The image of a wave towering over Mount Fuji is the subject of a new book and recent exhibits in Paris and Berlin. It is on view in a show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and another major display is expected at the British Museum in 2017. Starting April 5, the piece takes a starring role in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s largest ever exhibition of Japanese prints.
The artwork exists in that rare stratosphere of images that are both instantly recognizable and internationally famous. “The Great Wave” has gone viral over time, first circulating the old-fashioned way—via traders and tall ships in the 19th century. Since then, the woodcut has been called an inspiration for Claude Debussy’s orchestral work, “La Mer,” and appears in poetry and prose by Rainer Maria Rilke, Pearl S. Buck and Hari Kunzru. Levi’s and Patagonia used it in marketing campaigns. It has been preserved in cyberspace as a Google Doodle and an emoji.
“There is no work of nonwestern art that has a comparable level of recognition,” said Christine Guth, author of “Hokusai’s Great Wave: Biography of a Global Icon” released this year. Ms. Guth, who is acting head of the history of design program at London’s Royal College of Art, said the print has been used to symbolize everything from economic power to military threats to natural disaster: “An image that originated in Japan took on a life of its own.”
The show in Boston, which runs until early August, features more than 230 works from Hokusai’s seven-decade career, including illustrated printed books, a long screen painting and paper dioramas. The exhibit, six years in the making, is built on works entirely from the MFA’s collection. It just finished a multicity tour in Japan.
“The Great Wave”— formally titled “Under the Wave off Kanagawa” from the Hokusai series “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji”—adorns marketing for the Boston show. Inside the exhibit, though, visitors will have to look for it. The work, about the size of a piece of legal paper, will be grouped with the series of Mount Fuji prints.
The image is a mix of east and west—a blending of techniques that Hokusai picked up from Japanese artists and his own knowledge of European prints. The woodblock depicts Mount Fuji, a hallowed place in Japan, but pushes the peak deep into the distance using western perspective. The wave was printed on Japanese mulberry paper but marked by a color new to Japan—a vibrant Prussian blue created from synthetic dye in Germany.
The work was fairly accessible to the Japanese—one scholar has said it went for the price of a large bowl of noodle soup—while the snobbish view of prints inside the country made it easier for the series to travel abroad.