In 2017 The British Museum staged an excellent exhibition of Hokusai paintings and drawings ( I wrote about it here ). Earlier this week I returned there for a second exhibition of Hokusai work, this time focusing on his drawings for The Great Picture Book of Everything.
These small drawings, one hundred and three of them, have only survived because the Book, which would have been produced by wood block printing, was never published. The technique, which is illustrated within the exhibition, involves a original drawing being placed over a block of wood which is then prepared by removing all the wood which does not correspond to the lines of the drawing. The block is covered with ink and paper pressed onto it, thus transferring the drawing onto the paper, a process which can be repeated many times. Woodcarvers were apprenticed for ten years before they were qualified and it looks to me like an art in itself.
As an example of the production process there is a section on the print known as The Great Wave, for which Hokusai is probably most famous. There are many thousands of versions of this picture, called Under the Wave off Kanagawa ( first published 1831 ). Woodblock prints were inexpensive in nineteenth century Japan, costing approximately the same as two dishes of noodles and the blocks would be used to produce thousands of images. They frequently wore down, creating different versions of the same image and when new blocks were created, these too could differ from the original.
The Book drawings are remarkable for their intricacy and fine detail, as well as the energy of them and distinct characterisation of their subjects. They are also remarkable for their subject matter. Between 1639 and 1859 Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shoguns who forbade the Japanese people from travelling abroad. Yet in producing the drawings, between 1820 and 1860, Hokusai depicted peoples from foreign lands as well as characters from Indian and Chinese mythology ( see right, figures of India, China and Korea ).
Some of them are absolutely stunning. There was a wonderful picture of an elephant, ( which begs the question, how did he know what an elephant looked like? ) some exquisite renderings of Japanese and Indian myths (including dragons and the demon known as the Nine-Tailed Fox ) and more prosaic but perfect scenes of everyday life. One I particularly enjoyed was that of four men, type-setting, publishing and printing (left, below ).
That said, I realised early in my visit that I would have to buy the catalogue, because it simply isn’t possible to stand for long enough in front of these small pictures to really enjoy all their detail and subtlety – too many other people are trying to do the same. Besides, it’s a book and I can’t resist book buying. The exhibition is in Room 90, one of the rooms used for small exhibitions of prints and drawings at the rear of the Museum ( beyond Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt and up the stairs ). Entry is only £9 for adults and, even with timed tickets, it was getting crowded when I visited.
More than one of the drawings left me marvelling at their modernity. The drawing of Virudhaka Destroyed by Lightening could have come from the pages of a modern comic/graphic novel or a Roy Lichtenstein work ( Kerpow! ). All they would need would be primary colours. Others depict interior scenes or verandas in a way which reminded me of Degas, with an asymmetrical picture construction. I look forward to many happy hours with my catalogue, really appreciating these drawings in full detail, but, as an enticing taster, this exhibition was wonderful. It runs until 30th January 2022 and the book costs £20.