MFA Celebrates Japanese Spring with Special Events and Programs

BOSTON, MA (March 4, 2015)—Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) was the first Japanese artist to be internationally recognized, and his art continues to inspire the imaginations of viewers two centuries later. Drawing from its preeminent Japanese collection, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), presents Hokusai from April 5 through August 9, 2015. Home of the finest Hokusai collection in the world, the MFA is uniquely positioned to offer a comprehensive exhibition of this remarkable artist. Showcasing more than 230 works from Hokusai’s seven-decade career, the exhibition features some of the most iconic images in art history, including an early edition of the color woodblock print Under the Wave Off Kanagawa (The Great Wave) (about 1830–31)—a work frequently referenced in pop culture, from tattoos to emoji. The Great Wave is part of the legendary series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. This exhibition marks the first time the MFA has displayed 36 views together. Also on view is the unique and brilliantly colored multi-panel screen painting, Phoenix (1835), which measures almost eight feet long. Spanning Hokusai’s work from his 20s through his 80s, the exhibition explores common themes through sections dedicated to topics such as landscapes, nature and the “Floating World” of urban culture (including depictions of the Kabuki theater and the Yoshiwara pleasure district). Works that depict Japanese historical and literary motifs are featured along with “perspective prints” with exaggerated vanishing points for use in toy peep shows. An extremely delicate silk square of a mythological Chinese lion, likely used as a gift wrapper (fukusa), is also included, in a rare public display of the work. Hokusai builds upon an extremely popular traveling exhibition organized by the MFA in 2014, also called Hokusai, which toured Japan and drew over 500,000 visitors in Nagoya, Kobe, Kitakyushu and Tokyo. Media sponsor is WCVB Channel 5 Boston. With generous support from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Exhibition Fund. Additional support provided by The Mary-Louise Eddy and Ruth N. Eddy Foundation. Support for conservation provided by Nikkei, Inc.

“The first museum exhibition of Hokusai’s work anywhere in the world was Hokusai and His School, held at the MFA in 1892–93. Today, more than 120 years later, we are proud to present a comprehensive Hokusai retrospective drawn entirely from the MFA’s own collection of Japanese art,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director at the MFA. “This exhibition is a wonderful new chapter in our long history of celebrating Japanese art and culture in Boston. Our ‘Japanese Spring’ season of exhibitions and programs commemorates the 125th anniversary of the founding of the department of Asian art at the MFA.”

The exhibition is organized into seven themes, including Urban Pleasures; Views of Mount Fuji; Waterfalls and Bridges; Ingenious Designs; Private Commissions; Nature Studies; and Legend and Literature. In addition to his most famous works, also featured are lesser-known pieces depicting whimsical instructions on how to draw, dynamic paintings on paper lanterns and elaborate cut-out dioramas. A section exploring blockcarving technique includes a set of woodblocks and reproduction prints that outline the step-by-step process used to make The Great Wave, as well as two videos showing the process of carving and printing woodblocks. Every Saturday, a Japanese Woodblock Print Artist Toolbox Cart outside the exhibition allows visitors to view and handle the tools used to create the unique art form, learning from knowledgeable staff during this free, drop-in program. An accompanying publication by exhibition curator Sarah Thompson, the MFA’s Assistant Curator for Japanese Prints, presents the wide range of Hokusai’s artistic production in terms of one of his most remarkable characteristics: his intellectual ingenuity. 

“What I love about Hokusai is his unbeatable combination of skill, versatility and wit—he does so many different things, and he does them all so well and so cleverly. His work has something for everyone, and lots of wonderful surprises,” said Thompson.

Hokusai was trained in the school of art known as ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the Floating World,” which drew its subject matter from fashionable city life, especially the kabuki theater and the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter. From his teacher, Katsukawa Shunshō, he learned not only how to design woodblock prints of actors and courtesans, but how to create elegant, expensive paintings using fine materials and sophisticated techniques. Highlights of the “Urban Pleasures” section of the exhibition include the paintings Woman Looking at Herself in a Mirror (about 1805) by Hokusai himself and Three Women Playing Music (1818–44) by his talented daughter Katsushika Ōi, to whom he passed on his mastery of ukiyo-e painting techniques. Hokusai was interested in the styles of other schools of art as well, and as a young man he designed prints using an exaggerated form of Western-style vanishing-point perspective—a key element in his later landscape prints. The exhibition includes a number of these unusual works, including a complete set of 11 perspective prints based on the kabuki play Chūshingura, in almost-new condition.

