An Introduction to Hokusai’s Great Wave, One of the Most Recognizable Artworks in the World

You need not be a stu­dent of Japan­ese Ukiyo‑e wood­block prints to rec­og­nize artist Kat­sushi­ka Hoku­sai’s Under the Wave Off Kana­gawa — or the Great Wave, as it has come to be known.

Like Leonar­do da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, it’s been repro­duced on all man­ner of improb­a­ble items and sub­ject­ed to lib­er­al reimag­in­ing — some­thing Sarah Urist Green, describes in the above episode of her series The Art Assign­ment as “numer­ous crimes against this image per­pe­trat­ed across the inter­net.”

Such repur­pos­ing is the ulti­mate com­pli­ment.

The Great Wave is so graph­i­cal­ly indeli­ble, any­one who co-opts it can expect it to do a lot of heavy lift­ing.

For those who both­er look­ing close­ly enough to take in the three boat­loads of fish­er­men strug­gling to escape with their lives, it’s also nar­ra­tive­ly grip­ping, a ter­ri­fy­ing wood­block still from an eas­i­ly imag­ined dis­as­ter film.

It’s also an homage to Mount Fuji, one of a series of 36.

Thou­sands of prints were pro­duced in the ear­ly 1830s for the domes­tic tourist trade. Vis­i­tors to Mount Fuji snapped these sou­venirs up for about the same price as a bowl of noo­dle soup.

Green, a cura­tor and edu­ca­tor, points out how the water-obsessed Hoku­sai bor­rowed ele­ments from both the Rin­pa school and West­ern real­ism for the Great Wave. The lat­ter can be seen in the use of lin­ear per­spec­tive, a low hori­zon line, and Pruss­ian blue.

An 1867 posthu­mous show­ing at the Inter­na­tion­al Exhi­bi­tion in Paris turned such notable artists as Claude Mon­et, Edgar Degas, Mary Cas­satt, and Hen­ri de Toulouse-Lautrec into major Ukiyo‑e fans.

With­out them, this icon­ic plung­ing break­er might nev­er have spilled over onto our dorm room walls, our show­er cur­tains, our yoga mats, t‑shirts, Doc Martens, street art, and tat­toos.

Hell, there’s even a Lego set and an offi­cial San­rio char­ac­ters greet­ing card show­ing Hel­lo Kit­ty non­cha­lant­ly surf­ing the crest in a two piece bathing suit, more inter­est­ed in dis­port­ing her­self than con­sid­er­ing the sort of extreme ocean­ic events we can expect more of, owing to cli­mate change.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Ghosts and Mon­sters of Hoku­sai: See the Famed Wood­block Artist’s Fear­some & Amus­ing Visions of Strange Appari­tions

Thir­ty-Six Views of Mount Fuji: A Deluxe New Art Book Presents Hokusai’s Mas­ter­piece, Includ­ing The Great Wave Off Kana­gawa

The Evo­lu­tion of The Great Wave off Kana­gawa: See Four Ver­sions That Hoku­sai Paint­ed Over Near­ly 40 Years

View 103 Dis­cov­ered Draw­ings by Famed Japan­ese Wood­cut Artist Kat­sushi­ka Hoku­sai

Down­load 215,000 Japan­ese Wood­block Prints by Mas­ters Span­ning the Tradition’s 350-Year His­to­ry

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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