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Said Hokusai: “What really motivated the development of my artistic style was the embarrassment I suffered at Shunkō's hands.” Shunkō being the head of the studio where Hokusai had dedicating himself for a decade learning to master painting using woodblock prints in the ukiyo-e ink style. Hokusai went on to be one of Japan’s most well-known artists.
After being expelled from his school, Hokusai changed the subject of his work from actors and theater subjects--as required by the Shunkō studio--and began to focus more on landscapes and capturing images of daily life in Japan. Hokusai painted The Great Wave of Off Kanazawa as one of a series of woodblock prints made during a 1831 tour around the mountain, “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.” The iconic great wave is one of the most recognizable of any Japanese works of art or any work of art in the world.
Hokusai painted for over 70 years, and his imaginative style extends well beyond the wave.
Typical for artists of his time, Katsushika Hokusai used over thirty different names during his career, each one to signify a new phase. Hokusai is the most well used of his names and the one he used at the time of creating The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife.
The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife is a Japanese woodblock print, crafted in 1814, during the Edo period. The dimensions are 19 cm x 27 cm, 7.4 inches by 10.5 inches, and is made of two facing pages of an open book, printed on paper. The original artwork is held in the British Library in London. In 2014, The Guardian named The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife one of the top ten sexiest works of art ever.
The woodblock print was originally made for a three-volume book of Japanese erotica, or shunga entitled Kinoe no Komatsu, Pine Seedlings. Each volume of the set starts by showing a woman, after which are seven double-page illustrations of couples, closing with a close up of the genitals of the woman introduced on the first page. The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife appears about halfway through volume three.
The original Japanese title given by Hokusai is The Octopus and the Shell Diver, Ako to Ama. This title shows that the woman has agency rather than referring to her fisherman husband, who is not present. The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife is the title most often used in English.
Using a theme popular in the Japanese art of the time, a large an octopus performs oral sex on an ecstatic woman, wrapping her pale nude body in its tentacles. Another smaller octopus probes her mouth with its beak. The bright colors and the sense of volume of the creatures and woman vividly bring the scene to life. Positioned between two seaweed covered rocks, all the action takes place in the immediate foreground. The color scheme is black, pink, yellow and green. Japanese calligraphy fills the negative space of the background.
The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife is a testament to female sexual power, the woman depicted is engaging with the octopus under her agency and is enjoying herself maybe more than her cephalopod partner. Other works of this period show erotic relations between a woman and an octopus. Small Japanese carvings, measuring just a few inches high, depict humans having sex with sea life. These carvings, netsuke, have existed since the 17th century. Hokusai did not invent the motif of humans-sea creature sex, but his is the most famous.
The calligraphy in the background reads, in part, “My wish comes true at last…” says the octopus. In the text, the maiden and the octopus further express their mutual pleasure.
At the time the artwork was made, contemporary viewers would have known immediately who this illustration depicts. The image would have been recognized from the well-known story of Princess Tamatori, a shell diver (named in the original title) married to a man who is searching for a pearl stolen from his family. The pearl has been hidden by Ryujin, the dragon god of the sea. Tamatori pledges to help her husband and fearlessly swims to the dragon’s undersea palace. There she confronts the dragon and his army of sea creatures. Tamatori finds the hidden pearl, slices open her breast and places the jewel inside. She quickly swims away and escapes the chasing army of creatures.
For those in the West, representations of a human engaging in sex with an octopus would be seen as pornographic. The James Bond movie title Octopussy was barely approved by censors. At the beginning of the movie Henry and June, the character of Anais Nin holds in her hands and gazes at The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife in a postcard reproduction—just that was enough to for the film to be rated NC-17, the first such a rating in film history.
Erotic art as a genre has never been mainstream in European art, and certainly not in the U.S. with its puritanical origins. But in Japan, all the major artists of the 17th and 18th century depicted sexual intercourse. These were not hidden works created for a small audience. Women and men of all ages and classes enjoyed them. Japanese brides were traditionally presented with ukiyo-e art, graphically illustrated erotic scenes. Shunga may have even been considered easy-to-follow sex guides for the uninitiated. Thousands of books with shunga were published; erotic images were not considered offensive in any way and were almost as numerous as landscapes, kabuki actors or adorable animals.
When Hokusai created The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, images of erotic subjects were used as a talisman for good luck. Copies were tucked into a samurai’s armor to give him strength and prevent death. Merchants hung them in their warehouses to prevent bad luck. Shunga might originally be painted to instruct or to bring luck, but primarily, for Japanese people of the time, they were simply meant to be enjoyed by adults of all ages in a sort of ribald way.
