March 01, 2012

Hokusai Come Back with Great Wave, Ukiyo-e

"This is a good chance to talk about my icon, " Great Wave", I thought.
The titles in this color are on exhibition.

Commemorating the 250th anniversary of his birth,  Hokusai 北斎 (1760 - 1849) came back home from Hawaii with "Great Wave Off Kanagawa" !   He is an unparallelend artist of  Ukiyo-e  woodblock prints 浮世絵. Thanks to the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the exhibition featuring  massive collection of Hokusai's works has been held in Kyoto Culture Museum. It will end on March 25th. I went to see Hokusai the other day, being excited. 172 best-preserved  works of Hokusai are overwhelming and more than worth seeing!

The Academy is worldly famous for its Eastern Art collection, including about 10,000 Ukiyo-e woodblock prints.  Roughly 5400 of them were donated by Mr. James A. Michener, the author of Tales of the South Pacific which  the musical "South Pacific" was based on.
"Great Wave Off Kanagawa" 神奈川沖浪裏 around 1830 - 1832
from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji 富嶽三十六景

This print  is the most well-known and famous Ukiyo-e in the world. For me to meet "Great  Wave" is something like to meet a lover whom I haven't seen for a long time.
Alas, the monster-like waves are going to swallow down people and the boats which are carrying fresh fish to Edo, the old name of Tokyo.  More  blustering the waves are,  more still Mt. Fuji looks! The waves look alive with their will. What can  people do in front of the raging nature? They are just desperately hanging on the boats and praying. Uchida Chizuko says "The Great Wave may be the transformation of a dragon, the deity of the water. "(1)  But, how dynamic the composition is,  and how impressive  blue colours are! 

Hokusai used  indigo dark blue and Prussian blue called Bero-ai ベロ藍. Prussian blue, which was  found accidentally on the process of  making red in Germany, was more transparent, brighter than indigo dark blue, but it was expensive.  By using this pigment and mixing it with indigo, Hokusai created a number of vivid shades of blue.

Inspired by "Great Wave", Claude Debussy composed "La Mer (海)"  in 1905.
The cover design of the score " La Mer ( image taken from wikipedia)

The influence of "Great Wave" can be seen here and there.

Expo '70 was held in Osaka in 1970. The design of Australian Pavilion  was based on "Great Wave. However, many of visitors thought a dinosaur was holding a big roof in its mouth. Later I got to know that the architect had been inspired by Hokusai's "Great Wave". Since then, I have been fascinated with Hokusai and his Great Wave.                                                      The Expo'70  had been the biggest one until Expo2010 Shanghai China broke the record.  

"Great Wave"  is painted on a canvas of 35 jeans. 

Fascinating blue!
"Kajikazawa in Kai Province"甲州石反澤, around 1830 - 1832
from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

 Mt. Fuji has long been an object of worship as the divine.  During Edo Period (1600 - 1867), travelling became popular. People formed the religious groups ( 富士講) and travelled to climb Mt. Fuji. Their dream was to climb Mt. Fuji once in their lifetime. It is said that the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji served as good travel guidebooks.

the poster for the exhibition
The upper  is "Red Fuji" 凱風快晴 where Mt.Fuji is illuminated
with the light of sunrise and turns pinkish red .
The lower is "Thunderstorm Beneath the Summit"山下白雨
The still summit is interestingly contrasting with roaring  thunder-bolts below clouds.
around 1830 - 1832.
 Both from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji
"Groups of Mountain Climbers" 諸人登山,  around 1830 - 1832
from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

The above is an interesting one. Where is Mt.Fuji?   On Mt. Fuji  are worshippers of Mt. Fuji who are walking around the narrow edge of the crater to visit holey grounds along it one by one. A square cave is a rock chamber where people rest themselves and are sheltered from the elements.

Catalogue of the exhibition,
"Viewing Sunset over the Ryougokubashi from the Onmaya Embankment"
御厩川岸より両国橋夕陽見, around 1830 - 1832
from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

This series was so popular that ten more works were added and it made Forty-six Views.

