Head to the Martin-Gropius-Bau this month and you will easily see why Katsushika Hokusai is rated among the world’s most important artists. In a riveting journey through the nine-room show, for which many of the delicate woodcuts, illustrations, drawings, books, and paintings have left Japan for the first time, we see the artist develop from apprentice to master.
The show isn’t without its surprises, and visitors quickly discover it’s not all mountaintops and cherry blossoms. Simultaneously grotesque and comical, works from The Collection of Toba and A Hundred Coarse Jokes (1809-1813) pinpoint enduring themes.
In the ink on paper drawing “Sake for a Hangover” a suffering man beseeches his wife for sake in a hair-of-the-dog attempt to cure the previous evening’s overindulgences. She fetches it indignantly, as the accompanying text explains, because she would rather enjoy it herself.
One of the most lavish works of the retrospective is tucked behind a small theatre box in the corner of the third room. “Preparations for New Year in a Yoshiwara Teahouse” (1811) reveals painstaking effort, bordering on obsession, in this magnificently crowded scene.
Hokusai’s attention to detail shines through his rendering of multiple levels of architecture and the decoratively textured kimonos of the dense bustle of women readying the teahouse for a busy night.
Hokusai was an artist in a state of constant development, one who continuously reinvented himself throughout his 70-year career by using a variety of pseudonyms and approaching his work from countless angles to develop his unique gift of observation.
The extensive exhibition can be a bit overwhelming at times, but each work should be viewed independently, just as each crashing wave, vibrant spirit and layered perspective was individually chosen, conceived and carved. The exhibition is likely to be full any time you go, so don’t wait for the closing weekend to see these dynamic and engrossing works.
Hokusai: Retrospective, through Oct 24 | Martin-Gropius-Bau