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Katsushika Hokusai - The Great Wave off Kanagawa

by Frauke Maria Petry

If you search the instant messaging service "WhatsApp" under the category "Animals and Nature" for a form of expression for violent swells, you will come across an image motif from classical art history: Hokusai's big wave. The emoji corresponds in shape and form to probably the most famous woodblock print in the world.

In Katsushika Hokusai's (1760-1849) "The Great Wave off Kanagawa," a huge ocean wave rises in various shades of color from delicate bluish to deep, almost black blue. The sweeping white crests of foam line the round forms and give the swell its threatening contours. Three boats, which seem to be at the mercy of the force of nature, blend into the dynamic surfaces. The perspective corresponds to another rowboat, which must be in the waves. In this way, the viewer is virtually integrated into the picture. While the surface of the sea is worked out in detail, abstract heads and bodies can be made out in the boats. The color scheme of the means of transport and the people, however, corresponds to their surroundings, so that they can only be recognized in the overall composition at second glance. The same is true of the mountain in the background: a snow-covered peak forms the only point of rest as a static fixed point. The hill of the mainland is framed by the waves, but remains inconspicuous. The entire image is dominated by the dynamics of the titular water force.

As the title suggests, the three boats are located off the coast of Kanagawa and come from Edo. They are traditional fishing boats, which are 12 to 15 meters long. Although the work is named after the mighty wave, at its center is the volcano Fuji. It is revered as a sacred place in Japan and rarely shows its full form due to dense fog. According to Far Eastern philosophy, the mountain as an element of the earth embodies "holding still", which contrasts in the composition of the picture with the movements of the water. Symbolically, the resting body and the effervescent soul face each other in the work. Considering the fishermen, the message seems to contain a wisdom of life: Only through calm and communal cohesion can an effervescent danger be overcome. In doing so, the narrative aestheticizes the force of nature and foregrounds a sense of hope.

Even though the individual work has a particular interpretation, the woodblock print belongs to the series of paintings "36 Views of Fuji-san". The Japanese artist has studied the mountain in different versions over decades. Each sheet shows the highest point of Japan from different perspectives and in different kinds of environments. "The Great Surge" is the most famous composition in the series and verifies the artistic hand from which the print originated. Japanese scientists were able to prove that the image reproduces the movement and shape of a real wave to the hundredth of a second. It is the result of the woodcut master's 30 years of study, during which he trained his eye to the perfection of a camera lens. 

However, the work does not correspond purely to the Japanese style of painting, but the execution shows Dutch influences. The palette includes the colors indigo and Prussian blue, which was imported to Japan in the 19th century. Thus, the color print is evidence of the mutual influence of different cultures during this period. A variety of Japanese prints were distributed throughout Europe with the opening of international trade routes in 1859, influencing the work of artists such as Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Woodblock prints served as a source of inspiration for Art Nouveau, and Hokusai's wave was a popular motif that can be found in other art forms as well. The poem "The Mountain" (1906/07) by Rainer Maria Rilke and Claude Debussy's composition "La Mer" (1905) can be directly traced to the woodblock print.

Katsushika Hokusai, whose name translates as "the one obsessed with painting," produced the image at the age of 70. Among other things, the artist is considered the father of manga, as he used the term for a series of drawings that served as models for his students. Like Japanese comics, woodblock prints are not considered art in Japan, but rather promotional printing. Woodblock printing is a printing technique in which an individual wooden plate is made for each color application. For a so-called Ukiyo-E like "The big wave in front of Kanagawa", up to ten printing templates are necessary. Despite the complex production process, the works could thus be reproduced and distributed at small prices. Sold as souvenirs, the craft flourished again due to tourism. The number of existing original prints of Hokusai's wave is not recorded. Estimates range from 5000 to 8000.

Relatively early and thus high quality prints can be found in some of the world's most famous museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the British Museum in London, and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. In Germany, an original can be admired at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg. "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" is celebrated internationally as a representative work of Japanese culture and has long been recognized as a work of art. The emoji, however, is less a stylization of the world-famous work than a further development of the original communication purpose of woodblock prints. The digital picture sign works precisely because the original is known worldwide.

Katsushika Hokusai - The Great Wave off Kanagawa

Japanese woodblock print, 1829-1833, 25 × 37 cm


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