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It's an omnipresent image that has inspired music, tattoos, and even an emoji on your phone. But Hokusai's Great Wave is a woodblock print that was made to be reproduced. What's its story? Let's better know the Great Wave.

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You've seen this image before.  A giant wave, its distinctive curly claws arched and ready to pounce.  It's invoked when natural disaster strikes, but also when it's time to sell beer, jeans, and sweatshirts.  It inspired Claude Debussy's orchestral work "La Mer" as well as a not-insignificant number of tattoos.  It's an omnipresent image and one used towards a variety of ends.  Good grief, it's even an emoj.  What is it about this image that continues to enthrall us?  Let's better know the Great Wave.

First off, the title is not the Great Wave, and its subject isn't really a wave.  It's one of a series of wood block prints called "36 Views of Mount Fuji" made by the Japanese printmaker Kasushika Hokusai, between 1830 and 1833.  Long considered sacred by followers of Shintoism and Buddhism among others, Mt. Fuji is depicted from a variety of perspectives and the artwork in question is just one of them.

Its actual title translates to "Under the Wave of Kanagawa" because 'under' is where Mt. Fuji is nestled, far in the distance.  Also under the wave are fishermen, just trying to get home after delivering fish to the city of Edo, rowing for their lives to escape the wave, but the great wave, of course, dominates the composition and has become an accepted title.

Born near modern-day Tokyo in 1760, Hokusai was a prominent Ukiyo-e artist, the name for the mass-produced wood block prints of the Edo period.  Notable for their distillation of forms, emphasis on line and pure color, and depictions of hedonistic city life, Ukiyo-e means 'floating world', referring to the ephemerality of the fads and fashions of the time.  This was not stuffy high art but images available to a growing middle class for about the cost of a bowl of noodle soup.  Hokusai was fascinated by the movement of water, exploring the subjects on many occasions throughout his career, and not just rough seas, but a few calmer moments, too.

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In the 1830s when the Great Wave was created, Japan was largely shut off to the wider world due to the isolationist policies of the Tokugawa shogunate then in power.  We can see Hokusai borrowing from Japanese (?~2:20) artists like Ogata Korin, especially in the tentacle-like projections from his waves, but Western realism was creeping in to Japanese art nevertheless, largely due to European engravings smuggled in by Dutch traders. 

The Great Wave betrays a clear Western influence.  The use of linear perspective, a low horizon line, and the appearance of Prussian blue, a synthetic pigment then very new to Japan, hailing from, that's right, Prussia.  Thousands of copies of the Mt. Fuji prints were released within Japan, mostly bought as souveniers by an emerging market of domestic tourists and those making pilgrimages to the mountain, but in the 1850s after Hokusai's death, trade began to open up and his work was shown at the 1867 International Exposition in Paris.

Japanese culture quickly became all the rage in Europe and (?~3:10) prints were admired and collected by many, including Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, and a number of artists who were heavily influenced by their depictions of city life, vivid colors, and what for them was a flattening of space.  

In 1896, a tsunami hit Northern Japan and news of its destruction spread worldwide.  It's been hypothesized that this event, coupled with the (?~3:34) craze helped propel the Great Wave to international renown, although the print does not depict a tsunami.  In 2009, researchers identified it as a 32 to 39 foot tall rogue wave, or what they call plunging breaker.  It would certainly still be deadly, however, and that's where we get to the real and obvious drama of the picture.  Nature is large and we are small.

This juxtaposition can be seen in the art of many cultures at many different times, but we have perhaps never seen it played out more clearly and more distinctly than here.  

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Traditional Japanese landscapes of the time put the viewer at a remove from the action, but here we are right up against this pending disaster.  Hokusai's contrast of near and far, and manmade and natural, heighten the tension and place us inside the narrative.  When Debussy composed La Mer in 1903, he drew on his own childhood experience of surviving a terrifying storm on a fishing boat, as well as paintings by JMW Turner and Hokusai's print, which he selected for the score's cover.  

The image later illustrated a 1948 Pearl Buck novel that tells the story of a young boy from a Japanese fishing village who loses his family to a tidal wave, a post World War II story of grief but also resilience.  

It's an image mobilized when disaster strikes, as it was after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami off the Eastern Coast of Japan.  Scientists and empirical evidence tell us that global average temperatures are rising, with extreme weather events becoming more frequent and more intense.  While the sea has always been a formidable opponent for humankind and The Great Wave a useful illustration for that relationship, its relevance is likely to become even stronger, but of course the image can be interpreted in many different and less specific ways, symbolizing a great many imbalance of power.

We don't know if our fishermen are going to make it out of there alive.  It's a cliffhanger, even if you don't register the boats or Mt. Fuji and see the wave alone in its detached emoji state, it still holds us in and tells us quite forcefully that big things are happening, or are about to happen.  Unlike the GoPro views of surfers tunneling through barrel waves, The Great Wave's story is not one of mastery over nature.  It's notably called The Great Wave and not "The Heroic Fishermen Who Survived the Rogue Wave".  

Other artists have capitalized on the power and theatricality of waves as subject matter, but rarely in such a way that we marvel at the talents of the artist instead of the spectacular beauty of the wave itself.

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What's more, this image was meant to be reproduced, not sequestered in one museum where only a few have the privilege of witnessing it.  While there are certainly numerous crimes against this image perpetrated across the internet, the crisp graphic quality of the original woodblock prints make it friendlier fodder for duplication and interpretation.

When most of us experience the ocean, this is thankfully not how we usually see it.  It's an incredibly improbable view.  It's a film still or screen capture in the most dynamic, unstable, and unpredictable of environments, but it has nevertheless become our favorite stand-in for the ocean, a way to isolate some fraction of the vastness that covers 70% of planet Earth.  It's an icon.  It's the ultimate, most wave-like of all waves, but it's also an entire story told simply and succinctly and masterfully.  Whatever your Great Wave is made of, you are undoubtedly under it and always will be, until you're not.

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