fig. 1
Katsushika Hokusai

At the age of seventy-five the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) defiantly referred to himself as ‘the old man mad about painting’ (gakyō-rōjin) as he railed against his mortality by declaring that he would live past 100 years and in so doing, achieve artistic immortality.1 Hokusai’s artistic manifesto, as written in the colophon to volume 1 of his illustrated book One hundred views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku hyakkei) of 1834, finishes with the statement: ‘At ninety [I] will understand the essential nature of things, and at one hundred this understanding will be divine. At one hundred and ten each dot and stroke I paint will be animated. Those of you who have sufficient longevity, can give evidence to the truth of my words’. For a reproduction of this colophon, see J. Suzuki, Katsushika Hokusai Fugaku hyakkei, Tokyo, 1986, p. 61. Such audacious resolve is symbolised in his iconic image of the sacred peak of immortality, Mount Fuji:2 An active volcano, Mount Fuji (Fujisan) is Japan’s highest mountain and one of its most enduring symbols. Throughout Japanese history the spiritual significance of Mount Fuji has been extolled and its virtues celebrated in art and literature. Amongst the religious groups with both Buddhist and Shintō associations, those related to mountain worship were prominent, its members being known as yamabushi. Earlier forms of nature worship had also focused on mountains, believing that gods (kami) and ancestral spirits resided there. The branch sect known as Fujikō regarded Fujisan as sacred. Hokusai’s belief in Mount Fuji as the source of immortality was a commonly held one, probably derived from Chinese Taoist sources. For further discussion of the origins of this belief, see H. Smith, Hokusai: One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, London, 1988, p. 10. within the foreground a gigantic wave about to wreak havoc on a boatload of hapless fishermen. This image is Under the wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa-oki namiura) c.1830, from his 1830–35 print series Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjū-rokkei),3 There was a supplementary issue of ten prints, bringing the total number of prints in the series to forty-six. The National Gallery of Victoria purchased five works from this series. purchased in 1909 for the National Gallery of Victoria as part of the Felton Bequest and known alternatively today as The great wave (fig. 1).4 The Felton Adviser Frank Gibson made this first purchase for the Gallery in 1909 at a sale conducted by Sotheby, Wilkins & Hodge. Gibson made his selection of fifty-five prints based on the advice of E. F. Strange, an ukiyo-e specialist with the Victoria and Albert Museum (see ‘Japanese colour prints’, in The V. A. S., 1 March 1914, p. 4). Two impressions of Under the wave off Kanagawa were offered for sale at this auction. The image selected by the Gallery was purchased for 10 shillings while another image described in The Times, 27 April 1909, as ‘one of the finest examples in existence’ was purchased by Mr Charles Davis for £23 and 10 shillings. The Times went on to note the high prices paid for these prints. Drawn from the estate of the American John Stewart Happer, this collection was amassed by him in Japan and consisted of 668 prints by major artists of the ukiyo-e school (see L. Bush, ‘Japanalia past & present’, in Japan Times, December 1969). In London the NGV’s foresight in purchasing from this collection was noted in the Daily Telegraph, April 1909, as ‘the most interesting incident of the day’, and in the 30 April 1909 edition of the paper it was stated ‘Melbourne is to be congratulated on the courage of its art representative’. In a derogatory but somewhat perceptive comment (for the collection has never had a catalogued exhibition), the article went on to say: ‘A Japanese print may at first be caviare to an Australian public, but in the end the beauty of such will be perceived’. On 28 April 1909 the Melbourne Age stated: ‘These prints are recognised as some of the Japanese artist’s greatest works, and have been much sought after. They will be a decided acquisition to the National Gallery, as they represent the highest form of art in Japan’. Ursula Hoff concurred with these appraisals when in 1965 she noted that this collection ‘contains some first class impressions of famous works’ (see L. B. Cox, The National Gallery of Victoria 1861 to 1968, Melbourne, 1968, p. 70). James Mollison, director of the NGV from 1989 until 1995, viewed this collection to be among the Felton Bequest’s finest purchases (see J. Poynter, Mr Felton’s Bequest, Melbourne, 2003, p. 304). Despite these lauded appraisals, this collection has not been published. The Japanese ukiyo-e print collection comprises approximately 288 works (numbers are uncertain as the collection has not been fully catalogued).

Hokusai was one of the most influential artists of the Japanese Edo-period (1600–1868) art movement known as ukiyo-e, or pictures of the floating world. He was an eclectic artist who, over a period of more than seventy years, created a huge body of work that drew together myriad influences, including Western techniques as well as traditional Japanese and Chinese elements. His method of revisiting favourite motifs such as Mount Fuji and waves gives a visual guide to the evolution of his artistic style. In this article, by focusing on Hokusai’s depictions of waves, I will demonstrate that what enabled him to realise his artistic vision in The great wave was a synthesis of Eastern and Western aesthetic traditions.

