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kottke.org posts about Katsushika Hokusai

The Evolution of Hokusai’s Great Wave

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai is one of the world’s most iconic pieces of art. Hokusai created the woodblock print in 1831 at the age of 71 as part of his series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. But in some sense, he’d been working on it all of his life.

In 1797, at the age of 37, Hokusai made what could be interpreted as his first wave print, Spring at Enoshima (Enoshima shunbô):

a woodblock print of a wave by Hokusai

Hokusai made his next attempt in 1803 (age 43) with View of Honmoku off Kanagawa (Kanagawa-oki Honmoku no zu):

a woodblock print of a wave by Hokusai

Two years later in 1805 (age 45) came Express Delivery Boats Rowing through Waves (Oshiokuri hatô tsûsen no zu) and it’s starting to look familiar:

a woodblock print of a wave by Hokusai

A few waves show up in Hokusai’s three-volume Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing (1812).

In 1831 at the age of 71, Hokusai returned to waves with The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa-oki Nami Ura):

a woodblock print of a wave by Hokusai

As others have noted, this version is fantastically impressionistic — it evokes a feeling just as much as it depicts a scene. The others are nice works of art, but this is the work of a master at the peak of his expressive powers.1

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Here’s Fuji at Sea (Kaijo no Fuji) from circa 1834, made at age 74 — it looks great in color:

a woodblock print of a wave by Hokusai

Right around the same period, Hokusai made Kajikazawa in Kai Province (Kōshū Kajikazawa) and Fishing Boats at Choshi in Shimosa (Soshu Choshi). Later on, Hokusai allegedly made a pair of paintings referred to as Feminine Wave and Masculine Wave, but I can’t find any information about them online outside of sites selling prints. [Edit: the Feminine & Masculine Waves are featured in Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave, based on an exhibition in the British Museum. (thx, jody)]

What did Hokusai make of this progression over his career? In a colophon to his series One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku hyakkei), he wrote:

From the age of six I had a penchant for copying the form of things, and from about fifty, my pictures were frequently published; but until the age of seventy, nothing that I drew was worthy of notice. At seventy-three years, I was somewhat able to fathom the growth of plants and trees, and the structure of birds, animals, insects, and fish. Thus, when I reach eighty years, I hope to have made increasing progress, and at ninety to see further into the underlying principles of things, so that at one hundred years I will have achieved a divine state in my art, and at one hundred and ten, every dot and every stroke will be as though alive. Those of you who live long enough, bear witness that these words of mine prove not false.

Note: Screenshots of a viral tweet from 2018 about this series of prints are going around again. I’m sure it will shock you to learn that some of the math and dates haven’t been fact-checked as well as they could have been. I’ve documented the names of the artworks shown here and relied on primary sources for their dates where possible. I’ve used 1760 as the year of Hokusai’s birth and the dates of works are when they were made, not when they were first published. Please let me know if I’ve made any errors…I’d love for this post to be as correct as possible.

  1. See also an old post (in the old design!) about Old Masters and Young Geniuses.
Reply · 8

Time Lapse Video of a Massive Lego Build of The Great Wave off Kanagawa

Lego master Jumpei Mitsui spent over 400 hours building a 3D version of Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa out of 50,000 Lego bricks — you can watch a time lapse of the construction in the video above. The build was included at an exhibition of Hokusai’s work at the MFA in Boston:

In order to create Hokusai’s Wave in three dimensions, he made a detailed study of rogue waves and their characteristics. He also drew on childhood memories of waves near his family home at Akashi on the Inland Sea.

The video slows down to realtime in spots, so you can see how fast he’s actually building (quite fast). And you can also see the level of trial and error involved as he builds and then un-builds the waves until he’s happy with them. (via the kid should see this)


New Woodblock Prints of Hokusai’s Previously Unpublished “Book of Everything”

a woodblock print of an original drawing by Hokusai depicting a figure resting on the head of a dragon

This is pretty cool: in collaboration with the British Museum, a team led by woodblock printmaker David Bull (who I first wrote about back in 20051) is carving woodblocks and creating prints from a series of previously unpublished drawings by legendary Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai.

The Museum has in their possession a group of drawings by Hokusai that were apparently intended for use in the production of a series of books. For reasons unknown to us now that project was cancelled, but the drawings survived, and we have selected 12 of them for a new subscription series.

For more details of the collection of images, please refer to this page of the British Museum website. But here, we can simply note that the drawings fall into a number of categories, and our set will reflect that diversity. Hokusai’s series was intended to take his readers through aspects of Japanese historical culture, and we will meet Buddhist deities, warriors from ancient China, and historical landscapes, along with more prosaic scenes of the natural world.

The print shown above was the first one to be sent out in January. But look at this original drawing from the collection:

an original drawing by Hokusai depicting a man getting killed by a flash of lightning

Wow. That is shockingly modern — like a 60s superhero comic or a still from 60s anime. I hope they reprint this one!

Here’s a video from the British Museum of Bull talking about the project:

If you make woodblock prints for a living, you know the name Hokusai, and if you’re a woodblock carver and you hear about original drawings from Hokusai that have never been carved into prints you would most likely do a little happy dance.

(via open culture)

  1. Hooo boy, there are parts of that post that did not age well. Bull, however, is still doing his thing.


Great Wave Off Kanagawa, In All Its 1-Bit Pixelized Glory

As part of a project to reproduce all 36 of Hokusai’s views of Mount Fuji as 1-bit black & white pixel art, James Weiner drew Great Wave Off Kanagawa:

a pixelated black and white version of Hokusai's Great Wave Off Kanagawa

And he used an old Mac running System 7 to do it:

I usually use either my Quadra 700 or PowerBook 100, mostly because those are my reliable and easy to access computers (that run System 7, my favourite and most familiar OS of that era).

