The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai (1830-1833)

‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ by Hokusai is a masterpiece of suspense. Fishermen desperately fight against a stormy sea, the snowy peak of Mount Fuji seems frail as choppy waves rise above it, whilst enormous claws of water explode into the sky ready to consume all in their path. Hokusai depicts the scene when the tension is at its greatest – when the waves have not yet crashed down, but will surely do so at any second… We, the viewer, are caught in the middle of this moment of epic suspense.

‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ was part of a series of artwork by Hokusai known as the ‘Thirty-six views of  Mount Fuji.’ In order to understand this work of art therefore, it is important to pay attention to its central point of focus; Mount Fuji. By the 1800s, the mountain had long been regarded as a symbol of national identity, famous throughout Japan for its eternal beauty and sacredness. Yet here, Hokusai clearly distorts this impression. Mount Fuji does not stand tall, but is reduced to a tiny mound by the waves around it. Equally, given Hokusai’s use of colour, the mountain does not even stand distinct from the rest of the scene. Rather, it is lost amongst the waves of the sea (notice how Mount Fuji actually looks like a small wave due to its snowy peak). There is therefore a significant tension between the sea and the mountain; the waves appear to be overpowering the mountain, yet in reality this is a trick of perspective, and Mount Fuji will inevitably endure.

Let us turn now to those waves which so powerfully dominate Hokusai’s scene. They are aggressive, turbulent, and unrelenting. They frame Mount Fuji in their hollow, and seem ready to crash down on all in their path, including us. Notice how the tips of the waves look like clawed fingers, prepared to attack. By creating a sea of such energy and violence, Hokusai makes obvious to his viewer not only the majestic power of nature, but also it’s capability to violently destroy. It is also important to note that unlike the majority of languages in Europe and America, Japanese is read from right to left. In this way, the eye of a Japanese person would naturally move from right to left over this print, rather than from left to right (as we read). In this way, ( being Japanese himself) Hokusai probably intended for the waves to literally crash into the viewers line of sight as they scanned along the painting.

So why create such a scene? A scene in which the sacred symbol of national identity along with the lives of fishermen, seem doomed to be destroyed by water. In the 1820s, Hokusai suffered a period of immense personal difficulty. In successive years, he encountered severe financial difficulties, had a stroke, lost his wife, and then had to save his grandson from bankruptcy. All of these events drove him to poverty, and indeed the artist himself must have felt as if great waves were crashing upon him. However, perhaps by depicting Mount Fuji so distorted by perspective, Hokusai was suggesting that trials and challenges often seem far greater than they actually are. Perspective distorts their magnitude, making even our strongest convictions (symbolised by the eternal Mount Fuji) appear fragile and weak. Hokusai therefore seems to recognise that even though the water may seem as though it is about to destroy Fuji, the mountain (and the artist himself), will prevail. Perhaps this is why despite a stormy sea, the sun still shines in ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa.’


Something a bit more technical: So how did Hokusai actually create this piece of work? To do so, the artist used a traditionally Chinese technique known as ‘ukiyo-e,’ which had been exported to Japan. In this technique, the artist paints onto paper or silk his final work of art. He then takes this completed painting to an engraver, who attaches it to a piece of wood (usually cherry wood) in order to create a series of stencils of the artwork. Normally, there are different stencils for every colour. Then, the artist takes the completed stencils to a printer, who produces a print by placing each stencil, one by one, onto paper. In this way, the final print stands as a collaborative effort, rather than the work of solely the artist himself.

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