The Mad Poet and The Wind
Taking a closer look at a drawing by Hokusai
The whimsical drawing of a barefooted man dancing whilst papers and leaves scattered to the wind, took my breath away when I first saw it many years ago. It still is an unfolding mystery today.
As a student of Japanese art history at the School of Oriental and Africa Studies in London, which was just behind the British Museum, I used to wonder into the museum to view original art as often as I could. I loved hanging out at the student room which was dedicated to students who wished to look at particular artworks. I wanted to get a feel of the brush strokes of the masters of ink, and this was the place to see just that. Amongst a selection of 18th century drawings by Japanese master artist Katsushika Hokusai, was a very similar drawing to this one here on the right. At first sight I couldn't quite figure out what was going on with this figure. Can you?
The rather small drawing of 27x40 cm, was made with many fine lines, yet depict only few actual body details. The lines are not quite anatomically correct nor the posture is realistic at all, is it? Check it out for yourself. Can a figure hold its full weight on one bent leg in such posture? Can a head turn around in this odd angle to the sky ? And although this drawing make no sense as a reality, we believe it. It works. How come?
We are also led to believe the wind is scattering papers from an open sac, whilst maples leaves flying away. And somehow, the figure is dancing carelessly and free, oblivious to anything around it, present at the moment full heartedly and happy. And we are with him.
The man is holding his whole balance on the tiptoe of one leg in a rather extraordinary way, and the suggested parts that are painted, somehow, make up the contour of the body. And thanks to layers and layers of his robe, we are given a sense of him dancing in elated joy in the wind. By challenging the powers of gravity and balance he is able to be in the moment so much so that we can almost hear his laughter, and the swirling sounds of the wind.
Whether the man has opened his bag and threw the papers to the wind, or perhaps the sac has fallen and he is trying to collect his poems back into his bag, is questionable. But it does not distract his free spirit dance. And although we cannot see nor read any writings on any paper, he does have, quite mysteriously, a bag full of them.
The autumn season is noted with maples leaves scattered amongst the paper, and the character for wind - 風 at the bottom right, reminds us, if we are still not sure, that it is a strong autumn wind that is blowing away.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and the human figure
Hokusai, amongst his great many talents as an artist, painter, calligrapher and printmaker, was a master in drawing the human figure. Be it saints, priests, warriors or servants, brick layers, martial artists, fine ladies or ghosts, he painted them all. He did not seems to care so much who they were, as much as what they were doing. Hokusai was investigating how people moved in their daily activities, the muscles of their bodies, the shifting lines of their garments folding, angles of their fingers, feet positions, facial expression and so much more. With an insightful curiosity, his drawings reveal a genuine sympathy for people, as well as a humility to his own artistic craft in his never ending will to perfect it.
Hokusai inquisitive eye was observing in details the finest of body movement in action. His bold, determined brush would easily shift from sketching a samurai shooting a bow and arrow to dancers performing a folk dance. You name it, Hokusai and his brush were there. So much so, that we can learn much about 18th century Edo period of Japan and its culture thanks to his detailed sketches. The ways, style and mannerism of all sorts of people, from all walks of life, as they have been going on their daily lives, noted and drawn with his skilled brush.
Many of his sketches were grouped in booklets, and have become to be known as 'Hokusai illustrated books' or manga. They were published over time, beginning in 1814 with over thirteen volumes being published during his lifetime, packed with many wonderful drawings. These drawings offer a detailed insight into anything Japanese. They demonstrate Hokusai discerning eye and determined hand in depicting anything and everything that was around him, and in capturing the movement and vitality of his subjects.
Amongst these drawings, we can discover people in all seasons and in various weather conditions, giving us the storyline not only of the person, but of the time and atmosphere within which their story takes place.
One of the most enigmatic and complex weather condition to paint is the wind, as it is unseen. So how did Hokusai draw the wind?
How do you draw the wind ?
The wind is about the only subject that to be able to paint, one needs to master drawing everything else in nature, as it in itself is unseen. And so, if you want to paint figures, animals or landscape in the wind, you must understand human anatomy, animal movement, and the way trees, branches, and objects, move and sway when blown away.
