Even those who do not know ‘The Great Wave‘ by the Japanese artist Hokusai (1760-1849), knows it. As a meme, as a sweater or as a emoji. What makes this woodblock print from the early 1830s so compelling?
Waves Are Claws
Tell them, Vincent. ‘These waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, and you feel it. Hokusai makes you scream […], only he does it with his lines. Thus, Van Gogh wrote on Saturday 8 September 1888 in a letter to his brother Theo about a print he didn’t possess, but greatly appreciated. The woodblock print in question was ‘The Great Wave of Kanagawa‘ of the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai.
This woodblock print, from the so-called ukiyo-e style, dates from around 1830, with a size of 10″ x 14 1/2″ inches. It shows a heaving sea with three boats and a giant wave with Mount Fuji in the morning sun in the background. The depiction is a maritime yin and yang, composed of circles and rectangles, elegant of line and with a sparing palette: blue for the water, yellow for the boats, grey and orange for the air. The image is iconic in and outside of Japan. Even those who do not know the work, know it.
In this, The Big Wave is exceptional. Other ukiyo-e images of world renown are few. Classics in this art form are always classics by approximation; they are popular in circles of historians, Japanologists, print collectors and so on, but not among the general public. Who knows, for example, daring pieces like Hiroshige’s ‘Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake‘, with the little lugging figures in the rain or Hokusai‘s ‘The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife‘, in which a naked woman is enraptured by the cunnilingus qualities of a giant squid, well?
Bert Cooper. From the t.v. series Mad Men. But he’s only one of the few. The Great Wave, on the other hand, everybody knows. Its destiny is that of all famous artworks, since it is depicted on posters, sweaters, tracksuits, sneakers, nails, duvets, bento boxes and make-up; and that’s just the replicas in the unaltered state.
Moreover, there are the homages, parodies and memes on the internet in which it also frequently performs. Because of its recognizability, it is nice to play around with The Wave and lends itself perfectly for digital diligence. Add two ping pong balls and you have cookie monster. Make it green and you’ve got Godzilla. Did you notice how much it resembles David Lynch’s choppy hairdo, and how easy he can combined with Pokemon dragons, with Van Gogh’s The Starry Night or a surfing rabbit? Simple entertainment, but reputation-enhancing entertainment.
One of the finest editions of The Wave is in the hands of an unknown Japanese collector. This print concerns a rare early impression, concerns a rare early print, which can be recognized by the lines, its smoothness and the intensity of the colors: the deep grey around Mount Fuji, the hint of orange in the morning sky. This copy is costly. It would now yield about a million dollars.
Hokusai‘s contemporaries would be surprised about this kind of money. In those days woodblock prints were seen as mass products. They were sold in small bookstores and by street hawkers at tourist spots and offered for the price of a bowl of rice. The same was true for The Big Wave.
When Hokusai designed the work, he was seventy and a famous and accomplished master. His prodigal son-in-law had taken his retirement, and so he was forced to approach the renowned publisher Yishimura Yohachi with the plan to immortalize Mount Fuji in a series of prints, ten in total, all azure tinted.
Those prints were produced, although he made thirty-six instead of the intended ten designs and the blue was joined by yellow, green and red: : a couple of hikers – stripped of their headgear by a gust of wind; fishermen on the coast – throwing lines into small waves. The Big Wave became the first one in the series.
Super Mario Rocks
Throughout the course of his life Hokusai was intrigued with the stirring of the waters. Thirty years earlier he already tried to capture this most fading of all subjects in his prints. However, at that time, he did not succeed because his waves looked more like Super-Mario rocks, more granite than water. The missing ingredient was the writhing foam of the breaking waves. This made them instantly recognizable as waves.
Dutch Sea Painters
Hokusai was inspired by the painter Shiba Kokan, an artist from Nagasaki, who himself was inspired by the Dutch sea painters such as Hendrick Vroom en Willem van de Velde. He refined his technique and learned how to make waves that looked fluid.