His another masterpiece  is depictiong flowing water. Don't you think water looks sticky?
"Kirifuri Waterfall on Mount Kurokami in Simotsuke Province",
from the series A Tour if Japanese Waterfalls, around 1832 - 1833

The above all Ukiyo-e are  owned by  the Honolulu Academy of Arts.
If powerful"Great Wave" is compared to father, this wave is mother. The forming sprays are magically changing to plovers.
Mount Fuji from the Sea 海上の不二, in 1834
from the series One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji  富嶽百景
in Tokyo Fuji Art Museum,東京富士美術館

 Hokusai's self-portrait at the age of 78 (image taken from wikipedia)

Hokusai was a enigmatic and eccentric genius.  It is said that he moved 93 times and changed his painter name 30 times.   I like this name 画狂老人, meaning Old Man Crazy About Painting. He did not care anything such as clothes, food, money, home and more. He started his career as Ukiyo-e painter at the age of 20. Since then he vigorously continued painting until he died at the age of 90. I am amazed and wonder where  his inexhaustible energy and enthusiasm came from?  He was also an unstoppable challenger who explored many diffrent subjects ranging from beautiful women to ghosts,  changing his styles of drawing. According to one theory, he created about 30,000 works for 70 years. Suddenly,  The name came up to my mind. "Picasso, even if Hokusai had been reborn as Picasso, it would not have been impossible. They have many thing in common." Endless energy, enthusiasm, passion,  the wide range of subjects, changing the styles, 70 years of creative activities, a numerous number of works and so and so. People in Spain, please pardon my imagination.

Both names are on the list of  Life's 100 most important people of the second millennium" (2) who had a major impact on the Second Millennium, ranked in order of importance.  The list has mixed reception, but anyway it is interesting, isn't it?

The belows are quoted from the Top 100 People. Picasso is  the 78th and Hokusaie is the 86th, who is only one Japanese on the list.

78 PABLO PICASSO 1881-1973 
Pablo Picasso dominated 20th century art. He helped create Cubism, pioneered innovations in sculpture and lithography, experimented with new media and captivated imaginations around the world with his powerful personality and boundless energy. The prolific Spaniard, who painted subjects ranging from the women he lived with to the devastating effects of war, had a career that spanned 70 years--and an influence that spans generations and cultures.

86 HOKUSAI 1760-1849 
At the age of 74, Hokusai, one of the greatest artists of the millennium, bemoaned his lack of talent. "Of all I drew prior to the age of 70 there is truly nothing of any great note," he wrote, predicting that "at 100 I shall have become truly marvellous." The master painter, illustrator and print maker of the Japanese Ukiyo-e school of art didn't make it to his century mark, but he did create thousands of treasured images--of landscapes, flora, fauna, historical scenes--including the print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. His work influenced the French Impressionists, especially Paul Gauguin.

He continued to say, "At 110, every dot and every stroke will be as though live. May people of longevity witness and prove my words true."

A charming shop in front of Kyoto Culture Museum

Ukiyo-e woodblock painting is a genre of art flourishing during Edo period (1600-1867).  Ukiyo-e was born around the mid-17th century. In the 18th century,  development of multi-colored printing techniques made the mass production possible and ordinary people could afford to buy prints which were quite similar to the today's celebrity photos, newspaper or gossip magazines.  hey were rather disposable. The process of Ukiyo-e was divided into three separate tasks, First, the painter drew the original picture. Then the carver carved the picture on woodblocks. At last the printer printed the copies by using the carved woodblocks. Hokusai was a painter.

Now Ukiyo-e woodblock prints are the highly valued as the best example of art of Edo-period. But, the   artistic value of Ukiyo-e was first  recognised in France and other western countries, not  in Japan. Being wrapped in Ukiyo-e prints, the potteries were exported to the western countries from Japan. There Ukiyo-e was highly appreciated.The influence of Ukiyo-e on impressionists is well known. They are Vincent van Gogh, Cluade Monet, Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and more.

