I’ve never been a particularly big fan of early Japanese art. It’s not that I didn’t like it—it just didn’t move me the way classical European paintings do with their deeply intense, emotive imagery and light and shadows, such as Anguish by August Friedrich Schenck.
Anguish (c. 1880), August Friedrich Schenck. Oil on canvas. This piece is currently at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia.
When I first saw this painting—housed in a large room with more than forty other works—I couldn’t tear my eyes away from it. I started crying (to my then-fiancé’s worried shock). There was just so much feeling in the painting. Schenck’s juxtaposition of the whites and creams against the dark shadows and blacks of the crows is simply sublime.
So whenever I look at early Japanese paintings, with all the hype about the Japonais, I just couldn’t seem to bring any sort of strong emotion to the fore. It’s not that early Japanese art isn’t one of the most exquisite, most refined paintings in the history of art, and it’s not that I was insensible of their beauty—they were beautiful, but they felt distant and cold, to me.
Perhaps it’s just my own individual sensibilities—emotive works appeal to me more.
But when I walked through the doors into NGV’s exhibition on Katsushika Hokusai’s works, my feelings about early Japanese art took a 180-turn.
Hokusai’s intricately detailed paintings (and sketches in his manga), capturing pastoral life in microcosm, not to mention breathtaking views of nature, and the delicately balanced use of light and shadows in his work draws the viewer in, into the painting, leaving the viewer no choice but to partake in the scene before them.Hokusai’s works drew me into them, and left me but one word to describe what I felt when faced with his breathtaking works: sublime.
Breathtaking works like The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, The Waterfall Where Yoshitsune Washed His Horse at Yoshino in Yamato Province, and for some reason, especially Viewing the Sunset over Ryogoku Bridge from the Onmaya Embankment.
The way Hokusai captured motion in stillness, his expertly balanced darkness and lightness, the mindblowing depth created, the juxtaposition between tones, between vibrancy and melancholy—when combined had the overall effect of making you a part of the story.