1 More

Kanagawa oki nami ura (Under the well of the Great Wave off Kanagawa) [“Great Wave”]

Kanagawa oki nami ura (Under the well of the Great Wave off Kanagawa) [“Great Wave”]
Woodblock print, from the series Fugaku sanjurokkei (Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji), signed Hokusai aratame Iitsu hitsu, published by Nishimuraya Yohachi (Eijudo)
Horizontal oban: 9 7/8 x 14 5/8 in. (25.1 x 37.1 cm.)
Acquired by the family of the current owner in the early 1900s; thence by descent
Ukiyo-e: japanske farvetraesnit bloktrykte boger og album surimono fra danske samlinger (Denmark: Ny Carlsberg glyptotek, 1993). cat.no.8.
"Ukiyo-e: japanske farvetraesnit bloktrykte boger og album surimono fra danske samlinger", Ny Carlsberg glyptotek, Copenhagen, 2 June-31 Aug, 1993

Brought to you by

Takaaki Murakami (村上高明)
Takaaki Murakami (村上高明) Vice President, Specialist and Head of Department | Korean Art

Lot Essay

Although many people in this world are familiar with ‘The Great Wave’ in either the original or whatever adaptation, reworked or even in some reconfigured form, few people are aware that this was originally a work by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) in the format of a woodblock print with the modest measurements of circa 265 x 390 millimeters. Yet, this absolutely iconic image continues to inspire artists and designers all over the world, and now lends itself to shirts, sweaters, scarfs, shoes, bags, drinking cups, watch dials, wallpaper and much more, and even, quite disrespectfully, floor carpets. And whereas Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring yields 1.450.000 hits in Google, and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers 5.530.000, Picasso’s Guernica 12.500.000, and Snoopy 73.700.000, the Mona Lisa beats them all with 129.000.000 hits, but still, the Great Wave will forever, I would say, be unbeatable with its hits.
In his design, Hokusai captures a mere second in the life of a wave with the eternal Mount Fuji seen almost literally in the hollow of it on the horizon, as is also corroborated in the print’s title In the Hollow of a Wave off Kanagawa, Kanagawa oki namiura. We can read the force of the wave speaking from its bands in two shades of blue, its crest ending in numerous claws set off against a light blue. Amidst the waves are three so-called oshiokuri boats on their way to the Izu Peninsula and Awa Province, now Chiba Prefecture, to collect their cargo of fish and vegetables destined for Edo. Like most human figures in the series of Fuji prints, the oarsmen, obsessed with haste, have no attention for Mount Fuji in the distance – and maybe not even for the waves?
In well-preserved early impressions, as the one offered here, we even see a pink cloud in the sky. There are also no signs of breaks in the title cartouche that we tend to see in most copies of this print. Indeed, it ranks beyond doubt among the twenty or so best impressions surviving today. As for its pedigree, the print came to the present owner’s ancestors in the early 1900s and was most recently on public display in an exhibition at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (New Carlsberg Glypthoteque), Copenhagen, organized by the Denmark-Japan Society in 1993. It was there one of the highlights among no less than 18 prints from the series of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji selected from various both private and public Danish collections of mostly surprisingly good quality.
In the following I intend to address both the historical background of the image and what makes it such an iconic image, obviously speaking to a worldwide audience – but also including a Japanese audience? Anyway, most of the adapted and reworked Waves are an obvious proof of a Western embrace, but was there also some esteem in Japan? We actually know of just one obvious almost contemporary Japanese adaptation, a small format print in black and white, issued on the occasion of a severe rainstorm and floods of melting snow following some tremors, coming down from Mount Fuji in the fourth month of 1834, resulting in quite some deaths. This is an illegal broadsheet, a so-called kawaraban, as it was in the Edo Period prohibited to report on current events such as, for example, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floodings, famines and epidemic diseases. The obvious amateur designer depicts the mountain full size to the right with Hokusai’s wave in reverse in the foreground, heavy rain falling, and many people being swallowed in the waters. Titled Water Flooding from Mount Fuji, Fujisan shussui no zu, the explanatory text also indicates the date of the disaster taking place ‘from the evening of the seventh day of the fourth month of Tenpo 5 (15 May 1834), Year of the Horse,’ no mistake there. Also following the recent tsunami hitting the northern coast of Japan in 2011, Hokusai’s design was cited regularly in reports. But both are very different from what Hokusai intended, we are naturally surrounded by nature and Mount Fuji is there, and we can simply live here peacefully. In Hokusai’s prints, nature is never a threat or posing any danger. There cannot be any doubt if the boats will make it to their destination.
Even earlier, in a diptych composition by Shunkosai Hokuei after a kabuki play performed in IX/1833 at the Naka theatre in Osaka, the actor Arashi Rikan II is seen against a sea of clearly Hokusai-inspired waves. Hokusai’s Wave as a model for the backdrop of a print by Kitagawa Toyohide after a kabuki play performed in IX/1841 at the Kado theatre in Osaka is even more obvious. Hokusai-inspired waves are even to be seen as late as V/1850 in a diptych composition by Osaka artist Hirosada. As for more examples of contemporary influence from Hokusai’s Wave, that is with the claw-like foamy crests atop of the wave, it just suffices to look into prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), such as Nichiren calming the waves, and especially also in several of his triptych compositions, and prints by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) as we shall see later on.
