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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Hokusai, Mount Fuji and The Great Wave

Updated: Apr 10, 2021


Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, (Print n.1), 1831, Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji
Hokusai,Hokusai,Sazai hall – Temple of Five Hundred Rakan, (Print n.13), 1831, Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji

Katsushika Hokusai, one of the greatest Japanese painters, draughtsmen and printmakers of the 19th century, created a series dedicated to the most famous landmark of Japan: Mount Fuji. In his Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, the most immediately recognized artworks is The Great Wave off Kanagawa known as The Great Wave that has been shaking up the art world for two centuries and continues to stay in the center of focus of contemporary visual arts, design and fashion.

Hokusai was born in 1760 in Edo the “Eastern capital” or Tokyo as it came to be known after the Meiji Restoration. Edo had a million of inhabitants, making it much larger than Paris, or even London the largest Western city of the time. Edo also gives the name of the period in Japanese history that spans from 1615-1868, in which Japan closed off the country in order to protect it from the missionary efforts of Jesuits, which were felt to be a form of colonization. This closure took to an era of great peace under the Tokugawa shogunate.

The trade was seriously restricted allowing contact with Chinese and Dutch, the last ones were just authorized to stay in the island of Deshima and it was the only contact with the west.

The Edo’s society apart from samurai and daimyos, it was made up of the merchant classes and their new codes of behaviour, a shared love of popular literature, and the widespread human love of extravagance and display express in theatre with the kabuki (with live actors) and bunraku (with puppets).

In art started a specific genre called ukiyo-e or “scenes from the floating world” known to the west primarily through the medium of prints, captured the everyday world vividly depicting female beauties, courtesan, kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, scenes from history and folk tales.

This art had no connection with the elevated realms of ceremony, idealistic and tradition based upon Chinese tradition, it was a mass production art for people, sold in the street corner for the price of a double helping of noodles. It was an affordable pure metropolitan pleasure.

By adopting a popular style of imagery that had existed for more than a century, Hokusai embraced the imaginative world of day-to-day reality, taking inspiration from the local polytheism and the lives of common people as they were lived before the Meiji Restoration.

Hokusai produced thirty thousand drawings, prints and paintings in life, a massive body of work aided in no small way by his very long lifespan from 1760 to 1849, with the latter half being the most prolific.

Hokusai in the preface to one of his most famous series, gave an evaluation, of his long career starting drawing at the age of six: “By the time I was fifty, I had published countless drawings, but nothing I produced before the age of seventy is worthy of note. Not until I was seventy-three did I begin to understand the structure of nature as is truly is, the structure of animals, plants, trees, birds, fish and insects. Thus, by the time I am eighty, I will have made some real progress. At ninety I will have fathomed the mystery of things; at a hundred I will surely have reached a phenomenal level, and when I’m a hundred and ten, everything I do, be it a dot or a line, will be alive”.

He signed it as Gakyo Rojin, the old madman of art. Hokusai signed his works with more than 30 different names.

In Japan the name changes are so frequent, and so often related to changes in his artistic production and style, that they are used for breaking his life up into periods.

Hokusai means “Studio of the North” connected with Buddhism bodhisattva Myoken, is a Buddhist deity revered as the deification of the North Star, who Hokusai was really attached. In 1820 when he reached the age of sixty, since this meant that he had completed one whole cycle of the Japanese calendar, he jokingly adopted the name litsu, meaning “one year old again”.

His vitality, his talent for all forms of painting and drawing, his own writings as a popular author, and his personal idiosyncrasies, together with the sheer variety of his publications and illustrations, secured Hokusai’s fame during his own lifetime.

In the early 1830s Hokusai, already now in his seventies, produced some of his best works as several print series, on subjects including waterfall, bridges, birds and ghost stories.

In this period, he started his worldwide famous series Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku Sanjùrokkei) announced in 1831 by the publisher Nishimuraya Yohachi. Published plate by plate continued beyond number 36 with 10 more prints.

