As the sea curls and crests overhead, fishing boats float in the shadow. The fishermen bow before the wave, preparing for the impending crash of water. Even snow-tipped Mt. Fuji appears small beside the power of the sea. Though one may not know the artist Hokusai, the rolling blues and white crests are exceedingly familiar. From murals in London to postage stamps in Japan, Hokusai’s Great Wave (Under the Wave off Kanagawa) is one of the most recognizable works in the history of art. In its ubiquity, the image has become a shorthand for many things–not only for Japanese art or Japan, but also more abstractly, as an unstoppable force, a crashing cultural wave. But what is overlooked in the shadow of the wave?
Over the course of his career, Hokusai designed over 3000 prints and used more than 30 go (artist names).1 While the name Hokusai evokes iconic designs–the white crest of the Great Wave, the crack of lighting beneath the summit of Mt. Fuji–his genius extends far beyond a few masterpieces: It is a continuous thread uniting his oeuvre. Distinguished by an unerring sense of line, color, and inventive composition, Hokusai’s prints captured Edo-period life and culture with unfaltering creativity. Incorporating new pigments and daring compositions, Hokusai invigorated the familiar and brought to life the imagined. From early surimono and ehon to his revolutionary landscapes of the 1830s, his printed works are marked by an enduring excellence that continues to surprise, delight, and inspire audiences worldwide.