An expert’s guide to Hokusai: four must-read books on the Japanese artist


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Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is famed for his print Under the Wave off Kanagawa, commonly known as The Great Wave, an image reproduced innumerable times around the world in all sorts of contexts. But the Japanese artist’s work was so much more interesting than his much copied and parodied wave might suggest; anyone who has seen his prints in the flesh will be blown away by the intricate detail and skilled craftsmanship. An exhibition opening this month at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) Boston (Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence, 26 March-16 July) will pair more than 100 works by the artist with pieces by those he influenced, from his followers to contemporary artists such as John Cederquist and Yayoi Kusama. Here, the exhibition curator Sarah E. Thompson has picked out four books for anyone wanting to know more about the life and art of Hokusai.

Hokusai’s Great Wave: Biography of a Global Icon (2015) by Christine M. E. Guth Courtesy the author and University of Hawaii Press

Hokusai’s Great Wave: Biography of a Global Icon (2015) by Christine M. E. Guth

“This book, by one of the most important scholars of Japanese art in the English-speaking world, was enormously helpful in planning the upcoming exhibition. It discusses in detail the background of Hokusai’s most famous work—the colour woodblock print Under the Wave off Kanagawa from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji—and traces its resonance around the world right up to the present, with many new insights.”

Courtesy of the author and Kodansha International Ltd

Hokusai: Genius of the Japanese Ukiyo-e (1995) by Seiji Nagata (trans. John Bester)

“The late Seiji Nagata was considered by many to be the world’s top authority on Hokusai. I had the privilege of working with him on the MFA’s Hokusai show that toured Japan in 2013-14 and became the basis for our own Hokusai retrospective in 2015. This profusely illustrated book is still my favourite general introduction to Hokusai’s work because it covers the full range of his variegated career as a painter, book illustrator and print designer.”

Courtesy the author and British Museum Press

Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything (2021) by Timothy Clark

“For cutting-edge research on Hokusai in English, keep an eye on publications from the British Museum, the fruit of their ongoing Hokusai research project. In the meantime, enjoy this delightful facsimile, with detailed commentary, of 103 drawings by Hokusai recently acquired by the museum and exhibited there in 2021-22; they are probably from the same set as similar drawings in the MFA Boston, all intended for a massive pictorial encyclopaedia that was never published.”

The Printmaker’s Daughter (2011) by Katherine Govier Courtesy the author and Harper Perennial

The Printmaker’s Daughter (2011) by Katherine Govier

“And now for something completely different! This novel is a highly imaginative biography of Hokusai’s third daughter, Katsushika Oei, who was a remarkable artist in her own right—not to mention the question of how many works attributed to Hokusai in his late period may have been by her, or significantly assisted by her. However you may imagine Oei, based on the scanty surviving information about her, you’ll find this fictional version fascinating.”

Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence, Sarah E. Thompson, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 168pp, $29.95 (pb)


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