Shunga was part of the artistic mainstream of Japan, sex being part of the natural world. In Japan, it has been very influential and has ushered in a whole sub-genre within anime and manga. Tentacle erotica as a motif has been popular in modern Japanese manga for the last half of the 20th century.
Hokusai retrospectives seem to be annual events now. American and French audiences continue to carry on their intense over-a-century-long love affair with Hokusai. In 2014 they waited in line for hours for the show at the Grand Palais in Paris. Big exhibits of his work have been held in at the Fine Arts Museum of Boston, which has the largest collection of Japanese art outside of Japan, in Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau and most recently at the British Museum.
Until the middle of the 19th century, Japan’s policy of sakoku closed Japan off from outsiders. Foreigners were not allowed to enter Japan at the time, and Japanese citizens couldn’t exit the country, on penalty of death. Hokusai died in 1849, the very year before the lifting of sakoku--he didn’t live to see the opening of Japan, the huge popularity of Japanese art in the west or his personal influence on western art.
The Exposition Universelle, including the Japanese Pavilion, opened on April 1, 1867. For the first time, this newly opened Japan participated in the world’s fair spectacle. The huge and beautiful Japanese pavilion showcased ukiyo-e prints to the French public for the first time. Shortly after his visit to the pavilion, Monet bought over two hundred Japanese prints, including twenty-three by Hokusai. He hung them in his house in Giverny where some can still be seen in the house museum today. Monet’s multiple series of bridges, haystacks, the Rouen Cathedral and were inspired by Hokusai’s series “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.” Monet created his garden, including the pond and the bridge, in Giverny based on a Japanese print.
Hokusai’s, and the work of his contemporary Hiroshige’s, woodblock prints presented at the Exposition Universelle made a deep impression on 19th-century Western consciousness. Japan’s new and novel openness offered westerners the opportunity to see and purchase this art for the first time. The influence on the work of the Impressionist artists is easy to identify. Monet, Van Gogh, Cassatt--the Impressionists painters--collected Japanese art and took up its themes, compositions, and use of color. Without Hokusai, Impressionist art would have looked much different.
Hokusai’s use of flat washes color, especially Prussian blue, and the technique of delineating space with the use of line, rather than one-point perspective, was for the French, revolutionary. Ukiyo-e's kimonos influenced Edouard Manet’s paintings by his use of patterns in wallpapers and rugs. The flat colors of Japanese woodblock prints are seen in Whistler’s large swaths of solid colors. Van Gogh collected Japanese prints and painted copies in oil. Degas and Cassatt were inspired by the fleeting, everyday moments celebrated in the Japanese works. Edgar Degas would draw on the Japanese prints for inspiration for his paintings of entertainers, women bathing and scenes of daily life —subjects often used by Hokusai.
Ukiyo-e's lack of perspective and smooth colors influenced graphic artists and poster designers at the turn of the century. Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithographs showed a Japanese influence in his use of solid areas of color and outlined figures. He imitated the Japanese seals used to sign woodblock prints by using a stylized version of his initials in a red circle for signing his work. But aside from style, the bigger influence of the ukiyo-e prints for Lautrec, like Degas, was the revelation that louche life—late night scenes, the dark corners of restaurants and prostitutes could be the subject of art.
Gauguin, Monet, Bonnard, and Vuillard were also influenced by the woodblock prints. Picasso and Rodin both created their versions of The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. Picasso painted his in 1903. A copy of Hokusai’s original is often displayed next to Picasso’s version to demonstrate the influence of Japanese art on these early 20th century artists. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright was also a ukiyo-e collector.
Along with the retrospectives of Hokusai’s art at world-class museums around the world, Hokusai’s wave of influence and popularity are felt in other ways. The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife continues to be referenced in art and pop culture today; an oversized print was featured on two episodes of the TV series Mad Men.
The creative technique Hokusai popularized, the ukiyo-e woodblock print technique, lives on as well. This art form’s style can be seen currently in Manga, street art, and tattoos. Hokusai’s work including The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife is still as popular as when Mary Cassatt encouraged her friend Berthe Morisot to visit the artwork in the Japanese pavilion at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867, writing to her in a letter: “Seriously, you must not miss it.”
Hokusai worked from 1774 when he was 14 until he died at the age of 87. He said prior to his death, “If only heaven will give me just another ten years…just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.”
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