Hokusai: More than 100 lost works by non-western world’s most famous artist rediscovered

New findings, part of artist’s abandoned attempt to create Great Picture Book of Everything, trigger major British Museum research project, finds David Keys

Wednesday 09 September 2020 16:15 BST
‘Yi Di (Giteki) orders the people to use rice juice to brew wine’: Yi Di is said to be one of the earliest brewers of rice wine, which he presented to Yu the Great of the Xia dynasty. In this comic scene, men seem to be using the weight of a large rock to squeeze liquor from the rice
‘Yi Di (Giteki) orders the people to use rice juice to brew wine’: Yi Di is said to be one of the earliest brewers of rice wine, which he presented to Yu the Great of the Xia dynasty. In this comic scene, men seem to be using the weight of a large rock to squeeze liquor from the rice

One of the world's most important collections of art has re-emerged after having been lost for more than 70 years.

The corpus – 103 original drawings by the non-Western world's most famous artist, the 19th century Japanese painter, Hokusai – came to light in Paris and has now been bought by the British Museum.

The newly discovered artworks appear to have formed part of one of the most ambitious publishing projects ever conceived – a Japanese plan to create a huge pictorial encyclopaedia.

Known as the Great Picture Book of Everything, it was conceived by Hokusai (best known for his most famous work – The Great Wave) – but was never completed.

The project was abandoned in the 1830s – either because of cost or possibly because Hokusai insisted on reproduction standards that were difficult to attain.

The Great Picture Book of Everything was to have been a comprehensive way for the Japanese to have access to images of people, cultures and nature around the world – at a time when virtually no Japanese people had been allowed out of Japan for some two centuries -  and virtually no foreigners had been allowed into 99 per cent of the country.

In that ultra-restrictive atmosphere, the project was to have given people an opportunity to explore a highly stylised printed version of the outside world as well as Japan itself.

However, so limited was Hokusai's access to up-to-date images of foreigners and foreign cultures, that he often had to use very old pictures as his source material – which led to him portraying much of the outside world as it would have looked several hundred years earlier.

Studies of various types of water bird, swimming and diving among river weed. This work seems to have been intended as a kind of picture thesaurus

Thus, the only European (described as a 'Southern Barbarian'), portrayed in the known portions of the pictorial encyclopaedia, is wearing 16th or 17th century, rather than 19th century, costume.

Other images portray Chinese and Indian history, animals, birds and minerals – and Hokusai's impression of what ancient Chinese houses, paper-making, printing and alcohol production would have looked like.

The only other known works, painted by Hokusai for his Great Picture Book of Everything, are in the Museum of Fine Arts In Boston and the Biblioteque Nationale in Paris. They portray Japanese arts and crafts, Buddhist cosmology, plants, fish and landscapes.

But there are several major subjects (including Japanese history and Japanese literary history – and much zoology), which Hokusai would almost certainly have wanted to include in his pictorial encyclopaedia which are not represented in the London, Boston or Paris material.

The British Museum therefore believes that it is likely that other major drawings made by Hokusai for the encyclopaedia may survive, unidentified, in private or even public collections around the world.

The hunt will now be on to try to find the rest of them.

All 103 newly re-discovered images have now been put on-line by the British Museum both in print and online.

So, if further images come to light, there is the possibility that 171 years after Hokusai's death, his great unpublished masterpiece, The Great Picture Book of Everything – could ultimately be fully or at least very substantially published.

If he had produced his multi-volume encyclopaedia in the 1830s, as he had intended, only a few thousand copies would have been made.

But today, millions of people worldwide can begin to admire these long-lost works by Asia's most famous pre-20th century artist.

‘Fumei Chōja and the nine-tailed spirit fox’: Fumei Chōja appears as a character in kabuki and bunraku plays which also feature the shape-shifting nine-tailed fox and its adventures in India, China and Japan

Hokusai was extremely famous in 19th century Japan – but he and his Japanese artistic contemporaries were also a major influence on European art – especially Impressionism and Art Nouveau.

He and his contemporaries ultimately influenced the style of artists like Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Paul Gauguin, Mary Cassatt, Vincent van Gogh and Gustav Klimt.

Indeed, back in the early 20th century, the recently rediscovered Hokusai masterpieces belonged to the famous Art Nouveau jeweller, Henry Vever, who was a personal friend of Claude Monet and other Impressionist artists.

He and Monet were members of the Amis de L'art Japonais – a Paris-based artistic society, which helped popularise Japanese art in Europe.

‘Devadatta (Daibadatta), appearance of evil spirits with supernatural arts’: Monk Devadatta was by tradition the cousin and brother-in-law of Shakyamuni Buddha. In the Lotus Sutra he was the archetype of an evildoer. Here he holds sway over a variety of grotesque evil spirits

Hokusai was not just a superb and innovative artist, but was also a consummate showman. He took part in literally hundreds of 'performance art' events (known as 'calligraphy and painting parties') that the Japanese general public paid to observe. 

Most famously, he also produced at least two giant works of art, each around 180 meters long – vast drawings, on hundreds of square metres of paper, created with dozens of buckets of ink (and painted with brooms instead of paintbrushes). 

His eye for self publicity turned him into a valuable brand. What's more, he insisted on reinvigorating his brand by awarding himself new and innovative additional names (each with a new meaning). One of the last names he adopted simply meant 'Old Man Crazy to Paint'. 

Indeed, the name Hokusai itself was one of his invented names: it means 'North Studio' (a reference to the North Star) – and suggests that he potentially viewed himself as a creative fixed point, around which aspects of the rest of the artistic world could revolve.

The newly rediscovered Hokusai works were produced in 1829 (around the time that The Great Wave was published).

Published at around the same time as Hokusai was producing the 103 recently rediscovered drawings, The Great Wave is the artist's most famous painting

It is likely that after the Great Picture Book of Everything project was abandoned, the drawings were sold by Hokusai and were subsequently purchased by Japanese dealers who took them to Paris (after Japanese foreign travel restrictions were lifted in around 1860). 

Henri Vever subsequently acquired them (probably in the late 19th century or the first quarter of the 20th century). Many years later, in 1948, six years after Vever's death, they were auctioned in Paris to an unknown private buyer. 

The works then resurfaced last year – and were bought by the British Museum this summer. It is the first time that this extraordinarily important material has been in a public collection.

It will go on public display at the British Museum next year.

Bizarrely, the world owes the survival of the newly rediscovered Hokusai drawings to the abandonment of the great artist's pictorial encyclopaedia publishing project. If the publishing operation had gone ahead, the manufacture of the printing blocks would have involved the destruction of the original drawings, which the British Museum has just acquired.

The British Museum, Boston and Paris material will now be the subject of a groundbreaking research project using a new and very innovative and interactive online system known as ResearchSpace. 

This new research tool will allow relevant scholars in any country to access Hokusai material in collaborating museums worldwide – and to then present that material and knowledge in new and fluid ways, thus enabling a hitherto unprecedented level of analysis of Hokusai's work. It is that analysis which is likely to enable art historians to reconstruct the great Japanese artist's lost pictorial encyclopaedia.

Tim Clark, honorary research fellow of the British Museum, who is cataloguing the newly re-discovered Hokusai drawings, says that they will “expand considerably our knowledge of the artist’s activities at a key period in his life and work”.

“All 103 pieces are treated with the customary fantasy, invention and brush skill found in Hokusai’s late works,” he said.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in