The Evolution of Hokusai’s Great Wave: A Study of 113 Known Copies of the Iconic Woodblock Print

The most wide­ly known work by the eigh­teenth- and nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Japan­ese artist Hoku­sai, 神奈川沖浪裏, is usu­al­ly trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish as The Great Wave off Kana­gawa. That ver­sion of the title reflects the icon­ic scene depict­ed in the image well enough, though I can’t help but feel that we should be talk­ing about waves, plur­al. Grant­ed, the Japan­ese lan­guage hard­ly makes a fuss about plu­ral­i­ty and sin­gu­lar­i­ty in the first place, but even by the stan­dards of ukiyo‑e wood­block prints, this is a work of art that takes many forms. It’s not just that there are a lot of par­o­dies float­ing around, but that no sin­gle “orig­i­nal” even exists.

“There’s not just one impres­sion of the Great Wave, as many peo­ple think. There were orig­i­nal­ly thou­sands of them,” says sci­en­tist Capucine Koren­berg in the British Muse­um video above. Back in the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, “Japan­ese prints were very cheap, and you could buy them for the same amount of mon­ey you could buy a dou­ble help­ing of soup and noo­dles.” Demand for the Great Wave in par­tic­u­lar was such that experts reck­on that at least 8,000 prints were sold, hav­ing been made “until the wood­blocks just start­ed to be so worn out that they could­n’t be used any­more.” Again, note the plur­al: if the blocks used to make the image were replaced, we’d expect to see dif­fer­ences in the actu­al image over time.

We’ve dis­cussed before how the Great Wave went through sev­er­al iter­a­tions over four decades before Hoku­sai found the form rec­og­nized around the world still today. But if you look at a print of the final ver­sion close­ly enough — and know enough about Hoku­sai’s art — you can tell whether it came from an ear­li­er edi­tion or a lat­er one. It was no less an expert than long­time Tokyo-based print­mak­er and Hoku­sai enthu­si­ast David Bull (pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture) who noticed that “he could see small dif­fer­ences between the strokes” of the three Great Wave prints owned by the British Muse­um. Hear­ing this sent Koren­berg on a quest to deter­mine their exact chrono­log­i­cal order.

Many fac­tors com­pli­cat­ed this task, includ­ing the amount of ink and pres­sure applied to the wood­block dur­ing its cre­ation, as well as the chances of mod­i­fi­ca­tion or par­tial replace­ment of par­tic­u­lar blocks along the way. In the end, she found it “more cer­tain than ever” that the British Muse­um’s three Great Waves came from the same key block, which would have been mod­eled after Hoku­sai’s draw­ing. But along the way, she did make a dis­cov­ery: it was pre­vi­ous­ly thought that 111 iden­ti­fied prints exist­ed, but she con­firmed two more, bring­ing the total up to 113.  Deter­min­ing the fate of the oth­er 7,887 is a task best left to the even more obses­sive ukiyo-e-hunters out there.

Relat­ed con­tent:

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

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

Watch the Mak­ing of Japan­ese Wood­block Prints, from Start to Fin­ish, by a Long­time Tokyo Print­mak­er

Watch a Mas­ter Japan­ese Print­mak­er at Work: Two Unin­ten­tion­al­ly Relax­ing ASMR Videos

A Col­lec­tion of Hokusai’s Draw­ings Are Being Carved Onto Wood­blocks & Print­ed for the First Time Ever

Watch Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kana­gawa Get Entire­ly Recre­at­ed with 50,000 LEGO Bricks

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.