Why the ‘Great Wave’ has mystified art lovers for generations

CNN  — 

A massive wave threatens to engulf three fishing boats, its foam crown extending like claws, menacing the rowers below. It’s an epic scene of human struggle and natural terror that dwarfs the sacred Mount Fuji just behind it.

This is “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” a woodblock print by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai and one of the world’s most iconic pieces of Asian art.

If this climactic moment seems ubiquitous – think T-shirts, coffee mugs, laptop decals – that’s because it was designed to be.

A visitor looks at Katsushika Hokusai's famous print, "The Great Wave off Kanagawa," at the Ara Pacis Museum in Rome.

The artwork is considered a fine, if somewhat hackneyed, example of “ukiyo-e,” a genre of mass-produced Japanese woodblock prints that displayed everything from theater announcements to the most salacious of erotica.

Ukiyo-e prints were cheap to produce and widely distributed in Edo (today’s Tokyo) between the 17th and 19th centuries. As many as 5,000 impressions were made from the original woodblocks for “The Great Wave.” Back then, the prints were sold for the price of a bowl of noodles.

"Under the Wave off Kanagawa, from Thirty six views of Mount Fuji"
The artisans keeping Japan's woodblock print tradition alive
02:07 - Source: CNN

By the time “The Great Wave” made its debut, in around 1830, Japan was flirting with the idea of ending more than 200 years of isolationism. The story of growing foreign influence is evident in Hokusai’s masterpiece – the rich shade of blue used in the prints was imported from Europe. Prussian blue, as it’s commonly known, was a synthetic color created in the 18th century and prized for its depth and durability.

That Hokusai employed the hue as the principal actor in his oceanic drama suggests that he was depicting Japan on the cusp of change. As much as the wave portends instability and danger, it also suggests possibility and adventure.

‘Essence’ of Japan

Hokusai spent most of his life in the riverside district of Sumida, Tokyo, where he adopted at least 30 pseudonyms and, perhaps, just as many different styles. “The Great Wave” was the first in his series “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji,” a virtuosic study of Japan’s highest and most revered mountain.

"Umezawa Manor in Sagami Province," another print from Hokusai's collection "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji."

“Many people view the painting as the very essence of Japanese culture,” says Atsuko Okuda, chief curator of the Sumida Hokusai Museum in Japan. “The simple and powerful composition of the mountain and the shape of the wave strikes right at the heart of the observer.”

Observers famously included French Impressionists Edgar Degas and Claude Monet, as well as Dutch master Vincent van Gogh, who was enamored with “The Great Wave.” They were not alone: In the 1860s, the proliferation of ukiyo-e in Europe led to an artistic fascination with Japan in the West, known as “Japonisme.”

The bold colors and outlines found in Van Gogh's "Courtesan (after Eisen)" shows the influence of Japanese woodblock prints.

Yet, the woodblock prints weren’t considered art in Japanese society during the Edo period, according to Yukiko Takahashi, the sixth-generation owner of the Takahashi Kobo publishing house.

“At some point, ukiyo-e was brought to foreign countries,” says Takahashi, whose family has been making ukiyo-e for more than 150 years. “We Japanese didn’t realize how wonderful they were, because we took them for granted in our daily lives.”

An endangered art

At Takahashi’s workshop, craftsman Noriyasu Soda works on a replica of Hokusai’s “Great Wave.” He first dampens the “washi” paper, before applying paint and a small amount of rice glue to the woodblock to ensure that the colors stick.

Each side of any given block represents a different color that will be layered into the ukiyo-e. This piece alone requires a black outline, various blues for the water, and shades of yellow and pink for the sky.

In the earlier stages of his career, Hokusai worked on a number of illustrated books.

The process is painstaking and demands utmost precision. Takahashi says it takes about a decade to become a true ukiyo-e “shokunin,” or master craftsman, and that there are only 25 left in Tokyo today.

“We have to succeed in passing down this wonderful technique of ukiyo-e woodblock prints,” she says. “The craftsmen involved in this work are trying their best to teach these skills to the next generation.”