 The tradition of waves

Depictions of waves and the movement of water in Chinese painting, which had a formative influence on Japanese depictions of the same styles, were found in the traditional genre of mountains-and-water, or sansui (Chinese, shan shui). Hokusai drew broadly upon this tradition to create decorative fields of linear patterns reminiscent of the linear depictions of water encapsulated in Chinese painting instructional manuals such as The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (Chieh Tzŭ Yüan Hua Chuan), first published in China in 1679 and available in Japan by 1724.5 S. Sato, The Art of Sumi-e: Appreciation, Techniques and Application, Tokyo, 1984, p.125. In 1748 a Japanese edition of the manual, titled Kaishien gaden, was issued. In 1780 an edition of the manual was made and printed in Japan and in 1812 a Kyoto publisher produced an edition that became available to the general public. In sansui paintings there is little sense of the power of waves to affect human life; however, the indigenous Japanese painting tradition known as yamato-e had utilised the power of waves to highlight human struggle. Hokusai’s numerous early depictions of the movement of water oscillated between such decorative fields of linear patterns and dramatic depictions in which animals and human figures are shown struggling against waves.6 Of the numerous examples, two examples are given here. In the summer of 1816 in vol. 5 of the Hokusai manga, Hokusai depicted a boatload of sightseers being washed stern-first against the rocks at the entrance of the Cave of the Three Deities near Shimoda (see J. A. Michener, The Hokusai Sketch-books: Selections from the Manga, Vermont & Tokyo, 13th edition, 1979, pp. 264–5). In the early 1840s vol. 14 of the Hokusai manga, a boar is shown struggling against the waves (see Hokusai-e jiten, Dōshokubutsu-hen, Tokyo Bijutsu, Tokyo, 1998, p. 15, fig. 6). What is apparent in the works in which he integrated both traditions was his ability to infuse decorative depictions of waves with a sense of drama by pitting humans against the force of water. He achieved a fusion of Chinese stylisation of water with a yamato-e sense of narrative. The earliest progenitors of this aspect of The great wave are a series of designs he did for the three-volume Models of modern combs and pipes (lmayō sekkin hinagata) between 1822 and 1823. These miniature designs include images of Mount Fuji as well as waves, but not yet in combination. In one of these designs fishermen are casting their nets while their boats move between the flows and eddies of vast waves.7 ibid., p. 265, fig.4. These boats are oar-driven oshiokuri-bune, the same type of boat depicted in The great wave.

The genesis of The great wave can be found in these early experiments, but what gave Hokusai the ultimate wave design in Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji was a sense that drama was being played out in realistic space. It was Hokusai’s experiments with this design in a Western-style format that played the key role in this integration of realism, decorativeness and narrative.

A foreign vision

The Edo period is often characterised as a time when Japan was isolated from the outside world. Although this romantic vision of Japan as a closed country is partially based on the fact that the ruling Tokugawa Government had an isolationist policy, foreign ideas still entered Japan via a small enclave of Dutch traders on the islet of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbour, a three-month overland journey from the capital Edo, the site of modern-day Tokyo.8 Japan also maintained trade links with Manchuria, the Ryukyu Islands, Korea and Siam. This was the only access that Japan had with the West and it was from here that the infusion of foreign ideas was to have a profound effect on many aspects of Japanese life, including the arts. This Japanese interest in foreign knowledge, particularly that derived from the West, became increasingly prominent towards the end of the Edo period when Hokusai was active.

In painting, the strongly felt enthusiasm for Western accuracy in representation led many artists to experiment with its methodology in contrast to traditional Japanese aesthetic values, which sought to capture the essence of nature rather than its physical reality. The late-Edo-period intellectuals, known as Rangakusha (literally, ‘Dutch scholar’), who studied Western learning saw such representation as anathema to the new, rational way of thinking provided by Western ideas and denounced traditional representations of nature as useless.9 Such sentiment was forcefully expressed by the Western-style painter Shiba Kōkan (1747–1818) in his 1799 treatise On Western Painting (Seiyō gadan) when he stated: ‘The primary aim of Western art is to create a spirit of reality, but Japanese and Chinese paintings, in failing to do this, become mere toys serving no use whatever. By employing shading, Western artists can represent convex and concave surfaces, sun and shade, distance, depth, and shallowness. Their pictures are models of reality and thus can serve the same function as the written word, often more effectively. The syllables used in writing can only describe, but one realistically drawn picture is worth ten thousand words. For this reason Western books frequently use pictures to supplement descriptive texts, a striking contrast to the inutility of the Japanese and Chinese pictures, which serve no better function than that of a hobby to be performed at drinking parties’. (T. Atsushi, ‘Edo line of Western-style painting’, in Yōfū hyōgen no dōnyū: Edo shūki kara Meiji shoki made (Development of Western Realism in Japan) (exh. cat.), trans. C. French, eds A. Tōru, O. Masaaki, T. Atsushi, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 1985, p. 171. They were particularly interested in books on Western natural sciences and the copperplate etchings that illustrated them. In their minds, science and art were entwined and the realism that underlay this approach was the antithesis of the idealism that characterised East Asian artistic traditions. The Western-style paintings these artist–scholars produced were known as ranga, or Dutch painting, and their work fostered an interest in this type of painting in Edo where the most influential proponent was Shiba Kōkan (1747–1818).

A crucial aspect of this Western influence that contradicted Eastern concepts of pictorial space and therefore challenged traditional landscape expression was the Western theory of vanishing-point perspective.10 It is significant to note that the adoption of Western realistic techniques was chiefly in relation to perspective, a concept that diverted from traditional taste more significantly than for chiaroscuro which could be appreciated on the level of subtle tonal variations, an integral part of ink printing, or suiboku-ga. The Japanese have always exhibited a willingness to experiment with new ideas and this was a particular characteristic of the Edo period. Thus the adoption of Western realism in painting was not only restricted to ranga but was also felt in other non-traditional painting schools such as the Maruyama-Shijō and ukiyo-e.11 Maruyama-Shijō was a school of painting founded by Maruyama Ōkyo and based on Kanō, Ch’ing and Western styles.

