The Great Wave by Hokusai. What is the secret of its popularity

The Great Wave by Katsushika Hokusai is the most famous work of an oriental master around the world. This image is so popular that it has covered millions of mugs, jewelry, and T-shirts. In terms of the number of copies, it can easily compete with Botticelli’s “Venus” and the angels of Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna”.

How did it happen that an ordinary print, which in the 19th century was sold for a penny, is now worth millions of dollars? And why did the image, created for the Japanese pilgrims, sink into the hearts of Europeans?

Drama or eye entertainment?

In the foreground we see a huge wave. She is about to collapse on three boats of the unfortunate fishermen.

On the right-hand side the sea rises too, turning into another giant wave. Another smaller wave is closer to the bottom edge.

The foam of the waves is very remarkable. It’s contours are like claws! This makes the waves look even more ominous. We have no doubt that the fishermen are in mortal danger.

But at this moment our gaze stops on a mountain in the distance. It is absolutely static and calm. Above it we see flakes of foam from the wave. It is very similar to the snow that is about to fall on the top of the mountain.

Hokusai. Great Wave
Katsushika Hokusai. Under the Great Wave off Kanagawa. 1830-1832. 25×32 cm. Metropolitan Museum in New York. Wikimedia Commons.

The wave hangs over the boats, but it seems that it will swallow the mountain too. But we know that this is only an optical illusion. The mountain is far away. And the “snow” flakes will not reach it either.

And now we are not so afraid of the “clawed” wave. And the terrible seascape turned into a game for the eyes.

It is possible that it was this combination of the illusion of movement, drama and optical play that made it so popular.

But it was not the only secret how this image by Hokusai managed to conquer the whole world.

How the meeting of two worlds created The Great Wave

Japan has been a closed country for centuries. Neither the French, nor the British, nor the Spaniards could stop off the coast of the land of the setting sun since the beginning of the 17th century. Only the Dutch had this right.

And here’s what happened.

Before the Dutch, the Japanese created such works. Do you see how unusual the composition is for us?

Mitsunobu. Scenes from the life of Emperor Ming Huang
Kano Mitsunobu. Scenes from the life of Emperor Ming Huang and his beloved concubine, Yang Guifei. End of the 16th century. National Museum of Asian Art in Washington.

The Japanese did not have a concept of linear perspective and form reduction. Therefore, the figures in the background in this painting are the same size as in the foreground. And you won’t find a single vanishing point: the image is composed of several separate scenes.

But after a while the Dutch began to import their copper engravings into Japan. And the Japanese masters saw a completely different type of composition.

Some of these features have been absorbed into Japanese art. Hokusai used the features of Western painting as well.

In The Great Wave we see a composition familiar to us. The wave and boats are in the foreground, the mountain is in the background. The latter is of a reduced size, as befits something in the distance.

But there is one peculiarity. Hokusai didn’t do the middle ground! Therefore, the illusion of depth is stunning. We fall into the image, without sharp transitions. But this is still a more familiar composition for Westerners.

That is why Europeans embraced such prints with enthusiasm when Japan was forced to open its borders in the mid-19th century. They saw something exotic, but quite familiar (in terms of image’s structure).

Due to the bursting fashion for everything Japanese, Hokusai’s prints became very popular. But The Great Wave was one of the most popular work.

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Why The Great Wave became the most famous

The Great Wave is actually part of a series of 36 prints of Mount Fuji.

Yes, Hokusai has created dozens of images of this sacred mountain for the Japanese. These prints were then sold in large numbers to local pilgrims. They came to the foot of the mountain. Some even climbed to the top. And such a scene is shown in one of the works in the series.

Hokusai. Mountain climbing
Katsushika Hokusai. Mountain climbing. 1830-1832. Metropolitan Museum in New York. Wikimedia Commons.

However, The Great Wave is somewhat different from the rest of the images in this series.

It is  dramatic! Still, sailors are dying at sea. And such a struggle between human and nature has always attracted Westerners. In addition, in the first half of the 19th century paintings in the style of romanticism were popular. At that time many masterpieces on the same topic were born.

Gericault and Aivazovsky
Left: Theodore Gericault. Raft of Medusa. 1819. Louvre, Paris. Right: Ivan Aivazovsky. Ninth Wave. 1850. Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Wikimedia Commons.

This thematic affinity set The Great Wave apart from other works by Hokusai. The rest of the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, while noteworthy, are less hard-hitting.

Hokusai. Prints from the series "Thirty-six types Mount Fuji "
Katsushika Hokusai. Prints from the series “Thirty-six types Mount Fuji “. 1830-1832. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Wikimedia Commons.

How penny image became a high art

Hokusai also stood out against the background of other Japanese masters. His “Wave” refers to ukiyo-e images. This is a woodblock print on paper depicting everyday scenes. Something like our illustrations in magazines. They were primarily of an entertainment nature.

Moronobu. Joroya's Kitchen
Hisikawa Moronobu. Joroya’s Kitchen. 1680. Metropolitan Museum, New York.

But Hokusai decided to go beyond the genre. And he did not limit himself only to everyday subjects. He began to talk about the role of nature, its power, using pictorial means. Therefore, his pictures began to acquire the multilayer character of high art.

We can draw such a conclusion, if only by what polar interpretations art critics give to this work!

Some believe that The Great Wave is a symbol of the Barrier for Japan. It protects the uniqueness of the country from foreign influence.

Others think that, on the contrary, it is a symbol of the powerful potential in Japan’s openness and its trade with other states.

This, among other things, led to the fact that works began to be bought by museums and their price only grew over time.

The Great Wave can be found in both the Metropolitan Museum, the British Museum, the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

Hokusai. Great Wave. Pushkin Museum
Katsushika Hokusai. Under the Great Wave off Kanagawa. 1830-1832. Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

All of these are copies printed back in the 19th century. And the price of each of them reaches several million dollars! Despite the fact that the image is not unique.

By the way, in the Pushkin Museum you can also find Hokusai’s earlier work with waves and boats.

Hokusai. Boats in the waves
Katsushika Hokusai. Boats in the Waves. 1800. Color woodblock on paper. Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

So the artist had been hatching the idea of ​​this image for a very long time. Perhaps this also contributed to the birth of such an expressive image.

But most importantly, The Great Wave has become a symbol of the unification of Western and Eastern cultures. After all, it was created in a combined pictorial language.

It also proves that even the most ordinary print, once sold as a souvenir for two pennies, can become a part of the world art.


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