Sunday, 26 February 2012

The Great Wave, 180 years on

By Sam Nallen Copley

The Great Wave off Kanagawa 

Around 180 years ago, Tokitarō (the birth name of Katsushika Hokusai), an elderly man from Eastern Japan embarked on a new project. His second wife had just passed away, his first having died in the early 1790s, and both his health and funds were in a state of precarious decline. He had dedicated his entire life to fine art, adopting a monk-like fidelity to his all-consuming passion – refraining from alcohol and tobacco and supposedly eating just one bowl of noodles a day, Tokitarō’s days consisted simply of painting. Ten years earlier, while he had been in his late fifties, he had relished a fair amount of success through a collection of his sketches known (perhaps somewhat confusingly to modern readers) as ‘mangadepictions of animals, ghosts and landscapes compiled in 15 volumes of prints. As his exhausting professional life began to slow down, Tokitarō’s retirement plan was shattered when his grandson gambled away the family fortune, forcing the aging artist back to work. With his prints selling for around 20 mon, the price of one meal, Tokitarō was in an desperate situation. In a city of around 600 woodblock artists, he needed to create something utterly remarkable if he was to escape an impending death from impoverishment.

Amid the grime of his notoriously filthy dwelling, Tokitarō took a sheet of washi, a type of paper made from the bark of Japanese gampi trees, and started to sketch what would become his masterpiece.

The collection was to be a series of woodblock prints, or ‘pictures of the floating world’ (ukiyo-e) depicting Fuji Japan’s tallest mountain and an active volcano 100 kilometres southwest of modern-day Tokyo – from a variety of perspectives. Tokitarō was utterly infatuated with the mountain. The 10th Century folktale, ‘Princess Kaguya’, maintains the peak of Mount Fuji contains the elixir of life – was the elderly frail artist starting to consider his own mortality? Certainly his life had been tiring by any standard. By the time of his death in 1849, Tokitarō had changed his name nearly thirty times and had lived in ninety-three different lodgings. Amid the unrest, his fascination with Fuji remained constant.

Once the sketch was finished, a lengthy process had to be carried out before it could yield any mon. After gluing the washi to a plank of cherry wood, the block would have been chiselled away based on Tokitarō’s designs, inked and pressed against a sheet of paper creating a monochrome image. With the outline fully formed, specialists added the rich textures using colour-specific blocks, creating a finished product ready for publication. At this point, it was up to the public as to whether Tokitarō would be able to feed himself. Thankfully for him, they loved it.

Many years on, critics would remark on Tokitarō’s astonishing creativity in this series; from an icy teahouse in Koishikawa to the paddy fields of Owari Province, he painted farmers, herons and rock climbers, subtly weaving his beloved Fuji into every piece. It was his very first piece in the series however that would immortalise him internationally as one of the greats, a print known as ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’, signed, using his best known pseudonym, ‘Hokusai’.

Shiba Kōkan’s ‘Seven League Beach’ (1796) 
This was neither his first nor his last wave, and there is no sense of this piece as being definitive for Tokitarō. He undoubtedly drew inspiration from Shiba Kōkan’s ‘Seven League Beach’ (1796) and ‘Distant View of Mounts Fuji and Satta from Suruga Bay’ (early 19th Century), Dutch-style oil paintings depicting the sea with a rare degree of realism for Japanese art in the period. Indeed several of Tokitarō’s earlier works display a touch of the occident – borders painted to resemble picture frames and signing his pieces horizontally suggest he had an inclination towards European aesthetic traditions from a young age. Tokitarō had sketched several scenes of the ocean in his thirties and forties, one from around 1805 bearing striking resemblance to his ‘Great Wave’. What then sets this 1830 piece apart from his earlier work?

The image presents three fishing boats riding the turbulent waters at the mouth of Tokyo Bay, light pouring in from the eastern position of the observer suggesting the action is taking place in the early morning.

Geometrically, the piece is constructed with both triangular and circular shapes across three plains – the distance, the main wave and the foreground. The primary triangle, Mount Fuji, is visible in the centre, occupying the most distant space. This is amplified through the similarly coloured triangular sub-wave in the foreground, its various bumps accurately depicting the mountain as seen from a different angle. The great wave itself is where Tokitarō makes most use of circles, even the claws emulating from the crests are constructed from minute crescent shapes. From a technical perspective, one feature that renders the piece noteworthy for the time is the use of ‘Prussian blue’, a tone synthetically created in 1704 by chemists in Berlin. Aside from its striking quality as a colour, unlike other inks available in Tokugawa Japan, Prussian blue does not fade easily – a perfect hue for depicting the immortal and awesome power of the ocean. While these methodological factors help create an initial impact, Tokitarō’s true prowess lies in conveying something far deeper.