In 1830, at the age of 70, Hokusai began the project that would eventually make him famous around the world: the woodblock print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (about 1830–31). Landscape had previously been a minor subject in the repertoire of ukiyo-e artists, but the success of this bestselling series made it a major theme. Hokusai shows the sacred mountain from many different angles, at different seasons and times of day, focusing sometimes on the landscape itself and sometimes on human activities.  The series was so popular that he designed 10 more prints shortly after the first set was issued, for a total of 46. The two most famous designs in the series are known by their nicknames: “The Great Wave” (Under the Wave off Kanagawa) and “Red Fuji” (Fine Wind, Clear Weather). The “Views of Mount Fuji” section of the exhibition also includes a contemporary wood bench that incorporates the imagery of The Great Wave. Created by studio-furniture maker John Cederquist, Couchabunga (1992) shows how the print continues to inspire designers, artists and popular culture.

Following the enormous success of the Fuji series, Hokusai created more fine landscape designs on other themes. A highlight of the exhibition is a complete set of eight prints from the series A Tour of Waterfalls in Various Provinces (about 1832), Hokusai’s only landscape series in the vertical format. Each print in the series depicts the falling water in a different style, using the same blue outlines as the early Fuji prints. Also included in this section are all three prints of the Snow, Moon, and Flowers series (about 1833), as well as selections from the Remarkable Views of Bridges in Various Provinces (about 1834).

Hokusai was an extremely versatile artist whose talents extended in many unusual directions. Especially appealing are his cutout dioramas––paper toys for children in which Hokusai turned two-dimensional sheets of paper into three-dimensional scenes. A modest ink sketch of Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism, is actually the record of a remarkable piece of performance art: a gigantic painting completed before a large audience in a single day in 1804. A color print depicting a carp swimming through waterweeds, once pasted to a bamboo framework to make a fan, is the only known surviving impression of this design. Imaginary portraits of classical poets have the letters of their names concealed in their costumes; and a tall, narrow spray of cherry blossoms is an advertisement for cosmetic powder.

From the 1790s through the early 1830s, Hokusai was one of the leading designers of surimono––privately commissioned prints known for the high technical quality of their printing, which could be as lavish as the customer could afford. Special features such as embossing and metallic pigments were often used for surimono. The clients who commissioned them were usually the affluent members of amateur poetry clubs, who exchanged prints of illustrated poems at their parties. Other examples of privately commissioned prints on view in the exhibition are illustrated programs for musical concerts or comedy performances, and illustrated printed books and hanging-scroll paintings.

Just as the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji made landscape an important genre of ukiyo-e prints, the untitled series known as Large Flowers (about 1833-34) did the same for nature studies, known in the East Asian tradition as “bird-and-flower pictures.” Hokusai drew on a centuries-old tradition of painting to create vibrant full-color designs for mass-produced prints. Compositions based on underlying geometric shapes give the floral prints the same powerful impact as the landscapes. The exhibition includes nine prints from the Large Flowers series and nine from the even more colorful Small Flowers (about 1834) series.

Throughout his long career, Hokusai also drew freely on the rich traditions of Japanese literature, mythology and folklore, depicting fabulous beasts, legendary warriors and eerie ghosts. The final section of the exhibition includes the magnificent Phoenix screen; a pair of painted festival lanterns showing a dragon and tiger, and a dragon and snake; and a complete set of five prints of Ghost Stories (about 1831-32). Also on view is a selection of prints from his final, uncompleted landscape series, The One Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse (about 1835-36), which illustrates classical poetry with scenes of daily life during Hokusai’s own time. 

