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SARAH GREEN: This episode is supported
by Skillshare and our patrons, especially Indianapolis Homes
Realty.
You've seen this image before, a giant wave,
its distinctive curly claws arched and ready to pounce.
It's invoked when natural disaster strikes,
but also when it's time to sell beer, jeans, and sweatshirts.
It inspired Claude Debussy's orchestral work "La Mer,"
as well as a not insignificant number of tattoos.
It's an omnipresent image and one
used towards a variety of ends.
Good grief, it's even an emoji.
What is it about this image that continues to enthrall us?
Let's better know The Great Wave.
First off, the title is not The Great Wave.
And its subject isn't really a wave.
It's one of a series of woodblock prints called
36 Views of Mount Fuji, made by the Japanese printmaker
Katsushika Hokusai between 1830 and 1833.
Long considered sacred by followers
of Shintoism and Buddhism, among others,
Mount Fuji is depicted from a variety of perspectives.
And the artwork in question is just one of them.
Its actual title translates to Under the Wave Off Kanawaga,
because under is where Mount Fuji is
nestled far in the distance.
Also under the wave are fishermen, just trying
to get home after delivering fish
to the city of Edo, rowing for their lives to escape the wave.
But the great wave, of course, dominates the composition
and has become an accepted title.
Born near modern day Tokyo in 1760,
Hokusai was a prominent ukiyo-e artist,
the name for the mass produced woodblock prints of the Edo
period, notable for their distillation of forms,
emphasis on line and pure color, and depictions
of hedonistic city life.
"Ukiyo-e" means floating world, referring to the ephemerality
of the fads and fashions of the time.
This was not stuffy high art, but images
available to a growing middle class for about the cost
of a bowl of noodle soup.
Hokusai was fascinated by the movement of water,
exploring the subjects on many occasions
throughout his career, and not just rough seas,
but a few calmer moments too.
In the 1830s, when The Great Wave was created,
Japan was largely shut off to the wider world,
due to the isolationist policies of the Tokugawa shogunate
then in power.
We can see Hokusai borrowing from Japanese Rinpa School
artists like Ogata Korin, especially
in the tentacle-like projections from his waves.
But Western realism was creeping into Japanese art
nevertheless, largely due to European engravings smuggled
in by Dutch traders.
The Great Wave betrays a clear Western influence--
the use of linear perspective, a low horizon line,
and the appearance of Prussian blue,
a synthetic pigment then very new to Japan,
hailing from, that's right, Prussia.
Thousands of copies of the Mount Fuji prints
were released within Japan, mostly bought as souvenirs
by an emerging market of domestic tourists
and those making pilgrimages to the mountain.
But in the 1850s, after Hokusai's death,
trade began to open up, and his work
was shown at the 1867 International
Exposition in Paris.
Japanese culture quickly became all the rage in Europe.
And ukiyo-e prints were admired and collected
by many, including Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Mary Cassatt,
and a number of artists who were heavily influenced
by their depictions of city life,
vivid colors, and what for them was a flattening of space.
In 1896, a tsunami hit northern Japan,
and news of its destruction spread worldwide.
It's been hypothesized that this event, coupled
with the Japonisme craze, helped propel The Great
Wave to international renown.
Although the print does not depict a tsunami,
in 2009, researchers identified it
as a 32 to 39 foot tall rogue wave
or what they call a plunging breaker.
It would certainly still be deadly, however.
And that's where we get to the real and obvious drama
of the picture.
Nature is large, and we are small.
This juxtaposition can be seen in the art of many cultures
at many different times.
But we have perhaps never seen it played out more clearly
and more distinctly than here.
Traditional Japanese landscapes of the time
put the viewer at a remove from the action.
But here, we are right up against this pending disaster.
Hokusai's contrast of near and far, and man made and natural,
heighten the tension and place us inside the narrative.
When Debussy composed "La Mer" in 1903,
he drew on his own childhood experience
of surviving a terrifying storm on a fishing boat,
as well as paintings by JMW Turner and Hokusai's print,
which he selected for the score's cover.
The image later illustrated a 1948 Pearl Buck novel
that tells the story of a young boy
from a Japanese fishing village who
loses his family to a tidal wave,
a post-World War II story of grief, but also resilience.
It's an image mobilized when disaster strikes,
as it was after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami
off the eastern coast of Japan.
Scientists and empirical evidence
tell us that global average temperatures are rising,
with extreme weather events becoming
more frequent and more intense.
While the sea has always been a formidable opponent
for human kind and The Great Wave a useful illustration
for that relationship, its relevance
is likely to become even stronger.
But, of course, the image can be interpreted
in many different and less specific ways,
symbolizing a great many imbalance of power.
We don't know if our fishermen are going
to make it out of there alive.
It's a cliffhanger.
Even if you don't register the boats or Mount Fuji
and see the wave alone in its detached, emoji state,
it still holds us in and tells us quite forcefully
that big things are happening or are about to happen.
Unlike the GoPro views of surfers tunneling
through barrel waves, The Great Wave's story
is not one of mastery over nature.
It's notably called The Great Wave
and not the heroic fishermen who survived the rogue wave.
Other artists have capitalized on the power and theatricality
of waves as subject matter, but rarely in such a way
that we marvel at the talents of the artist,
instead of the spectacular beauty of the wave itself.
What's more, this image was meant
to be reproduced, not sequestered in one museum,
where only a few have the privilege of witnessing it.
While there are certainly numerous crimes
against this image perpetrated across the internet,
the crisp, graphic quality of the original woodblock
prints make it friendlier fodder for duplication
and interpretation.
When most of us experience the ocean,
this is thankfully not how we usually see it.
It's an incredibly improbable view.
It's a film still or screen capture
in the most dynamic, unstable, and unpredictable
of environments.
But it has nevertheless become our favorite stand-in
for the ocean, a way to isolate some fraction
of the vastness that covers 70% of planet Earth.
It's an icon.
It's the ultimate, most wavelike of all waves.
But it's also an entire story told simply
and succinctly and masterfully.
Whatever your great wave is made of,
you are undoubtedly under it and always will be,
until you're not.
I'd like to think Skillshare for sponsoring this episode.
Skillshare is an online learning community
with classes in design, business, photography,
and more.
Premium membership includes unlimited access to classes
and is available starting at $10 a month.
And you'll be able to learn from anywhere by downloading
the iPhone or Android app.
I've been really enjoying Ana Victoria Calderon's Modern
Watercolor Techniques for Beginners.
She's based in Mexico City, is an amazing artist,
and she shares her expertise in an accessible way.
Watercolor can be super intimidating,
but she makes it very doable and fun.
To get a two-month free trial and help support our show,
click the link in the description
or go to skillshare.com and use promo code artassigment at
check out.
While we're at it, would you like
to better know our Patreon.
The Art Assignment is funded in part by viewers like you
through patreon.com, a subscription-based platform
that allows you to support creators
you like in the form of a monthly donation.
Special thanks to our grand master
of the arts, Indianapolis Homes Realty.
If you'd like to support the show,
check out our page at patreon.com/artassignment.
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Better Know the Great Wave

375 Folder Collection
Jill Lin published on April 12, 2019
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