The Japanese painter and printmaker Katsushika Hokusai may be best known for his woodblock print “Under the Wave off Kanagawa” (c. 1830–32), an image of a frothy cresting wave dwarfing a glimpse of the great Mount Fuji behind it. Also called “The Great Wave,” the composition has acquired iconic status in pop culture as in fine art, inspiring subsequent oeuvres from Debussy’s orchestral piece La mer to an untold number of tattoos around the world.
But some of the most intriguing works Hokusai created over the course of his seven-decade career have remained comparatively secretive. Among them is a group of 103 small drawings the artist produced for an unpublished encyclopedia titled Banmotsu ehon daizen zu (The Great Picture Book of Everything), to be shown at the British Museum in an eponymous exhibition opening this September.
The meticulous, postcard-sized works are known as hanshita-e, a term for the final drawings used to carve the key blocks in Japanese woodblock printing, typically destroyed as part of the process. Because the encyclopedia was never realized, for reasons unknown, the delicate illustrations remained intact, mounted on cards and stored in a custom-made wooden box. Nearly 200 years since their creation, sometime between 1820 and the 1840s, the public will now enjoy the designs not simply as preparatory drawings, but as works of art in their own right.
Three years ago, the British Museum mounted a survey of Hokusai’s late works fittingly titled Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave. But the Banmotsu ehon daizen zu illustrations did not make it into that show; in fact, the drawings were long thought forgotten, last recorded at an auction in Paris in 1948 before they resurfaced in 2019.
Exquisitely rendered in Hokusai’s expert brush, they include landscapes of Buddhist India, Ancient China, and representations of their industries and beliefs, as well as various scenes from the natural world real and imagined. One drawing, “Cats and hibiscus,” depicts an amusing standoff between two alert felines. “India, China, Korea” is one of six works in the series in which Hokusai portrayed the typical inhabitants of lands in East, Southeast, and Central Asia and beyond. In another, particularly dynamic image, the artist drew the Buddhist deity Virūdhaka being struck by a lightning bolt, while “Dragon head Kannon” dramatizes one of 33 manifestations of Avalokiteśvara, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion.
According to an exhibition text, Hokusai’s works are all the more impressive because Japan was under lockdown from 1639 to 1859, a period of forbidden travel abroad under the Tokugawa shogunate.
“As the drawings show, despite Japan’s lockdown, Hokusai’s imagination and invention were not to be limited by political and temporal boundaries,” it reads. “I may not be allowed to travel to modern China, Hokusai seems to say, but you can’t stop my imagination roaming over continents and dynasties back to the very roots of human civilisation.”
Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything opens September 30 at the British Museum and runs through January 30, 2022.