Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave

4 out of 5 stars
3 out of 5 stars
(3user reviews)
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), 'Under the Wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave)'. From 'Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji'. Acquired with the assistance of the Art Fund. © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849),' Minamoto no Tametomo and the inhabitants of Onigashima Island', 1811. © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), 'Kohada Koheiji'. From 'One Hundred Ghost Tales',. Purchase funded by the Theresia Gerda Buch bequest in memory of her parents Rudolph and Julie Buch. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Most of us don’t get any better with age. After our twenties we just get uglier, fatter and more useless. But Katsushika Hokusai was like a seriously fine wine. He was in his early seventies when he created ‘Under the Wave off Kanagawa’ – a work that would become one of the most iconic images in all of history, and he just got better. His whole life as an artist led to that single moment, and then the world blossomed and unfolded in front of him.

The Great Wave – a woodblock image – was printed in its thousands, making a star out of lowly Hokusai. It’s a gorgeous little picture, a swirling maelstrom kaleidoscoping around the tranquil mountain as boats crash and clatter in the waves. Later on in the show, two big ceiling panels focus in on the wave. The twisting shapes and spitting foam create mini galaxies that completely overwhelm you in their abstraction. He was taking nods from western art, and in the process, he’d go on to shape the work of Van Gogh and Monet in countless ways.

But it’s not all waves and water. The show takes in his prints, of course, but also his books and his one-off paintings. It’s a journey through countless mythological worlds, lush unfolding landscapes, ghost stories and scenes of everyday life. But most of all, it’s a journey through the mind of a master, desperately trying to wring every last drop of art from his brush. You just wish the museum had dimmed the lights a little bit and given the show some atmos.

The final works are sad and forlorn: a grizzled old demon, cold and barren landscapes, then finally a dragon disappearing into a cloud of smoke above Mount Fuji. Hokusai making peace with his mortality. In the inscriptions he basically begs for more years, pleads to live to 95 or 100, so he can finally achieve true greatness. The fact is, he didn’t need to worry, he got there years before.



Users say (3)

3 out of 5 stars

Average User Rating

3.3 / 5

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A small exhibition, absolutely overcrowded, it did not feel safe. Yes the works exhibited there are worth being seen but I didn't not have a pleasant time, queueing in front of artworks. Maybe the British Museum should rethink the number of people actually allowed in their exhibitions. 


This exhibition was a really interesting insight into one man developing his artistic practice. It also does a lot to demonstrate why we should look beyond that one image an artist is famous for.

Hokusai was driven by the desire to become better and better at his art, and you can see, as the exhibition progresses, the 'Great Wave' of the title only falls about halfway through his journey. His style is beautiful, and his talent is indisputable, so I was really excited to learn more about the breadth of Hokusai's work, as he is not an artist with which I am particularly familiar. The show opened up a whole new artistic and symbolic culture to me, and I enjoyed it a lot, despite the busyness.

If you can get tickets - which will be difficult as it's virtually sold out - you should definitely get down to the British Museum and check it out.


A wonderful way to spend an afternoon! My friend and I bought tickets online and even though we arrived late for our slot, we were still happily accommodated into the exhibition. We were held up entering the British Museum with extra security checks, which is definitely reassuring more than a burden. 

The exhibition room is not hard to find - located on the lefthand side of the grand staircase, the signs are easy to follow. I enjoyed that the exhibition was mostly chronologically ordered so you really get to see how Hokusai's works develop throughout his lifetime. The most interesting fact I found was how he embodied different personalities and took on different names at each stage of his life, and how that affected the works he produced. 

The biggest surprise was ironically how small 'The Great Wave' painting actually is! I was half expecting it to be a ceiling to floor painting but after admiring it more, I realised its size was appropriate, especially for a piece of that time period.

It was also interesting to find out that his daughter was an equally talented artist and how some of her works would include his name as a sort of 'stamp of approval'. The last few works are absolutely stunning, like the rest of the exhibition, but really does make you appreciate his work. I really liked how he incorporated dragons into his paintings because his Chinese zodiac sign was a dragon. It's a mythical and majestic creature that translates beautifully through his works. 

An absolute delight to see and learn more about Hokusai, I'd recommend coming to see this exhibition before it ends!