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Freer Gallery honors Hokusai’s enduring artistry

By KAYLEE ZOU | December 5, 2019

Located in the heart of the National Mall is the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the two galleries are adjacent and attached to one another, forming a joint museum that focuses on Asian art. Currently on display at the Freer Gallery for the next year is the exhibit “Hokusai: Mad about Painting,” which I went to view over this Thanksgiving break. 

The exhibit premiered on Nov. 23 and presents a stunning collection of work by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, who lived during the years 1760-1849. The Japanese ambassador was in attendance for the opening day of this exhibit, pointing to the immense cultural significance of showcasing Hokusai’s work. 

To this day, many people call Hokusai the “cultural ambassador of Japan” for his contributions as an artist. In fact, I learned during my visit that his most well-known piece, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” will be featured on new Japanese banknotes soon. 

On Nov. 27, the Freer Gallery held free walk-in tours all day for the Hokusai exhibit. Without needing prior booking, at every hour, visitors had the opportunity to join a docent-led tour of “Hokusai: Mad about Painting.” I participated in one of these tours and learned about Hokusai’s life and art and Japanese culture. 

Hokusi was an incredibly prolific artist. He was extremely self-critical and believed he would perfect his art only when he lived to be 110 years old. Unfortunately, he only lived to be 88 years old. 

Even though Hokusai did not reach his personal goal of 110, the artwork he did produce in his 88 years of life remains universally appreciated. 

Many of Hokusai’s works are characterized by his whimsical portrayal of daily Japanese life as he knew it. There is also an intense reverence for nature present in his work, and the Japanese mindset that humans should not strive to conquer nature but rather to exist in harmony with nature. For example, in the scroll piece “Gazing into the Distance,” on display as part of “Mad about Painting,” Hokusai depicts a small figure of a boy playing the flute while perched on a tree, staring off into the vastness of nature before him. In the background of this piece is a powerful and scenic mountain, which we can assume is Mount Fuji.

In much of Hokusai’s art, he includes depictions of Mount Fuji. Sometimes the references to Mount Fuji can almost be missed, as they are hiding in a corner or in a reflection. 

Additionally there were several of Hokusai’s collections of manga doodles on display. While his collection Hokusai Manga is not necessarily the contemporary manga as we know it, his doodles showcase his wide range of artistic breadth and ability. 

Adding to the complexity of Hokusai as an artist is the art community’s inability to come to a full consensus on which pieces Hokusai actually created himself. Out of the 90 or so Hokusai pieces in the Freer Gallery, only about 50 of them are definitely considered to be authentic.

The tour that the Freer Gallery offered was very entertaining and interactive. At one point, we centered around Hokusai’s “Thunder God” and entered into an emphatic discussion of whether or not the Thunder God painted before us was meant to be a portrayal of Hokusai himself. The visitors in my tour group were captivated by the expression on the Thunder God’s face, with some tour attendees finding the expression to be mischievous and playful while others felt that the Thunder God looked haggard and exhausted.

What makes this exhibit a must-see event is the fact that when it will eventually go off display, in about a year, it truly will be off display. This is because Charles Lang Freer, founder of the Freer Gallery, did not believe in loans. The pieces in the Freer Gallery, for the most part, do not get loaned out to any other museums or galleries. They simply get put into careful storage (This is not true for the Sackler Gallery). For the well-being and preservation of Hokusai’s works, the pieces cannot be on display for longer than about a year.

I personally have not seen enough of Hokusai’s work and hope to take a few more trips over to the Freer Gallery. The great peace and calm that underlies Hokusai’s art transcends centuries and reaches us even today, inviting repeated viewing. 

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