The Man Who Drew Everything

For the very first time, 103 drawings by the Japanese artist Hokusai are on display. The illustrations, recently acquired by the British Museum, were produced for an illustrated encyclopedia called The Great Picture Book of Everything. Yet, the book was never published. Hokusai specialised in printmaking during the Edo Period (1603-1867), which involved drawing a design on paper to be pasted onto a woodblock and used as a stencil. As a result, the original drawings were destroyed. To see 103 original illustrations is a very rare honour and highlights Hokusai’s skill and style. 

Katsushika Hokusai lived between 1760 and 1849 in the Katsushika district of Edo (Tokyo). Not much is known about his childhood, except his father was an artisan who possibly taught his son to paint from a young age. Throughout his life, Hokusai went by over 30 names and pseudonyms. As a child, he was known as Tokitarō, but whether this was his birth name is uncertain.

At age 12, Hokusai started working in a library where he became familiar with illustrated books made from woodcut blocks. Two years later, he became an apprentice to a woodcarver until the age of 18, after which he joined the studio of Katsukawa Shunshō (1726-93). Renamed Shunrō by his master, he produced his first set of prints.

Between joining the studio and the end of the 18th century, Hokusai (or Shunrō) had two wives, both of whom died young. He fathered two sons and three daughters, the youngest of whom became his assistant. Known as Ōi (1800-66), she became an artist in her own right. Around the time of the birth of his children, Hokusai began exploring European styles, which ultimately resulted in his expulsion from the Katsukawa studio.

Away from the constraints of the Katsukawa studio, which primarily produced prints of courtesans and actors, Hokusai began focusing on landscapes and people of all levels of society. He joined the Tawaraya School of artists, changing his name to Tawaraya Sōri in the process. Hokusai mostly worked for private clients, producing prints for special occasions and book illustrations. He eventually broke away from Tawaraya School and set out as an independent artist under the name Hokusai Tomisa.

In the early 1800s, he changed his name to Katsushika Hokusai, by which he is known today. “Katsushika” refers to his district of birth in Edo, and “Hokusai”, literally meaning “north studio”, honours the North Star, a symbol of a deity in Nichiren Buddhism. As an independent artist, Hokusai took on over 50 pupils but continued focusing on his artwork and self-promotion. He also collaborated with the novelist Takizawa Bakin (1767-1848), producing illustrations for several novels, including Chinsetsu Yumiharizuki (Strange Tales of the Crescent Moon.

At the age of 51, Hokusai changed his name once again. Under the name Taito, he produced “Hokusai Manga” (Hokusai’s Sketches) about various subjects. This should not be confused with the story-telling manga of the 21st-century. Hokusai’s manga featured random drawings, such as his Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing manual (1812). This book was both an easy way to make money and to attract new students.

In 1820, Hokusai changed his name to Iitsu. Under this new name, he published his most famous work, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, which included the picture Great Wave off Kanagawa. The British Museum owns three copies of the Great Wave, which date to around 1831. As the scientific researcher Capucine Korenberg points out, there is no “original” copy of the drawing because between 5,000 and 15,000 were printed in the 1800s. Despite the significant output, only 111 or so survive today.

By studying the copies of the Great Wave, Korenberg identified subtle differences between each print. To create the print, Hokusai drew one copy with pen and ink, which he sent to his publisher, Nishimuraya Yohachi. The original drawing was pasted onto a block of cherry wood and given to a block cutter (hori-shi), who carved out the “white space” between the lines with a chisel. This resulted in the “key-block”, which could be used numerous times to produce prints.

Through her study of the Great Wave prints, Korenberg noted that some were printed using different key-blocks. She assumes new blocks were produced after the old ones wore down. Korenberg also suggests changes were made to the blocks to “improve” the print or make it more appealing to specific customers. In some prints, the outlines are stronger than others, and the colours brighter. To emphasise the differences, a modern reproduction of the print was made in 2017 by the sixth-generation proprietor of Takahashi Studio. They used the same colours, or as close to, as the “original” prints, which have faded over time. Aside from the colours, there are several subtle differences, such as the shape of some of the lines.

Whilst the Great Wave off Kanagawa is Hokusai’s most famous work, it is not the main focus of the exhibition at the British Museum. The original drawing of the Great Wave was destroyed during the printmaking process, as were those of all Hokusai’s other prints. The only surviving sketches are those that never made it to publication. Although some may consider these works “unfinished”, they provide an insight into Hokusai’s drawing ability, which gets lost during the printing process. The small size of the illustrations is also surprising, especially considering the intricate lines and detail in each drawing.

