Jen is a fourth year art history student, though this is her first year at Unimelb (she’s from NZ, don’t hold it against her). When she’s not at uni, Jen will be out getting to know Melbourne and all it has to offer.
It’s an image you know; you’ve seen it everywhere. As a poster, a bag, a billboard. You’ve seen it as small as a postcard and as big as a building. But you’ve never actually seen it.
It seems to be so deeply embedded in visual culture that you probably wouldn’t realise that The Great Wave off Kangawa is rarely on display. As it is a woodblock print, several impressions were made by Hokusai, one of which the NGV purchased in 1909. But you won’t come across it in the Japanese Art section of the gallery. Because the prints were coloured with vegetable based dyes, it is feared they will fade drastically unless kept in pristine condition away from light and in a temperature controlled setting. To put this into perspective, the British Museum is currently displaying their copy for the first time in over five years.
Luckily, an exhibition at the NGV dedicated to Hokusai is displaying not one, but two copies of The Great Wave: their copy and another belonging to a Japanese gallery.
This is an amazing opportunity to not only see The Great Wave in person but also compare it to another copy. When standing in front of it I heard other gallery-goers try to find the disparities, like those ‘spot the difference’ pictures for kids. And I can tell you what distinguishes the two, and all of The Great Waves around the world, because I stood in front of them and really looked, long and hard, with my face right up close to the glass, like you should do when you go.
The difference can be seen in the way Hokusai himself applied the dye in the background. You can actually see his brushstrokes on the surface, which is not as smooth as you would think. This can only be seen by looking at the original prints, and not just photos of them. There is nothing like seeing a work of art up close—it’s like seeing a band live instead of just on Spotify.
The Great Wave is probably smaller than you would have thought. Here’s the prints next to the curator of the exhibition for reference.
The intimate size makes you go right up close and really appreciate the artistic skill and creative vision of Hokusai. Not only as an Arts student but as a New Zealander, I urge you to not take exhibitions like this for granted—we don’t get anything like this back home! You have immediate access to two versions of one of the most famous images in the world right here in Melbourne, and as a student it only costs $13 to see not only the two Great Waves but also 174 other prints by Hokusai that are also included in the exhibition.
The print isn’t even 200 years old and it’s already in danger of fading; it won’t be around forever. Go see it—this may be your only chance!
The Hokusai exhibition is on at NGV International until October 15th.