Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles in 1639 Japan closed its borders and cut itself off from the outside world. Foreigners were expelled, western culture was forbidden, and entering or leaving japan was punishable by death. It would remain that way for over 200 years. It was under these circumstances that a quintessentially Japanese art developed - art for the people - that was consumed on an unprecedented scale. The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai was made around 1830. It was a time when the rest of the world was becoming industrialized, and the Japanese were concerned about foreign invasions. At first sight the Great Wave is simply an image of a serene and timeless Japan, but take a closer look and you see that this beautiful wave is about to engulf three boats of terrified fishermen, as mount Fuji and the shores of Japan, recede into the distance. This is an image of Japan, fearful that the sea, which has protected its peaceful isolation for so long will become its downfall. This is an image of Japan facing an uncertain future. The Edo period refers both to the city of Edo, now called Tokyo, and to a time period. From 1615 to 1868, during which, after centuries of civil war, the Tokugawa Shogun or feudal overlords, took over Japan. The shogun believed that Christianity in particular and other foreign influences were a threat to the newfound stability of the country. And so it cut itself off from the world. Strict social order was imposed: At the top were the emperor, court nobles and the shoguns, then the population was split into, first Samurai then Farming peasants then artisans. And finally merchants. Any interaction between the classes was forbidden, and there were strict codes of public behavior for all classes. Edo by the mid-18th century was the biggest city in the world, with a population of one million. As the economy boomed, the merchants, once considered the lowest social class, rose through the ranks and increasingly could afford luxuries, like education, travel within Japan, books and art. The merchant's search for sensual pleasures became known as "ukiyo" meaning "the floating world". A culture that developed in the red light district of Edo. It was here that, alongside brothels, you would find Kabuki theatres, puppet shows, poets and writers. The commercial prints being produced were mostly famous courtesans and kabuki actors. Like today it was sex and celebrity that sold! Woodblock prints were known as "ukiyo-e" or "pictures of the floating world" and sold in the thousands. It was a craze like modern day trading cards, and there was a constant demand for new images, new celebrities and new prints to collect. Although printed by hand, mass production made them highly profitable for the publishers. The Great Wave was probably printed at least eight thousand times. However, it is important to stress that traditional painting was still considered noble, and beyond the means of most merchants, whereas these prints could be bought for the price of a bowl of noodles, but were still considered low in social prestige. Despite the highly controlled atmosphere during the Edo period the arts flourished and ukiyo-e ensured art was no longer restricted only to those of high status. Hokusai was born in 1760 and made his reputation as a teenager, painting portraits of kabuki actors for woodblock prints. He would later move away from the images of celebrities and focus on landscapes, and images of the daily life of Japanese people. This change of subject was a breakthrough in both ukiyo-e and in Hokusai's career, and his work became the most sought after in Japan. Despite a successful professional life he had a fair run of bad luck in his personal life. Both his wives and two children pre-deceased him and he was struck by lightning at 50. And then he suffered a stroke which meant he had to re-learn how to draw. Reaching the age of 60 in japan is a time to celebrate. Rather than seen as getting old, it is viewed as a time for rebirth. Hokusai's last decades were in fact when he produced his best and most loved works. As he himself said: "All I have done before the age of seventy is not worth bothering with". And it WAS at the age of 70 when he embarked on his most ambitious project yet: "36 views of mount Fuji". One of which was The Great Wave. Mount fuji was sacred in japan with over 800 shrines dedicated to it. Religious confraternities were known as Fuji-kō or Fuji cults, and for Hokusai, Mount Fuji was a personal spiritual obsession. As well as a site of religious pilgrimages, it was seen as an important symbol of strength and stability in Japan, still isolated and enveloped with its own tradition and culture. in 36 views, Hokusai shows Mount Fuji as it is seen from the forest, the village, the lake, the river and the beach. But it was the sea view known as The Great Wave off Kanagawa that would create international interest in Japanese art. Hokusai would become the first ukiyo-e artist to use landscape as the main focus of these mass-produced images. The 36 views were classic Hokusai: Condensing images to their purest form, and placing importance on line and color. They feature the ordinary working-class man within the sacred landscape. A perfect blend of the physical and the metaphysical. Landscape prints were not nearly as popular as the celebrity prints. But their sales would increase as travel within Japan increased. By the late 18th century, there was a steady flow of merchants, peddlers, pilgrims and pleasure seekers heading to Mount Fuji. These people would prove to be an enthusiastic audience for a new genre of souvenirs: Woodblock prints showing views of famous places throughout Japan. In 1829, Prussian blue, a synthetic colour which had been very expensive, became available at a low price via China, making it possible to use in ukiyo-e prints. Hokusai's publisher, always on the lookout for novel selling points. promptly commissioned "36 views" in order to exploit this new innovative colour. The first five prints in the series, were printed almost entirely in shades of Prussian blue, with some indigo. Even the outlines which are usually printed in black, are also in blue. They would be marketed to the public as "aizuri-e". Compared to previous blues Prussian blue was more vivid, had greater tonal range, and most importantly didn't fade. It also made the prints 'exotic' and therefore desirable to the general public. By using different saturations of the same colour, Hokusai, a master of light and shade, gives us the impressions of the hours before dawn or after dusk, when our eyes can't make out distinct shades, because of the soft light. Although Japan's borders were officially closed, the Dutch, who had never tried to push Christianity were allowed two trading ships per year. This was just about, the only direct connection between Japan and