The linear qualities of the ukiyo-e woodblock print medium were conducive to the depiction of receding space in architecture and, initially, artists merged the traditional subjects of beautiful women and actors with Western realism by depicting interior perspective views of the Yoshiwara licensed brothels and the Kabuki theatres. Characterised by a rigid linear perspective and a simplistic use of vanishing point, these works created an eerie semblance of realistic depth which was perceived by the contemporary Japanese viewers as suspended space and consequently were referred to as uki-e (floating pictures).12 They were also referred to as kubomi-e (sunken pictures). Hokusai produced a number of uki-e; however, the complexities of rendering space in landscape required a more sophisticated understanding of perspective than he possessed. Artists outside the ukiyo-e school such as Maruyama Ōkyo (1733–1795) and Shiba Kōkan,13 A reinterpretation of Kōkan’s contribution to an evolving Japanese landscape-painting style will reveal his contribution beyond what Western scholars see as ‘a strange mixture of European and Japanese elements, too amateurish to be important as art’ (L. P. Roberts, A Dictionary of Japanese Artists, Tokyo & New York, 1990, p. 88). and those of the ranga school who had a better theoretical understanding of perspective, were able to create more naturalistic compositions. The importance of these artists lies in the fact that they offered an interpretation of Western realism, which Hokusai found more appealing.14 There has been little research undertaken to confirm the influence of Kōkan on Hokusai. Kyoshin lijima, in his 1893 biography of Hokusai, Katsushika Hokusai den, stated that Hokusai learnt Western-style painting from Kōkan. Asano Tōru states that it is difficult to find a direct stylistic link between the two artists but that the expansive spatial depiction seen in the works of ukiyo-e artists such as Torii Kiyonaga indicates that they were aware of Kōkan’s work (see Asano Tōru, ‘Hokusai, Kuniyoshi, Hiroshige’, in Development of Western Realism in Japan, eds A. Tōru et al., pp. 28–9). The ukiyo-e scholar Nobuo Tsuji states that Hokusai borrowed a Kōkan-style background for his kyōka bon titled Tōto meisho ichiran (Famous Views of the Eastern Capital), 2 vols, Kansei 12, I/1800. N. Tsuji, Hokusai, Book of Books: Nihon no bijutsu vol. 31, 1982. The lack of concrete evidence linking Hokusai to Kōkan means that any connection between the two artists needs to be established through stylistic similarities.

The Western-style oil painting often cited as the inspiration for Hokusai’s The great wave is Kōkan’s 1796 View of Shichirigahama near Kamakura in Sagami Province (Sōshū Kamakura Shichirigahama no zu),15 This painting, measuring 95.6 x 178.5 cm, is held in the collection of the Kobe City Museum and is inscribed: ‘Copied faithfully by the Western-style painter Kōkan Shiba Shun at the Eastern Capotal [sic]’ and is signed in romanised script: ‘S. a Kookan Ao: 18’. a work on paper mounted as a two-fold screen (fig. 2). This work, depicting waves crashing onto the beach near Enoshima, an island to the south-east of Edo, was exhibited in the autumn of 1796 at the Atago Shrine in Shiba, south of Edo.16 M. Forrer, ‘Western influences in the works of Hokusai’, in Hokusai: Bridging East and West, Nihon Keizai Shinbun, Tokyo, 1998, p. 195. Kōkan went on to paint at least six other paintings on the subject of a view of Enoshima and Mount Fuji from Shichirigahama, which were widely distributed and copied.17 Forrer, ‘Western influences in Hokusai’s art’, Hokusai, ed. G. C. Calza, London & New York, 2003, p. 26. Forrer states that there are records of Kōkan donating twelve paintings to shrines and temples and quotes Kōkan’s 1809 book Range dōbanga hikifuda in which he wrote: When Master Kōkan painted his views of the various provinces of Japan, copying these from life in the manner of Dutch paintings, there were quite a few who wanted to know them. Therefore, people all over Edo, as well as in Kyoto and Osaka, hung them on walls and there was a real flowering of works in the style of the master’. It is likely that Hokusai saw View of Shichirigahama for in 1797 he produced an album of comic verse (kyōka) titled The willow branch (Yanagi no ito) that included Springtime in Enoshima (Enoshima shunbō) an image that has the same compositional elements as Kōkan’s painting although with a higher viewpoint (fig. 3). In both works the foreground view of figures on the beach where waves are breaking is separated from the background by the use of a high viewpoint that keeps Mount Fuji and Enoshima high up in the picture plane.

