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In the history of museum exhibitions, big names do well. Tutankhamen; The First Emperor (and his Terracotta Warriors); Pompeii. In that order they make up the most popular exhibitions ever hosted at the British Museum. With that in mind, the British Museum have rolled out another big hitter for the summer: Hokusai.
Hokusai: Beyond The Great Wave focuses on the last 30 years of Hokusai’s life, during which time he created some of his most famous works, as well as finding time to create hundreds of other pieces and change his name a few times for good measure. For this exhibition, the British Museum has managed to unite many works from across the globe, including a number that have left Japan for the first time specifically for this exhibition. While it is enjoyable to see pieces not usually in the country, the importance of this assembling only becomes clear later in the exhibition. A watercolour scene is presented across two hanging scrolls; from the right, a dragon writhes within a stormy raincloud, causing a tiger on the left-hand scroll to arch its back and snarl defiance at this stormy apparition. The dynamic between the two creatures is thrilling, and electrifies the scene in each scroll. Sadly, these two pieces are owned by separate museums, and so are very (very) rarely displayed together. This divorce of a ‘single work’ is unfortunate, and raises many ethical questions, but the hard work of the exhibition team means that, for a while, we can enjoy this wonderful scene as it was intended.
The design of the exhibition is tastefully minimal. There was undoubtedly a temptation to plaster the walls with photographic equivalents of Hokusai’s drawings, but instead visitors are allowed to dwell in this woodblock version of Japan, remaining submerged in Hokusai’s distinctive vision of his home country. The plain white colour scheme imbues the subtle glow of Hokusai’s watercolours with fresh vibrancy, each work vying for your attention. Attention that is never wasted, as Hokusai’s prints are as enjoyable from afar as they are with your nose pressed to the glass. His attention to minor details was a source of pride, and the payoff is a delight in exploring the distant figures or natural scenes played out in one small corner of a print.
I learned a great many things about Hokusai through the exhibition. His illustrations for a series of ghost stories was a new, if uncomfortable, experience. Hokusai’s clean lines and delicate shading conjure memorably haunting creatures out of their grisly stories. Another delight was finding his series of character portraits, usually prompted by folklore and classic Japanese tales. These figures, usually presented on hanging scrolls, work well as a thematic and stylistic balance against the many scenic views in the exhibition. Beyond The Great Wave contains a good number of pieces, enough to fill a few hours, but not too many to saturate the space. The flow around the space is good, although I have heard reports of crowding impairing visitor’s enjoyment. The inclusion of Hokusai’s books and scrolls are a clever addition, preventing the visitor from becoming fatigued by a long series of similar sized and similar styled pieces.
The exhibition ends with a bang, presenting us with two walls of Hokusai’s scrolls, each more beautiful and intriguing than the last. This glowing proof of Hokusai’s genius is mellowed by a characteristically modest quote from the artist who, at the age of 89, still felt that he had much more to learn, “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years … Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.” Such humility and humour is what makes Hokusai’s legacy so rich, and this exhibition is a true celebration of his incredible artistry.