Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Hokusai, One Hundred Poets--First Print

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was a Japanese painter and printmaker, one of the greatest of the Edo period printmakers, along with Ando Hiroshige.  Hokusai is best known for his woodblock series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, of which The Great Wave off Kanagawa has become most famous.  This piece is from Hokusai's last major series, "One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each As Explained by the Old Nurse."  The series is an exploration of the canonical Japanese poetry anthology, Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, compiled in the thirteenth century.  Hokusai did not create literal representations of the poems, but rather images related to them that express his own personal sense of the poem and its relation to his experiences.  This is the first print in the series, accompanying the first poem in the book:
      Because of the coarseness of the rush-mat
      Of the hut of temporary-hut
      Of the rice of autumn
      As far as concerns my sleeves
      They are becoming wet with dew.
                               –Emperor Tenji

Although Emperor Tenji is not present in the piece, Hokusai depicted the type of rice field alluded to in the poem.  He shows the farmers at work, the water that flows through the field, and the hut that the poem describes.  Although the figures' faces are mostly obscured, their presence is not diminished.  Their agricultural labor and the reality of their rural peasant lives comes through quite strongly.  Among Hokusai's greatest talents was his ability to portray depth.  The water stretches off into the distance, and its spatial presence is made clear with a type of atmospheric perspective.  The mountains in the background are surrounded by mist that helps situate them in the distance.  The sky is also stunningly rendered, with the blue that reflects the water and the red-orange of the sunset that signals the end of the workday.  The reflection element is also mirrored in the water at the very fore of the image; the bridge disappears into nothingness and the white of the misty sky appears again.

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