Two years later Hokusai revisited this design in a small-size, elaborate print known as a chūban surimono that he produced for the New Year, possibly for the haiku poet Rissetsuan Goshin.18 ibid. To allow for the incorporation of verse in this design, Hokusai omitted Mount Fuji from the background. In his mind such designs probably lacked dramatic impact for, in later designs modelled on the same view of the Enoshima seashore, he experimented with the compositional elements of the sea and Fuji. The ranga method of giving prominence to foreground objects by adding a perspective view to the background must have been in his mind when he modified his viewpoint of Enoshima in an untitled, privately commissioned surimono print in occidental style from the early 1800s (fig. 4).19 Composition in ranga paintings usually consisted of a large foreground subject, such as a bird or a still life, modelled in light and shade with a distant landscape utilising Western perspective. In these works the careful separation of the foreground and background and the lack of any mid ground has the effect of emphasising their differences. The contrast between the realistic but painterly foreground vignette view of birds-and-flowers with the background reminiscent of Dutch copperplate etchings, dramatically highlights the foreground and gives one the impression of a bird’s-eye viewpoint looking from close range through to a distant background. In this view Enoshima is positioned closer to the picture plane so that its prominent size in the left foreground counterbalances that of Mount Fuji and the coastline to the right. Traditionally, Mount Fuji had been depicted in Shinto shrine mandala paintings, where it had always been given prominence because of its sacred significance. Edo Japanese viewers must have been surprised to see Mount Fuji depicted diminutively in the background in Western-style images but what would have been even more startling to the Edo viewer is that, in this image, Enoshima looms larger than Fuji.

In two other occidental print series from the early 1800s Hokusai employed the prominent foreground element to give looming presence to a wave (fig. 5). By utilising the diminution of forms to contextualise these images, in each case he dramatically shows a boat about to be engulfed by a giant wave. Such juxtapositions, especially ones in which the foreground dramatically frames the background, are crucial to many of the designs in Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji and his later illustrated book, One hundred views of Fuji.20 The framing possibilities provided by the juxtaposition of foreground and background was a key compositional technique adopted by Hokusai’s younger contemporary, Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), in his 1856–58 series One hundred famous views of Edo (Meisho Edo hyakkei). In traditional Japanese landscapes the viewer played the role of outside witness, but the addition of this realistic element afforded the viewer the opportunity to enter into this narrative space. The third dimension thus enhanced the traditional sense of drama. In such compositional experiments, Hokusai was evolving his ideas towards a spectacular confluence of Western and Eastern styles.

Towards the immortal summit

Western realism provided Hokusai with a new artistic means of describing space, but until the 1830s, such descriptions were awkwardly unresolved in printmaking for they lacked the colour and decorative flourish associated with Japanese art. For Hokusai the resolution of this dilemma came literally and metaphorically out of the blue. Prior to this period the only available blue pigments for printmaking were organic colourants that rapidly faded once exposed to light. From the 1830s onwards, the availability of a suitable printer’s pigment in the form of the imported Prussian blue, with its wide tonal range, provided a means for Hokusai to deepen his vision beyond the limits of linear perspective.21 For further discussion, see G. Hickey, ‘Hokusai landscape prints and Prussian blue’, in Proceedings of the Third International Hokusai Conference in Obuse, 1998, pp. 40–7, and quoted in, Hokusai and Hiroshige (exh. cat.), ed. Lorna Price, San Francisco, Asian Art. Museum of San Francisco, 1998. The availability of this colour acted as a catalyst in what was a maturing of Hokusai’s landscape style through an escalation of the dynamic process of interaction between long-established traditions and foreign influences.22 The incorporation of blue into ranga paintings meant that ranga provided a model for Hokusai to explore the possibilities of describing depth beyond linear perspective. When the Edo writer Takizawa Bakin saw a ranga image projected by a camera obscura in Osaka in 1802, among other things he was struck by the blueness of the sky. Shiba Kōkan’s ranga works, such as Shichirigahama, similarly placed emphasis on vast expanses of blue in sky as well as water.

The significance of the addition of blue to the print artist’s palette and his ability to render landscape was such that Hokusai conceived his major series on Mount Fuji using only blue. In an advertisement for Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji that appeared in Shōhon-jidate (Kabuki Tales)published during the year 1831, it was advertised as being in ‘aizuri technique’, a style of print exclusively utilising shades of blue (ai).23 R. Lane, Hokusai: Life and Work, New York, 1989, p. 184. In fact only nine or ten views in the series could be considered as aizuri-e, as all of the other prints in this series, including The great wave, have the additional colours of reddish-brown, yellow or beige (the faded shade of a deeper tone) as well as black and shades of grey. However, the pervading hue of The great wave is blue and by rendering both mountain and wave in blue-on-white Hokusai has symbolically linked the elemental forces of water and fire,24 In linking the mountain and the wave, Hokusai may have been aware of the statement: ‘Mountains have strangely shaped peaks and water also has strangely shaped peaks.’ The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (Chieh Tzŭ Yüan Hua Chuan), ed. M. M. Sze, New Jersey, 1992, p. 215. for, like all his contemporary Edoites, Hokusai was well aware of the potential for volcanic eruptions,25 See Takeuchi, ‘Mt Fuji’, in Y. Ohyama, Mt. Fuji, New York, 1987, p. 71. Since the beginning of the Heian period, Mount Fuji has erupted as many as fourteen times between 781 and 1707. In Hokusai’s later work, The emergence of Mount Hoei from the Hundred views of Fuji, series I, 1834, this potential for disaster is fully realised in a catastrophic scene following the volcanic eruption of the year Hoei IV (late 1707). and their resultant tsunami and floods.26 See Lane, ‘On the dating of Hokusai’s Fuji, Andon, 24, 1986, p.63. The effect of Hokusai’s image can be gauged from the numerous uses of his design in broadsheets depicting the floods that resulted from the volcanic tremors in 1834. The melted snow off the slopes of Mount Fuji caused floods and much loss of life. In artistic terms, the availability of a suitable printer’s blue enabled Hokusai to render depth and roundness without reliance on linear perspective, a technique he had found wanting. Further, the addition of blue added decorative appeal for it was a colour of cultural significance to the Japanese. Both tradition and innovation worked towards the culmination of this evolution in The great wave. All that was required to complete this evolution was a fully dramatised composition.

