Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence
Making Waves across Centuries
Thanks to the popularity of works like the instantly recognizable Great Wave—cited everywhere from book covers and Lego sets to anime and emoji—Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) has become one of the most famous and influential artists of all time. Taking a new approach to this endlessly inventive and versatile Japanese artist, “Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence” explores his impact both during his lifetime and beyond. More than 100 woodblock prints, paintings, and illustrated books by Hokusai are on view alongside about 200 works by his teachers, students, rivals, and admirers, creating juxtapositions that demonstrate his influence through time and space.
A Lasting Influence
Visitors can see Hokusai’s legacy in works by, among others, his daughter Katsushika Ōi, his contemporaries Utagawa Hiroshige and Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 19th-century American and European painters, and modern and contemporary artists including Loïs Mailou Jones and Yoshitomo Nara. In the exhibition’s largest section, dedicated to Under the Wave off Kanagawa (the Great Wave) (about 1830–31), Hokusai’s print appears with works that riff on or directly cite the iconic image, including John Cederquist’s How to Wrap Five Waves (1994–95), Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl (1963), Andy Warhol’s The Great Wave (After Hokusai) (1980–87), and even a Lego recreation (2021) by Lego certified professional Jumpei Mitsui. The sweeping range of work shows Hokusai’s ubiquity and enduring appeal, which shows no sign of fading anytime soon.
“I am inspired by his general work, the quality—I would say fearless expression.”
—artist Taiko Chandler on Hokusai
- Ann and Graham Gund Gallery (Gallery LG31)
Katsushika Hokusai, Fine Wind, Clear Weather (Gaifū kaisei), also known as Red Fuji, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei), about 1830–31
Katsushika Hokusai, Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa-oki nami-ura), also known as the Great Wave, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei) (detail), about 1830–31
Annabeth Rosen, Wave, 2012
Roy Lichtenstein, Drowning Girl, 1963
Utagawa Hiroshige, The Sea off Satta in Suruga Province (Suruga Satta kaijō), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fuji sanjūrokkei), 1858
Taiko Chandler, Blue Surge (detail), 2023
Henri Gustave Jossot, La vague (The Wave), 1894
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, The Former Emperor [Sutoku] from Sanuki Sends His Retainers to Rescue Tametomo (Sanuki no in kenzoku o shite Tametomo o sukuu zu), about 1851–52
Katsushika Ōi, Three Women Playing Musical Instruments, 1818–44
Katsushika Hokusai, The Ghost of Oiwa (Oiwa-san), from the series One Hundred Ghost Stories (Hyaku monogatari), about 1831–32
Chiho Aoshima, A Contented Skull, 2008
Katsushika Hokusai, Watanabe no Gengo Tsuna and Inokuma Nyūdō Raiun, from an untitled series of warriors in combat, about 1833–35
Oidlon Redon, The misshapen polyp floated on the shores, a sort of smiling and hideous Cyclops, plate no. 3 from the set The Origins, 1883
Katsushika Hokusai, Yoshitsune’s Horse-washing Falls at Yoshino in Yamato Province (Washū Yoshino Yoshitsune uma arai no taki), from the series A Tour of Waterfalls in Various Provinces (Shokoku taki meguri), about 1832
Loïs Mailou Jones, Japanese Waterfall (repeat pattern based on Ukiyo-e Japanese print), 1925
John Cederquist, How to Wrap Five Waves, 1994–95
Katsushika Hokusai, Carp and Iris, about 1808–13
John La Farge, “The Fish” (or “The Fish and Flowering Branch”) window, about 1890
‘The Lonely Palette’ Looks at the ‘Great Wave’
Listen to a podcast episode by Tamar Avishai, host of The Lonely Palette, about the enduring appeal of Hokusai's Great Wave.
Anonymous interviewee 1: Okay, so, you have a huge wave, almost tsunami-like. It’s a deep blue, ringed with white. And the foam is coming up, and it’s engulfing the whole scene. It almost feels like it’s about to eat the small mountain in the background.
