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

Description The first year of work on the grant has begun to confirm some of our initial hypotheses about our research themes:
• the enduring power of Hokusai's work derives in large part from his particular vision of the world, which confounds some of the ways in which we tend to look at art -- for example, as landscape, that is, a realistic depiction of the natural environment. To understand his work, we need to understand his thought, comprising both his epistemology with respect to the visible world and his spiritual belief.
• preliminary investigations into Hokusai's painting and drawing confirm the extraordinary sophistication of his technique -- the complexity of his use of washes on paintings, the restless iteration through which he developed the design of a print, and the precision with which he sought to specify the way in which a carver should follow a particular line in producing the block. We have also begun to identify criteria through which we can determine the authenticity of Hokusai's late work.
• even though Hokusai to some extent withdrew from the world during his later years, his art was to a considerable extent the product of a social network, which rested both on the particular circumstances of Edo (now Tokyo), towards the middle of the nineteenth century, and a dense set of relationships with patrons, collaborators, and pupils. In particular, we hope that it may be possible to clarify further the working relationship between Hokusai and his daughter, Oi.
Exploitation Route The project is still at an early stage, but we are about to publish our preliminary findings in the form of a catalogue for a major exhibition at the British Museum, opening in May. We believe that our suggestions about thought, technique, and society will be taken up by curators and scholars who are currently planning future Hokusai exhibitions, but also working on other comparable artists.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Gakushuin University 
Organisation Gakushuin University
Country Japan 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The collaboration takes the form of an ongoing workshop for the reading and translation of key Japanese texts, which has so far met once, in Tokyo, and will now continue via Skype. The research team has provided the materials, coordinated the meeting, and participated in the workshop.
Collaborator Contribution Gakushuin University provided the venue and participants for the workshop.
Impact None of the outputs are yet ready for publication.
Start Year 2017
Description Ritsumeikan University 
Organisation Ritsumeikan University
Country Japan 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The collaboration so far has taken two forms: • an ongoing workshop for the reading and translation of key Japanese texts, enabled by Skype, with participants in both London and Kyoto, which has so far met four times. The research team has provided the materials, coordinated the meetings and the digital infrastructure, and participated in the workshops. • the construction of a Japanese-language database based on the Keyes catalogue raisonne of Hokusai's single-sheet prints. The research team has digitized the catalogue raisonne and supervised the technical specification and ongoing construction of the database, which will subsequently be incorporated in the online resource being designed at the museum.
Collaborator Contribution The Art Research Centre at Ritsumeikan University has: • provided the Japanese venue for and participated in the reading workshops • paid for the part-time labour necessary for the construction of the Japanese-language database of the Keyes catalogue raisonne
Impact None of the outputs are yet ready for publication.
Start Year 2016