Hokusai: Making Waves

The Great Wave
Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji: Under the Wave off Kanagawa; H. O Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929, Metropolitan Museum of Art (JP1847). Image source: Art Resource, NY

Hokusai: 36 Views of Mount Fuji opens Saturday, March 24, as part of our Japan Spring celebration. In honor of the exhibition, Bento presents a series of posts on the life and times of Hokusai, the famed artist behind the esteemed series that includes the iconic print Under the Wave off Kanagawa, better known as The Great Wave. This article was written by Victoria Dawson and previously appeared in Asiatica magazine.

In the 1850’s—the decade after Hokusai’s death—Japan was opened up to the West and paintings and prints began to flow to Europe and into America. Over the next fifty years, Hokusai gradually emerged in Western eyes and in the Western imagination as the Asian artist par excellence. Much has been written about his influence on designs of European and American artists in the late nineteenth century. Indeed, in Vienna, at the 1873 international exhibition, a major exhibition of Hokusai works underscored the high degree of popularity that he enjoyed in the West. But through most of the last century, beyond a relatively small group of researchers and collectors, the artist was largely identified in the popular imagination as a print designer. His most famous work, The Great Wave from the print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (circa 1830–33), is virtually synonymous with Japanese art—and so ubiquitous that it can be found almost anywhere that ink can adhere to a surfave—from tote bags to magnets. [The print can be seen at the Sackler Gallery as part of the exhibition on view from March 24 through June 17, 2012.]

Hokusai was someone with a very deep sense that wherever he was, it was not the final place—he was always looking for something beyond. He was an individualist whose art seems infused with a sense of irony, hauntedness, and a search for meaning. His prolific productivity, his cherished independence, and his groundbreaking visual techniques suggest a man who was obsessed with something other than money or social standing.

Then, as now, there were scores and scores of artists who were content with the status quo, satisfying rather than challenging the expectations of their viewers. Not so Hokusai. Consider, for example, the contrast between two prints of waves, created within several years of one another. In The Great Wave, Hokusai presents a rather generous vision of sweeping waves with Mount Fuji in the distance. A print he created only a year or two later offers a claustrophic alternative: In Chosi in Shimosa Province (circa 1833–34, from the series One Thousand Pictures of the Ocean) the waves cleave to a sharp diagonal line, crashing against the jagged rocks and shoals. A second, distant fishing boat offers none of the reassuring stability that Mount Fuji provides in the earlier print.

“There is no escape. Visually, Hokusai doesn’t allow it,” says Jim Ulak, senior curator of Japanese art at the Freer|Sackler. “He seems to say, ‘Well, you were comfortable with The Great Wave? Now, I’ll give you something to be afraid of—a darker vision, a sense of being trapped.’ Why would Hokuasi have done that? Not to make the viewer feel comfortable. You can always expect him to pull the rug out from under you.”


  • As an artist who has done woodblock prints and having examined Hokusai’s work I was so excited to hear of this exhibit. I live in Michigan but I definitely want to make the trip to DC to see these amazing works. Also, I’ve never really thought about how iconographic Hokusai’s work is in the west, so thank you for your post!

    • The exhibit opens tomorrow and runs through June 17, 2012. It’s a rare opportunity to see some of the finest examples of prints from the famous series, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. Thanks for your comment.

  • I have been fond of ukiyo-e woodblock prints for many years. My favorites haven’t changed: Hokusai for nature and Utamaro for portraits. And my favorite Hokusai work continues to be the first I ukiyo-e I ever saw, his Wave. This is a beautiful digital reproduction!

    If possible, I hoped you might be able to answer a question, Mr. Kaplan. I viewed the enlargement of the image above, and noticed a graphic in the lower left corner, on the black matte surrounding the image. What is it? is it used for photographing and digital reproduction? I am curious, if you might have details.

    Thank you again for this post, and for the other recent Hokusai related coverage. I only wish I could visit the exhibit in person. Perhaps I will find a way before June 17.

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