Software-wise I use Aldus SuperPaint 3.0, which is what my family had when I was a kid. Yes, I’d say that all of this is 99% nostalgia-driven…

This is just a lovely rendering — spare and elegant with just the right amount of detail.


Lessons on How to Draw by Hokusai

In 1812, Japanese woodblock print artist Katsushika Hokusai, who would later become famous for his iconic Great Wave off Kanagawa prints, published a three-volume series called Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing. All three volumes are available online: one, two, three. Even if you’re not in the market for drawing lessons, the pages are wonderful to flip through.

a page from Hokusai's Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing

a page from Hokusai's Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing

a page from Hokusai's Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing

a page from Hokusai's Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing

a page from Hokusai's Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing

a page from Hokusai's Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing

a page from Hokusai's Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing

(via open culture)


Lego’s The Great Wave Off Kanagawa

Lego set based on The Great Wave Off Kanagawa

As part of the company’s effort to get more adults building with bricks, LEGO has released an 1810-piece set based on Hokusai’s The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. Here’s the only problem: it’s sold out online (and on Amazon as well). Perhaps you can find one at your local toy store?

If you were lucky enough to procure a set, Lego has produced an 85-minute audio piece about The Great Wave that you can listen to while you’re putting it together. The piece includes interviews with woodblock printer David Bull, Alfred Haft, curator of Japanese Art at the British Museum, and anime & manga scholar Susan Napier. Very cool.


The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Hokusai, Explained

Great Art Explained is a super YouTube series that I am somehow just now learning about that, uh, explains great art. Host James Payne has done about a dozen videos on pieces like Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes, Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych, and Untitled (Skull) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. His latest is about The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai.

In 1639 Japan closed its borders and cut itself off from the outside world. Foreigners were expelled, Western culture was forbidden, and Entering or leaving Japan was punishable by Death. It would remain that way for over 200 years.

It was under these circumstances that a quintessentially Japanese art developed. Art for the people that was consumed on an unprecedented scale.

Really interesting stuff. Subscribed.

See also several different versions of The Great Wave print and The Art of Traditional Japanese Printmaking. (via open culture)


Lego Version of Hokusai’s Iconic The Great Wave off Kanagawa

Lego Version of Hokusai's Iconic The Great Wave off Kanagawa

Lego Version of Hokusai's Iconic The Great Wave off Kanagawa

Jumpei Mitsui, the youngest-ever Lego Certified Professional, has created a Lego version of Hokusai’s iconic woodblock print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa. The Great Wave is perhaps the most recognizable (and most covered) Japanese artwork in the world. Mitsui’s Lego rendering is composed of 50,000 pieces and took 400 hours to build. From Spoon & Tamago:

In ensuring that his 3D lego replica not only payed homage to the original but also captured the dynamics of crashing waves, Mitsui says he read several academic papers on giant wave formations, as well as spent hours on YouTube watching video of waves.

You can check out the Lego Great Wave in person at the Hankyu Brick Museum in Osaka.


The Great Wave by Katsushika Hokusai

Great Wave

Great Wave

Great Wave

One of the world’s great art masterpieces is Katsushika Hokusai’s woodblock print Kanagawa oki nami ura, popularly known as The Great Wave. Thousands of prints were made and some of the surviving copies made their way into museums & private collections. I’ve selected three of the highest resolution prints available for free download (from top to bottom):

Metropolitan Museum of Art (10 megapixels)
Library of Congress (51 megapixels)
Rijksmuseum (22 megapixels)

You can find many other versions using the Ukiyo-e Search site.

Douglas McCarthy recently wrote about The Great Wave and the various ways that museums choose to offer digital copies on their websites.

If we consider the customer journey of acquiring a digital image of ‘The Great Wave’ from our fourteen museums, a definite trend emerges — the more open the policy of a museum is, the easier it is to obtain its pictures.

Like the other open access institutions in our sample group, The Art Institute of Chicago’s collections website makes the process incredibly simple: clicking once on the download icon triggers the download of a high-resolution image.

In contrast, undertaking the same process on the British Museum’s website entails mandatory user registration and the submission of personal data.

(via @john_overholt)

Update: A few years ago, woodblock printmaker David Bull documented the process of making prints of The Great Wave in this great series of videos. Part of his process included a fascinating investigation of previous prints and trying to determine which of the many prints might be printed by the original printer. He shares bits and pieces of that investigation in the first three videos and also the eighth & tenth videos, in which he zeroes in on two candidates for original prints (the one at the Met shown above and the British Museum print) and concludes, controversially I would think, that one (and possibly both) of these prints was made as a knock-off, a forgery. After watching Bull’s explanation, it’s not at all difficult to think that perhaps very few prints made from the original blocks by the original printer exist today. (via @gregalor)


Sea is for Cookie

Sea Is For Cookie

Magisterial. The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai, modified by Reddit users Put_It_All_On_Red and photosonny. (via @craigmod)


Extrapolated Art

Yarin Gal used an “inpainting” algorithm to extend the canvases of notable paintings. Like van Gogh’s Starry Night or Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa:

Extrapolated Art

Extrapolated Art

There’s a post on the Wolfram Alpha blog about how you can achieve similar effects using the Wolfram Language.