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Book of the Month: Hokusai's Fuji

by Tara Vidisha Ghose, Quentin Blake Centre team

Our book of the month is Hokusai’s Fuji, an illustrated exploration of nineteenth-century Japanese printmaker Katsushika Hokusai’s dedication to depicting Mount Fuji throughout his career. Edited by Kyoko Wada, this Thames & Hudson title includes every illustration from Hokusai’s two best-known collections, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji and One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji. The book sheds light on the artist’s work over his lifetime and his role in making Mount Fuji a globally recognised symbol, seen to be synonymous with Japan.

Front cover of Hokusai's Fuji, featuring an illustration of a group of kneeling figures pointing to Mount Fuji, towering in the background.
Hokusai's Fuji © Thames and Hudson

“For Hokusai, Mount Fuji must have represented the artistic sovereignty he wanted to reach: high enough to pierce the sky, a tall figure with no equal”, writes editor Kyoko Wada. Over the course of his decades-long career, Hokusai created over 148 renditions of Mount Fuji, drawing on the mountains many significations within Japanese art and culture. This colossal body of work reflects not only his dedication to his craft but also his pivotal role in shaping how the mountain is seen in Japan and abroad.

The book traces Hokusai’s career and his relationship with depicting Mount Fuji beginning with his early work. It writes about his extensive experiments with different artistic techniques and influences from China and Europe. These early experiments laid the foundation to the mastery he achieved in later life.

An illustration of two figures asleep on the ground, next to a small table. They're both draped in printed fabrics. Mount Fuji is faintly visible in the distance.
Man and Woman Asleep Beside a Kotatsu Table, courtesy of the Charles Stewart Smith collection of Japanese prints, The New York Public Library

The breadth of Hokusai’s artistic vocabulary is expressed in his seminal collection of prints, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. First published in 1831, when Hokusai was in his seventies, the series was presented to the public as a manual for landscape painting. It featured forty-six scenes colour prints capturing the mystique of the mountain as seen from different locations. His best-known works, including the iconic Great Wave of Kanagawa, belong to this collection.

Woodcut print of a marsh with lush foliage, rendered in various shades of green and blue. Mount Fuji is visible in the distance, standing serenely next to a large body of water.
Japanese woodcut print of a fisherman standing at the edge of a rock, casting their net into a turbulent sea. An imposing Mount Fuji looms large in the background.

The success of this series led to the creation of the next one, One Hundred Views of Fuji, beginning in 1834. This collection was published in the form of a book released in three volumes. While the previous series showcased Hokusai’s expertise in a variety of techniques, One Hundred Views of Fuji established his mastery as a book illustrator. Each print in the early editions was created in black and white, using crisp line work. The subject matter was not limited to landscape views. It included everything from rural scenes to mythology and caricature, with the many facets of the mountain ever present.

A black and white print of a group of people hacking away at a large tree. An outline of Mount Fuji can be seen in the distance.
Fuji in the Tōtomi Mountains from One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, Volume 2, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Howard Mansfield Collection, Gift of Howard Mansfield, 1936

As Hokusai entered his final years, he transitioned from printmaking to brush painting. His dedication to portraying Mount Fuji persisted in this new medium. He began adding his age to his signature, expressing a wish to continue attaining higher levels of mastery. He writes, “…nothing I produced before the age of seventy is worthy of note… It is my greatest wish to live to be one hundred when my work would be truly marvellous. If I live to be one hundred and ten, every dot and every line would be as if coming to life...”

Hokusai passed away at the age on ninety-one, three months after finishing a painting of a dragon flying above Mount Fuji. Dedicated to the sacred peak until the end, his staggering body of work made him synonymous with the mountain, and eventually Japan itself. His work has been long coveted by international art collectors who equate his depictions of Mount Fuji with a Japanese essentialism. Two of his prints have been turned into official symbols of Japan by the government.

A silk painting of a small child sat on a twisty tree, seen from behind. The child is looking at snowcapped Mount Fuji, towering in the background.
Boy Viewing Mount Fuji, courtesy of National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution, Freer Study Collection: Gift of Charles Lang Freer

Hokusai’s Fuji is a rich resource that can be enjoyed for both its pictures and interpretation. Readers can learn about the master printmaker’s career while leafing through the complete collection of his two best-loved series, reflecting on his lifelong focus on illustrating Mount Fuji. As editor Wada Kyoko expresses, “It is almost as if Hokusai was projecting onto Fuji the ego of an artist who was reaching high, higher still and even further beyond, to new heights.”

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