History’s forgotten woman comes alive

Japan’s 19th-century art scene wouldn’t have been what it was without the input of famous painter and printmaker Hokusai.

While the artist helped shape the scene — his most iconic piece is The Great Wave print — many believe Hokusai’s daughter Oei actually created many of her father’s works, even though credit was never given to her.

Midtown author Katherine Govier is one of those people.

Her new book, The Ghost Brush, is the fictional retelling of Hokusai’s relationship with his daughter.

It looks at Oei’s input into her father’s work and how she might have felt in the shadows, never credited for her art.

Govier spent five years researching the book, travelling to Tokyo, London and New York to familiarize herself with the history surrounding the pair, as well as meeting with different experts who had varying views on the father-daughter relationship, and Oei’s role in Hokusai’s work.

“This was like a sleuth thing,” Govier says a few weeks after her book hit the market. “It became a detective story, really.”

While Govier’s book is a fictional recount of Hokusai and Oei, the award-winning author does make mention of many truths: what Japanese society was like back then and how it is her belief many famous works were done by lesser-known female artists.

The undertaking wasn’t an easy one, Govier says.

At times, she felt weighed down by the immense research associated with the book.

“I worried too much,” Govier says. “I knew I wanted to write this. At first I thought I couldn’t do it. People were helpful in directing me. I got my feet wet, so I kept making waves.”

The result is a book that weaves fact with fantasy.

Govier, who won the Toronto Book Award in 1992, says the mere facts shaping Hokusai and Oei’s life are very interesting.

The pair had a close relationship. They lived together Hokusai’s entire life. He had a stroke when he was 60 years old and remarkably, lived until he was 90.

His long life was a stark contrast to the average mortality rate during that time — age 45.

“I always questioned about how he was able to work,” Govier says. “He had a daughter. She was always in the studio. They were completely inseparable. Naturally my ears picked up.”

As her journalistic interests kicked in, Govier discovered more about the family.

The two lived in 93 places during Hokusai’s life. They were Bohemians, Govier says.

“Hokusai refused to bow to royalty. He had a humorous view of life.”

While a lot is known about Hokusai, few details are known about his daughter.

The history books say little about Oei. She was “not beautiful, had a strong jaw and was masculine,” Govier says.

The only other details known about her were that she could not sew or cook, was divorced and had a gloomy personality. That’s about it.

“I have given her life,” Govier says. “No one knows what she thought. After Hokusai’s death she did try to have her own career, but then something happened. . . she disappeared.

“I don’t know what happened to her.”

Govier, who has written eight other novels in her 30-year career, says anytime she and her editors at HarperCollins Canada encountered editing or layout problems with The Ghost Brush, they blamed them on the ghost of Hokusai.

“I always think he is playing tricks,” she says. “He wants immortality.”

Ghost or not, Govier hopes people reading her book realize that there were many great female artists who created masterpieces under the cloak of anonymity, even in the 20th century.

“It’s interesting in acknowledging that … I think it’s important,” she says. “Only an ignorant person would say … women can’t be great artists.’”

Govier also hopes people take away the book’s fascinating story with the Edo period of Japan.

“It’s a great, exotic place to go with a book,” said Govier, who is unsure what’s next for her.

“I’m stunned that this is over for me,” she admits. “It was intense. I enjoyed it.”

About this article:

By: Lorianna De Giorgio
Posted: Jun 15 2010 4:10 pm
Filed in: NEWS
Edition: Toronto