Right in the middle of the NGV’s new Hokusai exhibition, two vast waves – crests like white tentacles – threaten to crash down on three fishing boats.

This is The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a woodblock print that has come to be Katsushika Hokusai’s most widely recognised work. Out of around 2000 initial prints of this piece, the NGV has two on display. (Not many of these originals survive – only a handful still exist.)

The print is a focal point of the exhibition, and not just because it’s the most instantly recognisable of the Japanese artist’s work, having been reproduced and referenced countless times in the 180 years since its creation. It’s all there in that one print: Hokusai’s fascination with nature as a vast, towering force, beneath which the human body is a humble, fragile flicker of life. And there’s Mount Fuji in the background: still, ominous, beautiful.

Hokusai is one of the most influential names in Japanese art. He drew prolifically well into his eighties, reducing the essentials of the world to simple lines. His influence today is everywhere. Here, 176 Hokusai works have been brought together, showing the breadth of his work. The elements that Hokusai keeps coming back to –flowing water, wind, thunder – are the ultimate forces in the world. “We’re just tiny, in reality,” says the show’s curator, Wayne Crothers. “We’re tiny figures within the overwhelming forces of nature.”

“The Great Wave shows him as a masterful designer,” Crothers says. “He’s lowered the horizon right to the waterline, so the waves have this towering presence.”

Mt Fuji is drawn in 36 different ways: it’s a solid rock draped in cloud in one print, and a simple curved line over a wild ocean in another. Water is a constant too, including flowing waterfalls that almost seem to move, pouring down with force or cascading over rocks, all articulated with a line of ink.

“He was fascinated with movement,” says Crothers. “Depicting movement is the ultimate challenge for any artist. He wanted to animate drawings. Some of his drawing manuals were produced 75 years before the first animated films, but he’s effectively creating early storyboards.”

Also on show are volumes of the Hokusai Manga, the artist’s drawing manuals, which show his limitless interests; fishermen, ghosts, sea creatures, martial artists and architecture, to name a few. All are imbued with a sense of movement and life.

“These waves are claws,” said Van Gogh of The Great Wave off Kanagawa. “The boat is caught in them, you can feel it.”

Hokusai is at the NGV until October 15.


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