Perhaps I was spoiled in my youth, growing up near the Seattle Asian Art Museum, or maybe it was my long-standing fascination with Hokusai’s work, but LACMA’s Japanese Prints: Hokusai exhibit was underwhelming.  This did not stem from the number of pieces—seeing even a single Hokusai print is impressive, let alone the Waterfall series which is rare—or its location in a cramped, narrow hallway in the Pavilion for Japanese Art. Instead my disappointment came from the exhibit’s lack of structural unity, historical context, and understanding of print.

Hokusai was most likely born in October, 1760 and died in May, 1849. During his life he revolutionized—both methodologically and aesthetically—Japanese woodblock print. Starting his career as an apprentice to Shunsho, he crafted images traditional to Japanese art, including courtesans, actors, and philosophers. Several of these early prints are included in this exhibit, the Two Kyoka poets: Kinkosha Karomichi and Fukujuso being a particularly elegant example. Even in this more traditional image, Hokusai’s hand is clearly seen: the artful symmetry, the wave-like flowing clothing, and the subtle shading.

After the death of his master, Hokusai began to explore his interest in the everyday life of his fellow urban Japanese. Images of wrestlers preparing for a fight or bathers mid-bath, captured movement and energy in ways never before seen in woodblock. I was pleased to see that pieces from both of these earlier stages of Hokusai’s work were included in this exhibit. In fact, I had never seen examples quite as interesting—in content, in style, and in artistry. However, the internal organization of the exhibit is quite confusing.  The Two Kyoka poets is mixed in with pieces from his work on everyday life, which in turn appear next to examples of the work of his students. All of this without an explanatory note about either the time frame or the perceived unity of these works.

The rest of the exhibit focused on the later stage of Hokusai’s career: his landscapes. Although most people associate Japanese woodblock prints with sweeping landscapes, populated by people or animals, this was actually Hokusai’s invention. Fascinated (obsessed?) with Mount Fuji, he created a series of images depicting the mountain in its various moods, several of which are included in this exhibit. Also included is a print of his most famous work, Great Wave off Kanagawa—an obvious draw for people less familiar with his work. Again, there is a bit of information about these prints included in a placard; however, these images are mostly left to float alone on the walls, not rooted anywhere or at any time.

The crowning achievement, the real reason I wanted to see this exhibit was the inclusion of Hokusai’s A Tour of Waterfalls in the Provinces. Though not as iconic as his great waves, these waterfalls represent one of his greatest achievements. For Hokusai, water, like the rest of nature, had structure—where our eyes see change, he saw stability. In this series he works through this idea by depicting various Japanese waterfalls at different times of day and year. Each clearly has its own character, its own structure. Including this series lends weight to the exhibit overall, and will draw aficionados of Hokusai’s work.

His technical prowess, to manipulate the woodblock medium in order to produce layers of perfect shading, combined with his interest in the everyday lives of fellow urban Japanese and in the structure of water revolutionized not only Japanese art, but also art in the west. However, this revolutionary aspect is missing from the narrative (or lack thereof) this exhibit provides.

That being said, the online component of this exhibit is outstanding. From the high resolution versions of the prints to its accompanying text, it does a lot to contextualize Hokusai as well as the individual images within a larger woodblock and Japanese artistic history. Yet, I came across this digital component by accident—I wanted to know what one of the prints was called. This makes me wonder whether or not these two elements were meant to be seen together. Perhaps the physical exhibit would not have seemed so disjointed if I had been made aware of the digital component.

When I was in high school, I bought a Hokusai calendar—the pictures were pretty and the colors went well with my room. I had no idea who he was or that he was famous; it was not until several years later that I learned his prints were nothing like the glossy images on my wall. The Japanese Prints: Hokusai exhibit reminds me of this calendar: a series of pretty prints, which were put together simply because they share the same artist and divorced from their historical and aesthetic context. Nevertheless, when combined with the information on the LACMA website, this exhibit is worth a stopover on your way to some of the museum’s other, excellent exhibits.

Japanese Prints: Hokusai runs through July 28th, 2013.