Under The Great Wave

How a 200-year-old woodblock print still reverberates across the visual landscape, from the hyper-stylized cartooning of Japanese manga to the scale and focus of modern surf photography. From TSJ 29.1.

Light / Dark

…Perspective in art—the rendering of things closer to the viewer as larger than things in the distance—was something not commonly found in Japanese works and is considered a European invention, dating to the Renaissance period. From 1641 to 1883, the Japanese permitted trade with only one European country, the Netherlands, which was allowed one trading post on a small island in Nagasaki Bay. Dutch imports, including etchings of works by artists like Rembrandt van Rijn, Jacob van Ruisdael, and Jan van Goyen caught the eye of artists like Hokusai and taught them the lessons of Western perspective. Later Japanese art, particularly the flattening of the picture plane found in woodblock prints, would influence European artists like Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin, and Vincent van Gogh beginning in the mid-nineteenth century.

Within the history of Western art, however, images like Hokusai’s depiction of huge waves are rare. In maritime paintings, a stormy sea usually serves as merely the backdrop for ships. In seascapes, where land meets the sea, the focus is most often on waves breaking over rocks or gently rolling onto shore. It’s typically only in modern surf photography that we find close and persistent representations of big-wave imagery. Issues of scale and perspective are constantly being manipulated in surf photography. In the work of lensmen like Clark Little, for example, a latent Hokusai influence is felt. His series of the Ke Iki shorebreak contorts scale, making small waves seem huge. Meanwhile, in photographs of Portugal’s Nazaré, there is an additional land-based reference point for scale, which gives them even more common ground with Hokusai’s The Great Wave.

Any photograph of a surfer on a wave gives some idea of proportion. However, since a surfer basically shares the same plane as the wave’s face, one mainly gets a sense of height from a two-dimensional perspective. At Nazaré, however, most photographs of the surf are taken from a vantage point that includes groups of people on the bluff in front of the wave, allowing for a three-dimensional reading and thereby increasing the wave’s visceral impact.

The fishing boats in Hokusai’s The Great Wave do something similar. The small boat directly underneath the breaking wave is roughly on the same plane as the wave itself, but the one in the sea, closer to the foreground, provides a second reference point, allowing one to compare the scale of the boats and, taken with Mount Fuji in the background, adds greatly to the wave’s three-dimensionality and a feeling for its mass. Photos taken from a water angle at places like Teahupoo, where the back of the wave can be observed (sometimes with boats and other surfers in the frame on the shoulder) have a comparable effect.

Animism (the belief that all things have a spirit) is a prevalent belief in Japan, stemming from the traditional Shinto religion. Hokusai renders The Great Wave as if it were alive, imbuing it with dragon-like talons, a force unto itself. The artist is famous for saying, “From the age of 6, I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was 50, I had published a universe of designs but all I have done before the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75, I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish, and insects. When I am 80 you will see real progress. At 90 I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100 I shall be a marvelous artist. At 110 everything I create—a dot, a line—will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign myself ‘The Old Man Mad About Drawing.’” Hokusai was about 72 when he finished Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. He lived until he was 89…