“India, China, Korea” by Katsushika Hokusai. Courtesy of British Museum

A recent discovery of works by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) currently on display at the British Museum through January 30, 2022 simultaneously reminds us of the artistic brilliance of Hokusai and the ephemeral nature of life.  

Nestled within the Japan galleries is Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything where over 150 objects are installed. The highlight being the previously unseen and only recently attributed 103 drawings by Hokusai. Each measuring 4 1/8 inches x 6 inches, these ‘block-ready’ drawings (hanshita-e) were not intended to last. As final-stage drawings in the woodblock printing process, had they fulfilled their original purpose, they would have been destroyed as they were translated from paper to block. In this process, each drawing would have been pasted face down on a woodblock and the block cutter would have painstakingly cut away the background, leaving the lines of the artist’s brush in relief to be inked and printed. For reasons unknown, these drawings remain, and it is our great fortune that we can appreciate them.  

At an undetermined point in time, the drawings were mounted onto cards and held in a paulownia storage box with the following inscription on the lid: ‘Illustrations for The Great Picture Book of  Everything’ (Banmotsu ehon daizen [no] zu), ‘Drawn by old man Iitsu, Katsushika/the former Hokusai’ (Katsushika saki no Hokusai/Iitsu rōjin ga). Their provenance can be traced to French collections, the earliest of which was the well-known collector of Japanese art Henri Vever (1854-1942) and from there into private collections until they were put up for sale in 2019.  

The collection arrived in the British Museum in 2020 attributed to Katsushika Isai (1821-80), one of Hokusai’s pupils. In consultation with scholars of Hokusai from across the globe, it has been under the keen eye of Timothy Clark, Honorary Research Fellow of the British Museum and former Head of the Japanese Section, that the misattribution was recognized.  

Included within the exhibition are reflections by these scholars which help to bring to life the ways in which art history is very much alive and can surprise us in the most unexpected ways. Based on stylistic analysis and extant documentation, the collection has been dated between the 1820s and 1840s and Clark and others continue to work to situate this collection within Hokusai’s expansive oeuvre. 

Following the tremendous success of the Hokusai manga, Clark and his colleagues believe the British Museum’s 103 drawings were intended to be the next major Hokusai collection of printed encyclopedias to be published. Having determined the drawings were to be made into a multi-volume picture encyclopedia and that the order the drawings were kept was not as intended by Hokusai, the drawings have been organized and installed based on extant printed encyclopedias. While not all categories traditionally included in a set of encyclopedias can be found in this set of 103 (volumes predating these drawings number in excess of 1,400 individual objects), they are organized under the categories of India and Buddhism, China and beyond, tales of adventure, creation myths, origin tales, the natural world (mythical beasts, wild animals, and birds). 

Upon entering the gallery, we first encounter the paulownia storage box and silk wrapping that had safeguarded these drawings. Moving around the perimeter of the gallery, all 103 drawings are installed in conjunction with tools and materials utilized in the process of creating a woodblock print, illustrated printed encyclopedias, and a handful of full-color woodblock prints, including Hokusai’s famed Great Wave. This holistic installation detailing the process of making woodblock prints aids in our understanding of how to situate these ‘block-ready’ drawings and through them we have the unique opportunity to appreciate these expressive, complex, and enchanting works from a period of Hokusai’s artistic life where little else has remained.   

Through the text labels and associated exhibition catalogue, Clark and the curatorial team responsible for installing this collection, build a compelling rationale for attributing these works to Hokusai. Detailed in the exhibition catalogue, Clark proposes that the British Museum drawings were created in tandem with a group of 178 ‘block-ready’ drawings found in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston as part of the multi-volume unpublished printed encyclopedia, Great Picture Book of Everything. 

If you have the opportunity to visit this exhibition, it is time well spent as it is a unique opportunity to see the entirety of this recent acquisition and experience the expressiveness of Hokusai’s brush firsthand. The installation has been well conceived as it provides a complete understanding of not only this previously unseen collection but the entire process of creating woodblock prints. Given the intimate setting and small scale of the drawings, it is recommended visiting during quieter hours and allowing adequate time to move through the exhibition as each object is worthy of close consideration.  

For those unable to visit, a catalogue by the same name as the exhibition, The Great Picture Book of Everything, is available for sale and at £25 is a worthy addition to any collection as all of the drawings have been reproduced, allowing for the possibility of quiet contemplation at one’s leisure. For those interested in the ways this collection has led to expanding Hokusai’s oeuvre and its relationship to the drawings in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the catalogue also provides a fascinating read into the ways art history continues to be reconsidered and reshaped.  

We are also most fortunate to have extensive virtual curatorial tours of the show and other related resources available to view for free online. 

Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything is on view at the British Museum through January 30, 2022. For more information on visiting hours, tickets, and virtual curator tours of the collection: https://www.britishmuseum.org/exhibitions/hokusai-great-picture-book-everything 

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