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15 Things You Might Not Know About The Great Wave off Kanagawa

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Instantly recognizable, Katsushika Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa gracefully distills the power of the ocean into a two-dimensional image that's as deceptively simple as it is mesmerizing. But what lies beneath this beloved 19th century masterpiece might surprise you.

1. Though it’s named for a wave, it’s also hiding a mountain. 

Look just right of center. What you might have mistaken for another cresting wave is actually snow-capped Mount Fuji, the highest peak in Japan. 

2. It's a print series, not a painting. 

Though Hokusai was also a painter, the Edo period (1603-1868 in Japan) artist was best known for his woodblock prints. The Great Wave off Kanagawa has become the most famous of his series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. Full of vibrant color and compelling use of space, each of these prints depicts the towering peak from a different angle and environment. 

3. Making this series was a savvy business move.

Mount Fuji is considered sacred by many and has inspired a literal cult following. So a series of portrait prints, easily mass-produced and sold at cheap prices, was a no-brainer. But when tourism to Japan later blossomed, the prints enjoyed a resurgence as part of a booming industry for souvenirs, especially if they depicted its magnificent mountain. 

4. Hokusai had been painting for 60 years before creating this Wave. 

His exact age has been difficult to pin down at the time of The Great Wave off Kanagawa's making. However, it's commonly believed he was in his seventies. Hokusai began painting at age 6, and at 14, he served as an apprentice to a wood-carver. By 18, Hokusai was taking lessons from ukiyo-e style printmaker Katsukawa Shunshō. Unbeknownst to the young aspiring artist, this path would lead to Japan's most iconic work of art. 

5. The Great Wave off Kanagawa can be seen in museums all around the world. 

Because it is a woodblock print, there are lots of Great Waves to go around. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the British Museum of London, the Art Institute of Chicago, LACMA of Los Angeles, Melbourne's National Gallery of Victoria, and Claude Monet's oft-portrayed home and garden all boast a print in their public displays. 

6. Japan delayed this Wave from catching on worldwide.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa was likely printed between 1829 and 1832, but at the time, Japan was not engaging culturally with other nations except for trade with China and Korea, which was strictly controlled, and the Dutch, who were only allowed to operate in Nagasaki. Nearly 30 years would pass before political pressure pushed Japan to open up its ports and exports to foreign nations. In 1859, a wave of Japanese prints flowed across Europe, winning adoration from the likes of Vincent Van Gogh, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and Claude Monet.

7. Japanese politicians and art historians didn’t view it as real art. 

The Great Wave off Kanagawa rose to such fame that it became a definitive representation of Japanese art and culture to most of the world. But as art historian Christine Guth of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London explains, "Within Japan, woodblock prints weren’t seen as art, they were seen as a popular form of expression and commercial printing." Once used for Buddhist text, woodblock prints had become synonymous with illustrations for poems and romance novels. So, Japan's government officials and art historians were less than thrilled that such a seemingly lowbrow art form had come to define them. 

8. The Great Wave off Kanagawa is not purely Japanese in its style. 

Hokusai studied European works in addition to Japanese ones and was particularly inspired by the linear perspective used in Dutch art. His own variant on this device is evident in the low horizon line, while the European influence is apparent in his use of Prussian blue, a color quite popular on the continent at the time. 

9. The earlier the print, the more highly valued it is.

It's estimated that 5000 to 8000 prints were made of The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Unfortunately, over the course of all this production, the wood blocks used to stamp on colors would break down, and with them the quality of the image. This gradual degradation is why museums will brag about their prints being "early" issues.

10. Although they were once cheap, prints now fetch a high price. 

Though thousands were printed, it's estimated only hundreds of The Great Wave off Kanagawa remain. A specimen’s state determines its value. The first state from Nishimuraya Yohachi publishing featured a distinctive blue outline, while the second had a black outline. The former is said to fetch $40,000 to $60,000, while the latter would command half that. Even a good replica could score a collector a few grand.

11. In a way, the print is signed twice.

In the upper left corner of the print, you'll note a box with writing inside and out. Within the box, Hokusai carved the name of the piece, including its place in the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji series. But to its left he wrote "Hokusai aratame Iitsu hitsu," which translates to "From the brush of Hokusai, who changed his name to Iitsu." Over the course of his career, Hokusai changed his name over 30 times. Today, these different names are used to distinguish the distinctive chapters of his work. 

12. It inspired music. 

French composer Claude Debussy shared the inspiration for his orchestral composition The Sea (La Mer) on the cover of its 1905 edition's sheet music. There, a sketch fashioned after The Great Wave off Kanagawa gave music lovers an image to associate with his symphonic sketches. You can listen to it being performed above.  

13. The series of which it’s a part inspired poetry. 

Looking upon Hokusai's ambitious creation, Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke was struck by the diligence that must have gone into its making. And so his poem, "The Mountain," was born, beginning, "Six and thirty times and hundred times/ the painter tried to capture the mountain,/ tore it up, then pushed on again/ (six and thirty times and hundred times)." It’s also gone from icon to emoji

14. That wave is no tsunami. 

The great might of the wave makes the mountain look minute, and the boats that bob beneath it seem doomed for destruction. Such a suggestion of violence has spurred many to assume The Great Wave off Kanagawa is a tsunami. But scholars Julyan H.E Cartwright and Hisami Nakamura exhaustively studied the print and what we know about waves to determine it's in fact a rogue wave, or, more scientifically, “a plunging breaker.”

15. That wave is nonetheless deadly. 

Rogue waves are alternately known as "freak waves," "monster waves," or "killer waves" because they occur out in the open ocean and abruptly, sometimes toppling ocean liners. This particular rogue wave can actually be measured thanks to the three fishing boats (oshiokuri-bune). Cartwright and Nakamura used their known size to determine The Great Wave off Kanagawa is roughly 32 to 39 feet tall.

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Noriyuki Saitoh
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Japanese Artist Crafts Intricate Insects Using Bamboo
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Noriyuki Saitoh

Not everyone finds insects beautiful. Some people think of them as scary, disturbing, or downright disgusting. But when Japanese artist Noriyuki Saitoh looks at a discarded cicada shell or a feeding praying mantis, he sees inspiration for his next creation.

Saitoh’s sculptures, spotted over at Colossal, are crafted by hand from bamboo. He uses the natural material to make some incredibly lifelike pieces. In one example, three wasps perch on a piece of honeycomb. In another, two mating dragonflies create a heart shape with their abdomens.

The figures he creates aren’t meant to be exact replicas of real insects. Rather, Saitoh starts his process with a list of dimensions and allows room for creativity when fine-tuning the appearances. The sense of movement and level of detail he puts into each sculpture is what makes them look so convincing.

You can browse the artist’s work on his website or follow him on social media for more stunning samples from his portfolio.

Bamboo insect.

Bamboo insect.

Bamboo insect.

Bamboo insect.

Bamboo insect.

Bamboo insect.

[h/t Colossal]

All images courtesy of Noriyuki Saitoh.

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
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New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b

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