Pulled me right overboard
Into permanent morgasm
Emotional action painting
I flew down to the bottom of the sea
Where I questioned the fishes all about it
I was in heaven
Address cloud eleven
They danced and laughed spelling all I fell into was love.
That Wave, Andy Partridge (from Nonsuch, 1992).
Strange to think in this day and age that there might once have been a time when buying or even seeing something Japanese might be near impossible. Sakoku, as it was known, commenced around 1635 and remained state policy for over 200 years. In that time, the Japanese government prevented foreigners from entering and citizens from leaving. Export and import was non-existent; the legal exchange of ideas, culture and goods were non-events. So, while Ukiyo-e prints could be found in Europe from around 1795 in Paris (through diplomatic and personal contacts, rather than commercial trade) it was not until the 1850s when Japan relaxed its laws and trade began to flourish that the craze for things Japanese began to go, well, crazy.
The story goes that French printmaker Felix Bracquemond (1833-1914) encountered a picture-book by Katsushika Hokusai that arrived in France with a shipment of porcelain in the late 1850s. In 1859, a sourcebook by the potter and designer Eugene Collinot and Adalbert de Beaumont included Hokusai’s imagery.
By the early 1860s, French intellectuals such as Charles Baudelaire and Edmond de Goncourt began to take interest. Of course, it is well documented that his work landed in the hands of a whole raft of French artists such as Claude Monet, who acquired 23 of the Japanese artist’s prints and Edgar Degas, who took cues from Hokusai, in particular his thousands of sketches of the human form. The rapid embrace of his prints by European artists may have been in part due to his use of a Western-style vanishing point perspective. Other print designers in Japan employed the Asian perspective, which positioned far-away objects higher on the picture plane, an effect that, to a Western eye, made it appear as though the ground was tilting upwards.
Now you may not know the name Katsushika Hokusai. But I’m prepared to bet that you know at least one of his works: The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa (Kanagawa-oki Nami-ura)’ from the series ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku Sanjurokkei) (c.1830–32), more commonly known as The Great Wave. Arguably the most famous image in all of Japanese art, this iconic woodblock print depicts a huge, frothing wave that belittles and diminishes that other famous symbol of Japan, Mount Fuji – reduced in this image to an impotent ant hill. To reinforce the power of the wave, frightened and cowed fishermen cling for dear life to their boats, expecting the worse, praying for salvation.
Born in Edo (modern Tokyo) in 1760, Hokusai (to use one of his names) led a life that was both intensely productive and undeniably eccentric. I say one of his names because he used Hokusai (Studio of the North Star) from about 1798, when he was in his mid ‘40s and continued for a decade or so, through his 50s. This coincided with a time when his commercial output greatly diminished—a series of setbacks—intermittent paralysis, the death of his second wife, and serious misconduct by his wayward grandson—left him in financial straits. He changed his name in around 1725 to Iitsu and in response to his later life problems, funneled his energy into his work, beginning his famous series “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” (which included The Great Wave) in 1830. He went on to produce a vast output of ukiyo-e prints that have today come to define our modern view of him.
Hokusai’s final period began in 1834 when he started using his last name Gakyo-rojin Manji (Old Man Mad About Art). Here, he turned from commercial prints to book illustration and brush paintings. While these are powerful and message-laden creations, they somehow don’t match his peak period —the time of That Wave.