Rachel Campbell-Johnston in Time. Nothing quite as striking as it looks, it is in fact “a treasure chest”: inside it is revealed to be the work of master printmaker and painter Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), whose prints were printed. Under the wave off Kanagawa ranked as “one of the world’s most recognizable works of art”.
This discovery shed light on the career of a great artist. In the late 1820s, when more drawings were being made, Hokusai is said to have experienced a period of “ruining”: “he suffered a stroke; his second wife died; he is having financial difficulties”.
However, as the drawings attest, he did not stop working. The works in the box, it goes on, form a key part of an “extremely ambitious” project designed to create an encyclopedia of images of the entire world. With depictions of everything from observed and imagined animals to “primordial gods” and “Buddhist monks,” the cycle is a masterpiece of Japanese art; but for unknown reasons, it was never published.
Now, at last, we finally got the chance to see it for ourselves. The British Museum, which eventually acquired the drawings, has put them on public display for the first time in an unusual exhibition that runs until the end of January. It is an unacceptable fact: to look at these works is to “lose oneself in a world where a spirit of wonder roams freely”.
This is a “glamorous” performance, Laura Cumming agrees The Observer. The drawings themselves are “no bigger than a postcard,” but their depth of detail is astounding. His drawing of a camel – an animal he may have seen up close – also incorporates an orangutan, a black fox and “a raccoon flying into the white remnants of space.” “; meanwhile, images of the men cooking rice wine show them deploying “a Heath Robinson work involving pumps, presses and cantilever piles which they balance for humorous effect”. .
Hokusai’s graphic creativity is “astonishing every time”: the rain “glides across the page with a needle-pointed line”, while the eyes are rendered as “an astonishing grammar of commas, full hyphens, dashes and stops, meticulously modified to describe each individual face.”
Mr. Jonathan Jones said in Guardians. The project is even more remarkable because he never actually left Japan, whose 19th-century rulers “strictly restricted all contact with the outside world”.
However, his imagination is wild. Armed only with “unreliable” information, Hokusai brings us beautiful depictions of China and fantastical images of India; an Indian elephant “bows his head to the ground in comic exhaustion, as if tired of the weight of tusks and trunks”.
His real achievement, however, was in his creative way of capturing nature, distilling water forms and landscapes into a semi-abstract “stylized shorthand” – something none of his contemporaries in the world. Europe with him dream of doing. Hokusai’s art was decades ahead of its time. If you can get to this “masterpiece” gallery before it closes, you must. The drawings are small, but “the reward is great”.
British Museum, London WC1; britishmuseum.org. Until January 30
https://www.theweek.co.uk/arts-life/culture/art/955467/what-the-critics-are-saying-about-hokusai-the-great-picture-book-of Review of Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything