Year 5 to Year 12

This National Gallery of Victoria education resource is part of NGV’s Hokusai, the first major exhibition of his works in Australia. The resource studies the artist, his context, interests, influences and creativity through his artistic output.

Teachers Notes

  • Introduction

    Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849) produced some of the world’s most recognisable and loved works of art during his seventy-year career in Japan. Hokusai’s enormous output of work displays a mastery of the brush, innovative designs, unique observations of people and places, striking use of colour and a playful sense of humour. His masterpieces were the result of collaborations with skilful printmakers and business savvy publishers.

    The exhibition’s 176 works comprising of woodblock prints, paintings and hand-printed books showcase Hokusai’s ability to depict the culture and natural environment of Japan. This exhibition includes complete sets of Hokusai’s major series such as Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji, 1830–34; A Tour to the Waterfalls in Various Provinces, c. 1832; Remarkable Views of Bridges in Various Provinces, c. 1834; Eight Views of the Ryūkyū Islands, c. 1832, and One Hundred Ghost Stories, c. 1831. Three sets of illustrated books, including all fifteen volumes of the Hokusai Manga are also part of the exhibition.

    The exhibition’s curator, Wayne Crothers, Senior Curator of Asian Art, NGV, has worked with major lender Japan Ukiyo-e Museum (JUM) in Matsumoto. They have one of the most comprehensive collections of Hokusai’s work.

    Katsushika Hokusai
    South wind, clear sky (Red Fuji)
    1830–34 from the Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji series The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, Matsumato

    South wind, clear sky (Red Fuji) 1830–34 is one Hokusai’s most revered prints in Japan. It was created using four woodblocks, an asymmetrical design and a European influenced sky. Commonly known as Aka Fuji (Red Fuji), it uncompromisingly focuses on nature as the subject. Nothing in this print suggests human presence. There is only Mt Fuji, Japan’s tallest and most sacred mountain and pilgrimage destination. The remnants of snow and colouration of Mt Fuji indicate late summer or early autumn. Early rays of sunlight saturate the monolith in dark red hues around this time. Look closely at the print to see the hand of the printer in the brushstrokes found in the gradation from red to blue on the lower part of the mountain.

    Questions for students

    Visit the exhibition at NGV, 180 St Kilda Road
    Look at the NGV website

    Watch as a woodblock print is made using traditional Japanese techniques:

    Look at other resources:

    Asian Art

    Japanese Language and Art students:
    Build a glossary of terms particular to Hokusai and art.

  • What was Japan like during Hokusai’s time?

    Hokusai lived during Japan’s Edo period (1603 – 1868) named after the new capital, Edo (modern day Tokyo).  It’s here the Emperor, Shogun and at particular times regional daimyō (lords) resided.

    In a feudal style of government, Japanese society was strictly controlled by the military leader, the Shogun and his regional daimyō. Under them, people were placed in one of four hierarchically ordered classes: samurai, peasants, craftsmen and merchants. A further class were a mixed group of people deemed as outsiders.  These included entertainers, cleaners, butchers, beggars, undertakers and others whose occupations were outside of what was considered respectful professions. Much of Hokusai’s art depicts common people from a range of classes dutifully working and at leisure. It is estimated that 80 per cent of the population were literate which in turn positively affected the burgeoning publishing industry of the time.

    Principles and beliefs found in the ancient religious traditions of Shinto, Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism brought further social order and rich cultural expression. Hokusai was deeply immersed in this mixture of beliefs and practises.

    Strong economic growth and flourishing of the arts was enjoyed by Edo’s population numbering more than one million. At this stage it was the largest populated city in the world.  Living standards grew and access and uptake of entertainment also increased. People sought out the world of pleasure known as Ukiyo (translated as the floating world) through fashion, art, popular entertainment and other pass times.

    Edo’s style-conscious and artistically sophisticated populace keenly sought out the latest trends and objects of desire such as woodblock prints. Hokusai and his publishers were active in their search for vogues and markets. Literature, the exotic, birds, flowers, bijin (beautiful women), kabuki actors, manga, the supernatural, religion and places of geographic significance were produced as prints.

    Despite travel restrictions placed on the general population, people were permitted to travel on pilgrimages. In many of Hokusai’s work we see a range of visitors at sites of interest and delight from Mt Fuji to waterfalls and bridges.  Despite Japan rigorously isolating itself from the world, information and books about western sciences and art were imported by Dutch traders. These deeply affected Hokusai and influenced his work.

    At various stages of the Edo period, there were destabilising crises. During Hokusai’s time, particularly in the 1830s, famine and natural disasters were experienced. Alongside these Hokusai encountered enormous personal challenges. As a mark of resilience, these years were his most productive and successful.

