Category Archives: Drawings

Hokusai at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts

With his Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, Katsushika Hokusai, whose prints are currently on exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, seems to reinvent the very idea of point of view over and over again. He must have traveled widely to have actually seen the fabled mountain from so many different vantage points. There’s no formula—each is a fresh take. Often the mountain is seen in terms of some human activity, as though watching over the people who fish, harvest, and make the things they need to live. In other images, Fuji is merely itself, framed by trees, overlooking water. The mountain can be close or very far away.

Most famous of the views is Hokusai’s iconic image Under the Wave Off Kanagawa, also known as The Great Wave. Fuji sits beneath the breaking wave, a massive wall of water turning on itself with white anthropomorphic fingers that seem to clutch at the small boats loaded with humans attempting a passage across a tempestuous ocean.

Most of the world is familiar with The Great Wave. Seen frequently in reproduction, in media, in advertising, and used on personal products from totes to umbrellas, the image has journeyed far from its source. This is a small work, measured in inches not feet. Here we have this massive rogue wave, possibly even a tsunami, spiraling, rising, threatening the small, precarious boats that seem to represent human endeavor in the face of huge natural forces.

Beneath the wave, in a circle framed by its curve, we see the perfect cone of Fuji, a sleeping volcano—implacable, unmovable, and holy—a form that, like the wave itself, suggests the purity of geometry and mathematical certainty. While the wave is ephemeral—we know that its presence is momentary: it will rise, crash, and return to the sea—the mountain hunkers down like a rounded pyramid.

Perhaps Hokusai deliberately planned this contrast, but I think it’s just as likely that, for him, it was simply one more view of the mountain, another inventive way of seeing his subject. The ideas about it probably came later. They are our ideas and not his.

Hokusai was a journeyman printmaker, a commercial artist really, bent on making a living in an era when these printed pictures sold for the equivalent of a bowl of noodles. Yet he lived in a time when the printed image was far less common than it is now. People were not inundated by images. In his massive output of prints, paintings, game boards, and banners, Hokusai manages to capture so much more than we can possibly take in—humans, animals, landscape, work, leisure, theater, story—few modern artists could claim to have so much breadth or humility.

A favorite image of mine from the exhibition is Carp That Climb the Waterfall. It has some of the qualities of The Great Wave—a sense of the force of the falling water and the fish struggling upward, fighting the current. We don’t know if the effort will result in success or failure, just as we can’t say whether the great wave will drown the tiny humans in the boats or allow them to survive. There is in these images a sense of the precariousness of life and also its liveliness and unpredictability. That takes us back to Fuji, the seemingly eternal rock, something dependable, out there in the distance, ineffable but perhaps reachable, if only one could find the right point of view!

Boston Museum of Fine Arts Hokusai Show

Two Childhood Drawings

Winter Scene is shown, a childhood drawing by Jeri Griffith to illustrate her blog.

Winter Scene, childhood drawing by Jeri Griffith

The little shed where the skaters sit to lace up their skates seems precariously balanced on the edge of the pond, as if I couldn’t quite figure out how to orient it accurately. That is probably because, while the skating rink is seen head-on, the hill is depicted as if the viewer is looking down on it. In naïve art and in children’s art, disparate points of view aren’t necessarily contradictory. As far as I was concerned at the age of five, everything was in its place and exactly where it should be.

This drawing of child’s play in winter offers a tremendous amount of information. I probably began with the oval for the skating rink and moved on, adding elements as I thought of them. All of these activities would have been extremely familiar to me at that age. I skated, went sledding, and used the fiberglass “flying saucers” that appear in the drawing as well. I was making decisions about what was important, putting in elements as I went along, and happily covering the whole scene with snowflakes.

Childhood drawing by Jeri Griffith of an imaginary scene inside a museum

In the Museum, by Jeri Griffith

In the hallway picture, I was trying to demonstrate an understanding of the laws of perspective. In it, lines converge and things get smaller as they recede into the distance. Both drawings are filled with details that I considered important to include. I suspect that that museum hallway was an imaginary scene and not a real place. Even so, I’ve shown a water fountain, an EXIT sign, and artifacts in the display cases. As a child, I walked plowed fields with my father looking for flint arrowheads and pieces of broken pottery that tended to surface in the spring. I had a fascination with prehistoric life that continues today.

The child’s winter scene is lively and expressive, and depicts a spacious world of freedom and play. The empty hallway has a more ominous, empty feeling. The trajectory in the hallway is inescapable. I can either turn off to the left or walk toward that pair of closed gray doors. The choices have become much more limited. I could say that my life had become more institutionalized, but I’m not sure that’s the case.

Both drawings represent a legitimate approach to some understanding of the world and of pictorial space and possibly of the self. In the winter scene, there is freedom. The hallway represents constriction, but also the potential to be part of some larger world. It’s about the effort to articulate and to communicate accurately. Always in my work, I have swung between these two poles—that of infinite freedom of expression and then the hard task of saying what is really meant, what is really there. The hallway drawing represents a path of learning and words. The winter scene is about intuition and movement without being fettered. I believe a great artist needs both of these qualities.

I only have to look at a winter scene by the great Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel to find a kindred spirit here. In Hunters in the Snow or Return of the Hunters (1565), we have what seems to be an utterly realistic painting, but I’m sure that if I began a serious study of the work by drawing it, I would discover many disconnects. The pictorial space is credible, but if I deconstructed it, I would find that it doesn’t really make sense and that this could not possibly be a “realistic” depiction of a single scene. Just as I did in my much more primitive winter scene, Bruegel has included many details and vignettes to make the picture interesting.  And in doing so, he’s united the two points of view. He’s combined an appetite for life and the desire to show everything that is important with some semblance of a natural perspective that makes the viewer believe in his painting.