Hokusai‘s Under the Wave off Kanagawa, also called The Great Wave, (pictured above) does more than delight the eye. It is an eloquent expression of the traditional Japanese attitude towards the sea as something to be admired and feared at the same time. The woodblock print (circa 1830–1832) shows three fishing boats as a giant wave rises ominously, its majestic power enhanced by a diminutive Mount Fuji in the distance. The fingers of the breaking wave are rendered in a stylized manner. Even so, it is faithful to reality as the following two comparative images illustrate (click for a larger view):

The first picture above is a detail of Hokusai’s wave; the second, a close-up photograph of a surf. The similarities are striking. Clearly, Hokusai was very familiar with the sea and how it behaves. One could even say that he had an intuitive knowledge of fluid dynamics. But so much for realism. The main appeal of Under the Wave off Kanagawa and like works by other Japanese artists lies in their power to stir the imagination and evoke certain emotions.

Rough Waves, ca. 1704–9
Two-panel folding screen; ink, color, and gold leaf on paper
Ogata Korin (Japanese, 1658–1716) / The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The waves in Ogata Korin’s painting are absolutely menacing. They conjure up the image of dragons with sharp claws or ghostly apparitions in a surreal landscape. Sailors and others who have experienced a storm at sea would feel connected to this artwork.

Waves and Moon, early 19th century
Ink on silk; mounted as a hanging scroll
Yamamoto Baiitsu (1783–1856) /  Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Japanese have a remarkable penchant for beauty. They have even made viewing cherry blossoms in full bloom (hanami) a national custom. As much as they fear and respect the power of the sea, they also admire its beauty. This mindset finds expression in Yamamoto Baiitsu’s lyrical work, which shows a pale moon behind a troupe of dancing waves.

Tsunami, 1909
Woodblock print
Kamisaka Sekka (1866–1942) / Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Kamisaka Sekka’s bold depiction of a towering wave is super-minimalist. It shows only the wave’s outline set against a dark grey background with a partly hidden full moon rendered in a lighter shade of grey. Despite its simplicity, the print forcefully suggests the tsunami’s dual aspect of beauty and terror.

Crane and Wave, mid-1830s
Woodblock print
Utagawa Hiroshige I (1797–1858) / Philadelphia Museum of Art

The crane flying above the water seems to mimic the motion of the ocean wave. The two are one. This sense of harmony with nature imbues much of traditional Japanese marine art with a special charm. It is what gives it soul.

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