    Globally, change was on its way with powerful and wealthy nations wanting Japan to end its isolation and participate in trade and cultural exchange.

    Katsushika Hokusai
    Famous places on the Tōkaidō at a glance
    1818 The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, Matsumoto (image coming soon)

    A vast network of roads established by the Shogun allowed daimyō, samurai, pilgrims, communication and goods efficient movement throughout Japan. One famous road was the Tōkaidō (Eastern Sea Road) which connected Edo and Kyoto. It was about 550 kilometres in length and took approximately twenty-one days to travel. Towns along the way provided accommodation, refreshments and entertainment. Hokusai produced this large-format map showing all fifty-three station-towns and many other locations between Nihonbashi Bridge and Edo Castle in the bottom right and Kyoto in the upper right. Both cities have their names in large circular cartouches whilst other sites have names in rectangular ones. Two key geographic features, Mt Fuji and Lake Biwako are recognisable. Hokusai’s imagination holds sway as he plays with geographic accuracy.

    Questions for students

    Try drawing a map of Japan with its four main islands (Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu) and Okinawa without looking at a map. Locate on your drawing Tokyo, Nagoya, Mt Fuji, Lake Biwako, Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, Matsumoto (where most of the exhibition works of art are usually located).

    Now try doing this with a reference.

    Research and present ten main points about Japan’s geography.

  • Hokusai’s names

    The artist we know as Hokusai had as many as thirty names during his life. Several key names were:
    • Tokitaro
    He was born in Edo, on 23 September 1760, in the year of the dragon – the most auspicious and powerful animal in the zodiac calendar. He was designated toki after the name of the dragon, and taro indicated that he was a first-born son.

    • Tetsuzō
    At about the age of three (1763), Tokitaro is believed to have been adopted by his uncle Nakajima Ise, who changed the boy’s name to Tetsuzō.

    • Shunrō
    He signs using this name during the first fourteen years of his career (from about 1780) at the Shunsho Katsukawa School. ‘Shunrō’ honours the master. See Shunsho’s work and influential style in ‘The actor Onoe Tamizo I as Kureha in the play Shusse Taiheiki’

    • Sori / Kako
    Having departed the Katsukawa School in 1794 he stopped using the name Shunrō and from this time onwards his works appeared signed with the new name Sori and, in the case of many bijin-ga prints (pictures of beautiful women), Kako.

    • Hokusai
    Around the turn of the century the signature ‘Hokusai’, in various forms, appears on most of his work. Hokusai means ‘north studio’ and his other name Katsushika is the part of Edo where he was born.

    • Zen Hokusai Iitsu
    In 1820 Hokusai reached the auspicious age of sixty. The zodiac yearly cycle used in Japan and China is based on five elements and twelve animals, and lasts a full sequence of sixty years. Having reached this momentous age Hokusai playfully rename himself Iitsu, or ‘one year again’, with the new signature ‘Zen Hokusai Iitsu’.

    Questions for students

    Produce a time line of the artist’s life noting important dates, places, people and art works/series of art works. Limit yourself to ten moments with rich information.

    Make a list all of his names and their individual significance.

  • A short biography of Hokusai

    Iijima Kyoshin’s 1893 biography of Katsushika Hokusai provides a basis for understanding much about this man mad about drawing.
    Hokusai spent the first fourteen years of his career at the Katsukawa Shunshō School. The master Shunshō ran Edo’s most contemporary and fashionable studio. Subjects Hokusai created included kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, mythical characters and some of his first landscapes. In his early career Hokusai experimented with European concepts of design (e.g. diminishing perspective and shadowing).

    Iijima tells us Hokusai was determined. After being expelled from the Katsukawa School possibly because of the jealousy of fellow students Hokusai was resolute in his aim to become the best artist in the world. By his thirties he was well known for his actor prints and other illustrations. The nineteenth century advances in printing techniques stimulated his own development.
    Hokusai was amongst a number of artists who were privately commissioned by wealthy merchants to create deluxe prints called surimono and poetry albums. No expense was spared in these small editions. It’s also at this time we see the beginnings of his obsession with the iconic, Mt Fuji.

    In his mid-career Hokusai’s subjects were especially original and wide ranging. Kabuki actors, bijin and landscapes were being refined in his painting, printing and book illustration. Experimentation, subtle satire and humour were found in his historic, mythological and spiritual subjects. Contrasting with other artists of the day Hokusai employed ordinary people working in real occupations in non-idealised locations. The pleasure seeking middle classes enjoyed the fun and adventure filled depictions.

    Hokusai produced his most outstanding works late in his career. In the space of six years, (1830 to 1836) he made some of the most extraordinary visual imagery that remain the most iconic in Asian art. At the time the Edo print loving public had an insatiable desire for his work.

