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Arts Review: British Museum presents: Hokusai can’t quite replicate an in-person experience

Under the Wave off Kanagawa is Katsushika Hokusai’s most recognized image and is featured in an exhibit of Hokusai’s work at the British Museum.

Globe and Mail Update

Title
British Museum presents: Hokusai
Directed by
Patricia Wheatley
Genre
Documentary
Country
USA
Language
English

That cresting blue-and-white wave is Katsushika Hokusai's most recognized image. The foreground of the famous Japanese woodblock is full of tiny details, showing fisherman in their boats cowering beneath the animalistic surge of water. The background of The Great Wave – it's actual title is Under the Wave off Kanagawa – shows a familiar cone-shaped mountain. The woodblock is ostensibly a view of Mount Fuji, one of many Hokusai created. His second most-famous image is probably the one known as Red Fuji: this time the strongly coloured shape of the mountain dominates the whole picture.

Examples of both prints are included in a current exhibit of Hokusai's work at the British Museum in London, and in a film tied to the show the American art historian Roger Keyes tells a revealing story. During preparations for the exhibit, he was visiting a collector who apologetically offered to show the scholar his badly faded version of Red Fuji. When Keyes evaluated the print, however, the quality, the colours and the artist's mark all led him to believe this was not a faded Mount Fuji. Instead, he concluded it was an early example that showed the artist's actual intentions before printers, who would have pulled numerous prints off the original block, had imposed their own colour choices on it. Should Red Fuji really be Pink Fuji?

I attended a recent press preview of British Museum presents: Hokusai because I was intrigued by the notion that a trip to Cineplex, where the film is showing across Canada on Sunday and June 28, might possibly replace a trip to London. As the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the National Theatre in London and the Stratford Festival here at home increasingly offer their playbills to far-flung audiences through high-definition cinema screenings, the British Museum is getting in on the action. It boasts that this film offers audiences a "private view" of the current exhibit Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave.

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The international opera and theatre projects provide cinema audiences with live streams of the shows as they are performed, and if the screenings can't really produce the actual aliveness of the experience, they do have the added benefits of close-ups and views backstage. Indeed, these rich-yet-inexpensive cinema experiences can be considered something of a threat to your local opera or theatre. But I go to an art gallery looking for a different experience than the one I get at the theatre or opera: can HD film really allow an audience to contemplate visual art?

The answer, based on the Hokusai, is no, not really, and that's mainly good news – but it's complicated. The first hour of British Museum presents: Hokusai is an excellent documentary, directed by Patricia Wheatley, about the Japanese artist whose life spanned the 18th and 19th centuries, and who was already highly popular for his "Floating World" images of actors and courtesans before he invented Japanese landscape art in his 70s. It's in this section of the film, which includes contemporary artists demonstrating the painstaking woodblock techniques used to make Japanese prints, that Keyes tells his story about the not-so-faded Fuji.

So far, so good and, yes, the doc does benefit greatly from the quality of the camera used to shoot images of the actual art. But we still haven't stepped inside the British Museum exhibit. That is saved for the last half hour and as a "private view" it's deeply disappointing. It's hosted by the British art historian and broadcaster Andrew Graham-Dixon, who pops up here and there in the exhibit, burbling away about the art like some manic audio tour that you can't turn off, pulling in various British artists for their reactions and then just as rapidly dismissing them. He began to remind me of a less grumpy version of the comically annoying and self-satisfied character that Steve Coogan plays in the various iterations of The Trip – and by the 10-minute mark I just wanted to brain him.

Although it's not actually the host's fault that we are shown a tiny fraction of all the art that must be in the exhibition, nor that the camera never lingers on a full view of any one art work: James Norton, directing this section, loves to pan over works to show details but never stops for long. The notion that this busy movie could ever replace a personal viewing of the exhibition is preposterous.

But that's the good news: rather than replicating the museum experience, Hokusai seems to amplify and encourage it, to lead viewers to check out the real thing. Certainly, the only way to judge the Pink vs. Red Fuji issue would be to visit the British Museum oneself. And if a trip to London is not in the cards, a trip to a local gallery to view some completely different exhibition might be in order. My digital visit to the British Museum certainly made me long for some quiet contemplation.

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