Phoenix Hokusai

Best Hokusai Paintings: Top 10 prints

One of the most celebrated Japanese artists, Katsushika Hokusai is known worldwide for his breath-taking depictions of beautiful landscapes, scenes from everyday life, abstract concepts, and still-life portraits. During his lifetime between 1769 and 1849, his woodblock print series of Mount Fuji, became his most famous work. This woodblock series is popularly known as the ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’. His work is representative of Japanese culture and the religious beliefs of Buddhism. Besides creating woodblock prints, Hokusai produced book illustrations which include his own book ‘Hokusai Manga’. This book consisted of numerous examples of everyday subjects with instructions. His unique art technique and innovative compositions make him an integral part of the history of art. Here’s a comprehensive list of the Best Hokusai Paintings:

1) Phoenix

Hokusai produced several murals in Obuse, Japan. The Gansho-in temple houses this masterpiece even today. One of these paintings is that of a Phoenix also known as “Happō Nirami Hōōzu meaning ‘Pheonix staring in all directions.’ The origin of the name comes from the viewers who felt that the Pheonix’s keen eyes followed them everywhere in the hall where it was painted. The bird’s feathers are similar to that of a peacock with a difference in the color scheme. The concentric circles at the end of each feather also give the illusion of an eye. 

Phoenix Hokusai
Phoenix by Hokusai. Public Domain

On a charcoal black background, the fiery red of the bird’s body stands out boldly. Every color complements the other, an example of the artist’s mature color palette. The blue in the feathers brings a sense of peace to the passion of the red. Each feather has been designed and executed intricately in different shades of orange, yellow, and grey.

The mythical bird has been a part of Japanese culture from time immemorial. The phoenix is a symbol of rebirth, fire, sun, peace, and fidelity. Every virtue that this magnificent bird stands for is reflected in this mural. 

2) Red Fuji

Gaifu Kaisei or Red Fuji is a part of Hokusai’s collection of woodblock prints “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji”. Internationally it is also known as Fine Wind, Clear Morning or South Wind, and Clear Sky. The artist created this series while observing Mount Fuji in several weather conditions and at different vantage points. Hokusai made these prints in a way that makes us see and appreciate what he felt at the moment. 

Red Fuji Hokusai
Red Fuji by Hokusai. Public Domain

This simple composition composed around 200 years ago looks fascinatingly modern. 

This composition uses only four colors, the most striking of which is the red color of the mountain. Mount Fuji has been painted red probably because it reflected the sun in such a way that it gave the mountain a red hue. The second most captivating color is blue which has been abundantly used in the whole series. The blue, clear sky brings a sense of calm to the magnificence of the mountain. We can also see a little bit of green used on the bottom for trees and white in the clouds and the snow.

Just by using these four colors and an exceedingly simple design, the artist has set the scene so that the viewer can experience exactly what he is experiencing from his point of view. 

In 2016 the original Red Fuji woodblock was priced at approximately USD 140,000. 

3) Rainstorm beneath the Summit:

‘Rainstorm Beneath the Summit’, also known as Black Fuji is a part of the “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji”. This woodblock print has the same components as the Red Fuji but sets a completely different tone. Where Red Fuji renders feelings of serenity, ‘Black Fuji’ has an eerie, ominous vibe. The elements in both the works are the same, the only difference is in shading and colors. The mountainside has a lot of texture and details which defines its undulated appearance. The sky is predominantly white which is where it merges with the snow-covered mountain top. The dark intimidating mountain base has been snapped in half by harsh zig-zag bolts of lightning. The cloudy sky gives the impression of smoke surrounding the mountain further enhancing the ominous tone. 

Rainstorm Beneath the Summit Hokusai
Rainstorm Beneath the Summit. CC BY 3.0

There is a sharp contrast in the dynamics of the image. The top half shows an unsettling stillness contrasted by the startling appearance of a thunderbolt. The calm in the sky is a precursor to the storm that awaits the right timing. This calm in the cloud is lost in the darkness in the lower portion of the print. 

Hosukai thought that the beauty of a scene cannot be appreciated in its static representation, rather its movement needs to be incorporated into the art for it to leave a mark.

