Why You Should See "The Great Wave" at the Chicago Art Institute

You may already be familiar with Under the Wave off Kanagawa, more commonly known as The Great Wave. The iconic image has been widely used in contemporary designs, ranging from tapestries, tattoos, and even a pair of vans. In fact, it is one of the most recognizable works of Japanese art in the world. From now until June 22, you can see three versions of The Great Wave at the Art Institute of Chicago before they go back into storage for another five years. I first saw the image in the form of my roommate’s poster. Sure, it was aesthetically pleasing as it hung on display under a band of string lights, but it made me wonder, what exactly was I looking at? Why is this image so popular? And why is it not on exhibit year round? I decided to do some research and found that there’s a lot behind this iconic image.

When he was about 70, Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai began a series of woodblock prints. At the time, the Tokugawa government’s political and moral censorship encouraged Japanese artists to focus their work on landscapes instead of figures. Hokusai chose to celebrate the ancient pilgrimage site of Mount Fuji in a series of 36 separate prints. Mount Fuji represents a spiritual place where Japanese deities reside as well as the entrance to paradise and hell. The legendary mountain was and still is widely celebrated. Out of all 36 prints, The Great Wave would become as celebrated as the mountain it depicts, becoming one of the world’s most famous images.

The Art Institute’s exhibition demonstrates how Hokusai’s masterful series from late in his life is the culmination of stylistic experiments throughout his career. For instance, over the course of his career, Hokusai changed his name over 30 times in order to distinguish the distinctive chapters of his work. In the upper left-hand corner of The Great Wave, you’ll notice the name of the piece. But to its left, he wrote "Hokusai aratame Iitsu hitsu," which translates to "From the brush of Hokusai, who changed his name to Iitsu."

Hokusai’s bold linear design, striking juxtapositions, and simple use of color makes The Great Wave one of the most compelling images of Japan’s tallest active volcanoes. The roaring waves possess infernal energy as they prepare to flood the fishing boats. To the Japanese eye, accustomed to reading from right to left, the overarching wave prepares to attack the viewers face. Even Mount Fuji appears diminutive, ready to be submerged.

Upon first publication, Hokusai’s print was not so well known. The Great Wave was printed in approximately 1830, at a time when Japan was not culturally engaging with other nations except for strict trade between select countries. Nearly 30 years later, political pressure encouraged Japan to accept imports and export to foreign nations. Shortly after, a wave of Hokusai’s prints flowed across Europe, catching the eye of artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet. Additionally, tourism rose in Japan which widely circulated Hokusai’s image due to the booming souvenir industry.

Although Hokusai’s print is recognized today as Japan’s most famous piece of art, the Japanese despised the notoriety at first. Within Japan, woodblock prints weren’t seen as art, they were seen as a popular form of commercial printing. So, Japan's government officials and art historians were not thrilled that such a seemingly lowbrow art form had come to define them. Moreover, The Great Wave is not purely Japanese in its style. Hokusai studied European works and was particularly inspired by the linear perspective used in Dutch art. Additionally, the artist’s use of Prussian blue is most likely attributed to its popularity in Europe at the time. It is interesting that The Great Wave became such a definitive representation of Japanese art when it depicts European influences and took a considerable amount of time to earn its prestigious notoriety within its country of origin.

The Great Wave cannot be on display all the time because Japanese woodblock prints are specifically affected by prolonged light exposure which can fade their colors and damage the paper they are printed on. For this reason, the print is only shown for three months every five years. As Janice Katz, Roger L. Weston Associate Curator of Japanese Art says, “It’s always a balancing act between wanting to show as much of the collection as possible and preserving it for the future.” Although it is estimated thousands of versions were printed, only a few hundred in the world remain in good condition.

The Art Institute actually has three impressions of The Great Wave by Hokusai. Most people don’t know that the image is actually a print, something commercially produced for the mass market. Therefore, the image is not a painting or a singular work. In fact, there are numerous and different versions of the infamous print. Chicago’s Art Institute puts the three versions on display simultaneously and all impressions are later than the first state of design.

One version the museum acquired in 1952 appears dramatically different than the others because it has a pink sky. In fact, the pink sky was in the original print. So many copies of the print faded dramatically, so we commonly think of The Great Wave as having a beige background; these works must be properly stored and selectively displayed. With proper care, the sky will stay pink for upcoming years.

You should see The Great Wave at the Art Institute because this exhibit offers a rare opportunity to view several prints from Hokusai’s famous Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji series including three versions of The Great Wave. Displayed alongside the prints are Hokusai’s illustrated books and privately published prints. In addition to the rarity of this exhibit, it truly is a fascinating display of works from Japanese culture. So enjoy one of the most iconic images in history while you can, and hopefully, you will also develop a greater appreciation for Japanese culture. Thankfully, DePaul students gain free admission to the Art Institute upon showing their student ID at the ticket counter.