If you know anything about the ukiyo-e masters of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Japan like Kitagawa Utamaro, Utagawa Hiroshige, and Katsushika Hokusai, you know that they became renowned through woodblock prints. But in almost all cases, a woodblock print begins in another medium: the medium of the drawing, where the artist works out the image before committing (or having it committed) to a block of wood for printing. This process, as Tokyo-based Canadian printmaker David Bull explains in the video above, entailed the destruction of the original drawing — or at least it did a couple of centuries ago, before the advent of copy machines, let alone high-resolution digital scanners.
Our time has not only these technologically advanced tools, but also, as previously featured here on Open Culture, a wealth of rediscovered drawings by Hokusai himself. “The existence of these exquisite small drawings had been forgotten,” says the site of the British Museum. “Last publicly recorded at a Parisian auction in 1948, they are said to have been in a private collection in France before resurfacing in 2019.”
Having acquired the 103 images that constitute this Great Picture Book of Everything, the British Museum has entered into a collaboration with Bull, whose workshop Mokuhankan is taking a selection of these drawings — never printed in Hokusai’s day — and carving them into woodblocks for the first time ever.
You can enjoy this project, called Hokusai Reborn, by following its progress on Bull’s Youtube channel; the first two episodes of the series appear just above. You can also purchase a subscription to receive copies of the actual prints now being made from Hokusai’s drawings at Mokuhankan. “The prints will be 13.5 x 18.5 cm in format (slightly larger than 5 x 7 inches),” says the page at the studio’s site with more information on that, “and will be made on a thin version of our usual hosho washi, made in the workshop of Iwano Ichibei,” one of Japan’s officially designated Living National Treasures. This sales model is in keeping with the commercial model of ukiyo-e in the Edo period of the seventeenth through the nineteenth century, when a burgeoning merchant class formed a robust customer base for its artisans. Here we have an unexpected opportunity to become one of those customers — and, perhaps, to own the next Great Wave Off Kanagawa.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.