The image is like a scene from some pornographic version of Quatermass. A naked woman reclines in the throes of ecstasy; situated slightly provocatively between her thighs, tuning her nipple like a radio dial and caressing her limbs and more intimate regions with its manifold tentacles, is a huge, bulging-eyed octopus. A second, smaller one limpets onto her neck, performing what seems to be the cephalopod equivalent of a French kiss. Bizarre and rather disturbing, it is all a long way from Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.

In fact, as the hundreds of plates in this book attest, Hokusai’s work has a breadth and versatility that might surprise those who know the artist principally for those seemingly endless depictions of Tokyo’s celebrated conical volcano. There are, of course, plenty of graceful landscapes, such as the self-descriptive series Rare Views of Famous Japanese Bridges. (Many of these river crossings are hilariously impractical; for example, the Drum Bridge at the Kameido Tenjin Shrine, with its upturned-U design, is surely too steep for wise masters and other elderly travellers to ascend.) But the way in which Hokusai handled these genre scenes is what marks him out as the greatest of the Japanese artists – in many of the Fuji series the image of the mountain is subsidiary to, say, the celebrated Great Wave or a cooper constructing a huge barrel. What is remarkable about the octopod congress, too, is its unorthodox treatment of a popular genre – in a culture without a concept of Original Sin, shunga (or erotica) was not frowned upon as taboo.

Hokusai’s compositional daring is matched by his impressive range of styles. There are technical drawings of a pistol that could almost be from a modern-day instruction manual, portraits of poets with cloaks constructed from fluid Japanese script in a manner that is reminiscent of Gerald Scarfe, and a sketch of a chicken that looks like a Rorschach inkblot with head and feet added on. And it is also intriguing quite how much there is here that would appeal to the sort of spot-faced teenager who slouches around comic shops in a black hooded top: for example, the aforementioned mollusc erotica, horribly hairy samurai in combat, and a monster brandishing a severed head with ghoulish joie de vivre.

In these prints and paintings we can see the gestation of today’s Japanese manga – the word originally meant “random sketches”, and is applied to some of Hokusai’s work – as well as the Japonisme of late 19th-century Europe. The latter is briefly dealt with in the final chapter, which suggests that the reason Hokusai in particular was so influential was his “indispensable aura of eccentricity and freedom from conventions” – qualities that appeal as much in this century as they did to the Paris avant-garde.

First published in World of Interiors issue 254. Reproduced with permission.


by Gian Carlo Calza  (Phaidon)

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