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Understanding Hokusai's The Great Wave
A closer look 12 Mar 2022

Understanding Hokusai's The Great Wave

The Great Wave of Hokusai
Hokusai, The Great Wave, 1830, Woodblock print

The Great Wave of Hokusai is probably the most famous Japanese work in the world. So much so that it will soon be reproduced on Japanese banknotes! But the work is as famous as it is unknown, because it conceals many secrets. Let’s explore it…

Discovering Hokusai’s wave

At first sight The Great Wave by Hokusai is easy to understand. The scene depicts fishmongers returning from Tokyo after having sold their catch. It was made in 1830 or 1831.

Several boats are caught in a storm off the coast of the Kanagawa Prefecture. The boats gather eight rowers and one or two passengers. They are almost 12 meters long, while the waves are up to 14 meters high. It is therefore unlikely that they will survive.

In the distance, the sky is peaceful and Mount Fuji is snow-capped. This calm contrasts with the rumbling storm. Warning! The wave of the typhoon is about to swallow them up…

Detail of The Great Wave of Hokusai
Detail of The Great Wave of Hokusai 

Multiple interpretations

Take a good look at The Great Wave… You’ve probably seen it many times. But it’s a safe bet to say you’ve never really observed it! Because seemingly simple, it is actually marvelously complex.

For example, have you noticed that the sea and the sky respectively take up half of the work? The swirling wave forms a circle whose center is in the middle of the canvas. Doesn’t this remind you of the Yin and Yang? This work would thus be a direct evocation of Taoist and Buddhist principles. In other words, we see a space made of violence and brutality, which contrasts with the peaceful calm of the sky: a metaphor of human duality maybe.

View of the principle of Yin and Yang in The Great Wave of Hokusai
View of the principle of Yin and Yang in The Great Wave by Hokusai

Others saw it as a scary hand, or even a dragon. This theory is all the more likely since Hokusai had, a few years earlier, painted ghostly manga. The artist is well known for his fantastical artworks, and there are obvious stylistic similarities between the wave and some of Hokusai’s earlier creatures.

Finally, look at how the highest wave breaks up… Each end of the wave takes on the shape of the wave itself. There is a palpable reference to infinity in this composition…

Hokusai Manga, first half of the 19th century
Hokusai Manga, first half of the 19th century

The technique

The Great Wave is a woodcut print. That is to say there is an original model, on wood, which can then be reproduced endlessly. This explains why The Great Wave of Hokusai is present in many collections around the world, notably at the British Museum in London, at the BNF and at the Guimet Museum in Paris, in Giverny, or even at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

This technique makes it possible, in particular, to produce large areas of plain color. The wood carved in various places accommodates a color that spreads over the entire surface. This implies a very stylized rendering, as seen in particular in the treatment of the foam, which looks almost zebra-like.

The ease of this process also explains its popularity. Inexpensive to produce, it could therefore be broadcasted more easily.

Wood engraving technique
Wood engraving technique

The printmaking tradition

The work is part of a Japanese art movement called ukiyo-e. It lasted from 1602 to 1868, 266 years. We notice that this period is much longer than most of the Western artistic movements of the same time. But in reality, it covers a wide variety of styles and topics.

This style owes its success in particular to the development of the woodcut print, which enabled Japanese collectors to obtain works at more reasonable prices.

Hokusai is one of the most emblematic artists of this movement with nearly 3,000 color prints, nearly 1,000 paintings, and more than 200 illustrated books. The Great Wave is undoubtedly his most famous work, but it is part of a larger whole.

Between 1830 and 1833 Hokusai produced a series called Thirty-six View of Mount Fuji. It consists, as its name suggests, of thirty-six prints that depict Mount Fuji from different views and in different seasons. It was a resounding success…

Hokusai, Fuji on a Clear Day, 1830, woodblock print
Hokusai, Fuji on a Clear Day, 1830, woodblock print

Western inspiration in The Great Wave

In the work The Great Wave by Hokusai, one can note the Western influence which begins to penetrate the Japanese arts. We see in particular the principles of perspective that are applied, while respecting the Japanese tradition. To some extent, these woodblock prints are Western painting seen through Japanese eyes.

Another element should be noted, less visible, but no less important. It is the arrival of Prussian blue: a more intense and acidic blue than the indigo blue traditionally used. Just introduced at that time, The Great Wave is one of the first prints to use this color, and the interest of the public is immediate.

Hokusai, Fast Ship Battling the Waves, 1805
Hokusai, Fast Ship Battling the Waves, 1805

The posterity of Hokusai’s The Great Wave

Its success with the Japanese public can of course be explained by the stylistic novelties and the talent of Hokusai. He has reached a certain degree of perfection with this work. Indeed, there are older representations of this type of wave in his work. And they look like drafts for the ultimate version that we know today.

But the posterity of The Great Wave of Hokusai is also due to its impact in the West. Indeed, throughout the second half of the 19th century , we see the development of what is called “Japanism”. It will have a decisive influence on the Impressionists from the end of the 1850s. They like the free interpretation of patterns and flat colors. They like the liberation from traditional rules and a more creative choice of color. And finally, they like tight, off-center framings.

Did you know Claude Monet had a copy of The Great Wave in his collection? He possessed nearly 230 Japanese prints

The posterity of The Great Wave of Hokusai
Claude Monet, The Water Lilies, 1899, 90 × 90 cm, Art Museum, Princeton

And today?

Today, The Great Wave is reproduced everywhere: on 1000 yen banknotes for2024, on stamps and socks. It has been revisited many times by contemporary artists or diverted to incorporate comic elements.

And maybe like the Mona Lisa, by dint of being seen, it is no longer looked at…