In Japan, it was a publisher’s commercial decisions the choice of subject and the artist also dependent on the other two artisans involved in the sophisticated process of creating a print: the woodblock carver and the printer. The process of printmaking involved a number of stages: the artist generally began with an original sketch in black ink that given to the woodblock carver, whose first task was to place the sketch face-down on a block of cherry wood and incise the design in the wood using knives and chisels. On the edges of the block, the carver made guide marks to enable the printer to position the different colour blocks correctly. The block containing the black outlines was known as the keyblock, and was used to make a proof copy of the entire drawing, which was sent to the publisher for approval. For legal purposes, a copy was also sent to the government censor’s office (founded in the late 18th century) where it would be marked with an official seal. Another copy was sent to the artist, who would use red ink to indicate the colours that should be used for the various areas of the finish print but have to be approve by the publisher. After this the carver could cut the individual woodblocks, one colour at a time, following the original guide marks. The printer used a bamboo press, he is a qualify artisan who play a key role in applying delicate gradation of colour and other shading effects.

In 1830 there was a boom of domestic tourism so Edo’s printmakers expanded their subject matter to include the most famous vistas in the Japanese landscape.

Fuji is a volcano and the highest mountain of Japan with its 3,776.24 m, a beacon that loomed, white and sombre as one approached the city of Edo. At its foot ran the Tokaido, Japan’s most important road connecting Kyoto to Edo. No navigator at sea or traveller over land could ignore it. Rising up over the waves, the sacred mountain was like a dream of the gods. From its magical cap of winter ice, topping a perfectly formed cone, it dominated the realm and the soul of Japan; it majestically linked heaven and earth, the sea and the clouds.

The Fuji is a sacred mountain, it was considered immortal in the oldest Japanese tale Taketori Monogatari The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, when at the end of the tale the emperor asked to burn the elixir of immortality gave him by the Princess of the Moon in the volcano. The legend has it that the word for immortality, 不死 (fushi), became the name of the mountain, Mount Fuji.

The focus on the sacred mountain Fuji, was a personal spiritual obsession for Hokusai, that influenced his own understanding of the relationship of immortality with his own life as he wanted to achieve the age of hundred year to see a divine state in his art. For Hokusai Mount Fuji was a talisman of immortality. The older he became the great artist he will be.

In the Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, each appearing in a single sheet, are drawn from different location, from Shichiri Beach, for example or Tsuda Island.

Hokusai pitted the restless working life of Japan’s common people against the present cone of the mountain in every season and under every condition of weather and light.

Hokusai, Ejiri in Suruga Province, (Print n.10), 1831,Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji

He revealed the mountain as it was by placing figures at its foot, people running, laughing, working, meditating. Fuji remained the one unmoving and constant factor in the midst of this floating world.

Hokusai,the Mitsui shop in Suruga in Edo, (Print n.11), 1831,Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji
Hokusai,Honjo Tatekawa, the timberyard at Honjo, Sumida , (Print n.38), 1831,Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji

Combining brilliant colours with breathtakingly experimental manipulation of space, Hokusai created same of the most important imagines in the history of art.

Hokusai digested the influence of western art and European prospective in his middle years doing works for the Dutch.

In this series Hokusai was not an inventor; rather, he was a true translator and an interacting point between the most distinctive styles from both East and West, he made the unknown culture of Japan easily readable to the Western world by using elements of the Western style, but also keeping the important elements of Japanese traditional techniques and motifs.

He always tried new technique followed by artist Keisa Eisen experimented new synthetic pigment: Prussian Blue first introduce in Japan 1829. This pigment had a number of advantages over the indigo or dayflower petal dyes that were previously used to create blue. It was more vivid, had greater tonal range and was more resistant to fading. It proved to be particularly effective in expressing depth and distance, and its popularity may have been a major factor in establishing pure landscape as a new genre of ukiyo-e print with the term aizuri-e usually refers to Japanese woodblock prints that are printed entirely or predominantly in blue.

The most famous prints of theThirty-six view of Mount Fuji for the Japanese, it is the second one titled Fine Wind, Clear Morning, also known as South Wind, Clear Sky or Red Fuji (Gaifu kaisei).

Hokusai, Fine Wind, Clear Morning, also known as South Wind, Clear Sky or Red Fuji (Print n.2) 1831, Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji

Japanese one of the most loved view because Fuji is the main and only subject in early autumn when, as the title specifies, the wind is southerly and the sky is clear, the rising sun can turn Mount Fuji red.

The work has been described as "one of the simplest and at the same time one of the most outstanding of all Japanese prints". Simplicity is deceptive in reality this is a really risk piece of work. Hokusai took the subject and pushed it at the edge of the page and to feel the empty and balance the space he feels with all this green forest, the clouds and his signature. No people are present, there is no foreground just the mountain, the sky is divided by beautiful lines.

