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Adachi's Pick -Masterpiece of Ukiyo-e-
Katsushika Hokusai "Masterpieces of Flowers and Birds" - Part 1 -

April 27, 2022

Adachi's Pick -Masterpiece of Ukiyo-e-
Katsushika Hokusai "Masterpieces of Flowers and Birds" - Part 1 -

"Adachi's Pick -- Masterpiece of Ukiyo-e" is a series of articles where we feature one ukiyo-e artist and his work with background information about how the artist's prints were produced and insights from the perspective of a woodblock print studio.

The work we are featuring this time is a large-format flower-and-bird print series by Katsushika Hokusai. It has a modern atmosphere that can be appreciated today, and it is a very popular series because it is easy to decorate in Western-style rooms.

Hokusai is an artist who was passionate about painting everything under the sun, from Mt. Fuji, waterfalls, bridges, and the ocean, to traditional themes of natural beauty in Japanese aesthetics. So, how did Hokusai approach the theme of this series, flower-and-bird prints? How did Hokusai look at the natural world and how did he try to depict it? In this two-part article, we will explore the secrets of Hokusai's expressions of nature and the modern atmosphere of the work.

■ A Collection of Hokusai's Flowers and Birds, Which Inspired the Japonisme Movement

"Masterpieces of Flowers and Birds" was published around the same time as the unprecedented hit "Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji" by the same publisher, Nishimura Eijudo.
Ukiyo-e, which crossed the sea at the end of the Edo period, had a great influence on Western artists and designers. In particular, the Hokusai flower-and-bird prints inspired many artists and artisans in areas such as glassware and jewelry and were incorporated into the designs of glass designers such as Gallé, Daum, and Lalique, who were vanguards of the age, and received high praise around the world.

A vase and furniture designed by Émile Gallé(©The Cleveland Museum of Art)
Katsushika Hokusai"Poppies" "Blossoming Irises and Grasshopper" "Bellflower and Dragon-fly"

■ Thoroughly Calculated Composition

One of the features of "Hokusai's Masterpieces of Flowers and Birds" is the bold composition in which a close-up object is simply arranged on a background filled with one color. Although it looks like a simple composition, Hokusai's intentions and calculations are actually very elaborate.

○Composition to Create "Stillness"
"Blossoming Irises and Grasshopper" has an impressive blue color that makes you feel early summer. The leaf in the center shoots straight up, and you can feel the silence at the moment when the wind stops. In the center of the screen, where there is a tense atmosphere, an upside-down grasshopper is hidden.

Incidentally, there is a world-famous Hokusai work that has a similar composition to this "Blossoming Irises and Grasshopper." It is the masterpiece "Red Fuji" or "Fine Wind, Clear Morning" that depicts the magnificent figure of Fuji with a bold and lean composition and color scheme.

Katsushika Hokusai "Blossoming Irises and Grasshopper" "Red Fuji"

If you look at the two works side by side, you can see that they both use a mountain-shaped triangle with a wide base in the composition. This creates a sense of stability in the picture and gives an impression of stateliness. Hokusai creates "stillness" brilliantly through the compositional skills that he acquired in his long career as an artist.

○Composition to Create "Motion"
"Poppies" depicts flowers that are bending sharply in the wind. The delicate lines that show the petals fluttering in the wind and the dynamic impression are attractive. There is also a work that has a similar composition as "Poppies." It is "The Great Wave off Kanagawa," which is said to be Hokusai's masterpiece.

Katsushika Hokusai "Poppies" "The Great Wave off Kanagawa"

"The Great Wave off Kanagawa" captures the very moment of "motion," and "Poppies" depicts the swaying wind. When these two works are overlapped, the big wave of "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" and the curve of the flower of "Poppies" overlap perfectly.
Hokusai creates a breeze in the picture of "Poppies" by applying the dynamic feeling of the composition acquired through the "expression of waves" which he pursued throughout his life.

The innovative compositions that produce "stillness" and "motion" seen in this series is the culmination of the effective artistic rules unique to Hokusai, which he cultivated through constant efforts over a half-century.

■ Capturing the Changing Appearance of Nature with "Stillness" and "Motion"

"Blossoming Irises and Grasshopper" and "Poppies" are taken as examples, but all 10 pictures can be classified into two types, those that show "stillness" and depict the beauty of the moment when the wind calms down and the flowers stop swaying, and those that show "motion" and the momentary beauty of the flowers when they sway in the wind.
Looking at the entire series in this way, we can see that Hokusai is trying to express the passage of time and the appearance of elements of nature, including wind and air, by using the expressions of "stillness" and "motion."

Hokusai's unique view of nature is also reflected in works other than this series. For example, in the series "Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji," we can see works that are not only beautiful but also reflect the artist's sense of awe as he attempts to depict aspects of nature that are beyond human understanding.
Katsushika Hokusai "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" "Red Fuji"
"Mt.Fuji Above the Lightning" "Ejiri in Suruga Province"
In this series, Hokusai depicted flowers, birds, and insects with a vivid sense of life in compositions that he invented himself to express "stillness" and "motion." The pictures are full of the tension that comes from capturing the moment and attracts the viewer. They transcend the genre of flower-and-bird prints to express "everything under the sun" and the "laws of nature" that Hokusai was seeking.

In this installment of the series "Adachi's Pick -- Masterpiece of Ukiyo-e," we featured Katsushika Hokusai's " Masterpieces of Flowers and Birds." We hope you enjoyed Part 1, where we talked about the compositions that Hokusai used to depict the "stillness" and "motion" of nature. Please look forward to Part 2, where we will examine how Hokusai drew his motifs in order to capture the "life" of flowers and birds, in comparison with Hokusai's biggest rival, Hiroshige's flower and bird prints.

Adachi's website introduces all 10 works in Hokusai's Masterpieces of Flowers and Birds collection, which you can enjoy as a series.
Furthermore, at the Adachi woodcut prints showroom in Mejiro, we are holding an exhibition entitled "Hokusai's passion, 'How to describe Nature'" that focuses on Hokusai's depictions of nature. Please drop in when you are in the neighborhood.