Hokusai’s Great Wave

Back in January (crikey, has it really been that long?!) I visited the British Museum to see an iconic piece of art: Hokusai‘s Great Wave.

Hokusai's Great Wave at the British Museum

The Great Wave off Kanagawa (to give it its full title), also known as Under the Wave, off Kanagawa (a literal translation of its Japanese title: 神奈川沖浪裏 / Kanagawa Oki Nami Ura) , was smaller than I expected, much smaller. This is probably one of the most famous ukiyo-e prints ever to come out of Japan, and I was slightly disappointed that it wasn’t bigger and more impressive.

But, when you consider that this is a woodblock print, not an oil painting on a canvas, the size (25.8 cm x 37.9 cm) makes sense. This image, from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji (富嶽三十六景 / Fugaku sanjurokkei), was first printed around 1831, and has since been reproduced countless times. The image is now often used on souvenirs such as greetings cards, plastic folders, mugs and even T-shirts.

Not knowing anything about ukiyo-e, I bought a book while I was at the British Museum: Hokusai’s Great Wave by Tim Clark and, while writing this post, I also came across this BBC Radio 4 programme about Hokusai’s Great Wave, which is certainly worth a listen as it puts the picture in historical context.

Hokusai's Great Wave by Timothy Clark

The Great Wave was printed in about 5,000 to 8,000 impressions, and the British Museum holds three of these (one early impression and two much later ones). In 1842 the price of a single sheet print was about the equivalent of a double helping of noodles – cheap and affordable. This was mass-market, poster art.

This image, according to the book and radio programme, is closely tied to the beginnings of the opening of Japan. The striking blue colour that is used is not a Japanese blue, it is a Prussian blue (a synthetic dye invented in Germany in the early 18th century and much less prone to fading than other traditional blues). Hokusai would have bought this dye directly from Dutch traders or, more probably, via China where it was being manufactured from the 1820s. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, says, “The blueness of The Great Wave shows us Japan taking from Europe what it wants to take and taking it with absolute confidence.” He sees this piece not as a quintessentially Japanese work, as it is often seen, but as a hybrid work.

Prussian blue

Prussian blue

Following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, this piece seems particularly poignant. When I look at The Great Wave, I don’t necessarily think about the opening of Japan, or any of the things that were perhaps intended when this picture was produced. I see the huge wave, seemingly taller than Mount Fuji, threatening Japan, and I think of the tsunami that hit Tohoku in 2011, carrying buildings, cars and ships with it on its journey of destruction. Except that wave was not this rich blue, it was the darkest black.

The image of Hokusai’s Great Wave has been reproduced in so many ways. I once came across this decorated window in London:

Hokusai's window

(I have no idea why Hokusai’s iconic image has been reproduced here, but it’s pretty cool.)

One image in Tim Clark’s book (and also at the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum) which I absolutely love is a photo of a giant Great Wave painted on the side of a building in South London (on the corner of Camberwell Road and Coldharbour Lane).

The Great Wave, painted on a house in Camberwell

It was created by Dominic Swords, who used to live in the house, and his friends during the Camberwell Arts Festival in 1998. There’s a red Great Wave piece in Bristol too, apparently (on the corner of Hillgrove St and Jamaica St):

(Image source)

I like these images, and love to see classic artworks reproduced in this way. No matter what Hokusai’s image was intended to represent, or what people think it represents today, it seems clear that it will always be one of Japan’s most iconic images.

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