Today, I want to share with you a wonderful ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock print) I own that was draw originally by Japan's most famous such artist - Hokusai Katsushika (surname first) who lived between 1760 - 1849. I say famous, mostly because he drew the famous 36 View Of Mt. Fuji series (that actually had more than 36 views) - which you can see in its entirety on THIS blog of mine via my Picasa image gallery. His iconic Great Wave Off Kanagawa is perhaps one of the most-well-known images people have of Japanese art.
You may also wish to view the Wikipedia entry on Hokusai (where you can see an image of the Hokusai wave, as I have called it for over 35 years when I first learned of it as a child) which is a good starting point for anyone who wishes to learn more about the artist.
The ukiyo-e image above was published circa 1814 by Eira Kunya - or something pretty close to that... it's tough to read the the writing!
It's a piece from a manga (a so-called comic book) he produced showing various styles of bridges.
In 1811, at the age of 51, Hokusai changed his name to Taito and entered the period in which he created the Hokusai Manga and various etehon (art manuals). These etehon, beginning in 1812 with Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing, served as a convenient way to make money and attract more students. The first book of Hokusai's manga is a collection of sketches or caricatures that influenced the modern form of comics known by the same name (manga) and was published in 1814.
Together, his 12 volumes of manga published before 1820 and three more published posthumously include thousands of drawings of animals, religious figures, and everyday people. They often have humorous overtones, and were very popular at the time.
The Hokusai Manga (北斎漫画, "Hokusai's Sketches") is a collection of sketches of various subjects, including landscapes, flora and fauna, everyday life and the supernatural.
The word manga in the title does not refer to the contemporary story-telling manga (comic book), as the sketches in the work are not connected to each other.
The drawings inside are block-printed in three colors (black, gray and pale flesh).
The image above is from Volume 1 of the Hokusai Manga, page 64, I believe. It was published in 1814.
I bought it in 1992 when a traveling salesman of fine art came by Ohtawara Chu Gakko (Ohtawara Junior High School) in Ohtawara-shi (Ohtawara City), Tochigi-ken (Tochigi Prefecture), Japan.
I waited until the crush of teachers had a glance—rolling their collective eyes at the prohibitive cost of purchasing such items... and then I moved in. I had been collecting ukiyo-e since I entered my first antique and art store in the country back in late 1990.
My mother and I were always trying to learn about antique furnishings back in Canada, but I always preferred art. My father tolerated our exposure to antiques realizing that if we were rich we would be considered eccentric rather than poor and crazy. But I know what I like, and I like art - specifically paintings, but also artistic things... things that it seems we no longer take the time to do. Has anyone created a gargoyle on a building lately? Can anyone still carve one with the same skill as the artisans of the past? Regardless... I like art.
And that's what I wanted to see in this guy's collection. Unfortunately, he had none of the typical ukiyo-e art.
And then I spotted the image above. It was framed (in what I still have it in now), but I had him remove it from the frame so I could better examine it.
Visually, I could tell immediately that this was no modern copy. I only had 12 lessons from the once-a-month trips I made to an antique and art dealer I buy from in Nikko-shi, Tochigi-ken... but when it comes to my hobbies (my hobby is hobbies), I am a fast learner... at least learning how to discern a copy from a print, and modern prints from original prints. I knew I would never, ever get my hands on an original piece of ukiyo-e art (the actual paintings).
But this... I knew as soon as I laid eyes upon it that I had seen the art style before. Once or twice in the hidden upper levels of Takamoto's shoppe that he allowed me to sit in by myself for hours as I poured over print after print of his voluminous collection. It was definitely Hokusai - and I queried the seller as much to confirm my suspicion.
His jaw dropped as he said I was correct. The teachers in the teacher's lounge suddenly got quiet as they slowly crowded around the seller and the gaijin (me, the foreigner). He asked how I knew it was Hokusai's work. When I said that I recognized the way he drew the bridge second from the top as something similar to one of the 36 Views Of Mt. Fuji, he smiled and then bowed deeply—either showing great respect for my knowledge or thanking the gods he had found a sucker (a buyer).
As an aside, I have been seriously collecting comic books since I was 10, and have a decent enough eye in discerning the art styles of a plethora of artists. And, no... I barely have the skill to draw a stick-figure.
The art seller told me that the image of the bridges was a 'How-To' drawing on the various way a Japanese bridge could look after construction. It sounded correct, but the hodgepodge placement of bridges was not pretty as a picture like a standard ukiyo-e.... then again, I was never going to be able to afford an original woodblock... they were in the 10s of thousands of dollars... and this was only ¥7,500 (which at the time was about US$75 - and in 2012 is now $90).
Why so cheap? Because it wasn't your standard ukiyo-e. Because it wasn't a vista or a portrait.
Still... this was my one and only chance to own an original Hokusai woodblock. So I bought it.
What's it worth? Who knows... I've seen two-pagers of a single scene published some 40 years later going for $300. This woodblock of mine is not a scene - its a single page, but is far older.
I like bridges. I like architecture. I like my 198-year-old piece of art by one of Japan's greatest, if not most famous ukiyo-e artist. I hope you do, too.