It is more than 180 years old, but one iconic Japanese artwork continues to make waves across the East and West.
Formally known as The Great Wave off Kanagawa, the Japanese woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai is one of the most recognisable works in the modern world, having being reinterpreted everywhere from Australian surfwear logos to art murals in eastern Europe.
And it is now on show at the National Gallery of Victoria.
With the famous work produced towards the end of Hokusai’s career, the Japanese legend has left behind a lifetime of skilful and symbolic work, which the exhibition showcases comprehensively.
“Hokusai was very eccentric, unpredictable and had many highs and lows in his career,” Hokusai exhibition curator Wayne Crothers says.
“This particular work has made him one of the most iconic Japanese artists in history. The Great Wave is everywhere you go.”
Hokusai’s wave has touched all four corners of the world, including influencing fashion designers such as Proenza Schouler’s New York runway wear and Alena Akhmadullina’s Russia spring collection in 2016.
The work has been adopted by fast-fashion mass producers, who have used it on everything from swimsuits to watches, T-shirts and tote bags, meaning people of all economic and social backgrounds can have a piece of Hokusai’s legendary wave.
Once you recognise Hokusai’s work, interpretations of the iconic wave seems to appear everywhere — from the wave emoji on the latest smartphone to menu covers of Asian cuisines.
It encapsulates and depicts the beauty and complexity of the East, but stands as a popular cultural icon in the West. It is fluid in its interpretation, depending on where it is viewed in the world.
Born in 1760, Hokusai lived during Japan’s Edo period, when a merchant culture was thriving in Tokyo. With woodblock prints having reached their most elaborate form, it is said the artist was brought into the world at the right time.
“With a population of over a million, Tokyo had a huge middle class. Production of household goods and textiles, entertainment and kabuki was high,” Crothers says.
“Hokusai’s prints, which were made for a quick commercial purpose, sold at an affordable price. But because of the cheap nature of these prints, they were easily ruined. Thousands of copies of The Great Wave were produced, but almost all of them have been destroyed since.”
The initial 200 versions made are considered the most beautiful and sought-after impressions of The Great Wave. However, there are very few surviving threads.
So given this loss, why has The Great Wave spoken in volumes to art and popular culture lovers around the world?
“To me, The Great Wave represents human interaction with nature, and human fragility in this all-powerful natural world,” Crothers says. “The finger-like tentacles of the wave give it a human personality, almost as if it is reaching out to the viewer. These fingertips, reaching down to touch the people, and Mt Fuji, which can represent Japan as a whole.”
Building on Australia’s strong connection to the healing and powerful properties of the ocean, combined with an element of exoticism from the Japanese culture, the exhibition will display more than 170 works, thanks to a six-year effort by curators. The NGV, which bought its copy
of The Great Wave in 1909, is presenting two versions of the light-sensitive woodblock prints.
“This is a rare chance to see the prints, that were produced over 180 years ago,” Crothers says. “They were separated at a point of sale, lived their own separate lives and they have been reunited. I think that is quite special.
“The unique printing of each edition reminds onlookers that they’re all hand made, applied slightly different, both prints have slight eccentricities about them.”
The artist behind the wave, Crothers says, did not produce his most famous work until the 1830s. Hokusai died in 1849.
The Great Wave was produced as part of the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fujiseries, designed to bring the poverty-stricken artist money.
“Another reason The Great Wave is so extraordinary is because it is one of the many scenes Hokusai produced that exist only in people’s wildest imaginations,” Crothers says.
“This was a popular theme in the Edo period, to envisage scenes that people may never get to witness themselves. A rare talent Hokusai had was to feel what people desired deeply and to recreate that through artwork.”
With appropriation described as a method of conservation, it sparks many topics, such as the meaning of the artwork, and how its historically relevant themes still remain relevant today, allowing Hokusai to retain great prominence in society.
“I’m completely open to contemporary interpretation. Historically, I like the originals, but no one has ever done anything better than Hokusai. It’s all in good fun and a homage to the artist who was known himself to appropriate historical things throughout his artistic career.”
Crothers says the exhibition showcases Hokusai’s genius in landscape creation, figurative drawing, painting and manga.
“People won’t get a chance for a long time to see this again, maybe never. Everyone knows The Great Wave, but they don’t know the mastermind responsible for it.”
Hokusai, NGV International, 180 St Kilda Rd, city, until October 15.
Originally published in The Herald Sun Weekend: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/victoria/hokusai-exhibition-to-make-a-splash-in-melbourne/news-story/413a3240e8cb10a584aa9c38ee974c73