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Slow Art - The Evolution of Hokusai's Wave

Words:

Edd Norval
September 27, 2018

Over his life Hokusai imagined and reimagined his now-famous wave. As he aged, the wave became more clear. As the sands of time slip through life's hourglass, we should always be able to see more clearly. This age old piece of wisdom comes to life in his works.

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Under The Wave of Kanagawa by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai is one of the most well-known and frequently replicated pieces of art in the world. Better known as simply The Great Wave it has evolved over time to reflect his changing outlook.


The way of life in Japan is vastly different to Europe. On one hand it's a technological mecca, flashing lights and skyscrapers predominate the skyline. But outside of the major cities, it's a country very deeply rooted in its past. Their culture is contemplative and meditative. To cut through the hustle and bustle, one must make a conscious effort, but the rewards are many.


Hokusai lived during Japan's Edo period from 1760 to 1849 and witnessed a nation in flux. From his magnum opus we can see the influence that Dutch traders had on his art. The prevailing styles of the European country at that time were absorbed by the artist and no doubt contributed to the formation of this piece's unique perspective.

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One of the keys to staying young is smiling and this famous painting leaves us many reasons to do so. What might initially strike the audience as a scene of catastrophe is both that and a playful rumination on Japanese symbolism. In the distance, the sacred Mount Fuji looks like it too (alongside the boats) will be crushed by the waves.


The soft flecks of surf falling from the ferocious crests of the waves resemble snow falling gently onto the mountain. It's as if there are two juxtaposed emotions meeting each other and fighting for their life. In many ways, it's a more fully developed yin-yang symbol, with both sides being fairly portrayed. The serenity of the mountain is untouched while the waves too are doing what they do best, only with much more potentially catastrophic consequences abound.


We know that the sea must be respected, and it looks as if these boats chose to forsake the warning. Are they foreign trading ships? Is this a veiled warning from a man deeply learned in his motherland's traditions who views their encroachment as a detriment to his society and people? The chaos of the sea, the thunderous waves, also allow people to travel. From the chaos comes creativity and opportunity. Order is represented by the talismanic mountain that takes centre-stage. It's an ancient allegory that belongs next to all ancient religious and spiritual texts.

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Each painting is a deep meditation for the Japanese artist. His first well-known depiction of a wave, somewhat as a prototype for his final one, was painted in 1792 when he was 33. It's full of details, with a rendered coastline, birds flying above and a pack of people looking on. Ten years later he refined the piece. This time we can see the ships, one cresting the wave and one about to be crushed. With the more minimal application of his style, he's began to allow for the symbolism to breathe.


Only two years later did he re-work the piece again and depicted a wave more like the one we know. It features the blue palette that's become synonymous with the painting, albeit in more subdued shades that the final. Finally, at 72 years of age, Hokusai painted the one that adorns restaurants and living-rooms the world over.


Of his process he said, "It was not until after my 70th year, however, that I produced anything of significance." Before predicting that with each century spent on the planet he will begin to understand the surrounding world even better.

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Many artists live through their work, but in a time when change and evolution in a small time-frame are expected, it seems like artists don't ever have the luxury of fully growing into their work, or the time to allow it to grow into them. Hokusai was in no rush, he was happy to continue working and to mature side-by-side with his chosen art-form. As he began to see more clearly as the years wore on, we can witness the correlation of development in his work. In the West, death is something that we struggle to come to terms with. In Japanese culture it's something that's respected. Age is an achievement and is treated as such.


Hokusai revelled in the years passing, not solely out of his gratitude for life, but to excitedly create images that allowed his philosophy to come to life. His slow art was created in the never-ending search for universal Truth. He's gone, but his philosophy is still here. Now it's up to us to pick up the torch.

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