The Great Wave

A print of the Great Wave on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A print of the Great Wave on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Great Wave off Kanagawa (神奈川沖浪裏) is an Edo period landscape print by Katsushika Hokusai. It’s one of the most recognisable works of Japanese art in the world, depicting an ominous wave threatening fishing boats near the prefecture of Kanagawa. Japan ended a long period of national isolation in 1868, and exported woodblock prints like this became popular among Western artists and collectors. Vincent van Gogh, an admirer of Hokusai, said the Great Wave had a terrifying emotional impact on him.

Hokusai created thirty-six woodblock prints of Mount Fuji between 1830 and 1832, and the Great Wave was the first in the series. Because of its cultural and religious significance, the mountain has long been a popular subject in Japanese art. This can be traced back to a 10th Century folk story, the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, in which a goddess deposits the elixir of life on its peak. But compared to the towering fury of the wave, which is about to break and smother the fishermen, even Japan’s tallest mountain appears insignificant. It seems to cower beneath it, in what many interpret as a symbol of nature’s power.

Compared to the towering fury of the wave, even Japan’s tallest mountain seems insignificant

The boats are oshiokuri-bune, which were used to transport live fish from the Izu and Bōsō peninsulas to the markets of what is now Tokyo Bay. Each one contains several rowers, who cling desperately to the boats as they’re tossed around by the rough water. Some of the men appear to be praying, perhaps in supplication to the wave that’s about to crash down on them. The foaming white curls at the tip of the largest wave are almost like fingers reaching for them, giving the image a remarkable, intimidating sense of movement.

'Fine Wind, Clear Morning', another of Hokusai's thirty-six Mount Fuji prints

'Fine Wind, Clear Morning', another of Hokusai's thirty-six Mount Fuji prints

Although the Great Wave is distinctly Japanese, Hokusai took some inspiration from Western artists: particularly the use of linear perspective seen in Dutch art. The low horizon is an example of this. He also coloured the wave using Prussian blue, a pigment imported from Europe that was used in, among other famous works, van Gogh’s Starry Night. This had a number of advantages over the flower-based dyes previously used in woodblock printing, including being more resistant to fading. Prussian blue also had a richer tonal range, making it an effective way of expressing depth and distance.

Some saw woodblock printing as a populist, commercial form of expression, not a legitimate art form

The Great Wave may be considered a masterpiece today, but Hokusai produced thousands of impressions of the image and sold them for the price of a bowl of soba noodles. “If you were willing to go without dinner for a day, anyone could have purchased the Great Wave,” says Timothy Clark, head of Japanese art at the British Museum. “It was a very democratic art form.” So much so, in fact, that some Japanese art historians and politicians were unhappy with the growing international popularity of the medium. They saw woodblock printing as a populist, commercial form of expression, not a legitimate art form.

Despite being overshadowed by younger artists such as Andō Hiroshige, and his popularity slowly fading, Hokusai never stopped painting, continuing to hone his craft. On his deathbed he’s reported to have said “If only Heaven would give me another five years, I could become a real painter.” He died aged 88 on May 10, 1849 and has since become one of the most prominent figures in Japanese art. He created thousands of images in his long and influential career, but the Great Wave remains his most celebrated work.

Andy Kelly

February 2017Andy KellyArt, Japan