How Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave’ Went Viral

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

Hokusai’s “The Great Wave” — formally titled “Under the Wave off Kanagawa” from the woodblock series “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” — is about the size of a piece of legal paper and wasn’t originally held in especially high regard in its home country:

The image is a mix of east and west — a blending of techniques that Hokusai picked up from Japanese artists and his own knowledge of European prints. The woodblock depicts Mount Fuji, a hallowed place in Japan, but pushes the peak deep into the distance using western perspective. The wave was printed on Japanese mulberry paper but marked by a color new to Japan — a vibrant Prussian blue created from synthetic dye in Germany.

Hokusai's The Great Wave

“The prints were a popular art, they were not something intellectual connoisseurs really admired at the fine-art level,” said Ms. Thompson. “They were discovered by the Europeans before the Japanese.”

Ms. Guth hypothesizes in her book that a devastating tsunami in Japan in 1896 helped give the woodcut its international renown. Hokusai’s print was becoming more familiar just as the word tsunami was working its way into the English language, she wrote, and the word and image soon became linked.

The print, which does not depict a tsunami, shows fishermen rowing frantically across a stormy Tokyo Bay after delivering their cargo to the city. Fingers of sea foam curl over their heads. It’s unclear if they’re going to make it home alive, though some scholars believe the presence of the sacred Mount Fuji works in their favor.

Roughly 100 impressions of “The Great Wave” exist today from an original print run estimated by some experts at more than 5,000.

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