KATSUSHIKA HOKUSAI (1760-1849)
KATSUSHIKA HOKUSAI (1760-1849)
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KATSUSHIKA HOKUSAI (1760-1849)

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

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KATSUSHIKA HOKUSAI (1760-1849)
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: 10 1⁄8 x 14 ¾ in. (25.7 x 37.5 cm.)

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

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Lot Essay

The season is early spring, when the crest of Mount Fuji is saturated with snow. The time is dawn. The “waves that are claws” that Van Gogh saw in this image, are, as wave scientists have now explained, a series of cresting waves that end in hooks, known as fractal waves. The astonishing aspect of Hokusai’s treatment is how closely it resembles an actual wave. Experts are divided as to whether he saw one of these rogue waves or heard about one from a fisherman. An essay of interest to anyone engaged with this print is accessible online: Julyan H. E. Cartwright and Nakamura Hisami, “What Kind of a Wave is Hokusai’s Great Wave Off Kanagawa,” Notes and Records of The Royal Society 63 (2009): 119–35. They, and others, pinpoint the scene as outside the mouth of Tokyo Bay, in seas known for rough water. Mount Fuji is visible from this position as Hokusai has it: far away, so it looks small. The boats are heading away from Edo (Tokyo), speeding to meet fishermen with fresh catches of bonito, a springtime delicacy that sold for high prices in the capital. There are eight boatmen to skull the boats, rather than the more usual four, suggesting that they intend a round trip. Whether they manage, hunkered down over their oars, to slice through the wave like surfers or be pummeled by it is, of course, the captivating mystery of the drama.
Hokusai was obsessed by wave imagery throughout his long career, but The Great Wave, his best-known print and an icon of Japanese art and design, has dazzled generations of Western artists, not to mention collectors. Less well known is the fact that Hokusai himself took inspiration from the West, specifically from eighteenth-century Dutch manuals on perspective and from colleagues who worked in Western style. He became interested in linear perspective and Western techniques early in his career. The starting point for Hokusai is his 1805 woodblock print of a tsunami-like wave cresting ominously over three small cargo boats in a print that predates The Great Wave by thirty years. Mindful of the latest fashions, he imitated a Dutch copperplate engraving, complete with perspective and simulated roman script. He even imitated a Western frame and wrote the title horizontally. Shiba Kokan (1747–1818) made etchings as early as the 1780s and brought the vue d’optique into the Japanese arena. By the early years of the nineteenth century, Hokusai was translating the effects of copperplate into the medium of woodblock prints. For a detailed review of this subject, see Timon Screech, “The Meaning of Western Perspective in Edo Popular Culture,” Archives of Asian Art, vol. 47 (1994).
This experimentation with Western notions appears most obvious in a schematic study in spatial recession in the Hokusai Manga, in 1815. Hokusai demonstrates rules of Western linear perspective to create space and depth, with large objects placed conspicuously in the foreground. He adopted these principles only when he wanted, and only if they were meaningful to his design, as in the case of The Great Wave in 1830.

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