The photograph at the top of this article appears at first glance to be a detail from the famous woodblock print by the nineteenth century Japanese artist, Katsushika Hokusai: Kanagawami-oki nami-ura… The Great Wave, or its transliterated name, Under the Great Wave off Kanagawa. We are all shortly to be engulfed by this deluge of Hokusai waves as the British Museum, London opens its forthcoming exhibition, Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave.
The image of foaming waters is in fact a hand painted panel – one of two – that decorates the underside of the canopy of a festival float, housed in the Hokusai Museum at Obuse in Japan. There are rumours that this fabulous object is to be expertly dismantled and re-erected in London, to form part of the exhibit celebrating the great artist and his most famous image.
Toshidama Gallery spoke to the Japanese Department at the Museum today and they were mysteriously cautious… neither confirming nor denying that they will be showing this staggering 4.8 metre object. Given that there are only three months to go until the show opens, their reticence to deny the rumour holds the tantalising prospect that this extraordinary object may, uniquely, be on display in Europe this year for the first time.
In Japan, there are countless festivals in provinces, towns, villages and so on. These festivals – partly in the nature of Shinto – celebrate natural phenomena, places, gods, events and so on. They are often colourful occasions and are usually accompanied by elaborate carved floats and chanting, drumming participants. As a very old man, Hokusai spent many months in the the town of Obuse (1844/5), during which time he contributed two painted panels depicting a dragon and a phoenix for the ceiling canopy of the festival float.
Hokusai returned to Obuse the following year during which time he added the two wave panels, Onami – masculine – and Menami – feminine. These paintings post date the Great Wave print by a good fifteen years and yet their debt to the original print is obvious. By this time, Hokusai’s depiction of crashing waves had become the standard form for picturing surf, adopted by all of the Utagawa School of artists, as seen here in a print by Kuniyoshi…
Astonishingly, The Kammachi float also includes the only three dimensional piece known to have been carved by Hokusai. He appears to have spent three years, off and on, creating a painted and carved representation in wood of the legendary figure of Gongsun Sheng and the dragon Yinglong. Gongsun Sheng appears in the Chinese novel, The Water Margin. One of the great classics of Chinese literature, the work assumed a cult-like popularity in Japan in the early part of the nineteenth century, due to its translation and relocation into Japanese.
In 1805 the publisher Kadomaruya started production of the Japanese translation of the Chinese novel Suikoden. This was in part an historical account, in part a folk-tale, of 108 heroes released from a stone tortoise who became magnificent brigands and outlaws in fourteenth century China. They were later pardoned by the Chinese government and went on to defend the dynasty against attack.
The story inspired the great series of prints by Kuniyoshi from 1827 that was to make him famous and establish the warrior print genre for half a century or more. I am illustrating Kuniyoshi’s depiction of the same character that Hokusai carved on the magnificent float at Obuse. The British Museum’s celebration of Hokusai will, I am sure, be a fascinating show… if they can pull off bringing in the great and more or less unknown Kammachi Float from Obuse it will be an undoubted triumph!