Perhaps you thought we were going to be able to make it to the end of this album without including a design by Katsushika Hokusai? Not much chance of that - it seems that no matter what the circumstance, whenever I need a design that has to fit some particular combination of style, theme and mood, all I have to do is browse through my Hokusai books and I can be pretty much guaranteed of finding something that fits the bill!
This image is from one of his 'picture' books - the Hokusai Gafu, published in Nagoya in 1849. It's very difficult to find good copies of Hokusai's illustrated books. They were extremely popular in their day, just as were the famous Tokaido prints of Hiroshige, but although this means it is not difficult to find copies these days, finding good copies is another story. The problem is that items which were popular continued to be printed and reprinted even long after the blocks were badly worn. It seems that the Edo patrons were not particularly fussy about the quality of the prints they were buying, and publishers were happy to keep cranking them out as long as there was any kind of visible image left on the blocks. So we have the apparent paradox that the prints that were popular in their day were inevitably awful copies, while prints that didn't sell well, were nearly always excellent copies.
Needless to say, Hokusai has always been extremely popular, so nearly all the books and prints of his we now find are so badly printed as to bring no pleasure in the viewing. But a couple of years ago I got a note from a book dealer in Italy who thought I might be interested in a clean and clear copy he had, and he was right! It was a bit expensive, but I knew that it would provide good 'hunting' for images for my Surimono Albums. And so it has ...
I can understand why a book full of pictures like this one is attractive to us here in the year 2002; they are interesting images of a long ago and far away time. But just what did the original viewers - the people of Nagoya in 1849 - see in a book like that? It can't have been nostalgic for them in any way at all. To find the answer, we have to remind ourselves of one of the major differences between our life today and theirs back then - we are surrounded by imagery all day long, everywhere we turn: newspapers, TV, magazines, movies, books, pictures on the wall ... You and I have each probably seen literally hundreds of images today. But people back then did not have this 'parade' of pictures constantly in front of their eyes. Indeed, for most people in that era, to see an artificial image must have been quite an unusual event. I can easily believe that a Hokusai illustration like this was thus capable of actually carrying them into the scene, much like a movie does to us here in our own day. During the time we are looking at it, reality stands suspended, and we become part of the world depicted there. Just how strong such a feeling was for them I cannot imagine, but judging by the popularity of such books in those days, I think it must have been considerable.
We ourselves can of course never capture such a feeling any more from just a simple image - unless we were to lock ourself in a cave for a year to escape all the pictures that bombard us. Perhaps only then could we see this one the way that it was meant to be seen ... Our eyes would start at the pathway in the lower left corner, and would carry us step by step as we zigzagged our way past the villages and through the lanes in the countryside, then eventually right up to the invisible top of Fuji in the background.
Just splashes of pigment on a sheet of paper - but actually an entry into another world. It worked for people in 1849 - I hope you can make it work for you too!