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The Godzilla of Drawing: Hokusai at Grand Palais

(Paris.) “Evening, and a lowly servant sat beneath the Rashomon, waiting for the rain to end.”

These are the first words from Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon, the first story of the eponymous anthology Forest Whitaker’s character in Ghost Dog was so obsessed with.

Of course nobody expects you to put on a black hoodie, steal a Lexus, and shoot some Mafiosi on your way to Grand Palais’ second autumn show. But you will have time to read, and to contemplate the influences of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon – itself based on the story In a Bamboo Grove – on Jim Jarmusch’s film. It rains a lot these days in Paris too, and you’ll feel even worse than the unemployed servant while you stand outside and wait for the queue to move on. Finally you understand, what the French mean by “l’exposition événement”, and you also understand that servant’s inner conflict, when he pondered the question: “Should I starve or become a criminal”. Not a master of Zen, you might end up wishing for a gun and an ersatz Samurai Lord giving you orders, radical orders. To calm yourself, you cite the second book important in that cult film, the Hagakure: ‘Loyalty is the duty of the Samurai’, and we all are retainers of the House Grand Palais. And still the rain falls, and still you don’t move on.

Later, much later, you reach the end of the line, the gate - “Rashomon” -, and if you’re lucky it's still time before the exhibition closes for the night. Upstairs, no rotting corpses lie waiting, unlike in that story, but is this really better? This mass is still breathing, still coughing, still sneezing, still talking, sweating, and pushing, and it’s absorbing you without a chance to escape.

Hokusai (1760-1849) is one of the greatest Japanese artists, in his life he created thousands of drawings, woodblock prints, comic books, caricatures, painting manuals, etc. Unfortunately, most of them measure hardly more than a A4 page which makes it hard to distinguish anything when you find yourself trapped among five visitors per square metre. You’ll have to wrestle for every glimpse of the works on the walls and those displayed in low vitrines. The dim light, necessary due to the papers' fragility, won’t help either.

The bits we could see are impressive. Hokusai passed through many periods, choosing a new pseudonym at each change of style. He excelled in all kinds of drawing, from naturalistic studies – Dürer-like birds, fish and flowers - to portraits that are in no way lifelike but nevertheless “true”. From minimalist scenes of only a few lines to rich, colourful, panoramas; from many stories told on the same sheet to sketched impressions of one detail alone, from humour to tragedy to contemplation.

It has to be said though that whenever Chinese people appear in Hokusai’s works, warrior or political dignitary, they look the same: half demon half caveman (Klingon?). The history of Sino-Japanese relations is complicated to say the least. (Of course we deeply condemn this racism, and demand Hokusai’s immediate and sincere excuses, to be delivered via a spiritual medium of his choice.)

Without a doubt Hokusai’s most famous work is The Great Wave from the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji series. Abundantly reproduced and used in many contexts (only think of that Australian street fashion brand making the wave its logo), it’s become a global icon.

The Japanese say, you can see Mount Fuji from anywhere in the country, which might be slightly exaggerated. For a start, Hokusai found thirty-six different points of view (later he added ten more). The mountain itself often plays a background role, while the picture is really about scenes of daily life throughout the country.

The occident discovered Hokusai’s work in the mid-19th Century, at a time when his native Japan regarded him a minor, a “popular”, artist. With the help of some examples, the Grand Palais tells of his direct influences on European, mostly French, painters (and designers).

This exhibition shows almost every aspect of the master’s work – almost. If you’ve hoped for some spicy Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, leave your trench coat at home: Hokusai’s explicit (or to be honest: pornographic) “Shunga” works are completely absent, instead, he appears as tame as his Western contemporaries.

In this context it comes as a surprise that the Farting Servant (that's its name, and that's what it shows) did not seem too vulgar for the Grand Palais.

A nice paradox: this exhibition is worth a visit – only if less people would visit.

Maybe buy a catalogue instead?

Hokusai, Grand Palais, 01 October 2014-18 January 2015



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