Better Know the Great Wave | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

episode is supported by Skillshare and our patrons,
especially Indianapolis Homes Realty. You’ve seen this image
before, a giant wave, its distinctive curly claws
arched and ready to pounce. It’s invoked when
natural disaster strikes, but also when it’s time to sell
beer, jeans, and sweatshirts. It inspired Claude Debussy’s
orchestral work “La Mer,” as well as a not insignificant
number of tattoos. It’s an omnipresent
image and one used towards a variety of ends. Good grief, it’s even an emoji. What is it about this image
that continues to enthrall us? Let’s better know
The Great Wave. First off, the title
is not The Great Wave. And its subject
isn’t really a wave. It’s one of a series of
woodblock prints called 36 Views of Mount Fuji, made
by the Japanese printmaker Katsushika Hokusai
between 1830 and 1833. Long considered
sacred by followers of Shintoism and
Buddhism, among others, Mount Fuji is depicted from
a variety of perspectives. And the artwork in question
is just one of them. Its actual title translates to
Under the Wave Off Kanawaga, because under is
where Mount Fuji is nestled far in the distance. Also under the wave are
fishermen, just trying to get home after
delivering fish to the city of Edo, rowing for
their lives to escape the wave. But the great wave, of course,
dominates the composition and has become an
accepted title. Born near modern
day Tokyo in 1760, Hokusai was a prominent
ukiyo-e artist, the name for the mass produced
woodblock prints of the Edo period, notable for their
distillation of forms, emphasis on line and pure
color, and depictions of hedonistic city life. “Ukiyo-e” means floating world,
referring to the ephemerality of the fads and
fashions of the time. This was not stuffy
high art, but images available to a growing middle
class for about the cost of a bowl of noodle soup. Hokusai was fascinated
by the movement of water, exploring the subjects
on many occasions throughout his career,
and not just rough seas, but a few calmer moments too. In the 1830s, when The
Great Wave was created, Japan was largely shut
off to the wider world, due to the isolationist policies
of the Tokugawa shogunate then in power. We can see Hokusai borrowing
from Japanese Rinpa School artists like Ogata
Korin, especially in the tentacle-like
projections from his waves. But Western realism was
creeping into Japanese art nevertheless, largely due to
European engravings smuggled in by Dutch traders. The Great Wave betrays a
clear Western influence– the use of linear perspective,
a low horizon line, and the appearance
of Prussian blue, a synthetic pigment
then very new to Japan, hailing from, that’s
right, Prussia. Thousands of copies of
the Mount Fuji prints were released within Japan,
mostly bought as souvenirs by an emerging market
of domestic tourists and those making
pilgrimages to the mountain. But in the 1850s,
after Hokusai’s death, trade began to open
up, and his work was shown at the
1867 International Exposition in Paris. Japanese culture quickly
became all the rage in Europe. And ukiyo-e prints were
admired and collected by many, including Claude Monet,
Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt, and a number of artists
who were heavily influenced by their depictions
of city life, vivid colors, and what for
them was a flattening of space. In 1896, a tsunami
hit northern Japan, and news of its destruction
spread worldwide. It’s been hypothesized
that this event, coupled with the Japonisme craze,
helped propel The Great Wave to international renown. Although the print does
not depict a tsunami, in 2009, researchers
identified it as a 32 to 39 foot
tall rogue wave or what they call
a plunging breaker. It would certainly still
be deadly, however. And that’s where we get to
the real and obvious drama of the picture. Nature is large,
and we are small. This juxtaposition can be seen
in the art of many cultures at many different times. But we have perhaps never seen
it played out more clearly and more distinctly than here. Traditional Japanese
landscapes of the time put the viewer at a
remove from the action. But here, we are right up
against this pending disaster. Hokusai’s contrast of near and
far, and man made and natural, heighten the tension and
place us inside the narrative. When Debussy composed
“La Mer” in 1903, he drew on his own
childhood experience of surviving a terrifying
storm on a fishing boat, as well as paintings by JMW
Turner and Hokusai’s print, which he selected for
the score’s cover. The image later illustrated
a 1948 Pearl Buck novel that tells the
story of a young boy from a Japanese
fishing village who loses his family
to a tidal wave, a post-World War II story of
grief, but also resilience. It’s an image mobilized
when disaster strikes, as it was after the devastating
2011 earthquake and tsunami off the eastern coast of Japan. Scientists and
empirical evidence tell us that global average
temperatures are rising, with extreme weather
events becoming more frequent and more intense. While the sea has always
been a formidable opponent for human kind and The Great
Wave a useful illustration for that relationship,
its relevance is likely to become
even stronger. But, of course, the
image can be interpreted in many different and
less specific ways, symbolizing a great
many imbalance of power. We don’t know if our
fishermen are going to make it out of there alive. It’s a cliffhanger. Even if you don’t register
the boats or Mount Fuji and see the wave alone in
its detached, emoji state, it still holds us in and
tells us quite forcefully that big things are happening
or are about to happen. Unlike the GoPro views
of surfers tunneling through barrel waves,
The Great Wave’s story is not one of
mastery over nature. It’s notably called
The Great Wave and not the heroic fishermen
who survived the rogue wave. Other artists have capitalized
on the power and theatricality of waves as subject matter,
but rarely in such a way that we marvel at the
talents of the artist, instead of the spectacular
beauty of the wave itself. What’s more, this
image was meant to be reproduced, not
sequestered in one museum, where only a few have the
privilege of witnessing it. While there are
certainly numerous crimes against this image perpetrated
across the internet, the crisp, graphic quality
of the original woodblock prints make it friendlier
fodder for duplication and interpretation. When most of us
experience the ocean, this is thankfully not
how we usually see it. It’s an incredibly
improbable view. It’s a film still
or screen capture in the most dynamic,
unstable, and unpredictable of environments. But it has nevertheless
become our favorite stand-in for the ocean, a way to
isolate some fraction of the vastness that
covers 70% of planet Earth. It’s an icon. It’s the ultimate, most
wavelike of all waves. But it’s also an entire
story told simply and succinctly and masterfully. Whatever your great
wave is made of, you are undoubtedly under
it and always will be, until you’re not. I’d like to think Skillshare
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