The MFA and Japan

As the first major museum to collect and exhibit Japanese art in the US, the MFA has a long relationship with Japan, holding the first scholarly presentation of Japanese art in the US in 1892-93––the exhibition Hokusai and His School. Prior to the exhibition, in 1890, the MFA became the first museum in America to establish a Japanese collection and appoint a curator specializing in Japanese art. The MFA’s Asian Conservation Studio is one of only five such studios in the United States and is the oldest outside of Asia. Today, the Museum’s Japanese art collection is celebrated as the largest and finest outside Japan. To highlight many notable works, the MFA reinstalled its Art of Japan gallery in January 2013. It features more than 130 objects dating from the fifth century through the present day, and showcases a range of paintings, textiles and decorative arts. The gallery is adjacent to the Buddhist Temple Room, which was designed in 1909 to evoke the dignified simplicity of Japanese temples.

The extraordinary strength of the MFA’s Japanese collection is attributed to the foresight and enterprise of a small group of pioneering connoisseurs of Japanese art, including Edward Sylvester Morse, Ernest Francisco Fenollosa, William Sturgis Bigelow and Okakura Kakuzō (also known as Okakura Tenshin). Bigelow became the department’s greatest benefactor, donating the majority of the Museum’s 4,000 Japanese paintings and more than 30,000 ukiyo-e prints—one of the largest collections of its type in the world. A number of the works on view in Hokusai were collected when Bigelow visited a Hokusai disciple and bought his entire studio.

Japanese Spring: Exhibitions and Programs

In addition to Hokusai, the MFA celebrates Japanese culture in spring 2015, encouraging guests to visit the MFA’s Japanese galleries, including the Buddhist Temple Room. The Museum has also organized the exhibition In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11 (April 5—July 12, 2015) and Playing with Paper: Japanese Toy Prints (through July 19, 2015). The reopening of the renovated Japanese Garden, Tenshin-en, which means the “Garden of the Heart of Heaven,” coincides with Art in Bloom (April 24 to 27)—the MFA’s annual festival of flowers—which takes inspiration from Japan by featuring flower arrangements devoted to the range of Japanese art on view. Throughout the spring, artist demonstrations bring the art of Japanese woodblock printing to life, while a five-week course on 19th-century Japan offers insight into this pivotal time in Japanese history. Inspired by In the Wake, an afternoon symposium, “Inspiration in the Face of Adversity: Humanitarians and Artists” on Sunday, May 17, discusses how humankind responds in remarkable ways when faced with adversity. One of the artists from In the Wake, Naoya Hatakeyama, is delivering the MFA’s annual Rad Smith Program in Japanese Art on Wednesday, April 22, exploring how his experiences in Japan and abroad have influenced his process, body of work and personal philosophy. A “Remix” event on May 1, “Sake and Hokusai,” features the opportunity to socialize and explore Hokusai, while the Museum’s restaurants are offering sake and bento boxes in April and May. 

In the Wake is presented with generous support from Art Mentor Foundation Lucerne. Additional support from the Ishibashi Foundation, Brian J. Knez, and the Barbara Jane Anderson Fund. Supporting sponsorship from Shiseido Co., Ltd. The catalogue is supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Publications Fund. Tenshin-en founding and renewal partner is Nippon Television Network Corporation, Tokyo, Japan. Additional support for the ongoing care and maintenance of Tenshin-en provided by Jan Fontein, the Beacon Hill Garden Club, Sharon and Brad Malt, the Lawrence and Roberta Cohn Fund for the Department of Asiatic Art and the Wendy Shattuck Landscape Maintenance Fund.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its collection, which includes an estimated 500,000 objects. The Museum has more than 140 galleries displaying its encyclopedic collection, which includes Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa; Art of the Ancient World; Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 am–4:45 pm; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 am–9:45 pm Admission (which includes one repeat visit within 10 days) is $25 for adults and $23 for seniors and students age 18 and older, and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. Admission is free for University Members and youths age 17 and younger on weekdays after 3 pm, weekends, and Boston Public Schools holidays; otherwise $10. Wednesday nights after 4 pm admission is by voluntary contribution (suggested donation $25). MFA Members are always admitted for free. The Museum’s mobile MFA Guide is available at ticket desks and the Sharf Visitor Center for $5, members; $6, non-members; and $4, youths. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. For more information, visit or call 617.267.9300. The MFA is located on the Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115.