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The man who was mad about drawing

A CACHE of more than 500 woodblocks by Hokusai has been discovered in a storage room of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, an oddly casual event not unworthy of the master himself. Hokusai, a man of fierce whimsy, is said to have lived in 93 houses during the 90 years of his life, moving on whenever his quarters filled up with the flotsam and jetsam of his exuberant life -- or the back rent piled up too sky-high. Who knows how many woodblocks the old transient lost himself before he died in 1849?

Anybody who has loved a print by Hokusai cannot imagine his work lying quiescent and forgotten in basement darkness for the better part of a century. There is so much energy, so much life to his scenes that you could swear the people in them would leap off the woodblocks and pick the lock of any storeroom, dancing forth into the sunshine.

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Hokusai was a country boy who named himself after his district (``The Peasant from Katsushika''). His sketchbooks are full of horses and crows and farmers digging at bamboo. He not only drew rain -- great slanting strokes of it -- but wind too, the invisible demon swirling the grass around peasants' feet and flapping the hats on their heads. How their bodies lean into it!

Some of the most charming sketches depict swimmers, diving and sporting like porpoises. In the water, Hokusai's people become children again, as playful as the fish that swim in the margins.

When assembled in groups, like his sumo wrestlers, the figures seem choreographed by a dance master who could not allow anything -- even a flower -- to stand still.

In his native town of Edo, shoguns' castles stood on the surrounding hills. Hokusai's eye was on the flatlands where the lower classes lived. In addition to his rural scenes and landscapes, like the ``Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji,'' he practiced a kind of street art, like Daumier. He caught barrelmakers and lens grinders and noodle cooks at their trades. Nobody has drawn more accurately the shop comedy of a sales clerk courting a customer.

Hokusai had a fascination with science that placed him halfway between Leonardo da Vinci and Rube Goldberg. Presuming that one day boats might fly, he drew one with a wind-fan wheel and an umbrella sail, just yearning to turn into wings. For Hokusai, the whole world was bursting into invention and dance -- celebrating itself as it rolled along.

Ukiyo-e is the catchall word for the art tradition Hokusai followed. Meaning literally ``this fleeting, floating world,'' ukiyo-e marked off all that was temporal and illusory in mortal life. But by a linguistic, if not moral detour, ukiyo-e came to take on an almost opposite meaning: this pleasant, delightful ``floating world,'' full of what the novelist Yukio Mishima once called absolutely ``useless beauty.''

Ukiyo-e is the world of Hokusai's woodblocks, paintings, and above all, drawings. Yet there is more here than physical grace, witty observation, and unbounded zest. The supposedly crabby Hokusai seems unable to stop himself from loving whomever and whatever he draws.

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A late bloomer who did not find his style until age 40, Hokusai, according to his daughter, wept when he was 80 because, ``in spite of all his study and effort, he had not yet truly learned to draw things as they are.'' Then he promised: ``When I am 110, everything I do -- be it but a line or a dot -- will be alive.''

Uncovering the woodblocks in the Museum of Fine Arts is like collecting on that promise, which Hokusai undersigned with one of the most fetching signatures an artist ever devised: ``The Old Man Mad About Drawing.''

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