The Great Wave Makes A Splash At The British Museum

Hokusai beyond the Great Wave, The British Museum ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 12 months ago

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The Great Wave Makes A Splash At The British Museum Hokusai beyond the Great Wave, The British Museum 4
His famous The Great Wave. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Alongside the Mona Lisa, The Scream and Van Gogh's Sunflowers, Hokusai's Great Wave is one of the most recognised artworks ever created. A tumultuous wave comes crashing down on helpless-looking boats, while in the distance, even the great Mount Fuji is belittled.

What makes the Great Wave stand out from other masterpieces is its accessibility. In Japan, in the first half of the 19th century, a copy could be purchased for little more than the price of a double helping of noodles. It's a far cry from Western Europe, where art was the domain of the wealthy (and to some degree still is).

One of his many views of Mount Fuji. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Hokusai painted his Great Wave (full name The Great Wave off Kanagawa) when he was 70, and the latest British Museum blockbuster is all about the works he created in the last 30 years before his death at the age of 90.

We went into this exhibition wondering how much credible work an artist can produce in their later years. We needn't have worried; Hokusai churned it out at a prolific rate, and he also believed that the older he got, the greater his work would become. Here was a man who never wanted to stop — if he managed to live to 150, he'd still be painting.

Hokusai also painted the natural world, including animals and flowers. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Hokusai was constantly trying out new techniques with different subject matter, from domestic family life to sweeping landscapes. This constant re-invention meant he changed his name over 30 times throughout his career... identifying his works today must be a nightmare.

In one piece, a gamecock struts about, with his hen in the background — a reflection perhaps how Western monarchs often posed for paintings. In complete contrast, Hokusai creates a mountain landscape covered in bridges, based on a vision he had — this latter work is superbly detailed.

But if Hokusai was 30 artists rolled into one, a constant in many of his works is Mount Fuji — still considered sacred in Japanese culture. Whether the print focuses on the mountain itself or whether it looms in the background, it appears sentry-like, watching over Japan. From a fisherman at work to a lord's samurai entourage, all are humbled in the presence of this colossus.

These waves were on the ceiling of a festival cart.

Prints aside, there are plenty of sketches — many in books — including a giant demon confronting Prince Siddhartha (aka Buddha) who remains calm in the presence of this terrifying beast.

Even the works created just before Hokusai's death are filled with energy; in one a dragon writhes in the sky and a tiger snarls. Towards the end of his life, this artist lost none of his skill in capturing the essence of movement.

Fantastically detailed drawings are an important part of this exhibition too.

The Japan of Hokusai's time was very insular and foreign travel was forbidden, so his work showing China's famous places must have been fuelled by his imagination — and what an imagination it was.

It's only a decade after Hokusai's death that Japan opened up to the wider world and his works found their way around the world, going on to influence several artists, particularly the Impressionists.

There are over 100 works in this exhibition — each showing us that the Great Wave is a drop in the ocean that was Hokusai's talent. Isn't it wonderful we finally get to see that through this exhibition.

Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave is on at The British Museum from 25 May-13 August. Tickets are £12 for adults. Note that the exhibition will be closed between 3-6 July to swap out some works for conservation reasons.

Last Updated 24 May 2017