Anonymous interviewee 2: Um, so, what jumps out at me are actually the—they almost look like fingers on the wave, that they’re kind of overwhelming the boat, and like they’re—they seem like they’re about to like reach down and grab something.
Anonymous interviewee 1: Once you start looking closer, you see small boats that are just being eaten alive by this huge wave.
Anonymous interviewee 2: It’s a—it’s a violent image. And I think that kind of gets lost when people just see the wave, and it seems like a landscape. But there’s this human element to it, too.
Anonymous interviewee 3: Yeah. It’s a very specific moment. Um, had it been two seconds later, the wave would have crashed, and you wouldn’t even see these people.
Anonymous interviewee 4: They’re doing the right thing. If you encounter a big, scary wave, you have to fight your instincts and go straight at it.
Anonymous interviewee 5: My eye goes to the boat, the—the people in the boat, and that wave. And it just keeps my eye moving in a circle like it’s flat and three-dimensional. It is very static and very moving. Constantly moving. Like, doesn’t even seem…
Tamar Avishai: What are your hands doing right now?
Anonymous interviewee 5: Ah, they are flopping around like a wave. Churning, ah, into your microphone.
Anonymous interviewee 2: And, of course, then the blue. I mean, that’s just, your eye jumps to is that blue just pops when you see it in person in a way that it doesn’t pop when you see it on a tattoo [laughs].
Tamar Avishai: Or in the emoji.
Anonymous interviewee 2: Or in the emoji, for sure.
Anonymous interviewee 6: And you can even see, like, a—a mountain peak in the background, um, which almost blends in with the waves.
Anonymous interviewee 2: It’s hard to tell what’s wave and what’s mountain to me sometimes. The waves can look like a mountain. The mountain looks like a wave. So, it’s, you know, it makes you look at all these different layers of the image.
Anonymous interviewee 4: Is this a disaster in the making? Well, maybe. But I—I take, you know, Fuji there as kind of a good luck, uh, symbol.
Anonymous interviewee 1: It’s all encompassing and destroying everything, but also bringing life in that it’s ocean and rebirth.
Tamar Avishai: This is the sound my 6-month-old falls asleep to every night. It’s from a sound machine that’s designed to look like a jar full of fireflies, and has lots of soothing options—glockenspiel nursery songs, pattering rain—but I’ve never used any other sound but this. The others are too distracting. A good sound machine, I think, should carry you away. And I find that these ocean waves carry me, simultaneously so dramatic and gentle, the endless cycle of crest and resolve. I turn them on and sit nursing in the dim haze of a nightlight, I close my eyes, and I let the sound take me back to a vacation I went on with my dad and stepmom back in 2005, to a house they rented on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was the first time I’d ever slept near the ocean, and I was amazed each night by how intensely the pounding of the surf filled the space. I remember one night after they’d gone to bed, taking my journal outside to write about a heartbreak I was in the midst of, and then finally setting down my pen because it took too much effort to hear my thoughts over the sound of the waves. They were such noisy, insistent reminders of how vast and indifferent the ocean was. It’s too big to think about and too loud to think about anything else. So I just gave myself over to them; I let them white out my thoughts. I stood at the railing overlooking the beach, my head full of sound, watching the tide coming in, the tide pulling out, the moon overhead and reflected in the water, feeling the meditative succession of infinite agitation and release. Crest and resolve. I thought about that deck at the side of the ocean the night my son was born, the relentless waves of contractions, that moment of unbearable peak, that break, that relief. And it’s what I imagine happening to his little mind as he drifts off to sleep, maybe subconsciously reminded of the safety of that washing machine churn of life in utero. Baby’s first meditation: that gentle cycle, the roil, the quiet, his thoughts wiped away, carried off by the sound of the waves.
