I’ve been obsessed with The Great Wave (or its more literal title: Under the Wave, Off Kanagawa) since the mid-1990s. This Japanese woodblock print designed by Katsushika Hokusai is one of the world’s most iconic works of art. You’ve probably seen it crop up in a whole host of scenarios.
The interesting thing about woodblock prints is that the original piece of art was destroyed during the act of mass production. In the case of The Great Wave, there are around 100 known, publicly viewable, early impressions that were made around the time Hokusai was alive. And there are very many impressions made after his death, not to mention modern prints that are not made using woodblocks.
The trick to seeing one of the early impressions is being in the right place at the right time, because they are sensitive to light and will fade with over-exposure. Most are stored away for several of years, make a brief appearance, and then go back into long-term storage.
These early impressions vary in their details, colours and condition, so it’s worthwhile seeing more than just one. I’ve been lucky enough with timing to get to see two different impressions: the first was at The British Museum back in the early 2000s, and the second at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery in 2018. But in 2021 I missed seeing a different impression at The British Museum, one of three in their collection.
Missing a viewing made me think about all the impressions in galleries and museums around the world, and which of them might currently be viewable. So I made a list of known impressions, with thanks to Capucine Korenberg at The British Museum for a head start. I spent time digging up their respective pages across the various museum and gallery online collections, which was the most laborious part of this project. After that I set up some automation using Huginn to alert me when an impression is pulled out of storage and put “on view”. This doesn’t happen very often — every few months or so, if we’re lucky — so it’s a nice surprise when a notification pops up. If there’s any interest I’ll write a separate blog post about the automation I put in place for this project.
Of course, there’s no fun in keeping this to myself so I put together a website containing the places where you can see The Great Wave today:
As well as checking the website you can also subscribe to its RSS feed, so you’ll also receive those lovely surprise notifications!
Please do let me know if this project helps you see an early impression of Hokusai’s Great Wave.
If you’re a museum or gallery and would like to have your impression tracked, please click this link and follow the prompts.