Japanese painter and printmaker Katsushika Hokusai is perhaps best known for his woodcut “Under the Wave off Kanagawa” (circa 1830-1832), an image of a foamy ridge wave eclipsing a glimpse of the great Mount Fuji behind her. Also called âThe Great Wave,â the composition gained iconic status in pop culture and fine art alike, inspiring later works in Debussy’s orchestral piece. The sea to countless tattoos around the world.
But some of the most intriguing works created by Hokusai during his seven-decade career have remained relatively secret. Among them is a group of 103 small drawings that the artist made for an unpublished encyclopedia called Banmotsu ehon daizen zu (The big picture book of everything), which will be presented at the British Museum in an eponymous exhibition which will open in September.
Meticulous, postcard-sized works are known as hanshita-e, a term for the final designs used to carve the key blocks in Japanese woodblock printing, usually destroyed in the process. Because the encyclopedia was never made, for reasons unknown, the delicate illustrations remained intact, mounted on cards and stored in a custom-made wooden box. Almost 200 years after their creation, between 1820 and the 1840s, the public will now appreciate the drawings not only as preparatory drawings, but as works of art in their own right.
Three years ago, the British Museum organized a survey of Hokusai’s latest works aptly titled Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave. But the Banmotsu ehon daizen zu the illustrations were not part of this show; in fact, the designs have long been forgotten, last recorded at an auction in Paris in 1948 before resurfacing in 2019.
Exquisitely rendered with Hokusai’s expert brush, they include landscapes of Buddhist India, ancient China, and representations of their industries and beliefs, as well as various scenes from the real and imagined natural world. One drawing, “Cats and Hibiscus”, depicts an amusing impasse between two alert felines. âIndia, China, Koreaâ is one of six works in the series in which Hokusai portrays the typical inhabitants of the lands of East, Southeast and Central Asia and beyond. In another particularly vibrant image, the artist has drawn the lightning-struck Buddhist deity VirÅ«dhaka, while âDragon Head Kannonâ features one of the 33 manifestations of AvalokiteÅvara, the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion.
According to an exhibition text, Hokusai’s works are all the more impressive given that Japan was in confinement from 1639 to 1859, a period when foreign travel was banned under the Tokugawa shogunate.
“As the drawings show, despite Japan’s lockdown, Hokusai’s imagination and invention were not to be limited by political and time lines,” one read. âI may not be allowed to travel to modern China, Hokusai seems to say,â but you cannot stop my imagination from traveling across continents and dynasties to the very roots of human civilization. “
Hokusai: The Big Picture Book of Everything opens September 30 at the British Museum and ends January 30, 2022.
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