Far and away the most famous piece of Japanese art, you can find this iconic image everywhere — from galleries and street murals to coffee mugs and t-shirts the world over. In it, a giant wave reaches up high over a group of narrow skiffs, capturing the moment just before it comes crashing down upon them. The image was created by Hokusai, Japan’s most internationally renowned artist, as part of his 36 Views of Mt Fuji series which ran from 1830 to 1832. This isn’t his only painting of a wave, but it’s far and away his best — with a sense of animation and drama that has captured imaginations for almost two centuries since.
Hokusai was fixated on Mt Fuji and the immortality which it was said to embody. He believed that if he could only be granted to live until 100 or more, he could achieve an increasingly divine understanding of the forms and essences of natural things, the key to true beauty. Although he never did quite achieve such longevity, he did achieve an immortality of sorts through his work — The Great Wave, in particular, promising to remain in the global collective imagination for centuries to come.
But how exactly did this piece of art come to conquer the world? Why should a 19th-century Japanese painting be one of the most recognizable works of art around the globe, all the way from Venezuela to Venice?
Ukiyo-e: the Historic Art of Woodblock Printing
To answer that question, we should first take a look a the style of art itself, and its place in Japanese society. The style is called ukiyo-e and it’s a kind of Edo-period woodblock printing which allowed mass production of a painting through the creation of carved blocks which could be used to create copies until the demand for a piece died out.
The process wasn’t just the work of one person. As this was a highly commercial art style, a publisher (known as a hanmoto) would typically commission a print or series, choosing the subject matter to be portrayed. Then the artist (eshi) would paint the pictures before a woodcarver (horishi) carved the wooden plates according to the original painting — with one plate for each of the individual colors in the work. Finally, a colorist and printer (surishi) would use these wooden plates to create high-quality copies of the original painting for sale to the public.
Despite the great technical skill required for all three of the hands-on roles, it was the eshi who gained the fame and credit, which is why we know the name of Hokusai but not the artisan who carved out his intricate blocks. For The Great Wave, four double-sided blocks were used — one of the eight panels being used for the lines and the others for the colors. These durable woodblocks could be used to mass-produce thousands of copies of an image. In fact, The Great Wave had somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 impressions made.
Nowadays one of these prints can fetch tens of thousands of dollars, but that wasn’t the case back in the Edo period. In fact, ukiyo-e prints were a very accessible form of popular entertainment which even the poorer people in society could afford. They were sold at hugely-popular bookshops in Edo (present-day Tokyo), by then already the metropolitan heart of Japan, with a thriving cultural scene. Travelers coming to the city would often grab an ukiyo-e print as a souvenir before heading home to their village.
There were around a dozen different common sizes. A 39 by 26.5cm print was usually the largest, and would cost the equivalent of a modern-day 400 yen. A 33 by 15cm print, usually pushed when general demand declined, would only set you back 150 yen. That’s right, you could own a piece by the greatest Japanese artist of his generation for the same price as a cup noodle!
Richer collectors would make sure to land one of the first prints, to avoid the inevitable wear-and-tear on the woodblocks which would slightly mar later copies. This coveted first run typically consisted of the first 200 prints — the number which the surishi could complete in the first week of printing. In the case of The Great Wave, these early prints are distinguished by the deep blue used for the line work, as opposed to the black paint featured on later prints.
How Did the Japanese View Woodblock Prints?
Amazingly, these stunning prints weren’t exactly considered the highest form of art in their day. In fact, much of them weren’t even thought of as art at all. There are few reasons for this, the first being how commonplace these prints actually were. With a rich publishing and painting culture, the bookshops of Edo would sell new prints from various artists every week, many with thousands of copies. Since these affordable prints found their way into thousands of homes around the country, they became a common household decoration and pop-culture distraction — not overly wrapped up in the elite art culture of the day.
Another reason for the relatively low status of ukiyo-e in Japan was the practical functions the medium was used for. Hokusai was actually a great innovator in the field, daring to increase the scope of the form to portray natural scenes, religious figures, and the daily life of everyone from peasants to nobles. Before him, the most common subjects of ukiyo-e were kabuki actors and beautiful women. Far from being fine art, these prints were the unwanted street pamphlets and Vogue magazines of their day.