4) The Laughing Demon

The Laughing Demon is a woodblock print of two Japanese demons with a long and prestigious history. In this print Hokusai combined the faces of the demons- ‘Hannaya’, a woman who transformed into a demon due to her intense jealousy; the second demon is known as ‘Yamauba’ meaning mountain woman who devours children brought to her mountain home.  

The Laughing Demon Hokusai
The Laughing Demon by Hokusai. Public Domain

In the print, we see a horned female demon looking out through a circular window, appearing elated as she points towards the severed head of an infant in her other hand. Her face is illuminated in a way that enhances the wrinkles and folds of her skin, intensifying her hideous appearance. There are several Japanese tales where Yamauba attacks innocent people walking along the mountain path. There are two sides to Hannaya, one is horrifying while the other is melancholy, thus displaying the complexity of human emotions.

5) One Hundred Ghost Stories:

The ‘One Hundred Ghost Prints’ or ‘Hayaku Monogatari’ is another woodblock print series by Hokusai. As the name suggests the series was initially supposed to have 100 illustrations, however, Hokusai illustrated only five prints. Like the other artworks of Hokusai, this series too was made in the Edo period of Japanese Art. The artist was well aware of the popular folklore ghost stories building on which he made these five illustrations. These stories are a part of a Tradition Japanese game called ‘Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai’ which translates to ‘A gathering of one hundred supernatural tales’. Each participant was to hold a candle in the game while reciting a ghost story and blow it out as they finish. When all participants blew out their candles, something supernatural would happen, which was the major source of excitement in this game. 

The five prints in this series are as follows-

The Plate Mansion

The story behind this illustration is believed to be around since the 17th century. In the story, a maid of a wealthy household accidentally breaks some valuable Korean dishes. The enraged employers threw the maid into a well after which she turned into a ghost. In this print, the face of a female with long dark hair emerging from a well is seen. The body of the ghost’s torso can be likened to that of a snake. The artist chose to make her body out of plates, representing the plates she had broken. 

Plate Mansion Hokusai
The Plate Mansion by Hokusai. Public Domain

The Laughing Demon

I have already covered this print earlier (The Laughing Demon). To reiterate, this painting features a combination of two demons, Hannaya and Yamauba who feasts on infants that are brought to her mountain abode. 

The Ghost of Oiwa

In the story behind this print, a young girl falls for a married samurai Tamiya. The girl’s friends try to get rid of his wife Oiwa with a poisonous face cream. The samurai leaves his mutilated wife after which she falls into depression and later becomes hysteric. One of her fits trips onto a sword and dies. After her death, she assumes various forms to haunt Tamiya, including that of a Lantern. In Hokusai’s depiction of this tale, we can see a Lantern which is personified as Oiwa by giving it a few facial features like eyes, a nose, and a gaping hole for her mouth. Above her tired eyes is an inscription that means “Praise the woman named Oiwa”. We can also see the samurai Tamiya positioned right below the ghost of Oiwa in a defensive position. 

Kohada Koheiji

This woodblock print is a representation of a Japanese tale about a man who was drowned by his wife and her lover. The husband returns as a ghost to haunt his murderers. In the illustration, we see a skeletal head surrounded by flames in the top left corner.

Kohada Koheiji Hokusai
Kohada Koheiji By Hokusai. Public Domain

Hokusai also drew red blood vessels in the eyes and the neck of the ghost to give it a more horrid appearance. In the bottom left the woman is visibly afraid of the ghost of her husband. The print shows the skeleton entering through a hole in a fabric which according to the stories is a mosquito net under which his wife and her lover were sleeping.

Obsession

The Japanese often used ghost stories based around the vices of human beings to discourage them. One such story is depicted in Hokusai’s illustration ‘Obsession’. A snake has wrapped itself around a stone tablet with inscriptions placed in a memorial home or the home of the deceased. This snake is representative of obsessive jealousy that continues to haunt the soul even after death.

