Pilgrims at Kasuga Taisha Shrine

This is one of Hokusai’s rare landscape paintings. Travellers make their way to and from the path leading up to the Wakamiya shrine in the Kasuga Taisha shrine complex in Nara. This style of this painting recalls the landscape print series that Hokusai designed during the same period of his life.

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    A long line of travellers make their way to and fro along the path leading up to the just visible Wakamiya Shrine in the Kasuga Taisha shrine complex in Nara. The artist Katsushika Hokusai was a master at illustrating, often whimsically, the character of his fellow countrymen. Here, Hokusai presents the viewer with a slice of contemporary Japanese life by showing people of different classes interacting. In the painting, a man bows to a samurai, identifiable by his fine clothes and sword. Further up along the path, a peasant couple can be seen carrying their bundles and their travellers' straw hats. A wealthy woman holds out her hand, probably filled with food, to a deer as her maid totes her lady’s belongings. The characters of the deer are carefully described as well. They are endowed with sweet, almost human expressions, and either trot toward a potential food source or lazily lie down among the lanterns, appearing more docile than deer in Nara would be today. Tall trees tower above the figures, and give way to a distant view of Mount Mikasa with a large round sun next to it at the far right of the composition.

    The Kasuga Taisha shrine dates from the eighth century when it was constructed by the Fujiwara nobles. The deer that wander the area are a long-standing symbol of the shrine, and are depicted as the embodiment or messengers of the local kami (gods) in extant mandala of the Kamakura period. The nearby Mount Mikasa, the original site of the shrine, is also upheld as a sacred site, often appearing in the mandala as well, with a large round sun (sometimes a mirror) rising above it. The simple geometrically bold sun at the right of Hokusai’s painting can be taken as a direct reference to such mandala paintings. The view here of the path leading to the Wakamiya shrine that is lined with lanterns can be seen in guidebooks of the time, and would have been a familiar location to Hokusai’s patrons [see the Nanto meishoki of 1774, reproduced in Ikeda Yasaburō, Noma Kōshin and Minakami Tsutomu, eds, Nara no maki, Nihon meisho fūzoku zue, vol. 9 (Tokyo: Kadokawa shoten, 1983), 211]. In the Edo period, people would travel to the shrine especially for the festival in the second month (roughly March in today's calendar) and the eleventh month (roughly December).

    Hokusai’s paintings are notoriously difficult to authenticate. A core of works is generally agreed upon as being by the artist himself and is regarded as the highest
    grade of surviving Hokusai paintings. Below that are works that are less unani¬mously agreed upon among scholars. Paintings considered studio works done by Hokusai’s pupils under his direction, and paintings with no connection to the mas¬ter whatsoever are yet other, lower categories [a detailed analysis of the problem is given by Tsuji Nobuo in ‘Hokusai Studio Works and Problems of Attribution’, in Gian Carlo Calza, ed., Hokusai paintings: Selected Essays (Venice: The International Hokusai Research Centre, University of Venice, 1994) 31-41]. In general, however, it is difficult to compare like paintings as so few paintings by Hokusai survive. One reason for this, as Richard Lane notes, is that his work appealed to the middle classes for whom his prices were too expensive. Or perhaps the artist personally preferred to work in other media [Richard Lane, ‘Labyrinth or Hornet's Nest? A note on authenticity in Hokusai Paintings', in ibid., 46]. The situation is further complicated in the case of the Ashmolean painting as it is one of Hokusai’s rare landscape paintings. The skill with which the artist is able to express human and animal sentiment, the variety of activity going on, and the first-rate drafting makes it highly likely that the master was at least somewhat involved in this work. This painting was pub¬lished as the work of Katsushika Hokusai in Japanese Art: The Great European Collections in 1994 [Hiryama Ikuo and Kobayashi Tadashi, eds, Daiei toshokan, Ashumorian bijutsukan, Vikutoria Arubaato hakubutsukan, Hizō nihon bijutsu taikan, vol. 4, (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1994), 166].

    Pilgrims at Kasuga Taisha Shrine can be tentatively dated to c. 1820-1834 because of the artist’s signature, which reads ‘Katsushika iitsu hitsu’. Hokusai was known to have used the name Katsushika litsu (Iitsu meaning ‘one year old again’) in various forms throughout those years, but more specifically, he used the signature of ‘Katsushika Iitsu’ from 1821-6 [Matthi Forrer: with texts by Edmond de Goncourt, Hokusai (New York: Rizzoli, 1988), 371]. This period of Hokusai’s career is marked by the beginning of the production of his most famous landscape series such as Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei) of c. 1830. Though creased and unfortu¬nately faded, this painting should be considered important as a rare example of a large format finished painting in the landscape style of Hokusai's most beloved print series of the same period in his life.

    In: Katz, Janice, Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, with an introductory essay by Oliver Impey (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2003)

Further reading

Katz, Janice, Japanese Paintings in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, with an introductory essay by Oliver Impey (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2003), no. 53 on p. 182-184, pp. 15 & 153, illus. pp. 182-183 & 185

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