Great mountain, great wave

Hokusai’s woodblock portrays a wave in indigo and Prussian blue which threatens to overwhelm everything in sight, including Mount Fuji.

April 06, 2018 03:01 pm | Updated 03:01 pm IST

A world famous piece of Japanese art is a woodblock print with the name Under the Wave off Kanagawa, more simply known as The Great Wave. It was created sometime between 1829 and 1833 by the artist Katsushita Hokusai. A woodblock print is a form of painting where paint is applied to a wooden block and pressed on to paper.

A Japanese woodblock is created by teamwork. The artist makes a sketch on thin paper. The wood carver glues the paper on to the wood and then carves out the design. The printer puts the printing paper on the block and rubs on it with a tool. A different block is used for each colour in the print. For each design, there can be thousands of prints.

Prints of The Great Wave are found in several museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Hokusai used a form of Japanese woodblock printing called Ukiyo-e, which means “floating world”. He used indigo and Prussian blue colours in his prints.

Part of a whole

The Great Wave is actually one part in Hokusai’s series called “Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji”. Each print in the series looks at a different view of Mount Fuji, which is the tallest mountain in Japan.

Mount Fuji is held sacred by Japanese people. However, in The Great Wave, Mount Fuji is not the biggest object. The painting has a large wave, like a tsunami. It towers over three small fishing boats filled with people holding oars. In the background we can see Mount Fuji as a small mountain peak. It looks like the wave will swallow the mountain when it crashes down.

Great art brings a response from its viewers and inspires them. The Great Wave inspired French musician Claude Debussy to compose music called La Mer (The Sea) and German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem Der Berg (The Mountain). The French artist Claude Monet had a print in his home.

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