If you’re like me, you probably mainly know Hokusai from The Great Wave, but he also produced a number of brush drawings, which are featured in the British Museum’s Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything exhibition, running until 20th January 2022. The exhibition page on the British Museum’s website made it look like there were lots of demon and animal drawings involved, so I decided to head out to see it, despite it being held in the dreaded Room 90, which is very probably the farthest spot away from the museum’s entrance. Be prepared to climb LOTS of stairs (I think there probably is a lift somewhere, but I’m clearly a glutton for punishment)!
Having braved the security shed and the many flights of stairs (not always the easiest feat in a mask – I’m very pro-mask, but does anyone else find when that when you exert yourself and try to take a deep breath, the whole mask gets sucked into your mouth and makes hard to breathe? I find the same thing happens when I get excited and talk too fast, so I’m probably just doing something wrong), we arrived at the exhibition. I don’t think the British Museum strictly requires pre-booking anymore, but I’ve gotten in the habit and have just carried on. Tickets are £9, or £4.50 with Art Pass, which is relatively cheap for the BM, but I’ve been to lots of exhibitions in Room 90 that were free, so I think it’s a bit pricey given the size of the space.
The exhibition was mainly centred around the walls of the gallery, which meant lots of queuing, or if you’re me, getting annoyed and just going around the exhibition in non-sequential order by popping over to wherever I saw a gap. Layout aside, the drawings themselves were actually pretty great. This particular collection was produced between 1820 and 1840 for an illustrated encyclopaedia called The Great Picture Book of Everything, but the book was never actually published. I’m not sure how these drawings were saved, since the exhibition implied that drawings of this nature would normally have been destroyed after the woodblocks had been completed, but the British Museum somehow acquired them, and here we are.
As I was hoping, there was indeed a large selection of animal drawings, and I particularly liked the elephant and the camel. Though there were a few wordier display cases that talked about the techniques Hokusai used to create his works, there wasn’t quite as much text under each individual image as I would have liked, some simply stating what was in the picture rather than an explanation that provided context.
This was especially noticeable in Hokusai’s drawings of ghosts and demons, which I loved, but I’m fascinated by folklore, and I couldn’t help wanting to know more. “The head of Meijian Chi springs from a boiling cauldron and takes revenge on his enemies,” which was under the image on the left, above, was simply not enough for me to go on. I want to know the whole damn story!
I was also disappointed by the small scale of the exhibition – I get that it was only meant to be in Room 90, but there is actually another room attached to Room 90 that is part of the same gallery. I have definitely seen this utilised in other exhibitions, but on the day of our visit, it held drawings of Switzerland (to be fair, I did enjoy these, especially the comic ones, but I felt like they should have been using the space for the paid exhibition).
I suppose because it is by far Hokusai’s most famous piece, there was a small display on The Great Wave at the back of the exhibition that discussed the woodblock printing process used for Hokusai’s work, and how experts can tell when each copy was created by the degree of detail remaining in the woodblock. This was interesting, but didn’t have much to do with the rest of the exhibition, and felt more like an attempt to flesh it out more than anything else.
I loved Hokusai’s drawings, and I think the exhibition made an interesting point about how his work, which often featured people and animals from other countries, showed that Japan was less insular in this period than previously thought, but I just don’t think there was enough here to justify the price tag. Better to have made this a free exhibition or only charged about a fiver (which to be fair, is about what I paid, but only because I have an Art Pass). 2.5/5.