The Great Wave in all its states

Like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, one of the most famous works in the history of art, Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave is undoubtedly one of the most widely reproduced images in the world. Copied, parodied, imitated, hijacked, reinterpreted and revisited, it is endlessly reproduced in all shapes and forms. T-shirts, jumpers, watches, wallpaper, socks, shoes, scarves, tote bags, clocks, cushions, teapots, smartphone cases, vases, tattoos, street art, gifs, goodies, and more. In short, it’s all there.


Like luxury brands, cities and contemporary artists, everyone loves to pay tribute to the world’s most famous wave, which over the last few decades has become as much an icon as a marketing image. The composer Debussy already used it to illustrate his score of La Mer, the Danish games giant Lego turned it into a jigsaw puzzle, the famous Swiss watchmaker Swatch turned it into a watch, and the sportswear label Quicksilver hijacked it to create its logo, the Breton town of St Malo has used it as inspiration for a tourist poster, sprawling Moscou has used it to decorate the facades of six residential buildings, the France TV group has reinterpreted it in an artistic spot for the 2021 Olympics and finally, the new Japanese 1. 000 yen banknote, which will go into circulation this summer, will also feature the famous Great Wave. Not to mention the many publications, articles, reports and research reports that have appeared on the subject, not to mention Hajime Hashimoto’s recent film Hokusai, released in 2023.


An original print of La Grande Vague was auctioned on 21 March at Christie’s during London’s Asian Art Week. Estimated at between €450,000 and €650,000 and finally sold for €2.6 million, it was acquired by an anonymous collector after a thirteen-minute telephone battle. This particular print thus became the most expensive copy of the famous masterpiece, whereas a standard print in ink on paper, reproduced from an original model carved on a wooden board, can be reproduced ad infinitum and cost a few dozen Euros. So why such a high price? Because it’s one of the earliest prints dating from the 19th century, identifiable by its clean lines and the presence of clouds silhouetted against the pinkish-beige sky that make it so rare. The original work, produced between 1830 and 1831 when Hokusai was 70 years old, is a ōban-sized print measuring 25.7 × 37.91 cm, entitled by its real name Under the Wave off Kanagawa. It is part of the no less famous Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji series, which depicts Japan’s sacred mountain from different viewpoints and in different seasons.


Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), who signed his name Gakyojin Hokusai, was a painter, engraver, draughtsman, printer, writer and inventor of manga (which means free drawing). This hard-working, uncompromising artist left behind almost 30,000 drawings, nearly 3,000 colour prints, almost 1,000 paintings and more than 200 illustrated books. He is the embodiment of the art of Ukiyo-e or the ‘floating’ world, dealing mainly with nature, light subjects and the desire for the present moment. Hokusai became one of the most emblematic artists of the Edo period (which lasted 266 years, from 1602 to 1868), and owes his success to the fact that the production and trade of prints was in full swing, allowing workers to escape their daily lives and collectors to obtain works at reasonable prices. Edo (the old name for Tokyo), under construction and in full swing, saw the development of small pocket theatres and large Kabuki theatres, sumo fights and places of pleasure, where geishas, wrapped in flamboyant kimonos, accompanied the men into houses with paper partitions and red lanterns.


At the origin of the Japonisme movement in the second half of the 19th century in the West, Hokusai’s works were to have a decisive influence on the Impressionists and some of the great names in European painting, such as Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet, Klimt and Gauguin, who appreciated the free Japanese interpretation of motifs, the tight, off-centre framing and the flat tones of colour, and demanded freedom from the traditional rules of Western painting. Hokusai’s Great Wave, which came to prominence at this time, has since been included in numerous museum collections around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the British Museum in London, the BNF, the Musée Guimet in Paris and Monet’s personal collection, which included no fewer than 231 prints housed at the Fondation Monet à Giverny.



But how can we explain this boundless attraction to this famous wave, which has fascinated lovers of Japanese prints and the general public alike for over 150 years? If you’ve already seen it many times, have you taken the time to take a good look at it? An iconic work that is both simple and complex, captivating and almost magnetic, it encapsulates the Japanese soul in the collective imagination. On closer inspection, it’s not just one wave, but two, which, like unpredictable and impressive sea monsters, almost give you vertigo and take up more than half the print. They catch the viewer’s eye, as if sucked into the depths of the movement, crushed under the weight of the hooked-fingered foam, ready to engulf the three long boats manned by twenty or so fishermen in a precarious balance, who seem to be trapped in this raging sea. In the background, Mount Fuji, 3,776 metres high and covered in white, appears impassive and eternal, tiny and powerless, seen from this unusual vantage point, planted in the middle of the sea. The wave is beautiful, majestic, unpredictable and dangerous, illustrating Hokusai’s belief that nature is all-powerful and that man cannot tame it. Coloured in white, yellow and Prussian blue – a pepper invented in the 18th century and imported from Holland, more intense and more acidic than the indigo blue traditionally used – the wave swirls in a circular pattern, the centre of which could be the middle of the work. A symbol of Yin and Yang? This work is said to evoke Taoist and Buddhist principles, with its violence and brutality contrasting with the peaceful calm of the sky, as a metaphor for human duality.


‘It’s a global work, which we’ve all seen at least once, and which takes us back to feudal Japan, authentic and dreamlike. It’s wonderful to realise that it has survived two centuries and is still here today,’ says Adrien Brossard, heritage curator and director of the Musée Départemental des Arts Asiatiques in Nice, which recently organised the exhibition Hokusai, Voyage au pied du mont Fuji, featuring masterpieces from the Georges Leskowicz collection, which attracted over 70,000 visitors in four months. Nicknamed the ‘old drawing fool’, Katsushika Hokusai, who wanted to live to 110, fulfilled his wish in another way.



Text by Christine Cibert


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