I was in the British Museum the other day (as I often am) and, as I was passing the shop in the great court, a shopping bag printed with Hokusai’s Great Wave caught my eye. It made me wonder about the perspective people get who don’t climb the stairs (or take the hidden lift) to the fifth floor to see the Japanese collection, but just come across images in the shop. So I went to see what else was on offer. And got a bit of a shock.
Hokusai’s Great Wave is possibly the most famous ukiyo-e (floating world) print there is. It belongs to the series Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji and Hokusai made it using a new chemical Berlin blue pigment, which had recently become cheaply available from China, a strong blue that doesn’t fade. It was very successful in its time (thousands were produced), and has been even more successful since. The British Museum version comes from the René Druart collection.
You’ve seen this image many times. It turns up everywhere; in advertising posters, as a tattoo, as street art on the side of a building in Camberwell. If you look on the British Museum website, it’s listed as one of their highlights, and it was chosen as one of the objects in the Radio 4 series A History of the World in a Hundred Objects.
At the British Museum shop I followed a sort of Great Wave trail that led me from a set of mugs here to a scarf there to a tie to a print to… oh wow, an entire wall of Hokusai Great Wave souvenirs! Enough to rival the Egyptian mummies, that enduring image of the British Museum.
There were mugs and bags, umbrellas, aprons, nail files, tea towels, notebooks, tumblers, bookmarks, watches.
As I photographed the display, a visitor came up to me and asked me the key question: Where could he see the actual Great Wave? I had to admit, he couldn’t. It’s not on display. It hasn’t been on display for the last two years and there aren’t any plans to show it.
I can understand. Prints are delicate things and you can’t just hang them on the wall year after year and expect them to survive intact, even in museum conditions. But it’s a disappointment, all the same. The number of souvenirs on sale whets your appetite for the real thing, but the Museum doesn’t deliver it.
Of course, it’s possible that most visitors don’t notice that. They’re happy to get a copy of one of the most famous images in the world and move on to their next stop.
But, just for you, here’s a reminder of the real thing. The towering wave, the threatened boat, the zinging shade of blue. And, in the centre, the serene glory of Mount Fuji. Iconic. And very famous.