Exploring the Lost Hokusai Drawings Acquired by British Museum

October 11, 2020

In recent times, like never before, the consequences of the colonial rule are widely discussed in different fields of humanities and social sciences. Of special mention are various museums that stand as silent keepers of the former times as they hold artifacts ransacked from around the world by the former empires. The institution that has been and still is under a lot of scrutiny is the British museum, since at the core of their foundation stands the colonial logic implemented by the museum’s founder, Hans Sloane, the wealthy physician, naturalist, and collector who profited much from the severe exploitation of the Caribbean slaves.

Although his bust was removed in August 2020, the museum still has a lot to deal with as it continues to perpetuate their disputable colonizing tradition, especially when it comes to the matter of commission/acquisition. The dust now rises again with the rediscovered drawings by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai.

Namely, the British Museum came into possession of one hundred and three works made by the celebrated ukiyo-e master in 1829 as illustrations for an unpublished book called Great Picture Book of Everything. These masterful illustrations initially owned by the Art Nouveau jeweler and collector, Henri Vever, were purchased after seventy years of disappearance by the Museum thanks to the financial support from Art Fund. They appeared last year on an auction in Paris after being encountered the last time in the same city in 1948. The drawings were part of a French private collection for decades and that is why they remained unknown to the wider world.

Katsushika Hokusai - India, China, Korea. In six of the group of 103 drawings, the small horizontal page has been divided vertically into three. Within each division are drawn typical inhabitants of lands in East Asia, SE Asia, Central Asia, and beyond. Some figures are mythological. Shown here are representatives of India (right), China (center) and Korea (left).

The Great Hokusai Collection

This sensational acquisition joins the ranks with other Hokusai works which makes the total collection of one thousand paintings, prints, drawings, and illustrated books that belong to the British Museum. Best known for the print titled Great Wave (that stands at the core of the collection), Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is perceived as one of the greatest Japanese artists who received international acclaim after Japan opened its borders in 1853, saw the influx of foreign collectors and ultimately the rise of the Japonisme era of the 1870s. Hokusai produced a grand body of work including around three thousand color prints, two hundred book illustrations, tones of drawings, and paintings during the course of his lasting seventy-year career. His unique aesthetic that surpassed the traditional ukiyo-e imagery was formed according to the artist’s belief in the images of universal appeal.

The rediscovered drawings are currently under the eye of the British Museum's knowledge representation system, ResearchSpace so that further contextualization could be established for all one hundred and three works, but also for a better understanding of Hokusai’s observation, articulation, and representation of human behavior. Regarding this newly acquired gem, the director of the British Museum Hartwig Fischer did not hide his excitement:

This is a truly wonderful addition to the British Museum’s collection, and is another milestone in our collecting of Hokusai which has continued now for more than 150 years. We are grateful to Art Fund for their support in securing the acquisition, and we’re delighted that these newly discovered works are now in a public collection for everyone to enjoy. 

Katsushika Hokusai - Cats and hibiscus. A standoff between two cats, with hibiscus (fuyō) behind.

The Bewildering Depictions of Otherness

The drawings are especially important since they were made during the artist’s late period, for which the scholars believed was very low-profile as Hokusai had produced very little then. Such a presumption was supported by the fact that during the two years before creating these magnificent drawings, the artist lost his wife and experienced a minor stroke, while a few months after they were finished, Hokusai spoke of the extreme poverty that happened to him. Although the drawings were never published for unknown reasons, they mark a new flow of inspiration of the then seventy-year-old master, resulting in one of his most celebrated print series, Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji (c. 1831-1833).

The subjects vary from historical, religious, and mythological, to landscapes and natural phenomena as the Great Picture Book of Everything was supposed to be an illustrated encyclopedia of both Japan and the surrounding territories. This was most probably affiliated with the mentioned isolation of Japan, so the book should have functioned as a unique travelogue that should introduce the readers with a life and culture beyond the islands’ borders, primarily from China, India, and Southeast Asia.

Katsushika Hokusai - Devadatta (Daibadatta), appearance of evil spirits with supernatural arts. Monk Devadatta was by tradition the cousin and brother-in-law of Shakyamuni Buddha. In the Lotus Sutra he was the archetype of an evildoer. Here he holds sway over a variety of grotesque evil spirits.

Hokusai at The British Museum

The total number of drawings is now available for an up-close, detailed look on the British Museum Collection web presentation, while the physical works will be on display as part of a future exhibition at the Museum.

Now, although we must agree that this priceless piece of world heritage should be exposed to the wider audience in both digital and physical space, this particular case necessarily draws the attention to the way museums such as this one still tend to maintain their position in the same way they have been doing for centuries. The very decision to acquire the works of the Japanese master brings light to the way they are going to be interpreted having in mind the mentioned context of the British Museum. Hopefully, the scholars will consider the current debates and step out with the critically charged analyses mindful of social and geopolitical implications Hokusai’s works evoke.

Featured image: Katsushika Hokusai - Yi Di (Giteki) orders the people to use rice juice to brew wine. Yi Di is said to be one of the earliest brewers of rice wine, which he presented to Yu the Great of the Xia dynasty. In this comic scene, men seem to be using the weight of a large rock to squeeze liquor from the rice; Water birds. Studies of various types of water bird, swimming and diving among river weed. This work seems to have been intended as a kind of picture thesaurus. Often several variants names - sometimes archaic, sometimes apparently fanciful – are given for a particular motif. All images Katsushika Hokusai, 1829. © The Trustees of the British Museum.