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How Hokusai’s Great Wave emerged from Japan’s isolation to become a global icon

Under the Wave off Kanagawa (or simply The Great Wave) by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was instantly popular in Japan upon its first printing around 1830. In the decades since, the work has grown to become a global phenomenon, with reproductions ubiquitous on the internet and lining a great many suburban living-room walls. The UK art writer James Payne takes on Hokusai’s masterpiece in this instalment from his YouTube series, Great Art Explained. And, as he explores, there’s something quite apropos about the piece’s widespread popularity, given that woodblock printing was then a highly commercialised Japanese art form and that, with time, the piece came to symbolise the end of Japan’s isolationist Edo period (1603-1867). Examining Hokusai’s life, times and work in the context of art history, Payne provides a sharp analysis of why The Great Wave has become such a resounding artistic and commercial success.

27 July 2021

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