The Great Wave off Kanagawa is the most famous piece of Japanese art in the world, so iconic it is often used to represent the country and culture. It depicts a 12 metre wave towering over narrow fishing boats, with Mount Fuji framed within the arc of the wave in the background.
The clean lines depict the power of nature perfectly. The highest wave dwarfs Fuji, but the smaller wave in the bottom left corner also seems to mirror the mountain, as though both land and sea are part of the same range. The fishermen cling to their boats as they brave the raging elements. The hardy steadfastness of the men can also be seen in the work and practice of the artist who created the masterpiece.
It was produced in 1832 as one of a series of prints by the artist Hokusai called Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. It isn’t a painting, but a woodblock print in the Japanese Ukiyo-e tradition. Lines and shapes are meticulously carved into a block of wood, with the raised portions painted laboriously in different colours, that are then pressed onto a sheet of parchment. Hokusai was born in 1760, so was in his seventies when he produced the Mount Fuji series.
The artist was a great believer in the process of developing his craft over the years, as befits the Japanese tradition of excellence through diligence. He began drawing at the age of six, sent to work at twelve, entered into apprenticeship at sixteen, and worked continuously as an illustrator his entire life. He believed he finally achieved his best work in his later years, as it was only by his seventies he developed a deep enough understanding of nature to depict it properly, craft being enriched by wisdom. He continued painting until his death in 1849, aged 89.
Original prints of The Wave hang in galleries around the world, and has been reproduced in the millions. It’s beautiful simplicity has allowed it to be adapted into a myriad of different formats and styles, to be enjoyed by all cultures and classes. The picture’s longevity is testament to the perseverance of man, both in the painting and in the life of it’s creator, and serves as an inspiration to artists of all walks everywhere.