The 'Great Wave off Kanagawa' is probably the most famous Japanese woodblock print ever made in the history of Japan. It is so famous that it has become a landmark image for Japan and the epitome for Japanese woodblock prints.

First Publication: May 2009
Latest Update: April 2013

The Great Wave off Kanagawa - BBC Documentary

These are five parts of an intensive and extensive documentary about this most famous woodblock print. This is a 'must see'. Take the time to view them all. Thanks to the BBC for sharing this with us.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa

The 'Great Wave off Kanagawa' was created by Hokusai Katsushika, one of the greatest Japanese printmakers and painters of the 19th century. It was the first design for a series of originally 36 famous views of Mount Fuji, Japan's sacred mountain. The series was very successful in the market, and thus was later extended to 46 designs. But then it ended abruptly, and we do not know why.

The design was created by Hokusai around 1830 and published by Nishimuraya Yohachi presumably in 1832.

A Dramatic Scene and Daring Composition

The Great Wave - Detail
The Great Wave - Detail - 36 Views of Mount Fuji
36 Views of Mount Fuji

The design shows a rather dramatic scene. A huge wave is swapping over three tiny, long and slim boats cramped with fishermen. Mount Fuji is peaking out in the background - very small and very calm and untouched by the drama unfolding in the sea a few dozen miles away. At first look one thinks that the humans in their tiny boats are doomed to perish in the sea.

But they are probably not. The fishermen do not look panicked. On the contrary, they look like hanging to their rows in full discipline. It looks like they are experienced and know how to cope with such a situation.

These slim and swift boats were used to transport fresh fish from nearby fishing villages to the markets of Edo (today Tokyo). Edo at that time was one of the largest cities of the world, presumably the number 2 after London. One can imagine what huge masses of fresh food had to be transported to the Japanese capital every morning to feed an estimated population of more than one million.

The Great Wave - a Tsunami?

After the Great Tsunami natural disaster in 2004 Hokusai's famous image could be frequently seen in the press referred to as an early 19th century document of a huge tsunami wave. This is presumably not true. I am sure that Hokusai did not think that far and has hardly ever experienced a tsunami himself. Hokusai simply wanted to make an impressive image that catches the very nature of a huge wave and wanted to demonstrate how tiny man is in comparison to the forces of nature.

Hokusai's main concern in his art works was to catch the real nature of things. We know this pretty well from Hokusai's own biography that the master had written himself at the age of 73.

What is a Woodblock Print?

36 Views of Mt. Fuji
36 Views of Mt. Fuji - The Great Wave off Kanagawa
The Great Wave off Kanagawa

The Great Wave is not a Japanese painting but a woodblock print made in the tradition of Japanese ukiyo-e. A woodblock print is created by carving an image into a block with sharp knives and other tools. Afterwards the raised areas of the woodblock are covered with ink and the block is pressed firmly against a sheet of paper to produce the image. Traditional color woodblock prints like the 'Great Wave' are produced by carving one block for each color.

You may imagine how much skill, effort and time it requires to produce such a color print. Hardly any of the Japanese artists before 1945 carved and printed themselves. They only made the designs. The carving was done by specially trained carvers who needed up to ten years of apprenticeship before they could master a refined multi-color woodblock print. Also the printing of the final sheet was done by specialized printers whose skill requirements were comparable to those of the carvers.

How many copies of 'The Great Wave' were made?

Japanese prints until world war II were not published as a limited edition, nor signed no numbered. As many impressions were pulled from the blocks as could be sold. But as a rule of thumb one assumes a maximum of 8-10,000 impressions that could be pulled from one woodblock. After that the blocks were so much worn off and damaged that the quality of any further print impressions was simply no longer acceptable.

Originals and Reproductions

36 Views of Mt. Fuji
36 Views of Mt. Fuji - The Great Wave off Kanagawa - Detail
The Great Wave off Kanagawa - Detail

When this stage of quality loss of the block had been reached for a popular design, the blocks were often re-cut to meet the public market demand. Art experts call this a reproduction or re-cut or re-strike. Reproductions are not considered as originals, and they usually have a very low value.

The number of different reproductions made from the 'Great Wave off Kanagawa' is probably in the hundreds, maybe in the thousands. Unless the reproduction was created as a lithograph or as an otherwise mechanically produced print, it is a perfect image, all hand-made with the same techniques, tools and materials as the original woodblock print. And a reproduction has the advantage of being usually in much better condition than an original that was printed in 1832 or a few years later.

How much does the 'The Great Wave' cost?

Original impressions of the 'Great Wave' print are today in the collections of major museums or in private collections. Every now and then an original copy is popping up in the market. But they are really rare, and those that are available are often not in very good condition.

I remember 2-3 pieces that were offered around 2005. They had a distinctive middle fold and I remember prices around $ 50,000. A hand-made reproduction is available starting at circa $80 all costs inclusive.

The hammered prices that you can find in artelino's archive are from $50 to $400 - plus commission plus VAT if applicable. Quite often serious collectors who would normally never buy a reproduction, strive for a re-cut version of this famous woodblock print image. But of course, this is for decorative purposes only - for hanging the print on the wall. You will never see any value increases for a reproduction.

Other Pages Related to Hokusai Katsushika

  Google for Hokusai Katsushika.  Search BING for Hokusai Katsushika.

Dieter WanczuraAuthor: Dieter Wanczura

The images on this web site are the property of the artist(s) and or the artelino GmbH and/or a third company or institution. Reproduction, public display and any commercial use of these images, in whole or in part, require the expressed written consent of the artist(s) and/or the artelino GmbH.

Conditions    Imprint    Contact    Copyright ©2001-2016 artelino GmbH. -    You are not logged in.