SEATTLE WA You know the iconic image but maybe not the artist. The most famous piece of art from Japan, a woodblock print of a rogue wave with Mount Fuji, was created by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).
Under the Wave off Kanagawa (known as The Great Wave) was produced in 1831, the first in a series called Thirty-SIx Views of Mount Fuji. About 1,000 copies of The Great Wave were initially printed. The worn wood blocks were re-used to ultimately produce an estimated 8,000 more prints of lesser quality.
About the size of a sheet of legal paper, the print originally sold for 16 mon (roughly $4 today.) At auction last March, a rare print sold for $2.76 million.
Typically what we see in museums is big and bold. In contrast, Seattle Art Museum is currently exhibiting Hokusai’s work of delicate prints and paintings, paired with work of his contemporaries, and art inspired by Hokusai.
I visited SAM on New Year’s Eve to learn the story of this most prolific artist.
Hokusai began drawing at the age of six. For more than 80 years, he continued to draw, paint, and illustrate.
Adopted by his uncle as a young child, at 19 Hokusai left home and joined the studio of Katsukawa Shumshō. His journey as an artist started as a lowly apprentice painting costumed ladies and drawing kubuki actors for woodblock prints.
Ultimately Hokusai rose to become a star—after years of struggle, teaching others, and creating a new style of art that synthesized Japanese and European painting techniques.
Looking at the numbers, we learn more about this master. Hokusai created over 30,000 paintings, sketches, woodblock prints, and picture books in his lifetime.
He rose with the sun and made art until late in the night.
Hokusai relocated 93 times. Every time his studio became too cluttered, he moved to a new space.
And Hokusai changed his name 30 times.
Hokusai drew his dangerous wave many times—at the age of 33, 44, and 46. It was not until he was 71 that he completed his famous woodblock print that has captured the world’s attention for almost 200 years.
Why is The Great Wave so amazing? In the scene, fragile boats filled with hardworking fishermen could be wrecked in an instant while Mount Fuji stands steadfast and strong in the distance.
More impressive is the impact of Hokusai’s work. Many artists have used this artwork as inspiration — including Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh. The SAM exhibit included contemporary art based on the clawing waves and the majestic mountain.
Below: The Wave, 2017 by Christiane Baumgarter; Three Women in Floral Bathing Suits with Stylized Wave, ca 1980 by Mia Carpenter; and The Great Wave built with LEGO Bricks, 2020 by Jumpei Mitsui.
Strolling through the exhibit, I was pleased to bump into neighbors from my old Seattle neighborhood—Thomas Whittemore, a cartoonist, and his wife Michelle. We had so much to catch up on that we bothered other museum visitors for over half an hour.
Even Thomas was motivated create his own version of The Great Wave!
In the last decade of his life, Hokusai focused on painting — the most highly respected art form in Japan.
On his death bed this humble man, who had created art non-stop, said “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years... Just another five more years... Then I could become a real painter.”
On view at Seattle Art Museum HOKUSAI: Inspiration and Influence
October 19, 2023 to January 21, 2024
All rights reserved for Thomas Whittemore cartoon ©2024
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