More than 100 postcard-sized drawings by the great Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai are on public display for the first time in two centuries after being acquired by the British Museum.
Its director, Hartwig Fischer, said the drawings were “remarkable and unique” and their rediscovery was “incredible”.
Hokusai is best known for The Great Wave, one of the most famous and reproduced works of art of all time. His influence on 19th century European Impressionist artists, including Vincent Van Gogh, was enormous.
At some point, possibly in the 1840s when he would have been in his 80s, Hokusai decided to tackle a project called The Great Picture Book of Everything that he let his imagination run wild. His idea was to present vignettes from Buddhist India, ancient China and nature.
It was never released, so the drawings were put in a box instead and have not been on public view since then.
Not much is known about their history other than that they were once owned by Henri Vever, an Art Nouveau jeweler and important collector of Japanese art, who died in 1942. They came up for auction in Paris in 1948 and became part of a French private collection and were then forgotten.
They showed up at auction in Paris in 2019 and were subsequently bought by the British Museum for £ 270,000.
They were created at a time with which a modern audience could identify, said Fischer. “These drawings were made at a time of lockdown, if you will, when Japan closed its borders for nearly 200 years,” he said. “Contact with the outside world was restricted and strictly regulated, and even journeys within the country required official approval. It is a situation that many of us can empathize with. “
How impressive, said Fischer, that under the circumstances, Hokusai came up with a great project to draw everything.
The drawings include depictions of religious and mythological figures as well as animals, birds and flowers. For example, some are wilder than others an insanely long-necked man who doesn’t have to leave his place to get a fire for his pipe.
Alfred Haft, a project curator at the museum, said all 103 drawings were jewels, “each worthwhile close study, each showing us Hokusai’s lively spirit and his hand at work together.”
Curators said it was a coincidence that the drawings survived. If the book had been published they wouldn’t exist because a professional block cutter would have glued each one face down on a cherry wood board and cut through the back of the paper with chisels and knives to create a detailed printing block.
Fischer said that Hokusai’s art combines “limitless invention, subtle humor and deep humanity”. The museum has one of the most comprehensive collections of Hokusai’s work outside of Japan and is therefore the appropriate home for the drawings, he said.
All of them can be seen on the British Museum website but will be on public display for the first time when the exhibition opens in September. Other exhibits include two examples of the print from The Great Wave.
The museum was able to buy the drawings thanks to money from the art fund a legacy for acquiring Japanese art by Theresia Gerda Buch.