The rounded form of a gently cresting wave may have suited the beach break that we see in Kōkan’s View of Shichirigahama near Kamakura in Sagami Province and Hokusai’s 1797 image based on the same from The willow branch album, but the giant form of a deep-sea wave needed a more powerful presence.27 Lane, Hokusai, p. 189. Such acute observation of the movement of waves, according to Lane, may have been the result of personal experience and observation during Hokusai’s visits to the Miura and Bōsō peninsulas close to Edo Bay. In order to create this effect, Hokusai borrowed from the Edo-period decorative Rimpa School tradition of waves, such as seen in Ogata Kōrin’s (1658–1716) Rough waves (fig. 6).28 Kōrin had been inspired to depict this wave by Tawaraya Sotatsu’s (active c.1600–40) similar depictions such as his Rough seas in the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum. Later, Hokusai’s Edo contemporary Sakai Hōitsu (1761–1828) produced paintings of similar subjects. Rather than water moving as a linear flow over the whole surface of the painting, as seen in other traditions, such Rimpa depictions of individual crests with tentacle-like projections have the quality of personalised images.29 Hokusai was aware of this manner of depicting waves and, inspired by their example, around 1842–45 painted two panels for the Kanmachi festival float of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ waves, each panel 123.0 x 126.5 cm. The Hokusai Museum, Obuse. Hokusai’s cresting Great wave displays the ‘tenacious fingers’ and sprays of foam reminiscent of Rimpa waves. Kōrin’s wave is given prominence by contrasting the white foam against what appears to be a black-shaded background but what is, in actuality, a deep blue mixed with black. In the same manner, Hokusai emphasises the form of his wave by outlining it using a Prussian-blue key block. Hokusai’s summit of Mount Fuji is highlighted in a similar manner but this time by contrasting its white peak against a background of blue overprinted with a dark grey.30 M. Murase, Masterpieces of Japanese Screen Painting: The American Collections, New York, 1990, p. 110. Recent scientific tests of Korin’s blue colourant in Rough waves indicates that it may have been a later addition and that originally, the work would have been executed entirely in black sumi-ink on gold. If this were true, it would strengthen the connection between Hokusai’s wave and those from the Rimpa tradition. The cresting of Rimpa waves does not have the foreboding that we perceive in Hokusai’s wave, for these waves are not given spatial definition. By giving us a close viewpoint that looks up into the wave and by adding boats and a perspective view of Mount Fuji in the background, Hokusai uses relative size to its greatest effect. By presenting these two elements in a two-planar composition, any distracting mid-ground elements, such as those seen in Hokusai’s earlier Enoshima views, are eliminated. Two-planar composition was a yamato-e tradition and what Hokusai has in effect achieved here is a three-dimensional image of these traditionally flat paintings. Diminishing size between two planes allowed Hokusai to further develop his composition through the juxtaposition of forms and framing. In this case the curve described by the wave perfectly frames Fuji at its centre and, for those Edoites unfamiliar with perspective, the wave could have been imagined as about to break not only on the boats but also on Fuji itself! To give further dramatic emphasis, the wave moves from left to right, counter to how the Japanese would normally read the image. In emaki scrolls, yamato-e artists often used this device to confront the viewer and Hokusai has enhanced this drama by similarly confronting the viewer with a wave (along with the three cargo boats and their oarsmen huddled helplessly together)31 The boats are oshiokuri (literally, ‘no mast’) that hauled cargoes of fresh fish and vegetables from lzu and Awa to Edo. that has a realistic and powerful dimension. In this manner The great wave becomes a masterstroke of Western-inspired imaginative invention as well as an outflow of evolving tradition.

Despite what seems like exhaustive experiments with the motif of waves breaking, Hokusai continued with this design beyond The great wave. In the 1835 Fuji at sea (Kaijō no Fuji) from volume two of the black-on-white illustrated book One hundred views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku hyakkei) 1834–c.1842, Hokusai revisited the image of a wave seemingly breaking above Mount Fuji (fig. 7). In this work, however, he has reversed the movement of the wave from right to left so that the viewer can comfortably read the image. The wave moves in a more harmonious flow than in Under the wave off Kanagawa where its threatening presence confronts the viewer. Like sprays of foam, the plovers mingle with the crest of the wave, enhancing the decorative appeal of this work for the plover-and-wave pattern, or chidorigata, was widely used as a decoration for kimono and sliding-panel doors. To enhance the more benign aspect of this wave, the crest is shown as a spray of foam rather than the full-bodied wave seen in The great wave. Similarly, the proportional size of the plovers and the wave indicates that this wave is of diminutive size.

