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Beyond the Great Wave

2,021 words

Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave was an exhibition of Hokusai’s works mounted by the British Museum in the summer of 2017. This ambitious event sought to contextualize Hokusai’s famous In the Hollow of The Wave, better known as “The Great Wave,” within the artist’s life and works as well as Japanese society. “The Great Wave” is placed amongst his earlier works, displaying the artistic innovations it was built on. Then the exhibition goes on to reveal the expanse of works he went on to produce.

There is a degree to which contemporary museums filter out content they deem inappropriate, showcasing works from a liberal-humanist point of view and keeping imposing, powerful works within a sterile environment where they are made to appear as outdated relics of misguided beliefs. The tide of cultural favor has turned against archaic values, and the lack of social or ethnoreligious context robs historic works of their mystique and sacredness. The Mona Lisa would speak more powerfully from above the table in the mansion of a European dynasty, and the larger-than-life sculptures left to us by the ancients deserve their adulating worshippers, flickering torches, and sacrifices.

The British Museum, Louvre, and others like them have become monuments in themselves to the triumph of egalitarianism. Works are drawn in under the aegis of modernity, sanitized, and displayed out of a grudging indulgence of the past.

The “Wave” has eluded this category with its success as a postcard and poster print, but the other works shown do not — they are more delicate, more spiritual and sensitive than the imposing tsunami. Thankfully, their timeless grace still speaks clearly about Japanese aristocratic values.

Hokusai was born to artisan family in 1760, his father a decorative mirror-maker for the Shogun. Growing up in the pleasure district of Edo, he worked as an apprentice woodcarver and was accepted into a school of woodblock prints at age 18. Hokusai’s work arose from the so-called “floating world,” the world of Dionysian detachment, quasi-egolessness, and immersion in the immediate: “living only for the moment, diverting oneself just in floating, buoyant and carefree.” [1] [1] But when he changed his subject from the courtesans of Edo to landscapes, flora, fauna, and everyday life, it was a breakthrough, both artistically and commercially, and propelled him to fame as a national artist who elevated Japan as a whole.

You can buy Buttercup Dew’s My Nationalist Pony here [2]

Much ink has already been spilled about the production of “The Great Wave,” as it fuses European perspective with the bold colors and elegant simplicity of woodblock printing. Critics often mistakenly imply that the “Wave” was the start of this innovation, but Japanese mastery of Western perspective and the illusion of space and depth had already been accomplished in the 1770s by Utagawa Toyoharu. Part of Hokusai’s innovation was to use perspective to anchor the transience of the wave, drawn up like an intake of breath, over the distant Mount Fuji. White flecks of foam and the teeth of the wave teeter over the distant landmark, and the viewer is captivated by the imminent crashing weight of water. Fishermen hunker in their boats, nestled into the curve of the wave, braced against the ferocious motion. The balanced proportions of water and sky and the intense detail on the edge of the wave exemplify how woodblock printing lends itself to the fragmentation and expanse of flat color and a balance between visual weight and negative space.

The wear on the printing block of the “Wave” indicates that around 5000 copies were printed, of which enough survive to make owning an original copy affordable relative to other Hokusai works and the art market in general. Hokusai’s market was Japan’s middle class: people who were rich enough to buy art but not rich enough to commission unique works. The “floating world” or ukiyo-e of woodblock printing fed this demand for decoration.

By comparison, Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup ran for just 32 canvases, making his commentary on “mass-produced art” something of a fraud. His choice of subject matter was instead more of a wry commentary that America valued consumer novelty and convenience above all identitarian considerations. Creedal Evangelism and secular liberalism have left Europe and America culturally bereft, and this has also been blamed on commercial, “techno-industrial” civilization by various figures on the New Right.

But the ukiyo-e movement shows that a production technique is only as barren as the ambitions that underpin it. It is one proof that an ethnoreligious artistic practice can be commercially reproduced using an industrial technique. It’s quite likely that a European ethnoreligious sensibility will have an artistic home in whichever “archeofuturist” enterprise replaces IKEA. That said, the lightness-cum-emptiness of Japanese art lends itself to cartoony mediums.

“The Great Wave” is one of a set of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. It is estimated that a total 50,000 individual prints were produced for this set alone. The line between high and low art has always been blurrier in Japan than elsewhere, perhaps alien to the culture that places far less emphasis on individual greatness than Europe and the West in general. Differences in metaphysics may have contributed to how integrated Japanese folklorism is within its consumer art relative to Western products. As discussed in “Meditations on the Mysticism of Yomawari: Night Alone [3],” Japan is home to a widely-shared ancestral paganism that spreads horizontally through all social classes. By contrast, the Christian monotheisms of Europe and America posit a power structure, an intermediary of clergy, and a ritualized Mass with religious iconography held hostage in churches and museums.