Just like the spirit of life, the wind can be felt and seen by how it react with everything around it. Perhaps this is the magic and challenge that Hokusai was up to. More so, it looks like he was enjoying exploring this theme with much humour and originality. Be it a strong wind, a sudden wind, autumn wind.. his attention to the subject in his landscape paintings and prints is truly remarkable.
We can examine his playful practice in the figure drawing below from his manga. We can see on the left a monk desperately clutching his rod against the wind as his hat covering his face, and another monk loosing charge of a paper scroll. At the bottom right, a servant is desperately trying to keep the weight of his tray, as he is covered blindly by a map that was meant to cover that tray, which holds an important letter in a customary black lacquer box. At top right, a lady struggling to keep up as she just lost her umbrella to the wind. And, bottom centre, a figure very much like the mad poet chasing papers lost to the wind.
Just like in the mad poet drawing, we do not see much of the actual body parts or facial expression, apart from one monk, yet, we are compelled to believe in the movements of everything around them that suggest the wind is blowing all away. And much like in the mad poet drawing, the character for wind on the top left part of the print, blends with the maple leaves, as the wind swipe them all away.
Mount Fuji and the wind
Hokusai implementation drawing of humans and objects relations with the wind can be seen at its best within his famous series of 'The Thirty Six views of Mount Fuji'.
Here in the 'Gust of wind in the rice field of Ejiri', we can see how sketches from the manga were integrated into this high quality woodblock print. A group of travellers are desperately trying to hang on to their hats as they walk against the wind. Whilst a flying hat, leaves, and paper are up in the air and the rice fields and trees suggest the direction fo the wind.
There is a natural flow and movement to the whole scene, yet within the drama of it all, painted in a single line in the far background is Mount Fuji in its stillness. This contrast gives this print its power.
So how do you draw the wind? The answer Hokusai must have known well is simple. You cannot draw the wind. You can only draw the wind by drawing everything else that interacts with it.
More then one version of the same drawing ?
My unfolding tale with this drawing continued, when I discovered few years ago, in a book by the art historian Jack Hillier, a similar drawing. In Hillier's book, the drawing was titled 'The Mad Poet' and is said to have come from the collection of Huguette Berès in Paris. It was almost similar to the previous drawing I have seen, similar and yet not.
The drawing on the right was the first image I have seen many years ago at the BM, while the new image from the Berès collection, on the left, is a clear brush sketch of the figure in ink. It looks vibrant and free, with various width of brush strokes, while the BM copy looks like it was carefully painted with even lines. It lacks the free stroke feeling as it is cautiously following the lines in a softer, accurate way. The calligraphy character for wind on the bottom right gives it away as well, as it is finely written, not as calligraphic and fluent as the one on the left. Having realised that there is more then one copy of this image, I was wondering how come and why?
To answer this question, we need to understand the process of Japanese woodblock print of the 18th C. When making woodblock prints, the master would paint an original drawing and a workshop practitioner would copy it for a woodblock print. There may have been more then one copies made for the same print. So You can see the drawing on the left, painted with free ink brush strokes, varying in thickness was probably the original, and the drawing on the right, probably was used for a wood block prints for one of the many manga books of Hokusai. The latter was most probably made by one of his students or apprentices working at the woodblock print studio, which was a major productive line at the time.
It was also not uncommon for students of ink painting to copy originals of their teachers. So there are copies of Hokusai's drawings that can be found still around, making it not always straightforward to tell which is an original, and which is a copy. So a comparison like this can be useful for further research.
In conclusion - Why I love this drawing
The mad poet drawing tells us life's most valuable lesson in a rather plain, direct way. Standing strong within ones power, being present at the moment amidst great change, is a way of being. A skill that can be mastered. Whilst the very nature of the wind is change, the only stillness that can be found in its presence is within oneself.
This position is both an inspiration and and an ongoing practice. When becoming a master of it, like the mad poet, it is effortless. Just like the way this drawing seems to have been created by the masterful brush of Hokusai, so effortlessly.
Hokusai drawings / Jack Hillier/
The art of Hokusai in book illustration / Jack Hillier
Hokusai sketch book / James Michener
Hokusai and his age / John Carpenter
Images credit copyrights
1. British Museum with permission at the student room 2000
2. National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden
3.4. Artist library collection
5. Metropolitan Museum of Arts NY
6. Huguette Berés collection- from Jack Hillier book - Hokusai drawings, published 1966
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