Thursday, September 3, 2015

Hokusai Has Left the Building

If I'm being honest, he actually left quite a while ago. Eek. Timeliness.

In the interim, though, there are three things about Hokusai and the era in which he lived that have resonated with me.

First, woodblock printing is a daunting task. It's no secret that I have spent a great deal of time in the Museum of Fine Arts. Most of that time has been spent admiring the layered brushstrokes and combinations of colors, all-out awed by their composition and the creation of a masterful image that I know I could never do.  In addition to the attention paid to layering and colors, there is a spatial component to woodblock printing, too. The woodblocks themselves must be created as the mirror of the intended image and each color must be placed on its own woodblock in such a way that it perfectly lines up with the entirety of the image. Short of automation, it is difficult to conceive of how this process can take place. Of course, others are taking up its preservation (and using Mario Kart as the inspiration to do it, no less!).

More than printing with woodblocks, Hokusai worked in other art forms - and very commercial ones at that. Many even link Hokusai's popularity outside of his home country to the opening of Japan to Western markets in 1853, a time period marked by surges in popularity of Japanese art, commercial and fine, in the United States and Western Europe. Kind of like Egyptomania. With trade opened, though not entirely voluntarily, the road was paved for Japanese goods to reach American and European consumers. I can't say for sure that collectors would have received any Hokusai-designed, ready-to-assemble dioramas, but if they had, they must have been fascinated by them. They are incredibly detailed recreations of slice-of-life moments that tell imaginative stories. For example, the one shown below depicts a brawl at the local watering hole. Others, of course, told more substantial stories, local mythology included.

(If I had one regret surrounding the Hokusai exhibit, it is that not a single reprint of these dioramas was available for purchase at the gift shop.)

Lastly, there's a lot to learn from Hokusai and the period he lived in. These items that were freely available to the contemporary middle class and international markets are now pieces with a large, discerning audience the world over, works housed in a literal museum of fine arts. (I went on the last day of the exhibit, a day that saw long lines and crowds packed to bursting.) What, of the billions of goods around us, will become art? And why? Who would have known we'd enter a Mad Men-infused resurgence in advertising from our mid century? Who could have predicted that the Golden Age of comic books (though I love them) would have created one of today's most competitive collector's markets?

I'm not saying we should all throw a used Dunkin cup in a shadow box and put it on our walls (it will be art in two hundred years, anyway -- just try not to be so hipster about it), but I left the Hokusai exhibit itching to explore our everyday and find a way to better appreciate the objects with which we fill it.

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