Why the 'Great Wave' has mystified art lovers for generations
Featured on cnn.com
A massive wave threatens to engulf three fishing boats, its foam crown extending like claws, menacing the rowers below. It's an epic scene of human struggle and natural terror that dwarfs the sacred Mount Fuji just behind it.
This is "The Great Wave off Kanagawa," a woodblock print by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai and one of the world's most iconic pieces of Asian art.
If this climactic moment seems ubiquitous -- think T-shirts, coffee mugs, laptop decals -- that's because it was designed to be.
The artwork is considered a fine, if somewhat hackneyed, example of "ukiyo-e," a genre of mass-produced Japanese woodblock prints that displayed everything from theater announcements to the most salacious of erotica.
Ukiyo-e prints were cheap to produce and widely distributed in Edo (today's Tokyo) between the 17th and 19th centuries. As many as 5,000 impressions were made from the original woodblocks for "The Great Wave." Back then, the prints were sold for the price of a bowl of noodles.
By the time "The Great Wave" made its debut, in around 1830, Japan was flirting with the idea of ending more than 200 years of isolationism. The story of growing foreign influence is evident in Hokusai's masterpiece -- the rich shade of blue used in the prints was imported from Europe. Prussian blue, as it's commonly known, was a synthetic color created in the 18th century and prized for its depth and durability.
That Hokusai employed the hue as the principal actor in his oceanic drama suggests that he was depicting Japan on the cusp of change. As much as the wave portends instability and danger, it also suggests possibility and adventure.
'Essence' of Japan
Hokusai spent most of his life in the riverside district of Sumida, Tokyo, where he adopted at least 30 pseudonyms and, perhaps, just as many different styles. "The Great Wave" was the first in his series "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji," a virtuosic study of Japan's highest and most revered mountain.
Click here to read the full article.