This month lets visit the “Great Wave off Kanagawa” woodblock print from around 1830. Time to crack open Hokusai’s brain, crawl inside, curl up like a kitten, and try to figure out why this picture is one of the most famous of all time.
I mean just look at it people… Take a deep breath. Really take it in, even if stylistically it isn’t your cup-o-tea. There is much to be learned here. It is turbulent, dangerous, while at the same time, so well composed that there is a calmness. A serenity in the inevitable crash that is coming. We are resigned to it, yet just might survive it. Why?
When I was first teaching I would show students this image and say, “Your painting needs more of this.” Which would often leave them scratching their heads.
It is a feeling right? A contrast of chaos and stability, where every element is placed just so… achieving some hope in an otherwise dire situation. Walking a line that could end in disaster or triumph. I believe it is this duality that has made this image familiar to generations. Time to break it down.
Note I have never read about this painting. What I am presenting are conclusions I’ve arrived at with no outside influence, simply me looking at a masterpiece and trying to figure out why it works so damn well. Actual Hokusai historians may totally disagree with me.
First lets talk about the danger. Yes it is obvious, the wave is about to crash on the boats. But how do we know it is dangerous?
No 1: The wave is the highest and largest thing in the image. Higher even than Mt Fuji in the distance. Think about that. The artist is showing us that this wave is more powerful than a mountain by some scale. Fuji could have been much bigger but Hokusai made it smaller than the smallest peak of the wave.
No 2: Get out your claws. The wave design could have been anything. The stylization could have been much softer, rounder- but no, the artist chose to make them claw-like. And did in multiples, like a wave of tiny rats about to hop into your bed (or boat in this case). He also implies that the rats will indeed overrun us, how? Note on the right of the image, the highest section of the wave has many smaller claw-like shapes on it. Optically we make a leap from the magnitude of danger on the left to the right. It implies time because they are reduced in scale and are a little calmer than on the left. Showing us that this too shall pass. The question is, will we survive?
No 3: I believe the placement of the wave cutting across the foremost ship(s) was premeditated. The effect in the quick glance is a ship that already feels broken in two. This could end very bad.
Second lets talk about the hope.
No 1: As chaotic and spiraling as this situation is, there is also stability here. It has to do with how the wave is supported. Check out the direction of the lowest waves. Like hands reaching up to support a crowd surfer at a concert, the implied lines or directional-energy, lift that wave. Maybe our sailors will survive? Maybe the crowd won’t drop that surfer on their head? Lotta risk though.
No 2: Lets take that to the next step in the progression (and reassurance). Do you see that big cloud? It is no coincidence that the shape of that cloud is similar to the wave. So what does it do? Well first the repeating shape implies time, like two frames of an animation reel. Second (and this is where the hope comes in.) it is a cloud and clouds are light vs. the heaviness of the water- the implication on the time-line is that, maybe, just maybe, that wave will pass over the boats… maybe it won’t be that bad. But it is gonna be close. The tension is exquisite.
No 3: The final bit of hope comes from the mountain in the distance. Remember, Mt Fuji is a volcano. And what do volcano’s do? Errupt. The artist is keenly aware of this. Don’t for a second think its placement is random. Hokusai has done many images of Mt Fuji. If you take into account the peak of the cloud being centered over the volcano- which itself is like an arrowhead pointing straight up, the result is incredible visual ‘lift’, even if it is all implication and not spelled out for the viewer with a literal eruption.
And that my friends is probably the beginning of what one could unravel in this masterpiece. Life, death, hope, destruction- all in one image. No easy task.
Now some of you may be saying, “I don’t know Fischer, sounds like a lot of artsy-fartsy talk about what were probably random decisions.” Maybe, (I really don’t think so) but at a minimum they were instinctual. Before you pull the tin-foil hat off my head, lets look at a couple other wave woodblocks by Mr Hokusai. Do you remember any of these??? Have they been seared into your retina? Can you close your eyes and remember them months after you last saw them? Hokusai was doing images like this for 30+ years before he composed “Great wave of Kanagawa”. I imagine he learned a thing or two along the way. Hell just look at the difference in the way he did the claw tips of the wave crests. Which is more threatening?
And even if I am reading things into this, “Hurrah!” I say! This is the level of thinking we should all strive to put in our paintings. These realizations effected me so much I had to pay direct homage to Hokusai in my Kiora painting for Magic the Gathering.