    From the age of 76 Hokusai almost exclusively worked on paintings and drawings. His economic hardships continued through poor management of his finances and having irresponsible grandchildren. In 1839 life was made even more difficult when his residence burnt down. He managed to save only a handful of paint brushes. One obsession during these difficult times was drawing each day mythological shishi (dancing lion dogs) hoping they would bring good fortune, protect against illness and allow him to achieve one hundred years of age. Like Hokusai’s The great wave off Kanagawa (The great wave), 1830–34. that teases but never quite reaches the fishermen, one hundred years alluded the old man mad about drawing. He died on April 18, 1849 at the age of 89.

    He greatly influenced Japanese artists during and after his life. Hokusai was instrumental in causing changes in art and design in Europe especially during the late nineteenth century.

    Hokusai only ever produced a handful of supposed self-portraits. Two such examples are presented within the exhibition: Fisherman on the seashore and Man washing potatoes. They were completed in his seventies when he was well known and popular. Both balding characters enjoy a pensive moment away from their work. The old fisherman, relaxed and content, smokes his pipe and rests on a rock, whilst the man washing potatoes halts his work to take in the remarkable autumnal full moon from his elevated position. The latter uses three shades of diluted Prussian blue, a non-fading pigment imported into Japan at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Today, 186 years later the blue appears with similar intensity as at the time of its release.

    Katsushika Hokusai
    Fisherman on seashore rock (Self-Portrait as a fisherman)
    c. 1830s
    Colour woodblock
    The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, Matsumoto

    Katsushika Hokusai
    Man washing potatoes

    From an untitled series of blue prints 1831
    Colour woodblock
    The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, Matsumoto

    Questions for students

    Research several fascinating episodes of Hokusai making art unusually, such as:

    1. Hokusai paints a flock of sparrows on a single grain of rice,
    2. In 1804 Hokusai produces a colossal painting in Gogoku-ji Temple in Edo
    3. Hokusai’s legendary challenge with the traditional nanga (Chinese Southern School) painter Tani Bunshō in front of Shōgun Tokugawa Ienari.

  • Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji

    Hokusai’s famous Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji series, 1830–34 uniquely celebrated his love of this mystical Mt Fuji and his belief in the intimate connection between humanity and nature. For Hokusai landscape was no longer a background and secondary element. It became the central subject and ordinary workers and travellers were an integral part of it.

    Mt Fuji is Japan’s most sacred natural feature. At 3776 metres, this volcano dominates the landscape and is visible from the capital city of Edo one hundred kilometres away on a clear day. It last erupted in 1707 blanketing Edo in ash. Its spiritual awe founded in Japan’s indigenous native belief system, Shinto, has fed the imagination of painters, poets and people throughout history. Today it continues to be a place of pilgrimage and key symbol of Shintoism and Japan.

    Completed during the peak of his career, theThirty-six Views of Mt Fuji series, 1830–34  series contains many of Hokusai’s most famous and internationally recognised images.

    Mt Fuji is shown from all manner of viewpoints, seasons and weather.

    Publisher Nishimuraya Yohachi and Hokusai understood the public sentiment surrounding this national icon and so produced the series. Interestingly, an additional ten compositions were later added because of its popularity. They are known as Ura Fuji, (Fuji from Behind) because six of the ten are views of the rear of the mountain. Despite there being forty-six designs, the title remained the Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji.

    As you look at each, note the changes in the sophistication of the palette and the use of Prussian blue, a newly introduced colour in Japan.

    Japanese and Western audiences view this image differently. Japanese audiences of the nineteenth century accustomed to reading from right to left and top to bottom experience this dramatic image differently. Westerners instantly encounter the monstrous wave mercilessly crashing on top of the boats, whereas the Japanese viewer is in the boat racing down the far right wave and sliding underneath the protective gaze of Mt Fuji. Just afterwards the team of fisherman ferrying fish to Edo faces an insurmountable wall of water. Beyond a possible bout of sea-sickness we are left guessing their fate. Is Hokusai alluding to the fear and uncertainty Japan felt at the time as it faced off against the modern world knocking at its door? It seems the door was already slightly ajar – Hokusai uses European painting conventions and employs an imported German synthetic paint known as Prussian blue. About 2000 to 5000 impressions were made of The wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave) and a single copy sold for the price of about two servings of noodles. Within a few decades of Hokusai and other Ukiyo-e artists’ work were keenly admired and sought after in Europe and beyond.

    Katsushika Hokusai
    The great wave off Kanagawa (The great wave)
    from the Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji series
    National Gallery of Victoria, Australia

    Questions for students

    View Mt Fuji in a mirror or flip it in a drawing app. Compare the differences and the effect on your reading of each format.

