On March 26, 2023, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston (MFA) opened its visiting exhibit “Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence” to the public. Remaining at the MFA until July 16, the exhibit celebrates the work and influence of Katsushika Hokusai, Japan’s most famous painter.
Despite being the exhibit’s namesake, only one third of the art featured was created by Hokusai. The other two-thirds belonged to both Hokusai’s contemporaries and modern artists inspired by his work. His original art was evenly dispersed throughout the entire gallery, while the contemporary art was concentrated towards the beginning of the exhibit and the modern art was concentrated towards the end.
The first piece featured in the exhibit was Hokusai’s “Fine Wind, Clear Weather,” the second most famous piece from his “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” series. Demonstrating the layout followed throughout the gallery, it hung to the right of “Mount Fuji” by Totoya Hokkei, a piece by one of Hokusai’s students, and “White Fujiyama Ski Gelande” by Yoshitomo Nara, a modern-day Japanese artist.
All of the museum-provided captions accompanying his work were adorned by Hokusai’s signature. So, while all of the art paired together in various sections of the gallery were similar in style, technique and color, it was easy to differentiate his pieces. Instead of feeling like a scavenger hunt, the layout allowed me to really focus on his influence, conversely forcing me to understand his immense skill.
The various “views” from the famed series were interspersed throughout the exhibit, residing next to related pieces by other artists. The most famous piece from this series is “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.” The iconic wave is one of the most well-known art symbols in the world, even reserving a place in Apple’s emoji keyboard. Unsurprisingly, the piece had an entire room dedicated to it and the works it has inspired.
Perhaps due to its monumental impact on pop culture, I subconsciously assumed that “The Great Wave” would be a piece of staggering size. I had to do a double-take when I saw a piece roughly the size of a piece of binder paper sporting the wave.
The piece itself seemed to drown amongst all of the contemporary “Great Wave”-inspired art, including works by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichenstein, that surrounded it. Had the rest of the art not been so clearly inspired by it, I would have likely overlooked the piece altogether. Yet, nevertheless, it was hard to not assume that the “Great Wave” gallery was the climax of the exhibit.
It felt like the bulk of the interesting content was in the first half of the exhibit, which focused on Hokusai’s career and artistic style. Encouraged by the thoughtful layout of the featured art, I took my time weaving through the various rooms, wanting to understand more about an artist and style I knew very little about.
After the “Great Wave” room, the exhibit pivoted its attention to Hokusai’s drawings of fish, flowers and other more simple subjects. While beautiful, it was hard to maintain the same prolonged interest that was required by the first rooms. Here, the simpler content made the art seem more repetitive and less captivating.
I thought the exhibit’s focus on Hokusai’s affect on modern art allowed for a deeper understanding of him and Japanese art in general. However, towards the end of the exhibit as modern art became more frequent, it was sometimes hard to believe that the adjoining art was truly inspired by Hokusai. The captions provided by the MFA were keen on describing any physical similarities, but sometimes lacked information regarding the modern artist’s intention.
The exhibit ended with Hokusai’s more surrealist works, such as “The Ghost of Oiwa” from the series “One Hundred Ghost Stories”. Because of how intensely it differed from the art I had seen thus far, I thought this section was fascinating. The modern works in this room included various Manga strips and even a poster from the popular anime Demon Slayer.
Between its thoughtful layout and balance of modern art, I greatly enjoyed “Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence.” It has a lot to offer for both individuals new to Hokusai’s work and seasoned museum-goers curious about his cultural impact.