The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2011

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NOV 2011 Issue

HOKUSAI Retrospective

“The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” c. 1831. Wood cut, paper, ink. Copyright Sumida City.

On View
Martin Gropius Bau
August 26 – October 31, 2011

Hokusai Katsushika (1760 – 1849) said that all he had done before the age of 70 was not worth bothering with. He hoped for longevity in life in order to achieve something in his paintings; evidently he believed in the long haul. There was no fast track to artistic identity for this man who has actually worked under 30 different names. His approach to living as an artist can be compared to Gerhard Richter, who used another strategy to question and complicate simple notions of artistic identity—moving between types of painting.

In all, Hokusai’s productive period lasted over 70 years. The idea that prolonged experience has a role for artists can seem strange in this present era of consensus aesthetics, and consequentially, nominal art works. Never mind time, it’s the market that waits for no man. But without dissent, without argument and conflict, nothing is valued except for value: think, Wall Street. For example, if abstraction is cool, find a young artist making abstract work, and get the work sold, since next season abstraction will be over. Is it any good, though? What does it matter, when plurality has been replaced with relativism? To have an opinion is to be outdated.

The Japanese writer Haruki Murakami is a master of cultural exchange. Jazz, Beatles, and Johnnie Walker whiskey—all imports—are returned by the author to the West as elements in his melancholic existential thrillers. Similarly, Hokusai, working with the alien perspectives of Dutch painting, integrated a European view into Japanese traditional depiction, exporting his new hybrid back to Europe. Comparing Hokusai’s woodcuts to earlier Japanese artists’ work evidences an extraordinary shift in visual and social perceptions. Instead of the geishas, samurai, and shoguns, which were typically represented in these works, ordinary workers began to appear. This moved the emphasis away from a ruling elite.

Perhaps the best known of Hokusai’s images is “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” a part of the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (1823 – 1829). It does not feature aristocrats at play. Instead, it shows only the drama of fishermen in their boats, tossed by giant waves. (Fishermen made up one of the most despised social classes, regarded as an unsuitable subject for traditional painting.)The particularly intense blue used in this print is Prussian blue, a synthetic dye invented in Berlin at the beginning of the 18th century, though it is likely that Hokusai would have used a dye imported from China where it was produced from the 1820s. The color represents an instance of Japan’s selective isolation, and the wave represents the threat as well as the opportunity of foreign trade.

Dutch merchants smuggled goods into Japan wrapped in paper, sometimes bearing basic etchings of the Dutch landscape painting that had reached its zenith with Jacob van Ruisdael, Jan van Goyen, and Rembrandt van Rijn. These wrappers were of great interest to Japanese artists, including Hokusai, more so than the goods. The same merchants brought color woodcuts and paintings, having bought them directly from Hokusai, to Europe. The impact of Hokusai’s work was enormous, and many artists collected his woodcuts: Degas, Gauguin, Yavlensky, Klimt, Marc, Macke, Manet, Monet, and van Gogh included. Over a dozen galleries in Europe exhibited the work of more that 40 Japanese artists and Hokusai’s first retrospective in the West came in 1893 at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

This model of visual exchange still finds echoes and equivalents in contemporary painting. And influence, be it in the 19th century or the 21st century, acts both backwards and forwards, as it always has done for artists, if not for some art historians, who can behave as the media often does when reporting a murder trial. Desperate to be first with the news: painting is dead, no wait, just in, Painting is apparently alive and well. Influence, as Joseph Mascheck wrote, “is more like something electrical than anything mechanical, a conduction that either flows in opposite directions at once or else doesn’t flow at all.”

Joanne Greenbaum and Mary Heilmann both combine the graphic and material aspects of painting and multiply a variable spatial dynamic. Like night and day at the same time: scale changes, foreground and background change places, the edge of a shape becomes drawing, or drawing becomes pattern and constitutes shape, like a puddle forming or like memories you never thought you had until you found them. Hokusai’s painting has a similarly condensed armature, structure and pattern, forming new images that aim to reveal something he felt he would never find, leaving behind though, of course, the work—a magnificent trace.

The relationship between works made in different eras, as well as cultures, exists for artists in a complex and reflexive way. Richter said, in a 1973 letter to Jean-Christophe Ammann, “A painting by Caspar David Friedrich is not a thing of the past. What is past is only the set of circumstances that allowed it to be painted: specific ideologies, for example. Beyond that, if it is ‘good,’ it concerns us—transcending ideology—as art that we ostentatiously defend (perceive, show, make). Therefore, ‘today,’ we can paint as Caspar David Friedrich did.” Whether it is taking an existing method of painting like Richter or the conventions of another like Hokusai, innovations are traded directly or indirectly. The hybridity informing so many paintings today suggests the continued relevance of a voracious desire for visual invention outside of a need for easy rationalizations. The question of influence or originality can only be answered by the vitality of the work. In the end no amount of consensus can substitute for its insight, intelligence, and daring. Sometimes the right results come from looking in the wrong place.


David Rhodes

David Rhodes is a New York-based artist and writer, originally from Manchester, UK.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2011

All Issues