Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review – Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything at the British Museum from 30 September 2021 to 30 January 2022

Exhibition Review – Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything at the British Museum from 30 September 2021 to 30 January 2022

The British Museum presents a new exhibition entitled Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything which features over 100 newly rediscovered drawings by Japanese artist, Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) which go on public display for the very first time at the British Museum.

The drawings were created as illustrations for an unpublished book, The Great Picture Book of Everything, the existence of these remarkable 103 small drawings had been forgotten for the past 70 years. Formerly owned by the collector 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 isolation. From 1639 to 1859, the Japanese government bought laws that many sections of the Japanese population were forbidden to travel abroad.

Hokusai used his imagination to examine 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 have a chance to see two Edo-period (1615-1868) examples of Hokusai’s most famous print Under the Wave off Kanagawa (1831), popularly called The Great Wave.

It is only through a twist of fate that these wonderful drawings, each the size of a picture postcard, have survived at all. They are created as ‘block-ready’ drawings (hanshita-e). If the book had been published, a professional block-cutter would have pasted each drawing 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 publishing project had been abandoned, the drawings were mounted on cards and kept in a purpose-made wooden storage box.

This fascinating exhibition is not just a testament to the skill and talent of Katsushika Hokusai, these small drawings provide a remarkable insight into 19th century Japan and each of the drawings provides a snapshot of Japanese culture. Hokusai, a keen observer of human and animal behavior illustrates a world that in 50 years would be changed forever.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information and tickets, visit the British Museum website here

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