It’s a painting that we’ve all seen a thousand times before, but like a modern-day logo, not nearly as many people know anything about the artist. The cresting wave’s cartooning claws looking to smash foolhardy sailors in rickety slipper-like sailboats to their demise; the striking two-tones of royal blue sea, the sullen sky with the grim mood of a brattish teenager who doesn’t like the look of the menu and then the ever-present crown of Mount Fuji boldly peaking over the horizon like a spot that you can’t get rid of; all of this is etched onto our sensibilities through the myriad mad ways that the modern world has thrust the artwork upon us.
If Hieronymus Bosch’s scenes of cerebral torment defined hell and if Salvador Dalí’s melting clocks defined surrealism, then Hokusai’s seascape defined Japan. Or, at the very least, it defined a Japan of the past. Why then, in the western world, do the masses who have laid eyes on this masterpiece know so little about it? It would seem that the answer lies in the very period of Japan that it happened to define.
This picture is known as The Great Wave Off Kanagawa and it was constructed by an artist simply known as Hokusai between 1830 and 1832. Since 1639, Japan had cut itself off from the rest of the world to such an extent that breaching the borders was a deadly offence. For two hundred years the only people allowed to come close to Japan were select Dutch and Chinese ships with special charters.
However, the industrial revolution of the world was a force that even the mighty shores of Japan couldn’t barricade and the tempestuous but stable heartland of a locked-off world was forced to be engulfed like a microcosm into the great globalised wave of engines, power and progress. The thriving city of Edo was about to be beset by foreign influence like never before. But at the time, it was the largest city in the world reaching one million residents and with that came a cultural class system.
As ever, art was sheltered by the upper-classes, fearful of rebellion, as some sort of elitist product. But in the clamouring social mobility going on beneath them, more and more people wanted a piece. Thus, printing became a fantastic solution to bring art to the masses while maintaining the elite status of painting itself. Therefore, it is believed that Hokusai’s iconic work was printed around 8,000 times. Today, these woodblock prints sell for £75,000 each.
With Hokusai emerging as a master of woodblock prints from an early age, he decided to capture a wider brushstroke of Japan away from the cultural scene of Edo. Around 1830 his gaze fell on the landscape of the country, and his woodblocks began to depict waterfalls, fields being toiled, or voyeuristic takes on nameless nobodies depicted with solemn compassion akin to Vincent Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters. These works would be ascribed the name Manga, meaning random drawings, now ubiquitous the world over.
He was 70 years old at this time and he decide that now was when he would conduct his masterwork: Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. The book of 36 depictions would be his spiritual ode to the mountain itself and capture his worldview at that time. Born in 1760, by this point of his life he had lost two wives and a child, faced ill health and was even struck by lightning. Thus, the step back from the hedonistic culture he had previously portrayed to something more introspective and reflective was quite natural.
When Hokusai reflected on his work he remarked: “From the age of six, I had a passion for copying the form of things and since the age of fifty I have published many drawings, yet of all I drew by my seventieth year there is nothing worth taking into account. At seventy-three years I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants. And so, at eighty-six I shall progress further; at ninety I shall even further penetrate their secret meaning, and by one hundred I shall perhaps truly have reached the level of the marvellous and divine. When I am one hundred and ten, each dot, each line will possess a life of its own.”
When he died at the age of 88 in 1849, his final words were ones that showed he still sought greater wisdom. He reportedly remarked: “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years … Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.” This, however, was a painful yearning as a beautiful haiku he composed in the winter of his final days will avow: “Though as a ghost, I shall lightly tread, the summer fields.”
This tenderness, however, is not at the forefront of his famous Great Wave depiction. Although there is introspection in the welter of the swell, it is lost in its clamouring drama. This, in part, explains why its ubiquity in western culture dwarfs our knowledge of the piece and Hokusai himself. For instance, take the fact that Mount Fuji, the great spiritual edifice of the series, is a molehill compared to the mountainous waves. As well as being a loaded cultural message, this was Hokusai revelling in western arts use of perspective that had soared ahead of Japan’s floating style for centuries.
During the Italian renaissance period of 1250-1500, science collided with art and the knack of drawing perspectives was cracked. Although we now take it for granted that something in the foreground of a painting should be bigger, this was far from obvious in the past. These advancements had literally been locked out of Japan like some artistic Brexit.
Thus, when the liberating wave of industrialism arrived, the changing tides and history of Japan, the sorrows of Hokusai’s own life and a thousand other things were wrung out on the blockwork. The sailors in the painting are due to be swallowed by the swell: is this a symbol of Japan’s might as they flee into the bold new world and the inescapable numen of Mount Fuji watches on in the background? Is it a reflection of Japanese entrapment? It is a critique of the dangers of what is approaching Japan from the seas? Or a simple depiction of the power of nature? All of this is borne from the drama and mystery of the piece and the enigmatic man that spawned it.
The legacy of the painting and the man behind it is almost befitting. As a private and spiritual man, Hokusai withdrew into his work, aiming to catch the world with a great poetic realism as he grew older. Thus, a painting that asks more questions than it answers and leaves the creator drifting into the background of history is something he would have relished as he treads lightly on the summer fields of the ever after.
Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji:
All of these works are depicted lovingly in the beautiful new numbered XXL Taschen edition of the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, an artifact of art history and masterpiece of woodblock practice. Gathering the finest impressions from institutions and collections worldwide in the complete set of 46 plates alongside 114 colour variations, and carefully produced with Japanese binding, this visual delight transports us to the heart of 19th‑century Japan.
You can find out more about this amazing collection by clicking here. All of the examples below are taken from the book: