Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is famed for his colorful woodblock prints, especially the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. That masterwork was created between 1830 and 1832, when Hokusai was in his 70s, but it’s not widely appreciated that, in the earlier part of his career, he was better known for his brush-and-ink drawings.
In 1814, he published the first in a 15-volume series called Hokusai Manga, which went on to become one of the best-known Japanese books in the world at the time.
His subjects ranged far and wide: Hokusai was interested in depicting people engaged in their daily business, but he was also fascinated by sea creatures, plants, religious figures, and animals. He would carry his drawing materials around with him, and there were very few subjects that escaped his expert eye.
“He loved drawing,” says Sara E. Thompson, assistant curator for Japanese prints at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA Boston). “He said he started drawing when he was six years old, and he would do it constantly. He was very proud of the fact that he could draw anything. Not only did he draw things that he saw, he had a very vivid imagination, and could construct all kinds of fantastic things. Even when he is drawing things he is looking at, he is perfectly happy to change them so that it makes a better picture.”
MFA Boston recently published Hokusai’s Lost Manga, a one-volume collection made up of three books of previously unpublished drawings. The books had been discovered in a box in the museum some years ago, but were only recently authenticated as being Hokusai’s and not his students’. The drawings, Thompson estimates, date from the 1820s, and represent something of a transition from the master’s drawing work to his woodblock prints.
“He’s moving from one set of masterpieces to the next,” she notes. Unlike the earlier manga books, Thompson says that these drawings were originally intended as the basis for a book of woodblock prints that was never produced. Japanese woodblock prints start with a drawing, on thick paper, which is then glued to the wood. The irony of Lost Manga is that, if the prints had been made, the drawings would have been destroyed in the process.
“The lost manga book is clearly intended to become a book that would be made into prints, as the drawings are on very thick paper,” says Thompson. “They have been carefully cut out and pasted down on book-sized pages with a printed outline. It was certainly intended to become a picture book.”
The contents of the Lost Manga are typically varied. “Variety is part of the idea, although some themes continue for several pages before they change,” adds Thompson, who annotated the new collection. “He starts out appropriately with images of gods, but he very quickly gets into occupations – he was very interested in people working, and how they do what they do. Then he gets into the natural world, and all different kinds of fish.”
Thompson notes that while Hokusai worked in the Ukiyo-e (‘floating world’) genre, which generally depicted the pleasurable side of urban living – courtesans and kabuki actors included – he wasn’t limited by it. “In fact, he expands the definition of it,” Thompson says.
Hokusia’s Lost Manga highlights the power of the artist’s imagination, Thompson says. Although he would usually start by drawing from nature, he would often put two or three subjects together in one picture, as if creating the world anew.
“He drew pictures in different places, but made them look as though they were all done in the same place,” she says. “The wonderful picture of the diving woman that we put on the cover has three elements: the diving woman, the man fishing on the cliff, and a boatload of people in the background. It’s kind of three pictures that he put together.
“I think, but I don’t know for certain, that the diving woman is imaginary – I really doubt if he went down there in under the water to see what she looked like!”