Hokusai at the British Museum
The Great Picture Book of Everything is a stunning encyclopedia of Japanese 19th century knowledge, illustrating nature, myth, anthropology, and providing a window into the imagination and technical skill of the master Katsushika Hokusai.
Hokusai did 103 beautiful ink brush drawings on small pieces of paper, which are some of the few original works by the master to survive to this day.
Many successful masters of the great age of Japanese printmaking, ironically have few original works left. The printing process was brutal: the original artwork was glued to a block and the wood carved around it to make beautiful prints.
The only way a painting could survive was if the artist painted duplicates, or if it was never printed… which is what happened to the Great Picture Book. For some reason the book was never printed, and the drawings in their wooden box went unseen until reappearing in 2019.
The British Museum acquired the work in 2020, and along with national Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, opened an exhibition this autumn.
We’ve written before about Hokusai, especially his daughter Oei, whose enigmatic presence haunts his work. This time the spotlight was all on the artist himself, his process, and his astonishing observational and technical skill.
Hokusai’s depictions of animals, very different from the common stylised artwork of the time, show a level of detail and accuracy comparable to the notebooks of naturalists and explorers like Darwin and Audubon.
Unlike the scientists, however, Hokusai used that observational skill to create drawings of mythical creatures, like the dragon, kirin and phoenix. His imaginary beasts seem as plausible and physical as the real ones, thanks to the magic of his art.
Hokusai, like much of Japan at the time, was vastly influenced by the stories and theology of Indian Buddhism. Shinto was the main religion, the daily practice. But Buddhism governed the rituals of death and the transition between the living world and the spirit world.
He drew the great sages of the Vedas and scenes from their lives. His powerful brushwork depicts stone statues coming to life, lightning striking the Heavenly King Virudhaka, and bodhisattvas being carried in heavenly chariots.
The moon features heavily in Hokusai’s work, as in this illustration of Dao master Zhou Sheng climbing the clouds to bring it down. Hokusai’s clouds, water, trees, and other natural elements were on a visual level that became iconic not just in Japan but the rest of the world.
The British Museum possesses three genuine prints of Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa, and printed a new reproduction based on research recreating the original work.
Researcher Capucine Korenberg compared early and later impressions of the classic piece, showing how the wood block deteriorated over time and certain colour sections were recarved.
Hokusai was the first to coin the word manga for his small sketches of folktales and everyday life. His illustrated books show the human side of classical Japan.
Many of his students imitated his casual approach to everyday moments in their own illustrations. My favourite of these little scenes is the mounted falconers on snowy mountain slopes, stopping to buy fresh hot mochi from a roadside seller.
The Great Picture Book of Everything illustrates why he could draw these lifelike scenes from his imagination. The book details all kinds of people in different poses and attitudes, from sages and legendary figures to artisans performing their crafts, and even people from other countries.
We were thrilled to find a Filipino alongside a Vietnamese visitor and a man of the Ryukyu, the Okinawan indigenous people.
The whole exhibition was an intimate look into the head and hand of Hokusai. Each drawing pulled us into the master’s enthralling visual universe. We felt incredibly grateful and fortunate to get close to these beautiful works of art.
The British Museum has also released a curator’s tour of the Hokusai exhibition to allow non-UK fans to learn more about this amazing work.