‘Boundless invention’: British Museum to show more than 100 unseen Hokusai works

More than 100 picture postcard-sized drawings by the great Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai are to go on public display for the first time in two centuries after being acquired by the British Museum.

Its director, Hartwig Fischer, said the drawings were “remarkable and unique” and their rediscovery was “incredible”.

Hokusai is best known for The Great Wave, one of the most recognisable and reproduced art works of all time. His influence on 19th century European impressionist artists, including Vincent Van Gogh, was huge.

At some point, possibly in the 1840s when he would have been in his eighties, Hokusai decided to embark on a project titled The Great Picture Book of Everything for which he let his imagination run wild. His idea was to present vignettes from Buddhist India, ancient China and the natural world.

It was never published so the drawings were instead put in a box and have not been seen publicly since.

Not too much is known about their history other than they were once owned by Henri Vever, an art nouveau jeweller and important collector of Japanese art who died in 1942. They came up for auction in 1948 in Paris, became part of a private French collection and were then forgotten about.

They turned up at an auction in Paris in 2019 and were subsequently purchased by the British Museum for £270,000.

They were created at a time modern audiences can relate to, said Fischer. “These drawings were created in a period of lockdown, if you will, when Japan had closed its borders for almost 200 years,” he said. “Contact with the outside world was limited and strictly regulated and even journeys within the country required an official permit. It is a situation many of us can sympathise with.”

How impressive, said Fischer, that in those circumstances Hokusai conceived a grand project to draw everything.

The drawings include depictions of religious and mythological figures as well as animals, birds and flowers. Some are more wild than others, for example a crazily long-necked man who does not need to leave his seat to get a light for his pipe.

Alfred Haft, a project curator at the museum, said all 103 drawings were gems, “each rewarding close study, each showing us Hokusai’s lively mind and hand at work together”.

Curators said it was serendipity that the drawings survived. If the book had been published they would not exist because 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 detailed printing block.

Fischer said Hokusai’s art combined “boundless invention, subtle humour and deep humanity”. The museum held one of the most comprehensive collections of Hokusai’s work outside Japan so was the appropriate home for the drawings, he said.

All the are available to see on the British Museum’s website but will go on public display for the first time in the exhibition opening in September. Other exhibits will include two examples of his Great Wave print.

The museum was able to buy the drawings thanks to money from the Art Fund and a bequest for the acquisition of Japanese art made by Theresia Gerda Buch.

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