You’ve seen the Great Wave off Kanagawa, an Edo period ukiyo-e print by the master of the craft, Katsushika Hokusai, a million times, in a million different places. This iconic, instantly recognizable silhouette is plastered all over mugs and memes and mousepads and even has its own emoji. And this is how people have experienced this print for as long as it’s been around. It’s always been a print, one of many, and widely available to the masses. But, as we learned in episode 5 on Andy Warhol’s silkscreened electric chairs, the trade-off of being seen and reseen by everyone is that you stop being really seen for what you are. And we don’t see the Great Wave anymore for what it really is: an enormously powerful image of an enormously powerful thing. And if we stop for a moment and really look, there is so much happening in this print. There are the compositional elements that thrust you into the pure energy of the moment. There’s Japan’s relationship, both sacred and mundane, to everything depicted in the scene: Mt. Fuji, the fishing industry, Buddhism, the sea itself. And, not least of all, there’s the seismic splash that these prints made in the European art scene when Japan opened its borders in the middle of the 19th century. So let’s go through these points one at a time, and let’s take a pickaxe to the retaining wall of the image’s iconic familiarity and open a path for the history and visual energy of this great wave to come barreling through as nature intended: too big to think about and too loud to think about anything else.
And let’s start with origins of everything, that is, the sea itself. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the ocean to Japan, as formative and fundamental to the country as oxygen. It’s said that Japan isn’t a small island nation so much as a nation of small islands—the Japanese archipelago is comprised of thousands of them, with a coastline that stretches more than 18,000 miles, and at no point anywhere in the country is a resident more than 93 miles from the sea. The ocean currents from the several bodies of water and the diversity of climates has made for some of the most varied and productive fishing in the world, which has made the fishing industry culturally and economically invaluable to Japan. And it was actually the fishing industry that gave rise to the merchant class that created the market for this very series of prints, which became the art of the middle class during this period known as the Edo period, from 1615 to 1868. The city of Edo, now present-day Tokyo, gave its name to a unique period of peace and prosperity in Japan, but at the expense of a rigid and repressive bureaucratic shogunate, or ruling government, which closed itself off from the rest of the world. The shogunate had originally divided Edo society into four distinct classes, with the Samurai officials ruling the roost at the top, followed by farmers, artisans, and then merchants at the bottom. But Edo’s increasingly mercantile economy, boosted by its lucrative fishing industry, meant that merchant wealth soon started to outpace Samurai wealth, and all of sudden, Japan had a thriving middle class who could read, write, and, for our purposes, fully immerse itself in the arts. Cities became thriving hotbeds of high and low culture, and nowhere was this more potent than in the capital city of Edo itself, which boasted the largest and most famous pleasure quarters, that is, centers of the best high and low culture money could buy, quarters that were known informally as ukiyo, or the “Floating World.”
The origins for this name, the Floating World, are rooted in the fact that Edo Japan was also deeply Buddhist. And if you know anything about Buddhism, you know that its fundamental conceit is the awareness of the transience of life, how we’re only here for a pretty short time before this world of ours, and our existence in it, floats away. But instead of dwelling on our earthly impermanence like a bunch of depressed nihilists, the residents of Edo instead chose the much more cheerful Dave Matthews Band way, to eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow they died. This philosophy permeated the Floating World quarters with a culture of excess, of geishas and merriment and popular entertainment. And occupied as they were by a cheap-art-loving middle class, the pleasure quarters begat the ukiyo-e print, the pictures of the floating world. These prints, which were woodblock illustrations that emphasized line, pure color, and distillation of form, illustrated the pleasure quarters, the geishas, and, as we’ll soon see, of iconic images of Japan herself, and were known for being hugely popular, cheaply produced, and inexpensive to buy. If you’re lucky enough to stand in front of an unframed print today, you’re instructed to hold your hand over your mouth lest your very breath risk damaging it, but at the time, it was colloquially said that you could purchase one for the same price as a double helping of noodles. They were mass-produced, mass-disseminated, hardly considered valuable, and hardly even considered art—that is, until two key players came along: Katsushika Hokusai and Commodore Matthew Perry.
