• Ujjwala Singh

Hokusai - The Great Wave Off Kanagawa

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa is understood to be the most renowned piece of Japanese art in the world, but what do we know about the art form behind it? Published roughly between 1829 and 1833, the piece was created by Hokusai as a part of his series – Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. The piece was retained in Japan until 1859 and wasn’t even recognized as true art until it found a global audience. It was through a huge flow of Japanese prints into Europe that The Great Wave found validation and appreciation from artists such as Monet and Van Gogh.

Although the piece is widely misinterpreted as a painting, it is actually a print. Woodblock Printing was first used in the 8th century to reproduce texts such as Buddhist scriptures. The usage of the printing form for illustrations only begun in the early 1500s, which paved the way for the now prevalent art form to come into existence.

At the beginning of its journey, ukiyo-e, or woodblock prints, were used to mass-produce pictures of kabuki actors and courtesans. Since these were produced in large numbers, their prices were about as much as a bowl of noodles. It was only in the 19th century that ukiyo-e artists began to focus on landscapes after the construction of five major highways that connected Edo (modern-day Tokyo) with the rest of the country. Travel was at an all-time high, and Hokusai was one of the two greatest landscape artists of the time. Whilst his counterpart, Hiroshige, focused on his series – Fifty-three stations of the Tokaido – Hokusai directed his attention to the sacred Mount Fuji and its appearance during the different seasons.

Although the piece is not purely Japanese (in style), since it takes inspiration from linear perspectives found in Dutch art, it does serve to be the face of the Japanese art world and continues to be showcased in museums across the world.

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