Katsuhika Hokusai’s ‘Under the Wave off Kanagawa’ – also known as ‘The Great Wave’ – is one of the most famous works of art in the world and one of the most iconic in Japanese art. Despite the obvious presence of the sea, the picture is in fact part of a series of prints titled ‘Thirty-Six views of Mount Fuji’ – although somewhat confusingly there are in fact forty-six – which Hokusai made between 1830 and 1833. It is a polychrome woodblock print, made of ink and colour, and approximately 10 x 14 inches in size.
All the images in the series feature a glimpse of the mountain although, as is clear from this image, Mount Fuji does not always dominate the frame which is part of the charm of the series. Here the foreground is filled with an apparently threatening wave in the moments before it crashes down onto three fishing boats – oshiokuri-bune – whilst at the same time the visual play of Hokusai comes to the fore as the spray from the wave appears to descend on the mountain like snow. And yet despite the small size of the mountain, the whole of the composition is designed to frame it: the curves of the waves and the bows of the boats underscore it whilst the top of the great wave acts as fingers drawing our attention to it in case we weren’t aware it was there.
I say ‘apparently threatening’ for a reason since we tend to view art from a Western perspective – reading left to right – and in that context the threat to our fisherman is all too real. Yet to properly appreciate this picture we need to understand what was happening at the time – not only politically but also artistically and spiritually in the construct of this picture.
At the beginning of the 17th century, Japan had sealed itself off from the rest of the world and any contact with Western culture was forbidden with only limited interaction with China and Korea allowed, as well as the Dutch who were only allowed to operate in Nagasaki: there was an underlying fear as to what lay beyond its natural shores.
From the 1850’s political pressure forced Japan to open its ports and exports to foreign nations and conversely a wave of Japanese prints flowed across Europe providing much inspiration for the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists including Monet, Rodin, and Van Gogh.
The styling of Hokusai’s work follows that of Ukiyo-e prints – Japanese woodblock prints made during the Edo Period. The Buddhist term means ‘floating world’ and refers to the impermanence of the world. Initially made only in black and white, the introduction of colour is evident in Hokusai’s work with a separate block used for each colour. A final overlay of black line helps to break up the flat colours providing an emphasis on line and pure, bright colour, as well as distilling the form down to its minimum in that uniquely Japanese way. Hokusai’s work shows much influence from Dutch art’s use of linear perspective – he was in turn to create a Japanese variant of it – as well as the use of a low horizon line and the use of distinctive European colours such a Prussian blue. The picture perfectly captures his interest in oblique angles, contrasts of near and far, and contrast between the manmade and natural environment.
Mount Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan and spiritually has long been considered sacred. The fact Hokusai created a series of pictures in dedication to it that could be reproduced cheaply for sale as souvenirs reinforces the point. Interestingly the tale of China’s first Emperor – Qin Shi Huang (259BCE – 210BCE) – ends with his death after a futile search for an elixir of immortality that it was believed could only be found at the mystical Penglai mountain, now considered to be modern day Mount Fuji: in Buddhist and Daoist tradition, Fuji is thought to hold the secret of immortality and as one interpretation of its name suggests: ‘Fu-shi’ – ‘Not death’.
So, revisiting the picture, it is possible to view the great wave as the perceived threat from external sources from which our fishermen are endeavouring to flee; whilst Mount Fuji appears to pale into insignificance, the whole picture frames it bringing it to the fore and indeed it protects our seamen by turning the dangerous wave into nothing more than those gentle natural snowflakes, and reinforcing the importance of local traditions and beliefs whilst embracing some aspects of new ideas through the incorporation of European styles and colours.
Hokusai is an interesting character in his own right. Born in 1760 in Edo (modern day Tokyo), during his lifetime he changed his name over thirty times, choosing to call himself Hokusai in 1797. In the prints for the ‘Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji’ series, his writing block identifies the name and place of each piece within the series along with ‘Hokusai aratame litsu hitsu’: literally, ‘From the brush of Hokusai, who changed his name to litsu.’ By the time he created his second great tribute to Mount Fuji – One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji (although again confusingly there are in fact 102) – he was using the name Gakyō rōjin (“Old Man Crazy to Paint”) amongst others.
There is a certain irony that as a woodblock print, seen in Japan as nothing more than a popular form of expression and commercial printing, which has been further compounded by Dutch influences, this seemingly lowbrow art form has ultimately come to define Japan: maybe the wave washed over the mountain after all.