Europe at the time. It was how Hokusai came to see Dutch landscape prints, which would have a major influence on his work. Western artists fix the physical position of the viewer whereas in Japanese landscape painting there is no distinct point to guide us. The Japanese were inclined to depict a panoramic view of the scene, perhaps more like a floating view. Time too is fixed in western art, whereas Japanese art was more fluid, and often included several time windows. Although Japanese paintings or "high art" were not confined by strict linear perspective, low brow images like ukio-e used European perspective as a sort of novelty, and were promoted as "uki-e" or perspective pictures. Hokusai would put everything he'd learnt about style, colour, light and technique over six decades into his "36 views of Mount Fuji" and one of those views would bring his work international acclaim. Ironically, this print which in the west is seen as a characteristically Japanese image, is in fact a hybrid of Japanese and European ideas. The Great Wave is 25 centimetres by 37 centimetres. Hokusai experiments with a low horizon, typical of Dutch landscapes, which gives it an element of dynamism through the movement of the wave, which takes up two-thirds of the image. If we look at earlier Japanese seascapes we see more of a 'floating view', the dark shade of Mount Fuji and the brightness of the snow-covered cap, suggest it is early morning, with the sun rising from behind the viewer, lighting the peak. The location is off Kanagawa which is south of Edo or Tokyo. Tossed about in the waves are three fast boats, which were used to transport live fish to the markets in Edo. Hokusai had worked with European perspective for some time now, and with the Great Wave, he would take deep perspective to its ultimate conclusion, with Mount Fuji, the star of the series, AND the highest point in Japan, dwarfed by this huge wave in the foreground, whose spray is becoming the snow falling on Mount Fuji. As the Great Wave breaks, the same spray creates ominous claw-like figures. It is the distance of Mount Fuji that adds a sense of dread, an element of uncertainty as to whether the fisherman will make it to shore. An earlier wave print, shows a wave breaking at the beach near the island of Enoshima, while another print, has an enormous wave about to hit a boat. These previous attempts look fairly lifeless and static, but the great wave captures perfectly the energy of the moment BEFORE a huge wave crashes down onto the fragile boats beneath. The embodiment of Hokusai's belief, that art has a life of its own, a life force. In the cartouche is written the full title "36 views of Mount Fuji Offshore from Kanagawa beneath the wave." And to the left of that, is Hokusai's signature, which says "From the Brush of Hokusai, Changing his Name to litsu". Hokusai changed his name at least 30 times over his career. This was common for Japanese artists. Even though Japan was still closed off, fear of invasion by sea, was very real. In the waning days of the Tokugawa shoguns. There was already talk of foreign incursions into Japan. One theory is that the uncertainty and danger of Hokusai's sea, reflects an uncertain Japan, which along with the struggles of the fishermen, is a sharp contrast to Mount Fuji. Representing, then and now, the very soul of Japan itself, solid and unmoving. The Great Wave was closely tied to the inevitable end of shogun rule, and therefore Japan's isolation. Hokusai portrays the sea, over which these European things and ideas traveled, with stark ambiguity. This is not an image of timeless serenity, but of instability and uncertainty. Woodblock prints need a team: Publisher, artist, block cutter and printer. Hokusai hardly ever worked alone. First, a publisher would commission an image from the artist, who would create a design on thin paper, a block ready drawing. If we look at this modern recreation of The Great Wave wood block, we see it is reversed, and then glued to the block. It is then rubbed down with an instrument called a "baren". While it is still damp from the moisture in the glue, the carver will rub with his fingers, and peel off most of the paper. Leaving just the lines of the original image on the surface of the wood block. The original design would be destroyed in the making of the block. The carver then reproduces the artist's brush lines in wood. Only the best carvers worked on Hokusai prints, as the detail he expected was extraordinary. Of course this is a print, and it has been carved, but this looks exactly like the artist's brush strokes, replicated perfectly by the wood block carver. It was carved from a hard wood, like cherry tree, as it needed to withstand hand printing - one at a time - thousands of times. The first print would often differ significantly from the later prints, as the block wore down, and fine details were lost, as we see here. Colours too would change over the print run. Here, the one on the left is not only a different colour, but also has a less subtle graduation in colour. The printer then inks the block. Lays a sheet of paper on top of the inked block, and then uses the "buren" to transfer the ink, on to the paper. The artist would mark a proof, indicating where the colours were to go. And a carver then made a set of colour blocks. One block would be carved for each colour that was used in the prints. This printing technique ensures that every print has a one-off quality. A closer look, shows us that, the physical labour, leaves unique indentations on the surface of the handmade paper. Behind the simplicity of The Great Wave is a complicated and delicate process. A process, that is only possible thanks to a dedicated team of skilled craftsmen. For Hokusai, Mount Fuji was a talisman of longevity. He was convinced, he would live to 110, and was certain that the older he got, the better he became. He would live to the incredible age of eighty-nine. In a time when the average lifespan was fifty. His energy and vitality never left him and he never stopped experimenting. He was producing paintings until his dying day. Unfortunately later in life, he was forced to use his life savings, to pay off his grandson's gambling debts, and he would die penniless. Japan's self-imposed isolation came to an end, when a flotilla of fully armed ships, sailed uninvited into Tokyo harbour on behalf of the US government, and demanded, that the Japanese begin to trade with the US. Japanese art, which had developed over two centuries of isolation, was finally revealed to an astonished world. Bold designs, intense colours, simple lines, and areas of flat colour, would influence a whole generation of artists, and precipitate modern art. One artist in particular would produce a painting, that I believe was directly inspired by Hokusai's The Great Wave. In my next video, I discuss "Starry Night" by Vincent van Gogh.