Best known for his Great Wave Off Kanagawa, one of the most recognisable images in the world, Katsushika Hokusai was a prolific Japanese artist active in the late 18th and 19th centuries. He is said to have produced more than 30,000 artworks over his lifetime, but none are more famous than the Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji series which has been painstakingly examined, re-mastered and printed as part of the Re-create project.
But Hokusai was no courtly artist; he was a freelancer, illustrating popular novels, erotic prints (shunga), and anything else he was commissioned. It was the very instability of life as a jobbing artist that prompted him to create one of his most enduring series of prints, Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji, the series for which is most commonly remembered today.
The idea for the series was developed with Hokusai’s publisher, who is said to have had a particular interest in Mount Fuji. Hokusai created 36 compositions featuring Mount Fuji in different conditions and seen from different angles. The series had another very distinct selling point – Hokusai made prolific use of a particular pigment, first imported from Europe in 1829: Prussian blue (also known as Berlin blue). This synthetic pigment made it possible to create a wider range of much more vivid blue hues than the vegetable dyes, made from dayflower petals or natural indigo, previously used. Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji series features five prints rendered only in various concentrations of this pigment, a style known as aizuri (as seen in Shichirigahama in Sagami Province, bottom left, and Lake Suwa in Shinano Province, second from bottom left). A further five are rendered predominantly in blue, including the iconic Great Wave off Kanagawa. The new (to Japan) pigment has been noted as particularly effective in expressing depth in water and distance in sky.
The stunning use of this new and “foreign” colour in Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji, combined with his geometric compositions and use of technique for perspective that was heavily influenced by contemporary Western European art, ensured Hokusai a commercial hit in Japan. It was so popular that the publisher commissioned a further ten prints; there are actually 46 views in the series. It was also to be a key factor in how Hokusai and other ukiyo-e print artists, including Ando Hiroshige (who was to greatly inspire Van Gogh), were later to capture the imagination of a new generation of artists in Europe, where ironically the blue was initially referred to as “Hiroshige blue”. Indeed, during the Japonisme period, from the 1860s onwards, when Western collectors clamoured to buy ukiyo-e, prints which featured this mysterious and (supposedly) uniquely Japanese blue were the most highly prized.