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Hokusai from the British Museum: A Rare Exhibition at the Suntory Museum of Art

In Tokyo through June 12, this is the only place in the world where Hokusai works from Japan and the United Kingdom are displayed in collaboration.

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Clear day with a southern breeze (‘Red Fuji’), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji Katsushika Hokusai Color woodblock print, About 1830-33, British Museum 1906,1220,0.525 © The Trustees of the British Museum 【To be shown over an entire period】

Katsushika Hokusai, known simply as Hokusai, is the only Japanese to be included in Life magazine’s “The Life Millennium: The 100 Most Important Events and People of the Past 1000 Years” (1998)

Hokusai continues to influence people around the world. And now the first Hokusai exhibition in its 60-year history has opened at the Suntory Museum of Art.

Kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjūrō V (Ebizō IV) Katsushika Hokusai Colour woodblock print, 1791, British Museum 1914,0110,0.2 © The Trustees of the British Museum 【To be shown over an entire period】

Hokusai possessed a uniquely keen eye for observation and an outstanding artistic ability that was not bound by any particular school of art. Painting after he interacted with, researched, studied, and reflected on various cultural figures, it is hard to fathom that his many works were painted by the same person.

A significant feature of this exhibition is that visitors are able to see one-of-a-kind Hokusai works in excellent condition from the British Museum’s collection. These include not only prints (hanga) but also one-of-a-kind works called nikuhitsu-ga (original hand paintings). 

Warrior hero Tametomo and the inhabitants of Onoshima island Katsushika Hokusai / Inscription by Kyokutei (Takizawa) Bakin (1767-1848) Hanging scroll, 1811, British Museum 1881,1210,0.1747 © The Trustees of the British Museum 【To be shown over an entire period】

Moreover, it is truly laudable that art professionals from both the British Museum and the Suntory Museum of Art are able to put together a truly collaborative exhibition based on mutual respect.

The six collectors who made Hokusai’s works available to the British Museum made the exhibition possible. I did not know about them, but the catalog describes their efforts and thoughts on Japanese culture. 

The waterfall where Yoshitsune washed his horse in Yoshino, Yamato province, from the series Tour of Waterfalls in Various Provinces Katsushika Hokusai Colour woodblock print, About 1833, British Museum 1937,0710,0.195 © The Trustees of the British Museum 【To be shown over an entire period】

Despite being British, they show a deep understanding of other cultures. Their attitude toward collecting, examining, and passing on artworks is inspiring. It brought to mind my own miserable experience in London when I was asked about Japanese culture by an educated Englishman, to which I could not answer.

I hope that the people who visit the exhibition will come to know about the achievements of these British people and be inspired to work similarly in their own fields of expertise.

Kohada Koheiji, from the series One Hundred Ghost Tales Katsushika Hokusai Colour woodblock print, About 1833, British Museum 2016,3015.2 © The Trustees of the British Museum 【To be shown over an entire period】
Young man Katsushika Hokusai Colour woodblock print, About 1840, British Museum 1913,0501,0.318 © The Trustees of the British Museum 【To be shown over an entire period】

Of course, the exhibition includes the world famous works from the series, “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjurokkei).” Among them is “Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura)” also known as “The Great Wave”.  

Under the wave off Kanagawa (‘The Great Wave’), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji Katsushika Hokusai Colour woodblock print, About 1830-33, British Museum 2008,3008.1.JA © The Trustees of the British Museum 【To be shown over an entire period】

The well-known works are amazing, but even more impressive are the hand-painted pieces seen in such excellent condition. They are enough to make you stop and stand still in front of them for a long time, as if devouring the works. It is also an exhibition where one must be careful not to disturb others.

Ducks in flowing water Katsushika Hokusai Hanging scroll, 1847, British Museum 1913,0501,0.320 © The Trustees of the British Museum 【To be shown over an entire period】

As always, the Suntory Museum of Art’s ingenuity in signage and staging to entertain visitors is fascinating. There is also a program for children to familiarize themselves with art. Combined with the famous subject of Hokusai, both adults and children can have a wonderful time.

Shirabyōshi dancer Katsushika Hokusai Hanging scroll, About 1820, Hokusai Museum 【To be shown between Apr. 16 and May 16】
The priest Kōbō Daishi exorcising a demon Katsushika Hokusai Hanging scroll, 1844-47, Nishiarai Daishi Sōjiji Temple 【To be shown between May 18 and June 12】

One can see the works from the British Museum when visiting London. But this is the only place in the world where Hokusai works from Japan and the United Kingdom are displayed in collaboration. 

If you can make it to Roppongi before June 12, I recommend you visit this exhibition.

For information about the hours, tickets and location, visit the Suntory Museum of Art website, here.

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Author: Yukihiro Watanabe

Find other reports on Japanese art and museums by Yukihiro Watanabe at this link.

(Click here to read the article in Japanese.)