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If Heaven will grant me but ten more years of life, with even five more years, I could become a true artist.—Hokusai at age 89 years1(p272)
Katsushika Hokusai's (1760-1849) Under the Wave off Kanagawais an iconic image of humanity facing the overpowering forces of nature. The breaking peak on the crest of a steep wave is the dominant image of turmoil in a restless sea while Mount Fuji, calm and steadfast, stands firmly in the background. Thus Hokusai contrasts the sanctity of the mountain with the seeming treachery of the sea. It is best viewed from right to left, making the threat from the great wave more apparent; this is how it would have been seen by Hokusai's contemporary Japanese audience. On 3 barges that are apparently conveying fish from the southern islands to Edo (now Tokyo), crew members cling to their boats and avert their gaze from the approaching calamity as they risk foundering among the great waves. Hokusai too faced calamity in his life and was a survivor who lived for 89 years. In that long life he was restlessly creative; near death (epigraph) he prayed to live a few more years to perfect his art. The adopted son of a mirror smith (with the status of a samurai) in the Tokugawa shogunate (Edo period), he outlived both his wives and most of his children. His daughter, O-Ei, became an artist in her own right; she collaborated with him and took care of him until his death. He persisted with an indomitable desire to perfect his work despite his family losses, the great rice famine of 1836, and palsy, from which he nursed himself back to health.1Remarkably proliferate, he is said to have completed 30 000 illustrations, drawings, and woodblock prints.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), Japanese. Under the Wave off Kanagawa(from the series 36 Views of Mount Fuji), ca 1830-1832. Polychrome woodblock print; ink and color on paper, 10⅛ × 14
in (25.7 × 37.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, H. O. Havemeyer Collection. Bequest of Mrs H. O. Havemeyer, 1929 (JP1847). Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York.
Hokusai was constantly on the move; he is said to have changed residences 90 times during his lifetime. He frequently experimented with new styles and approaches to his art and changed his name each time to reflect a newfound identity. Each name change reflected a change both in his life and his art. Hokusai, among all his names,
is the one for which he is best known in the West; it is the name he used when he painted his enduring 36 Views of Mount Fuji(1830-1832), which he began in his late 60s. He had chosen the name Hokusai when he became independent of his teachers.
It reflected his decision to make the forces of the natural world his inspiration and his teacher. The word hokusaiin Japanese means North-Star studio. The North Star, being the star around which all others were thought to revolve, and the polar constellation were linked to the protective bodhisattva Myōken. Myōken,
who was revered by Hokusai, was a central figure in the Nichiren school of Buddhism, which taught that all people, both men and women, have an innate Buddha nature. Hokusai practiced his devotion peering into the night sky or gazing on the reflection of the polar constellation in water.
Through his long career, Hokusai's work exemplified many styles,
ranging from the Kanō (secular ink painting) and Sumiyoshi schools to shunga (erotic images, eg, Dream of the Fisherman's Wife), and mixed numerous styles of 18th- and 19th-century Japanese illustration in between. As he approached age 70 years, well known as a painter, print designer, and book illustrator, he felt dissatisfied, deciding that he had not reached his potential. He did not like the journalistic quality of his earlier work. Moreover, styles had changed; in ukiyo-e, the actor print, not feminine beauty, was more popular because of the spread of kabuki.2Hokusai needed a new direction, a second life in art. That second life drew on public interest in the landscape print, a new direction for him and for other ukiyo-e painters, which peaked in the 1830s. In landscapes, Hokusai could show pleasure and solace in nature rather than continuing to illustrate the fleeting pleasures of the floating world.1For this new direction, he was fortunate in the wide availability, after 1829, of a new permanent pigment, Prussian (Berlin) blue, which was replacing earlier sources of blue that surely faded. Using this pigment,
Hokusai's 36 Views of Mount Fuji, with their nuances of blue coloring, could survive over time. This well-known series was initiated during a particularly stressful period of his life. His wife had died in 1828, and he was for some time at the mercy of an unruly, delinquent grandson who came under his care when his mother died and whose gambling debts were a financial strain. Hokusai could only work in earnest when the grandson was placed under his father's care.
At age 75 years, Hokusai wrote an autobiographical addendum to his subsequent One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji,
which provides a personal assessment of his artistic life to that point in time and his hopes for the future:
From around the age of six, I had a habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from fifty began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structure of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If only I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty,
or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive.3(p87)
His final name for himself was Gakyo Rojin, which translates to “old man mad about painting.”
Nearly half a century after Hokusai's death in 1849, his woodblock prints and illustrated books reached a new and enthusiastic audience in Europe, especially in France. The impressionists saw an opportunity to confirm their views, opposed to traditional academic conservatives,
in his works and those of other Japanese artists. Claude Monet4claimed to have first seen Japanese woodblock prints in his childhood hometown of Le Havre, the seaport trading city where he grew up. He went on to collect more than 230 of them during his lifetime.4A print of the Under theWave off Kanagawa(cover)
was in Monet's collection; he owned 7 others of the Fuji series.
