The mystifying Great Wave!
Imagine a massive wave threatens to engulf three fishing boats, its foam crown extending like claws, menacing the rowers below. It is an epic scene of human struggle 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. The artwork is considered a fine example of "ukiyo-e," a genre of mass-produced Japanese woodblock prints that displayed everything from theatre 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 is commonly known, was a synthetic colour 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. "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. Observers famously included French Impressionists Edgar Degas and Claude Monet, as well as Dutch master Vincent van Gogh, who was enamoured with "The Great Wave." That, in a way, was Europe's glimpse into the best of what Japan could present. Japan was gradually opening up to the world. The reverse was also happening. The "land of the rising sun" was, naturally, in awe as, it saw a new world in all its glory. And, to think it was art that opened the doors. Oddly enough, the woodblock prints were not considered art in Japanese society during the Edo period, according to Yukiko Takahashi, the sixth-generation owner of the Takahashi Kobo publishing house. "At some point, ukiyo-e was brought to foreign countries," says Takahashi, whose family has been making ukiyo-e for more than 150 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. The craftsmen involved in this work are trying their best to teach these skills to the next generation.