Last week I had the fortune to see the Hokusai exhibit at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC. Hokusai lived to be eighty-nine (or ninety, depending on your calendar), 157 years ago. The show addressed his entire time on earth, from 1760 to 1849, and the work spanned from just after his apprenticeship to his terrestrial end. I cannot say much here about the exhibit, because the work just needs to be seen, but within it were embedded a lot of very timely ideas.
By any Other Name it’s not the Same
“With each major shift in direction of his life and art, Hokusai changed his artistic name….” – introductory panel in the Sackler Gallery exhibit
Some of Hokusai’s names:
1779–1794 Shunro (age nineteen to thirty-four)
1795–1798 Sori (age thirty-five to thirty-eight)
1798–1809 Hokusai, “North [star] studio” (age thirty-eight to forty-nine)
1810–1819 Taito (age fifty to fifty-nine)
1820–1833 Iitsu, “one again,” referring to an auspicious sixty-year cycle (age sixty to seventy-three)
1834–1849 Manji, “10,000” or “eternity” (age seventy-four to eighty-nine or ninety)
This is an approach I think Madonna would agree with (her latest album is fantastic, in that it sounds precisely like her, in that she never sounds the same), even if her particular name is too emblematic to be easily replaced. Every artist, of every sort, works in phases, and marking them—even honoring them—with a special name seems to make perfect sense. This is frequently done for political, whimsical, or other reasons, but usually one name is replaced with one other; rarely does anyone attempt the incessant name-shifting that Hokusai did.
This relates to the idea of taking a pseudonym, several times over. Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin became George Sand. Marie Henri Beyle became Stendhal. Samuel Langhorne Clemens became Mark Twain. Herbert Ernst Karl Frahm became Willy Brandt. Marion Morrison became John Wayne. Charles Édouard Jeanneret became Le Corbusier. Kurt Erich Suckert became Curzio Malaparte. Charles Lutwidge Dodgeson became Lewis Carroll. Benjamin Franklin became (on occasion, and delightfully) Silence Dogood. William Michael Albert Broad became Billy Idol. Stephen Demetre Georgiou became Cat Stevens became Yusuf Islam. Norma Jean Mortensen became Norma Jean Baker became Marilyn Monroe. And who are you?
But I don’t mean to get too sidetracked; Hokusai’s names were often adopted for their significance. I sure hope to see myself as one again if I turn sixty, and at seventy-four I wouldn’t mind if people were to invoke eternity when calling me. What the exhibition didn’t make clear to me was whether people followed Hokusai’s works as his despite the changing names; he’d become quite famous by the name of Hokusai in his late thirties, and I’m unclear as to whether his fans bought works by Taito, Iitsu, and Manji knowing that they were his or not. History has a way of distorting these things. Our own contemporary J. T. Leroy, or whoever, rose to fame by the age of twenty or so, only to have everyone who had previously fawned over him/her/it lose track of the writings amid the identity debate. I enjoyed watching the whole thing, as it proved how important the identity behind a work is to contemporary audiences, to the point of dismissing the work itself if the identity comes into question. Perhaps Leroy wouldn’t have had such trouble if people were more focused on the writing from the start, as opposed to marveling at questions of age, sex, and other eminently consumable trivia.
Moving on, Painting on
In his postscript to One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, Hokusai gives us a brief sketch of his view of life: “From the time I was six, I was in the habit of sketching things I saw around me, and around the age of fifty, I began to work in earnest, producing numerous designs. It was not until after my seventieth year, however, that I produced anything of significance. At the age of seventy-three, I began to grasp the underlying structure of birds and animals, insects and fish, and the way trees and plants grow. Thus, if I keep up my efforts, I will have even a better understanding when I am eighty, and by ninety will have penetrated to the heart of things. At one hundred, I may reach a level of divine understanding, and if I live a decade beyond that, everything I paint—every dot and line—will be alive. I ask the god of longevity to grant me a life long enough to prove this true.” [translation by Carol Morland]
What I find remarkable here is that he skips straight from the age of six to fifty. There would be little space for him in today’s art world. But he went ahead anyway. In his incessant work he conversed with any- and everything around him: people, animals, rocks, poems, seasons, trades. Amid the dozens of mass-market illustrated books (manga) he published were titles such as Various Moral Teachings for all Time (at age twenty-four) and Women’s Precepts (at age sixty-eight). All that before he produced anything of significance.
Thinking of all the things Hokusai conversed with in his work, it occurred to me that I care about things born before me because they provide such good conversation. I have great difficulty, not to mention a sense of futility, starting anything of my own without a checking previous references and precedents—such context provides meaning. If I do entertain the delusion of working outside of all previously tread paths, I inevitably (and thankfully) come across something that has already achieved (many years ago, and better) what I had in mind. I was discussing this with a neighbor of mine who paints, critiques, and writes about art, and it all came down to meaning and conversation, in all senses, across medium and time.
Which brings me to one of my favorite pieces ever, a table top made between 400 and 600 in Byzantium, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was probably used to celebrate feasts held at the grave in honor of the dead. Why do I bring this up? Because for me it is an object that visually embodies the very place of conversation—where people gather, meet, often eat or drink, and listen and talk. Next door to this are a bunch of terracotta pieces I’d always grouped with the famous red- and black-figure vessels, but had preferred over the others solely for their white ground. Strolling by them last year with a friend from Greece, I mentioned my favorites, and she replied, “oh, of course, the funerary lekythos.” The “of course” threw me off, since my ignorance had placed them on the wine- and water-bearing Dionysian level of all the others, but I was quickly told they held oil, and were always found in tombs. Looking closer, they all feature scenes of parting or visitation between mourners and the dead. No wonder I found their serene beauty enchanting.
Ancient Greek culture popped up again last weekend, in the most unexpected place. I was at Doug Aitken’s Broken Screen Happening at 80 Essex Street, sponsored by Hermès and Creativetime, where I was somehow admitted despite not being nearly cool enough, judging from the crowd. The highlight of the evening was when musician Adam Green thanked Hermes, aptly pronouncing it like the Greek god of boundaries and travelers who cross them, as well as orators, literature, poets, commerce, and a bunch of other things—as opposed to the French god of handbags. So many people were talking over the performer that it was difficult to hear. Hermes also acts as translator and messenger between the gods and humans. All of it was just too perfect. Though Hokusai wasn’t granted all the time he wished for, he certainly made the most of what he was given, and I’m sure he and Hermes are having a grand old time giving us hints about ideas we think are our own.
The Hokusai exhibit closed yesterday. All things come to an end eventually.
[In memory of STR and JMD].