Hokusai at the British Museum – An Exciting Treasure of Original Drawings

“Lightning strikes dead Virūdhaka” by Katsushika Hokusai (c. 1820-1840) © 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 that you hadn’t seen for a long time.”

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

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

Guiding me through them, before they are placed in 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 decor: 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.

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

Each offers its own magic. A beatific compassionate Buddhist deity, drawn in fine lines, sits atop a flying dragon whose coarse-scaled tail curls to frame the image; the dragon’s eyes, half wacky, half piercing, look at you. Lightning throws an ungodly king into the air, its lightning envelops and penetrates him. Sitting on a rock under a waterfall, a cunning bear awaits its prey. And, in a story Haft fondly relates, a Taoist climbs on a cloud to catch the moon, so he can bring it back to people who thought they were too insignificant to visit a divine palace.

The designs seduce by their fluidity, their immediacy and their rich characterization. But there are also layers of mystery around 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 works of art backwards, the British Museum acquired them for £ 270,000 from the dealer Israel Goldman, who had seen them at auction in Paris in 2019, where they were attributed to one of Hokusai’s students, Katsushika Isai – wrongly, Clark thinks. They hadn’t been seen otherwise on the open market since 1948, when jeweler Henri Vever’s collection was sold. But then we stop: it’s unclear exactly how they got into Vever’s possession.

Birds scattered across the page
“Various aquatic birds” (circa 1820-1840) © The Trustees of the British Museum
Hokusai at the British Museum - a captivating wealth of original drawings
Chinese travelers shelter from the pouring rain inside the shell of an hatched egg of the mythological giant bird Peng (circa 1820-1840) © The Trustees of the British Museum

A more important 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 has been the image encyclopedia, often with rather pragmatic illustrations, Clark says. But while they had always embraced all kinds of animals, such as the character ducks on the table in front of me, they never extended to Indian religion and stories of Chinese origin. Clark’s current thinking is that in the 1840s, when Hokusai was 80, he radically reimagined the encyclopedia of images, taking it to places it had never been – in fact, places where Hokusai, like all the other Japanese of the closely watched Edo period (1603-1867), had never been either. Citizens were barred from leaving the country, most foreigners from entering – a three-century lockdown.

If the “leading book illustrator of his generation, if not the entire Edo period,” in Clark’s words, produced a conceptually renewed image encyclopedia, why was it never released? Clark dares to say that Hokusai was just “too busy.” He’s trying to say yes to so many competing orders from publishers.

A bear climbing a waterfall, surrounded by tentacles of foam (circa 1820-1840) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The loss of Edo was our gain. Consider how the prints were made: A block cutter glued a design onto a piece of wood and cut it out, recreating the texture and details 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 is racing: 103 improbable survivals of the brush of Japan’s most renowned artist had landed in his lap.

Then there is the question of the interpretation, the decoding of the figures and scenes that we see. Animals present themselves most easily – there’s no doubt about one of Hokusai’s tigers – but there’s more than that, Haft says: this encyclopedia “covers the known world – but it doesn’t. does not mean the visible world ”. In Hokusai’s bestiary are creatures “which one might consider ‘imaginary'” but which were quite real, even if in legend, 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 the imagination than what we can have today.

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

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

Hokusai at the British Museum - a captivating wealth of original drawings
Buddhist monks with objects including a parchment, a prayer gong and a fly whip (circa 1820-1840) © The Trustees of the British Museum
Two cats facing each other, one hissing and arching its back
‘Cats and hibiscus’, (c1820s-1840s) © The Trustees of the British Museum

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

This process is profound, but it does not undermine Hokusai’s democratizing drive to disseminate knowledge. One of his “basic philosophies,” says Clark, “is to share, and there’s this wonderful phrase that goes into the titles of some of his books. . . If you read the characters literally, it is “receiving gods and sharing with open hands”. What Hokusai is eager to share with us, I realized as I was sitting 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 losing oneself and finding oneself. in his art.

From September 30, britishmuseum.org

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