The social and artistic movement Hokusai worked within met a demand that individual Japanese had for affirmation of their folk identity. However, this is not something unknown in Europe. The widespread ownership of Catholic and Orthodox devotional images is a clear parallel. The mass-produced art of the Thirty-Six Views was wildly successful as it derived from and spoke authentically about the Japanese national identity. By contrast, Warhol’s Can was a more keenly profit-driven enterprise, satirizing the art world he was a part of as having been reduced to a mere poker game and market of speculators.

The exhibition’s focus is on Hokusai’s later work, occupying the 30 years between the production of the Wave and his death in 1869 at 89. These works range between concrete, everyday beauty, and supernatural apparitions. Having learned to draw and paint from age six and carve wood from age fourteen, and as an adult having liberated himself in terms of subject matter, Hokusai began to paint a menagerie of warriors, demons, plants, and animals, always bringing out their liveliness.

A rooster, brought to eye level and floating without a backdrop other than the hen he jealously guards, oozes personality and aggressive suspicion of the passing viewer.

The “Masculine Wave” and “Feminine Wave” painted onto ceiling panels of the Kanmachi carnival float recall the “The Great Wave” in the swirl of space, but create an imposing overhead vortex.

A swimming duck feels the pull and sway of water on a micro-scale, but the emphasis is on the abundance of color and texture carried in motion.

At a more commercial level, the poor Oiwa-San of One Hundred Ghost Stories makes a torturous reappearance in the material world as a paper lantern. Reality painfully distorts to accommodate the intrusion of the spirit world.

But it is Mount Fuji that defines Hokusai, and the subject is returned to throughout his life. Brought up within its view and attached to it through both personal obsession and religious inclination, Mt. Fuji provides a permanence that offsets the transient beauty he captures elsewhere.

In possibly his final work, The Dragon of Smoke Escaping from Mt. Fuji, a dragon rises from beyond the mountain, enveloped in dense black smoke. The physical and metaphysical collide in this haunting, somber scene, and the monster snakes off as a wraith above the wintry landscape and the eternally-present mountain. [2] [4] His Buddhist sensibility for interconnectedness and his insatiable desire to create led to this moment of spiritual clarity. One can almost hear the thunderclap of divine revelation.

The exhibition was a great success in showcasing the development of Hokusai’s skills and the evolution of his choice of subject matter. It also highlighted Hokusai’s nationalist and populist qualities, ironically installing them in the center of a cosmopolitan home of global finance.

Hokusai did not create art simply for the rich. He produced art for all strata of society. Instead of focusing solely on the great and noble, he isolated and exemplified the many small and unique beauties of Japanese life. Nor did he simply create unique luxury objects. Through printing, he made his work accessible to large numbers of people. In addition to fine art, he produced illustrations for children’s picture-books, manga, and art manuals, as well as depictions of bathers, working families, and popular saints like the Great Daruma.

According to one story, in front of the Shogun, he made a one-off conceptual painting of leaves on a river by dipping the feet of a chicken in paint. Perhaps most tellingly, he devoted much time and effort to producing decorative paintings for festival floats. Two such floats are designated national treasures, and the later one, the Kanmachi float, was present in the exhibition, showcasing the “Masculine Wave” and “Feminine Wave” within their original context.

Hokusai’s works, while enjoying world-wide popularity for their immediacy and accessibility, speak concretely of his love of Japan: its people, religiosity, landmarks, history, social organization, and living traditions. His works express a delicate sensibility, using an economy of line and color to make careful statements. In straddling “high” and “low” art by applying the same motifs and techniques to all demographics, he spoke to Japan about its national character. His contribution identifies Japanese civilization to itself as unique, separate, and timeless: its own thing, a possession of the Japanese people and a repository of their cultural memory.

We can only hope that next great wave of white artists does the same for us.

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[1] [7] “Living only for the moment… and diverting oneself just in floating… buoyant and carefree, like a gourd carried along with the river current: this is what we call ukiyo.” – Asai Ryōi in “Ukiyo Monogatari” (Tales of the Floating World) ca. 1661.

For comparison, let’s examine Andy Nowicki’s protagonist floating freely in Under the Nihil:

I have always been falling, falling, falling, but only lately have I had the opportunity to reject and utterly erase all of the faux scenery in my sight that ever led me to assume the existence of a ground under my feet. I am now a burning, falling man, hurtling through a heartless void, but falling is no different from flying when there’s nothing substantial beneath you. To be aware that one is sinking forever may be a disconcerting feeling at first, but it soon becomes a pleasant, even a blissful condition. To float into eternal nothingness is to be truly free.”

And its Buddhist parallel in a seminal exposition by Zen master Takuan Sōhō:

The uplifted sword has no will of its own, it is all of emptiness. It is like a flash of lightning. The man who is about to be struck down is also of emptiness, and so is the one who wields the sword. None of them are possessed of a mind that has any substantiality. As each of them is of emptiness and has no “mind,” the striking man is not a man, the sword in his hands is not a sword, and the “I” who is about to be struck down is like the splitting of the spring breeze in a flash of lightning.

[2] [8] Not unlike the mountain protagonist of David O’Reilly’s indie game Mountain, summarised by its introductory text: “You are Mountain. You are God.”