If you live in Melbourne or surrounds and you wish you knew more about Japanese culture, a visit to the Hokusei Exhibition, currently showing at the NGV until October (as I remember, but check) is an event to add to your ‘To Do’ list. Be prepared for some eye strain if your eyes, like mine and my fellow viewer’s, are not in perfect condition as the lighting is dim (to preserve the quality of the woodcuts) and the woodcuts by their very nature are medium to small in size and extremely detailed.
Hokusei’s most well known work is The Wave or The Great Wave off Kanagawa, pictured here, that depicts fishermen fishing in the swell with Mount Fuji in the background. You’ve probably seen it somewhere. If you want more information, Google ‘image Hokusei wave’.
If you visited the recent Van Gogh Exhibition you will recall that Van Gogh was very influenced by the Japanese tradition and in his teens collected a considerable number of Japanese woodcuts that he studied deeply. Both artists liked to depict ordinary people doing ordinary work though each did this in his own unique way. And like Hokusei with Mount Fuji in the distance, Van Gogh art often features a tower (presumably a church tower as he was a highly spiritual person) in the far distance.
Viewing Hokusei’s work, I felt I was looking/listening/experiencing a foreign language that was simultaneously fascinatingly beautiful, replete with metaphor and symbolism I could barely grasp, and and almost totally incomprehensible.
I was wowed by the variety of his themes.
In one series he depicts close ups of different blossoms together with a flying insect or a bird. When you consider that nature photography would not have been available in 19th century Japan, the accuracy of his images is astonishing.
In another series he takes poems from imminent figures, both male and female, of Japanese art and culture and creates his own new contemporary understanding of the meaning. The poems, themselves, were haunting and often reminded me of the Sufi poet, Rumi. I felt deeply drawn to both although most of the time I could see no connection between the two. Maybe it was partly eye strain as by then my eyes and the back of my neck were beginning to ache.
The friend who was with me commented at that point that the process reminded her of how Shakespeare took ‘real’ historical events and then weaved his own story and interpretation around them.
And then I had a flash of understanding that what we were privileged to be engaged with was the historical equivalent of what some new age mystics like to refer to as alternative or parallel universes.
There are an infinite number of parallel universes just as there are an infinite number of artistic renditions of what we might regard as ‘the real world’.
We can enter and enjoy these parallel universes when we know or learn how: artists of all persuasions recognise an alternative universe, create an entry point, and may spend their lives wandering, exploring and creating representations of it for the rest of us to enjoy.
By entering and appreciating parallel universes created by other gifted souls, we expand our ability to appreciate our own perhaps more mundane reality; or even our ability to recognise and appreciate a parallel universe with which we ourselves are uniquely familiar.
As we use our experience of parallel and alternative universes to understand our own universe better, we integrate more of who we are. We expand our own souls.