Fuji at sea is often cited as the companion piece to The great wave,32 See Smith, p.205. Smith makes this connection in his comments on Kaijō no Fuji. but Hokusai’s method of encoding his images with hidden meaning makes it unlikely that he would have left his obsession with Fuji and waves to only one example out of a hundred.33 Japanese aesthetic concepts such as yūgen mitate are characterised by a subtlety that, for the uninformed, is seen as enigmatic or inscrutable; however, subtlety allows for a profundity of meaning that cannot be achieved when something is fully described. Hokusai understood this and often obscured the meaning of his images to add an even deeper level of meaning. The plebeian nature of ukiyo-e meant that such obscuration was expressed in down-to-earth terms, often adding a sense of the humorous or curious (okashi). Perhaps, as was his disposition, Hokusai had hidden references to waves in his designs, for he understood that obscuration empowered the image through the viewer’s discovery of meaning. Our response to Hokusai’s images is to strive to read his secret, codified messages as if we were trying to decipher an ancient text. In Fuji on a swell (Uneri Fuji) from volume two of One hundred views, the same type of boat depicted in Under the wave off Kanagawa, a rowing boat known as an oshiokuri-bune, used for the delivery of fish to market, is again depicted (fig. 8). In Under the wave the oarsmen’s heads are lowered as if to avert their eyes from the possibility of impending disaster. So too, in Fuji on a swell, the oarsmen cast their eyes downwards, perhaps in this case to look at the reflection of Fuji, traditionally viewed as a sign of good luck for mariners. What is intriguing is that if we turn this image upside down, as can easily be done in this small format, what we see is another version of Under the wave, but one in which the ocean and mountain merge in a reflected parody of this work. The mystery of the sacred mountain is symbolised in the complexity of Hokusai’s design and the diversity of such images in the Hundred views of Mount Fuji reveals the possibility of artistic immortality that drove Hokusai further towards the summit of creative endeavour.

 Conclusion

The complexity of Hokusai’s imagery as observed in his Great wave was facilitated by his manipulation of elements that relate to visual perception. Such an empowering of artistic expression was made possible by new ways of visualising the world provided by Western realism. Hokusai understood the artistic possibilities of Western techniques of depth and spaciousness in landscape. The wide tonality of Prussian blue allowed him to transform this understanding by diminishing his reliance on linear perspective, broadening the expressive potential of tonality, simplifying composition and utilising the full expressive power of colour. Traditionally, Japanese painting had avoided deep-receding pictorial space; however, Hokusai found that by utilising key elements of Western realism such as the diminution of forms and tonality, he was able to sharpen his focus on the sacred mountain. Paradoxically, he achieved this by enhancing traditional Eastern expression through Western spatial definition. On a philosophical level, what he achieved in giving visual depth to his view of Fuji beneath a giant wave was an intensification of the traditional spiritual values associated with this sacred volcano.

Gary Hickey, Lecturer in Asian Art History, University of Melbourne (in 2004).

 

Notes

1     Hokusai’s artistic manifesto, as written in the colophon to volume 1 of his illustrated book One hundred views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku hyakkei) of 1834, finishes with the statement: ‘At ninety [I] will understand the essential nature of things, and at one hundred this understanding will be divine. At one hundred and ten each dot and stroke I paint will be animated. Those of you who have sufficient longevity, can give evidence to the truth of my words’. For a reproduction of this colophon, see J. Suzuki, Katsushika Hokusai Fugaku hyakkei, Tokyo, 1986, p. 61.

2     An active volcano, Mount Fuji (Fujisan) is Japan’s highest mountain and one of its most enduring symbols. Throughout Japanese history the spiritual significance of Mount Fuji has been extolled and its virtues celebrated in art and literature. Amongst the religious groups with both Buddhist and Shintō associations, those related to mountain worship were prominent, its members being known as yamabushi. Earlier forms of nature worship had also focused on mountains, believing that gods (kami) and ancestral spirits resided there. The branch sect known as Fujikō regarded Fujisan as sacred. Hokusai’s belief in Mount Fuji as the source of immortality was a commonly held one, probably derived from Chinese Taoist sources. For further discussion of the origins of this belief, see H. Smith, Hokusai: One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, London, 1988, p. 10.

3     There was a supplementary issue of ten prints, bringing the total number of prints in the series to forty-six. The National Gallery of Victoria purchased five works from this series.

4     The Felton Adviser Frank Gibson made this first purchase for the Gallery in 1909 at a sale conducted by Sotheby, Wilkins & Hodge. Gibson made his selection of fifty-five prints based on the advice of E. F. Strange, an ukiyo-e specialist with the Victoria and Albert Museum (see ‘Japanese colour prints’, in The V. A. S., 1 March 1914, p. 4). Two impressions of Under the wave off Kanagawa were offered for sale at this auction. The image selected by the Gallery was purchased for 10 shillings while another image described in The Times, 27 April 1909, as ‘one of the finest examples in existence’ was purchased by Mr Charles Davis for £23 and 10 shillings. The Times went on to note the high prices paid for these prints. Drawn from the estate of the American John Stewart Happer, this collection was amassed by him in Japan and consisted of 668 prints by major artists of the ukiyo-e school (see L. Bush, ‘Japanalia past & present’, in Japan Times, December 1969). In London the NGV’s foresight in purchasing from this collection was noted in the Daily Telegraph, April 1909, as ‘the most interesting incident of the day’, and in the 30 April 1909 edition of the paper it was stated ‘Melbourne is to be congratulated on the courage of its art representative’. In a derogatory but somewhat perceptive comment (for the collection has never had a catalogued exhibition), the article went on to say: ‘A Japanese print may at first be caviare to an Australian public, but in the end the beauty of such will be perceived’. On 28 April 1909 the Melbourne Age stated: ‘These prints are recognised as some of the Japanese artist’s greatest works, and have been much sought after. They will be a decided acquisition to the National Gallery, as they represent the highest form of art in Japan’. Ursula Hoff concurred with these appraisals when in 1965 she noted that this collection ‘contains some first class impressions of famous works’ (see L. B. Cox, The National Gallery of Victoria 1861 to 1968, Melbourne, 1968, p. 70). James Mollison, director of the NGV from 1989 until 1995, viewed this collection to be among the Felton Bequest’s finest purchases (see J. Poynter, Mr Felton’s Bequest, Melbourne, 2003, p. 304). Despite these lauded appraisals, this collection has not been published. The Japanese ukiyo-e print collection comprises approximately 288 works (numbers are uncertain as the collection has not been fully catalogued).

