Perhaps the most famous image in the history of Japanese art, ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ was created by the craftsman Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) nearly two centuries ago during the latter decades of the Tokugawa period. Though it is, today, considered quintessentially Japanese, the techniques used in the image combine East and West. For decades, Western art had interested many Japanese craftsman and linear perspective proved to be particularly influential. Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave off Kanagawa’ is both a timeless masterpiece, constantly reused and reinterpreted as well as the product of a particular period in Japanese history. The original work, the preparatory sketch Hokusai made for the carvers, no longer survives and Hokusai would die decades before his print would achieve a global fame of which he could have never imagined.
Katsushika Hokusai was not an artist the way one would think of an artist in the Western sense; he was a craftsman. This was his station in the rigid Tokugawa hierarchy. Yes, he had great skill and creativity, but his job was to produce prints for his publishers to meet popular demand. Hokusai was one person in a larger artisan-business production line which also included carvers and printer.
The Japan of Hokusai’s day was largely isolated from the rest of the world, with the Tokugawa Government restricting trade to the Dutch and Chinese — both restricted to the port town of Nagasaki. Foreigners were rarely allowed beyond the confines of certain parts o Nagasaki (such as when they presented themselves to the shogun on official visits to Edo (modern-day Tokyo)). Hokusai was born and died in Edo, which was one of the largest cities in the world at the time. The Tokugawa Shogunate reached its high point in the early eighteenth century — a time of cultural flowering. Woodblock prints became an affordable form of art, mass produced for a discerning, literate, cosmopolitan society. When Hokusai was born in 1760, the Tokugawa Shogunate was still strong. Established in 1603, the Tokugawa Shogunate was ruled by a military leader — the shogun — all descended from the first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. This was the age in which the samurai, formerly a rural elite and largely illiterate or semi-literate, became a literate, cosmopolitan elite. The Tokugawa Government was a Confucian agrarian bureaucracy where the samurai class was on top (officially) while the merchant class was on the bottom (though they were becoming the wealthiest class). Samurai were increasingly impoverished as this was an age of peace. Isolation policies were implemented in the 1630s and remained in force until the 1850s.
By the time Hokusai died in 1849, the Shogunate was much more frail. Internal and external pressure undermined Tokugawa rule. The British victory in the Opium War against China (and subsequent gunboat diplomacy measure) was a rude awakening for Japan. Western powers were appearing in Asia with greater frequency, taking over various areas and turning them into colonies. Japan’s military technology had advanced little since the 1600s. Knowledge of the West, however, did trickle into the country. This became more common after an ease of restrictions in the eighteenth century.
“In 1839, disaster struck as a fire destroyed Hokusai’s studio and much of his work. By this time, his career was beginning to wane as younger artists such as Andō Hiroshige became increasingly popular. But Hokusai never stopped painting…Hokusai had a long career, but he produced most of his important work after age 60.” -from a website dedicated to the artist
While Katsushika Hokusai enjoyed a long life, there were many ups and downs. He was driven into more work in old age because of a profligate relative. Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave’ was the product, or part of the product, of the later period of his life. This print was one in a series called ‘Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji.’
‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ depicts three boats with fisherman on their way back with the day’s catch. They are caught beneath a menacing wave with Mt. Fuji — the theme which runs through the entire series — as a minor detail dwarfed by the major wave dominating the composition. The composition shows Hokusai’s knowledge of perspective and use of non-tradition materials in Japan, such as the imported Prussian Blue pigment. Hokusai also put the viewer out into the ocean. We are not in Japan viewing the scene. We are out in the ocean, perhaps on another boat, looking at the three boats at the mercy of these huge waves. The power of the ocean stands between the viewer and Japan — represented by Mt. Fuji. Moreover, Mt. Fuji is the only part of land visible. Its colors — blue and white — make it seem almost to be another wave if one merely glances quickly at the work. The interesting juxtaposition of waves and mountain, of the relative calm of Fuji with the dynamism of the ocean, and with the viewer separated from Japan by the scene, all pull one into the print. Could Hokusai have intuited the end to Japanese isolation? That might be going a bit too far, but there was tension for decades as well as increasing calls within Japan for an end to the old isolation policy. In any event, Hokusai would never live to see it. Commodore Perry only arrived in Japan in 1853, several years after Hokusai died.
Woodblock prints were a popular form of mass production, used for individual prints as well as books. Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave off Kanagawa’ was not created as a singular masterpiece, nor anything remarkable, in comparison with the countless other assignments Hokusai was given throughout his long career as a craftsman. Many of these inexpensive prints were enjoyed for a short while before being discarded. They were not yet considered high art. Moreover, there was no notion of things like limited editions. The various woodblocks used to create the image — one for each of the different colors — were reused until they wore out. If the print was still popular, new blocks would be carved and used until they wore out.
The notion of woodblock prints as valuable art really only began when Westerners started collecting them in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. Gradually, the Japanese began to look at their prints as great works of art. Though, by the early 1900s, a huge number of woodblock prints had already been snatched up by Western collectors. The ‘Great Wave of Kanagawa’ became a favorite, both in Japan and abroad. New additions were produced and continue to be produced. Carver David Bull recently created his own version, based on a careful analysis of surviving early versions of the print.