“Hokusai’s Great Waves in Nineteenth-Century Japanese Visual Culture.”

By Christine M. E. Guth


Kanagawa oki nami ura (Under the well of the Great Wave off Kanagawa)
Woodblock print, from the series Fugaku sanjurokkei (Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji), signed Hokusai aratame Iitsu hitsu, published by Nishimuraya Yohachi (Eijudo), late 1831
Horizontal oban: 10 ¼ x 15 1/8 in. (26 x 38.4 cm.)

Price Realised: USD 1,590,000 Estimate: USD 150,000 – USD 200,000 Auction Closed: 15 Mar 2021

Katsushika Hokusai, the Japanese old master of indelible ukiyo-e woodblock prints, was originally born in Edo, Japan. Supposedly historians have said that it has been quiet a challenge tracing back his precise date of birth and have come to believe that his birthday was on October 30, 1760. According to many factual sources, Hokusai’s father was Nakajima Ise who served to the Land of the Rising Sun’s Shogun as a solemn craftsman of fine mirrors. Hokusai’s extraordinary talent emerged in his early youth around the age of six years old. He constantly dabbled in sketching his surroundings and whatever managed to catch his eye. Due to his artistic upbringing and being exposed to his father’s skillful workmanship producing elaborately painted mirrors, it seems sensible that he acquired Nakajima’s dexterity. It was in Hokusai’s teen years when his occupation was a neophyte and pupil to a wood carver. This eventually led Hokusai to labor at a workshop alongside the highly respected artist, painter, and printmaker, Katsukawa Shunsho. Between the 1600 and 1800s in Japan, the art of creating woodblock prints specifically in the style of ukiyo-e, was an astounding pursuit requiring a great deal of attention to detail. These prints were made in the form of multiple or rare editions or were bounded in large books. Ukiyo-e 浮世 in Japanese quite literally means “the ephemeral, fugitive, drifting world.” In this context, woodblocks featured the countless cultural aspects of Japan’s thriving Edo period. This ranged from a multitude of subjects including Geisha girls, intellectuals and scholars, laborers set in nature, infamous Japanese locations such as Mount Fuji, fighters and Samurai- the list is endless of subject matter. At the pinnacle of Hokusai’s career as an artist approximately sometime in 1830, he embarked on his grand sequence of prints entitled, 36 Views of Mount Fuji. This number 36 is very significant to Hokusai as it represented “the iconic thirty-six immortals of classical poetry”, (Hokusai’s Great Waves in Nineteenth-Century Japanese Visual Culture, Christine M. E. Guth). This lofty notion also directly correlated to the fact that the 12,385 foot-high Mount Fuji came to be seen as Japan’s symbol full of rapture and consternation. Mount Fuji was meant to manifest a certain immortality “Fu-shi, ‘no death,’ ” (Hokusai’s Great Waves in Nineteenth-Century Japanese Visual Culture, Christine M. E. Guth). These acute visualizations relating to Mount Fuji and thirty-six roused Hokusai to comprise Kanagawa oki nami ura (Under the well of the Great Wave off Kanagawa) in his series 36 Views of Mount Fuji, when in actuality he produced forty-six prints.

Katsushika Hokusai’s most tantalizing Woodblock print, from the series Fugaku sanjurokkei (Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji), Kanagawa oki nami ura (Under the well of the Great Wave off Kanagawa), late 1831, is still considered one of the greatest Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints ever fabricated. When we first witness this magnum opus of Hokusai we are swept with a wave of emotions. We are overwhelmed, enraptured, and perhaps even sightly fearful. This woodblock print captures the essence of Japan as a searing Maritime empire during the Edo period. In the foreground we see a massive wave ad its crest which embraces Mount Fuji in the distance. It is said that waves were the means of Mother Nature acting as a protectress to Japan from foreign seizures and appropriations. According to myth, the waves of Japan consisted of divine providence for Empress Jingū possessed powers across the pacific and in adjacent areas as she was a Goddess of Wind. Pictorial representations of waves existed for centuries due to the fear of Mongol invasions. Within this immaculate wave rising simultaneously with Empress Jingū’s fortifying winds, the wave appears claw like in the exaggerated tips of foam with curl inward. We see a boat which looks as thought it might capsize under this great wave and we are washed with terror. The deep, dark blue of the wave causes the audience to witness a violence exhibited from Mother Nature as she is about to terminate possibly the lives of these seafaring men abroad ship. There are three other ships depicted with sailors. This convention of men sailing the rough waters in tempestuous conditions was a western convention. More specifically, this was a 16th century Flemish convention as seen in large oeuvres such as Pieter Brueghel the Elder who often painted scenes of Dutch Burgher life highlighting the dangers of life’s offerings and to maintain a life of moderation. Brueghel similar to Hokusai often depicted nature’s beauty set with an abundance of Dutch people working the fields and tending their earth as it was their duty to God. In one of his famous paintings The Fall of Icarus, 1560, Brueghel depicts ships and a drowning Icarus plunging to his death as he warns of overseas exploration. In Hokusai’s work, we immediately are resonated with an Old Flemish Master like Brueghel in the idea that Hokusai was desirous of interweaving curiosity and the thrills and dangers and travel in a positive connotation. Another Dutch technique incorporated in the woodblock is the placement of the inscription in the upper left hand corner vertically which was often seen in Dutch manuscripts, lithographs and paintwork.

When we closely look at below the Great Wave, we see the body of water below it which possesses a rather peculiar shape. This formality of the water was so cleverly made by Hokusai to emulate the exact same silhouette of Mount Fuji in the background. Hokusai inserts this majestic objective that not only is there an immortality in Mount Fuji but there is also this divine everlastingness which exists in the very waters, lands, and people of Japan. The people may be mortal but they embody a legendary and timeless spirit, Fu-shi. This awakening of the spirit reminds the viewer of the vitality swimming prominently in the water. The wave exudes watery transcendence, rebirth, infinity and fecundity. The wave’s crest constructs a curve which hovers over Mount Fuji. Once the wave crashes it repeats it cycle ever so synchronically. This repetition is embedded in Japan’s Ego period full of chaos and cosmos. Where there is chaos in Western powers invading Japan, tsunamis, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions, and cosmos with the unfolding of scroll painting and printmaking, pleasure in Karensansui zen rock gardens, prayer and peace in pagodas, and amusement in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters.

Hokusai’s blues rhythmically dance and swim around the wave from all corners of the print not to instill trepidation and ferocity in each member of the audience, but to instill an infinite and exuberant joie de vivre in each of us. While Japan’s infinite legacy lives on in Hokusai, his craft, the Great Wave and Mount Fuji, it lives and breathes in the viewer as well.

By: Isabella Di Scipio

Author: Bella Di Scipio

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