5     S. Sato, The Art of Sumi-e: Appreciation, Techniques and Application, Tokyo, 1984, p.125. In 1748 a Japanese edition of the manual, titled Kaishien gaden, was issued. In 1780 an edition of the manual was made and printed in Japan and in 1812 a Kyoto publisher produced an edition that became available to the general public.

6     Of the numerous examples, two examples are given here. In the summer of 1816 in vol. 5 of the Hokusai manga, Hokusai depicted a boatload of sightseers being washed stern-first against the rocks at the entrance of the Cave of the Three Deities near Shimoda (see J. A. Michener, The Hokusai Sketch-books: Selections from the Manga, Vermont & Tokyo, 13th edition, 1979, pp. 264–5). In the early 1840s vol. 14 of the Hokusai manga, a boar is shown struggling against the waves (see Hokusai-e jiten, Dōshokubutsu-hen, Tokyo Bijutsu, Tokyo, 1998, p. 15, fig. 6).

7     ibid., p. 265, fig.4. These boats are oar-driven oshiokuri-bune, the same type of boat depicted in The great wave.

8     Japan also maintained trade links with Manchuria, the Ryukyu Islands, Korea and Siam.

9     Such sentiment was forcefully expressed by the Western-style painter Shiba Kōkan (1747–1818) in his 1799 treatise On Western Painting (Seiyō gadan) when he stated: ‘The primary aim of Western art is to create a spirit of reality, but Japanese and Chinese paintings, in failing to do this, become mere toys serving no use whatever. By employing shading, Western artists can represent convex and concave surfaces, sun and shade, distance, depth, and shallowness. Their pictures are models of reality and thus can serve the same function as the written word, often more effectively. The syllables used in writing can only describe, but one realistically drawn picture is worth ten thousand words. For this reason Western books frequently use pictures to supplement descriptive texts, a striking contrast to the inutility of the Japanese and Chinese pictures, which serve no better function than that of a hobby to be performed at drinking parties’. (T. Atsushi, ‘Edo line of Western-style painting’, in Yōfū hyōgen no dōnyū: Edo shūki kara Meiji shoki made (Development of Western Realism in Japan) (exh. cat.), trans. C. French, eds A. Tōru, O. Masaaki, T. Atsushi, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 1985, p. 171.

10     It is significant to note that the adoption of Western realistic techniques was chiefly in relation to perspective, a concept that diverted from traditional taste more significantly than for chiaroscuro which could be appreciated on the level of subtle tonal variations, an integral part of ink printing, or suiboku-ga.

11     Maruyama-Shijō was a school of painting founded by Maruyama Ōkyo and based on Kanō, Ch’ing and Western styles.

12     They were also referred to as kubomi-e (sunken pictures).

13     A reinterpretation of Kōkan’s contribution to an evolving Japanese landscape-painting style will reveal his contribution beyond what Western scholars see as ‘a strange mixture of European and Japanese elements, too amateurish to be important as art’ (L. P. Roberts, A Dictionary of Japanese Artists, Tokyo & New York, 1990, p. 88).

14     There has been little research undertaken to confirm the influence of Kōkan on Hokusai. Kyoshin lijima, in his 1893 biography of Hokusai, Katsushika Hokusai den, stated that Hokusai learnt Western-style painting from Kōkan. Asano Tōru states that it is difficult to find a direct stylistic link between the two artists but that the expansive spatial depiction seen in the works of ukiyo-e artists such as Torii Kiyonaga indicates that they were aware of Kōkan’s work (see Asano Tōru, ‘Hokusai, Kuniyoshi, Hiroshige’, in Development of Western Realism in Japan, eds A. Tōru et al., pp. 28–9). The ukiyo-e scholar Nobuo Tsuji states that Hokusai borrowed a Kōkan-style background for his kyōka bon titled Tōto meisho ichiran (Famous Views of the Eastern Capital), 2 vols, Kansei 12, I/1800. N. Tsuji, Hokusai, Book of Books: Nihon no bijutsu vol. 31, 1982. The lack of concrete evidence linking Hokusai to Kōkan means that any connection between the two artists needs to be established through stylistic similarities.

