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The Great Wave, created by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai in 1831, remains the most iconic—and reproduced—non-Western image in art. It's so recognizable, in fact, that almost two centuries later, it's the only famous work of art to have its own emoji.

Hokusai’s The Great Wave (also known as Under the Wave off Kanagawa or, simply, The Wave) is one of the most iconic images in art. Today it’s featured on all sorts of merchandise from wine labels and tourist brochures to book covers, gift bags, fans and even underwear. But in 1831, it was the first in a series of prints, Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji, with the towering blue wave only playing a supporting role. The Great Wave appeared in its day as a piece of commercial art, akin to today’s posters—mass-produced for and by the common people. It was “discovered” in the mid-19th century by the European avant-garde, who considered Hokusai’s works to be fine art and compared him to Western artists including Goya and Rembrandt.

As the British Museum presents its first big Hokusai exhibition since 1948, Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave, we find insight into Hokusai’s artistic genius beyond his significance in Western culture and surpassing his famous wave. Ironically though, the main image of the show is none other than The Great Wave. At the same time, the Victoria and Albert Museum is putting on its own exhibition, The Ephemera Effect: Hokusai’s Great Wave. Based on an idea by Christine M. E. Guth, who also wrote the book Hokusai’s Great Wave: Biography of a Global Icon, the V&A is celebrating The Great Wave as a commercial and global brand in today’s popular culture.

Whether it’s considered fine art or popular art, the image remains relevant almost two hundred years later; it recently inspired A. Richard Allen’s satiric Trump Wave, the winner of the V&A’s 2017 Editorial Illustration Award. Ultimately, The Great Wave moves within and beyond its cultural background as an icon not bound by time, space, media or currents—a wave beyond Hokusai.

Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave runs until August 13 at the British Museum.

  • Words:
    Malene Wagner
  • Imagery:
    © The Trustees of the British Museum
  • Words:
    Malene Wagner
  • Imagery:
    © The Trustees of the British Museum
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