    Acquire a copy of the Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji, 1830–34; series and display them in a room. Ask each student to choose one print.
    Each student completes the following tasks:
    Provide annotations about the picture. Write four sentences using your annotations. Present them in one of several groups.

    If we were to choose an Australian geographic icon, what would it be?
    Using Hokusai as inspiration draw four mini sketches of viewing it from various perspectives. It may include people, different times of the day, Australian flora and fauna, from above or below or at eye-level.

    Hokusai was a devotee of Buddhism and Shintoism.
    Research both religious traditions noting briefly their beliefs, rituals, stories, symbols, buildings, special people.

    Hokusai saw the natural world linked intimately and spiritually to humanity. Indigenous Australians believe the land is sacred too.
    What do we know about Australia’s indigenous religious traditions?
    Visit NGV Australia in Federation Square to see how it is expressed through art.

  • Remarkable Views of Bridges in Various Provinces

    Hokusai enjoyed travelling and taking in the sights of the natural world and observing human activity. His series Remarkable Views of Bridges in Various Provinces brings together his fascination of both.

    He originally had planned to produce a print series of one hundred bridges. Of these, eleven were realised. It is of interest to note they were published in the same year as the final works of Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji whilst in his mid-seventies.

    Hokusai switches his focus from producing visually dynamic designs found in other series to poetically illustrating places and people. He lyrically records the architecture of these bridges.

    The bridges depict those found in the major cities of Edo and Osaka, the charming surrounding areas of Kyoto, others along the Tōkaidō Road and several further afield. Hokusai took considerable artistic freedom considering several of the bridges were only known to him through historical accounts and travel tales.

    Like literature, the prints invite escape through imagined journeys and river crossings. They poetically illustrate danger and opportunity found in crossing from the familiar to the unknown.

    Of the eleven, three bridges Hokusai depicted have been reconstructed during the twentieth century whereas the remainder no longer exist.

    Kintai Bridge is located near Hiroshima and is the furthest bridge from Edo in Hokusai’s Remarkable Views of Bridges in Various Provinces series. The bridge was built by the Iwakuni Domain daimyo to complement the approach to his castle. Its fascinatingly designed arches traverse the Nishiki River.

    In this image, clouds, driving rain and wind gusts challenge the people as they cross the 175-metre-long bridge. One group includes a samurai discernible by his two swords (collectively called daisho).

    Designed with famously strong Japanese mortise and tenon joints it weathered floods and earthquakes for 276 years. A typhoon destroyed it in 1950. Within three years it was reconstructed and today it attracts large numbers of tourists.

    Kitsushika Hokusai
    The Kintai Bridge in Suō Province
    c. 1834 from the Remarkable Views of Bridges in Various Provinces series
    The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, Matsumoto
    Colour woodblock

    Questions for students

    Three of the bridges Hokusai illustrated actually exist today. Research which ones and find photographs of each. Compare the photographs you source with Hokusai’s prints. Note the similarities and differences.

    In groups make a list of ten Melbourne bridges and then source photographs.
    Using Hokusai’s style produce simple drawings of each on A4 paper using a common blue ink pen. (He loved using Prussian blue paint in his designs.) Photocopy each three times reducing the scale by half. Apply colour using pencils or paint carefully.

    Extend the exercise by using your own photography with your own models. Play with filters or using a computer program/application.

  • A Tour to the Waterfalls in Various Provinces

    A series of waterfall prints had never been attempted in the history of Japanese print making. In this series Hokusai took the theme of depicting moving water to a new and unprecedented level. His pictures can be seen as iconography of nature worship and Hokusai invited the viewer to make a pilgrimage through them.

    The mesmerising designs dynamically represent falling water in many ways from a powerful single column of water to gentle trickling streams. Using a vertical format, the water’s energy is captured using only two shades of Prussian blue and the white colour of the paper. Inclusions of other colours and elements further enliven them. Scale and power are given emphasis through the presence of people engaged in a range of activities (picnicking, exploring, bathing, working, resting or simply gazing). In this series he returns to a more traditional Japanese pictorial convention of assembling an assortment of flat shapes representing the elements of the landscape.

    His eight compositions were located throughout the main island of Honshu: From a valley near the pilgrimage sites of Nikkō Tōshōgu to the mountainous domains of Yoshino near Nara.

    Hokusai’s The Amida Falls in the far reaches of the Kisokaidō Road is highly unusual. It is composed using two viewpoints of the same waterfall, one from above contained in the circular element and the other a frontal viewpoint. The name honours Amida Nyōrai, the most popular Buddhist deity in Japan. His shape and halo are articulated by the waterfall and circular form. A cave containing Buddhist sculptures sits behind the sixty-metre-high waterfall. Hokusai creates wondrous depth using various tones of Prussian blue and by placing a samurai and his companion in the foreground. Both enjoy tea on a straw mat whilst taking in the breathtaking view.

