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Kinsner's Home About... Hokusai's Great Wave


[Hokusai's Great Wave]

About the Great Wave

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) created this extraordinary picture around 1831. It is known as The Great Wave Off Kanagawa (Fugaku sanjurokkei: Kanagawaoki namiura). It is a fairly small (10 x 15 in or 25.4 x 37.1 cm) colour woodcut. The original is at the Hakone Museum in Japan.

Among his best-known works are the 13-volume sketchbook Manga (which means "Random Sketches" and begun 1814), as well as the series of block prints known as the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (circa 1826-33). This picture is from that sketchbook.

Japanese artists, as their Chinese counterparts, sign their work with seals (stamps) which make use of Chinese calligraphic characters. Artists were fond of adopting many different names related to a current style. Hokusai used over twenty different names during his career. The inscription above the seal reads: "Sakino Hokusai Iitsu ga"

This picture was adopted for the cover picture of the first edition of "The Sea"("La mer,Trois esquisesymphoniques") by Claude Debussy (1862-1918), published in 1905.

A Description of the Great Wave?

In The Great Wave, there are three boats among the turbulent, broken waves. The boats mold into the shapes of the engulfing waves. Tiny humans are tossed around under giant waves, while the sacred, enormous, snow-capped Mt. Fuji is just a hill in the distance. These swift boats, called Oshiokuribune in Japanese, transported fresh fish, dried sardines and the like, early in the morning, to fish markets off the Edo (now Tokyo) Bay, from fishing villages on the Bohso Peninsula.

"This is a seascape with Mt. Fuji. The waves form a frame through which we see Mt. Fuji. Hokusai loved to depict water in motion: the foam of the wave is breaking into claws which grasp for the fishermen. The large wave forms a massive yin to the yang of empty space under it. The impending crash of water brings tension into the painting. In the foreground, a small peaked wave forms a miniature Mt. Fuji, which is reflected hundreds of miles away in the enormous Mt. Fuji, which shrinks through perspective; the wavelet is larger than the mountain. Instead of shoguns and nobility, we see tiny fishermen huddled into their sleek crafts; they slide down a seamount and dive straight into the wave to make it to the other side. The yin violence of Nature is dismissed by the yang relaxed confidence of expert fishermen. Oddly, though it's a sea storm, the sun is shining." (<http://www.andreas.com/hokusai/>)

As one would expect, the concept was so important that Hokusai would not stop at a single picture of the waves. There is another woodblock entitled "Fuji Seen From the Sea," created in 1834 in the series "A Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji". There are no humans in the picture; instead, the wave breaks into a foam which, in turn, breaks up into a flock of birds. As in Esher's pictures the wave is dispersing itself into the wind as flying-away birds. Although, without the boats and the proportions of the other Great Wave, this work is not as dramatic, the power and the tension of the sea is drawn out through lines which grow up the side of the wave.

About the Artist

Hokusai, born in Edo, was a Japanese painter and wood engraver who left over 30,000 works. He is considered one of the outstanding figures of the Ukiyo-e, or "pictures of the floating world" (portraying the ordinary life and leisure time), school of printmaking. He introduced direct observation of nature and human subjects, rather than portraying birds and flowers, scenes of historic epics and legends. Instead of shoguns, samurai, and their famous geishas, Hokusai placed the common man into his woodblocks, moving the emphasis away from the aristocrats and down to the rest of humanity. His most typical wood-block prints, silkscreens, and landscape paintings were done between 1830 and 1840. The free curved lines characteristic of his style gradually developed into a series of spirals that imparted the utmost freedom and grace to his work, as in Raiden, the Spirit of Thunder.

Hokusai's works were collected in Paris in the mid-19th century, especially by such impressionist artists as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.

Why Do I Like the Great Wave?

This brilliant picture shows the power of nature (the waves appear larger than Mount Fuji), and the relative smallness of man (the heads of the crew are are as small as the speckles of the foam). Although the power is unpredictable, manifesting itself by the sea splashing into a chaotic light foam that can be dispersed by the wind, and by forming self-similar structures that appear to be larger than the giant Mt. Fuji, man still has the courage and stamina to go into the waves to fight them, to be there. Man's winning is not necessary clear from the picture.


<http://www.city.kitakyushu.jp/~k5200020/e/artist/hokusai_k1.html> (description); and

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