Resurfaced and Rare Hokusai Drawings Acquired by the British Museum
By Margarita Cheng
The British Museum in London announced on September 3 that it had acquired 103 ink-on-paper drawings by the 19th-century Japanese painter and printmaker Katsushika Hokusai. Created in 1829 for the unpublished book Great Picture Book of Everything, the rare illustrations were out of the public eye for more than 70 years and re-emerged last year in June at a Paris auction. They are currently viewable online, with a free exhibition at the Museum forthcoming.
Previously owned by collector and Art Nouveau jeweler Henri Vever (1854–1942), the drawings were last sold at a 1948 auction in Paris. The Museum speculates that the drawings were kept in a private French collection until they resurfaced at Piasa auction house in 2019. The entire set was purchased by the Museum for EUR 136,500 (USD 120,850), in excess of the high estimate of EUR 20,000 (USD 17,700), with the help of the Art Fund and the Theresia Gerda Buch Bequest.
According to the British Museum, the works are a “major discovery of Hokusai’s life and works,” as they were created during a period of numerous personal challenges when he was thought to have produced very little works. The small drawings cover a wide range of subjects including the depiction of animals, flowers, natural phenomena, as well as religious, historical, and mythological figures. Several make reference to subjects previously not seen in Hokusai’s other works such as the origins of human culture in ancient China. The Museum further added that these works mark a “turning point . . . demonstrating that he was in fact entering a new burst of creativity that would soon give birth to his famous print series, Thirty Six Views of Mt. Fuji (c. 1831–33),” which includes his most iconic print The Great Wave off Kanagawa. The staff at the Museum’s ResearchSpace platform is currently studying the works to uncover connections between the drawings and his other works as well as to place them within a greater social and historical context.
With the addition of the new drawings, the British Museum now boasts a comprehensive collection of more than 1,000 works by Hokusai, one of the largest collections outside Japan. It is believed that the Japanese artist produced almost 30,000 works, however many were destroyed in a fire in 1839.
Margarita Cheng is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.
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