It is believed that Hokusai Manga, which were called "Hokusai's Sketches" by Western artists, and "Thirty Views of Mount Fujithe" were the first pieces of Ukiyo-e that caught the attention of Western artists and triggered the widespread innovative influence of these Japanese prints. (3)

"Hokusai's Sketches" 
in the Honolulu Academy of Arts

From a history textbook of high school, about Japonism
a painting on right side, by Vincent van Gogh
a left one is original Ukiyo-e by Keisai Eisai

おしをくりはとうつうせんのず around 1806 (4)
in Tokyo National Museum 東京国立博物館

Ukiyo-e inspired western artists, but Hokusai himself was interested in techniques of western paintings. It is obvious that this print shows western influence.  He used the shadow method and perspective, added the printed frame,  and left his signature in cursive writing to look like western alphabet. He studied many styles and the western style was one of them.
The print is considered as the first step to "Great Wave".It took him 25 years to reach "Great Wave". I felt it  interesting, at  first western style techniques influenced  the prototype of "Great Wave" and  later his masterpiece "Great Wave" inspired western artists.

"Male Waves" and "Female Waves"  in 1845 are unique paintings which are interpreted in sveral ways. But I love this one the best. They depict cosmos.  (5)  Countless stardust seems to be swirling and leading to the depth of cosmos.
                                                                Image of cosmos

"Male Waves"  男浪

"Female Waves" 女浪
 in 1845,
paintings on the ceilings of a festival float,
 in Hokusai Museum, Obuse , Nagano
富士越龍 "Dragon Rising Above Mt. Fuji" on silk
This painting is said to be completed 4 months before his death in 1849.
in Hokusai Museum in Obuse, Nagano 北斎館、小布施、長野県

The black dragon is himself. Where is he going? Oh, I am sure he is  passing over Mt. Fuji and aiming at at the end of cosmos!

Hokusai is too great to write about him, and his works are too marvelous and too many to choose my favorite. As a result, I found it difficult to get my blog into shape.

(1) カオスを描いた北斎の謎、 日経ビジネスオンライン、 内田 千鶴子
(3) Catalogue, The 250th Anniversary of Hokusai's Birth"
(4)葛飾北斎 Katsusika Hokusai,  新潮日本美術文庫17、 解説 神谷 浩
(5) ミステリー絵画シリーズ、 「葛飾北斎 怒涛図」、 テレビ東京

浮世絵の歴史、監修 小林 忠、美術出版
宇宙をめざした北斎、内田 千鶴子、日経プレミアム


  1. Such beautiful works of art. I've really liked the icon you use for your blog so it was nice to see and read more. I will come back and read it again ;-)

  2. I enjoyed learning about the Great Wave and the blues! So many beautiful pieces of art all together.

  3. How I would love to see this exhibition in Kyoto! I once saw a large collection of these prints in London, I think at the British Museum. I could look at them for hours. They are so very beautiful and delicate and elegant.

    When a work of art is very great, it catches the public's imagination in all kinds of ways.

    I have a very old Japanese print which is not in very good condition, I think it is by Hiroshige and I believe that it may be part of a triptych.

    It is probably not valuable at all because it is not in good condition but I like it and I feel very glad that I have a real one.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. You say you found it difficult to get your blog into shape but it sdeems to me you succeeded marvellously.

    It was fascinating, educational. beautiful and just about everything one could ask for from a blog posting. Thank you very much for all the effort you must have put into it.

  6. Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful pictures of the Great Wave. These are amazing works, the one of the Waterfall is one of my favorites. I also was interested to read about the different blue colours. Great post.

  7. I've seen a very interesting HOKUSAI exhibition in Paris...
    Really great !!!
    Best regards from France,


  8. This is not only informative but also educational very much. I think school teachers should use this post as one of their teaching materials. I’ve been charmed by Katushika Hokusai’s shades of blue, and now I’ve learned the color I love most is called “Prussian blue” in English. (I had used “navy blue” to explain the color.)


  9. I like "Great wave off Kanagawa".
    The tips of the waves look like fingers of hands and they seem to grab people.
    The hue of some blue and fine composition surpass the third dimension.
    I have made engravings by wood or rubber but it's hard to lay some pictures together.
    Thank you for sharing many Hokusai works.