    The Amida Falls in the far reaches of the Kisokaidō Road 1834–35 from A Tour to the Waterfalls in Various Provinces series The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, Matsumoto

    Questions for students

    Hokusai enjoyed visiting places of natural beauty and wonder. He also loved a challenge. Imagine trying to draw and paint fast moving water before the invention of the camera! Look at his waterfalls in this series of prints. Note how he successfully achieves capturing movement in his work. It’s now your turn. If possible, visit a waterfall nearby or look at a video of a waterfall. Try capturing it in a drawing. Note where Victoria’s or Australia’s most dramatic waterfalls are located. Produce a series of drawings or simple prints of them as a group.

  • Eight Views of the Ryukyu Islands

    In 1832 more than two hundred officials with their attendants from the Ryūkyū Kingdom visited the Tokugawa Shogun in Edo. Hokusai witnessed a spectacular procession of exotically attired and foreign speaking people from the archipelago south of mainland Japan. The islands today are known as Okinawa.

    In the hope of further commercial success by riding the surge of public interest, Hokusai and his publisher produced eight compositions . Having never visited there he appropriated images from Ryūkyū Kokushiryaku (An Encyclopaedia of the Ryūkyū Kingdom) published in 1831. These in turn were based on the Chinese book Liuqiu-guo Zhilue (Brief History of the Ryūkyū Kingdom) by Zhou Huang (1757). Not unlike the global practise of art today, it was common in Japanese and Chinese paintings to adapt elements, conventions, subjects and even compositions.

    Hokusai imbues his work with a marvellous palette of Prussian blue, green, yellow and hints of orange to add exotic emphasis. Despite the impossibility of snow falling in the sub-tropical Ryūkyū islands, Hokusai adds it to one scene. Wayne Crothers, the exhibition curator, suggests it was perhaps a reference to the winter experience of the delegation visiting Edo or Hokusai appropriating the classic Song dynasty theme ‘Eight Views of Xiao and Xiang’.

    Study the figures traversing bridges, causeways and journeying through villages around the Ryūkyū islands’ capital city Naha. They are diminutive in comparison to characters in other landscape prints.

  • One Hundred Ghost Stories

    The spiritual world is embedded in the Japanese religious imagination through the religions of Buddhism and Shinto. Aspects of Japanese performing arts communicate stories about ghosts, demons and the supernatural. Shinto dance and Noh theatre performances bring alive memories and moral dilemmas of mystical beings, ghosts and the living. Kabuki, a newer form of popular theatre, tells stories of love, betrayal, murder and ghostly payback based on real events. It is from this rich pantheon of characters and folklore Hokusai produces the One Hundred Ghost Stories, c. 1831 series.

    The first Japanese collection of one hundred ghost stories was published in 1677. Subsequently they have been kept alive and whispered through books, prints, card games and more recently as manga comic books, animations and films.

    Hokusai and the publisher Tsuruya Kiemon had planned one hundred compositions but there were only five images produced. This 1831 series is a unique genre. Hokusai has imaginatively captured a handful of spine-chilling stories and one can only imagine their reception by a nineteenth century superstitious audience.

    Who is this ghost rising out of a well at night? Look at her long, strangely shaped neck. What lies underneath her long wet hair? In this print Hokusai tells the story of Okiku – a servant to the samurai Aoyama who was looking after ten very special plates. Aoyama’s wife accidently broke one, threw it in a well and blamed Okiku. Aoyama locked up Okiku and treated her terribly. She escaped and in despair threw herself into a well and drowned. Every night afterwards Okiku’s spooky voice was heard tormenting Aoyama.

    The mansion of the plates c. 1831 from the One Hundred Ghost Stories series The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, Matsumoto

    Questions for students

    Hokusai loved a good ghost story. They filled his head with great images which he translated into extraordinary drawings. In popular Japanese culture ghost stories are retold in games. One favourite is the simple retelling by a group of people in a dark room. Another form is the more dramatic and chilling experience found in the gradual extinguishing of one hundred candles as each story from the famous One Hundred Ghostly Stories are told. Do you know of any ghost stories?

    Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, Matsumoto, has loaned some of the most exceptional Ukiyo-e prints. Experience how the NGV has decided to exhibit these works with particularly light sensitive colour pigments.

