Why Is This Famous?

“The Great Wave” Was Meant to Go Viral

How Katsushika Hokusai mixed east and west—for the sake of tourists

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In our series Why Is This Famous?, we aim to answer the unanswerable: How does a work actually enter the public consciousness? (See all installments.)

The Great Wave Off KanagawaKatsushika Hokusai
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If Apple creates an emoji based on an artwork, we know that it is not only famous, but it is—quite literally—iconic. (It should be mentioned that we’ve covered another work that has been emoji-fied.) But unlike the other paintings we’ve covered in this series, The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai (1829–1832) was meant to be an icon—to be continually reproduced—specifically within Western conceptions of Japanese art and culture.

The immortal mountain

The famous print is actually titled Under a Wave off Kanagawa, but “The Great Wave” and “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” are both now accepted titles. The work was the first of a series of prints by Hokusai called Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji that he created between 1829 and 1832. The prints are in the ukiyo-e style, a genre that achieved great popularity in Japan between the 17th and 19th centuries, mostly by catering to a growing middle class that had extra income to spend on cheap luxury goods. (In 1830, a copy of The Great Wave would cost the same as a bowl of noodles.) Hokusai created these prints of Mount Fuji as a sort of postcard, selling them as souvenirs to throngs of domestic tourists who were beginning to visit the mountain regularly.

Fine Weather with South windKatsushika Hokusai
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“Ukiyo-e” translates to “pictures of the floating world”; the genre was meant to reflect the ever-changing fads of their time and place. Part of Hokusai’s artistry is that he plays with this definition, simultaneously indicating both the permanence of Japanese tradition (through his subject of Mount Fuji) and the fluctuations of culture (through a Westernized artistic style and his main subject in this particular work: a wave that seems to have the power to destroy anything in its wake). Mount Fuji has long been a sacred site in Japan, especially within Shintoism, one of Japan’s oldest and most traditional faiths.

Many linguists believe that the name “Fuji” comes from ancient words for “immortal,” or “not dead,” establishing the mountain as a symbol of Japan’s endurance even in the face of great change and influence. The Great Wave’s viewer can see how threatening the wave is, but knows that mountains do not succumb to the force of the powerful ocean. The image may or may not indicate a threat to the traditional Japanese fishermen soon to be caught in the incoming wave. (As the writer Andrea Ramos notes, “The small fishermen cling to thin fishing boats, slide on a sea-mount looking to dodge the wave. The violent Yang of nature is overcome by the yin of the confidence of these experienced fishermen. Strangely, despite a storm, the sun shines high.”)

A very telling pigment

When Hokusai first created The Great Wave, Japan’s Tokugawa shogunate was over 200 years into a isolationist attitude towards foreign parties. The feudal government could not, however, fully control exchange with the West, something apparent in Hokusai’s iconic work. Hokusai was most likely exposed to Western art through Dutch merchants selling small artworks from throughout Europe in Japan’s large cities. In The Great Wave, Hokusai uses linear perspective and a low horizon line, both compositional tendencies of European art since the Renaissance.

Falls of Kirifuri at Mt. Kurokami, Shimotsuke ProvinceKatsushika Hokusai
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What really gives away the Western influence, however, is that Hokusai forgoes Japan’s tradition of creating prints and images with washes of black ink instead of pigment; he features what is undeniably Prussian Blue as the most prominent hue in The Great Wave. As its name suggests, Prussian Blue is a synthetic pigment from Prussia (a state that spanned parts of modern day Germany, Hungary, Poland, Switzerland, Russia, Lithuania, Denmark, Belgium, and Czech Republic) that was invented in the 19th century and popular in Europe.

Hokusai also eschews the traditional Japanese visual composition that moves the viewer’s eye from the right to the left. His image instead reads from left to right, like Western texts and narratives, and then from right to left—the viewer’s eyes therefore move in both Western and Japanese directions, merging just right of center. The eye lands just where there is potential for any number of unknown events resulting from the wave, but also where Mount Fuji stands, sturdy, unmoving.

A mutual exchange

Suruga StreetUtagawa Hiroshige
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The most fascinating dynamic of The Great Wave is that while it uses traditional Japanese iconography to hint at the incoming threat of Western influence to Japanese tradition, it also symbolizes the profound effect of Japanese culture on European visual culture in the 19th century. In 1867, 18 years after Hokusai’s death, The Great Wave was shown in Paris’ International Exhibition. The flat composition and stiff, stylized rendering of fluid water caught many eyes that were (or would soon be) prominent in the art world—helping to commence Japonism in Europe. Impressionist and Modern artists—Vincent van Gogh, James Whistler, Camille Pissarro, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas, and Mary Cassatt to name just a few—all collected ukiyo-e prints in the late–19th century, and experimented with ukiyo-e characteristics (like a flattening of space, and a limited color palette). All of this is to say that The Great Wave is not only an icon of Japan’s fading cultural isolationism, but also a harbinger of the two-way exchange in artist influence between Japan and the West.

The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter MorningCamille Pissarro
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An enduring threat

In Western culture, it seems that The Great Wave functions as a more generic symbol of Japan, but not without good reason: it is in a style that Europe purposefully adopted, and it depicts things we associate with the country, like Mount Fuji, the ocean, and fishing. The image seems to become most mobilized when Japan’s ocean appears in international news as a destructive threat. It is widely theorized that the devastating 1896 tsunami in Japan helped engrain the work in Western culture, and that it became more widespread after the 2011 tsunami as well. More broadly, however, the image is relatable in ways that transcend time and region, likely because it connects with the anxiety of humanity being overpowered by uncontrollable change, and the ephemerality of life as we know it, constantly threatened by even minor changes to a delicate balance of power.

(Want to see a new take on the iconic work? We’ve just added the artist Yiannis Kranidiotis, whose ichograph brings The Great Wave into the digital age.)

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