19th-century Japanese master takes a few steps West

The Japanese artist Hokusai (1760 to 1849) produced certain images that have stamped themselves on the universal imagination. Among them are his "Great Wave" and his views of Mt. Fuji. He was also fascinated by bridges.

In his 70s he wrote that his current work was worth more than anything he had done earlier, and the images we see as most typical of him were mainly arrived at in old age.

On the way to this refined maturity, though, he went through many style changes. In the first few years of the 19th century, for instance, he designed a number of prints that looked markedly Western to Japanese eyes.

The print shown here was one. Some of its overprinted tones look like shadows, alien to Japanese art. The suggestion of a frame makes it like a Western picture. Hokusai even aped a Western-type, horizontal signature. (Japanese signatures are vertical.)

Though Japan was politically isolated from the rest of the world, restricted trade was carried on with China and Holland. Some evidence of Dutch art found its way in, too. Hokusai was one of several advanced artists to find European art fascinating.

In his "Western style" prints, Hokusai's later preoccupation with waves, Mt. Fuji, and bridges can be glimpsed.

He was so intrigued by the pictorial potential of bridges that he even dreamed about them. One print was based on a dream: "Landscape with a Hundred Bridges" (circa 1832). But some of his other bridges are less imaginary. He did a series in about 1834 called "Remarkable Views of the Bridges in All Provinces."

Though bridges carry a universal symbolism - we talk, for instance, of bridging cultures - Hokusai's bridges seem unmistakably Japanese, ubiquitous features of a country composed of more than 1,000 islands.

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