    Conserving works of art is a really important job at the NGV. Lots of thought, time and work is put into caring for the thousands of objects the gallery owns. Considerations are made for their storage and presentation. At times the object requires direct work such as reassembling, cleaning or mending. For this exhibition the gallery has limited the lighting to preserve them. Listen to Ruth Shirvington, NGV Conservator, discuss her role in the video on the NGV website:

  • Snow, Moon and Flowers

    In 1833 Hokusai produced three landscape prints which together represent the four seasons. The scenes are of Snow on the Sumida River in Edo (winter); the autumn Moon light on the Yodo River in Japan’s other great metropolis, Osaka; and Cherry blossoms at Yoshino near Nara. Snow, moon and flowers were a favourite trio of motifs in Chinese Tang dynasty poetry. Together they are called setsu-getsu-ka and are often referenced in bijin and kabuki prints. Look carefully at the variety of subtle white hues amongst other colours used for each season.

    Watch how your eye moves when viewing Moonlight on the Yodo River (Yodogawa) c. 1833, from the series Snow, Moon, and Flowers (Setsugekka). There is much to take in. In this print nature meets and interacts with human endeavour. Elements of the natural world include the low autumn harvest moon, mountains and mist, paddy fields with pockets of other vegetation and a calm and populated river scene. Boats are being punted and others pulled. Osaka Castle majestically rises out of the water. Perspective is managed between the zigzagging formation of the boats and the severe straight lines articulating the castle walls and tower. Shachihoko – mythical animals composed of a tiger’s head and carp’s body, decorate the roof of the castle. It was believed they would encourage rain and prevent fires.

  • One Hundred Poems explained by the Nurse

    Hokusai has playfully brought to life Japan’s best known and most celebrated anthology of poems, the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. Compiled in Ogura, Kyoto by the nobleman and poet Fujiwara no Teika in 1235, they have been appropriated through the ages by artists and designers.

    Along with other artists of the Edo period, Hokusai parodies classical literature in his works of art. This was especially popular with the townspeople. In place of highly formularised accounts of court life or portraits of poets in classical attire, Hokusai places ordinary people enjoying life’s simple pleasures or happily carrying out daily chores. It seems fitting that Hokusai’s final series of colour prints brings to life his great passion for the classical poetry of ancient Japan starring the humble people of his day.

    Although Hokusai produced drawings for the full set of one hundred poems only twenty-seven prints were produced as prints. Some suggest the economic crisis and the famine of the 1830s restricted the ambitious project.

    I have never heard
    That, e’en when the gods held sway In the ancient days,
    E’er was water bound with red
    Such as here in Tatsuta’s stream.

    Ariwara no Narihira responds to the rich and wondrous autumn colours found in the Tatsuta River near the ancient capital of Nara. A reader can hear the poet’s rich appreciation and the viewer can feel Hokusai’s love of landscape as they take in the riot of red, orange and yellow leaves floating gently beneath the bridge. Hokusai’s nurse reinterprets the scene with farmers, a small family and cheerful travellers. Ariwara no Narihira was an interesting nineteenth century man who engaged famously in both battle and poetry.

    Ariwara no Narihira Ason 1835–36 from the One Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse series The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, Matsumoto

    Questions for students

    The one hundred poems are composed in the Waka style:
    five lines using a pattern of phonetic syllables that number five, seven, five, seven, seven.

    Research Japanese Waka styled poetry and enjoy reading several.
    Now try your hand at composing your own Waka styled poem using one of the twenty-seven prints in this series as stimuli. Share them with your class mates.

    Ariwara no Narihira’s writings are believed to have formed the basis for the renown Ise Monogatari (Tales of Ise). Find English translations of several of his 125 works in Ise Monogatari. Extend the activity by sketching one of the poems.

  • Birds and flowers

    In Japan and China birds, insects and flowers carry symbolic significance. They link to the changing seasons and evoke an emotional mood. As you view this series try to understand where Hokusai is leading you. Birds and flowering plants are subjects throughout his artistic output. We see rich examples in his manga, poetry albums and privately commissioned deluxe prints (surimono).

    Two series of kachō-e (pictures of birds and flowers) were released in 1833-34. The first, known as Large Flowers, numbers ten and are printed in the oban (large sheet) format. With a fine eye for detail Hokusai depicted birds, flowers and insects such as lilies, poppies, swallows, horseflies and butterflies.

    The second, known as Small Flowers, also numbers ten and are printed in the more intimate Chuban (half sheet) format. Hokusai beautifully illustrated the seasons with matchings of flowers and birds. Commonly sighted birds (wagtails, nightingales and swallows) and introduced species such as the canary are illustrated. The birds’ distinctive variety of perches and other movements add energy and interesting perspectives. Joining the illustrations are Japanese and Chinese poems in calligraphic script.