In 1849, Hokusai famously exclaimed from his deathbed, “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years … Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.” Unfortunately, the 90-year-old passed away shortly afterwards, leaving over one hundred drawings intended for The Great Picture Book of Everything unprinted. The illustrations were placed in a purpose-made silk Japanese box and forgotten about for many years. In 1948, the drawings appeared in a Parisian auction, then disappeared from public once more. Finally, they resurfaced in 2019, and the British Museum used a grant from the Theresia Gerda Buch Bequest and Art Fund to purchase them. Nearly two hundred years since their creation, Hokusai’s hand-drawn illustrations are on display for the first time.

As well as demonstrating Hokusai’s illustration skills, the drawings explore ancient history and the natural world, as well as the desire to learn about unfamiliar countries and cultures. The Tokugawa government forbade the Japanese to travel abroad, which fueled their desire to learn about the world. Only those with special permits could leave the country, so Hokusai set out with the determination to sketch and document everything for those stuck back at home.

Despite the strict control over travel between different countries, trade between Japan and China flourished. Silk, ceramics and daily goods often came from China, and along with them, ancient Chinese lores and traditions. Several of Hokusai’s illustrations represent Chinese legends about the creation of the world and the beliefs of Chinese scholars, poets and Daoist philosophers. Hokusai explored the origins of the universe and human beings, including prehistoric deities, such as Kang Hui, who allegedly flooded the world in a rage.

In one illustration, Hokusai drew the mythological general Hou Yi, the greatest Chinese archer of all time. According to legend, he married the moon goddess, Chang’e, and shot down nine of the ten suns. The ten suns were making the temperature on Earth unbearably hot and causing widespread famine and drought. To save the planet, Hou Yi attempted to shoot all ten out of the sky. He hit all but one, which hid in a cave, plunging the Earth into unbearable darkness and cold. After much begging, the sun reemerged and remained the only sun in the sky.

Chinese myths explain the beginning of nearly all aspects of society and culture, including music, medicine, carpentry, and art. Most of these discoveries are associated with mythical emperors who were revered as gods, such as Fuxi, who the myths credit with the invention of music in the form of a transverse harp, hunting, fishing, domestication, and cooking with fire. Confucian scholars believe the origins of Chinese society derived from the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors in around 2,000 BC. Fuxi was the first of the Three Sovereigns, and the first of the Five Emperors was the Yellow Emperor, who reigned for 100 years.

As well as Chinese mythology, Hokusai illustrated other East Asian legends, in particular Buddhist India. Buddha came from India and passed his teachings on to his disciples, who gradually spread Buddhism to neighbouring countries. Travelling storytellers wove sacred Buddhist texts into their tales and took them to China, from whence the myths made their way to Japan. Some narratives became part of popular culture, featuring in stage dramatizations and such-like. Hokusai looked at these well-known stories and explored the original myths.

One illustration depicts the moment the boatman Monk Decheng knocked Jiashan into the sea. According to the story, Decheng left monastic life to become a ferryman. While sailing his passengers across the river, he taught them about self-realisation. On one occasion, a man called Jiashan boarded the boat, and Decheng began his usual spiel. In the middle of the journey, Decheng knocked Jiashan overboard and hit him three times with his oar, upon which Jiashan reached enlightenment. Several versions of the myth exist, and according to one conclusion, Decheng named Jiashan as his successor, then jumped into the river and drowned.

Another illustration shows the fate of Virūdhaka, the king of Kosala who lived during the time of Buddha. Despite his mother coming from the Shaka clan, the same family as Buddha, Virūdhaka did not receive a warm welcome. As it turned out, the king was the son of a slave girl, which he took as a grave insult. Virūdhaka planned to annihilate the Shaka clan, despite warnings from Buddha that he would die in the process. Virūdhaka succeeded in destroying most of the Shaka clan, but during the victory banquet was struck by a bolt of lightning and killed.

Hokusai’s depiction of the lightning bolt striking Virūdhaka is an early version of modern manga, which developed a century later. Contemporary manga artists use lines of varying thickness and length to indicate speed, sound and physical impact. Hokusai surrounded Virūdhaka with a sunburst of lines to demonstrate the strength and direct hit of the lightning bolt.

