Ukiyo-e Master Hokusai’s Great Wave of Woodblock Art


Hokusai (1760-1849) is world-famous for his designs of Mount Fuji, the most famous mountain of Japan. Hokusai (meaning ‘pole-star’ ) represents Mount Fuji in an impressive triangular shape in his prints of the holy mountain in the summer with massive floating clouds with lightning to the side of the mountian. One glance on such a simple and effective composition makes an unforgettable impression on the viewer.

Mini Biography

Little is known about Hokusai’s early life. From what he has told himself he developed an urge to draw all kinds of subjects related to nature from the age of 6. Also from an early age he came into touch with the art of woodcutting. This experience was as a ‘hidden force’ when he became a woodblock designer in his adult life. At the age of 19 he started as a pupil of Shunsho which marks the beginning of his career as a illustrator.

His first prints give the impression that Hokusai was not a natural talent but that was compensated by his possessiveness to drawing and his productivity which is unmatched in the history of Ukiyo-e. Initially he designed mainly kabuki (actor) prints and book illustrations but slowly he started experimenting within the other Ukiyo-e genres such as surimono (commissioned print), kacho-ga (flower and bird print) and shunga (erotic print).

Manga

In 1812 Hokusai travelled to Kyoto and Osaka. On this ocassion he produced hundreds of sketches with the intention of getting them published in the form of a handbook on the art of drawing. Between 1812 and 1820 the first ten volumes were published which are known to the world as the ‘Sketchbooks of Hokusai’ (Hokusai Manga).

This overwhelming quantity and striking diversity of sketches shows the viewer the full reality of the Japanese daily life. The subjects are almost unlimited and forms a colourful encyclopaedia of human life and labour, myths and legends and of the material and natural environment.

Great Wave

It is like the production of these sketchbooks were a finger exercise, a contemplative preamble for his masterpiece which places Hokusai in the pantheon of greatest artists being on a par with Raphaël, Michelangelo and Rembrandt. This masterpiece series, called the ’36 Views of Mount Fuji’ (Fugaku sanjurokkei), with Mount Fuji as its main subject, portrayed under changing weather circumstances from different locations and points of view, was published when Hokusai was 70. One of the prints is called the ‘Beneath the Wave of Kanagawa’ (The Great Wave) and is the most famous print in the history of Japanese woodblock art.  

Hokusai’s Great Wave print depicts one enormous wave coming from the left and reaching up into the sky with its tentacle crests ready to smash the boats including their passengers. It’s the magnificent juxtaposition of the three elements the divine, the human and the earthly presented here in a perfect harmony giving the image such an impact and power.  It was Hokusai’s ’36 Views of Mount Fuji’ -series and especially The Great Wave that provided the impressionists a decisive impulse in their quest inventing a new art as stated by Edmond de Goncourt in his book on Hokusai in 1896:

“This horizontal series, with its rather crude colours, which nonetheless attempt to reproduce nature’s colours under all lightning conditions, is the album which inspires the landscapes of the impressionists of the present moment”.    

Books on Hokusai  

‘Hokusai’ by Gian Carlo Calza, ‘ The Hokusai Sketchbooks’ by James A. Michener, Hokusai: ‘First Manga Master’ by Jocelyn Bouquillard and Christophe Marquet.      

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Source by Marijn Kruijff