- The Washington Times - Friday, March 10, 2006

The Smithsonian Institution’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery pulls out all the stops with its stunning “Hokusai” exhibit. Famed for breaking traditional Japanese art boundaries, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) revolutionized modern Western art by introducing flat patterning, the rendering of subjects from above and the cutting off of compositions at their edges.

We see this in the show’s first image, the artist’s demonic “Thunder God” (1849) — a deity who carries sticks for drum beating and commandeers lightning — an image that literally “jumps” from the silk-and-colors vertical scroll.

Other biggies follow, including the iconic “Great Wave” (from “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji: Beneath the Wave Off the Coast of Kanagawa”) that influenced art from French impressionists Claude Monet and Edouard Manet to Western modernism — and even decorations on today’s blue jeans.

There’s also the breathtakingly perpendicular “Kirifuri Waterfall at Mount Kurokami in Shimotsuke Province” (from a series of works titled “Traveling Around the Waterfalls in the Provinces”) that surrealistically morphs from torrential falling water into a ghostly woman and back again.

Gentle long-stemmed “Poppies” bow in the wind nearby, much as “The Great Wave” curves over hapless fishermen’s boats beneath.

These three are 1830s color prints made from woodblocks showing Hokusai’s preference for both the bizarre and the beautiful. Nearby, the museum mounted the artist’s lovingly painted “Boy Viewing Mount Fuji” — personally purchased by Freer Gallery of Art founder Charles Lang Freer in 1898 — showing a young peasant flutist seemingly entertaining the distant mountain.

Along with several prints from Hokusai’s extraordinarily successful “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” series, these opening paintings and prints alone make the show worth visiting — but the exhibition is just getting started.

Hokusai, who called himself “the old man crazy about painting” in his later years, worked as if demonically driven during his 70-year-long, often peripatetic career, according to the exhibit catalog. He longed to work until his 100th year, but death claimed him at 89.

His obsession for painting and drawing beautiful women, humble fishermen, peasant farmers, minute bugs, leaping fish, piles of crabs, vengeful ghosts, seven-headed dragons, the fiery exorcist called “Shoki” and the Japanese Buddhist teacher Nichiren is nowhere more evident than in this landmark show.

To make it happen, the Sackler, the adjacent Freer Gallery of Art and the media company Nihon Keizai Shimbun Inc., in cooperation with the Tokyo National Museum, gathered 79 seldom-seen folding screens, scrolls and drawings as well as the better-known woodblock prints and printed books for a once-in-a-lifetime viewing experience.

The enormous pair of six-panel 1830s-era folding screens titled “Country Scenes” — purchased by Freer when he determined to amass the best collection of Hokusai’s later paintings — can be seen only at the Freer-Sackler because the collector’s will forbade their ever leaving the premises.

Exploring the multimedia, many-styled exhibit takes some doing. It is laid out in sections. The first, on the upper level, chronologically introduces Hokusai’s life and art from his apprentice days to those near his death. The second segment, on the lower floor, surveys the artist’s work through themes titled “Humanity,” “Literature and Legend,” “Natural World,” “Supernatural World” (one of the best) and “Late Years.”

It’s clear Hokusai so loved his art that he imbued it with an intense emotional and spiritual strength — something close to the energy-and-spirit interpretations of the Chinese “qi” (the “life force” or “spiritual energy” that is part of everything that exists).

Although Hokusai’s treatment of smaller creatures such as the “Crustaceans” (a grouping of more than 100 crabs and shell-enclosed fish painted on a single page), a vertically swimming “Carp” and a tender “Egret on a Bridge Post” is phenomenal, it’s evident that his “qi” resides in the late, great landscapes for which he’s best known.

Mount Fuji, one of Japan’s national symbols, must have fascinated him. Its styled shape frequently pops up in the show. His talents for improvising and experimenting seem endless in his regal, snow-covered take of “Boy Viewing Mount Fuji” and the tiny Mount Fuji almost hidden behind the water’s crest in “The Great Wave.”

When Hokusai designed his views for “Traveling Around the Waterfalls in the Provinces,” he came up with torrential waters falling in ropelike patterns and in what look like shards of glass.

In his book “An Introduction to the Arts of Japan,” noted Japanese art scholar Peter C. Swann described the work as “Hokusai not so much studying the landscape but tyrannizing it.”

Hokusai takes a similar approach with his depictions of the grotesque and the supernatural, a love of his, which can be surprising for Americans to see. Long a tradition in Japan, ghosts and their agonies captivated him. One especially bizarre one is the skeletal, sad-faced Kohada Koheiji (the ghost from the series “One Hundred Stories”) pulling down the mosquito netting where his wife and her paramour sleep after drowning him.

Continuing his interest in the supernatural, Hokusai, a devout Buddhist, wrote, “Though as a ghost, I shall lightly tread the summer fields” as his last haiku, according to the exhibit catalog.

Near the exhibit’s end, Hokusai’s poignant “Tiger in Snow” appears to float out of the picture as the artist, too, may have seen himself drifting away from his earthly life.

That the tiger was meant as a self-portrait is a nice thought and provides an appropriate closing for this extraordinary show.

WHAT: “Hokusai”

WHERE: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1058 Independence Ave. SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through May 14.

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/633-1000

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