    Questions for students

    Bring to life a Hokusai bird sketch.
    Put together twenty A6 sized pieces of paper.
    Using a drawing based on one of Hokusai’s birds as a starting point, sketch small varied images (one on each page) to produce a flip book. Include other elements to add further interest.
    Try doing the same using a stop motion or animation app such as:
    Animation Desk for iOS

  • A True Mirror of Chinese and Japanese poetry

    Chinese literature and poetry has a long history of appreciation and reference in Japan. The merchant class during the Edo period eagerly pursued knowledge through books and Ukiyo-e prints. Hokusai had a passion for classic literature and poetry throughout his life.

    Six of the ten richly coloured nagaban are in the exhibition. They are in a format that resemble a traditional picture scroll and showcase some of Hokusai’s encyclopedic knowledge of Japanese and Chinese literature.

    The artist eschews the real world for the literary, mythological and historical. Using nanga (Chinese Southern School painting) compositional principles, depth is created using diagonally zigzagging forms with a gradual reduction in scale of people and objects.

    Famous and acclaimed poets are contextualized by scenes from their writing or real life episodes.

    The series was published when Hokusai was enjoying great popularity.

    Bai Juyi 1833–34 from A True Mirror of Chinese and Japanese Poetry series The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, Matsumoto
    Bai Juyi, a famed Chinese poet of the Tang dynasty visits Japan and enters into a poetry and dancing duel with two fishermen. One is the disguised Sumiyoshi, the god of Japanese poetry. The print expressed the Japanese fear of China’s threat to its local culture and sovereignty through its ever popular literature and poetry. Bai Juji attempts to subdue Japan through his prose. Sumiyoshi counters by noting that Japan’s sophistication knows no bounds – even nightingales and frogs compose poetry. Defeated, Bai Juyi returns to China represented by the mysterious floating mountains and clouds in the background.

    Questions for students

    Poetry is a very evocative form of literature. Its playful and clever use of text has been described as paintings with words.

    Look at other Hokusai works from this series. Search for classic Japanese and Chinese poems translated into English. Recite some of the works to an audience using props and drama.

    Ask your family and friends about their favourite poems. Collate an album of as many you can source from those around you. Look far and wide to gather some you wish to share with others and include in your poetry album.

  • Paintings

    Hokusai was a painter and a printmaker who sought to continually refine his skills. Through his brush he was able to infuse his very soul into all manner of subjects. His prints and paintings bring to life his world with convincing personality and vitality. The National Gallery of Victoria brings to Australia four rare Hokusai paintings generously lent by the Japanese Ukiyo-e Museum in Matsumoto, Japan.

    Filial son at Yōrō Waterfall 1804–05 The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, Matsumoto
    Hokusai paints a scene from the folktale The Enchanted Waterfall. With Confucius principles in mind, Hokusai depicts a critical moment in the story. A humble woodcutter caring for his aging, sick and blind father found a waterfall which had been magically turned into sake. The dutiful son returned to his father with his gourd bottle full. Upon drinking it the father’s sight and good health returned. When villagers heard the story they raced to the healing source. On arrival, they were infuriated to find the waterfall tasted only of water. Using Japanese script, part of the story is written on the painting by Asakusa an Ichibito who loved art and wanted artists to work with poets. Hokusai and he collaborated on several poetry illustrated albums early in the nineteenth century.

  • Hokusai Manga

    Hokusai’s Manga made him internationally famous. Manga means diverse or random line drawings and had been coined around Hokusai’s time. Fifteen volumes of Hokusai manga containing nearly 4000 images were published between 1814 and 1878. The quantity and diversity of the monochromatic illustrations are impressive.
    His picture books cover everyday life, plants, animals, natural surroundings, the supernatural and classic Japanese and Chinese literature and poetry. His observations of people gainfully going about their business and enjoying every day activities are astutely and energetically illustrated. People are seen fighting, swimming, cooking, bathing, sleeping, dancing and practising martial arts (including escape techniques). We also see contortionists, magicians and sumo wrestlers as well as saints and heroes. Their poses and postures challenge the western style of the day.
    Throughout his career he is influenced by Chinese and European art traditions and elements of each are found in his manga. His drawings of the everyday laced with a deep knowledge of classical art and literature gives commoners access to a previously elitist world.
    Hokusai’s influence on artists producing manga right through to the present day cannot be understated.

    Questions for students

    Imagine filling a book with your own drawings of the world around you! Fifteen Hokusai manga books were printed during the nineteenth century. They made him very famous. Manga means diverse or random line drawings. Look carefully at any of his manga. His subjects and their depictions are amazingly varied. We find people fighting, swimming, dancing, practising martial arts (including escape techniques), crazy looking deep sea creatures, giant leaves that cover a human adult, contortionists, magicians, sumo wrestlers and even a three eyed ogre. The more you look the more you see.

