THELike me, you can think of Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, whose long and brilliantly productive life ended in 1849, and see an explosion of blue. The sensual colors of his woodcuts, those exquisite shades of the sea and the sky, are what stays with you. But the new show at the British Museum does away with those alluring colors and reduces Hokusai to black and white. It is a bold thing to do.
A story of detective work and rediscovery, this show is a sensational event. In June 2019, a set of 103 drawings mistakenly attributed to another artist went on sale in Paris. Expert dealer Israel Goldman acknowledged that this was a set of lost Hokusai works and British Museum authority Timothy Clark agreed – so the museum bought them. This is rare good news at a difficult time. But if you’re expecting a blockbuster, you might be surprised to find a dark, dimly lit spectacle in the museum’s drawing gallery. Stick with it. The rewards are massive.
Hokusai created these ink drawings in the late 1820s for a visual encyclopedia that aimed to literally show “everything.” What a fantastically Borgesian idea, a book that contains the entire planet. This is all the more eccentric given that the Japan of the Edo period strictly limited all contact with the outside world. Hokusai’s information on China and India is pleasantly unreliable. The book was never finished – which is why these ink on paper masterpieces survive, as they would have been destroyed by transferring the designs to wooden blocks for printing.
Studying Hokusai as a draftsman instead of a color engraver puts him in direct conversation with the European tradition in which, since the Renaissance, designs have been preserved as the purest products of the artist’s hand. This was also true in China, but not among the early 19th century Edo color woodblock printers, who were popular artists working for the market. So this collection of Hokusai originals is a rarity to be treasured.
The show is staged alongside one of the largest collections of prints and drawings in the world, the treasures of which include Michelangelo’s sketches for the Sistine ceiling. This is also where Albrecht Dürer’s rhino lives (not the print, the original sketch).
All Hokusai’s designs include an adorable Indian elephant that could be his answer to Dürer’s rhino. Like the German artist, he marvels at an exotic beast. He drops his head to the ground in comical exhaustion, as if tired of the weight of his tusks and his trunk. Her skin is wrinkled and old, her size is so large that she makes homunculi of her attendants. But where Dürer aimed at science, Hokusai is playful and exuberant. Its lines are free and fast.
These drawings are the culmination of a rich sketching process. Hokusai was proud of his sketches, even though few of his hands survive. He reproduced them in books which he called Hokusai Manga (i.e. pictures). Curators do not resist references to modern manga. A drawing of a wicked king killed by lightning has a ker-pow graphic daring. Dazzling straight lines of ink radiate from the explosion. But it’s not funny. The intense dynamism that Hokusai creates, and even more miraculously, the sensation of bright, searing light he makes you feel just by leaving an ever-white circle in the center of his inky turbulence, resembles Rubens and Caravaggio. Except that they needed color to complete the illusion and Hokusai achieves it without.
Then it comes to your mind. Hokusai is doing something that no one on earth has done before. Consider the way he draws the water, with small abstract curly lines, repeated cascading. A funny drawing here of a bear under a waterfall shows its puzzled face overwhelmed by those wavy lines. No European artist of the 1820s had even dreamed of distilling nature in such a stylized shorthand. Hokusai worked in a tradition of semi-abstract, formalized landscape that stretched back to medieval China, but broke with the past in his eye for the sudden and the new.
In his drawings of India, he depicts people fleeing a sandstorm with their heads bowed, their legs jumping into space. Nature and society, in this view, are unstable kingdoms. In a sketch, 8th-century Buddhist monk Chuanzi Decheng, who worked as a boatman and taught his passengers afloat lessons, pushes another monk into the water as the hapless victim tries to solve a riddle: Hokusai shows feet flying through the air as it glides under the waves.
According to the story, Monk Jiashan found enlightenment from his watery shock. The art of Hokusai enlightens us in the same way. He urges us to accept the flow of life, savor its comedy and endure its tragedy. Is it a Buddhist idea? He belonged to a Buddhist sect, took his name from his teachings, and his drawings of Buddhist saints and stories have a simple and moving immediacy.
This lends a new philosophical depth to the sparkling chaos that engulfs these little fishing boats in The Big Wave, which is here in all its blue and white splendor. From his personal meditations on flow and change, Hokusai created the first art that we recognize as capturing our modern condition. “Everything that is solid blends in with the air,” Karl Marx would say of modern life, but Hokusai drew it in front of him.