19 August, 2020

The Great Wave of Hokusai

Katsushika Hokusai is perhaps the most famous ukiyo-e master of the Japanese art of the Edo era. His work had a great influence on European artists. Hokusai paintings inspired such famous female artists as Gauguin and Van Gogh. The subtlety and elegance of female images might originate from the Japanese master.

Like these artists, Hokusai didn't like to follow the general rules. This may seem interesting - when all Japanese artists painted sakura, Hokusai preferred Peony drawings. 

Peonies and butterfly

Master of contrasts
Hokusai used many different names to distinguish different themes in his works. But being about thirty years old, he chose a name, which became best known to us all.

In his work, Hokusai used not only different pseudonyms but also a variety of Japanese and Chinese techniques and styles. He applied various materials, fabrics and paper, light and coloring effects of various pigments. All this created different prints of the wood panels of xylography. Hokusai also diversified classic Japanese monochrome with vibrant colors. At the same time, he developed own version of lines in classical Japanese painting. He often created optical illusions between the distant and near, man-made and natural.

Diverse Mount Fuji

Hokusai is known for creating a series of paintings The Thirty-Six Views of Fuji. The great wave off Kanagawa is one of the most recognizable works of the Japanese artist in the whole world. It became popular in Japan as Hokusai used the unusual game of bright colors and space for that time. Nowadays, part of this mural can even be seen in the form of street art near London's Old Street, and it also adorns the sides of boats on the Liverpool docks.

Back of Mount Fuji from Minobu River (Minobugawa ura Fuji)

This engraving reveals both the traditions of Japanese art and the individual manner of the artist. Hokusai chooses a tense moment and boldly plays with the scales. He portrays small people in boats desperately clutching at them so as not to fall overboard, and even the small Mount Fuji. They are opposed to the raging water element. A huge wave, ready to hit the boats and at the same time serves as a frame for Mount Fuji. But Fuji is the only fixed element in Hokusai’s dynamic composition. So the artist creates a contrast of large and small, spontaneous movement and unshakable calm.

The great wave of Kanagawa

To understand the whole depth of Japanese art and Hokusai in particular, we need to plunge into the culture of Japan, the world, and the thoughts of the author. During the artist’s life, the world was not as instant as it is now. People didn't capture the moments; they enjoyed the events. This made it possible to enjoy nature, views, to represent what could be hidden from the eye of the viewer. So in the series overlooking Fuji, we can see how many- sided and diverse one theme can be. It all depends on the angle and the beholder. As there is no end to the imagination, so there is no end to the landscapes of Mount Fuji. Hokusai even introduced dragon painting in one of the landscapes.

The Dragon on Smoke Escaping from Mt Fuji
Why a print, not an engraving or a picture?

It is correct to consider The Great Wave off Kanagawa as prints, not a picture. The thing is that for its creation were not used the materials usual to the picture. It was not a canvas or any other painting base, or a layer of paint. Since this work was created with the help of a wooden tablet with an image printed on it, printed later, this is a print.

Why has the Wave become so popular in the world?

When trade and cultural relations between Japan and Europe developed, the West began to buy up any objects of Japanese art. The printed images of Mount Fuji, popular in Japan, were not expensive and gained immense popularity among the European public. The West liked these prints so much that the Great Wave got to museums and exhibitions.

Many asked questions about the whereabouts of the original. Presumably, the work itself was created between 1830 and 1833. And for the entire period of publication of the Wave, five to eight thousand copies of it were issued. Experts divide prints into two categories. In earlier versions, blue paint was used for the outline. And such works now cost from forty to sixty thousand dollars per copy. Later, black paint was used to fill the color of the contour, and the prints in this series cost half as much.

Riddle for researchers

Could Hokusai have thought that his Wave would not only become world-famous but would also inspire scientific research? Scientists were wondering if the tsunami is depicted on the print or is it surface waves. They analyzed all available images of Kanagawa waters and knowledge of wave formation. After all, they concluded that the Hokusai print depicts ordinary waves.

Wave in the modern world

Images of the famous Wave of the Japanese author can be found in everyday life. And we don't need to pay millions for it. We may not even notice that this masterpiece is with us now forever. Famous brands use Katsushika Hakusai’s masterpiece to create their emoji. Even in our smartphones, we can always find the Wave.

So invisible to us, art is much closer than we might have imagined.

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