A Rare Series of Japanese Woodblock Prints by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)
February - July 2012, Chinese Corner Gallery
The Ryūkyū Islands form a long chain of islands stretching from Japan's Kyūshū Island to within seventy miles of Taiwan. In anticipation of the visit in 1832 of a delegation from the Ryūkyū Kingdom to the shōgun in Edo (Tokyo), the Japanese government issued Ryūkyū kokushiryaku (1831), an official history of the Ryūkyū Islands. A reprint of an earlier Chinese publication (1757), the book also included topographical line-block illustrations. Capitalizing on public interest in the islands, the famous artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), who had never visited the islands, adapted the line illustrations into a series of woodblock color prints entitled Eight Views of the Ryūkyū Islands (about 1832-33).
Hokusai transformed the illustrations into fashionable and atmospheric landscapes through the use of bero-ai ("Berlin blue" or "Prussian blue"), a pigment imported from Europe, as well as by adding details such as mist-banks, boats and figures in Chinese garb. One scene is illuminated by the moon while another, quite improbably, is covered in snow. The print illustrated above, showing banana trees growing in a village fortified by stone walls (defense against piracy), suggests the true climate and exoticism of the Ryūkyū Islands.