In 1639, Japan closed its borders to foreigners, forbidding Western culture and implementing the death penalty for anyone trying to enter or leave the country. This policy was in place for more than two centuries and would give rise to a quintessentially Japanese art, consumed on an unprecedented scale.
The Edo Period
The Edo period in Japan is characterised by the isolationist policy adopted by the country. During the Edo period, Japan was under the rule of the Tokugawa Shogun, who believed that foreign influences posed a threat to the newfound stability of the country. To maintain this stability, strict social orders were imposed, with the population being split into classes, ranging from the emperor and court nobles at the top, followed by the samurai, farming peasants, artisans, and finally merchants. Interaction between the classes was forbidden, and there were strict codes of public behaviour for all.
Despite the highly controlled atmosphere, the arts flourished during the Edo period, and the production of ukiyo-e, or "pictures of the floating world," ensured that art was no longer restricted only to those of high status. Ukiyo-e, which referred to woodblock prints, was a craze similar to modern-day trading cards, and there was a constant demand for new images, new celebrities, and new prints to collect. The prints were mostly of famous courtesans and kabuki actors, with sex and celebrity selling the most.
One of the most famous ukiyo-e prints is The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai, made around 1830. This print depicts a wave that is about to engulf three boats of terrified fishermen, with Mount Fuji and the shores of Japan receding into the distance. While the print may seem like an image of a serene and timeless Japan at first sight, it is, in fact, a representation of Japan's fear that the sea, which had protected its peaceful isolation for so long, would become its downfall.
The Great Wave off Kanagawa 1830-1832 — Print by Hokusai
Hokusai, born in 1760, made his reputation as a teenager painting portraits of kabuki actors for woodblock prints. Later, he moved away from images of celebrities and focused on landscapes and images of the daily life of Japanese people. This change of subject was a breakthrough in both ukiyo-e and Hokusai's career, and his work became the most sought after in Japan.
Despite a successful professional life, Hokusai faced many personal challenges, with both his wives and two children predeceasing him, and he was struck by lightning at the age of 50. He also suffered a stroke that forced him to re-learn how to draw. However, reaching the age of 60 in Japan is viewed as a time for rebirth, and Hokusai's last decades were when he produced his best and most loved works. At the age of 70, he embarked on his most ambitious project yet, "36 Views of Mount Fuji," which included The Great Wave.
As he himself said: "All I have done before the age of seventy is not worth bothering with".
For Hokusai, Mount Fuji was more than just a subject for his art; it was a symbol of his own longevity. He believed that the mountain held magical powers that could grant him a long life. In fact, he was convinced that he would live to the age of 110 and that the older he got, the better he became.
Despite the fact that the average lifespan during Hokusai's time was only fifty years, he managed to live until the age of eighty-nine. His energy and vitality never left him, and he never stopped experimenting with his art. He continued to produce paintings until his dying day, demonstrating a tireless dedication to his craft.
36 Views of Mount Fuji
Mount Fuji, located on the main island of Honshu, is the highest peak in Japan and has long been regarded as a sacred symbol of strength and stability in Japanese culture. With over 800 shrines dedicated to the mountain, it is no surprise that religious confraternities, known as Fuji-kō or Fuji cults, emerged around the worship of the mountain.
For the famous Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, Mount Fuji held a deep personal and spiritual significance. In his series of prints known as "36 Views of Mount Fuji," Hokusai portrays the mountain from various perspectives, including the forest, the village, the lake, the river, and the beach. But it was the print known as "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" that would bring international attention to Japanese art.
Hokusai was the first ukiyo-e artist to use landscape as the main focus of his mass-produced images. Despite the fact that landscape prints were not as popular as celebrity prints at the time, Hokusai's 36 Views were a classic example of his artistic style, which emphasised condensed images in their purest form and placed great importance on line and colour.
In these prints, Hokusai also featured ordinary working-class individuals within the sacred landscape, blending the physical and the metaphysical seamlessly. As travel within Japan increased, sales of the landscape prints increased as well, although they were never as popular as the celebrity prints.
Today, Mount Fuji and Hokusai's 36 Views remain a significant aspect of Japanese culture and art history. The enduring popularity of these works is a testament to their ability to capture the beauty and significance of the mountain and its surrounding landscapes, while also capturing the essence of Japanese culture and spirituality.
Fuji from Gotenyama at Shinagawa on the Tōkaidō 1830-1832 — Print by Hokusai
In 1829, a new synthetic colour called Prussian blue, which had previously been expensive, became available at a low price through China. This breakthrough opened up new possibilities for ukiyo-e prints, and Hokusai's publisher saw an opportunity to exploit this innovation. The result was the creation of the famous "36 Views of Mount Fuji" series.
