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26 Jun 20

Hokusai and the Great Wave


It is one of the most recognised images in art and popular culture, pluralised and approximated in many ways all over the world. Many consider it an emblem of Japanese culture; others align it with alternate places – from Australia’s surf coast to a plane crash site on Long Island, United States. Mem Capp speaks with a surfer, a contemporary artist and NGV Senior Curator of Asian Art Wayne Crothers about the broad appeal and diverse symbolism of Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s The great wave. In the process, she discovers an influence that has endured from the wild seas of Japan’s Kantō region, through the Impressionist art and music of Vincent van Gogh and Claude Debussy, to present-day Melbourne where it is still among the most popular works in the NGV Collection, ranking in the top twenty of the website’s most viewed Collection Online works.

As it looms over them, its cartoonish clawed fingers of foam reaching for its prey, the fishermen in their long, sleek boats are forever poised on the brink of annihilation. Like viewers of the work, the fishermen are suspended in time between tragedy and farce. Full of visual play, the great wave takes on human-like characteristics, the smaller wave in the foreground mimicking the white peak of Mount Fuji’s calm and unchanging presence in the distance. This iconic woodblock print, known as The great wave off Kanagawa or, more commonly, The great wave, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, 1830–34, by the famous Edo artist Katsushika Hokusai, is included in the National Gallery of Victoria’s Hokusai exhibition.

‘The exhibition features full sets of all Hokusai’s major projects’ says Wayne Crothers, NGV Senior Curator of Asian Art. ‘It starts with about eighteen works presenting his early to mature development. The main core of the exhibition from 1831 to 1836 was his most productive period and interestingly made between the age of 70 to 75’

Organised in partnership with the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum in Masumoto, Hokusai comprises over 170 works which include hand-printed books – all of which are displayed in multimedia format – and Hokusai’s complete set of Manga, which reflect the humour that came to characterise his work.

As the great wave heaves and sighs, its mighty crest looming over a diminutive Mount Fuji, the viewer’s eye is continually drawn from its frothing white peak to the still, unchanging point of the mountain below and its symbolic spiritual relationship to Hokusai and the Japanese people. The artist was a follower of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism, and ‘Hokusai’ and ‘Taito’ – his two favourite names out of more than thirty by which he was known in his lifetime – refer to the Northern star and reflect the notion of immortality inherent in Mount Fuji. The mountain’s peak, once visible across all of Edo (present-day Tokyo), in Hokusai’s work symbolised that ‘a realised life’ was possible to all viewers in their present lives.

Hokusai made many wave images during his long life; the combination of wave and mountain was thought to have been inspired by the oil painting A View of Seven-League Beach, 1796, by the Japanese artist Shiba Kökan who was strongly influenced by Western art. Two early prints by Hokusai, Kanagawa-oki Honmoku no zu, c. 1803, and Oshiokuri Hato Tsusen no Zu, c. 1805, have subject matter identical to his later work The great wave. In these works, however, the waves are dense, rigid and uniform whereas The great wave is dynamic and alive. The earlier images also depict a traditional Japanese painting perspective in which the viewer has a bird’s eye view of the scene. The great wave reflects the influence of Western perspective with a low horizon line, forcing the viewer’s eye to the centre of the action.

Hokusai’s precocious talent was obvious from an early age, and after an apprenticeship to a wood carver he gained experience in a number of different workshops, learning the art of ukiyo-e woodblock printing and painting. Ukiyo-e is a term with Buddhist origins that means ‘floating world’, and refers to the notion of impermanence. Identifiable for their emphasis on line and pure, bright colour, and distillation of forms to a minimum, Hokusai’s works defied convention, moving away from traditional subject matter to depict the everyday person and the beauty and power of the landscape.

The strict isolationist policies of the Tokugawa Shoguns, which for more than 250 years prevented foreigners from entering Japan and citizens leaving the country, acted as a catalyst for great cultural flourishing. Travel and tourism within Japan boomed, and cultural pursuits such as theatre (kabuki), art and literature contributed to the rise of ukiyo-e prints. They became a symbol of this new age, and the ability to mass-produce them gave the rising middle class a chance to obtain works of art that had previously been the domain of the wealthy.

As the great wave moves from left to right – a possible symbol of Western influence that would inevitably reshape Edo Japan into a modern society – The great wave represents not only the pinnacle of Hokusai’s wave exploration but the importance of western influence in his image-making. Through exposure to European art, particularly Dutch, that had made its way into Japan, Hokusai introduced the concepts of perspective and shading into his work, as well as the pigment Prussian Blue which came to characterise his prints.

It was not, however, until after Hokusai’s death and the opening of borders in the 1850s that a wave of Japanese art deluged the West, forever changing the direction of modernism. In 1867 at the International Exposition in Paris, Hokusai’s work was exhibited in the Japanese pavilion, leading to what became known as Japonisme – a craze on everything Japanese. Hokusai’s work became emblematic of the Japanese influence seen in the art of Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh. French composer Claude Debussy’s composition The Sea (La Mer) (1905), was inspired by The great wave, as was the bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem The Mountain (1908), which begins,

‘Six and thirty times and hundred times / the painter tried to capture the mountain’

The image has also become a symbol for man-made and natural disasters, as can be seen in artist David Salle’s pictorial cycle made in response to Hurricane Katrina, and commemorative piece for the 1996 Pan Am Flight 800. In this work, as the great wave peaks its froth morphs into a flock of birds flying forever skyward.

The great wave was voted the fourth most popular work in the NGV Collection during the Gallery’s 150th anniversary festivities in 2011, and is celebrated in popular culture worldwide through merchandise, from clothing to stationary items. What is it that draws people to the image? Fiona, a surfer, speaks of the power of the natural forces on display in the work as well as her fascination with watching breaking waves as key factors in her affinity with Hokusai’s image. Min, an artist, says that it is Hokusai’s use of colour, the shape of the great wave and the overall beauty of the design that draws her to the print. Wayne Crothers suggests a bigger picture:

‘[It reflects] humanity’s fragile existence within nature, a big question’, he says, ‘and different for each person’

This was originally commissioned for and published in the Jul–Aug 2017 issue of NGV Magazine.

Mem Capp is a Melbourne-based writer with a background in visual arts and education.