There can hardly be a more ‘true artist’ than Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849). With a major exhibition of his work at the British Museum this year, it is a good time for anyone, especially printmakers, to review our appreciation of him. The nature of printmaking invites the artist to be abundant, multiple and restless, and it is hard to imagine anyone doing any of these things with more gusto than Hokusai.

Often the greatest artists make it easy for almost anyone to appreciate their work. Their work seems natural. Although a lengthy intellectual and aesthetic apprenticeship may be required to fully appreciate such masters as Shakespeare, Bach, Van Gogh, Turner, Picasso and Goya, even the untutored eye or ear is able to take pleasure or amazement from a relatively casual encounter with their work. Hokusai is best known as a woodblock printmaker, and though print is sometimes perceived erroneously as a secondary medium, a short perusal of his work dispels this notion absolutely. In Hokusai’s hands, printmaking is the equal of any other artistic medium.

Let us consider for a moment Hokusai’s woodcut ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’, probably the best-known woodcut print of all time. There is hardly anyone who is not excited by this masterpiece when seeing it for the first time (or even for the hundredth). It is visually as accessible to a six-year-old as to a professor of art. Hokusai portrays the wave as having the quality of a magnificent predatory beast, which hovers, as time freezes for a millisecond, with its hungry claws spread above the huddling mariners who are utterly at its mercy. In the background, presiding in dispassionate majesty, is Mount Fuji, enthroned in natural perfection and order.

The more we move into an image such as this, and the artists of Hokusai’s stature who are capable of making such art, the more dimensional, awesome and mysterious their work becomes. I like to think that in the pantheon of the very highest achievement of artistic possibility Hokusai chuckles, relishing his place. He knew that he was good.

If we choose for a moment to go deeper into who Hokusai might have been as a person and as an artist, what we find is extraordinary and certainly unexpected. Take for example his ‘Japaneseness’. Japanese culture is an astonishing legacy, but there is a notion of the Japanese aesthetic as perhaps being tightly bound by culture or convention. Hokusai isn’t like this at all. He constantly exceeds bounds: not for him the meek dedication of the traditional artist-craftsman. He is acquainted to some extent with the world outside Japan. He is a teacher, a social person, a maverick, a self-promoter, financially successful, full of confidence and something of a rebel, restless.

Two stories about his life illustrate this. One has him in direct competition with a traditional brush artist in front of the Shogun Iyenari. Hokusai lays down with his brush a great blue curve on paper, and then chases across it a chicken whose feet have been dipped in red paint. With a flourish, he calls his and the chicken’s work ‘Tatsuta River with red maple leaves floating’ and promptly wins the competition. On another occasion, during a Tokyo festival in 1804, he created a portrait of the Buddhist monk Daruma said to be 180 metres long, using a broom and buckets full of ink.

When we think about what the word ‘multiple’ can mean in an artistic context, Hokusai might even set the standard. He chose to have at least 31 names during his lifetime. The name by which we know him isn’t his birth name, and Hokusai Katsushika simply means ‘North Studio in Katsushika province’. He was born Tokitarō, but was commonly known at different times as Shunrō, Tawaraya Sōri, Kakō, Tatsumasa, Gakyōjin, Taito, Iichi and Manji (and those are merely the better-known names).

Can each of these names have represented a semi-individuated artist in its own right? It is hardly possible to imagine, for someone so prolific, dedicated and fluent as the person we know as Hokusai, that they didn’t. His name changes are known to be associated with changes in his style of work. Hokusai must have been exploring in an extended and profound way what it might be like to have multiple artistic personae and, though we can’t ask him directly, maybe multiple personalities.

Hokusai’s restlessness takes a spiritual form. His description of his own quest, which he wrote late in his life, sums this up.

From the age of six, I had a passion for copying the form of things, and since the age of fifty I have published many drawings, yet of all I drew by my seventieth year there is nothing worth taking into account. At seventy-three years I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants. And so, at eighty-six I shall progress further; at ninety I shall even further penetrate their secret meaning, and by one hundred I shall perhaps truly have reached the level of the marvellous and divine. When I am one hundred and ten, each dot, each line will possess a life of its own.

As we read this, we realise that the effort of this artist to understand Nature goes beyond intellect, beyond conditioning, and beyond all convention. It is a total immersion of his being into observation. It is absolute commitment of soul and skill. It strikes me that though Hokusai has a superbly developed aesthetic sensibility, he isn’t first and foremost an aesthete. His short autobiographical piece tells us unambiguously that his interest goes beyond making lovely prints of beautiful places and things: his vocation is self-realisation through his work. That is a Taoist, a Buddhist and a Japanese tradition. To attempt a critique of such an artist would be impious, and though scholars might enjoy making a comparative study of Hokusai from a Western standpoint, the relevance and excitement generated by his work, and its enduring popularity really speak for themselves.

The first quality of Hokusai for the present-day artist to wonder at is his fluency, his wonderful abundance. This appears a common feature amongst the greatest artists, and is a quality he shares with Hockney or Picasso or Bach or… The list goes on. The work pours forth like a river. Hokusai produced a simply enormous amount of work, of which the masterly Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji are perhaps the most widely known. There are volumes upon volumes of prints, drawings and sketches, storybooks, erotic art and commissions. As a family man, Hokusai must have found it necessary to couple self-promotion and the requirements of the breadwinner with very diligent creative effort throughout his long life.

Technical mastery comes with great application and practice. Like a great musician, Hokusai can consistently amaze, charm, shock and persuade by turns. The flawless draughtsmanship and quality of line, coupled with an amazing grasp of ‘the moment’, the sense of action and movement, is a delight. He is a great documenter, and any subject, no matter how small or passing, how common or intimate, is grist to his artistic mill.

Yet alongside this sometimes almost journalistic quality, recording the life of Hokusai’s times, is an instinct for the graphical beauty within abstract form. He trips lightly from semi-realism to abstraction and back again. His work can encompass the ethereal sense of space of the Chinese landscape masters, or, equally, the rumbustious proletarianism of Bruegel. He works and works at his art for its own sake, and here is his restless vocation.

Hokusai wrote of his desire to become immortal in order to reach the essence of art itself. The word ‘religion’ is derived from the Latin religare, meaning ‘to bind fast’. We sense Hokusai’s wish to bind himself to the source, Nature, through his own sense of duty towards his art. The ardour of his longing for exceptional quality is pitched at the “secret meaning” of life, beyond time, beyond fashion, beyond style.

How much there is to learn from a life lived so productively! As a printmaker, I find Hokusai absolutely inspiring.

The exhibition Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave runs at the British Museum, London WC1B 3DG, from 25 May to 13 August 2017. Closed 3–6 July.

Rod Nelson is a woodblock printer.