This image we know and love – the classic ukiyo-e woodblock print, as Japanese as Tsunamis and Mount Fuji, one of the launchpads of Japonisme, influencer of the impressionists – is (of course) a hybrid.
As Japanese as internal combustion
This best-selling woodblock print was made around 1830 by the great artist Hokusai, as one of his series of 36 views of Mount Fuji. At first sight it presents a beautiful picture of a deep blue wave, curling above the sea, with far in the distance the tranquil, snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji. It is, you might think, a stylised, decorative image of a timeless Japan.
But there are other ways of reading Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave’. Look a little closer, and you see that the beautiful wave is about to engulf three boats with frightened fishermen, while Mount Fuji is so small that you, the spectator, share the feeling that the sailors in the boats must have as they look to shore: it’s unreachable, too far away, and you’re lost. This is, I think, an image not of timeless serenity, but of instability and uncertainty.
It’s printed on traditional Japanese mulberry paper, just under the size of a sheet of A3, in subtle shades of yellow, grey and pink. But standing in front of it now, I’m very conscious that it’s the blue – rich deep blue – that dominates . . . and that startles. For this is not a Japanese blue. It is Prussian Blue, or a Berlin Blue, a synthetic dye invented in Germany in the early eighteenth century, and much less prone to fading than other traditional blues. Prussian Blue was imported into Japan either directly by Dutch traders or, more probably, via China, where it was being manufactured from the 1820s.
The blueness of ‘The Great Wave’ shows us Japan taking from Europe what it wants to take, and taking it with absolute confidence. And the series of which ‘The Great Wave’ was a part – ‘The Views of Mount Fuji’ – were promoted to the public partly on the basis of this exotic, beautiful blue – prized because of its foreignness.
So ‘The Great Wave’, far from being quintessentially Japanese, as we usually think of it, is in fact a hybrid work, a fusion of European materials and technology with a Japanese sensibility and also, I think, with a Japanese apprehension. As a viewer, you’ve got no place to stand in front of this, no footing, you too must be in a boat, under ‘The Great Wave’ and in danger of being overwhelmed. Yet Hokusai has drawn the sea over which these European things and ideas travelled with disturbing ambivalence.
Christine Guth has studied Hokusai’s work in depth, especially ‘The Great Wave’:
“It was produced at a time when the Japanese were beginning to become concerned about foreign incursions. So this great wave seemed, on the one hand, to be a kind of a symbolic barrier for the protection of Japan, but at the same time it also suggested the potential for Japanese to travel abroad, for ideas to move, for things to move back and forth. I think it was very closely tied to the beginnings of the opening of Japan, if you will.”
‘The Great Wave’, like the other images in the series, was printed in about five thousand – maybe as many as eight thousand – impressions, and we know that in 1842 the price of a single sheet was fixed officially at 16 mon, the equivalent of a double helping of noodles. This was cheap and popular art, but when printed in such quantities to exquisite technical standards like this, it could be highly profitable…
An impression like this one lets you see very clearly that Hokusai took far more than just Prussian Blue from Europe – he has also borrowed the conventions of European perspective to push Mount Fuji far into the distance. He must have studied European prints, which the Dutch had imported in modest quantities but which circulated among a small number of collectors, scholars and artists inside Japan. It is no wonder that this image has been so loved in Europe. It can be seen, not as a complete stranger, but as an exotic relative.Neil MacGregor – A History of the World in 100 Objects, Episode 93, Hokusai’s The Great Wave
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