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Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura)
Psalm 42-43 by Diane Palley
The Tree of Life (Apse Mosaic of San Clemente)

Katsushika Hokusai

Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura; The Great Wave), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei), c.1830–32, Polychrome woodblock print; ink and colour on paper, 257 x 379 mm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929, JP1847, www.metmuseum.org

Diane Palley

Psalm 42–43, 2005, Silkscreened and sandblasted glass panels, 121.92 x 213.36 cm, Duke University Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina, © Diane Palley

Unknown artist

The Tree of Life (Apse Mosaic of San Clemente), c.1130, Mosaic, Basilica of San Clemente al Laterano, Rome, Scala / Art Resource, NY

Refusing to Despair

Comparative Commentary by

All the works here were created for a wide public, not just for wealthy or sophisticated patrons of the arts. The medieval Apse Mosaic and Diane Palley’s 2005 architectural panels are permanently and prominently installed, respectively in a church and a university chapel. Long before Katsushika Hokusai’s nineteenth-century prints hung in prestigious museums, thousands of ordinary people purchased them as mementos, decorations, aids to pilgrimage. Meticulously crafted though they are, each of these works is fundamentally popular art, like the bipartite Psalm 42–43 itself. The artists have used consummate skill and the resources of three different religious traditions—Buddhism, Christianity, and (in Palley’s case) Judaism—to explore a condition basic to human experience altogether: our susceptibility to affliction both physical and spiritual. We cannot forget that we will suffer and die. However, their images point also to the source of hope, the divine reality that transcends the present moment of affliction.

The condition of human vulnerability is most explicit in Hokusai’s woodblock image print: the fishermen are in immediate danger of drowning. We will never know if they made it alive through the wave—yet in the distance stands Fuji, a reminder of another, more enduring order of existence. Hokusai was a master of realism; for that very reason he was in his own day celebrated by the masses but regarded as vulgar by the cultural elite. The ‘vulgar’ quality of Under the Wave off Kanagawa also contributes to its modern status as a global icon. It seems to speak a universal language, even if the message it conveys may differ across contexts, cultures, and centuries. That status seems unattainable for the other pieces, which each draw on multiple symbols particular to the iconography of Judaism and Christianity. Yet even so, the specificity of tradition is more inspiring than confining. Most notably, Diane Palley has deliberately created a measure of hybridity by adapting Jewish traditions to a Christian context.

These images are frank in displaying longing, danger, even the imminent threat of death, but none of them is merely desperate. Diverse though the several compositions are, they all share one stylistic feature: through careful ordering of the pictorial plane, they tacitly assert that the world we inhabit may be harsh, but it is not chaotic. Hokusai suggests as much by his innovative perspective; one of the threatened boats seems to touch Fuji (‘no-death’), even as it heads straight into the wave. Again, the Apse Mosaicist shows an emaciated, nearly naked body bleeding on a cross, yet the instrument of death stands at the very centre of the tree of life, which fills the luminous space. Similarly, Palley’s panels (one shown here) are created from images of architectural elegance that depict abundant life, even as she cites the psalmist’s words of intense longing and hope.

The beautifully ordered Hebrew poem that inspires this exhibition likewise represents the refusal to despair. This most introspective of the biblical laments shows the psalmist challenging her own despondency: ‘Why are you cast down, O my soul?’ (42:5, 11; 43:5). Lament is an inherently dynamic form of prayer; here the speaker moves, albeit fitfully, from the fear of abandonment by God to the determination to offer praise. That movement toward praise is rarely completed in any psalm. Part of the profound realism of the laments is that they generally end with praise still in the future tense: ‘I shall again praise [God]’ (Psalm 43:5)…someday.

Our psalmist is a spiritual pilgrim, on the way from affliction to praise, and so it is fitting that none of the images exhibited here is either static or idyllic. Each depicts fear, pain, danger, even as they point in their several visual languages and religious traditions to a beautiful world that gives life to all creatures, to life that finally defeats death and despair. These works are complementary expressions of an insight that is central to the biblical laments, including Jesus’s cry of dereliction on the cross: the inability to feel God’s presence in suffering is terrible, but that is not itself the cause of despair. Rather, despair overwhelms the soul that stands still; only when we stop looking for divine presence does the sense of absence become absolute, final.

Knowing God’s presence is not a fixed state of the soul. Rather, it is a movement, a restlessness generated by holy desire. That is a pilgrim’s wisdom, which these artists invite us to contemplate.