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Sackler Gallery presents Hokusai. Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

The Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery presents Hokusai. Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, on view March 24 through June 17, 2012. The exhibition highlights the most acclaimed woodblock print series by Japan’s most famous artist, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).

Katsushika Hokusai The Great Wave (one of the early versions, 1830–32) Photo: Seattle Art Museum.

Visitors will have the opportunity to view the entire series created by Hokusai at the zenith of his career through extraordinarily fine examples selected from museum and private collections in an exhibition that emphasizes quality and encourages careful viewing.

The exhibition is a highlight of “Japan Spring on the National Mall,” a celebration of three major exhibitions of masterworks by distinguished Edo period (1615-1868) artists. It is hosted by the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries and the National Gallery of Art in honor of the Cherry Blossom Centennial.

The Mount Fuji series was the first major landscape series in the history of the Japanese print when it launched for the New Year of 1831. The images were instantly popular with the public, offering new and compelling images that are now icons of world art, including “Under the Wave Off Kanagawa,” also known as the “The Great Wave” and “South Wind, Clear Sky” or “Red Fuji.”

At the time of its launch, the print series was a phenomenal success driven in part by widespread Japanese devotion to Mount Fuji as a sacred site of pilgrimage and worship. Demand for the prints spurred Hokusai’s publisher to reprint the most popular designs and expand the series by 10, bringing the total number of prints in the series to 46.

Mount Fuji was an ideal subject for Hokusai to explore—a beloved backdrop to daily life in the bustling city of Edo (modern Tokyo)—a place that possessed a sense of innate power and sacred meaning. It enabled him to apply a lifetime of artistic ideas and experience to a subject that loomed large in the public’s imagination. The series established landscape as a new subject for Japanese prints, which had previously focused on courtesans and kabuki actors.

By the time he began work on the Mount Fuji series in the mid-1820s, Hokusai was a famous and respected artist who had studied and absorbed not only Japanese but also Chinese and European artistic traditions. After decades of work and tens of thousands of images produced as a print designer, book illustrator and painter, the Mount Fuji series marked his return into the competitive world of inexpensive single sheet prints.

The exhibition contains some of the best examples of Hokusai’s blue monochromatic prints, created with the European synthetic pigment known as Prussian blue or Berlin blue (beroai), which was introduced to Japanese prints around the time the series was in development. The new pigment extended the palette of blues that had previously been limited to organic pigments and enabled Hokusai and the publisher’s block carvers and printers to create a greater range of hues and values in an image. Blue was particularly suitable for depicting water and sky, and Hokusai uses these blues to great effect in a number of prints to simulate the optical effect of light before dawn.

In addition to “Hokusai: Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” at the Sackler, the Freer Gallery of Art is exhibiting a selection from its outstanding collection of paintings and drawings by Hokusai, including screens, scrolls and final drawings for unpublished prints. For more information about related exhibitions and programs visit

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