Hokusai

Hokusai

“From the age of six, I had the desire to copy the form of things. From about fifty, my pictures were frequently published; but, until the age of seventy, nothing I drew was worthy of notice.”

So inured to defeat, to rejection, am I,

these days, I can barely muster a sigh

of resignation. No tear brims my eye.

“At seventy-three years, I was somewhat able to fathom the growth of plants and trees, and the structure of birds, animals, insects, and fish.”

These days of defeat, it’s a wonder why

I don’t pack it all in; stop living a lie.

 “Thus, when I reach eighty years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and, at ninety, to see further into the underlying principle of things.”

These days of dejection, I can’t even cry,

but I summon my forces, and I try

to think of my hero, Hokusai.

“So that, at 100 years, I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and, at 110, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive.”

 What’s not to love, about Hokusai?

His images, his words, will never die.

He is 79 years of age, at home with his artist daughter, when his house catches fire. He grabs his paintbrush, and jumps out the window. His daughter grabs her paintbrush, and jumps out after him. They lose all their possessions, clothes, and painting materials. They are nearly naked, and look like homeless beggars. Hokusai’s greatest works still lie ahead of him.

 As long as there’s life, there’s hope, so I

summon my strength, and think of Hokusai.

He was born in a Dragon Year. On a Dragon Day, in his 90th year, he paints his last great work: a dragon flies into the sky around his beloved Mount Fuji, and disappears into the heavens…

In June last year, BBC4 showed the premier of a film entitled “Hokusai: Old Man Crazy to Paint”.  It was a documentary/biography of the Chinese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).  I watched it, and was fascinated and enthralled.  I didn’t know much about Hokusai at the time, apart from the fact that he was famous for his painting The Great Wave, which must be one of the best-known images in world art.  I had no idea that he had continued to paint until his ninetieth year, that he was also famous for painting whole series of views of Mount Fuji, and that he had a daughter who was also a significant artist in her own right.  I found his unquenchable optimism endearing and admirable.  About a year later, I watched Simon Schama enthusing about Hokusai, in one of the BBC2 “Civilizations” programmes, and my fascination with Hokusai was re-invigorated.  I started having ideas about writing a series of poems about Hokusai’s life, linked to his series of paintings of Mount Fuji, but then realised it might be a bit ambitious for my meagre talents.  I ended up producing the poem above, which attempts to summarise what Hokusai means to me. 

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