I first saw The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katasushika Hokusai (1760–1849) ten years ago during his first retrospective in Europe at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau. I had to line up early on closing day to see an exhibition that was always packed. I saw the print again this year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Unlike my first encounter with the work, I didn’t plan to see it and there was no line to enter the gallery. During the intervening years, a great deal had changed. Not only in the habit of museum-going, but generally, in the world, and also in my life. But whatever these changes might be, there are strangely enough similarities that remain between life now and life during Hokusai’s time.
The great Japanese printmaker chronicled life in Japan during the Edo Period (1615-1868) and part of why his prints remain popular is their ability to remind audiences that someone from the past had similar experiences. The Thirty-six Views were made when Hokusai was in his 70s, both as a response to a domestic travel boom and as part of a personal obsession with Mount Fuji. Although he had a prosperous middle age, a series of setbacks—intermittent paralysis and the death of his second wife—left him in financial straits in his later years. In the Great Wave, the sea takes on the shape of an eagle’s talons about to devour the men clumped on one end of their kayaks. Mt. Fuji is a small figure in the middle of the composition, a perfect cone that punctuates the horizon, symbolizing serenity that contrasts with the chaos in the foreground. It was this work that secured Hokusai’s international fame and is said to have inspired Debussy’s La Mer and Rilke’s Der Berg.
The enthusiastic reception of his works at Martin-Gropius-Bau happened just four months after a whopping magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck Japan. It was the fourth most powerful earthquake in the world since modern record-keeping began in 1900 and it triggered powerful tsunami waves, similar to those depicted by Hokusai, that reached up to 133 feet in Miyako in Tōhoku’s Iwate Prefecture. Its strength was such that the earthquake shifted the earth on its axis and the tsunami that followed ended the lives of nearly 20,000 people.
With Hokusai’s sustained popularity and with the staggering commercial viability of Asian contemporary art, it’s hard to imagine now that before Hokusai’s prints reached Europe, Japan went through two centuries of isolation. If not for a small window opened to the West via the Dutch trading outpost of Deshima outside Nagasaki in the early 19th century, we would not have learned of Japan’s art and crafts until much later. Through Japan’s participation in World Fairs in 1862 in London, 1867 in Paris, and 1873 in Vienna, Western obsession with their arts and crafts grew exponentially. Europeans were particularly fascinated with Japanese architecture and gardens. They witnessed kabuki and Noh theater and admired the virtues of samurai by translating many stories about them.
Up until Hokusai’s exhibition in these fairs, most of his woodblock prints in Europe remained in private collections. Philipp Franz von Siebold, a German doctor, was one of the few specialists of woodblock prints from Deshima. His collection was opened to the public in Leiden in 1837 but it would take three more decades before the brothers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt visited his collection and wrote a monograph which started the ripple of “Japonisme,” a cultural wave that conquered bourgeois Paris in the 19th century.
Unknown to early admirers of Hokusai’s works, the colors that he used were imported from the West. The dominant color in these prints was Prussian blue—also called Berlin blue—which was introduced by the Dutch to Japanese printmakers around 1820. The synthetic process of making the pigment lowered the price enough that the shade of blue became feasible to use in prints for the first time.
Hokusai’s talent in retaining detail despite the uneven pressure on the paper sheets is another intriguing characteristic of his prints. His process is more about rubbing than pressing the plate on the paper. The pressure is manually applied and not—as in his counterparts in Scandinavia at that time—with the iron press. The result of this technique can be appreciated in the delicate lines of the nets in Fishermen from Kajikazawa in the Province of Koshu, another print series in the Thirty-six views, or the sea spray from Choshi in the province of Soshu, and in the delicate pictures of flowers and birds, such as in Hydrangeas with Swallows from 1830-1834.
The aspects and variations of the views of Kanagawa that I witnessed in the Hokusai retrospective seemed limitless given the fact that he worked with traditional tools and rare color options. I left inspired by a collection of thoughts about man’s relationship to nature that is both beautiful and punishing. This is a theme that persistently appears in Hokusai’s work; human gestures and their facial appearances as depicted in his prints reveal deeper narratives about Japanese animistic culture. They also comment profoundly about the precariousness of humanity in the face of nature’s wrath.
Just as I was revisiting the Great Wave off Kanagawa among other works by Hokusai at the Met, I heard the news of a strong typhoon called Ulysses that caused a great flood carrying mud and debris through my hometown in the Philippines. In the absence of government preparation, the flood sent people clambering to find higher ground or fleeing to their roofs. Upon landfall, the typhoon instantly killed 39 people. The military which was fighting insurgent communists in the Sierra Madre mountain range of Luzon island had to cease their pursuit of rebels to deploy their amphibious assault vehicles for the rescue work in places where waters remained high.
Ulysses hit the Philippines last week on the heels of another typhoon which was one of the strongest in the world this year. It left more than 30 people dead or missing and damaged or destroyed 270,000 houses. Tens of thousands of people remain displaced.
The Philippines which lies to the south of Japan in the Pacific rim of fire, has active seismic faults and volcanoes, making it one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries. Stories about losing one’s belongings to a flood are common in my country and this is part of why Hokusai’s work speaks to me. He was an artist who relocated 93 times due to floods and earthquakes; who lost his studio to a fire at age of 79. Despite the neatness of his prints and his impeccable drafting skills, he often worked in derelict places filled with dirt and grime. He was so averse to the task of cleaning that when the floods came in and coated his works with mud, he would rather move out and find another studio. Hokusai not only abandoned places but also identities as evidenced by his difficulty to settle on a single name. A relentless self-promoter, he advertised his brand through the more than 30 names he took for each period of his career. The name on his tombstone signaled an undiminished energy to continue creating: “Gakyo Rojin Manji,” which translates to “Old Man Mad about Painting.” In despair over devastating floods in Manila and continued isolation in my dorm room on the 20th floor of a building in the Lower East Side in New York, I relate even more to Hokusai. I feel like my sense of belonging and location is not tied to the present time or to a single place. A part of me is drowning in the mud of a tropical flash flood in Manila and the other is longing to find a place in a city that remains a stranger despite my being captive to it. It’s easy to get hooked on the details of Hokusai’s Great Wave and not notice the tiny Mount Fuji in the far background, which is the real subject of his print. The strange compositional effects that such shifts of scale permit make it seem like the waves will devour not just the men in the kayaks but also a far-away immovable mountain.