The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife

Tokitarō's range of subject matter was stupendous. From a bunch of irises by a still pond to a fisherman's wife engaged in sex with an octopus, no topic was off limits. Perhaps due to his own humble origins, the bastard son of a lowly mirror maker, Tokitarō was keen to depict the lives of ordinary citizens engaged in everyday activities – of course this heightened his appeal within the popular market. ‘The Great Wave’ presents around thirty fishermen onboard ‘oshiokuri-bune’, boats used to transport live fish to market. As mentioned before, the scene takes place during the early morning, and from the snowline on Fuji we can deduce it is springtime – the season for skipjack tuna fishing, extraordinarily expensive pelagic fish that men would risk their lives to sell at markets in the capital. The three fishing vessels appear to be rushing coast-wards to flaunt their catch, and yet from the position of Fuji, we can tell they are leaving Tokyo Bay, as if en route home to the numerous ports in the region. A possible explanation offered by some analysts involves Japanese script – as the language is traditionally read from right to left, Tokugawan observers would have faced the wave, rather than surfed with it.

So the work can be appreciated within the framework of social history, a peek at daily life for the ordinary citizens of early 19th Century Japan. Yet as a fervent follower of the Nichiren Buddhist sect, is it possible Tokitarō was trying to express something deeper? The wave is on the brink of crashing down and the fate of the fishermen is unclear. This snapshot of a fraction of a second, while not only being extraordinary within the ukiyo-e repertoire, evokes a sense of chaos, the overwhelming strength of nature over man. Is this a celebration of human courage, or a comment on the insignificance, impermanence and futility of our lives? Tokitarō’s future seemed secure until his grandson financially ruined him and his second wife died. Mortality and disaster are constantly lurking, inescapable forces that he would have certainly linked to the divine.

Within this natural realm, there is clear solidarity between the sea and the mountain, not just in shape but also in a more elemental sense. As established, the peak of Mount Fuji legendarily contains the elixir of life – in a more worldly sense, locals had used the snow at the summit as a water supply for thousands of years. Is it purely coincidental the drops of spray from the wave resemble snowflakes, or is Tokitarō tapping into the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness? The central ideology of the ‘floating world’ (ukiyo) in which he flourished was ‘to live for the moment’, a carnal ethos of risking everything for pleasure and sensation. Whether ‘The Great Wave’ is advocating this lifestyle on account of impending universal human demise, or lambasting the insignificance of carnal pleasures in light of nature’s omnipotence, is a matter of interpretation.

Tokitarō’s series was a bestseller. Indeed, so successful were his views of Fuji, in particular ‘The Great Wave’, that many of the copies contained broken lines – the mark of serious wear on the printing blocks. He had not only rescued himself from poverty, but had formed his masterpiece, securing his place in the artistic canon. Among his many adoring fans after his death, Monet, Debussy, Warhol, Lichtenstein and Van Gogh perhaps stand out as his most celebrated supporters. Yet in his filthy house in the Japanese capital, Tokitarō refused to revel in the glory, and continued to paint until he passed away at the age of eighty-eight. ‘Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji’, while revered as the pinnacle of his work by others, seem not to have affected the humble old man. Shortly before his death in 1849, he supposedly exclaimed, “If heaven would only grant me ten more years, or only five, I might still become a great artist.”

Editors' note: Also read "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" by Linda Whittenberg, published in the March 2012 issue of Cha.


Sam Nallen Copley was born in Cambridge in 1988, and became a chorister for King’s College at the age of eight. He later studied at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and Waseda University in Tokyo, while working as a translator for Cambridge Mechatronics. Sam went on to complete a master’s degree from Oxford University, and currently lives in Paris. His interests include literature, art, politics, music, the martial arts and film. He writes for Global Politics, New Business Ethiopia, the 1847 Press, the Somaliland Sun and Malawi Voice.

1 comment:

  1. A very fine essay on a most intriguing artist--enjoyed it very much! Bob Abel


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