Editorial Feature

The Great Wave

A closer look at Hokusai's famous woodblock print  

Katsushika Hokusai, a Japanese printmaker who died in 1849 aged nearly 90, is one of those artists whose long, impressive career has come to be known for a single iconic work.

Under the Wave Off Kanagawa (c. 1830-31) – often known as ‘The Great Wave’ – is so famous it has come to be regarded as Japan’s Mona Lisa.

Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji: The Great Wave Off the Coast of Kanagawa, Katsushika Hokusai (From the collection of Tokyo National Museum)
Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji: The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Katsushika Hokusai (From the collection of Tokyo Fuji Art Museum)
Under the Wave off Kanagawa, also known as the Great Wave, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, Katsushika Hokusai (From the collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

When viewed in its entirety, one of the revelations of Hokusai’s work is how fresh it manages to feel two centuries after it was created.

If Heaven had only granted me five more years, I could have become a real painter. – Hokusai

Peonies and Canary (Shakuyaku, kanaari), from an untitled series known as Small Flowers

But the painting is so well-known that it has come to eclipse the the artist's other achievements.

Hokusai was, in turns, a romanticist, a classicist and an expressionist; a traditionalist and a crowd-pleasing populist. He revolutionized Japanese art by elevating lowly genres, such as landscape and “bird-and-flower pictures,” to high art.

When Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh first saw Hokusai´s prints, with their vivid colours and startling, off-kilter points of view, it sparked a revolution in their own art. And probably even Cézanne—the Father of Modern Art—whose monumental pictures of Mont Sainte-Victoire have a clear relationship with Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.

Mont Sainte-Victoire, Paul Cézanne
Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji: Fine Breezy Day

Hokusai's wave swept the world, and left all of modern art in its wake.

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