A New Article- The making and evolution of Hokusai’s Great Wave by Capucine Korenberg

The Great Wave by Hokusai (British Museum 2008,3008.1.JA)

In conjunction with the British Museum’s record-breaking 2017 exhibition ‘Hokusai beyond the Great Wave’, colleagues from the British Museum and SOAS have been collaborating on an AHRC funded research project ‘Late Hokusai: Thought, Technique, Society (2016-2019).

One of the key themes of the project is ‘connoisseurship’.
Hokusai’s single-sheet print ‘The Great Wave’ is probably the best know print in the world. Its enduring popularity from the time of its first appearance to today has meant that the original blocks were used to print a staggering number of impressions over many years. And today traditional printmakers are producing fine facsimiles of the design. I long thought that it was a great challenge for scholars and collectors to distinguish early from late impressions, requiring a level of connoisseurship that was reserved for a small number of very talented people.

Roger Keyes, who is one of the world’s leading ukiyo-e scholars, sought to distinguish early from late impressions, and originals from facsimile reproductions of all of Hokusai’s single sheet prints. His goal was the creation of a catalogue raisonné of all the artist’s print designs. His unpublished catalogue raisonné is held at the British Museum and was a primary inspiration for the ‘Late Hokusai’ project. Roger carefully studied as many impressions as he could find of each design, and when he could not see an impression himself, he had to rely on photographs. He carefully studied all the images he gathered together, looking for fine differences in the printed lines in order to analyse the changes over time of the woodblock. His meticulous research method helps us to understand how someone can develop the skills of a connoisseur. There is nothing magical about it: it is about looking again and again as carefully as possible in order to take in as many details as possible.

Ōta Memorial Museum of Art, March 2019

Dr Capucine Korenberg, a scientist who works at the British Museum, became interested in researching woodblock prints and joined the Late Hokusai team. She and the team went together to Japan in February-March 2019 to visit the Tokyo National Museum, the Ota Memorial Museum and Keio University Library to examine original prints. She also visited the traditional woodblock print makers at the Takahashi studio as well as the block carver and printmaker David Bull in Tokyo in order to better understand traditional woodblock printing techniques.

Capucine’s article ‘The Making and Evolution of Hokusai’s Great Wave’, took Roger’s work as its starting point. She studied changes to the Great Wave’s printing block by comparing 111 digital photographs on her computer, zooming in and out to examine small details difficult to see using just the naked eye. Her work has revealed that woodblock damage occurred in eight different locations on the Great Wave’s original key-block; and that the colour blocks were changed three times as the design was printed again and again. 

Roger and Capucine have completely different backgrounds – one trained in the arts and other in science. One used his experienced eye and another exploited cutting-edge technology to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of this great work of art. Both their approaches, however, relied on ‘close-looking’.

The Late Hokusai project formally ended in 2019 but scholars are still tackling a set of focused research questions. We are currently preparing the forthcoming British Museum Research Publication, Late Hokusai: Thought, Technique, Society, edited by Timothy Clark and due for publication in 2022. A version of Capucine’s essay will be included in that publication, but in the meantime she welcomes feedback about her research into the Great Wave, which is available on the Late Hokusai project website.

There is still much I have to learn about ways of looking at and understanding artwork, but it is thanks to Roger and his own ‘pathway’ for looking at objects that we can understand these objects in the way we do. The Late Hokusai team is still working on his archive and is hoping to make it available online in the near future.

Roger is now living quietly in York, UK, and his family have been providing updates about him and keeping us in touch with him through a website, while current COVID restrictions remain in place.

Matsuba Ryoko
Senior Digital Humanities Officer, Salisbury Institute
Visiting Researcher, British Museum

e-Bulletin contents: