(from page 8)
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 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
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
(continued on page 10)
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
to NTEIVA Newsletter Home vol.12,no.3