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The 'Great Wave' has mystified art lovers for generations (2019) (cnn.com)
86 points by Tomte 8 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 27 comments

A few months ago, I discovered that the sketchbook of Hokusai (the artist of the Great Wave) is available online. There are thousands of images and they're pretty fascinating to browse through.



The Smithsonian has some of the volumes at better resolution and with a PDF export:


In addition to works by many other great works by artists of the Edo and Meiji periods:


"[] 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."

Or he just liked this new blue colour that was now available, he needed blue for his waves, and we shouldn't read more into it than that.

"As much as the wave portends instability and danger, it also suggests possibility and adventure."

To some viewers, perhaps. But the wording makes it sound like this was the original artist's idea - and of this we have no idea.

The color mentioned, Prussian blue, has a particular history with regards to Japanese art. Remember that at the time, imports were banned in Japan and thus to even own the color was something of a rarity. Based on the contemporary situation and his own history and interest in Western culture and art, it's pretty likely that Hokusai chose the color deliberately, and not simply that he liked blue "because he wanted it for the waves." Remember that he was nearly 70 years old when he started working on Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. Typically artists at that level of experience don't choose to use rare new materials just for kicks.

Hokusai was one of the first Japanese printmakers to boldly embrace the colour, a decision that would have major implications in the world of art. Using it extensively in his series Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji (1830), of which the Great Wave was the first, the pigment especially lent itself to expressing both depth in water and distance, crucial atmospheric qualities to render land and seascapes.

Hokusai drew influence from a particular “Rangakusha” (scholar of Dutch texts) painter named Shiba Kokan, who experimented with European principles of composition. In The Great Wave, Hokusai abandoned traditional Japanese isometric view, where motifs were scaled according to importance, and instead adopted the dynamic style of Western perspective featuring intersecting lines of sight.

In short: the work itself incorporates deep influences from European art. Ergo, it's pretty standard art criticism to assume that the choice of materials and colors were also chosen deliberately.


Of course he chose the pigment deliberately. The question is if he chose it because of its visual effect (and price and chemical properties) or because of some symbolic meaning in the history of the pigment.

Choosing a pigment for its color is not the same as choosing it "just for kicks". The entire purpose of a pigment is to create color!

Clearly the most likely answer is "for both reasons", as I explained in the parent comment. He had an interest in Western art, the work itself incorporates Western techniques, the pigment was rare and associated with (Western) modernity, and its particular qualities made it suited for his visual goals. It would not make much sense to note that he made all of these decisions to highlight a changing Japan / new influences from the West, but say that he only chose Prussian blue because it looked nice.

This is not really an uncommon occurrence; artists choose materials for their visual appearance and symbolic meaning all the time. Klimt's use of gold leaf is a similar example.

Klimt's use of gold was inspired by a trip he had made to Italy in 1903. When he visited Ravenna he saw the Byzantine mosaics in the Church of San Vitale. For Klimt, the flatness of the mosaics and their lack of perspective and depth only enhanced their golden brilliance, and he started to make unprecedented use of gold and silver leaf in his own work



I think the point of the parent poster is that artists (like Klimt) often choose their materials because they want to achieve a certain effect, not because they want to signal a certain concept or relationship to a specific situation. Klimt did not choose that color and material to signal a return to Byzantium mores or some particular link to the Eastern Italian coast, but because it suited his imagery - that had classic influences but was unmistakably something else and new.

Similarly, I agree that linking Hokusai’s use of a new blue to a particular will of representing a changing Japanese society, is a big overreach without other corroborating evidence. It makes much more sense that he was simply an artist who was still at the peak of his powers and enjoyed innovating into his late years. It’s like aged architects embracing new materials when they become available - not because they represent this or that, but simply because they work better and open new possibilities.

I would think we should look at it somewhere in the middle. We can't truly know what Hokusai was thinking, or even if he truly understood the forces in his mind. But the art now has a life of its own. It represents just as much for him as it can for us.

Even the fact that a Japanist artist decided to look to Prussia for a certain color could suggest that Japan, or at least Hokusai, was opening up to the world, and to globalism and industrialism.

I like to remember James Joyce's words in Ulysses: "The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring."

What a horrible headline. Clickbait.

