Hokusai and Prussian Blue
One of my favorite colors is Prussian Blue, and I wonder if it was one of Hokusai’s too. I hadn’t noticed the Prussian Blue in his prints until an article I read about him. I didn’t know much, or anything about Hokusai, until I chose one of his artworks to be featured in a class I taught. Although you might not have heard the name Hokusai, you’ve probably heard of his art. You’ve probably seen the print that I’m going to be talking about today. It’s so famous that it has its own emoji on the iphone. Type in wave in your emoji search and you will see a tiny graphic which represents not only a wave, but an artist from Japan and Japan itself.
Katsushika Hokusai, known usually by just Hokusai, is a Japanese artist that created a variety of work from the end of the 1700s to the middle of the 1800s. He lived during the Edo period and was known as a ukiyo-e painter and printmaker (Google Arts & Culture). Ukiyo-e means, “a school of Japanese art depicting subjects from everyday life, dominant in the 17th–19th centuries” and literally translates to fleeting world picture (Oxford Languages). Hokusai went by a variety of names throughout his career, over thirty. Although Hokusai is the name that he is well known for now, he originally came to notoriety under the name Shunrō. He created The Great Wave Off Kanagawa in a series of woodblock prints called 36 Views of Mount Fuji (Google Arts & Culture). As the Mona Lisa is to France, the Great Wave Off Kanagawa is to Japan. You can find it everywhere, on t-shirts, stickers, journals, and much much more (The Art Assignment)
The Great Wave Off Kanagawa isn’t actually about the wave at all. Mount Fuji is in the background, while the wave is in the foreground. Mount Fuji represents eternal life to those of the Budhist faith, and Hokusai felt a deep connection to this mountain due to this (Google Arts & Culture). In The Great Wave, nature is big and humans are small. We see the wave dominating the print and taking up most of the space. On the right side of the print, we see fishermen battling the sea as they struggle to get home. This contrast of humankind versus nature isn’t just found in art from Japan but is a universal theme that can be found in cultures not only from all over the world but also throughout time (The Art Assignment).
Something I learned about Hokusai in researching The Great Wave was that he used Prussian Blue. Although this didn’t strike me as anything special at first, the more I researched and listened the more I learned how unusual that was for the time. Japan during the time Hokusai was working on his series 36 Views of Mount Fuji was closed to most outside trade. The fact that Hokusai used Prussian Blue shows he was dealing with Dutch smugglers. Prussian blue was synthesized in, surprise surprise surprise, Prussia. Smugglers brought Hokusai this unique blue paint, and they also brought him art from Europe. The engraving the Dutch traders smuggled into Japan featured Western Realism and a different perspective on visual art than that traditionally used in Japanese visual art. How do we know that Hokusai was consuming these artworks? Because in The Great Wave Off of Kanagawa there’s a Western use of perspective along with a more Western view of storytelling (The Art Assignment).
As Hokusai drew inspiration from the Western engravings, so European artists would draw inspiration from his work. Hokusai’s woodblock prints would become famous after Japan opened up to the rest of the world. Artists such as Claude Monet, Mary Cassat, Vincent Van Gogh, and Gustav Klimt (to name but a few) would not only collect Ukiyo-e prints, but also drew inspiration from them (The Art Assignment). The cycle of inspiration fascinates me: Hokusai was inspired by the western engravings, Hokusai’s work inspired multiple Impressionists, and now both inspire artists today.
Hokusai, Katsushika. The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Google Arts & Culture, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, n.d., Los Angeles County Museum of Art, USA.
Google Arts & Culture. “Hokusai - Google Arts & Culture.” Google Arts & Culture- Hokusai, Google Arts & Culture, June 2021, artsandculture.google.com/entity/m0bwf4.
Lexico. “Oxford Languages and Google - English.” Oxford Languages, © 2021 Lexico.com, www.lexico.com/en/definition/ukiyo-e.
Urist-Green, Sarah, director. Better Know the Great Wave | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios. YouTube, YouTube, 19 May 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1ufFlXIWjA.