Francesco Carelli, University Milan, Rome, Bari


Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849) has long enjoyed a strong international reputation and is considered by many to be Japan’s greatest artist.

The  British Museum has staged the first exhibition in the UK to focus on the later years of the life and art of Hokusai, featuring his iconic  print ‘The Great  Wave’  of c. 1831 and continuing to the sublime painted works produced  right up to his death at the age of 90.

Supported by Mitsubishi Corporation, Hokusai: beyond the Great Wave has provided new insight into the  prodigiously productive last thirty years of Hokusai’s life and art from around 1820 to 1849.

The exhibition has  adopted a new approach to explore Hokusai’s later career in thematic as well as  chronological terms. The exhibition has opened light on  Hokusaì’s personal beliefs and his spiritual and artistic quest through major paintings, drawings, woodblock prints and illustrated  books.  Many have never been seen before in the UK and  can only be displayed for a limited length of time.

From iconic landscapes and wave pictures to deities and mythological beasts, from flora and  fauna to beautiful women, from collaborations with other painters and writers to still lives, the works on show are extraordinarily varied, with objects drawn from the British Museum’s superb collection and many loans from Japan, Europe and the United States.

There has been  a rotation of about  half the artworks midway through the exhibition run for conservation reasons. Due to their light sensitivity some works can only be displayed for a  limited amount of time , to preserve the vivid colours.   Each rotation tells the same story, but with  the opportunity to see  a selection of different works in each half.  The exhibition has   featured around 110 works in each rotation.


The Great Wave  was acquired  in 2008 by the British Museum with the assistance of

the Art Fund.

Hokusai created  this world  renowned masterpiece when he was  about seventy.  Mt Fuji and its wider spiritual significance  was a model for Hokusai in his quest for immortality during his later years.


The print series  Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji (published around  1831-33) revived Hokusai’s career  after personal   challenges of the late 1820s   The Great Wave,  with its use of deep perspective and imported  Prussian blue pigment, reflects how  Hokusai adapted and experimented with European artistic style.

Also shown was a rare group of paintings from the National Museum of Ethnology,

Leiden, done in  a unique European influenced style, which  were commissioned  from

Hokusai  by employees of the Dutch East India Company in about 1824-1826.

Throughout his career, and particularly in the later years, Hokusai’s  paintings brought

vividly to life  an extraordinary bestiary of dragons,  Chinese  lions, phoenixes and eagles, and forcefully  energised  depictions of mythological figures and holy men.

He also continued to use landscape and wave imagery as a major subject and he

became increasingly interested in exploring in.


Hokusai based his exploration of the outside world on his subjective identification with his surroundings rather than any objectively  ‘scientific’ or technical approach.

For Hokusai and his contemporaries the perceived  world could connect seamlessly with a world of  powerful ‘unseen’ forces and agencies.

Ghosts  and vengeful spirits inhabited a closely parallel  world that  was believed could easy spill into ours.


The exhibition has displayed a magnificent hanging loan from the Metropolitan

Museum in New York  Red  Shōki, the demon-queller, who could protect your home against the scourge of smallpox.  In the late 1820s Hokusai suffered  many personal

challenges, including the death of his wife, illness, and financial woes caused by an errant grandson.

His daughter Eijo ( art name  Ōi, about 1800- after 1857), herself an accomplished artist , quit an unsuccessful marriage to return and care for  her  aged father, and to work with and alongside him.

The exhibition has  explored  their  modest living  circumstances, displaying their portraits and  drawing on the  recollections of Hokusai’s pupils.

The artist considered that he was passing on  ‘divine teachings’ to his pupils, to  craft

artists and  to the world.

He published numerous brush  drawing manuals, notably Hokusai manga ( Hokusai’s Sketches, 15 vols, 1814 -1878) which spread his artistic style and reputation widely in

to  society.  


From  his eighty-eighth year until his death at age ninety, Hokusai’s extraordinary last painted  works show that the artist had indeed reached a sublime realm in his beliefs and art.

He fervently  believed  that his skills as an artist would continue  to improve  the older he got and impressed all  these last paintings with a talismanic

For Hokusai and his contemporaries the perceived world could connect seamlessly with a world of powerful ‘unseen’ forces and agencies.

Ghosts and vengeful spirits inhabited a closely parallel world that was believed could easy spill into ours.