Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Great Wave off Kanagawa

The Great Wave off Kanagawa is a piece of artwork created by the Japanese artist Hokusai sometime between 1830 and 1833. The original is 10" by 15" and is, amazingly, a woodblock print. The process is as follows: the artist creates a painting, a wood worker carves over the image like tracing paper, and then the wood would be stamped on paper.

As a piece in the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fufi, the image depicts the iconic mountain in the background of a monstrous wave threatening twenty-three cowering fisherman. The wave is surreal with its foam talons clutching at the hunkering fishermen. Foam flies in globules as big as a head. At first glance it is difficult to tell the mountain from the wave. They share the same shapes and colors. Perhaps that is a technique to subtly illustrate that the wave is as big as a mountain.

The fearful fisherman all have the same face of skull-like absence. I believe the uniformity of the faces is to focus attention on the danger of the wave rather than the differences between the fisherman. At this moment in their lives, all else is equal in the face of nature's indifferent brutality.

I have had a print of The Great Wave hanging in my bedroom for a year now, and the recent disaster in Japan reminded me of the nation's vulnerability to tectonic activity and how that has been a part of their culture for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

For the comments: what is your favorite artistic depiction of a natural disaster?


  1. The Great Wave was probably the Day After Tomorrow (movie) of the time. The painting is a representation of the lethal reality that people faced on a day to day basis at sea to those who would never brave the waters. Likewise the movie in sort was an exhibition of what a tsunami hitting New York City would look like to unsuspecting pedestrians to bring an unbelievable reality closer to home.

  2. It is amazing how in the shadow of the wave, it is almost impossible to make out the human form of the sailors: they are reduced to anonymity in the face of its sheer destructive power.

    I'm a fan of John Martin's "The End of the World", although it technically represents a supernatural disaster. Paintings of such great destruction are for some reason magnetic. The theme of a violent natural world for some reason makes great works of art.

  3. I agree that Hokusai's work represents one of the finest examples of the ukiyo-e technique. Furthermore, in light of the events that have recently occurred in Japan, it is an image of destruction that is all too easily evoked.

    While not strictly a depiction of a natural disaster, J.M. Turner's Burning of the Houses of Parliament stands out as one of the most beautiful depictions of disaster and destruction. The airy brushstrokes help create a "painterly" look to the image. While the image is obscured, the viewer can appreciate both the destructive power and the beauty of conflagrations.


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