Tue, Oct 19, 2021

Japanese art according to Sophie Richard: An important rediscovery on view at BM

Hokusai’s Great Picture Book of Everything

A bolt of lightning strikes Virudhaka dead
© The Trustees of the British Museum

It is not so long ago that the British Museum in London held a major exhibition dedicated to the artist: In 2017, “Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave” explored his career and the remarkable range of his pictorial output, which includes prints, scroll paintings, albums and illustrated books.

This time the spotlight is on an important and recently rediscovered group of artworks by Hokusai: 103 brush-drawings produced in the years 1820s-1840s for “The Great Picture Book of Everything,” a woodblock printed encyclopaedia. The ambitious, wonderfully titled publication was never produced, and this is why we can enjoy the drawings today; if the project had gone to print, they would have been destroyed in the process. The drawings are fascinating in many ways, not only for their sheer quality, but also for the history attached to them and the research effort they have spurred.

Immediately evident is the mastery of Hokusai draughtsmanship. The drawings all have the same size, more or less that of a postcard, yet they contain remarkable intensity and dynamism, as well as deft detailing. They cover a range of topics, exploring ancient China, India and the natural world. All of them have inscriptions in kanji (Chinese characters used in Japanese writing) describing the scene.

A poetic depiction of Daoist master Zhou Shen shows him ascending a cloud-ladder to fetch the moon for pilgrims to see.

Daoist master Zhou Shen shows him ascending a cloud-ladder to fetch the moon
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Subjects include Chinese-origin myths, people from foreign lands and tales of adventures. India, being the land of the Buddha, is an important theme. One particularly eye-catching drawing shows King Virudhaka being struck dead by lightning for having plotted to kill the family of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha (top photo). Under the impact of the exploding rays, Virudhaka is swept off his feet, his robes swirling around him. Contained within a small frame, the image is incredibly powerful and prefigures modern manga.

One of the most beautiful drawings in the set is probably that of the Indian Buddhist deity Avalokiteshvara, known in Japan as Kannon, riding a dragon. Here, Hokusai employs two different types of brushwork, one formal, linear style for the deity and brush marks, without outlines, for the depiction of the dragon.

Avalokiteshvara seated on the head of a dragon
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The representation of mythical beasts demonstrates Hokusai’s unfettered imagination and reveal, perhaps, his occasionally bossy nature. “Kirin and Baku,” two imaginary creatures of Chinese origin, are represented side by side, with a note by Hokusai stating that kirin ‘made similar to dragons are not correct.’

Kirin and baku
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Hokusai’s precise brushwork also brings to life a variety of animals such as birds, cats and an elephant (there are also a handful of genre scenes). In a delightful depiction of a bear standing under a waterfall and waiting for a fish to jump, attentive viewers will notice that the stylisation of the roiling water, treated with a claw-like pattern, is reminiscent of the artist’s iconic print “The Great Wave” (1831).

Bear under a waterfall
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Picture encyclopaedias such as Hokusai’s planned “The Great Picture Book of Everything” were popular in the Edo period (1615-1868) and were used to teach children. It is not known why it remained unpublished, but it is a lucky escape for us that the present set of drawings did not disappear under the knife of the block cutter. Drawings by Hokusai are indeed rare; it is mostly his published and painted works that we can admire today.

Having survived and kept in a small wooden box, enfolded in a silk wrapper, the drawings eventually found their way to France where they formed part of the collection of the jeweller Henri Vever (1854-1942). Their authorship was not known, however, and they were attributed to another artist when they resurfaced in 2019 at a Paris auction where Israel Goldman, an art dealer specialised in Japanese prints, spotted them. His heart racing and convinced of their importance, he acquired them and offered them for sale to the British Museum, whose research confirms that they are by Hokusai.

The exhibition presents this new acquisition in a compelling way. The complete set of drawings is on view, arranged in three broad subject categories (ancient India, ancient China and the natural world): the drawings were kept in no particular order and part of the recent extensive research around them was to determine their subjects and how they could relate to each other. There is also an informative section on the production of woodblock prints and books in the Edo period.

Israel Goldman is thrilled with the exhibition and recently told me: “The show looks fabulous. Every time I go, there are a lot of visitors and people are really enjoying the drawings and studying them. When I first found them, I could never have imagined that one day they would be spread so elegantly across the entire exhibition space of the prints and drawings department at the British Museum.”

As Goldman pointed out, “It is remarkable that the research, acquisition process, exhibition planning and catalogue production all took place during lock-down. The team effort on the part of the international scholarly Hokusai community made this happen.”

Clearly delighted, the art dealer explained: “This has truly been one of the highlights of my career and today the drawings could not be in a better place, beautifully researched and accessible to the world, which is fantastic.”

Learn more about the exhibit in London here:
Sophie RICHARD

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Art Historian

Sophie RICHARD

Born in Provence and educated at the Ecole du Louvre and at the Sorbonne in Paris, Sophie worked in the art world in New York before moving to London where she now resides. She has been a regular visitor to Japan for the last 15 years. Passionate about Japanese arts and culture, she set out to explore the country’s many museums. In the course of her research she has visited close to 200 venues across the country. Her articles on Japanese museums have appeared in the United Kingdom, the United States and Japan. Her first book on the subject was published in 2014 and then translated into Japanese. Her new book “The art lover’s guide to Japanese museums” was published in July 2019. In 2015, Sophie received the Commissioner’s Award from the Agency of Cultural Affairs in Tokyo, in recognition for her work in bringing Japanese culture to a wider audience. (Photo©Frederic Aranda)

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