Hokusai's Imagination Leaps Off The Page At British Museum

Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything, British Museum ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 30 months ago

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Hokusai's Imagination Leaps Off The Page At British Museum Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything, British Museum 4
King Virudhaka is struck dead by lightning, as Buddha foretold. © The Trustees of the British Museum

A king is struck dead by lightning in a blinding flash. As he collapses to the floor, his pain and energy radiate out from his body in piercing straight lines.

It's the kind of image you'd expect to find in a modern day Manga comic — yet this was drawn over 160 years ago by the highly influential Japanese artist Hokusai.

The Great Wave is Hokusai's most enduring work, but now the British Museum invites us to pore over more than 100 of his illustrations — created for an early encyclopaedia humbly entitled The Great Book of Everything.

Hokusai is better known for his woodblock prints — in this exhibition it's his pen that comes to the fore with exquisitely detailed drawings. Adding an extra layer of intrigue is the fact the encyclopaedia was never published.

Every encyclopaedia needs animal drawings and Hokusai doesn't disappoint, with this one of native waterfowl. © The Trustees of the British Museum

To call it an encyclopaedia, however, is misleading. Hokusai blended truth with myth, observations of nature with creatures of legend. A peacock with beautiful tail feathers appears next to a fiery-winged phoenix. Foreign visitors to Japan in their varied attire meet with impossibly tall or long-legged characters — an Eastern version of Gulliver's Travels. Such juxtapositions are the product of an artist who never left his homeland, yet enjoyed the company of  travellers — and had a vivid imagination to boot.

The works may be small but they pack a punch. One of a disciple of Buddha taming a wild beast is mere inches tall, but there's a ferocious energy to the scene and you can feel the struggle to control the rearing animal. Hokusai's eye for detail is generally immense; only an unhurried viewing lets you appreciate what's going on in each work, alongside the references to mythology, religion and cultures woven throughout.

A fighter is surrounded by evil spirits. © The Trustees of the British Museum

One striking example of symbolism is of warrior Wu Zixu; he holds up a bronze vessel while writing at the same time, flexing both strength and intellectual prowess (an impressive feat and certainly not standard practice for Londonist's editorial team).

This is a far subtler affair than the museum's blockbuster Hokusai show in 2017 — dedicated almost exclusively to one set of small drawings. The Great Wave does make an appearance (well, the British Museum does hold two versions of it), but largely to give context to the rest of the show.

The Great Wave makes an appearance, as you'd expect it to. © The Trustees of the British Museum

This exhibition isn't about making a sensationalist splash, though — more of a powerful undercurrent that pulls you into a world of wispy demons, bushy bearded figures and enlightened foxes. A chance to be submerged in the depths of Hokusai's incredible talents and frenzied mind.

Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything, British Museum, 30 September 2021-30 January 2022. £11 for adults.

Last Updated 28 September 2021