A theatre producer, clothing store, or cosmetics company could fork out a relatively affordable amount of cash to have ukiyo-e prints made advertising their show or goods. Long before Andy Warhol became obsessed with the role of celebrity, mass-production, and advertising in art, ukiyo-e culture was already combining the three in gorgeous fashion.
The factors described above — the abundance of ukiyo-e prints which piled up over the years; the inexpensiveness of each individual piece; and their commonplace status as everyday pop culture and advertising pieces — are what inadvertently precipitated the popularity of the art form in the West.
How Did Ukiyo-e Make it to the Western World?
For centuries, Japan was an isolationist nation, closed off to the outside world. The Tokugawa shogunate barred all foreigners from entering the country from around 1633, and severely restricted trade. He was wise to the rising tide of colonialism which the European powers were spreading around the globe, and extremely suspicious of the Christian religion which they used as soft power when doing so. In fact, Spain and Portugal had already begun to exert such a cultural hold, with a significant number of Catholic missionaries and converts on the island of Kyūshū.
The only exception to this anti-European policy were the Dutch, whose East India Company was permitted to operate alongside Chinese traders in Nagasaki. The fact that they were a Protestant nation allowed them to set themselves apart from Catholic evangelicals like the Spanish and Portuguese, so the shogun was willing to trust that their interests were purely economic, rather than culturally colonial.
The very first ukiyo-e prints found their way to Europe on the cargo ships of this company. However, they weren’t priceless treasures, carefully wrapped in gilded chests to be transported to galleries — they were the wrapping itself! That’s right, some of the most influential Japanese art pieces were used to wrap more commercially viable goods to keep them safe on the journey back to the Netherlands. When Japanese traders needed cheap packing materials, sometimes the closest thing to hand were old prints of kabuki shows long forgotten, or a humorous comic they’d grown bored of over the years — probably even a few original Hokusai works! They were only a few hundred yen each, after all.
So for a while, these gorgeous prints became either trash, or a souvenir collected by Dutch sailors, sometimes — although rarely — sold as a curiosity back home. It wasn’t until 1854, when American Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to open up to the world, that the ukiyo-e craze really took off.
Now the stage was set for a Western fascination with Japanese culture which persists to this day — it’s maybe even the reason you’re reading this right now! With a huge influx of Japanese goods being unloaded from boats in European docks over the following decades, there was a massive increase in the peculiarly beautiful wrapping paper than accompanied them.
European artists and collectors began to take note, fascinated by the bold style which was unlike anything found on the continent. This coincided with a shift in European art in general. A new wave of young nonconformists was preparing to sweep over the continent, composed of artists who are now household names like Monet, Van Gogh, and Cézanne. In their quest to break away from the artistic establishment with radical new ideas, these artists found in ukiyo-e an invaluable touchpoint for imagining what a different kind of art — separate entirely from the formal conventions of European art — could look like.
Here was a type of art which was democratized in its price and subject matter; vibrant in its use of bold lines and just a few bright colors; and thoroughly modern despite its age. The resultant obsession with Japanese art and aesthetics grew so widespread that it acquired a name: Japonisme. This movement lasted until the early 20th century, and left its mark on the work and lives of a number of important artists.
Meanwhile, in Japan, art critics and government officials were dumbfounded. Why, of all the kinds of art found in their rich culture, were these unimportant pop culture pieces coming to represent them as a nation? Imagine aliens coming to earth, then returning to Venus with a copy of Good Housekeeping and a poster for Transformers 17: Night of the Robosharks as examples of fine Earthling art — that’s about the same way the Japanese art establishment felt about the situation.
Why is this particular print so famous?
That explains why the distinctive ukiyo-e style found its way from the machi of Edo to the boulevards of Paris, but why is Hokusai’s Great Wave itself so recognizable?
His Popularity and Skill
The most basic answer is: Hokusai was the best. It was he who, from the start of the 19th century onwards, expanded the scope of woodblock printing beyond its standard commercial subjects. Portraying scenes of natural beauty and the lives of everyday people gained him widespread acclaim, making him one of the most in-demand artists in the country.
With such demand came an increased number of prints. While minor artists could only hope to have a few hundred copies of their work made, the demand for a Hokusai piece meant that — for the last 40 years of his life and career — his print runs went up into the many thousands per piece. In that sense, it’s a basic game of numbers — the likelihood of Hokusai’s best prints reaching Europe was higher simply due to the massive number in circulation.
