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10 Works by Hokusai That Are Not ‘The Great Wave off Kanawaga’

You may not know the title of the work or the name of its author, but ‘The Great Wave off Kanawaga’ is so popular that you’ve probably seen it more than once.

Beyond his most famous work and his series around the landscapes of Mount Fuji, Katsushika Hokusai is a Japanese artist who specialized in both painting and engraving and had a much broader plastic production.

Hokusai’s career began when he became an apprentice in an engraving workshop that specialized in book printing. During his apprenticeship as an engraver, Hokusai demonstrated an ability to create portraits of actors in traditional Japanese theater, called kabuki, as well as complete works related to surimono, a genre that involved the creation of special woodcuts for various media, such as literature books.

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The Laughing Hannya (Warai-hannya)

The Plate Mansion (Sara-yashiki)

Oiwa (Oiwa-san)

The making of the plates for this type of work was not a matter for beginners, as it required not only notions of drawing and perspective, but also a great skill to carve the wooden plates with the proper precision, particularly when it came to forming the characters -or kanji-.

This type of work gradually began to become popular, as the reproductions of each print allowed more people to afford this type of work. At the same time, Hokusai, under a dozen pseudonyms, continued to make paintings for all kinds of books, which, although they do not enjoy the same recognition as the Mount Fuji series, is enough to see them elucidate the Japanese artist’s talent.

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Obsession (Shûnen)

“White dews sparkle over the autumn field where the wind sweeps; / I expect an instant amid the dew-wet grass.”

Poem by Funya no Asayasu, from the series One Hundred Poems Explained by a Nurse (Hyakunin isshu ubaga etoki).

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Such is the case of these engravings, belonging to the collection of Japanese tales Hyaku Monogatari (One Hundred Ghost Stories)-edited in 1830, and which originated from a Japanese game called Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (Meeting of 100 Strange Tales). The game was simple: all the attendees had to light 100 candles during the night, and each of them had to tell a horror story. As each story was told, the candles would be extinguished, creating a much scarier atmosphere.

“Ah! the foot-drawn trail / Of the mountain pheasant’s tail, / Dropped like down-curved branch! / Through this long, long dragging night, / Must I keep my couch alone?”

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Poem by Kakinomoto Hitomaro, from the series One Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse (Hyakunin isshu uba ga etoki), 1839.

With this tradition in mind, Hokusai’s illustrations fulfill their function: far from the sobriety to which we are accustomed from his most famous work, they show disturbing faces and even some would say with surrealist tints, which of course refer to some of the legends of Japanese folklore.

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“Spring has passed / and summer, it seems, has come / garments of white cloth / are spread to dry, / the clouds are cloaking / heavenly Mount Kagu.”

Poem by Jitō Tenno (Empress Jitō), from the series One Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse (Hyakunin isshu uba ga etoki), 1839.

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This is not the only series of a literary character that Hokusai illustrated, another example is One Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse (Hyakunin isshu uba ga etoki), which although the title implied the creation of one hundred prints of one hundred poems, he only created a fraction (which, curiously also happened with the hundred ghost stories).

“A summer night in the twilight just begun / The moon must be somewhere awake, too, / Among the clouds.”

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Poem by Kiyohara no Fukayabu, from the series One Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse (Hyakunin isshu uba ga etoki), 1835.

Both turn out to be great examples of how this Japanese painter’s technique and creativity surpassed traditional landscapes, as well as the intersection of artistic disciplines in 19th-century Japan.

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“I hear the pathetic call of the deer / Far away, on the mountainside / As it walks over the maple leaves / Scattered by the wind far and wide / This sad, sad autumn tide.”

Poem by Sarumaru Dayū, from the series One Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse (Hyakunin isshu uba ga etoki), 1939.

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“Through the tattered roof of the harvest hut, / Badly covered with rushes, / The falling dew wets / The sleeves of my dresses.”

Poem by Tenchi Tennō, from the series One Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse (Hyakunin isshu uba ga etoki), 1839.

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Story originally published in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva

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