Katsushika Hokusai – Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

Look well at the first image with the threatening wave. Isn’t it a breathtaking drawing? I was mesmerized by it seeing it years ago. You can almost feel the very last moment of your life, just before it submerges you in its embrace.

This is the famous “Great Wave off Kanagawa” – probably the most iconic work of the Japanese art – and was created by Katsushika Hokusai. It is a part of a series of woodblock prints titled “36 views of Mount Fuji” made between 1830-1833 but due to its popularity and commercial success it was expanded with another 10 prints, thus the total actually adds up to 46.

The choice of Mount Fuji as a major theme was not accidental. It is the highest mountain in Japan and its beautiful shape with the snowy peak for long time had been infusing with a mythical aura the imagination of the Japanese. It was considered a sacred place where everybody should go on a pilgrimage at least once in his lifetime. Its presence in all of the prints conveys the idea of eternity and how insignificant we are to the passage of time, and the beauty of nature. Besides of the main subject itself, the way it is depicted with a constantly changing angle of focusing our attention upon it and combined with the daily activities of the Japanese from different classes, creates an impression of seeing a documentary about the life in pre-industrial Japan.

The mountain could be observed in varies viewpoints – from occupying an enormous space in the frame to a tiny detail in the background even barely noticeable. Nevertheless of its place and size it is always well incorporated to the portrayed fragments from life of the local people. In some its magnificence stands out poetically in the distance admired by the wealthier circles of society. In others is like a silent witness to the daily routine for survival of the ordinarily people. This dance with the viewer’s eye explores the relationship between man and his natural environment. This technique applied by the artist, Katsushika Hokusai, was an innovation for the ukiyo-e prints within the times he lived.

Ukiyo-e is a genre of woodblock prints which flourished in Japan during the Edo Period from the 17th to the 19th century. It means “a floating world” and its aim was to entertain the public with subjects like courtesans, kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers and erotica. With his works in the late Edo period, Hokusai moved away from these customary themes and refocused the attention to the landscape, flora and fauna, and to the people’s everyday activities.

Katsushika Hokusai was born 1760 and died in 1849 at the remarkable age of 88. He did not stop working through his whole life. The masterpieces however were created  after the age of 60. The series “36 views of Mount Fuji”  is among them.

During his life Japan had put itself in an isolation to the outside world, but still there were some trade relations with the Dutch who introduced the Western art to the Japanese. Hokusai was deeply influenced by these works from which he adopted the linear perspective but converted it in his own Japanese variation. A few years after his death, the Americans forced Japan to open to the west and in his turn his compositional genius was started to be admired on the west by the prominent artists, and especially by the impressionists.