How Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave’ Went Viral

By Ellen Gamerman | via Wall Street Journal | March 18, 2015 | Image: Katsushika Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave’ (1830-31) Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The image of a wave towering over Mount Fuji is the subject of a new book and recent exhibits in Paris and Berlin. It is on view in a show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and another major display is expected at the British Museum in 2017. Starting April 5, the piece takes a starring role in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s largest ever exhibition of Japanese prints.

The artwork exists in that rare stratosphere of images that are both instantly recognizable and internationally famous. “The Great Wave” has gone viral over time, first circulating the old-fashioned way—via traders and tall ships in the 19th century. Since then, the woodcut has been called an inspiration for Claude Debussy’s orchestral work, “La Mer,” and appears in poetry and prose by Rainer Maria Rilke, Pearl S. Buck and Hari Kunzru. Levi’s and Patagonia used it in marketing campaigns. It has been preserved in cyberspace as a Google Doodle and an emoji.

“There is no work of nonwestern art that has a comparable level of recognition,” said Christine Guth, author of “Hokusai’s Great Wave: Biography of a Global Icon,” released this year. Ms. Guth, who is acting head of the history of design program at London’s Royal College of Art, said the print has been used to symbolize everything from economic power to military threats to natural disaster: “An image that originated in Japan took on a life of its own.”

Sarah Thompson, the MFA show’s curator, said the museum was the first in the world to stage a Hokusai exhibit in the early 1890s.

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