The Great Wave1832 / Katsushika Hokusai
SEATTLE ASIAN ART MUSEUM
In the Well of the Great Wave off Kanagawa, to use its full title, is probably the single best-known work of Japanese art. This woodblock print by artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) is the first in a series of prints titled Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, originally created to satisfy Hokusai’s fascination with the peak.
Hokusai brings astonishing skill and movement to this relatively straightforward medium. He captures a frozen moment of high drama: A monstrous wave is poised to crash on the slender fishing boats bobbing in the sea. In the far distance, the mighty snow-strewn Fuji resembles a white-capped wave. It invokes the sublime, reminding us of our relative helplessness as humans against the thunderous power of nature.
This is also the most famous example of the ukiyo-e Japanese print technique from the Edo Period (1615–1868). Ukiyo-e, translated as “pictures of the floating world,” were revolutionary in their depiction of the lower classes of Japanese society, who were newly flexing their cultural muscles and creating their own art, literature, and theater.