June 18, 2021

Under the Wave (WEP)

        Possibly the most famous Japanese wood block print in the world is Under the Wave off Kanagawa (aka The Great Wave) by Katsushika Hokusai (Japan, 1760-1849).  You see it reproduced on t-shirts and mugs, spoofed in cartoons and internet memes, and referenced in subsequent works of art.  Let’s start with a few basic facts about this iconic work.
   1.  It was first published around 1831.
   2.  It was the first of Hokusai’s series “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji,” and Mount Fuji appears tiny in the distance, like the peak of another little wave.
   2.  It was not a limited edition, but was printed over and over for years, until the blocks wore out, and even after with replacement blocks.  No one knows how many “originals” were printed, but perhaps more than 5000 impressions.  However, because the prints were not expensive or considered particularly valuable, the majority of them have probably not survived to the present.
   3.  Different impressions could vary from each other in a number of ways, some subtle, others more obvious.  Therefore there is no single “Great Wave,” but a whole variety of “Great Waves.”  You can see a selection below.  Pay particular attention to the shading of the skies and the colors of the boats.  (Apparently the pink sky was the original color, but it has faded in the majority of surviving prints.)
        The Japanese wood block technique uses multiple blocks with multiple colors, and one black-inked “key block,” which generally includes the outlines and finest details.  (Some early impressions of the Great Wave use dark blue for the key block instead of black.)  The very skinny little raised ridges from which these details were printed are the most fragile, and over time they might break off or become damaged by the wear and tear of inking and pressing.  This means that even though the printing wasn’t dated, different impressions can be put into chronological order by looking at the patterns of wear.  In these close-ups you can see how the outlines of the cartouche appear damaged in the second example, showing that it must be a later impression than the perfect one on the left.
        We tend to think of this piece as traditional and quintessentially Japanese, and in some ways it is.  But at the same time, Hokusai was incorporating some edgy modern elements in his work.  For one thing, that tiny distant Mount Fuji was influenced by Hokusai’s fascination with European-style linear perspective and the low horizons of Dutch landscapes.  For another, the beautiful blue was produced with Prussian blue, a brand new synthetic pigment freshly available in Japan from Berlin.  It was more colorfast than the traditional blues that had been used previously, and struck the Japanese print-buying public as very exciting and exotic.  (The Japanese were just as enthusiastic about the exotic art of the west as Europeans were about the exotic art of the east.)  The printers of Hokusai’s design did not simply replace the old indigo blue with the new Prussian blue, however.  They used a subtle range of both blues to achieve both depth and intensity.
        I personally tend to look at the scene as a beautiful seascape, and ignore the three fishing boats full of people who appear about to be swamped.  Because it’s frozen it can seem almost serene, but it’s really a terrifyingly violent moment.  It is probably not a tsunami, but simply an extra-large wave.  Hokusai was coming from a tradition of paintings and prints of ocean waves, including a number of other works of his own on similar subjects.  In this one, however, he has amped his wave to the max.  You can see some more of Hokusai’s work here, including another version of the wave that takes away the ill-omened boats and adds just a touch of magic instead.
        I am posting this piece now in order to coincide with Write Edit Publish’s June challenge.  Their challenges are intended to prompt fiction and creative non-fiction, which this obviously isn’t, so I’m not looking for the feedback comments of a fiction piece.  I simply thought that writers working on their own inspirations from Hokusai’s iconic work might enjoy learning a little more about the block print behind the prompt.  
(On the other hand, if you do want to see a work of my own art that owes something to the influence of Hokusai, check it out here.)

[Pictures: Kanagawa-oki nami-ura (Under the Wave off Kanagawa) color woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai, 1831 (Image from The British Museum);
Detail of comparison of key block impressions on two prints (Image from The British Museum);
Four versions of Under the Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai (Images from Art Institute of Chicago, The Met, and Museum of Fine Arts Boston).]


Pennie Nichols said...

Thanks for this!! I love getting the scoop and more links for more scoops. Engagingly written scoop as well!

Olga Godim said...

This was a fascinating essay about the piece. Thank you.
I also loved your own piece inspired by Hokusai's wave.

Denise Covey said...

Thanks for this post! I'm so glad someone delved into the history. I found it fascinating as it's not a painting I know a lot about. I've learned so much here today.
Welcome to WEP! Wonderful to have you! I'm glad you found inspiration in the prompt this month!

Lenny Lee said...

Hi Miss Anne,

Thanks for the background information about The Great Wave.

Your print, Behold It Is Good, is beautiful.

Yolanda Renée said...

Thanks for the great information. And I loved your print, found it even more inspiring. You've been truly blessed by the muses.

Nilanjana Bose said...

Thank you for this great, informative essay. Isn't it wonderful how artists from the east and the west all down the ages have been excited, influenced and inspired by each other's art? Loved your print too - just beautiful.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hi Anne,

Thank you for the wonderful historical account on this amazing image. I always love to read about the process of art and how it evolves through time. In your essay, you show us the subtle and dramatic differences with each run of the printing. Nicely done!

L.G. Keltner said...

Thank you for going into the history of this wonderful work of art. It's fascinating to hear the details of how it was created, and I love that different impressions of this work vary due to wear and tear of the wood blocks. Each impression is truly unique. Thank you for joining us for WEP this mmonth!

Steph W. said...

I enjoyed the history. My first degree is in Art History and I miss it every day! I love the comparisons you provided.

N. R. Williams said...

It's interesting to learn about artist and what inspired them.

Rebecca M. Douglass said...

Cool! Thank you for the art-history lesson—not an area I know much about, so this was informative.

Jemi Fraser said...

That was fascinating! I didn't know any of that - thanks so much!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Thanks for stopping by, everyone! =)

Kalpana said...

Welcome to the WEP. I thoroughly enjoyed your contribution and found it fascinating to learn more about this iconic painting. Thank you for the in-depth blog post.

Ornery Owl of Naughty Netherworld Press and Readers Roost said...

Thank you for sharing this bit of history. I enjoyed learning more about the iconic artwork.

Terribly sorry to be tardy to the party. I had a bit of a mental crisis but am back to abnormal now.

Your post is included in this week's Roost Recommendations. I share the Roost Recommendations posts on Twitter with readers looking for their next read.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Anne - congratulations on your Brilliant Debut award ... I was fortunate to go and see the British Museum's exhibition on Hokusai's work ... packed full of people! I'm not sure if I brought back some details on the exhibition ... if I'd known the Great wave was going to be a subject I would write about ... I'd have done so.

I'm going to be interested to see how much culture I'm able to pick up from the Tokyo Olympics ... I know so little about Japan. Our film society is keen on Japanese films ... so I'm learning a little.

Thank you for the detailed information on The Great Wave - it's a wonderful story ... all the best to you - Hilary

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Thanks, Ornery Owl! Glad to hear you're over the crisis.

Sanhita Mukherjee said...

Nice summary of facts.