Hokusai did not have much to say about the production process. He only had a say in the colors. The other choices were made by publisher Yohachi. He gave Hokusai‘s design to a professional woodcarver (horishi), who transferred the drawing to a cherry wood plank and cut away the excess material: the key block; the same woodcarver also cut blocks for the individual colors.
The blocks went to the printer, were rubbed in with paint, then laid on paper and treated with a special tool – and that three hundred times. When the edition was sold out, a new one was printed. After a while the blocks started to wear out. Their surface shrank and the lines were cracked. There were prints with white edges between the colors, especially visible at the signature, and unruly lines, seen on the back of the wave, but they continued to print until the blocks fell apart. For specialists such imperfections are an important characteristic. They help date the individual copies of The Wave.
The depiction is an animated film captured in one image. Once there were three small boats, filled with ten small men, packed together like bobsledders during the descent. Were these men relaxed? No, because they had a load of fresh fish on board that had to be delivered as quickly as possible to the market of Edo, now Tokyo.
Rowing, rowing, hurrying, rushing – then suddenly the road is blocked by this Really Great Wave. ‘Yikes !’, the men scream, while the wave curls forward. Cliffhanger, freeze frame. If this was a cartoon then the following text would appear: to be continued.
How to Describe This Wave?
She is twice as big as the other waves and is crowned by a foam head that falls into uniform particles. In geometry these are called fractals. She has stripes like the ribs on the belly of a whale, and a foam head with loose flakes of spatter that seem to descend like snow on Mount Fuji in the back.
The wave is not a tsunami as often has been suggested, but a freak wave or monster wave. These kind of waves are recognizable by their high and pointed shape. They arise because the wind touches the water surface with great force and from different directions, after which a pile of waves is created. Freak waves ‘live’ for about two minutes and can reach a height of 65 feet. It is unlikely that Hokusai saw one himself, but perhaps he based his print on stories of an eyewitness.
The work will have made a trendy and modern impression on contemporaries. At that time, the landscape genre was sparkling new and also this print was partly executed in a pigment called Prussian blue that was brought in by the Dutch via the trading island of Deshima, shortly before.
Also startling: the scale and depth-effect. It’s hard to imagine, but the small Mount Fuji in the background, was seen as a refreshing artifice at the time. According to expert Chris Uhlenbeck the print had a strong symbolic character. Hokusai wanted to express the uncertain position of his homeland, where Mount Fuji stood for the old Japan and the wave for potential aggressors, such as the British. They already were in Kanton, South-China, making the Chinese into opium addicts, resulting in a series of drug wars. Hokusai would have heard of such threats.
Vincent van Gogh
After the opening of the Japanese ports in 1854, the print became a coveted collector’s item in Europe. The composer Claude Debussy, whose work La Mer was based on The Great Wave, owned a copy. Also Claude Monet. Vincent van Gogh did not, but he studied The Wave at an exhibition or at a Parisian print dealer.
What Exactly Is Its Strength?
In the 20th Century the reputation of the work kept growing. It was the logo of the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and there is an emoji of it. The image was and is irresistibly attractive. What exactly is its strength?
Ask a Japanese this question and the answer comes quickly: its strength is metaphorical. The Wave can not be seen separately from Japan’s war history. It was featured on propaganda posters during the Second World War and later banned by the American occupation forces, to make its comeback again during the 1964 Tokyo Games. In this sense the print stands for national autonomy. It embodies civic pride.
When you ask a European the same question and the answer comes even faster: its strength is aesthetical. The wave differs from other Japanese prints because of the simplicity of the composition, fiery detailing and dark symbolism.
It is a clear, accessible and readable image. Readable means here: European. A funny paradox: the most beloved Japanese print of all time is valued for qualities that are essentially non-Japanese. The love of Westerners for this image is partly disguised as self-love.
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