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The Iconic Power of The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai

Home 5 Ukiyo-e 5 The Iconic Power of The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai
The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai is a visual narrative capturing the essence of nature's power and human resilience.
Last updated Jan 4, 2024
by Sal

Introduction

The Great Wave off Kanagawa, an iconic woodblock print created by Katsushika Hokusai in the early 19th century, has captured the imagination of people worldwide. Beyond its stunning aesthetics, this masterpiece has had a profound impact on contemporary art, clothing, and various artifacts. In this article, we will delve into the details of this iconic artwork, exploring what it depicts and the meanings it conveys. We will also unravel why “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” holds such an outsized influence in the world of art and beyond.

The Details of the Masterpiece

The Enigmatic Wave

The central element of “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” is, unsurprisingly, the great wave itself. It dwarfs Mount Fuji in the background, emphasizing the colossal power of nature. The wave is rendered in stunning detail, with frothy, claw-like crests that appear almost alive. Hokusai used the traditional ukiyo-e woodblock technique to achieve this mesmerizing effect, with intricate lines and shading.

The Vulnerable Boat

In the foreground, a small boat with three fishermen desperately struggles against the overpowering wave. The boat’s fragility and the fishermen’s precarious position symbolize humanity’s vulnerability in the face of nature’s fury. This juxtaposition of the grand and the humble is one of the key themes in Hokusai’s work.

Mount Fuji’s Quiet Majesty

Mount Fuji stands tall in the background, its calm presence contrasting with the chaotic wave. It is said that Hokusai depicted the mountain differently from his previous works, taking a more realistic approach. Mount Fuji, often considered a symbol of eternal beauty and tranquility in Japanese culture, becomes a silent observer of the drama unfolding in the foreground.

Printing the Brilliant “Blue” of Hokusai’s Waves

The blue color in the Great Wave
The blue color in the Great Wave

“Blue” was essential to the depiction of waves that Hokusai tirelessly pursued. The synthetic pigment Prussian blue (called “bero-ai,” which means “Berlin blue”) imported from Europe in the late Edo Period was used to print Hokusai’s work. For “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” Prussian blue was used in two different concentrations to skillfully print one color over the other to create the vividly colored and three-dimensional great wave.

From Adachi Woodcut Prints Japan

Interpreting the Meaning

The Power of Nature

“The Great Wave off Kanagawa” encapsulates the Japanese reverence for nature’s awe-inspiring power. It embodies the concept of “ukiyo,” which translates to “the floating world” and represents the transient and ever-changing nature of existence. The great wave symbolizes the unpredictability and uncontrollable force of life.

The Triumph of Human Resilience

Despite the overwhelming threat of the wave, the fishermen in the boat display resilience and determination. Their efforts to conquer nature’s fury speak to the indomitable human spirit. In this sense, the artwork can also be seen as an allegory for facing life’s challenges with bravery.

The Contemporary Impact

Influence on Art

“The Great Wave off Kanagawa” continues to influence contemporary artists across the globe. Its arresting visual composition, the use of contrasting elements, and the interplay between movement and stillness have inspired countless painters, illustrators, and graphic designers. The wave’s stylized form and Mount Fuji’s presence have become powerful motifs in modern art.

Fashion and Beyond

The iconic wave has made a significant impact in the fashion world. It has appeared on clothing, accessories, and even tattoo art. The print’s enduring appeal lies in its ability to evoke powerful emotions and resonate with people on a deeply aesthetic and symbolic level.

The Swatch Hokusai and Astrolabe Watch: Time Meets Art

Hokusai’s work brings an outsized influence to fashion and pop-culture. This collaboration between Swatch and The Lourve Abu Dhabi celebrates The Great Wave in a new functional fashion statement.

Swatch Hokusai and Astrolabe watch - © The Art of Zen
Swatch Hokusai and Astrolabe watch – © The Art of Zen
The Art of Zen Blog

Pop Culture and Beyond

“The Great Wave off Kanagawa” has also permeated popular culture. It features in movies, video games, and advertising campaigns, becoming a symbol of universal significance. Its adaptability and versatility allow it to transcend cultural boundaries and speak to a broad audience.

Lego Meets Hokusai with The Great Wave Lego Set: A Fusion of Art and Play

Lego’s The Great Wave Art set marries creative play with Japanese artistry, offering enthusiasts an immersive experience inspired by Hokusai’s iconic woodblock print.

The Great Wave Lego Set
The Great Wave Lego Set
The Art of Zen Blog

Kanagawa oki nami ura (Under the well of the Great Wave off Kanagawa)
Kanagawa oki nami ura (Under the well of the Great Wave off Kanagawa)

Did you know that a rare well-preserved early edition listed under its full name of “Kanagawa oki nami ura (Under the well of the Great Wave off Kanagawa),” sold at a Christie’s auction in March 2023 for a record $2.76 million?

Christies, Lot 6417520

Where can I see the Great Wave off Kanagawa in Real Life?

Fortunately for us, original impressions of The Great Wave off Kanagawa can be seen in real life at a number of famous museums. You can find this ukiyo-e art at the following museums amongst others:

The British Museum, museum number 1937,0710,0.147.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, accession number 21.6765.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The MET), New York, accession number JP10.:

Conclusion

“The Great Wave off Kanagawa” (sometimes also referred to as Under the Wave of Kanagawa) by Hokusai is much more than a remarkable woodblock print. It is a visual narrative that captures the essence of nature’s power, human resilience, and the enduring appeal of art. Its profound influence on contemporary art, fashion, and popular culture testifies to its timeless relevance. This iconic masterpiece continues to inspire and awe, reminding us of the beauty and complexity of the world around us.

Read more:

Fujimar - a contemporary Japanese art print inspired by the ukiyo-e style by The Art of Zen
Fujimar – a contemporary art print inspired by the ukiyo-e style by The Art of Zen

At the Art of Zen we have a wide selection of original Japanese art prints in the ukiyo-e and Japandi style. Some of our best selling work is Mount Fuji wall art and Japandi wall art.

Add some zen to your space with some art from the Art of Zen shop.

Featured image at top by Chris Feser of a Chinese guardian lion at Mount Emei in China.

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