For the first time since they were made around 200 years ago, a set of exceptionally rare drawings from the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai have gone on public display.
Hokusai is considered by many to be Japan’s greatest artist, if for most of us as the often unknown artist behind the “great wave”, and has been recognised internationally since the Japonisme era of the 1870s, two decades after his death. During his 70-year career, he produced some 3,000 colour prints, illustrations for over 200 books, hundreds of drawings and over 1,000 paintings.
The rarity of original Japanese drawings is thanks to a quirk of how the Japanese artist’s original drawing would be turned into mass-produced prints. The original would be glued to a wooden block, and then the woodcarver would chisel out the wood to create a block print. In the process, they destroyed the original artwork.
These drawings only survived because the book they were intended for was never produced.
Their subsequent history is uncertain. As they weren’t needed for the cancelled book, someone mounted them onto cards and put them into storage. They were at one time owned by the collector and Art Nouveau jeweller Henri Vever, and 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 until they came up for sale in 2019, when the British Museum was able to buy them.
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.
What’s rather fascinating is how some of the drawings show foreigners, at a time when Japan was sealed off from the rest of the world by a ban by the Tokugawa shoguns’ ban on overseas travel. Lacking visual information and just written descriptions, the characters are shown as foreigners, but with Japanese airs to them. Some of the prints showing Portuguese people have them described as “southern barbarians”
Elsewhere, nature is shown, the various gods and demons, and courtly affairs.
The drawings are very small, practically postcard-sized to fit into the book they were designed for. That small size can make seeing them clearly a bit of a struggle at times, and the exhibition might have been better to have enlarged a choice selection for easier viewing. Fortunately, the British Museum has digitised all 103 drawings and put them online for more detailed examination.
Then again, the small size reminds us what a genius artist Katsushika Hokusai was to be able to produce them in the first place.
This is a very rare opportunity to see drawings that were never meant to be seen in their original state, and the first time they’ve been seen in a public display since they were created some 200 years ago.
The drawings will 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.
The exhibition also includes a section about his most famous artwork, The Great Wave, that incredibly famous Japanese print that everyone recognises, even if they don’t know the details of its history.