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Hokusai and Calder at the Seattle Art Museum: Unexpected Synergy

This holiday be sure to make time to go to the Seattle Art Museum to see “Hokusai Inspiration and Influence” (to January 21) and “Calder: in Motion, The Shirley Family Collection” (to Aug 4, 2024.) Both expand our understanding of these two famous artists. In “Hokusai” we see the larger context of his work possible because this exhibition comes from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, a pioneer collector of Japanese woodblock prints. The Calder is a delightful exploration, the first in a series based on the wonderful gift of forty-five works by Calder by Jon and Kim Shirley.

Katsushika Hokusai. “Under the Wave off Kanagawa” (Kanagawa-oki nami-ura), also known as the “Great Wave,” from the series “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” (Fugaku sanjûrokkei), about 1830–31 (Tenpô 1–2). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, 11.17652. Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper 9 15/16 x 14 13/16 in.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is familiar to all of us for his Great Wave also known as “Under the Wave of Kanagama” part of his Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji. It depicts three fish delivery boats caught up in a huge wave (had you noticed there are three boats in the wave?)

Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji (1830 -31) was immediately popular. The exhibition demonstrates that artists from then to now have been inspired by it. Hokusai moved beyond the traditional scope of ukiyo-e prints that present Kabuki actors and women dressed in beautiful clothes (his teacher Katsukawa Shunsho’s specialty). Ukiyo-e means “pictures of the floating world,” and that world was the well-off educated urban middle class of Edo, Japan (1615-1868). Hokusai expanded those subjects to include landscape, folk tales, history, and literature.

Peter Soriano. “Wave,” 2005/2006. Collection of the artist. Intaglio (photogravure) on Japanese paper. About 7' X 5.5'.

The exhibition includes his teachers, his pupils and others who were inspired by Hokusai. Wave (2006), a seven foot intaglio print by Peter Soriano, suggests we are inside the wave with its vertical thrust of water that breaks at the top.

One unusual series is One Hundred Ghost Stories (Hyaku monogatari). The most famous, The Ghost of Oiwa (Oiwa-san) has a strange, distorted face on a lamp. According to the catalog:

“A man killed his wife in order to marry the rich girl next door, using a poison that caused poor Oiwa to become disfigured before she died. Her ghost returned to torment the killer by possessing everyday objects, such as the lantern that takes on the distorted shape of her dying face.”

Alexander Calder. “Vache (Cow)” 1930. Wire. 7 × 19 × 6 in. Seattle Art Museum, Promised gift of Jon and Mary Shirley

“Calder: in Motion” ranges from large complex hanging mobiles to tiny wire sculptures of animals. I was amazed at the astonishing skill involved in putting these works together. How did Calder get them to balance? How did he decide how to attach the different parts, what colors work? But above all you see the playful humor of Calder, a perfect exhibition for these depressing times.

My favorite work by Calder is still his wonderful circus. I saw it at the Whitney many years ago, along with a movie of Calder manipulating the tiny wire animals. It came out of 1920s Paris, that exuberant period of experimentation in all the arts. Calder set it up in living rooms and the celebrity artists of the time came for the evening watching him bring the little circus alive; he even had music.

In this exhibition we see a set of seven prints of the circus performers that remind us of this playful, experimental era.

I also loved the Bird, the Rat, and the Cow, created out of wire and found materials. Calder’s ability to capture the nuances of moving animal forms in just a few lines, or pieces of wire, is the result of making hundreds of quick linear drawings at the Bronx Zoo in the 1920s.

Calder works from very small to very large. Space itself was a primary material for him, and we have to look up and down and sideways to fully experience his inventive work.

Although using different media in different eras, both Hokusai and Calder are about motion, scale and perspective. Hokusai pioneered a landscape art that included great changes in scale (he was familiar with European linear perspective; although his overall image size was small, we perceive vast distances. His other focus was moving water of which he was a master.

In the 1930s Calder began to create mobiles that are thought of as abstract. He also began to make monumental stabiles that shape space but touch the ground like Eagle in the Olympic Sculpture Park. Given this title, I like to think animals are lurking behind all the abstract forms.

Expand your sense of space as you visit these two shows!

~Susan Platt, PhD


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