Not all Hokusai’s illustrations for The Great Picture Book of Everything focused on mythical beings and stories. He demonstrated the typical clothing and costumes of men from different cultures and countries to fuel the Japanese people’s interest in other lands. He focused on East, Southeast and Central Asian countries, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Ryūkyū (a chain of Japanese islands that once belonged to China), India, China and Korea. He also drew a Portuguese man who lived in Asia during the Edo period. At this time, the Japanese called Europeans “Southern barbarians”.

The majority of Hokusai’s illustrations for The Great Picture Book of Everything cover geographical features and nature. Several depict Japanese landscapes, mountains, seas and rivers, home to many animals and plant life. Rather than simply drawing each animal, Hokusai detailed the movement of fur, limbs and tails to create a sense of individual characterization and energy. His sketch of two street cats, for instance, demonstrates a standoff as one reprimands the other for stepping on his territory near the overgrown hibiscus plant.

Other animals Hokusai drew include otters, bears, tigers, leopards, deer, donkeys, porcupines, goats, camels, ostriches, and aquatic birds. As well as these, Hokusai sketched mythical beasts, for instance, kirin, a dragon-shaped like a deer with an ox’s tail, and baku, a nightmare-devouring beast created from the leftover pieces when the gods finished forming all other animals. Hokusai also drew a hairy rhinoceros with a tortoise-like shell on its back. This was probably not a mythical creature but based upon descriptions of the animal.

Hokusai occasionally drew natural animals alongside mythical beasts, for example, his sketch of a phoenix and peacock. In Chinese tradition, and subsequently Japanese, the peacock is a manifestation of the phoenix. The phoenix is one of the Twelve Symbols of Sovereignty, the others being the sun, moon, stars, mountain, dragon, goblets, seaweed, grains, fire, an axe head, and the “fu” symbol (representing the power of the emperor to distinguish evil from good and right from wrong.) According to the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 AD), a peacock represented divinity, rank, power, and beauty. The eyes on its tail are associated with the goddess Guan Yin, whose name means “The One Who Perceives the Sounds of the World.” Buddhists believe when they die, Guan Yin places them in the heart of a lotus and sends them to the Pure Land of Sukhāvatī.

When Tim Clark, the former Head of the Japanese Section and now an Honourary Fellow at the British Museum, recommended the purchase of Hokusai’s drawings for The Great Picture Book of Everything, little did the museum know how popular they would prove with the public. Tickets sell out daily as people flock to see Hokusai’s preliminary drawings up close for the first time. The purchase has allowed the museum to collaborate with scholars across the globe to deepen their understanding of printmaking and Japanese culture and history. Just as the prohibitions on travel made the Japanese people of the late Edo period hungry for knowledge about history, foreign lands and the natural world, people of the 21st-century can discover the same things by studying Hokusai’s drawings. Displaying the drawings now, as the world comes out of lockdown, helps visitors relate to the desire to travel during the Edo period. Whereas the contemporary world resorted to digital technology to survive the pandemic restrictions, the Japanese used books, stories and drawings to learn about the world beyond their shores.

Hokusai’s achievements as an artist have influenced people for over 200 years. During his lifetime, his work inspired up-and-coming printmakers and book illustrators, and before his death, his prints had made their way to Europe. Impressionist artists, such as Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, replicated themes of Hokusai’s prints in their paintings, and several European painters developed large collections of Japanese prints, in particular, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Gustav Klimt and Édouard Manet.

In the 1985 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Hokusai is recorded as having “impressed Western artists, critics and art lovers alike, more, possibly, than any other single Asian artist.” This entry proves true today as Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything entices thousands of people to the British Museum. The exhibition runs until 30th January 2022 and tickets, priced at £9, are selling fast. So, book now to avoid disappointment!


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2 thoughts on “The Man Who Drew Everything

  1. What a mammoth task this must have been having to keep up with all his changes of name. Well done Hazel for such a comprehensive blog. Now I know a lot more about the man than just recognising the wave picture!

  2. Hokusai, there is nothing to sigh about in this master class by Hazel in how to inform and entertain the reader. Totally enthralling and condensed in a few paragraphs is a whole book of knowledge. Thank you for enlightening us on a famous Japanese artist primarily known for one work yet has left us a treasure trove of insights in culture and society of China, Japan and India. Hazel thank you for sharing your considerable talents.

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