I was first introduced to Hokusai when I was 12. We had an art project where we had to make clay relief tiles based on scenes from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. I was given the shipwreck scene, and although I will freely admit that my artistic talents are lacking, I was particularly struggling with how to make the scene translate to clay. My art teacher suggested I use ‘The Great Wave’ as a reference and showed me the famous picture. I was intrigued by the way the waves looked so dynamic, despite the relatively few colours used. Although my final result wasn’t nearly as impressive, the interest in Hokusai’s art remained.
I was able to go to the Hokusai Exhibition in 2017 at the British Museum which had a lot of his work, including many of the ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’ of which ‘The Great Wave’ is a part. The 36 ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) depict farmers, fisherman, travellers and artisans all going about their business, with Mount Fuji visible in the distance. This series of prints is considered Hokusai’s masterpiece and was so hugely popular that he created a further ten prints for the series, and then published a series of books with illustrations making up ‘One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji’.
This video by James Payne of Great Art Explained on YouTube gives a great overview of Hokusai’s life and artistic style, as well as the overall artistic environment of Japan in the early nineteenth century when Hokusai was producing much of his work. Interestingly although we consider Hokusai’s style of Ukiyo-e to be very representative of Japan, he was influenced by European art and artists and ‘The Great Wave’ is an example of his Japanese-European hybrid style. I also learned that Hokusai was one of the first to produce landscapes in ukiyo-e, with kabuki actors and courtesans being the most common subjects previously. As the domestic tourism travel industry began to boom in the 19th century, landscape prints being incredibly popular as souvenirs, rocketing Hokusai to fame.
The British Museum will be exhibiting over 100 ‘lost’ Hokusai drawings later in the year, you can also view a lot of his work on their website.