Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review – Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave at the British Museum from 25th May to 13th August 2017

Exhibition Review – Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave at the British Museum from 25th May to 13th August 2017


Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) has long been considered to be one of Japan’s greatest artists and from the 25th May, the British Museum presents the first exhibition in the UK to focus on the later years of the life and art of Hokusai, featuring his iconic print ‘The Great Wave’ of c. 1831 and the painted works produced right up to his death at the age of 90.

Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave will explore the last thirty years of Hokusai’s life and art from around 1820 to 1849 and consider some of the themes that inspired much of his work. The exhibition will illustrate the importance of Hokusai’s personal beliefs and his spiritual and artistic quest through major paintings, drawings, woodblock prints and illustrated books. Many have never been seen before in the UK and can only be displayed for a limited length of time.

Although Hokusai is best known for the Great Wave, the exhibition will show a range of the artist’s work which features landscapes, wave pictures, deities, mythological beasts, plants and beautiful women. The works and objects are drawn from the British Museum’s collection and many loans from Japan, Europe and the United States.

The exhibition begins with evidence that Hokusai in the 1820s was beginning to be influenced by European artistic styles. The rare group of paintings from the 1820s for the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden, were commissioned from Hokusai by employees of the Dutch East India Company.

It was in this period that Hokusai suffered a number of personal setbacks including the death of his wife, illness, and financial woes caused by his grandson. His daughter Eijo (art name Ōi, herself an accomplished artist, quit an unsuccessful marriage to return and care for her aged father, and to work with and alongside him. It was against this background that Hokusai began to start work on the print series Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji (published around 1831-33) which made his reputation and revived Hokusai’s career.

Hokusai’s most iconic print, ‘The Great Wave’ is featured with an early impression acquired in 2008 by the British Museum. Hokusai created this world famous masterpiece when he was about seventy.

The set of prints of Mt Fuji and surrounding area possessed considerable spiritual significance for Hokusai. It was the search for a spiritual essence that informed Hokusai’s style, his painting of birds, animals and plants and other natural subjects saw them as part of a mysterious natural world.

Part of this world was ghosts and vengeful spirits who inhabited a parallel dimension, the exhibition displays a magnificent hanging loan from the Metropolitan Museum in New York of Red Shōki, the demon-queller.

Particularly in his later years, Hokusai’s was fascinated by the mythical world of dragons, Chinese lions, phoenixes and eagles, and mythological figures and holy men.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is two magnificent painted ceiling panels of wave subjects loaned by Hokusaikan, Obuse, done in 1845 for a festival cart.

This fascinating exhibition offers the opportunity to discover Hokusai’s extraordinary career beyond the Great Wave. Remarkably the latter part of his life was often his most productive using his unique style to paint traditional Japanese subjects. Looking closely at the works provide evidence of the artist’s skill to make his subjects ‘ come alive ‘ with dynamic intention.

There will be a rotation of about half the artworks midway through the exhibition run for conservation reasons. Due to their light sensitivity some works can only be displayed for a limited amount of time, to preserve the vivid colours. Each rotation will tell the same story, but there will be the opportunity to see a selection of different works in each half. The exhibition will feature around 110 works in each rotation. The exhibition will be temporary closed from 3-6 July 2017 for this rotation.

See Video Review here

Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave at the British Museum

25 May – 13 August 2017

Tickets £12.00, children under 16 free

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information or to book tickets, visit the British Museum website here

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