PRINTS became enormously popular throughout the Western world at the end of the last century. The first foreigners to enter Japan after 250 years of closed borders pounced on these prints and sent them home as examples of the exotic Orient. The Impressionist painters in France drew on them for inspiration. They changed hands for high prices at auctions in Europe and the US. Many of the West's stereotyped views of Japan came from these woodblock prints: simpering geisha women, cherry blossoms falling, sword-wielding samurai.
Ironically it was only after Western collectors began treating these brightly coloured, crisply etched representations as art that they began to be valued in Japan. From the 17th to the 19th century, woodblock prints were related to the lowly merchant class and were not regarded as serious art. Their often bawdy depictions of actors, prostitutes and outright pornographic scenes would be the equivalent of the more lurid tabloid press of today. The few artists who went beyond mere graphic titillation had to struggle for appreciation.
Supreme among them all was Hokusai Katsushika (1760-1849), best known for his series of Mount Fuji prints, including the often-reproduced Great Wave of Kanagawa, where a snow-capped Mount Fuji is seen from the sea framed by a towering white-crested wave. Hokusai has had many admirers, but one of the most extraordinary was Peter Morse, a reclusive American collector who was born nearly a century after Hokusai died.
The two suited each other uncannily well, and now the collection of Hokusai prints assembled by Morse during his lifetime is returning to Japan to form the core of a new museum dedicated to the Japanese artist in the Sumida ward of Tokyo where he was born. Finally the prophet is to be recognised by his own.
Both men were eccentric - Hokusai often signed his prints as 'The Mad Old Man of Art', while Morse was to live in seclusion in a cabin he built for himself in Hawaii, surrounded by his print collection. Neither cared for money - Hokusai was interested only in perfecting his prints, while Morse was to spend his entire inheritance from his father to acquire the largest private collection of those prints in the world. This collection numbered 691 prints by the time of Morse's death last year.
Morse's relatives knew that Tokyo's Sumida ward was planning to build a Hokusai museum, and that Morse had been invited to work as a consultant to the museum. Urged by Morse's 18-year-old son, Daniel, the family agreed to give the entire collection of Hokusai prints to the museum - which has yet to be built - for dollars 1m (pounds 670,000), a mere fraction of their market price. The only condition was that the prints would be kept together as the Morse Collection. Sumida ward was delighted with the offer, which it immediately accepted.
The museum is due to be completed in 2000. Some of the prints, however, were on temporary display in Tokyo earlier this month, attracting thousands of visitors to see the closing of an artistic circle that stretched over two centuries and two continents.
There were prints of mountains and waterfalls, travellers with paper umbrellas hurrying across a wooden bridge in a rain shower, a bustling crowd outside a kabuki theatre in Edo (Tokyo) and a view of Mt Fuji framed in the foreground by a man stretching out over the sea to pull in his fishing lines.
Hokusai claimed to have produced nothing of real artistic value before the age of 73, although he started studying block-carving at 14. His innovative landscapes, including the famous 36 Views of Mt Fuji, benefited from a loosening of travel restrictions by the military government of the time, enabling him to go and see what he was painting. He also learnt techniques of perspective from copies of Western pictures smuggled in through the Dutch trading post in the southern port of Nagasaki.
One of the prints that proved most popular at the Tokyo exhibition was of a group of women in blue robes with baskets on their backs returning from a day gathering mushrooms and herbs in the forest. Maple trees have turned red in the autumn and two of the women have turned to look at a stag baying on the crest of a hill against the setting sun. Hokusai produced this print in the early 1830s, to accompany an old poem, which is written on the corner of the print:
Treading through the crimson leaves on the mountain,
Cries the wandering stag.
How sad the autumn is
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