First up, Hokusai. We talk a lot in the history of the arts about why we remember this or that artist, this or that composer, above all the others, and the fact of the matter is, there are just some that transcend their generations, and Hokusai was that kind of artist. Where woodblock prints were largely one block, just black and white, slowly artists began adding colors by hand and using multiple blocks to create subtlety and depth, and as these prints evolved, Hokusai, born in 1760 and already hugely famous by the time the Great Wave was printed, was, as I said, a master of the form. The print was one of a series titled Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, an immensely popular series from 1830–33 that tapped into Japan’s closed-off and therefore extra-concentrated interest in themselves. Hokusai revolutionized the genre away from images of pure pleasure to images of everyday life, and soon became the go-to illustrator of “true Japan,” that is, images of iconic and recognizable Japanese sites that domestic tourists would buy as souvenirs. Mount Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan, and though mostly blocked by skyscrapers today, it would have been visible throughout Edo, giving it the aura of being simultaneously mundane and sublime, a sacred totem to the city. The series looks at the mountain from a variety of different perspectives and vantage points; many, like the famous print Red Fuji, that put it far more front and center than the Great Wave does, and were actually much more popular at the time because of it. the Great Wave was actually one of the final prints of the series, when Hokusai started to get a little creative in his placement, focusing more on the metaphor of the mountain than its physical prominence. We therefore see in the Great Wave a combination of elements that would have felt deeply familiar to its purchasers: the rarely-depicted social class of fisherman battling the wave, the raging sea itself, and, poking up its little head in the background, the spiritual anchor of Mount Fuji, caught just at the moment of closest resemblance to the wave in the foreground, the white-capped foam mirroring the iconic white mountain peak, the spitting spray of the water falling like snow.
Yet despite the quintessentially Japanese subject matter in the Great Wave, part of what makes it so revolutionary—and so visually powerful—is actually the way that Hokusai synthesized traditional Japanese aesthetics with his interest in Western art. While Edo was officially closed-off to the rest of the world, they still engaged in trade with the Dutch, some of whom smuggled European engravings into Japan, which then made their way to the hands of Japanese artists. And we can see, for example, how Western influence, specifically the use of linear perspective and deep, rich color, makes its way into Japanese art, to the point of overtaking it entirely, like in Kawahara Keiga’s print Dutch Personnel and Japanese Women Watching an Incoming Towed Dutch Sailing Ship, which, from its title to its horizon line, feels like somewhat half-hearted attempt at full-on copying Western aesthetics. But in Hokusai’s virtuosic hands, we see how these Western elements of linear perspective and color actually serve to greatly enhance the existing Japanese subject and style. This print isn’t the first time that Hokusai illustrated a crashing wave, as we can see from an earlier example from 1805, but it’s the first time it’s felt this immediate. In his earlier print, the viewer is stationed above, looking across at a high horizon and a schematic wave that looks like a giant swath of monochromatic fabric rising from the sea. It’s imposing, for sure, but the whole of the image feels a little flat and diagrammatic, more about the moment having happened than the moment actually happening.
In the Great Wave, however, the low horizon line and slightly recessed background, both conventions of Western art, bring us directly into the action, as though we’re looking on from an equally-doomed nearby fishing boat. Yet at the same time, like in traditional Japanese prints, the foreground and background are still relatively unmediated, still flattened and compressed, which pushes all of the energy of the moment forward, right into our faces, leaving us breathless. It’s like the image is built up from paper cutouts layered on top of each other, creating depth while still maintaining flatness, like a theater set, not something the Western eye is all that familiar with. And this combination of graphic, stylized Japanese form and urgent Western realism creates a scene that is both static and full of moving parts, drawing our attention to the immediacy of the subject being depicted, which extends far beyond a view of Mount Fuji: the ruthless, terrifying power of this wave, our human surrender to the magnitude of nature, not unlike the Western 19th-century Romanticism we explored through Turner’s Slave Ship in episode 18. The highest wave roils and lifts imposingly, like a child under a sheet, and descends like an attacking bear, its foam like claws, like a hundred individual hands threatening to drag under each of the fishermen in their boats, who themselves are nothing more than faceless peas in a sugar snap pod, hopelessly outmatched. And so much of the graphic vibrancy is indebted to the Prussian blue pigment, also a product of the West, which is so distinctively, intensely, beautifully blue. Prussian blue was one of the first modern synthetic pigments, developed in Berlin in the early 1700s and imported into Japan in the mid-19th century, and integrated into woodblock prints soon after, a long-lasting and relatively inexpensive game changer.
