Sunday, 13 March 2011

The story of The Great Wave Off Kanagawa

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai (Japanese, 1760–1849) is assumed by many to be a portrayal of a Tsunami off the coast of Japan.  In reality it's not - it's another type of wave.  However this does not stop this image having a fascinating story which is reviewed in this post and the documentary programme below.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai
Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper 25.7 cm × 37.8 cm (10.1 in × 14.9 in)

It was the first print in Hokusai's portfolio series of prints Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji - which was very much designed, produced and published as something tourists and religious buyers might want to buy.  The series shows everyday activities with human interest and a focus on the world of work while some are abstracted.

The 36 Views were also based on a vibrant new colour - Prussian Blue!

The construction of the design is based on geometry and arrangements of circles and triangles.  There is also a sense of space collapsing which is no doubt enhanced by his study of perspective.

On YouTube there are five videos of a documentary programme about The Great Wave. It explains
  • how it came about (Hokusai's grandson had gambled away all his money and he was destitute), 
  • what sort of wave it is (it's not a tsunami but rather a very large cascading pyramidal wave - which is a real wave)
  • explains the context for this particular woodcut print in terms of the fashion for the art of theoating world
  • identifies that Hokusai studied Dutch prints and that the design is influenced by European art and his knowledge of perspective
  • how he studied waves over 30 years prior to creating this particular image
  • explains how the print was produced
  • discusses the translation of the title
  • unpicks who the boatmen are and speculates that they may have been trying to get the first bunito tuna of the season to market - but for the fact they are facing the wrong way!  But then comments that since th Japanese eye reads from right to left the wave would be splashing into the viewer's face.
  • It also identifies that the secondary wave in the foreground is exactly the same outline as Mount Fuji - a tremendously important iconic image in Japanese art.
  • how it a print that we know was owned by Monet and Van Gogh - but how it went in and out of fashion.
There's a notion that the boatmen are not fighting the wave but rather going with the flow of life.  Hokusai also apparently had an obsession with long life and death - and Hokusai was nearing the end of his life when he produced it.  Possibly it represented the notion that disaster is always just around the corner - no matter what guise it comes in.

For all those. like me, who have read books about Hokusai by Matthi Forrer, you get to see and hear from him in this documentary

Note:  Kanagawa is part of a the southern Kantō region of Honshū, Japan and surrounds Tokyo Bay.

Links to more information about Japanese Art:


Katherine Kean said...

Nice presentation! I think Rogue waves may possibly be as scary as tsunamis - there is no warning, although as we are seeing that the damage caused by a tsunami can be devastating and tragic.

I like the "floating" perspective.

Unknown said...

Any idea why the BBC took this documentary down? It's a shame that we can't access it anymore. The only BBC production involving this artwork now is a different production about the history of the world through objects.

Making A Mark said...

Copyright issues presumably - as indicated by the YouTube notice.

The BBC are making old documentaries available via iPlayer. It may be available again at some point.