Director’s Message

Dear Friends,

“If heaven had granted me five more years, I could have become a real painter.”

So wrote Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), who during his long life and successful career was admired and emulated in Japan by his students and contemporaries. The artist’s words greet visitors at the entrance to our major exhibition “Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence.” Hokusai was, of course, a superb painter and brilliant designer of woodblock prints, as well as a gifted teacher, revered in his time, and he remains a profound influence on artists. The fierce intensity of his aspiration to be a “real painter” speaks to the artist’s quest to always do better.

Hokusai’s best-known work, the color woodblock print titled Under the Wave off Kanagawa, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, was published in the early 1830s, when Hokusai was already in his seventies. And when, after his death, Japan opened in the 1850s, this iconic image, nicknamed the Great Wave, traveled the world, sparking the global movement known in Europe as Japonisme and inspiring artists such as Monet and Van Gogh. Late 19th-century Bostonians assiduously gathered prime examples of Hokusai’s work and that of his teachers, students, rivals, and admirers, making the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, one of the world’s strongest of Hokusai and Hokusai-related works.

“Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence” presents the extraordinary scope of Katsushika Hokusai’s influence on artists and audiences from the late 19th century to today. The exhibition features the best examples of the great artist’s work surrounded by dazzling iterations of his style and subjects by generations of artists rendered in sculpture, prints, painting, furniture, ceramics, and multimedia installations.

Last night at MFA Late Nites, sponsored by UNIQLO USA, the Museum brimmed with visitors exploring the Gund Gallery, marveling at the breadth and versatility of Hokusai’s beautiful floral screens, clever manga, and grotesque ghosts, as well as interpretations and tributes by a new generation of contemporary artists and scholars. In the section of the exhibition aptly named “Making Waves,” the iconic original Great Wave is surrounded by an ocean of others.

These include a large-scale 3D Lego Great Wave crafted by Jumpei Mitsui, the Lego certified professional who at MFA Late Nites detailed for enthusiastic visitors the painstaking study and hundreds of hours spent making his creation from 50,000 plastic bricks. Jumpei confided that he drew on childhood memories of waves near his family home at Akashi on the Inland Sea.

Roy Lichtenstein’s canvas Drowning Girl (1963) dominates a nearby wall. This work is a signature expression of 1960s pop art, its subject lifted from a panel in a romance comic book. Consciously mingling popular culture references and Hokusai’s instantly recognizable style, Lichtenstein noted in a 1967 Artforum interview, “In the Drowning Girl the water … can also be seen as Hokusai. I don’t do it just because it is another reference.… I saw it and then pushed it a little further until it was a reference that most people will get.”

Contemporary artists and makers address issues like ocean pollution, tsunami threats, global warming, disasters, and migration with the Great Wave, as well as transformation, hope, and memory. An immersive multimedia installation by experimental ceramicist Linda Sormin, titled Boru Sibaso Paet, on the foam of the primordial sea (2023), presents the motion and sound of the wave that engulfs us. Chiho Aoshima’s A Contented Skull (2008), recently acquired by the MFA, features a looming figure reminiscent of Hokusai’s depictions of vividly imagined ghosts and monsters. Judith Schaechter’s saturated stained-glass work Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (2004) is a reinterpretation of a famous illustration from Hokusai’s erotic book Kinoe no Komatsu (about 1814).

Through the intensity and vitality of his work Hokusai invites energy and expression. In the exhibition’s audio guide, contemporary artist Taiko Chandler, whose installation Blue Surge (2023) ripples and swells from the wall outside the Gund Gallery, remembers seeing a Hokusai painting for the first time in the ceiling of a temple near her hometown. “I saw in the ceiling … a painting by Hokusai, Phoenix, a giant bird. It was huge and just alive.… And I still remember [this so] clearly … I am inspired by his general work, the quality—I would say fierce expression.” It’s a fitting, final fierce expression of the Great Wave and Hokusai’s resonance with artists and makers as we reinterpret the great painter for today’s audiences.

Matthew Teitelbaum
Ann and Graham Gund Director

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