But another element that makes this cross-cultural aesthetic exchange so interesting is that it traversed right back in the other direction. Where Western conventions proved so effective in Japanese art, Japanese conventions played a powerfully influential role in Western art too. And this is where our “friend”—and put that in quotes if you must—Matthew Perry comes in. Commodore Perry was a highly decorated American naval officer who was largely responsible for opening up Edo Japan to the West in 1854. America was in hardcore manifest destiny expansion mode, looking to increase trade, and, it should be said, not unopposed to quote-unquote “taming” the noble Asian savage, and so Perry and his crew were therefore able, over a few years of cajoling and straight-up bullying, to overturn Japan’s 250 years of seclusion. And whatever conclusions can be drawn here in terms of the methods, the repercussions for our purposes are clear: Europe as a whole, and the French Impressionists in particular, got ahold of these prints, and collectively lost their minds.
And so began the era of Japan in Paris, when French artists went so gaga over these prints that some of the largest collections of them in the world were ultimately owned by Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists and the first biography of Hokusai was actually published in France. And I should say at the outset that the Impressionist affinity for Japanese aesthetics, and what’s been labeled as Japonisme, the collective French craze for all things Japanese, are intertwined but also separate, depending where you draw the subtle distinction between authentic and inauthentic. In terms of the Japanese effect on Impressionist art, one of the first Japanese art objects to come to Paris was a sketchbook by Hokusai, which was passed around hungrily by French artists, who immediately began incorporating elements of his style into their work. And you can understand why Japanese art represented such lighting in a bottle for the avant-garde Impressionists, who were looking for an alternative to strict academic realism, and especially one that embraced this sense of immediacy. Their work therefore started taking on elements of pictorial flatness, diagonals, asymmetry, bold, shadowless colors, and the kind of creative use of negative space that allows an image to appear finished even a background is technically empty. Take, for example, Degas’s The Star, from 1878, who is planted off-center a similarly compressed, energetic composition on a diagonally-cut canvas. Or Mary Cassatt’s Maternal Caress, from 1890, which is so intentionally flattened and illustrated with such muted, monochromatic colors and such a crisp, graphic quality that you’d be forgiven for mistaking it with an actual ukiyo-e print. And whether or not the Great Wave was a direct inspiration for Claude Debussy’s cascading and moody La Mer, it appeared on the score’s cover when it was originally published in 1905, and the incredible photo of Debussy and Stravinsky posing with a print of the Great Wave in the background speaks for itself.
Of course, it could also speak to the entire phenomenon of Japonisme, again, that French craze for Japanese culture, which, however well-intentioned, is more akin to traditional definitions of post-colonial cultural appropriation than I think we’re entirely comfortable admitting. In 1867, the International Exposition in Paris mounted the first show of Japanese prints in Europe, opening the door for Japanese art, ceramics, kimonos, and fans to flood into Paris. And this is when we see a slightly less than authentic embrace of Japanese influence, artists exploring a fad and attempting to capture an aesthetic they don’t entirely understand. A famous example is Monet’s La Japonaise, where he paints his wife Camille in a kimono and a blonde wig and holding a fan the colors of the Tri Colore, clearly identifying the Japonisme phenomenon with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, while simultaneously trying to both capitalize on it and, to be sure, try his own hand at it. And while it is a rich, gorgeously painted kimono, you can’t help but be a little put off by his front-and-center placement of a blonde Caucasian woman literally clothed in a Samurai warrior, so coquettishly slipping this culture on, while the fans in the background drop around her like cherry blossoms.
And then we have the problematic example of Vincent van Gogh, who proclaimed, earnestly though somewhat superficially, that “all his art was influenced by Japan.” He found Japanese prints to be a literal breath of fresh air, pinning them to the walls of his studio, praising the images that “return us to nature,” and writing, “we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art without becoming much happier and more cheerful.” And we can see the evidence of his enthusiasm both in his depiction of his actual studio, plastered with prints, in the background of the portrait of his art dealer Julien Tanguy, and in his painted copies of Japanese prints, the most famous being his print of a plum orchard. And it’s in this homage to a print by Utagawa Hiroshige that we get the best sense of both Van Gogh’s love letter passion for Japanese aesthetic and the limitations of his understanding of the cafeteria-plucked elements. It’s a print that can only be described as pseudo-Japanese: overly flattened, accentuating the exoticized “primitive,” and, most cringe-ily, framed with Japanese characters that are completely made up and meaningless—an attempt at capturing something that is clearly so meaningful to Van Gogh, but amounting to gobbledygook to any actual, authentic custodian of this culture. It’s worth noting that when both Monet and Van Gogh painted work that was a little less on the Japanese nose, paintings like Monet’s Japanese Footbridge from 1899 and Van Gogh’s Almond Blossoms from 1890, does it feel like they’re actually getting it?
But the ethics of this kind of cross-cultural intention versus impact exchange can hardly be resolved here. A more productive takeaway, I think, is to acknowledge what these prints meant to the Western artists who cribbed from them, and what this one in particular means to us today. We have a saying in my songwriting circle that clichés are cliché for a reason, that everyone wouldn’t be so tempted to adopt them if they weren’t so achingly true. And I think there’s something to be said for why this print is so indelibly popular. Because it really is that powerful. And the source of its power, I think, comes from the very fact that an ocean wave is both a powerful object in itself and an extraordinarily powerful metaphor. In this print, we see the wave right at its moment of climax, the unbearable peak of the contraction, with the full knowledge that in the next moment of the narrative, it will break, swallowing these fishermen whole, and not even bat an eyelash. That’s powerful enough, that crest, that frozen moment of drama that, thanks its composition, will keep us perpetually on our toes and actively engaged. But there’s also the resolve, the fact of the wave as a relentless, unending reminder of impermanence, so impossibly big that it clears your mind of conscious thought, and maybe even reassuring in its infinite churn. And no one would have appreciated this better than the very Buddhists who would have foregone their double helping of noodles to purchase this print in real time.
Because to be a resident of the Floating World of Edo was to understand the larger implications of an ocean wave as a metaphor for the cycle of life, not just an opportunity for indulgence in pleasure quarters, but a philosophy you give yourself over to, and that’s impossible to grip onto with your mortal hands. They would have embraced the words of the 20th-century philosopher V. F. Gunaratna, who wrote in his book Buddhist Reflections on Death, “if you stand by the sea and watch how wave upon wave rises and falls, one wave merging into the next, one wave becoming another, you will appreciate that this entire world is also just that—becoming and becoming.” And they surely would have appreciated Chidi explaining the Buddhist philosophy of death to Eleanor in the beautifully gutting finale of The Good Place:
Chidi: Picture a wave. In the ocean. You can see it, measure it, its height, the way the sunlight refracts when it passes through. And it’s there, you can see it, you know what it is, it’s a wave. And then it crashes on the shore, and it’s gone. But the water is still there. The wave was just … a different way for the water to be, for a little while. That’s one conception of death for a Buddhist. The wave returns to the ocean. Where it came from. And where it’s supposed to be.
Eleanor: Not bad, Buddhists.
Chidi: Not bad. None of this is bad.
Tamar Avishai: And this is what I find myself thinking about when I sit with my son before I lay him down in his crib, listening to the churn of the sea. And I hope he’s thinking about it too, in his own little way, as he falls asleep. This quiet, meditative moment of release—away from the memes and the mousepads, giving ourselves over to these great waves. The rushing in, the rushing out, too big to process, too loud to ignore, while gently, and powerfully, carrying us away.
Taiko Chandler Installing Her Work ‘Blue Surge’
Installing Jumpei Mitsui’s Lego ‘Great Wave’
Additional support from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Exhibition Fund, the Museum Council Artist in Residency Program Fund, the Dr. Terry Satsuki Milhaupt Fund for Japanese Textiles, the MFA Associates / MFA Senior Associates Exhibition Endowment Fund, the Patricia B. Jacoby Exhibition Fund, and the Alexander M. Levine and Dr. Rosemarie D. Bria-Levine Exhibition Fund.