More than 100 postcard-sized drawings by the great Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai will be on display to the public for the first time in two centuries after being acquired by the British Museum.
Its director, Hartwig Fischer, said the designs were “remarkable and unique” and their rediscovery was “incredible”.
Hokusai is best known for The Great Wave, one of the most recognizable 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, perhaps in the 1840s when he would have been 80, Hokusai decided to embark on a project called The Great Picture Book of Everything for which he let his imagination run wild. His idea was to present vignettes from Buddhist India, ancient China and the natural world.
It was never published, so the drawings were put in a box and have not been seen publicly since.
Not much is known about their history except that they once belonged to Henri Vever, an Art Nouveau jeweler and important collector of Japanese art who died in 1942. They were auctioned in 1948 in Paris, became part of a private French collection and were later forgotten.
They appeared at an auction in Paris in 2019 and were later bought by the British Museum for £ 270,000.
They were created at a time that modern audiences could relate to, Fischer said. “These designs were created in a period of lockdown, if you will, when Japan had closed its borders for almost 200 years,” he said. “Contact with the outside world was limited and strictly regulated, and even travel within the country required an official permit. It is a situation that many of us can sympathize with.
How impressive, says Fischer, that under these circumstances Hokusai came up with a grand scheme to draw everything.
The designs include representations of religious and mythological figures as well as animals, birds and flowers. Some are wilder than others, for example a madly long necked man who does not need to leave his seat to light his pipe.
Alfred Haft, curator of the project at the museum, said the 103 drawings were gems, “each rewarding careful study, each showing us the quick wit and hand of Hokusai at work together.”
Conservatives said it was a fluke the designs survived. If the book had been published they wouldn’t exist because a professional block cutter would have glued each face down onto a cherry wood board and cut the back of the paper with scissors and knives to create a block of paper. detailed print.
Fischer said that Hokusai’s art combined “boundless invention, subtle humor, and deep humanity.” The museum held one of the most comprehensive collections of Hokusai’s works outside of Japan and therefore was the appropriate place for the drawings, he said.
All are available on the British Museum’s website, but will be on display to the public for the first time when the exhibition opens in September. Other exhibits will include two examples of The Great Wave print.
The museum was able to purchase the drawings with money from the Art Fund and a bequest for the acquisition of Japanese art directed by Theresia Gerda Buch.