The Great Wave off Kanagawa is a famous woodblock printing by the Japanese artist Hokusai.
The preeminence of this print—said to have inspired both Debussy’s “La Mer” and Rilke’s “Der Berg”—can be attributed, in addition to its sheer graphic beauty, to the compelling force of the contrast between the wave and the mountain. The turbulent wave seems to tower above the viewer, whereas the tiny stable pyramid of Mount Fuji sits in the distance. The eternal mountain is envisioned in a single moment frozen in time.
Hokusai characteristically cast a traditional theme in a novel interpretation. In the traditional “meisho-e” (scene of a famous place), Mount Fuji was always the focus of the composition. Hokusai inventively inverted this formula and positioned a small Mount Fuji within the midst of a thundering seascape.
Foundering among the great waves are three boats thought to be barges conveying fish from the southern islands of Edo (modern Tokyo). Thus a scene of everyday labor is grafted onto the seascape view of the mountain.
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