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Why the 'Great Wave' has mystified art lovers for generations

Written byDan Tham, CNNJunko Ogura, CNN
CNN新闻 丹·瑟姆,小仓纯子撰文

The famous kanagawa wave.Scroll through the gallery to see more of his ukiyo-e prints.hokusai

A massive wave threatens to engulf three fishing boats, its foam crown extending like claws, menacing the rowers below. It's an epic scene of human struggle and natural terror that dwarfs the sacred Mount Fuji just behind it.

This is "The Great Wave off Kanagawa," a woodblock print by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai and one of the world's most iconic pieces of Asian art.

If this climactic moment seems ubiquitous -- think T-shirts, coffee mugs, laptop decals -- that's because it was designed to be.


这是日本艺术家葛饰北斋(Katsushika Hokusai)的木版画《神奈川巨浪》(The Great Wave off Kanagawa),是世界上最具标志性的亚洲艺术品之一。


A visitor looks at Katsushika Hokusai's famous print, "The Great Wave off Kanagawa," at the Ara Pacis Museum in Rome.Credit: AFP Contributor/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

The artwork is considered a fine, if somewhat hackneyed, example of "ukiyo-e," a genre of mass-produced Japanese woodblock prints that displayed everything from theater announcements to the most salacious of erotica.

Ukiyo-e prints were cheap to produce and widely distributed in Edo (today's Tokyo) between the 17th and 19th centuries. As many as 5,000 impressions were made from the original woodblocks for "The Great Wave." Back then, the prints were sold for the price of a bowl of noodles.



By the time "The Great Wave" made its debut, in around 1830, Japan was flirting with the idea of ending more than 200 years of isolationism. The story of growing foreign influence is evident in Hokusai's masterpiece -- the rich shade of blue used in the prints was imported from Europe. Prussian blue, as it's commonly known, was a synthetic color created in the 18th century and prized for its depth and durability.

That Hokusai employed the hue as the principal actor in his oceanic drama suggests that he was depicting Japan on the cusp of change. As much as the wave portends instability and danger, it also suggests possibility and adventure.



Essence' of Japan

Hokusai spent most of his life in the riverside district of Sumida, Tokyo, where he adopted at least 30 pseudonyms and, perhaps, just as many different styles. "The Great Wave" was the first in his series "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji," a virtuosic study of Japan's highest and most revered mountain.

葛饰北斋一生的大部分时间都在东京Sumida的滨江区度过,在那里他用了至少30个笔名,或许还有许多不同的笔名。《巨浪》是他的《富士山三十六景》系列的第一部, 对日本最高、最受崇敬的山峰的艺术研究。

"Umezawa Manor in Sagami Province," another print from Hokusai's collection "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji." Credit: Katsushika Hokusai
《相上省的梅泽庄园》(Umezawa Manor in Sagami Province),这是葛饰北斋收藏的另一幅版画《富士山36景》(36 Views of Mount Fuji)  

"Many people view the painting as the very essence of Japanese culture," says Atsuko Okuda, chief curator of the Sumida Hokusai Museum in Japan. "The simple and powerful composition of the mountain and the shape of the wave strikes right at the heart of the observer."

“很多人认为这幅画是日本文化的精髓,”日本北斋住田博物馆(Sumida Hokusai Museum)馆长奥田硕子(Atsuko Okuda)说。“山的简单而有力的组成和波浪的形状正好击中了观察者的核心。

Observers famously included French Impressionists Edgar Degas and Claude Monet, as well as Dutch master Vincent van Gogh, who was enamored with"The Great Wave." They were not alone: In the 1860s, the proliferation of ukiyo-e in Europe led to an artistic fascination with Japan in the West, known as "Japonisme."

著名的观察人士包括法国印象派画家埃德加·德加(Edgar Degas)和克劳德·莫奈(Claude Monet),以及痴迷于《巨浪》(The Great Wave)的荷兰大师文森特·梵高(Vincent van Gogh)。他们并不孤单:在19世纪60年代,浮世绘(ukiyo-e)在欧洲的扩散,引发了西方对日本的艺术迷恋,被称为“日本主义”(Japonisme)。


Yet, the woodblock prints weren't considered art in Japanese society during the Edo period, according to Yukiko Takahashi, the sixth-generation owner of the Takahashi Kobo publishing house.

然而,据小林高桥出版社(Takahashi Kobo publishing house)第六代老板高桥幸子(Yukiko Takahashi)说,江户时代的日本社会并不认为木版画是艺术。

"At some point, ukiyo-e was brought to foreign countries," says Takahashi, whose family has been making ukiyo-e for more than 150 years. "We Japanese didn't realize how wonderful they were, because we took them for granted in our daily lives."


An endangered art

At Takahashi's workshop, craftsman Noriyasu Soda works on a replica of Hokusai's "Great Wave." He first dampens the "washi" paper, before applying paint and a small amount of rice glue to the woodblock to ensure that the colors stick.

Each side of any given block represents a different color that will be layered into the ukiyo-e. This piece alone requires a black outline, various blues for the water, and shades of yellow and pink for the sky.


在高桥的工作室里,工匠Noriyasu Soda正在制作北斋“巨浪”的复制品。他先把“瓦楞纸”弄湿,然后在木版上涂上颜料和少量的米粉,以确保颜色粘在一起。


In the earlier stages of his career,Hokusai worked on a number of illustrated books.Credit:Katsushika Hokusai
在他职业生涯的早期阶段,葛饰北斋创作了许多插图书籍。藏家:Katsushika HokusaI

The process is painstaking and demands utmost precision. Takahashi says it takes about a decade to become a true ukiyo-e "shokunin," or master craftsman, and that there are only 25 left in Tokyo today.

"We have to succeed in passing down this wonderful technique of ukiyo-e woodblock prints," she says. "The craftsmen involved in this work are trying their best to teach these skills to the next generation."






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