Obsession Hokusai
Obsession by Hokusai. Public Domain

There are offerings and a bowl of water nearby for the dead. On the bowl, there is a ‘Buddhist swastika which was also used by Hokusai as his pen name. Some scholars have thus interpreted that the snake stands for the artist himself whose obsession with the supernatural world has made him a troubled soul. 

6) Feminine Wave

The Great wave Off Kanagawa is perhaps Hosukai’s most recognizable work of art. In the Great Wave, a massive surge of water is about to crash downwards. What captivates the viewers is the dynamicity in this still painting and also the expectation of the imminent future. 

Feminine Wave Hokusai
Feminine Wave by Hokusai. Public Domain.

The Feminine wave is another water-themed print by Hokusai combining both impressionistic and sublime art styles. Like the Great Wave, this print features a towering torrent of water with a distinct overall curve. It is unclear why Hokusai named it the feminine wave. It may be because it has a floral frame or because of the exaggerated curls of the waves. Whatever the reason may be, the mystery only enhances the beauty of this artwork.

7) Masculine Wave

The same color palette and style have been used by Hokusai to create the Masculine wave as in the Feminine wave. The two paintings are often considered to be two parts of the same artwork that complement each other beautifully.

Masculine Wave Hokusai
Masculine Wave by Hokusai. Public Domain

This piece is more similar to the Great wave than the Feminine Wave. The flow and curl of the water are less exaggerated and more natural. The difference between the Feminine and the Masculine wave is a representation of both gender roles and traits of men and women. The Masculine shows more vigor while the feminine is more calm and gentle.

8) Oiran and Kamuro

In this woodblock painting, we see the figures of a lady and a small girl. The lady is an Oiran or a prostitute. An Oiran was not just involved in sex work but also in their entertainment and pleasure. The Oiran is dressed in bright red robes, a traditional Japanese attire. The child in waiting is called the Kamuro. These children with the Kamuro learn the work of the Oiran and stay close to them.

Oiran and Kamuro Hokusai
Oiran and Kamuro by Hokusai. Public Domain

In the print, Kamuro is holding a doll, suggestive of her young age. She is also dressed in similar clothing as the Oiran and it seems as if their clothes are cut from the same length of cloth. Their rich attire is also indicative of the fact that the Oiran belonged to the highest order of prostitutes in Japan and serviced only noblemen.

9) Peasants in Autumn

 Hokusai combines many of his interests in the ‘Peasants in Autumn’. This woodblock print features a snapshot of a beautiful landscape and people’s day-to-day life. Yellow and green are the predominant colors that are used for the wheat field and the sunset sky. In the field we see peasants harvesting crops with straw hats to protect them from the sun.

On the bottom right corner, there is a small bridge featuring two travelers. The field has several canals of water that are supposedly used for irrigation and improving the fertility of the land. Some finer details include the distant hills beyond the horizon, a large water body in rich blue, and the red in the sky representing sunset in autumn. 

10) Climbing on Mount Fuji

In this ukiyo-e print, Hokusai once again takes the viewer to Fuji and makes us look at it from his vantage point. The mountain has been worshipped by the Japanese for hundreds of years and is thus frequented by pilgrims. In the print, twelve pilgrims are seen climbing the reddish-brown terrains of Mount Fuji with canes wearing straw hats.

Climbing on Mount Fuji Hokusai
Climbing on Mount Fuji by Hokusai. Public Domain

On the bottom left some people are seen huddled together resting on their way to the destination. Every crevice of the mountain range has been textured with small dots and fine lines. Some of the peaks are surrounded by white snow indicating the harsh weather conditions in which the pilgrims are traversing the mountain. 

Hokusai’s Legacy

Hokusai’s work transformed the ukiyo-e art form from a style largely centered around courtesans and actors into a much broader style that included landscapes, plants, and animals. Over the course of his long and successful career, he created more than 30,000 sketches, woodblock prints, and illustrations for educational books. Exhibitions of his artwork have continued long after his death. Tokyo National Museum hosted a Hokusai exhibition in 2005 that had the highest attendance of any exhibit there that year. Many paintings from the Tokyo exhibition were also exhibited in the United Kingdom. ‘The Great Wave’, one of Hokusai’s later works, was exhibited for the first time at the British Museum in 2017.

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