Monet was well known for his own serial paintings and is thought to have been influenced by Hokusai.4Although Monet's subjects vary greatly from those chosen by Hokusai, there are similarities in composition between the works of the 2 artists,
especially Hokusai's South Wind, Clear Dawn(more commonly known as Red Fuji [Aka-Fuji]) (Figure 1) and Monet's Haystack (Sunset)(Figure 2). Monet followed his own creative impulse, apparently unaware that Hokusai had incorporated western perspective from European books, prints, and engravings that entered Japan on Dutch ships at Nagasaki, the only port in Japan open to the West during his lifetime. Hokusai's views of perspective were also influenced by classical Chinese paintings, and they may also have been affected by the introduction of the telescope into Japan; some of his work suggested the flatness of views through a telescope.
Katsushika Hokusai, South Wind,
Clear Dawn(from the series 36 Views of Mount Fuji), ca 1830-1831. Hand-colored woodblock print, 24.4 x 37 cm. British Museum, London, United Kingdom/The Bridgeman Art Library.
Claude Monet (1840-1926), French. Haystack (Sunset),1891. Oil on canvas, 73 × 92 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts/Juliana Cheney Edwards Collection/The Bridgeman Art Library.
Red Fuji shows the mountain at dawn on a clear day. The eye of the viewer is gradually drawn along the left slope of the sacred mountain, first encountering evergreen trees articulated in green,
then moving onward along the tree line to the dawn-red summit that stands in bold contrast with the surrounding layers of white cirrocumulus clouds. It is autumn; the first winter snow decorates the face of the mountain and gently streams down along its opposite slope. Dark and light green and sienna color planes blend the mountain into the surrounding terrain.4A print of Hokusai's South Wind, Clear Dawnwas prominently displayed in Monet's small salon at his home in Giverny. It would seem that this painting inspired Monet's Haystack (Sunset).
Showing the closing of the day, Monet, like Hokusai showing the dawn sky, simplifies the colors of the sky; the haystack is silhouetted against the yellow and orange sunset sky. The hay stalks in rusty orange, like the trees along the slope at the base of Fuji-san in Hokusai's print, seem to flow up to the haystack. The haystack itself,
in dark orange, articulated in dabs and streams of color, reflects the colors of the fields. The clearly drawn black line outlining the cone of Mount Fuji in the Hokusai print corresponds to Monet's use of brighter orange lines to present the contours of the haystacks and to show how the sun creates a warm halo around them; darker lines grasp the silhouette of the stack and hold it in relief before the glowing evening sky.4(p41,42)
Hokusai was sufficiently well regarded that in 1893 he was the first Japanese artist to have a museum exhibit in the United States. Underthe Wave off Kanagawawas the inspiration for Claude Debussy's La Mer,
and in appreciation of Hokusai's work, Debussy insisted on using it for the cover of the musical score. Rainer Maria Rilke focused on Mount Fuji as the inspiration for his poem “Der Berg”
while Paul Cézanne focused more broadly on Hokusai's 36 Views of Mount Fujiin his late series showing multiple views of Mount Sainte-Victorie near his home in Aix, France.
For the Russian artist Vasily Kandinsky, Monet's Haystackpaintings, seemingly inspired by Red Fuji, were pivotal in his decision to abandon law and become an artist.5Recently Under the Wave off Kanagawahas been used by international organizations as an emblem for a tsunami. However, the Great Wave is not a tsunami!6It is a wind wave whose steepness is artistically exaggerated. A tsunami results from an undersea earthquake that leads to massive increases in the velocity of water that rises and falls as it reaches shore, but it does not appear as a wave at sea. As it reaches the shallow shoreline a tsunami may peak, but its upward slope is abrupt, unlike that of the Great Wave.
Hokusai dreamed of being able to depict not only the appearance but also the true “essence” of things and hoped that he might do so by the auspicious age of 100 years. Unfortunately, he died at the age of 89 years. His jisei (farewell poem) is characteristic of the playful Hokusai: “Though doubtless only as a ghost/yet evenings spritely will I tread/the Summer Moor.”1(p272)The year of Hokusai's birth was the year of the dragon. In the year of his death on Dragon Day,
New Year, 1849, Hokusai painted an auspicious dragon (Figure 3), perhaps representing himself and symbolizing his success in life,3who ascends to the heavens in a black cloud of smoke over beloved Mount Fuji.
Katsushika Hokusai, Dragon Flying Over Mount Fuji, 1849. Kakemono in shades of sumi on silk, 37.5 × 14
in (95 × 36 cm). Hokusai Museum, Obuse, Japan.
Harris JC. Under the Wave off Kanagawa. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2008;65(1):12–13. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2007.21
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