News - Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything

This Autumn, over 100 newly rediscovered drawings by Japanese artist, Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) will go on public display for the very first time at the British Museum...

Press Release

The existence of these exquisite small drawings – 103 in total – had been forgotten for the past 70 years. Formerly owned by the collector and Art Nouveau jeweller Henri Vever (1854–1942), they resurfaced in Paris in 2019, the same city where they were last publicly recorded, at an auction in 1948. The drawings are thought to have been in a private collection in France in the intervening years and unknown to the wider world.

The drawings illustrate a broad range of subjects related to China, India and the natural world: from religious, mythological, historical, and literary figures, to animals, birds and flowers and other natural phenomena, as well as landscapes. Many subjects here are not found in any other Hokusai works.
At the time Hokusai conceived The Great Picture Book of Everything, Japan was in a form of lockdown. From 1639 to 1859, under the government of the Tokugawa shoguns, people were forbidden to travel abroad. Despite these restrictions and never leaving Japan, Hokusai allowed his imagination to roam over continents and dynasties back to the very roots of human civilisation. In this unique group of drawings, the artist’s animated figures dramatise the origins of Buddhism in India and the development of habitation, fire, agriculture, weights and measures and even rice-wine brewing in ancient China.

The British Museum has one of the most comprehensive collections of Hokusai works outside of Japan. Visitors to the exhibition will have a chance to see two Edo-period (1615-1868) examples of Hokusai’s most celebrated print Under the Wave off Kanagawa (1831), popularly called The Great Wave.

These wonderful, lively drawings, each the size of a picture postcard, shouldn’t have survived. They are neat, line-perfect, so-called ‘block-ready’ drawings (hanshita-e). If the book they were intended for had been published, a professional block-cutter would have pasted each one face down onto a plank of cherry wood and cut through the back of the paper with chisels and knives to create a finely detailed printing block. This process would have destroyed the drawings. Instead, once they were no longer required for the abandoned publishing project, they were carefully mounted on cards and kept in a purpose-made wooden storage box. In that way, they were converted from working drawings into a set of works of art for individual contemplation.

As a major discovery, the drawings provide valuable new insights into Hokusai’s life and work. They link closely with other important groups of drawings by Hokusai in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The set has been analysed using the British Museum's knowledge representation system, ResearchSpace, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Experts at the Museum, in collaboration with scholars and collections worldwide, are working to establish meaningful connections between the drawn features in the 103 drawings and other works by Hokusai, and to wider social interconnections – people, places, time, events, ideas, and technology. This will help place Hokusai, a genius observer of human behaviour, within a larger historical context. Since the acquisition, two Hokusai letters have been discovered which mention The Great Picture Book and suggest the drawings might have been made in the 1840s, when the artist was in his eighties. The position of the drawings within a long lineage in East Asian 'picture encyclopaedias' has also become more clearly apparent.

All 103 drawings are now available to see on the British Museum Collection online, including the ability to see the drawings up close, using zoom technology from the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF). This allows the fast, rich zoom and panning of images so viewers can see them in detail. This work was carried out at pace by a dedicated team of staff during lockdown, ensuring the public had access to these new works while the Museum was closed due to the pandemic.

Hokusai is considered by many to be Japan’s greatest artist and has been recognised internationally since the Japonisme era of the 1870s, two decades after his death. During his 70-year career, he produced a considerable oeuvre of some 3,000 colour prints, illustrations for over 200 books, hundreds of drawings and over 1,000 paintings. Hokusai quickly abandoned the narrow subject matter traditionally associated with the ‘floating world’ (ukiyo-e) school he originally trained in, such as images of popular actors and courtesans. His ambition was to create images of universal appeal, imbued with powerful life force, encompassing the whole range of subjects in worlds real and imagined.

Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum, said: “Hokusai’s art combines boundless invention, subtle humour and deep humanity. In recent years the British Museum has explored his vast oeuvre through research and exhibitions. These important works were shared with the world during lockdown through our Collections online as high-quality digital images. We are delighted to continue this work with this display and the accompanying publication. I would like to thank The Asahi Shimbun for sponsoring this exhibition as part of their longstanding support of our display programme.”

Alfred Haft, JTI Project Curator for Japanese Collections, British Museum, said, “Katsushika Hokusai’s brush-drawings for The Great Picture Book of Everything burst with energy. As the artist himself hoped, each dot and each line almost seems to have a life of its own. This remarkable rediscovery will speak to anyone who loves Japanese art or simply the art of drawing.”

Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything runs from 30 September 2021 to 30 January 2022 in Room 90 at the British Museum. Find out more and book tickets here:

The beautiful drawings will also be reproduced in print for the first time since their creation, as originally intended, for the accompanying book, Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything, by Timothy Clark, published by the British Museum.

Images - Katsushika Hokusai, 1829. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Water birds
Studies of various types of water bird, swimming and diving among river weed. This work seems to have been intended as a kind of picture thesaurus. Often several variants names -- sometimes archaic, sometimes apparently fanciful – are given for a particular motif. Here the birds are named, from top right: 
Little grebe 鳰・鸊・鷉・𩿧・䳉
Duck, wild duck 鴨・鳬滃
Seagull (tern) 鷗*・江燕
Mandarin duck, water bird 鴛鴦・鸂鶒
Swan 鵠鸛
The mallard duck, bottom centre, and diving duck (seen in silhouette) were later reused in the famous BM painting, Ducks in flowing water, done in 1847, when Hokusai was 88.

‘Cats and hibiscus’
A standoff between two cats, with hibiscus (fuyō) behind.

‘Fumei Chōja and the nine-tailed spirit fox’
Fumei Chōja appears as a character in kabuki and bunraku plays which also feature the shape-shifting nine-tailed fox and its adventures in India, China and Japan.

‘Mei Jianchi avenges himself on his enemies with the sword’
A scene from a legend of the ancient Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history. Chi (Mei Jianchi) is the son of husband and wife swordsmiths. His severed head, with a sword made by this father Ganjiang in its mouth, jumps out the cauldron in which it was supposed to be boiled down to become unrecognisable. A related rough sketch by Hokusai is in the ‘Curtis’ album (no. 8) at the Bibliothèque nationale, Paris.

‘Dragon head Kannon’
In one of thirty-three manifestations of Kannon (Avalokitesvara), the bodhisattva of compassion, the deity appears seated on the head of a dragon. A similar composition by Hokusai is included in the printed album Hokusai shashin gafu published in 1814, although this brush-drawn version is superior. The modulated ink wash of the clouds and the dark scaling on the dragon’s body are particularly skilful.

‘Devadatta (Daibadatta), appearance of evil spirits with supernatural arts’
Monk Devadatta was by tradition the cousin and brother-in-law of Shakyamuni Buddha. In the Lotus Sutra he was the archetype of an evildoer. Here he holds sway over a variety of grotesque evil spirits

‘Virudhaka (Ruriō) killed by lightening’
Virudhaka (Biruriō, or Ruriō) was a king of Kosala during the lifetime of the Buddha Shakyamuni, who sought to annihilate the Shaka clan. He was killed by a sudden lightning strike during a victory banquet, as foretold by the Buddha. A rough preparatory sketch by Hokusai for this composition is included in the ‘Curtis’ album (no. 22) at the Bibliothèque nationale, Paris.

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