“Manji, the old man crazy about painting” or Hokusai (died at age 88 in 1849)

This artist from the land of the rising sun is certainly not a sports champion (despite the fact that he inspired the logo of a certain sports brand) but rather a painting madman (Manji is one of these signatures).

The (wave) way of Hokusai

At a time when the British Museum, among others, has entered the world of NFTs with one of its most famous works, "the Great Wave off Kanagawa" [1], let's review this print.

This Japanese print opens a series of 36 views of Mount Fuji (plus 10) published in 1830-31 and drawn by a master of ukiyo-e or “image of the floating world”.

Entitled “Kanagawa-oki nami-ura” in Japanese, the movement of the wave is in the direction of Japanese writing, that is to say from right to left. The color used is Prussian blue, discovered by chance (by serendipity) at the beginning of the 18th century in Berlin by the chemist Georg Ernst Stahl (1659; 1734). Prussian blue is also used as a medicine in certain animals exposed to radioactivity.

In the West this would give a movement from left to right like this drawing by Victor Hugo in “Les Travailleurs de la Mer” (Sea Workers) written in exile in Guernsey and published in 1866.

Drawing by Victor Hugo in “Les Travailleurs de la Mer”

Hokusai uses the perspective effect of Westerners and conversely he inspired impressionists like Manet and even a composer like Debussy.

Large wave foreground

The small wave in the foreground has the same shape as the highest peak in Japan, the sacred mountain , Fuji-san in the background. Since 2013, Mount Fuji has not only been classified as a “sacred place” by UNESCO but also as a “source of artistic inspiration”.

The foam is a parabola of snow or even volcanic ash from the volcano

Water (and fire for Westerners) is the link between the volcano and the dragon (rainmaker in Asia) which seems to materialize with its sharp claws or like the eagle and its claws on another scale. and which reinforces the impression of the power of the elements – of nature – in the face of the fragility of life represented by the frail sailors in their boats.

Great wave dragon and eagle

The center of the wave is at the center of the drawing like an axis of rotation of an infernal spiral or a vertical vortex. Despite the snapshot of the scene, it is easy to imagine the continuity of the movement of these fishing boats caught in the trough of the wave as if caught by the spiral of life in this country punctuated by natural disasters: tsunami (word d Japanese origin) and hurricane for the fluid world but also earthquakes and volcanic eruptions for the chthonic world.

Great wave continuity

Finally, the yin-yang appears between the aerial part of the wave and that in contact with the earth, between the light and the dark forces of the underwater world and the underground world. In reality there is here the whole opposition of the ephemeral nature of the things of Buddhism to that of the omnipotence of the nature of Shintoism specific to Japan.

NB: This famous print often illustrates the “tsunami”, a Japanese term, but it looks more like a rogue wave.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/sep/24/british-museum-nfts-digital-hokusai-postcards-lacollection