what I learned today

March 15, 2011

The Great Wave
 Artist: Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) 
10 x 15 in or 25.4 x 37.1 cm
Color wood cut- print.

Hokusai created this extraordinary picture around 1831. It is known as The Great Wave Off Kanagawa and as it is a fairly small colour woodcut, the subject is very big. The original is at the Hakone Museum in Japan. Among his best-known works are the 13-volume sketchbook Manga meaning "Random Sketches", as well as the series of block prints known as the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (circa 1826-33). This picture is from that sketchbook. 

In The Great Wave, there are three boats among the turbulent, broken waves. The boats mold into the shapes of the engulfing waves. Tiny humans are tossed around under giant waves, while the sacred, enormous, snow-capped Mt. Fuji is just a hill in the distance. These swift boats, called Oshiokuribune in Japanese, transported fresh fish, dried sardines, early in the morning, to fish markets off the Edo (now Tokyo) Bay, from fishing villages on the Bohso Peninsula.
 The waves form a frame through which we see Mt. Fuji. Hokusai loved to depict water in motion: the foam of the wave is breaking into claws which grasp for the fishermen. The large wave forms a massive yin to the yang of empty space under it. The impending crash of water brings tension into the painting. In the foreground, a small peaked wave forms a miniature Mt. Fuji, which is reflected hundreds of miles away in the enormous Mt. Fuji, which shrinks through perspective; the wavelet is larger than the mountain. Instead of shoguns and nobility, we see tiny fishermen huddled into their sleek crafts; they slide down a seamount and dive straight into the wave to make it to the other side. The yin violence of Nature is dismissed by the yang relaxed confidence of expert fishermen. Oddly, though it's a sea storm, the sun is shining.
As one would expect, the concept was so important that Hokusai would not stop at a single picture of the waves. There is another woodblock entitled "Fuji Seen From the Sea," created in 1834 in the series "A Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji". There are no humans in the picture; instead, the wave breaks into a foam which, in turn, breaks up into a flock of birds. Although, without the boats and the proportions of the other Great Wave, this work is not as dramatic, the power and the tension of the sea is drawn out through lines which grow up the side of the wave itself.

This survey of non western art history has me wrapped around its finger.
I eat this stuff up.

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