15     This painting, measuring 95.6 x 178.5 cm, is held in the collection of the Kobe City Museum and is inscribed: ‘Copied faithfully by the Western-style painter Kōkan Shiba Shun at the Eastern Capotal [sic]’ and is signed in romanised script: ‘S. a Kookan Ao: 18’.

16     M. Forrer, ‘Western influences in the works of Hokusai’, in Hokusai: Bridging East and West, Nihon Keizai Shinbun, Tokyo, 1998, p. 195.

17     Forrer, ‘Western influences in Hokusai’s art’, Hokusai, ed. G. C. Calza, London & New York, 2003, p. 26. Forrer states that there are records of Kōkan donating twelve paintings to shrines and temples and quotes Kōkan’s 1809 book Range dōbanga hikifuda in which he wrote: When Master Kōkan painted his views of the various provinces of Japan, copying these from life in the manner of Dutch paintings, there were quite a few who wanted to know them. Therefore, people all over Edo, as well as in Kyoto and Osaka, hung them on walls and there was a real flowering of works in the style of the master’.

18     ibid.

19     Composition in ranga paintings usually consisted of a large foreground subject, such as a bird or a still life, modelled in light and shade with a distant landscape utilising Western perspective. In these works the careful separation of the foreground and background and the lack of any mid ground has the effect of emphasising their differences. The contrast between the realistic but painterly foreground vignette view of birds-and-flowers with the background reminiscent of Dutch copperplate etchings, dramatically highlights the foreground and gives one the impression of a bird’s-eye viewpoint looking from close range through to a distant background.

20     The framing possibilities provided by the juxtaposition of foreground and background was a key compositional technique adopted by Hokusai’s younger contemporary, Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), in his 1856–58 series One hundred famous views of Edo (Meisho Edo hyakkei).

21     For further discussion, see G. Hickey, ‘Hokusai landscape prints and Prussian blue’, in Proceedings of the Third International Hokusai Conference in Obuse, 1998, pp. 40–7, and quoted in, Hokusai and Hiroshige (exh. cat.), ed. Lorna Price, San Francisco, Asian Art. Museum of San Francisco, 1998.

22     The incorporation of blue into ranga paintings meant that ranga provided a model for Hokusai to explore the possibilities of describing depth beyond linear perspective. When the Edo writer Takizawa Bakin saw a ranga image projected by a camera obscura in Osaka in 1802, among other things he was struck by the blueness of the sky. Shiba Kōkan’s ranga works, such as Shichirigahama, similarly placed emphasis on vast expanses of blue in sky as well as water.

23     R. Lane, Hokusai: Life and Work, New York, 1989, p. 184.

24     In linking the mountain and the wave, Hokusai may have been aware of the statement: ‘Mountains have strangely shaped peaks and water also has strangely shaped peaks.’ The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (Chieh Tzŭ Yüan Hua Chuan), ed. M. M. Sze, New Jersey, 1992, p. 215.

25     See Takeuchi, ‘Mt Fuji’, in Y. Ohyama, Mt. Fuji, New York, 1987, p. 71. Since the beginning of the Heian period, Mount Fuji has erupted as many as fourteen times between 781 and 1707. In Hokusai’s later work, The emergence of Mount Hoei from the Hundred views of Fuji, series I, 1834, this potential for disaster is fully realised in a catastrophic scene following the volcanic eruption of the year Hoei IV (late 1707).

26     See Lane, ‘On the dating of Hokusai’s Fuji, Andon, 24, 1986, p.63. The effect of Hokusai’s image can be gauged from the numerous uses of his design in broadsheets depicting the floods that resulted from the volcanic tremors in 1834. The melted snow off the slopes of Mount Fuji caused floods and much loss of life.

27     Lane, Hokusai, p. 189. Such acute observation of the movement of waves, according to Lane, may have been the result of personal experience and observation during Hokusai’s visits to the Miura and Bōsō peninsulas close to Edo Bay.

28     Kōrin had been inspired to depict this wave by Tawaraya Sotatsu’s (active c.1600–40) similar depictions such as his Rough seas in the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum. Later, Hokusai’s Edo contemporary Sakai Hōitsu (1761–1828) produced paintings of similar subjects.

29     Hokusai was aware of this manner of depicting waves and, inspired by their example, around 1842–45 painted two panels for the Kanmachi festival float of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ waves, each panel 123.0 x 126.5 cm. The Hokusai Museum, Obuse.

30     M. Murase, Masterpieces of Japanese Screen Painting: The American Collections, New York, 1990, p. 110. Recent scientific tests of Korin’s blue colourant in Rough waves indicates that it may have been a later addition and that originally, the work would have been executed entirely in black sumi-ink on gold. If this were true, it would strengthen the connection between Hokusai’s wave and those from the Rimpa tradition.

31     The boats are oshiokuri (literally, ‘no mast’) that hauled cargoes of fresh fish and vegetables from lzu and Awa to Edo.

32     See Smith, p.205. Smith makes this connection in his comments on Kaijō no Fuji.

33     Japanese aesthetic concepts such as yūgen mitate are characterised by a subtlety that, for the uninformed, is seen as enigmatic or inscrutable; however, subtlety allows for a profundity of meaning that cannot be achieved when something is fully described. Hokusai understood this and often obscured the meaning of his images to add an even deeper level of meaning. The plebeian nature of ukiyo-e meant that such obscuration was expressed in down-to-earth terms, often adding a sense of the humorous or curious (okashi).