Under the Great Wave

A 200-year-old woodblock print is the most widely dispersed image of a single wave ever produced. Today, its impact still reverberates across the visual landscape.

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Katsushika hokusai, the eminent Japanese artist who lived from 1760 to 1849, probably spent more time studying and depicting waves than any other artist on record. His color woodblock print The Great Wave Off Kanagawa (also known as The Great Wave) may be the most viewed image of a singular wave in history. The work, created around 1830, has fed the collective unconscious of humanity for almost 200 years 

Over the course of his career, Hokusai drew and painted hundreds of waves prior to making the woodblock print for The Great Wave. The coast of Kanagawa, just south of Tokyo, covers an area including Shonan, famous in Japan for its surf. Due to a deep-sea trench, large waves with offshore winds are not uncommon during hurricane season. There is little doubt that Hokusai witnessed such conditions. 

The influence of The Great Wave has become so pervasive in the centuries since Hokusai’s death that most artists, illustrators, designers, and other visual practitioners have little idea that it is the origin of big-wave imagery. Meanwhile, Hokusai’s influence on contemporary art and culture seems to get larger by the day. But why? What does this iconic image mean to our modern culture? What did it mean when Hokusai made it? And how has it influenced our vision of surf imagery? 

Portrait Of Hokusai As An Old Man, late Edo period (1615-1868), woodblock print with color and ink on paper, 21.25 × 10.06 inches. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

One of the most noteworthy features of the woodblock print is that Mount Fuji, the tallest peak in Japan, is seen in the distance beneath the lip of the wave, smaller and visually subservient. This startling visual juxtaposition lends itself to the notion of a wave as a metaphor for a moving mountain. To further underline the point, Hokusai included snow-like foam falling from the crest of the wave, mimicking the spew of debris that comes from a volcano. 

While Mount Fuji is presently inactive, it did erupt in 1707, leaving a cloud of ash that darkened the sky and destroyed all the crops in the region, leading to the starvation of many. When Hokusai made the woodblock series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji in 1830 and 1831, of which The Great Wave is a part, it had been more than 100 years since the eruption of the volcano. Nevertheless the image still conjured a sense of danger, as well as the spiritual significance of the mountain. The impending lip of The Great Wave threatens Mount Fuji itself. 

An isolationist nation at the time, Japan was not a seafaring country. By code of law during the Edo period (1603-1868), construction of ocean-going ships was prohibited. Asian History scholar Christine M. E. Guth notes that, “These intertwined notions of Japan as a country protected and guided by divine winds and waves were recurring themes later associated with the prospect of European incursions.” 

Waves could also be symbolically thought of as foreign entities generated in distant places. A common interpretation of Hokusai’s print is that Mount Fuji is threatened with being subsumed by a foreign entity. The perspective that Hokusai gives the viewer is one that is looking toward Japan from the open ocean, i.e. the position of a foreigner looking at Mount Fuji, Japan’s spiritual center.

Springtime in Enoshima (from an album of comic verse, The Willow Branch), 1797 woodblock print with ink and color on paper, 9.96 × 15.11 inches. The British Museum.

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.  

Fast Cargo Boat Battling The Waves, 1805, woodblock print with ink and color on paper, 9.96 × 15.11 inches. Tokyo National Museum.

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.

View Of Honmoku Off Kanagawa, 1803, woodblock print with ink and color on paper, 9.25 × 14.125 inches. Honolulu Museum of Art.

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. 

His use of Western perspective, with its implied rationality, makes for an interesting union with animism, and a visual synthesis of Western and Eastern thought. Artists in Europe at the time did not take the same liberties with wave scale, nor did they focus on a singular wave as did Hokusai. Painted around the time that Hokusai completed Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, English painter Joseph Mallard William Turner’s romantic maritime painting A Disaster at Sea, from 1835, begins to visually emphasize the power of waves in more direct ways. Turner takes his liberties in merging exuberant clouds with the turmoil of the sea, but the focus is on a particular event: the shipwreck of the Amphitrite off the coast of Boulogne, France in 1833, a case in which the captain abandoned his cargo of female convicts to the ravages of the sea.

Turner regularly showed his paintings at the Royal Academy of Arts and sold his art to wealthy patrons. In contrast, Hokusai occasionally took commissions from those of the ruling class, but was largely busy drawing, painting, and making prints for the rising merchant class, who were eager for imagery depicting activities and pleasures they could relate to. The subject matter of this form of art, known as ukiyo-e, which translates as “pictures of the floating world,” consisted of scenes of Kabuki theater, courtesans, geisha, sumo wrestlers, erotica, folktales, landscapes, animals, and flora. 

Late twentieth-century manga, or Japanese comics, developed out of this nineteenth-century vernacular, of which Hokusai is one of the primary influences. Today, a simplification of form with exaggerated characteristics of subject matter are the markers of art made for popular culture. Notably, the liberties that Hokusai took in his depiction of The Great Wave are more consistent with the traditions of cartooning than the dictates of high culture. 

An eccentric, Hokusai was said to have changed his name 30 times, and to have changed his residence 93 times. (It is reported that he thought it was easier to move than to clean house.) In his 1968 book on Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, author Muneshige Narazaki observes that, “Tradition also says that he was perennially poor and indifferent to worldly affairs—that when a publisher came to bring him his fees and found him hard at work, Hokusai would wave in the direction of the wastepaper basket and tell him to put the money in it, and that those who came to collect debts would have to delve in the same basket for their money.” 

Hokusai was also an amazing showman who at one point was summoned by the shogun to give a demonstration of his artistic prowess.  Complying with the shogun’s  wishes, the artist brought a basket and a long roll of paper, which he placed together on the floor. He then spread the paper out, painted long-blue lines on it, took a live chicken out of the basket, and coated its feet with vermillion red pigment. When everything was arranged he allowed the chicken to scurry across the paper, leaving a pattern of red footprints. Prostrating himself before the shogun, Hokusai pronounced the title of the painting to be Autumn Maple Leaves Drifting on the Tatsuta River. Then he left. 

Kanagawa-oki nami-ura (The Great Wave Off Kanagawa) from the series Fugaku sanjūrokkei (Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji), circa 1829-1833, woodblock print with ink and color on paper, 
10.1 × 14.9 inches, Library of Congress.

That The Great Wave is still the most prevalent image of a singular wave in our visual lexicon is significant. Its influence can be seen readily in the work of artists like Rick Griffin (1944-1991), Masami Teraoka (b. 1936), and Don Ed Hardy (b. 1945), the father of modern tattooing. “My dad had taken a civil service job in Tokyo during the MacArthur era,” Hardy says of his history with the image. “He left in 1953. My mom figured out he was not coming back and divorced him in about 1955. That was a big deal in those days, especially long distance. But he kept in touch with me and continued to send cool stuff from Japan. A book he sent me with the Hokusai wave on the cover was basically an ad for businesses and other aspects of the country. It came the year I started stand-up surfing, at first in my hometown of Corona del Mar, then up and down the coast until I graduated from high school in 1962. At that point, I felt it was getting too crowded in the water and I was determined to get serious about my art and focus on that all the way. But the Hokusai wave was a shock and a revelation and led to my obsession with Japanese art, philosophy, and culture. It had a huge influence.”

Ironically, Hokusai’s great wave has come to represent more of a dispersion of Japanese aesthetics across the rest of the world than a threat of foreign influence in Japan. Hokusai was smart in quickly adapting some of the norms of European art. However, he was even smarter to employ them in the development of a new vernacular in Japan, one that would capture imaginations worldwide for centuries.