Curator’s Talk at the British Museum – Beyond the Great Wave

I was fortunate in being able to book a ticket for the Curator’s Introduction on the day that The Great Wave exhibition opened at the British Museum. The curator of the exhibition, Timothy Clark opened by describing Hokusai’s fundamental belief that the older he gets the greater the artist he will become. This was a very encouraging statement, not least because it seemed to be true, Hokusai’s later works are seen by many as his best.

The exhibition had been designed in six themes

  • Hokusai from twenty to sixty
  • Mt Fuji and The Great Wave
  • Worlds Seen
  • Worlds Imagined
  • Hokusai’s World
  • Immortality (the last three years

From the early work Fast Skiffs Navigating Large Waves, a woodblock from 1804-1807, was a forerunner of The Great Wave. Clark described how the works were very influenced by European ideas, a low horizon, chiarascuro and the framing all followed the European norm. He believed that this could have been brought about by a commission that Hokusai received from Dutch visitors to paint scenes of everyday life.

Clark also commented on The Great Wave which he described as emblematic for the power of the sea and the power of nature as a whole. The foam of the wave forms tentacles and the whole scene seems to be one of suspended animation – the moment before the wave is about to drop.

Under the Wave off Kanagawa, colour woodblock, by Katsushika Hokusai
© Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)