How often do we appreciate the tremendous power of an ocean wave? Not often, I realize, while I sit in a rocking chair in my suburban Cleveland home, hundreds of miles from the sea, nursing my six-month-old as he falls asleep. We’re listening to the rushing water of the ocean setting on his sound machine; the room gets darker and the sound gets bigger until it fills the nursery entirely. And in the twilight haze, I find myself carried away by the thunderous, incessant waves—at once too big to think about and too big to think about anything else.
It’s a frightening idea, a force so big, so ceaseless, so indifferent. Yet when I look down at my dozing baby, I think about what the sound of the waves must mean to him, how meditative it must be, with all the familiarity and safety of his churning life in utero. I can’t help but think about the waves of contractions the night he was born, the crest of the pain, the sweet relief, over and over. Birth after birth. Wave after wave.
Reflexively I start thinking about the Under the Wave off Kanagawa, or the Great Wave. The Edo-period ukiyo-e print by the master of the craft, Katsushika Hokusai, is admittedly never far from my thoughts, or my line of sight, or yours. It’s a print we’ve all seen a million times; that iconic silhouette is plastered everywhere, from socks to emojis, mugs to mousepads, existing in a state of chronic reproduction that isn’t actually so different from how its contemporary audience would have experienced it. From its inception, it’s always been one of many. Ukiyo-e prints—woodblock illustrations of the Buddhist “floating world”—emphasized line, pure color, and distillation of form, and were sold as multiples throughout the so-named pleasure quarters of Edo (now Tokyo). If you’re lucky enough to see one today, in person and unframed, you’re instructed to hold your hand over your mouth, lest your very breath risk damaging it, but at the time that fragility would have simply been a consequence of these prints’ intentional expendability. They were swiftly churned out, widely available, and as inexpensive as the cost of a double helping of noodles.
But the thing about art this easily reproduced, both at its creative point of conception and in its second life as a meme, is that we stop seeing the individual artwork for its own tremendous power. We stop seeing this print as an eternally paused moment of something equally eternal. We stop seeing the pure energy of a rogue ocean wave about to fatally crash down on tiny split sugar snap peas of fishermen in boats, its foam curling over them like a thousand reaching hands. So let’s take a moment and look. Let’s cut through the artifice of celebrity and the noise of reproduction. Let’s focus instead on how much is packed into this inexpensive yet invaluable little print.
To begin with, we need to consider the significance of the ocean in Japan, a nation of thousands of small islands; residents are never more than 93 miles from the sea. Its robust and indispensable fishing industry gave rise to the merchant class who first bought these prints. During the Edo period, which started around 1615, Japan was stable and prosperous, closed to the West until 1868, and therefore steeped in its own cultural value, history, and natural world. Domestic tourists would travel the country and buy these prints as souvenirs, eager for a representation of “true Japan.” Hokusai, born in 1760, already had a reputation for his ability to authentically capture Japan by 1830, about the time he created the Great Wave, part of his series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, and a formidable example of his talent. The series captures the iconic peak from a variety of different perspectives and vantage points: other images place the mountain directly at the forefront, while here it sits back as a metaphor, rising like a small understated wave in the center of the print, its summit rhyming with the white-capped breakers in the foreground, whose spitting spray falls atop it like snow.
Edo’s closure to the West had a potent influence on the print’s aesthetics. As Japanese artists passed around smuggled European engravings to one another, several of the works’ characteristics, including linear perspective, a low horizon line, and deep, rich color, made their way into Japanese art, adding to this wave’s sense of immediacy. Moreover, this cross-cultural aesthetic exchange went right back in the other direction. When Edo opened to the West in 1868, French Impressionists got a hold of these prints and lost their collective minds. Gaga over all things “Japonisme,” they were hungry to integrate the bold simplicity of Eastern aesthetic traditions into their agile, avant-garde style: crisp pictorial flatness, asymmetry, shadowless colors, and a creative use of negative space that allowed an artwork to appear finished even when a background is nearly empty.
But there is something else happening in the Great Wave, too, something deeply resonant and timeless. Close looking at this extraordinarily powerful wave yields an equally powerful metaphor. Because the fact of this wave is all pure climactic energy and eternal resolve, impermanence and indifference. In other words, it is an image of Buddhism itself, the religious philosophy’s recognition of what is impossible to grip with our mortal hands. And it beautifully illustrates the words of 20th-century philosopher V. F. Gunaratna in his book Buddhist Reflections on Death: “if you stand by the sea and watch how wave upon wave rises and falls, one wave merging into the next, one wave becoming another, you will appreciate that this entire world is also just that—becoming and becoming.”
And so we appreciate it—both the residents of Edo who would have foregone their double helping of noodles to purchase a print of the Great Wave, and me, rocking my son. Over and over, wave after wave. Just roiling away, at once frightening, meditative, and reassuringly ceaseless. Too big to think about. Too big to think about anything else.
See the Great Wave and learn about Hokusai’s impact on centuries of artists in “Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence,” on view through July 16, 2023.