A figure is struck with lightning reeling in pain.

The rediscovery of Hokusai's drawings of 'everything'

Upcoming exhibition

Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything (30 September 2021 – 30 January 2022)

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In 2020, the British Museum acquired 103 drawings by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) titled The Great Picture Book of Everything

The existence of these exquisite small drawings had been forgotten. Last publically recorded at a Parisian auction in 1948, they are said to have been in a private collection in France before resurfacing in 2019. Purchased thanks to a grant from the Theresia Gerda Buch Bequest and Art Fund, the works are now available to the wider public through Collection online and in the upcoming exhibition, Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything.

Katsushika Hokusai

One of the leading painters and print artists of 19th century Japan, Hokusai produced work of masterful quality throughout his 70-year-long career, creating many of his most famous pieces in the later years of his life. His most celebrated print Under the Wave off Kanagawa, better known as The Great Wave, was made around 1831 as the Edo-based (modern Tokyo) artist embarked on the rich creative period of his 70s and beyond.

Hokusai's ambition was to create images of universal appeal, imbued with powerful life force, encompassing the whole range of subjects in worlds both real and imagined. By his death aged 90, he had over 3,000 colour prints, nearly 1,000 surviving paintings, several hundred illustrated books and hundreds of drawings to his name.

Hokusai's grand vision

Japan was in virtual lockdown for 220 years. From 1639 to 1859, under the government of the Tokugawa shoguns, people were forbidden to travel abroad. Contacts with the outside world were limited and strictly regulated. Journeys within the country required an official permit. How impressive, then, that Hokusai conceived a grand project to draw, quite simply, everything. 

The title page gives the date of the ninth month (late autumn), 1829, when Hokusai was 70; however, this may have been added later. At present, a broad date of 1820s to 1840s is suggested for the drawings. All 103 pieces of The Great Picture Book of Everything are treated with the customary fantasy, invention and brush skill synonymous with Hokusai's work. However, despite creating the drawings for what was intended to be a book, the project was never completed. So why was it abandoned? This is just one of the many intriguing questions arising from the project.

How the drawings survived

These wonderfully 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 blockcutter 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 creating a finely detailed printing block. This process would have destroyed the drawings. 

Instead, once they were no longer required for the publishing project, they were carefully mounted on cards and furnished with a wrap-around Chinese brocade cover and purpose-made wooden storage box. In doing so, they were converted from working drawings into a set of works of art for individual contemplation. Although it might have been a source of personal disappointment at the time, the publisher’s decision not to complete the project ensured the drawings survive today.

An unlimited imagination

As the drawings show, despite Japan's lockdown, Hokusai's imagination and invention were not to be limited by political and temporal boundaries. 'India – China' is the subtitle announced on what seems to be the volume's frontispiece image. Many of the drawings imagine and bring to life scenes from the ancient history of these two great Asian cultures. I may not be allowed to travel to modern China, Hokusai seems to say, but you can't stop my imagination roaming over continents and dynasties back to the very roots of human civilisation. The artist's animated figures dramatise the origins of Buddhism in India (figure 1) and the development of habitation, fire, agriculture, weights and measures and even rice-wine brewing in ancient China (figure 2). 

Other drawings include spirited studies of both real, and imagined, animals and birds (figures 3 and 4). Also featured are minor deities of the Buddhist religion and envisioned and actual peoples of Asia and beyond. One figure representing 'Southern Barbarians' (i.e. Europeans), wearing pantaloons, looks to be a 16th or 17th century Portuguese trader.

Expanding our understanding

The Late Hokusai research project, funded from 2016 to 2019 by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, has been collaborating with the British Museum’s online ResearchSpace to find innovative ways to digitally represent the new knowledge generated by the study of the drawings. This has allowed for interrogation across the resources of participating museums, reconnecting the original links among Hokusai's now scattered artworks, describing and recording the relations between them.

Subsequently, close links between the British Museum's rediscovered drawings and a group of 178 Hokusai drawings in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston have been established. They are of identical size to The Great Picture Book of Everything, have the same 'block-ready' character and are pasted into three publishers' 'blank' volumes, in small, horizontal book format. This would have been the format intended for the British Museum's rediscovered drawings.

The Hokusai drawings in Boston feature a different range of subjects from those in London, including landscapes, plants and fish – although there are overlaps. But when the stylistic mannerisms of the two groups are compared, it's clear they're closely related. The Boston drawings have neither title or date, but considering the similarities, it could be they're from the same overall project as the 103 London drawings.

The Great Picture Book of Everything has other links to Hokusai's works, such as an early sketch of the quizzical mallard duck, which later stares out from the Museum's hanging scroll painting done in Hokusai's 88th year (1847). During his long career, Hokusai liked to return periodically to the same subjects, each time further perfecting his vision.

200 years on

And so we return to the question of why was The Great Picture Book of Everything abandoned? It's certain the project was a commission from a publisher. Were there financial or organisational problems in bringing such an ambitious publication to fruition? Was Hokusai too demanding in his requirements from the block cutters, as sometimes suggested in his letters? Whatever the reason, the rediscovery of these 103 drawings shines a light on the artist's working methods and artistic concerns in his later career.

It has taken almost 200 years for the 103 drawings for The Great Picture Book of Everything to be enjoyed by the public. Now, finding the mass audience they were always intended for, the British Museum's rediscovered drawings can be seen by the many lovers of Hokusai's art worldwide.

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