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Brushes, Brooms and Talons: Tales of Hokusai

Written by
Madison Folks
Published on
September 8, 2015 at 7:44:08 AM PDT September 8, 2015 at 7:44:08 AM PDTth, September 8, 2015 at 7:44:08 AM PDT

With the exhibition HOKUSAI: Great Art, Small Sizes, Ronin Gallery took a moment consider the more exuberant moments of this artistic genius. Hokusai possessed an inherent sense of drama and a flair for public spectacle. Though many of his early works take the delicate, intimate form of surimono (lavish, privately commissioned prints), the following tales reveal the boundless nature of his talents. Whether he painted with a brush, a broom, or rooster talons, Hokusai stunned his audience with his daring.

Hokusai, Woman Sweeping Away the Hairdresser. c.1810.

In 1804, wishing to boost the declining sale of his prints, Hokusai thrilled the Edo crowd with an act whose daring left his name on everyone's lips. Blocking off an area of approximately 200 square yards, Hokusai lined the ground with a huge patchwork of paper sheets. Scampering up and down its entire length, he proceeded to draft the outlines of Daruma, Japan's beloved Buddhist saint. He worked frantically to complete the image before nightfall, splashing ink onto the paper with huge brooms and mops in a seemingly haphazard fashion. By day's end, a portrait had taken shape, so immense that it could only be viewed in its entirety from the rooftops. It was not long before awed whispers tore through Edo telling of the artist who could draw a figure so huge that a horse could pass through its mouth.

Hokusai, Viewing Mt. Fuji with Telescope, from Ehon Kyoka Mountains upon Mountains. 1804

Around the same time that he completed the immense Daruma, Hokusai received a singular honor: an invitation from the shogun Tokugawa Ienari to engage in a contest with the great Chinese painter Buncho. The competition required each artist to draft a painting on the spot. To rival Buncho's compositional imminence, records state that Hokusai tore down a paper screen and covered it with enormous swirls of blue ink. Then, throwing caution to the winds, he grabbed a rooster by its talons, dipped them into a bowl of red paint, and coaxed the startled bird across the panel of paper. With a triumphant flourish, Hokusai announced the title of his composition: Maple Leaves in Autumn on Blue Tatsuta River.

Hokusai, Young Beauty Carrying New Year's Tray. 1799.