Hokusai: An exceptional Japanese life in pictures

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The Independent Culture

It's never too late to produce a masterpiece. The Japanese artist Hokusai (1760-1849), who is famous for his print The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, produced his most important works from the Mount Fuji series in his seventies.

"He had a long career but it gives us hope that he gets so productive and imaginative at that age," says Hokusai expert, Matthi Forrer, who uncovers Hokusai, the man behind his art, in a new picture book out next month.

"What we do know in view of the general life expectancy in Japan at the time was that people were dying in their forties and fifties and to reach the age of 60 is exceptional. I think in the 1820s it was a difficult time for him. He did little work in his sixties; his wife got ill and one of his daughters died. He could cope because he had plenty of money. But then he was faced by his grandson who gambled and he paid off all his debts. Finally, in about 1828, he sent his grandson away to the far north of Japan where he couldn't gamble. Then Hokusai was free to devote his energy to his creative work."

This large-format edition book by Forrer marks Hokusai's 250th anniversary this year. It has Japanese binding and traditionally folded paper with a soft feel and presents each work perfectly. Forrer, who curated the Royal Academy exhibition of Hokusai's prints and drawings in 1991, has been fascinated by Hokusai from a young age. "I like the fantastic variety of his work," says Forrer. "Due to his long life, he was involved in so many periods of Japanese art."

His book charts the artist's rise to success as an illustrator of gothic novels, his invention of Manga and his influence on the Impressionists. It's also the first time Forrer has discussed the origins of Hokusai's paintings – some of which were done by his daughter.

"Some of my Japanese colleagues go by the seals on the paintings as proof of authenticity. I look at the painting and the brushwork to see if it is a work primarily by Hokusai, because there is a lot of studio work by his pupils," says Forrer. "His daughter Oei also helped him a lot. I feel she was responsible for a lot of erotic albums in around 1810 attributed to Hokusai. And she was involved in the paintings commissioned by the Dutch in 1822 – and with paintings of the 1840s. By then, Hokusai was in his eighties and his brush-strokes showed a shaky hand. When you see strong, unwavering lines they are executed by his daughter."

'Hokusai' by Matthi Forrer is published by Prestel, £80, on 6 December