After The Story of Art last week, we’re taking a look at The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). This is one of the most famous modern art pieces in the world – there’s even a bloody emoji in honour of it.
The piece is from the late Edo period and is the first print from what is an entire series of woodblock prints: Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. Timothy Clark has written several books about this iconic painting, which you can rarely escape these days. It looks so strikingly modern and reminds us of the natural world, at a time when humans believe themselves to be above the elements. So, it’s a humbling piece of work and fascinating to discover more about.
Hokusai’s Great Wave
This was painted circa 1825 and published around 1830. Hokusai had already painted a bunch of similar precursors to the Great Wave, but above is the end result that swept across the world. And it is glorious – look at it. Is it really from almost 200 years ago? You can see elements of modernity such as Andy Warhol pop art and Studio Ghibli animated films like Princess Mononoke.
But what is really going on in the woodblock painting? Well, we see the sea raging away due to a storm. Contrary to popular belief, the great wave is not a tsunami. It’s just a big old wave with a tentacle-like reach. The peak of the wave soars high, below which we have three small boats (presumably fishermen) battling the elements. Whilst in the background, Mount Fuji stoically overlooks the scene.
On a final note, the symbols in the top left corner belong to Hokusai – that’s his signature. And what does it all mean? It’s a powerful depiction of humanity taking on nature, from our perspective, but art is always open to various interpretations.
Timothy Clark released a series of Great Wave literature, some of it immensely detailed and packaged in an ultra-fancy hardback edition. As that costs £50, we went for the £5 paperback. Clark is the head of the Japanese collections at the British Museum (in Britain). In 2017, the museum had a special Hokusai season! Such is the regard remaining for this exquisite artist.
In Hokusai’s Great Wave, Clark examines the history of the image and its cultural and historical significance. Although it hails from Japan, a distant and mysterious land for many of us, it’s now a universal image that has wowed the world. You don’t need to be an art fan to appreciate this work, which we think is its greatest feature – it just stops you in its tracks. Because it’s incredible.
The book also takes a look at Japanese art history, plus the “afterlife” of Hokusai’s work. Its presence is all over the world, as you can see in the above video. Clark even highlights an intertextual reference in a 1934 Tintin comic, prior to the painting becoming ubiquitous in the modern era.
And whilst it’s easy to baulk at some ubiquitous art, such as Edvard Munch’s The Scream, there’s something about The Great Wave off Kanagawa we can’t tire of. It lights up our world in a rather fantastical way – removed from reality, yet so representative of it. Like a shiny illusion, but one you can hang on a wall and swoon over. We wave to Hokusai for that contribution to our lives.