Dubbed The Wave in popular culture, The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai is one of the most famous Japanese prints. This week, KAZoART ‘s “Canvassing the Masterpieces” will reveal all of the easy-to-miss details that make up this work. So together, let’s dive into this enigmatic print full of movement and balance.

A few words on the artist

A Japanese painter, engraver, draftsman and writer, Katsushika Hokusai was born in 1760 and remains one of the most well-known Japanese artists to date. Raised in Edo (present-day Tokyo), he developed his artistic process during the “Edo Period,” a time when Japanese prints were all the rage.

The Edo movement deserves a lot more credit than it is given. Inspiring artists such as Van Gogh, Monet, Klimt, and Gauguin, it is what introduced the Western world to authentic Japanese art. What’s more, Hokusai also coined the term “manga” which can be translated as “free drawing.”

A bit of context on the work

When people hear the name “Hokusai”, they automatically think of The Wave and they’re not wrong to do so. Though uncommon at the time, the artist signed his work and distinguished himself as an incredible print-maker. He embodies the ukiyo-e style of art which aims to portray objects as if they were floating. It favours the representation of “light” subjects such as natural elements.

Hokusai was 70 years old when he made this print. It was part of a series entitled Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. Let’s take a look at the most famous view of the mountain by focusing on The Wave. 

• The wave, obviously

So impressive that it became the work’s namesake, Hokusai has actually depicted two waves here, one significantly smaller than the other. In the foreground, these waves occupy more than half of the print. Their real height is thought to have been close to fifteen metres high. Of a seemingly predatory nature, the ends of the waves were intentionally given claw-like features. Coloured in blue and white, they look like they’re about to reach down and snap up their prey.

Moving up towards the sea foam’s hooked fingers, the deep blue of the wave looks ready to swallow up the canvas’ remaining space. Though this is a two-dimensional work, the perspective work is on point. Hokusai was inspired by Western art and gave a precise depth to his prints. Not to be forgotten, we can see Mount Fuji in the background…

• Mount Fuji poking its way through

In Japanese culture, Mount Fuji is a sacred place. For the Buddhists especially, it is a symbolic place of retreat, spiritual rest and pilgrimage. Given this context, it is odd for it to not be the main feature of the work. A bit off-center in the background, Mount Fuji has been reduced under the effect of perspective, as if it’s preparing to be completely submersed in the waves.

There is a real elemental contrast taking place in this scene: the impassive mountain and the storm that looms over it creates a clash of natural forces. Despite its 3,776 metre-tall peak, Hokusai uses a reductive method to depict the highest point in Japan at the bottom of his composition.

• The worrying fishing boats

Lost in the turbulence, three boats full of fishermen are trapped in the storm. Historians believe they are oshiokuri-bune boats which were used to transport live fish to and from the Bay of Edo.

Carried away in the current, there doesn’t seem to be any visible escape. However, the artist does not give us the impression that they will go under. Paradoxically enough, they seem to be resting on the water’s surface. This minor element actually plays a major role in evoking a sense of balance in the work.

• Prussian Blue

Occupying around twenty percent of the print, this shade of blue is referred to as Prussian Blue, Berlin Blue, or even Parisian Blue. It was imported from Holland and gave the artist a new means of expression. The tone is used to reinforce the idea of movement. Forcing the wave to its peak, it gives the canvas a unified rhythm.

As an incredible driven artist, Hakusai recognised the success of his this print and went on to make 46 more. One even served as the cover illustration for a score by Debussy entitled La Mer. Highly productive over the course of his artistic career, Hokusai left behind over 30,000 prints and drawings of his beloved homeland.

Hokusai-inspired work on KAZoART • Patricia Blondel

On KAZoART, artist Patricia Blondel immerses us in the depths of an insurmountable wave. Her stunning show does not depict Mount Fuji in the background, rather, a sailboat race about to be swallowed up by Mother Nature.

Patricia Blondel, A Passion for the Sea