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Lesson Vocabulary

tsunami:series of destructive waves caused by under water earthquakes or other disturbances

wave: a moving ridge or swell on the survace of liquid

woocut print: print in which the picture or designe is carved into a block of wood, coated with ink, an pressed against a piece of paper

Katsushika Hokusai

Katsushika Hokusai had an extraordinarily long and productive career, establishing himself not only as one of Japan's artists but the world's as well. His innovation in painting and printmaking influenced many Western artists, including Degas, van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and Cassatt. Hokusai was a restless, opinionated, unpredictable man who in his career turned his skilled eye and hand to nearly every subject. He produced painting and print masterpieces of every genre: landscapes, legends, theater scenes, great actors, figure studies, cartoons, and plants and animals.

Born in Edo (now Tokyo), he moved nearly 100 times in his life, and changed his name at least 45 times, as was the custom when an artist changed his style or position. On several occasions, he even sold his name to wealthy amateur artists! He learned drawing, painting, and engraving as an apprentice, and he sometimes experimented with European methods of perspective. His best-known works, however, are landscapes in the Japanese manner. The most celebrated of these are in the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. In each print we see the volcano, an ancient Japanese pilgrimage site, from a different perspective or under unusual weather conditions.

Hokusai was completely dedicated to his art and he was a great show-off while doing it! He painted with his fingers, toothpicks, bottles, eggshells, or anything that was readily available. Once he painted a scene that was so large admirers had to stand on the rooftops to see it. Another time he painted two sparrows on a grain of rice!

Hokusai created over thirty thousand pictures in the course of his lifetime. When he was 75, he wrote:

From the age of six, I had a mania for drawing...at 73, I learned something of the structure of nature... When I am 80, you will see real progress. At 90, I shall have cut into the mystery of life itself ..At 100, I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110, everything I create...will jump to life...I promise to keep my word.
He signed his name "The Old Man Mad About the Drawing." On the day he died in 1849 at the age of 89, he was happily at work on a drawing.


The Great Wave off Kanagawa, 1831

The Japanese printmaker Hokusai was in his sixties when he created his greatest woodcuts, a series of landscapes called Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. They tell the story of the countryside around Edo: people at work and play, weather in all its forms, and in each print, somewhere, the sacred volcano, Mount Fuji. The Great Wave is all the more compelling to the viewer who scans the scene right to left because; it nearly swamps the narrow boat as it also seems to engulf the observer!

Mount Fuji stands resolute in the distance, ignoring the menacing wave that elegantly frames it. As small as it appears, it demands our equal or greater attention with its straight-sided, calm majesty. The triangle is a very strong form in architecture. It can support a great deal of weight. In this scene as well, it is powerful, especially against the fluid, curved, pliable forms of the waves.

Hokusai marveled at nature. The figures that populate his landscapes are most frequently only players in the story being told, but they are players who give us knowledge and a feeling of the place and times in which Hokusai lived. What can you tell about Hokusai's Japan from this woodcut? In the upper left, there are two sets of Japanese writing, one inside a box, the other out. The title of the series, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, and the title of this particular print, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, hang like a banner in the box. The other calligraphy is Hokusai's signature.

Media and Technique

The Great Wave is a woodcut, preserved in the fragile medium of colored ink on soft, nearly transparent paper made from the fibers of mulberry tree bark. Originally, woodcuts were printed in black, with any color painted on by hand afterwards. Around 1800, and with the Ukiyo-e school in Japan, colors were also printed from the carved wooden blocks.

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