The entire composition works perfectly.

In Mishima Pass in Kai Province (number 33 Koshu Mishima-goe) a giant tree is braced by a group of men in their journey to Edo. The tree is so big that doesn’t fit in the picture and in the background, it is possible to see the Fuji as a giant mountain covered by clouds. As Hokusai said “these things also belong to a universe whose harmony we must never disrupt” as at the core of Shinto is the belief in and worship of kami—the essence of spirit that can be present in all things.

Hokusai,Mishima Pass in Kai Province (Print n.33) 1831, Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji

Kajikazawa in Kai Province (Print number 32 Koshu Kajikazawa) is considered one of the masterpieces of the series, particularly in its early blue impression aizuri: colours are so intense, so fresh so clean.

Hokusai, Kajikazawa in Kai Province, (Print n.32) 1831, Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji

Standing precariously upon a rocky outcrop, a man casts his net onto the violent Fuji River at Kajikazawa. Man and nature appear fused into one. The picture is full of movement, his tensed body mimics the motion of the waves below, and this curved shape is reflected in the rock on which he stands with his son. The triangular shape made by the fishing lines also echoes that of Mount Fuji which is seen rising above as a guardian.

Modern art became here in Edo, because nature has been translated into a different language into pattern and into abstract design.

The most recognizable work of Japanese art in the world is the first print of the Hokusai’s series called The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa-oki Nami Ura).

Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, (Print n.1), 1831, Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji

The image depicts an enormous wave threatening three boats off the coast in the Sagami Bay (Kanagawa Prefecture) while a white Mount Fuji covered by snow rises in the background.

The Great wave usually is not look properly, in Japanese art are important also the small details.

A lot of people are just focusing in the wave and they couldn’t see that in the image there are 22 seamen.

The reading of the print can be also different as Western read from left to right and Japanese from right to left.

Western are travelling with the strong wave instead Japanese are travelling against the wave in quite terrifying way. Every single element is designed to amplified the drama.

The frog is depicting has finger that are trying to take their victims. The poor seamen are trying to pass to bring the fish to the Edo’s fish market. They know they will have a difficult journey but the static Fuji in the drama is protecting them. Beautiful are small details as the water falls that are coming down as snow on the white Fuji, traditionally the top of the Fuji is snow covered all the year around.

This balancing of the human and the divine becomes possible because the subjective passion that Hokusai brought to his subject sprang entirely from his passion for forms.

Hokusai was one of the first to use landscape in the ukiyo-e. Using the bolder, brighter colours of the print, he succeeded in transforming the imagery of ukiyo-e, an art of pure visual seduction, with its fanciful and often fictional genre scenes, by taking the contemplative tradition and placing the world of Edo right in the midst.

His prints were revelation of the spirituality embedded in the landscape. An antidote to the crashing materialism of modern city life.

The Prints were exported to a western society badly in need of that radiance.

With the opening of Japan in 1854 prints were avidly collected by a group of artists at the avantgarde of their own artistic revolution.

Modern art, just as Japanese art, is brilliantly coloured. Drizzling things with space to overthrow the old rules of prospective, overspill conspicuous in Japanese prints between the country and the town.

Monet collected 231 Japanese prints. Japanese art introduces impressionists to the infinity possibilities of series as Monet. Subject painted in different time and lights.

For Simon Schama Monet found his own sacred Fuji in The Rouen Cathedral series where “he is painting the colour of time”. In the stones of the Cathedral, Monet gave the immaterial vision of light and air.

Claude Monet, The Rouen Cathedral series, 1892-94

Vincent van Gogh, a great admirer of Hokusai, praised the quality of drawing and use of line in the Great Wave, and said it had a terrifying emotional impact. Van Gogh wanted to see the South of France with Japanese eyes and he was obsessed to bring heaven to earth and paint it.

Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night Over the Rhone, 1888, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Starry night over the Rhone is a cosmic painting Trinity: land, water and sky all melting and dissolving together. As the aizuri-e prints the painting is all in blue tone. The light in the painting is given by the yellow colour of the gas lamp, their reflection on water and the Ursula major in the sky.

Though full of vibrant energy, the scene is calm; the only people present in the composition are two colourful figurines of lovers in the foreground.

Nature was the point of departure for Vincent’s art throughout his life. It was the same for Japanese artists, and he recognised that. At the same time, Japanese prints gave him the example he needed to modernise.

This was the radiance of modern art.




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