The first five prints in the series were printed almost entirely in shades of Prussian blue, with some indigo. Even the outlines, which are typically printed in black, were also in blue. These prints were marketed to the public as "aizuri-e," or blue-print pictures. Compared to previous blue pigments, Prussian blue was more vivid, had a greater tonal range, and most importantly, did not fade over time. This made the prints even more desirable to collectors and the general public.
Hokusai was a master of light and shade, and he used different saturations of the same colour to give the viewer the impression of the hours before dawn or after dusk, when our eyes cannot make out distinct shades due to the soft light. This technique, combined with the use of the new Prussian blue pigment, created a unique and beautiful effect in the prints. The use of Prussian blue was a significant innovation in the history of ukiyo-e prints, and it helped to inspire a new era of creativity and experimentation in Japanese art.
The Influence of European Art on Hokusai's Work
In the early 17th century, Japan's borders were officially closed, with the exception of the Dutch, who were allowed to send two trading ships per year. The Dutch had never attempted to push Christianity in Japan, which is why they were given this special privilege. This trade agreement was one of the only direct connections between Japan and Europe at the time. It was through this trade that Hokusai was introduced to Dutch landscape prints, which would have a major influence on his work.
One of the key differences between Western art and Japanese landscape painting is the way the physical position of the viewer is fixed. Western artists often place the viewer in a specific position, whereas Japanese landscape painters did not. Instead, they aimed to depict a panoramic view of the scene, giving the impression of a floating view. Time was also depicted differently in Western art, where it was often fixed, whereas Japanese art was more fluid, often including several time windows.
Although Japanese paintings or "high art" were not confined by strict linear perspective, low-brow images like ukiyo-e used European perspective as a sort of novelty and were promoted as "uki-e" or perspective pictures. Hokusai, a master of ukiyo-e, would incorporate everything he had learned about style, colour, light, and technique over six decades into his "36 views of Mount Fuji." One of those views would bring his work international acclaim.
Ironically, the print that is seen in the West as a characteristically Japanese image is in fact a hybrid of Japanese and European ideas. Hokusai blended the two styles in a unique way to create his own distinctive style, which would have a lasting impact on the world of art.
Fuji, Mountains in clear Weather (Red Fuji) 1830-1832 — Print by Hokusai
Hokusai hardly worked alone. Woodblock prints have a rich history that dates back centuries, and the process of creating them requires a team of skilled craftsmen. The team that creates a woodblock print typically consists of a publisher, an artist, a block cutter, and a printer. Each member of the team has a specific role to play, and their contributions are essential to the final product. The publisher commissions the image from the artist, who then creates a design on thin paper, which serves as a block-ready drawing. The block cutter then carves the design into a block of wood, which is then used by the printer to create the final print.
The process of creating a woodblock print is a complex one that requires a great deal of skill and attention to detail. The first step is for the artist to create a design on thin paper, which serves as a guide for the block cutter. The artist must be skilled in the use of brush and ink, as the design must be reproduced precisely on the woodblock. Once the design is complete, the artist glues it to the block, with the image reversed. Next, the block is rubbed down with a tool called a "baren," which transfers the design to the surface of the wood. The carver then rubs the block with his fingers, peeling off most of the paper and leaving only the lines of the original image on the surface of the wood. The original design is destroyed in the process, but the carver can now reproduce the artist's brush lines in wood.
Only the best carvers work on prints by artists like Hokusai, as the level of detail required is extraordinary. The block is carved from a hard wood, such as cherry tree, as it needs to withstand hand printing thousands of times, one at a time. The first print may differ significantly from later prints as the block wears down, and fine details are lost, along with changes in colour.
Once the block is carved, the printer inks it and lays a sheet of paper on top of the inked block. They then use the baren to transfer the ink onto the paper. The artist will mark a proof indicating where the colours are to go, and the carver will create a set of colour blocks. One block is carved for each colour used in the print, ensuring that each print has a one-of-a-kind quality.
The physical labour of printing leaves unique indentations on the surface of the handmade paper, which adds to the print's overall charm. It's a delicate and complicated process that is only possible thanks to a dedicated team of skilled craftsmen. Each member of the team plays an essential role in bringing the artwork to life, and the end result is a unique and beautiful work of art.
The End of Japan's Isolation
The end of Japan's self-imposed isolation in the mid-19th century had significant implications for the world of art, as well as politics and economics. One of the immediate effects of Japan's opening up to the world was the revelation of Japanese art to an astonished global audience. Over the centuries of Japan's isolation, Japanese art had developed in a unique way, resulting in a style that was bold, with intense colours, simple lines, and areas of flat colour. This style of art would go on to influence a whole generation of artists and eventually precipitate modern art.
One artist in particular who was inspired by Japanese art was Vincent van Gogh. In fact, it is believed that one of his most famous paintings, "Starry Night," was directly inspired by a Japanese print called "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" by Hokusai.
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