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

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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Dan Bell
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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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iStock
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Art
The Simple Optical Illusion That Makes an Image Look Like It's Drawing Itself
iStock
iStock

Artist James Nolan Gandy invents robot arms that sketch intricate mathematical shapes with pen and paper. When viewed in real time, the effect is impressive. But it becomes even more so when the videos are sped up in a timelapse. If you look closely in the video below, the illustration appears to materialize faster than the robot can put the design to paper. Gizmodo recently explained how the illusion works to make it look like parts of the sketch are forming before the machine has time to draw them.

The optical illusion isn’t an example of tricky image editing: It’s the result of something called the wagon wheel effect. You can observe this in a car wheel accelerating down the highway or in propeller blades lifting up a helicopter. If an object makes enough rotations per second, it can appear to slow down, move backwards, or even stand still.

This is especially apparent on film. Every “moving image” we see on a screen is an illusion caused by the brain filling in the gaps between a sequence of still images. In the case of the timelapse video below, the camera captured the right amount of images, in the right order, to depict the pen as moving more slowly than it did in real life. But unlike the pen, the drawing formed throughout the video isn't subject to the wagon-wheel effect, so it still appears to move at full speed. This difference makes it look like the sketch is drawing itself, no pen required.

Gandy frequently shares behind-the-scenes videos of his mechanical art on his Instagram page. You can check out some of his non-timelapse clips like the one below to better understand how his machines work, then visit his website to browse and purchase the art made by his 'bots.

And if you think his stuff is impressive, make sure to explore some of the incredible art robots have made in the past.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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