As for the direct background of both the print of the Wave and the series of prints of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, Fugaku sanjurokkei of which it forms part, we must probably see this as a way to make some direct money after a difficult period in the artist’s life. Hokusai was then probably living with his daughter Oei as his wife had died in the sixth month of 1828, which put a rather abrupt end to his regular attending senryu meetings, that is comical 17-syllabary poems where he obviously found an outlet for his troubles, not only taking care of his wife, but also having to pay the debts resulting from his grandson’s gambling. As we understand from the letter that he wrote on the 28th day of the first month of 1830 to his publishers Hanabusaya Heikichi and Hanabusaya Bunzo, we understand his situation: ‘/…/ this New Year, I have not a penny to spend, no clothes to put on, nor anything to eat /…/ having lost a full year thanks to my willful grandson.’ Badly in need of money, he asks them to already pay him for the illustrations of two volumes of the Shinpen Suikogaden novel that he completed and asks to send him the remaining volumes of Part 2B – Part 2A had been published in the first month of 1829. And he asks for a piece of silk so he can work on a commissioned painting.
Maybe not even awaiting their reaction, Hokusai seems to have also contacted the publisher Nishimuraya Yohachi, discussing with him an old idea that came up when he was working on his model book for lacquerers, Modern Patterns for Combs and Pipes, Imayo kushi kiseru hinagata published in 1823, where he kind of incidentally included eight comb designs that included Mount Fuji. These would in turn inspire him to plan a series of prints titled Eight Fujis, Fugaku hattai, that was duly announced as ‘the wonders of nature, landscapes as they conform to the four seasons, in clear weather, rain, wind, snow, and in misty skies.’ But now, some seven years later, he imagined that he could as well embark on a much larger project, a series of prints of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, Fugaku sanjurokkei. Surprisingly, Nishimuraya agrees, and the first ten designs of the series come out in 1830 in the then still quite exceptional and untested oban format for landscape prints, among them the print officially titled In the Hollow of a Wave off Kanagawa, or also Under the Wave off Kanagawa. All of these ten prints, among them also those of South Wind at Clear Dawn, Gaifu kaisei and Shower below the Summit, Sanka hakuu, as two other masterpieces in the series, are signed ‘Hokusai changing to Iitsu,’ Hokusai aratame Iitsu, a signature that we also find in a large surimono print portraying Yoshimura Isaburo III as a salt-gatherer with a pair of buckets on a yoke, dated to the third month of 1830.
Sometime in the Autumn of 1830, the publisher Enshuya Matabei (?) commissions from Hokusai the designs of a number of small envelopes. Though published under the general title of Hundred Views in the Eastern Capital, Toto hyakkei, we can presently only identify nine of them, all signed ‘Hokusai changing to Iitsu,’ Hokusai aratame Iitsu, as in the surimono print mentioned above, and in the first ten designs in the Fuji series. Quite remarkably, these envelopes are printed in tones of blue, apparently Hokusai’s first group of prints in this novel technique known as aizurie. It must have been these very small designs, measuring 191 x 51 mm, that inspired Hokusai to ask Nishimuraya to execute also the remainder of the Fuji series as prints in blue. Nishimuraya agrees and when he is completing the next instalment of the Ryutei Tanehiko novel Shohon jitate, Part 12, in the ninth or tenth month of 1830 so it could be launched in the first month of 1831, he duly announces: ‘The Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, by the Old Iitsu, formerly known as Hokusai: Single sheet prints in blues, each featuring one view and to be issued successively. These prints show how the shape of Mount Fuji differs when seen from various locations such as from the coast of Shichirigahama, or more distantly from the Island of Tsukudajima, and so on. On the whole they are of use to those wishing to learn and paint remarkable landscapes. The blocks being cut and printed successively, they may well amount to more than a hundred, and so not be restricted to thirty-six plates only.’
The next batch of ten prints issued in 1831 is, indeed, executed in tones of blue only, and they all have the signature ‘Iitsu, formerly Hokusai,’ saki no Hokusai Iitsu just like a group of ten small koban format prints also in blues, of fish, of birds, and a man washing potatoes, signed by Hokusai aged 72, that is 1831.
We don’t know when the first impressions of The Wave came to Europe. Certainly, Edmond de Goncourt knew the print, writing in 1896 that ‘the crest of the wave is torn apart and dispersed in a rainfall of drops in the shape of animal claws,’ and in September 1888, it also comes to the mind of Van Gogh in some observation on the colours blue and green, when he writes in one of his letters that ‘as you [Vincent’s brother Theo] say in your letter: these waves are claws and we feel that the boats are caught in them.’ We know that Claude Monet owned a copy of the print, as well as Henri Rivière did, who in 1902 even made a set of colour-lithographs titled Thirty-six Views of the Eiffel Tower. And Debussy’s three symphonic sketches under the title of La mer of 1905 is also inspired by Hokusai’s print of the Wave. Interestingly, especially in view of the pedigree of the print introduced here, there is a design datable to 1885 by Arnold Krog, the artistic director of the Royal Copenhagen factory, of a porcelain saucer with swans hoovering over Hiroshige’s wave at Satta in Suruga Province from his series of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, a work by Hiroshige who obviously could not evade being inspired by Hokusai’s Wave.
Dr. Matthi Forrer, Senior Researcher Japan Collections, National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden, The Netherlands

More from Japanese and Korean Art

View All
View All