Rachel Cohen

6. Hokusai Turned Sideways

Frederick Project: Colors and History

Frederick Project Colors and History

Katsushika Hokusai, Courtesan and Paper Lanterns, 1798/1800, the Weston Collection, Detail. Photos by Rachel Cohen

Because it was behind glass, I could only photograph it sidelong.

It came as a great relief. In the Art Institute of Chicago’s show of 2018, Painting the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Masterpieces from the Weston Collection. Room after room of courtesans – the highly-paid ones in their graceful rooms which they still could not leave unless a patron could be persuaded to purchase their contracts; and the ones who worked the docks at night, with stalls for quick transactions – all posed for a viewer’s eye, and, also, for my eye. The figures were very beautiful, and had a complicated agency, they had dressed themselves, were color artists of the first order, a few had written poems which were included, in their handwriting, what western nude had ever written on her canvas, still, there was a fundamental transaction, and it was wearying.

Then, Hokusai. She is turned sideways.

She is looking at something else, the air, her world.

If you look at her without her feet, the picture comes to pieces, so that her walking, her stepping forward on her own sandal is crucial to the understanding.

She is a whole being, and I can join in being her – feel a freedom in my thoughts when I try to think as her, all intelligence is possible – how is this conveyed?

The scroll is carefully mounted and framed by fabric, like the quilted edges of the Faith Ringgold story-quilts, and, like them, it is given an interpretation in language that is included. Above her hair, calligraphy:

Hokusai’s friend, Santo Kyoden (1761-1816), who frequently collaborated with him, has written the poem, which the Art Institute translated:

         Gold for the release of the oiran
         wagered against chrysanthemum waters
         from an enchanted valley!
         Fine Sumida wines alone
         fill the cup of the novice courtesan.
             Santo kutsu Kyoden

The wall text explained. Two kinds of wine. One, magical, the chrysanthemum waters, associated with the highly-paid and knowing courtesan, the oiran, who might be able to get a patron to purchase her release – gold for the release. But the novice courtesan, she had merely Sumida wines, from the Sumida river that runs by the Yoshiwara district, the red-light district of Edo. Constraint acknowledged.

Another liberty is the boldness of the brushwork.

And another in the way the scroll shows the night, it must be night. In the clothes and the lantern. Their black ink absorbs the night and radiates it.

The lanterns are made of the same paper that the scroll itself is painted on. They are upstanding, and let you think about paper, and how it can show the night.

The lanterns become one of the frames – like the fabric, like the poem – a way the picture can refer to itself. They are part of what gives the picture, and the woman in the picture, and me, looking at the picture, a first-person stance, freedom of mind.

Summer of Hokusai

Summer of Hokusai

Hokusai, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, Snail Hall at the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats, about 1831-1832, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


The summer of Hokusai at the Museum of Fine Arts is over.  I made four brief visits, most with children; they were interested in their own ways.  I was only able to stand really still in front of perhaps twenty of the pieces altogether.  But I have the photographs and from those I can look back and work out something of what my eye and I were interested in.  Edges.

Here is “Night Moon at Izumizaki.”

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Here is the stone bridge in detail.

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The places where people walk – the bridge, the sand in the foreground – have a sharply outlined edge.  When we ourselves stand near the water, the edge of the land is very definite to us.  But the land in the distance meets the water with a different, softer edge. The figures are tiny, and far below us, but we see with them because of the rendering of the edges.    

This was the bridge along which one walked from the pleasure quarter at Nakashima to the center of Chinese learning at the Confucian temple in Kumemura.  That is another way of thinking of the edge between summer and fall.

Here is “Fuji View Plain in Owari Province,” with the signal double-edge of Mount Fuji, tiny within the barrel-in-progress, but present as it is in each of the thirty-six views.

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The barrel is a circle, but it has several kinds of edges. There are the edges of each plank of wood and the lathes that join them:  

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There are the edges on our left, with their relationship to the curve of the tree trunk:

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And those on the right, with the textured binding and its relationship to the leafy band at the foot of the mountain.

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Out of these edges Hokusai and the barrel-maker achieve unification.  That unification seems intended to bear on how we, the viewers, are meant to unify the thirty-six views of Mount Fuji into an understanding of Mount Fuji.

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It was a summer of edges – of arrivals and departures, the loading and unloading of suitcases, the edges of wading pools and of wooden docks pointing into the water, and of the distant edges of ponds which we never swam quite all the way to.  Rounded and mellowed by the turn of the year, it stands whole.