William B. Adair


Homage to Hokusai

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The Edo period in Japan was the final phase of traditional Japanese history and a time of flourishing cultural arts from about 1600 through the 1860s. Due to the country’s policy of national seclusion during that time, Japan was a world almost entirely unseen by foreign eyes until the late 19th century.

During this period, Japanese art acquired a singular character with few external influences. The style, called ukiyo-e, blended the realistic narratives of ancient picture scrolls with inspiration from the decorative arts and observation of nature.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849), the ukiyo-e’s most prolific and renowned artist, produced an estimated 35,000 works during seven decades of ceaseless artistic creation. His images have matured into international icons, most famously his woodblock prints of Mount Fuji and its relationship with the surrounding sea.

When Mr. Adair saw Hokusai’s original prints at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in the summer of 2012, they became a catalyst for his own work. His series, Homage to Hokusai, brings together inspiration from the ukiyo-e tradition with the ancient art of gilding, along with watercolor and other mixed media. He employs these varying techniques and materials to creating a bridge between Eastern and Western traditions.

With a family history deeply affected by World War II, Mr. Adair’s paintings also serve as a sort of personal diplomacy to mend the rifts between Japan and the memory of his ancestors. Boats offer a connection between disparate lands, with the small vessels in his paintings depicted in struggle against the natural elements—the roiling tides and distant, rocky shores—that symbolize history’s burdens, which we all must overcome in order to find peace.

In understanding Adair’s connections of historical and symbolic elements, perhaps a simple translation says it best. Ukiyo-e, quite literally, translates to, “pictures of the floating world.”