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The World beyond the Great Wave: Hokusai’s 'The Wonders of Nature'

Posted on 11 Dec 2018

Hokusai’s 'The Great Wave' is the most famous image in Japanese art, not to mention an iOS emoji 🌊. Take a look at the early sketches that reveal his growing mastery of nature motifs.

Illustrations from 'Hokusai Manga' © 2018 Mitsuru Uragami

For Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, life and art were marked by extraordinary forces of nature. Both his wives and his two children predeceased him. When he was 50, he was struck by lightning — but survived. A year later, he changed his name to Taito, which translates as ‘Star-blessed.’ And in his 70s, he embarked on his celebrated series, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, featuring that most awesome of ocean beauties, The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Hokusai’s towering breaker, typically known simply as The Great Wave,is nowthe most famous image in Japanese art. It dazzled the Impressionists, inspired Debussy’sLa Mer(The Sea) and Rilke’s Der Berg(The Mountain), and has today become a mass-market icon, not to mention an iOS emoji 🌊

'Under the wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave)' from 'Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji'. Colour woodblock, 1831. Acquisition supported by the Art Fund. © The Trustees of the British Museum. On display from 25 May - 13 August.

In colour and composition, the work is a masterpiece of suspended motion and pounding energy. As the vast, claw-like, swell of water looks set to pounce upon the flailing fishing boats and a diminutive Mount Fiji in the background, Hokusai — who forever fascinated over immortality — created a timeless image of our frailty before the elements, of the synergy of intricacy and omnipotence that is nature’s alone.

But Hokusai was an old man by the time the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fujiseries came about, and although he humble-bragged that “until the age of 70, nothing that I drew was worthy of notice”, his powerful observation of nature were evident decades earlier. In particular, from 1814 onwards, Hokusai published several volumes of sketches titled Hokusai manga. These were not the graphic novels we associate with “manga” today but rather the literal Japanese meaning of manga (漫画) — “curious” or “whimsical drawings”.

Illustrations from 'Hokusai Manga' © 2018 Mitsuru Uragami

Reaching over some 15 volumes, 970 pages, and more than 4,000 illustrations, the work grew into a vast panorama of Hokusai’s world and his artistic invention. Significantly, many sketches show Hokusai already experimenting with views of Mount Fuji. Other pages gather striking landscapes and seascapes, alongside meticulous studies of fish, plants, animals, and other natural scenes. Long before The Great Wave crashed onto the page and into our collective consciousness, these remarkable prints show an artist beguiled by the majesty of the natural world and intent on capturing its variety, its intricacy, and its might.

Illustrations from 'Hokusai Manga' © 2018 Mitsuru Uragami

Discover Hokusai’s hidden masterpieces with our complete three-volume boxed set of Hokusai Manga, including Volume 1—  Edo Life, Volume 2 —The Wonders of Nature, and Volume 3 — Flights of Fancy.


Words by Eliza Apperly.

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