But to explain it only as a matter of probability is an insult to the genius of the man. He was famous for a reason, after all — an artist with a fantastic sense of beauty and scale, with the technical skill to portray vibrant scenes even through the comparatively static medium of woodblock print art. The Great Wave is undeniably one of the most visually striking ukiyo-e ever made, with a sense of animation beyond any other.
However, there have been thousands of great artists throughout the years that died unknown, so technical ability is only half the story of why Hokusai was so famous. In addition, the man was a savvy businessman; a self-promoter who knew how to drum up marketing hype for his works. During a festival in 1804, he created a gigantic religious painting using a broom and barrels of ink, said to be 600 feet in length! A good publicity stunt held just as much PR power in the Edo period as the present day.
The Greats He Influenced
The greatness of the man as an artist and self-promoter led to his success in Japan, but it was the vast number of high-profile advocates in Europe who made The Great Wave world-famous. These included Van Gogh, who shared a collection of 477 ukiyo-e prints with his brother, many of which were Hokusai works. Monet also found inspiration for his particular brand of impressionism in the emotive landscapes of the Japanese master, firstly encountering ukiyo-e used as packaging at a Dutch shop.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke was inspired by the image to compose The Mountain, about the dedication of the artist in trying to authentically capture immense beauty. Music was also touched by this work, with Claude Debussy composing La Mer after being moved by it— the iconic wave even graced the original cover of the commercial sheet music.
The print was held up as the greatest example of the emotive and dramatic power of ukiyo-e, and of the technical sophistication possible in the medium. Later, in the 20th century, another dimension of the iconic print won it fresh relevance: the graphic pop culture which birthed it. As modernists began to concern themselves with questions of mass production, marketing, and the prominence of the image in commercial art, this historic art style provided a ready-made framework for those discourses.
Even the most famous modern artist of the 20th century, silk-printing king of pop-art Andy Warhol, created his own iteration of the image in a sketch titled Waves (After Hokusai). Roy Lichtenstein’s 1963 painting Drowning Girl also borrows the wave motif directly from Hokusai. It’s little wonder why some say that without Hokusai, there is no modern art — and at any rate, it’s undeniable that the 19th century Eastern interjection into Western art set off a chain of events that influenced the development of everything with came after.
The Universal Theme
Matters of fame and finance go a long way to explaining why the work of Hokusai is known the world over, but some more romantically-minded critics believe there’s something more fundamental in the image that resonates with viewers across the miles and ages. The image certainly says something about the significance of natural disasters in the Japanese cultural consciousness due to the prevalence of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis over the years, but in many ways, the idea of nature’s power is relevant across all of human civilization — certainly so in the modern age of climate change, with artists such as Bonnie Monteleone and Chris Jordan reimagining the piece using plastic waste collected from the oceans.
One particular natural disaster probably played a part in first bringing the image into the consciousness of the Western public at large: the 1896 tsunami which devastated Japan. The literate, newspaper-reading people of Europe and America, buoyed by their existing fascination with Japan, were closely interested in the event. Now-common photography gave them a window into the aftermath, while The Great Wave likely gave them a way to visualize the event itself — something simply not seen in the comparatively mild climate of Europe and North America.
Even in modern times the print has been appropriated as a symbol for disasters around the world, from the Pan Am Flight 800 disaster of 1996 to the devastation wreaked on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But why should such a painting be used to conceptualize real-world disaster? Is the imagery not a little terrifying in that light, given the apparent mortal threat posed to the boatmen?
The reason may well be that the image isn’t just about the disastrous event in the foreground itself. Mt Fuji appears in this series of 36 prints as an unchanging constant — a lynchpin around with all of the ephemera of Japanese life revolves. In Japanese culture, it was a much-worshipped symbol of eternity and long life. To some critics, the stillness of the mountain in the background represents the idea that life and its chaotic moments are transient, but the world itself which we pass through is eternal — hinting at the Zen idea of the perfect completeness of existence hidden behind the distractions of everyday experience. Under that analysis, the print isn’t then just an image of disaster and destruction, but one of peace and solace even in the face of the tragedies which inevitably punctuate life.