Hokusai at the British Museum – an exciting treasure trove of original drawings

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“Lightning Strikes the Death of Virūdhaka” by Katsushika Hokusai (c1820s-1840s) © The Trustees of the British Museum

“I was speechless when I saw them, my heart was pounding,” says Tim Clark, former head of the Japanese section of the British Museum. “It was like meeting an old friend you hadn’t seen in a long time.”

Spread out in front of Clark in an office just off the museum’s Japanese galleries, in October 2019, were 103 drawings he believed — instantly believed, as soon as he saw them — were by Hokusai, the 19th-century Japanese painter and printmaker. century. best known for “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”, with its deep blue swell and gripping hands resembling creamy foam. It was Clark who pushed the museum to buy them.

As I sat in front of the drawings, those fragile postcard-sized sheets, in this same room last August, I understood why Clark’s heart had raced—because mine had too.

Guiding me through them, before they are put into temporary mounts and framed for an exhibition of September 30, was Alfred Haft, curator of the Japanese section of the museum, who had arranged some of the drawings in three piles. Each pile reflected a theme of the setting: scenes from the origins of Buddhism in India; the beginning of the development of human civilization in China; and the natural world – animals, birds, sea creatures and more. All designs have kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese writing) to describe, more or less clearly, their content.

A blissful man rides the head of a dragon

‘Dragon head Kannon’ (c1820s-1840s) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Each offers its own type of magic. A blissful Buddhist deity of compassion, drawn in thin lines, sits atop a flying dragon whose rough-scaled tail curls to frame the image; the dragon’s eyes, half clumsy, half piercing, watch you. A burst of lightning throws an impious king into the air, its lightning enveloping and penetrating him. Sitting on a rock under a cascading waterfall, a cunning bear awaits its prey. And, in a story Haft recounts with emotion, a Taoist climbs on a cloud to catch the moon, so he can bring it back to people who thought they were too unimportant to visit a divine palace.

The designs impress with their fluidity, immediacy and rich characterization. But there are also layers of mystery surrounding them, as a collection and as individual works of art – even where they came from and why they were made.

Clark and his academic colleagues have spent the past two years trying to answer some of these questions. Tracing the history of the artworks, the British Museum acquired them for £270,000 from dealer Israel Goldman, who had seen them at auction in Paris in 2019, where they had been attributed to one of the students of Hokusai, Katsushika Isai – wrongly, according to Clark. They had not otherwise been seen on the open market since 1948, when the collection of jeweler Henri Vever was sold. But then we stop: it is unclear precisely how they came into possession of Vever.

Birds scattered across the page

‘Miscellaneous Waterfowl’ (c1820s-1840s) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Chinese travelers sheltering from the driving rain inside the hatched eggshell of the giant mythological bird Peng (c1820s-1840s) © The Trustees of the British Museum

A bigger question is why Hokusai (1760-1849) made them in the first place. A clue is in the name of the collection, inked on the light paulownia wood box they arrived in and mentioned in a few letters from the artist: The Big Picture Book of Everything.

A popular strand of Japanese publishing since the late 17th century was the illustrated encyclopedia, often with rather professional illustrations, Clark says. But while they had always embraced all kinds of animals, like the character ducks on the table in front of me, they had never extended to Indian religion and Chinese origin stories. Clark’s current thinking is that in the 1840s, when Hokusai was in his eighties, he radically reimagined the picture encyclopedia, taking it to places it had never been – in fact places Hokusai, such as nor had any other Japanese of the closely guarded Edo period (1603-1867) ever been. Citizens were banned from leaving the country, most foreigners from entering – a three-century lockdown.

If “the leading book illustrator of his generation, if not of the entire Edo period”, in Clark’s words, was producing a conceptually renewed illustrated encyclopedia, why has it never come out? Clark dares that Hokusai was simply “too busy.” It’s trying to say yes to so many competing orders from editors.

A bear climbing a waterfall, surrounded by tentacles of foam (c1820s-1840s) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Edo’s loss was our gain. Consider how the engravings were made: a block cutter stuck a design onto a piece of wood and cut it out, recreating the texture and detail of the image, before the block was inked and printed. The very process of making the prints destroyed the design, meaning almost nothing exists in Hokusai’s hand. No wonder Clark’s heart raced: 103 unlikely remnants of Japan’s most renowned artist’s brush had landed in his lap.

Then there is the question of interpretation, of decoding the characters and the scenes that we see. Animals present themselves most readily – no doubt one of Hokusai’s tigers – but there’s more to it, says Haft: This encyclopedia “covers the known world – but that doesn’t mean the visible world” . In Hokusai’s bestiary are creatures “that one might consider ‘imaginary'” but which were very real, if legendary, to Hokusai’s contemporaries. Including these dragons, these two-headed birds, “reflects a mindset of what is possible. It shows a little more freedom of imagination than perhaps we have today.

The Indian and Chinese scenes in the deep story can be more difficult to solve, even with the annotations. “The wealth of [Hokusai’s] ever-expanding world,” drawn from his thirsty engagement with other people’s texts and images, means that they are not always easy to pin down. Why are a Confucian scholar and his acolytes sheltering in a gigantic egg in a drawing here? It’s a good question.

The bigger question, however, isn’t related to story or interpretation, but rather how Hokusai wants us to engage with these designs. When I first looked at many of them, it took me a few seconds to figure out what was going on – not what shape of Buddha or what feline he had painted, but even where the figures start and end . In one, the robes of four disciples of Buddha blend into each other. There’s visual confusion – not because of Hokusai’s lack of skill but because he wants his drawings to have a much more intense purpose.

Buddhist monks with objects including a hand scroll, prayer gong and fly swatter (c1820s-1840s) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Two cats facing each other, one hissing and arching his back

‘Cats and Hibiscus’, (c1820s-1840s) © The Trustees of the British Museum

There is a concept in Buddhism called koans, a paradox or riddle that shows how useless logic is, thus causing enlightenment. Hokusai’s drawings work the same way: by making it difficult at first glance even to correctly register what we see, we have a moment of confusion, doubt, and have to go deeper into the picture. to understand it and in our own way. spend. These drawings are visual koans. By confusing us, Hokusai enlightens us.

This process is profound, but it does not challenge Hokusai’s democratizing impulse to spread knowledge. One of his “fundamental ethoses,” says Clark, “is to share, and there’s this wonderful phrase that’s part of the title of some of his books. . . If you read the characters literally, it’s ‘receiving from the gods and sharing with open hands’. What Hokusai is eager to share with us, I realized as I sat in the British Museum that morning, six inches from those brush-touched sheets, is not just his knowledge of birds and Buddhas , but the experience of getting lost and finding yourself. in his art.

From September 30, britishmuseum.org

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