine stoup, yet he was one of the most careful and dedicated artists.
He was extremely superstitious
Hokusai was a deeply religious man that had a fervent respect for Mount Fuji. Indeed, his series of designs ‘36 Views of Mount Fuji’, which include the Great Wave and Red Fuji, may have originally been marketed to those pilgrims travelling to the sacred Mount Fuji. Especially towards the end of his life when his thoughts were focussed on deterring death and prolonging his life, Hokusai had the custom of drawing an auspicious shishi lion in ink every morning, then throwing it out the window. Fortunately, either his daughter or some other student collected some of these drawings and they still exist today. They have extraordinary dynamism and movement and show signs of being drawn in lightening speed. Some have suggested that it was his superstitious beliefs that led him to move house 93 times! Either in imitation of the stars in the sky rotating around the North Star, his namesake (the name Hokusai means North Star Studio), or perhaps to avoid evil spirits, or just simply debt collectors!
He wasn’t good with money
In one New Year’s poem, Hokusai compared himself to a lion like the ones he drew: "At the year's end, those obsessed with profit are busy lions, but I, who have discarded greed, am a happy lion.' Hokusai seems to have lived his entire life in abject poverty because he held money in contempt: he paid his bills by tossing uncounted packets of yen at tradesmen. He became one of the most famous and popular artists in Japan, yet he lived for years in obscurity, hiding from bill collectors. In his youth he was another precocious, poverty-stricken Edo boy. At thirteen he was a wood carver and he is the only ukiyo-e artist who is known to have cut blocks, although he cut none of his own. He was by turn an errand boy, a bookseller, a cheap novelist, a hawker of calendars, a merchant of red peppers and an itinerant painter of banners. He married twice and had several children who were a tribulation plus a grandson whose financial operations (probably gambling) finally threw Hokusai into bankruptcy and flight. For several years he hid out in the village. When he returned to Edo he sequestered himself under an assumed name in the corner of a temple, where he continued to design prints. At seventy he was a pauper and ready to launch upon some of his greatest work. At seventy-eight his eightieth-odd dwelling burned and not only left him literally naked in the street but also destroyed all remaining notes and sketches, to which he remarked, "I came into the world without much," whereupon he directed himself to new projects, posting in his home the admonition: "No compliments. No presents." An account of how he survived the rice famine of 1836 says that he sat in his room with sheets of paper before him and invited people with even a cupful of extra rice to come and make random lines and splashes on the paper, whereupon he would swiftly link them together and produce a spirited picture, signing it proudly with one of his many names.
He was a difficult man
By all accounts, Hokusai seems to have been a rather cranky and cantankerous man. Perhaps he knew he was a genius and felt others should recognise that. He fought with his gentle teacher Katsukawa Shunsho and threw back the name Shunsho had accorded him, but he collaborated happily with at least nine different artists in publishing books. He was particularly demanding when it came to carvers of his designs. In one letter to a publisher, one can hear the tone of his berating: “I’ve set down some things I’d like the carvers to deal with. Eyes - carve them without the lower eyelid. Mind that the carvers don’t carve the lower eyelids with the point of their knife. Noses - carve like these two examples. Ordinary carvers carve noses in Utagawa’s manner. Noses like this are executed in the wrong painting style, so in my case do not carve that way, but like this. These types are in fashion but I don’t like them at all ...As my life, at this moment, is not public, I will not give you my address here." One can imagine the publisher reading this letter and rolling his eyes with frustration.
He was struck by lightening and he had a stroke
In 1810, at the age of 50, Hokusai was apparently struck by lightning but survived. At sixty-eight he suffered a stroke which should have killed him, but he remembered having read about an ancient Chinese cure based on lemons and doctored himself back to health, writing and illustrating a medical report on his self-cure.
He had an extremely curious mind
His interests were as vast as the world. He wrote excellent poetry, was also novelist (which he naturally illustrated himself), published many humorous works and revived the lessons of the Chinese Mustard Seed Garden, allowing it to influence his prints as it had influenced Harunobu years before. He had wide knowledge of both Chinese and Japanese literature, a profound interest in anatomy, an obvious love of all living things, a preoccupation with rocks and mountains, and an inquiring mind regarding scientific principles of art, including Western techniques such as vanishing-point perspective.
He was a late bloomer
Some of Hokusai’s best known works were created only when he reached his 70’s. By his own admission, he improved with age. He once said that "from the age of six I had a mania for drawing forms of things. By the time I was fifty I had published an infinity of designs, but all I have produced before the age of seventy is not worth taking into account. At seventy-five I have learned a little about the structure of nature-of animals, plants and trees, birds, fishes and insects. In consequence, when I am eighty I shall have made a little more progress. At ninety I shall penetrate the mystery of things. At a hundred I shall certainly have reached a marvellous stage, and when I am a hundred and ten, everything I do--be it but a line or a dot-will be alive. I beg those who live as long as I to see if I do not keep my word. Written at the age of seventy-five by me, once Hokusai. today The Old Man Mad about Drawing.” On his death-bed at 90 he once pleaded with heaven to give him more time: "If heaven would only grant me ten more years, or only five, I might still become a great artist." One wonders if he could have lived longer, what other artworks would he have created?