by Sarah E. Thompson. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, November 2019. 224 p. ill. ISBN 97808784669 (h/c), $45.00.

Reviewed May 2020
John Stucky, MA, MLIS, Library Director, C. Laan Chun Library, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, jstucky@asianart.org

thompsonOf all Asian artists, Hokusai is probably one of the most famous, if only for his iconic print Inside a Wave off Kanagawa, commonly known as “The Great Wave,” which is part of his well-known landscape series: “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji”. Consequently, there are many books in multiple languages on Hokusai’s work by great scholars that are represented in this book’s bibliography. Why, then, another book on Hokusai?

It is true that Hokusai’s landscape prints have been featured in many of these books. However, most books on Hokusai include only selections and do not give a full view of the artist’s genius as a landscapist. Yet, it is his landscapes that represent the epitome of his skill and vision and also represent the apogee of the Japanese color woodblock print tradition. It was Hokusai who pioneered landscapes as a theme for prints. Until he started his first series, landscape was only a background in prints if present at all. Before this, Japanese prints focused almost exclusively on Kabuki actors and beautiful women.

This book by Sarah Thompson, curator of Japanese art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, is one of the few, if only works, that focuses completely on Hokusai’s landscapes. It also deals with every landscape series Hokusai produced, some only rarely seen, such as “Eight Views of the Ryukyu Islands”, the rarely published and never exhibited “One Thousand Pictures of the Ocean”, and “Remarkable Views of Bridges in Various Provinces.” It is wonderful and enlightening to see all of these presented together. What also makes this book exceptional is that it uses the superlative prints from the MFA, Boston’s collection. Featured, especially in this book, are works from the Spaulding collection which the museum is not allowed to show due to an agreement with the donors. Therefore, one can easily see, in this one volume, the full breadth of his talent.

Both features make this book important, if not exceptional, as a presentation of Hokusai. The writing is clear and approachable at any level of one’s knowledge of Hokusai or Japanese art for scholars at both graduate and undergraduate levels. It would be a great addition to any art library. As well as the aforementioned bibliography, there is a full list of each print and a list of works illustrated by other artists used in the book. This is a beautiful book, sturdily bound in cloth. It is hoped that it will also appear in paper.