I've written before about the Grand Palais, my favorite place in Paris to see temporary exhibits. This autumn they've really outdone themselves, with three major shows going on at the same time: a retrospective of Japanese artist Hokusai, a respective of French artist Niki de Saint Phalle and a large survey of Hatian art covering the last two centuries. I plan on seeing all exhibits, but first up: Hokusai.
I don't pretend to know much about Japanese art. And I knew next to nothing about Hokusai other than his often reproduced wave painting. In fact, I used to confuse him with Hiroshige, another Japanese artist of roughly the same period that was also highly influential to French artists in the second half of the 19th century. So a chronological retrospective was the perfect way to get to know Hokusai better. Or so I thought.
Hokusai lived a long life, with many different artistic incarnations (each time he changed styles he changed names, but I'll just stick with Hokusai, which translates to "man mad about drawing" for clarity). The exhibit is large and thorough, but in the end, I don't really feel I know much more about who Hokusai was as an artist or a person.
The exhibit is split into his different "periods", allowing us to see the evolution of his style from the rather stilted early wood-block prints featuring Kabuki actors through sketched studies of the natural world, past the landscapes and seascapes he is best known for and on to strongly graphic paintings of warriors and demons.
Hokusai was a working artist and apparently always made a living from his art. So in addition to commissioned one-off pieces, there are examples of the prints and paintings he did for calendars, decorative scrolls and illustrated books. He also published a series of his sketchbooks or "mangas" (which means"diverse sketches", who knew?) partly as instruction manuals for other artists and partly to further spread his own reputation.
The work Hokusai is best known for in Europe comes from his Itsu period in the early part of the 19th century. These include several series of ukiyo-e, "pictures of the floating world", a popular artistic movement in the Edo period which featured everyday scenes of life in and around Tokyo. Hokusai's "Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji" includes the aforementioned "Great Wave off Kanagawa", depicting a large wave about to crash down on a boat with Mt. Fuji in the distance. Hokusai's used these series not to create realistic reproductions of nature, but as a way to explore his graphic style and play with western-style perspective. Other series are built around waterfalls, birds and flowers (my favorites) and bridges.
Hokusai lived to 89 and never stopped painting or evolving his style. The exhibit also includes the work of one of his daughters, who was a talented artist in her own right. Unfortunately, at the end of the visit, I couldn't help feeling the same way I did after seeing the Hiroshige exhibit last year. Namely, that a crowded, dimly-lit museum (the light is kept low for the sake of the fragile pieces) is not the best way to view Japanese prints. The paintings and decorative scrolls are striking -- I especially liked the way Hokusai used vertical or horizontal space in those pieces -- but the prints actually look better reprinted in books and posters, where you can really appreciate the details and bright colors. That said, the video piece that projected animated images from Hokusai's work onto the walls and ceilings of the downstairs foyer was quite fun.
In the end, if you showed me two prints from Hokusai and Hiroshige, I still can't be sure I'd know whose was whose. This may just be a reflection of my lousy eye, but I was hoping that such a large exhibit would better define Hokusai's style in my mind. Then again, with such an ever-changing artist, maybe it's unfair to expect him to stick to one recognizable visual signature. Maybe the way he evolved and adapted is exactly what makes him a great artist. Or maybe this is just what I get for not renting the audio guide.