    Research Hokusai’s manga and find pages depicting people. Mimic them and take photos. Build up a page of images with you or friends as the subject.

    Try an analogue version using your own observations of the world around you. Fill a small visual diary with pen drawings as you go about your week.

  • One Hundred Views of Mt Fuji

    Clearly Hokusai was enamoured with Japan’s most sacred mountain, Mt Fuji. Having completed the colourful and highly successful Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji series in 1834 he turned his hand to produce One Hundred Views of Mt Fuji almost immediately afterwards. Hokusai took on this ambitious project during his later years. Citing diverse locations in different seasons and complemented by a cast of people employed in all manner of activities, Hokusai paid homage to the sacred mountain of immortality.

    Through a collaboration of several publishers his One Hundred Views of Mt Fuji was printed in three books in 1834, 1835 and c. 1839. The bound monochromatic images showing different dramatic views of Japan’s tallest mountain have been judged as one of the great masterpieces in the history of book illustration. Despite considerable artistic rivalry, many acknowledge he was the master in this domain.

    The viewer is mesmerised by his boundless imagination. Using line, mark making and dramatic composition, Hokusai creates wonderfully expressive figures and diverse views of Mt Fuji. Enjoy locating figures fishing, working, picnicking and walking whilst Mt Fuji is framed by swaying willow trees, a bamboo grove, cherry blossoms in full bloom, the arches of a bridge, or even as an upside down projection through a pinhole in the wall onto a paper sliding screen.

    At the end of the first volume Hokusai added a short and whimsical autobiography. It appears below. He expresses his desire for artistic immortality before he reached the age of 110. Despite living only to eighty-nine, Hokusai’s extraordinary oeuvre brought him international fame within a few decades after his death.

    From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the forms of things. By the time I was fifty I had published an infinity of designs; but all I produced before the age of seventy is not worth taking into account. At seventy-three I learned a little about the real structure of nature, of animals, plants, trees, birds, fishes and insects. In consequence, when I am eighty I shall have made still more progress; at ninety I shall penetrate the mystery of things; at one hundred I shall certainly have reached a marvellous stage; when I am one hundred and ten everything I do, be it a dot or a line, will be alive. I beg those who live as long as I to see I do not keep my word.
    – Katsushika Hokusai, One Hundred Views of Mt Fuji (1834)

  • The Life of Shakyamuni

    The eighty-five-year-old Hokusai collaborated with writer Yamada Isai to produce a six volume publication interpreting the life of the historical Buddha known as Shakyamuni or Gautama Siddartha.

    Fifty-three episodes cover Shakyamuni’s life from birth in the kingdom of Kapilavastu to the return of his cremated remains there on the back of a huge elephant. Hokusai contributes thirty-five visually breath-taking illustrations to give a fresh perspective on this famous religious story. Twelve are appropriated depictions from historical biographies whilst twenty-three are original and innovative representations.

    We see in this late work dynamic compositions and skilful line work. Mid-nineteenth century woodblock carvers and printers complement his creativity by employing a whole new level of sophistication to printmaking techniques. This is his last book project and visually his most sumptuous. Ornate architecture, exotic landscapes, eccentric characters and petrifying mythical beasts dynamically fill his work. Hokusai breaks with convention and plays with both vertical and horizontal double page formats.

    As a devout Buddhist immersed in a culture embracing the mystical and mythological this publication seems a fitting oeuvre bookend.

    Tested and initiated into four gathas’ The Life of Shakyamuni Vol. III 1845 National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

    Imagine encountering this demonic creature as you rest to take in the panoramic views and ponder life’s great questions. The haloed Shakyamuni attired in humble robes sits in the bottom right silently reciting gathas. These short poems, songs or verses aid meditation and the pathway to enlightenment. Shakyamuni seems abruptly threatened by this frightening and monstrously proportioned apparition. It has clawed hands and feet, hairy wrinkled skin, double horns and a snarling grin. The apparition is larger than the landscape and only hemmed in by the vertically orientated double page. The demon reaches towards his prey about to ensnare the contemplative and unmoved Shakyamuni. The reader is left wanting to know more.
    Hokusai designed some of the most extraordinary creatures throughout his career. His vivid imagination and fascination with the supernatural world lives on today in the work of contemporary Japanese illustrators inspired by Hokusai.

    Questions for students

    Albrecht Durer was a highly accomplished German woodblock print artist from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. His work was technically innovative and deeply influenced artists of his day in Europe.

    Compare Hokusai’sTested and initiated into four gathas’ The Life of Shakyamuni Vol. III 1845 to Albrecht Durer’s woodcut print The Beast With Two Horns Like A Lamb from The Apocalypse Series, Published 1498.

    It can be sourced from the NGV’s website: