Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura)

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

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Under the Wave: A Boundary-Crossing Icon

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Almost certainly the Buddhist Katsushika Hokusai knew nothing of the Psalms. When he created this woodblock print, Christianity had been banned in Japan for two centuries. The ban remained in force (1615–1868) until after his death. Earlier poets and painters had made waves central to the national imagination—viewed as both a protection against intruders and a danger, discouraging foreign travel. Yet within a few decades, this image from the ‘closed country’ would begin to instruct the Western imagination about Japan. Over the last century at least, Hokusai’s Under the Wave has attained the status of a global icon, a boundary-crossing image capable of communicating with viewers in multiple religious traditions and cultures.

In Israelite and Japanese religious cultures, mountains and the sea are viewed as awesome in the true sense—life-giving and fearsome—and thus evocative of divinity. Although they come from the eastern and western extremes of the Asian continent, respectively, Hokusai’s image and Psalms 42–43 (originally a single psalm) share two elements of their landscapes: mountains and deep waters.

Japanese and Western viewers are likely to read the print differently from one another. For Westerners, reading left to right, the towering wave is first and foremost. Asian viewers, trained to read from the opposite direction, might focus instead on what stands ‘under the wave’ (Hokusai’s own title): Mount Fuji, the sacred volcano, both dangerous and revered.

Refocusing on Fuji as a sign of divinity may yield a better understanding of the watery paradox central to Psalm 42: the psalmist yearns for God’s presence in the midst of troubles that also seem to come from God. God’s ‘waves and billows’ threaten to overwhelm, but still ‘deep calls to deep’ (42:7 own translation), the depths of affliction to the depths of faith. God is present here. A Christian viewer might press further. The three-lobed cloud hovering over Fuji’s peak—could that be a cruciform figure with arms outstretched, a sign of divine presence to those in distress?

 

References

Guth, Christine. 2015. Hokusai’s Great Wave: Biography of a Global Icon (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press)

Terry, Charles S. 1959. Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mt. Fuji (Tokyo: Toto Shuppan)


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