Monthly Archives: January 2012

“The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai, or the pathos of things in Japanese Aesthetics.

Katsushika Hokusai’s (1760-1849) “Great Wave Off Kanagawa” is probably the most famous work of the Japanese artist. It is the first view of his major work of art, the “Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji” created in 1831, and is displayed in the exhibition’s introductory gallery. It is a rather small (10 x 15 inch) but very fine colour woodcut which represents a gigantic wave curling over three tiny fisher boats. On the background, one can see a small, distant, snow-capped Mount Fuji. Only two colors are used in this picture: blue for the sea, the sailor’s clothe, and the base of the Mount Fuji. The sky and the boats are painted with a lighter hue. The white summit of the Mount Fuji contrasts on a darker horizon.

In this piece, Hokusai makes the viewer experience nature’s overwhelming power through the movements, contrasts and colors of the composition : the eye is at first cached by the main point of focus, the monstrous, disproportionate wave which occupies half of the space. The dramatically curved line of the wave perfectly frames the distant Mount Fuji, and is suspended in time like a huge paw with multiple foam claws about to grasp the frail fishing boats. The dark blue symbolizes the ocean’s brutality, but also ground forces as the sailors brace on their oars to survive. The first boat is partly under water, the main wave is about to engulf the second. The violent force of blue balance and contrasts sharply with the soothing, bright shade of the sky. It is indeed strange that despite the sea storm, the sun seems to shine on the scene.

However, the central theme here is not the wave but the Mount Fuji; however at first glance, it almost reads as another cap of foam. But precisely, it is its consistency with the lines and colors of the piece, as well as the construction of the picture around it which achieve the unity of the composition. Indeed, the Mount is placed in the right central part of the composition, which has to be read from the right to the left (instead of reading from the left to the right, as occidentals use to). Furthermore, it is painted with the two main colors of the picture. The message uniting this piece is conveyed through the contrast between the distant, quiet, and unchanging mount in the background and the violent and ephemeral foreground scene. Mount Fuji is like a spectator of this furtive scene, evoking a characteristic principle of Japanese aesthetics, the Mono no aware1 or “the Pathos of Things”. It is well described by this verse: “The sound of the Gion shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sōla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.”2 The message is clear: the wave will swallow up the sailors, but even the wave will disappear long before the Mount Fuji.

This work is deeply interesting because it links Asian spirituality and western typical structures of design. First, it echoes the Taoist philosophy (according to which everything is divided into the yin and the yang) as well as the Buddhist philosophy (which says the elements built by man are ephemeral) and the Shinto (as it shows that nature is all powerful and sovereign, beyond the control of humans). But on the other hand, one can notice that Hokusai was influenced by western tradition, because of the use of perspective, and because he chose to represent daily life of common people. It is a very valuable piece, even to understand western art movements. Hokusai’s works were collected in Paris in the mid-19th century, especially by such impressionist artists as Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and even influenced them as they further developed a fashion for Japonaiserie3.

1Parkes, Graham, “Japanese Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

2McCullough, Helen C. (trans.), 1988, The Tale of the Heike, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

3“Hokusai.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 31 Jan. 2012


Think About It

— Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets. –

 -Plato, The Republic, Book 7.