While I love Hokusai's art, this article does not explain why the Great Wave mystifies art lovers nor how it does so for generations.

Right? It's much more about the process than the piece. Would have also read that article, but I thought I was reading another.

I also thought there was going to be some actual mystery about this painting I've seen before, but don't know much about. I guess CNN got my click, I feel duped.

The headline writer used the old "mysterious Orient" trope, a casually racist idea that goes back to Westerners using words like "inscrutable" to describe Asians. It's lazy clickbait writing and really unfair to the quality of the actual article.

Art is it's own language, it doesn't translate well into English.

You can talk about an artist, his tools and techniques, you can talk about the historical context in which a work is first received, and you can track how the work has influenced future generations of artists, these are all things that the article touches upon. But to try and explain why a particular work is great is a fools errand. It's there in the work. Just look at it. It explains itself.

If anyone is interested in Japanese wood block prints I really suggest checking out David Bulls channel on YouTube.

He did a whole series on his own copy of the Great Wave.


I don't understand what has 'mystified' them. Enamored, impressed, inspired, yes. But what are they mystified by?

Mystified means bewildered or perplexed. Are these two feelings incompatible with art?

The feelings are not incompatible with lots of things. For instance, you could say, “I’m mystified by the fare schedules for transportation zones in London”. That’s a valid sentence. If the schedules make sense to me, though, I might ask “Why are you mystified?” and then you might say something like “I don’t understand why it costs more to travel from X to Y than from X to Z” and we can discuss it.

If you were to, instead, say “Is mystification incompatible with pricing schedules?” no one will have benefited.

So, put simply, “What part confuses you?” is the question.

> Takahashi says it takes about a decade to become a true ukiyo-e "shokunin," or master craftsman, and that there are only 25 left in Tokyo today.

I was watching David Bull, the Canadian-turned-ukiyo-e carver lamenting that the printer he wanted to produce his prints was busy printing some new Yoshida Toshi prints for the late artists family from the artist's original wood blocks.

I had no idea that you could get prints made from original blocks — and, when I tracked them down, for a few hundred U.S. dollars.

I ordered a print for my wife for Christmas last year (this one: https://www.teamwakon.com/products/yoshida-toshi-hyoroku)

In the emails I got from the studio in Japan they wanted to know how they could spread these prints to more people — to keep this art form alive.

If you've watched enough David Bull on YouTube (the Bob Ross of ukiyo-e carving) you'll hear of his storied journey from being a young, enthusiastic Canadian begging an audience with a touring company of Japanese masters, the sneering reception he is often met with as he tries to excel in their craft and finally his "arrival" when he dedicates a decade of his life to creating a series of 100 prints.

And with all his YouTube exposure, all the videos he has created on how to approach and eventually master the craft, his Twitch streaming... the old masters came to him and said, "Thank you, David-san, you are doing what we should have been doing."

Or so I paraphrase....

I always liked this animated sketchbook about Hokusai made by Tony White: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FmFGtsG_EgA

Wish it were available in a higher resolution.

Hiroshige also has many great woodblock prints in the same era.

Most Westerners read text left-to-right, and therefore often interpret other things left-to-right as well.

Supposedly in Japan(ese), people interpret things right-to-left, and so if one wants to interpret this painting as the artist did natively, it should be looked at coming from the right?

I've been studying oil painting under a local professional artist. One of the topics that really interests me is composition. Artists go to great lengths to design the placement, colors, texture, etc of objects in a painting to purposely lead the eye. When I look at the Great Wave, I find my eyes start at the top of the breaking wave, then move along the curve of the wave, to the boat, then toward the right. It's actually kind of a Golden Spiral, which is used often in paintings.

Check out the false start. In the wave you can see the shape of mount fuji from a different angle. Frequently not noticed but once seen, not viewed the same way again.

In japanese garden design, often the shapes of the foreground (i.e. the garden itself) are chosen to mimic or extend the shapes in the background (the surrounding landscape). It might've been a similar principle applied here, deliberately.

Why would you call that a 'false start'.

I guess he assumes the artist started depicting Fuji-san, wasn’t happy with the result, and reworked it all in a way that could accommodate some of the initial effort. Which may or may not be true.

If that's the reason then... it's not true.

There was a mural in Honolulu?

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