Report on the talk “Hokusai’s Illustrations for The Great Picture Book of Everything”

The last Third Thursday Lecture of 2021 took place online due to the rise of the omicron variant and saw SISJAC hosting Dr. Alfred Haft of the British Museum, speaking on the exhibition ‘Hokusai:  The Great Picture Book of Everything’ (running until 30th January 2022). This is the same exhibition that students of the MA in Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies got to attend earlier in December.

Dr. Simon Kaner began his introduction by summarising the need for an online-only talk, which SISJAC adopted during earlier periods of the pandemic. He added that, in September, he was able to attend the opening of the exhibition and to reconnect with friends and colleagues in the Japanese art world.

Dr. Alfred Haft is the JTI project curator for the Japanese collections at the British Museum, his focus being on prints. He has specialised in the Floating World, early Japanese popular culture and the Hokusai prints.

Dr. Haft, who was beaming in from the British Museum, began his talk by explaining the origins of the exhibition. In 2020, the British Museum acquired 103 drawings, each about the size of a large postcard, by the artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849). The group was formerly in the collection of Henri Vever. The museum purchased them in 2019.

The talk was split into four sections: an introduction to the drawings, a quick precis on Hokusai’s work and his personal timeline, slides on selected drawings and their social environment, including a look at both contemporary literacy but also how Japanese people learned to read and write. 

The drawings were kept in a wooden box, probably made in the late 1800s and inscribed with Hokusai’s name and the title of the book for which the drawings were intended. However the drawings themselves were in no particular order but covered three subjects: the mythology of Buddhist India, China, and the natural world. Dr. Haft also introduced his colleagues who had helped bring the exhibition to life.

Dr. Haft explained that Hokusai was born in Edo, present day Tokyo, apprenticed as a block-cutter, and then joined the studio of Katsukawa Shunshō (died 1793). From 1778, he adopted the name of  Shunrō and producing his own prints, until his expulsion from the studio after Shunshō’s death. Between 1800-1810, he experienced his first flush of success and around 1810, Hokusai began producing drawing manuals which are displayed in the exhibition, including sketches he called manga, or ‘drawings off the top of my head’. 

Hokusai turned 60 in 1819 and by 1830, he returned to public attention and success. This was also the period when he worked on the Thirty Six Views of Mt. Fuji, including ‘Under the Wave off Kanagawa’ published between 1831 and 1835.

In the 1840’s, Hokusai focused on painting and refining his technique. He traveled to stay with his patron Takai Kōzan (1806-1883) in Nagano and seemed determined to make it to 110 years old. However, he passed away in May 1849 at the age of 89 (or 90 by Japanese count).

The third topic was drawings from the exhibition. Dr. Haft drew attention to the Chinese origins of the drawing strokes and then showed a selection of images using this particular style of brush stroke. 

The drawings from The Great Picture Book of Everything survived because the book itself was never published. Due to the nature of cutting used to print in the Japanese style, the drawings were pasted to blocks, cut in reverse and stripped away leaving only the ready-to-print woodblocks left behind.

The final section of the talk examined what made an encyclopaedia. Simply put, the purpose was to educate. Dr. Haft provided an example by Nakamura Tekisai (1629-1702), titled A Collection of Pictures to Enlighten the Young, published in 1666. These included drawings of animals, their Chinese and Japanese pronunciations, as well as basic information.

A bolt of lightning strikes Virūḍhaka dead from Banmotsu ehon daizen zu 万物絵本大全図 (Illustrations for the Great Picture Book of Everything), 2020,3015.81, © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Hokusai’s version of an encyclopaedia was more pictorial in terms of similar encyclopaedias, including a desire for a sense of realism and three dimensions, best seen in the image ‘A bolt of lightening strikes Virūdhaka dead’, which Dr. Haft provided in two forms: the ‘finished’ drawing found in the Great Picture Book but also a much more fascinating preparatory drawing in which the axis of the explosion is much more visible and striking.

The talk concluded with a fascinating look into how Japanese of this period learned to read and write, with Dr. Haft demonstrating that there was a high literacy rate as well as that both boys and girls were afforded the opportunities to learn how. This mainly involved copying the individual characters of the Japanese syllabary, as well as learning the Chinese classics, printed in specific volumes which were annotated to be readable in Japanese. 

Finally, the talk ended with a short Q and A session from the online audience, allowing scholars, students and attendees to ask specific questions about both Hokusai, the nuances of Japanese literacy, printing and the exhibition itself.

Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything’ will run at the British Museum until 30th January 2022.

Asha Bardon
MA Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies, UEA

A full video of the lecture by Dr. Alfred Haft can be viewed on SISJAC YouTube channel.

e-Bulletin contents: