How many of you actually noticed my profile image? If you had a predilection towards this print in the first place, it may have registered. Like many great works of art, the image of “the Wave” (or more accurately “Under a Wave off Kanagawa”) by the Japanese artist, Katsushika Hokusai, has become so ubiquitous that it has been used to embellish a myriad of souvenirs and everyday objects from mouse pads and table mats to key chains and even socks. It is Hokusai’s most famous work and is often considered the most recognisable of Japanese art. That prevalence can cause it to sometimes become invisible, in my opinion, unless you are an art fan.
Let me put my theory to the test. How many of you noted the pyramid-shaped mountain in the background, Mount Fuji, itself? Or the three boatloads of struggling rowers? Maybe you saw one and not the other. I’ll be honest here. This painting has fascinated me for many years but it was only when I made a conscious effort to look at it closely did I see the details. The motion of the towering great wave with its claw-like spume is depicted so powerfully in its distinct hues of blues, that to the inattentive eye, it detracts from the mountain in the background. Initially, in fact, the painting had attracted me because I saw in it the the power of the Almighty, of Nature. But for Hokusai, it was Mount Fuji which was the focal point. In fact, this woodblock print is the first in a series called “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji”. Strange, isn’t it, what one means to convey and what is actually interpreted especially out of context?
“At 12,000 feet high, Mount Fuji had been worshipped as a sacred location by the Japanese since Shinto times. So while the eye of the viewer is held captive by the the great wave which seems poised to break on top of and capsize the two boatloads of helpless rowers beneath it, it is Mount Fuji, aloof in the distance, which is the true focus, offering perhaps, a spiritual symbol of permanence, contrasted with the futile striving and fleeting nature of human existence”. This is one viewpoint.
I still see in the print the force of nature, reminding me of a Superior Being. Edmond de Goncourt suggested that the wave was “a deification of the sea” itself. An atheist may see only the glory or the power of the ocean. (One sees only what one thinks I guess.) And Mount Fuji, yes, solid and enduring and beautiful. But I would like to see the rowers as ‘striving’ all the same, maybe against the odds, but still making an effort. Not perhaps what Hokusai meant to emphasise but my take on it.
In support of my interpretation, I have a fellow in Andreas Ramos who wrote:
“The violent Yang of nature is overcome by the Yin of the confidence of these experienced fishermen.”
Perception and interpretation aside, this begs the question: can a work of art be appreciated without study? Initially, I was drawn to this print just by its sheer dynamism and beauty. So I think definitely yes. Though perhaps for some, knowing something of its background does illuminate it even more. The important thing is to allow yourself, from time to time, to get hooked to the majesty of something beautiful in the first place. And it does not have to be a work of art.