Late Hokusai: Thought, Technique, Society

Lead Research Organisation: The British Museum
Department Name: Asia


Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is by far the best-known Japanese artist, sometimes mentioned with Rembrandt and Picasso as one of the few artists to have created art with a truly global reach. The power of his work has long been apparent. He captivated the Japanese public in his lifetime, quickly caught the eye of Euro-American artists, and has continued to fascinate a global audience ever since. His Great Wave (c. 1831) is by some estimates now the most reproduced image in the world.

Hokusai remains a puzzle, however, and the full scope of his work little known. Among the public, he is often seen as the archetypal representative of the ukiyo-e ('floating world') school, although this fails to capture the full range of his work. Among specialists, he is usually isolated as an 'eccentric', outside the conventional categories of Japanese art, even though there is a lack of consensus about the authentic body of his work.

Neither perspective grasps the original, enduring, and universal power of Hokusai's pictorial imagination. To do so, this project will focus on his last three decades. The prints of Mount Fuji were not only evidence of his mastery of a startling range of styles, forms, and formats. They inaugurated an extraordinary series of images, some from the last months of his life, in which Hokusai continued to refine his communion with human, natural, and unseen worlds.

In order to understand the power of this work, we will be asking:

1. How was Hokusai's art animated by his thought, notably his belief that painting and drawing were a means of transcending the limitations of the self?

2. How does Hokusai's mature style synthesize and redefine the artistic vocabularies of Japan, China, and Europe, which he had studied earlier in his career?

3. How can we identify Hokusai's own painted work, given the lack of consensus about criteria with which to establish authenticity?

4. How was Hokusai's work enabled by the social networks that linked him to collaborators and craftsmen, printers and publishers, pupils, patrons, and the public?

These questions will provide the foundation for the next generation of scholarship and a transformed appreciation of Hokusai among the public. The results of the research will be disseminated through: a major exhibition and monograph at the British Museum in 2017, which will then travel to Japan; an international conference and edited research volume; and a pilot online resource, providing a space within which researchers and the public can explore and further our understanding of Hokusai's achievement.

The project is lead by Timothy Clark of the British Museum, a specialist in Edo-period visual arts. He will be assisted by Angus Lockyer, a Japanese historian at SOAS, University of London, and Alfred Haft and Ryoko Matsuba, two specialists in Edo-period art at the British Museum and SOAS. The core project team will be advised by Roger Keyes, the leading specialist on Hokusai working in English, and ASANO Shugo, a Hokusai specialist and Director of Abeno Harukas Museum, Osaka, where the exhibition will travel after London. The Art Research Center, Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, the leading database of ukiyo-e imagery in the world, will furnish digital support for the project.

The project relies on international collaboration and will draw on a range of researchers in order to explore the interdisciplinary questions at its heart. Key institutional partners are Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Freer-Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Musée Guimet in Paris, and over ten leading museums in Japan, including the Tokyo National Museum. Among the key contributors to the project will be an advisory committee comprising Professors Henry Smith (Columbia University), Peter Kornicki (Cambridge), Robert Campbell (Tokyo) and KOBAYASHI Tadashi (Tokyo), Dr John Carpenter (Metropolitan Museum) and NAGATA Seiji (Tsuwano Katsushika Hokusai Museum).

Planned Impact

We will produce a new interpretation of the only non-Western figure among a handful of artists of global appeal and significance. As East Asia emerges as a key driver of global development, there are clear benefits to providing students and the public with an enhanced understanding of Hokusai's achievement and its importance for transcultural exchange.

The project has been designed with the dissemination of the research findings as a key aim. Combining expertise from universities and museums worldwide is one guarantee that the results of the project will not be confined to the academy. The exhibition and the online resource, two of three main research outputs, will further ensure the impact of the project.

1. The exhibition, Late Hokusai, will run for two and a half months at the British Museum in summer 2017, supported by an extensive public programme. It will then be shown in Japan. The extraordinary success of the 2013 Shunga exhibition at the British Museum of previous Hokusai exhibitions at other institutions suggest that this will be a high profile exhibition in both countries. Based on recent exhibitions at the Museum, it will attract at least 100,000 visitors in London and sell 10,000 copies of the catalogue, with 750,000 visits to online materials. At least 5,000 adults and families, teachers and students will attend public programme events. The exhibition will lead to considerable press coverage in this country and abroad, with the potential for supporting TV and radio programmes. The transfer of the exhibition to Osaka will disseminate the impact of the research to Japan.

The following have been identified as the key beneficiaries of the exhibition:

1. Key distinct adult visitor groups from the UK and Europe
2. Teachers and pupils in schools in London and SE England
3. The British Museum
4. The Museum's media partners and sponsors for the exhibition

--Economic impact. The research will lead to a direct economic impact for the Museum and London economy. The Museum will benefit from the commercial sponsorship needed to pay for the exhibition itself, which has already been secured. Ticket and catalogue sales and other revenue will underpin the delivery of the exhibition, while any surplus will support the Museum's wider activities. The local economy will benefit from revenues generated by the visitors who will come from outside London (25,000) or abroad (25,000), the exhibition being a key attractor for many of both types of visitor to travel to and stay in London.

--International impact. The exhibition will support the British Museum's mission to help audiences understand the history and cultures of other parts of the world. It will explicitly be used as an opportunity to highlight the cultural and economic ties between the UK and one of its major international allies and cement links between the Museum and a key sponsor, a major Japanese corporation.

2. The online resource will provide a new model for the online study of cultural materials, providing open access to research findings, bringing together material from multiple collections, and enabling innovative flexible searching. The following are the key beneficiaries among English- and Japanese-speaking user groups worldwide.

1. Students in higher education,
2. Independent scholars
3. Teachers and pupils in secondary education
4. Collectors and art industry professionals
5. Those with a general interest in Hokusai and Japanese art

Although the online resource will have a more limited economic impact than the exhibition, we expect the proof of concept to form the basis of future grant applications and fund-raising. Conversely given its online presence and interactive nature, we believe that the potential for the international impact of the resource is considerable and we expect it to catalyze further collaboration with higher education and cultural institutions worldwide.


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Clark Timothy (2017) Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave