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Don't Knock Wood

The Many Wonders of Wood
Hokusai Katsushika</br> Japanese, 1760-1849</br> <em>Under the Wave off Kanagawa</em>, 1831-34</br> Color woodblock print</br> Minneapolis Institute of Arts</br>Bequest of Richard P. Gale
  Hokusai Katsushika
Japanese, 1760-1849
Under the Wave off Kanagawa, 1831-34
Color woodblock print
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Bequest of Richard P. Gale


Have you ever seen a gigantic wave on the ocean? Or on one of the Great Lakes? Seeing such a wave must be a memorable event since some can be reach as high as 30 meters (about 100 feet). Personal experience may have inspired artist Katsushika Hokusai to create this image, Under the Wave off Kanagawa. Hokusai made at least two other images of this wave before he created this masterpiece, which may be the best-known work of Japanese art in the world.

Hokusai was a successful artist during Japan's Edo period (1603-1868) and became well known for his ukiyo-e woodblock prints. He created this image in the 1830s to sell to the common people of Japan; it was the first in a series, called Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. The print was an instant success! It shows a 12 to 15 meter high otinami ("wave of the open sea") off the coast of his home district, Kanagawa, Japan.

Hokusai juxtaposes the huge breaking wave threatening to engulf three boats with a tiny, calm, snow-clad view of Mount Fuji in the background, both at the center of the wave as well as of the image. The print is notable for being one of the first to use a new chemical pigment called Berlin Blue, which produces a deep blue that does not fade with time as one can see in the print's still-vibrant blue water.

So, where's the wood? The print is called a woodcut because it was made using the oldest known printmaking technique of carving an image out of a block of wood. Each of Hokusai's images is created from many different blocks of fine-grained cherry, one for each color. Hokusai likely made the original line drawing for the image using black ink made from pine soot. The carvers and printers who worked to create this print used tools made from wood or with wooden parts. And finally, the paper used for the print was made from the inner bark of the mulberry tree, and some of the inks used were derived from tree-based dyes.

Hokusai's iconic image of the "Under the Wave" is a testament to the talent of the artist and the wonderful versatility of wood.

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1. In The Wave, Henri-Gustave Jossot, a French caricaturist at the end of the 19th century, jokingly makes a statement about his fellow artists who have become enamored by Japanese art. His print depicts a painter in a boat that's being upended by a wave very much like the one in Hokusai's Under the Wave off Kanagawa. Henri-Gustave Jossot, The Wave, 1894, lithograph printed in olive green ink, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edward A. Foster, 1965 p.206
2. Albrecht Dürer, in his 15th-century woodcuts, like The Four Horsemen, created great dramas in black and white through astounding details and bold compositions. He redefined what was possible in the woodcut medium. Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen, 1496-98, woodcut, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The William M. Ladd Collection Gift of Herschel V. Jones, 1916
3. In this woodcut, Käthe Kollwitz utilized the grain of the wood plank to create the sense that the two women are united in a single form. The figures, who seem to emerge from the dark background, appear to have been scraped along this grain. Käthe Kollwitz, Mary and Elizabeth, 1928, woodcut, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Patricia G. Johnson Memorial Fund, 1965


March 2012