  10. 北斎の作品はもちろんですが、snowwhiteさんのエネルギーもすごいですね。

  11. Every time I read one of your posts, I think by myself, "This is so much better than a book. It teaches me so much."

    I didn't know there were so many different versions of Hokusai's famous wave, and that it took him 25 years to get there. What a great lesson: never stop trying, and aim for something truly marvellous at the age of 100! ^^

    Thanks for this post!

  12. 北斎はいつの時代も色褪せないデザイナーのようですね。自らの制作過程を楽しみながら、人を驚かせる表現ができる事が愉しくてしかたがなかったように思えます。日本的でありながら、どこかデルフトの風景ようにも見えるのも面白いです。一度北斎の描くような波の合間から雪をかぶる富士山を拝んでみたいです。

  13. Wow - what a talented artist! Lovely shots.

    You might want to consider shutting off the word verification. This is my fifth attempt to leave you a comment.

  14. Impressive prints! I wonder how the three people making them worked together - each one an artist.
    (And surly everyone wanted to add a bit of himself).

  15. Your post on the art of Hokusai is splendid. The tones of blue in his Great Wave series ask the eye to discover the depth and power of the waves. The swirling lines in Mount Fuji from the Sea are mesmerizing - especially as the spray changes to plovers. I'm actually in love with Hokusai's final painting showing the dragon rising. To think that he painted it in his 90th year is amazing.

  16. How beautfiul!
    I had never heard of Hokusai until today, thanks for sharing, his artwork is tremendous!

  17. Wow! So thats why you selected the Great Wave as your display picture. The blue tones he selected really seem to liven up the image even more.
    Hokusai was a great painter as you have told, I was fascinating to learn about him.
    Have a wonderful day:)

  18. Hello, snowwhite.

      Awe inspiring your works...
      It lets me feel warmth with the humanity.

      Thank you for your usual visit and heart.
      The prayer for all peace.

  19. Hi Snowwhite,
    You have shown one of my favourite artworks the 'Great Wave Off Kanagawa'!
    It is such a famous image and I think most people do recognise it all over the world.
    The wave is a simple form, yet very powerful. I can really imagine it transforming into a water dragon!
    The exhibition looks and sounds fantastic. I Love all the other works you have shown here as well. Thank you for sharing!

    Best wishes,

  20. すごいポストですね。さすがアイコンに選んでおられるだけあって、北斎の画や人物への傾倒が伺えます。興味深く読ませていただきました。そして生涯、好きなことに携わって、技術を高めていった芸術家たちの人生に思いを馳せました。

  21. It was incredibly interesting to read this information about Hokusai. Although I have known this artist for a long time, and am very much influenced by his work, many moments from your post were new to me. What an unusual and eccentric person he was.

  22. Hi Keiko
    thank you for this informative post about this great artist. Great Wave has been a favorite of mine forever, since I initially saw it but I cannot remember the time or place, I just know I've always loved seeing it. all of the art is splendid, thank for you another most uplifting post. happy day to you! take good care now.

  23. What a wonderful post - I think this is my favorite one out of all your posts. I am entranced by the images you chose, and by the story. I never knew much about Hokusai, who created the Great Wave; what a fascinating person he was, and what beautiful blues he made!

    Thanks so much for this lovely and educational Blog Post - I will come back to it again and again.

  24. I have just found your blog and really enjoyed reading through some of your posts. (I will be back!) I LOVE the picture of the cat sleeping on the roof. I have never been to Japan but always wanted to visit. I can do that in our writings! Thank you. x

  25. very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  26. Such an interesting post. Loved all the information you shared. Have a lovely weekend. Mickie :)

  27. What a master Hokusai was! I did not know he had created so many pieces of art. Your post is most enlightening and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

  28. Hi Keiko,
    Sorry I've taken so long to comment on this amazing post.You've succeeded admirably in condensing a wealth of information into one blog post.I knew of this artist but had no idea of the span of his creative life nor his prolific output.I won't comment on the images,your choices are all beautiful.....thank you!
    Best wishes,


Thanks a lot for visiting my blog and leaving warm messages. I will visit your site soon. keiko