Before Viral Videos and Iconic Photographs….

Published on May 14th, 2016 by Paul Messaris. Filed under icon, Viral Video

In her book Hokusai’s Great Wave, Christine Guth devotes 256 pages of text to the discussion of a single picture measuring approximately 10 X 14 ½ inches. She could easily have spent twice as many words on her subject without running out of significant details to talk about. According to Guth, the Great Wave has been reproduced and adapted more widely, in more parts of the world, than any other non-Western artwork. Guth’s book is a painstaking, meticulous effort to trace the history of those reproductions and adaptations. The story that she tells spans more than two centuries and much of the globe. For scholars in visual communication, this story will be particularly interesting because of its relationship to two questions that we often ask: How does a picture attract large-scale attention, and what happens to pictures when they cross cultures?

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The Great Wave originated as a design by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (ca. 1760-1849). Hokusai’s design became the basis of a wood-block print that was issued in the early 1830s by the publishing house Eijudō as part of a series titled Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. In Guth’s translation, the original title of Hokusai’s picture is “Under the Great Wave off Kanagawa.” However, following the immense success of a 2005 exhibition at Tokyo National Museum, the Japanese themselves have taken to calling it gureto uebu, in recognition of its growing international fame. The Great Wave depicts three boats battling a stormy sea off the coast of Kanagawa, an area south of Tokyo. The silhouette of Mount Fuji rises in the distance, but it is dwarfed by a huge cresting wave that is about to come crashing down on the boats. The scene is dramatic, the composition is striking, and the technical quality of the print is outstanding. As Guth points out, at the time that the Great Wave and the other prints in Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji were published, “Japanese woodblock prints arguably represented the most efficient, cost effective, and artistically sophisticated form of color printing in the world” (page 23). How did this picture from the past come to occupy such a prominent place in present-day visual culture?

Hokusai was already well-known in Japan when the Great Wave and its companion prints appeared. He was a famous figure working in an industry that played an important role in Japanese cultural life. Guth’s overview of Japanese print-making provides an informative account of the industry’s technical and business aspects. As early as the 1760s, Japanese publishers had developed highly precise techniques for the reproduction of multi-colored images. Those techniques, which predated European color print-making by several decades, are a significant milestone in the history of visual communication. As William Ivins has pointed out, the ability to produce exactly repeatable pictorial statements was a major factor in the rise of visual culture and its increasing displacement of writing as the prime vehicle of public discourse.

The economic features of Japanese commercial print-making can also be seen as prefiguring many of the characteristics that have since become standard features of the international image industry. Hokusai was paid for his designs by his publisher, who subsequently sold the resulting prints to the general public. The bulk of his income was therefore dependent on the mass market, rather than patronage or sales to wealthy individuals. Guth cites several calculations of sales volume for prints in Hokusai’s day. Modern estimates for the Great Wave vary from 5,000 to 10,000, which, according to Guth, would put it on the threshold of that era’s best seller mark. As Guth points out, Hokusai’s success was not simply the result of the high artistic quality of his work. Print publishers were capable advertisers, and Hokusai himself was an effective self-publicist. For example, Guth describes an occasion on which he painted a 250-square-foot picture in public, in front of a huge crowd, to promote one of his print series.

Not long after its initial publication, the Great Wave began to find its way into copies and adaptations by other artists, not only in print-making but also in other visual media such as porcelain dishes. Guth has done an excellent job of tracking down a wide range of works inspired by Hokusai’s picture, and her book will serve as a valuable resource for scholars interested in tracing the evolution of visual ideas over time and, eventually, across cultures. Incidentally, she also gives us a good look at how the Great Wave evolved from Hokusai’s own earlier work. In seeking to understand the reasons for the Great Wave’s growing popularity among Japanese consumers of images in the mid-19th century, Guth pays particular attention to the picture’s cultural associations. She notes that the picture’s publication came at a time when the people of Japan were increasingly preoccupied with their country’s place in the world and felt particularly vulnerable to threats from abroad. She argues that, under such circumstances, the image of the huge wave would have given rise to a set of mutually contradictory feelings among the residents of an island nation. On the one hand, the stormy sea could be seen as protection from the outside world. On the other hand, however, it could also be seen as a symbol of the dangers that might lurk over the horizon.

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Guth supports these interpretations with ample references to Japanese literary and visual sources. Still, scholars focusing on visual matters might be interested in looking at the Great Wave’s popularity from a somewhat different angle. A recurring question in visual studies has to do with the visual features that help propel certain images to the status of cultural icons. Are we capable of making any meaningful predictions about that process, or are we confined entirely to the wisdom of hindsight? In this regard, Guth refers to the work of Martin Kemp, who offers a comprehensive, amply illustrated definition of the term “icon” but is quite skeptical about being able to turn those illustrations into a formula. A more productive reference point might be the research of Margaret Livingstone, who has sought to explain why the Mona Lisa is so much better known that the other works of Leonardo, many of which are of equal, if not superior, artistic quality. Livingstone’s answer is based on technical considerations that are beyond the scope of this review, but her conclusion – namely, that the Mona Lisa’s meaning is ambiguous and therefore leaves the viewer guessing – may well have some relevance to Hokusai’s work as well. With one potential exception (an image of people perched on a steep roof), the Great Wave is the only picture in the Thirty-Six Views in which people are shown in an activity with an uncertain outcome (and the possibility of a very bad ending). The power of such open-endedness is attested to not only by Livingstone’s research but also by the notorious example of Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream (1989), a painting of an imperiled mariner that generated numerous requests for Homer to reveal the outcome of the story.

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It is not clear to what extent the Great Wave’s eventual popularity outside Japan was related to its high reputation in its country of origin. According to Guth, the earliest evidence of the print’s importation to Europe or the United States comes from 1883, when the French art collector Louis Gonse, author of a comprehensive introduction to Japanese art, mentioned that he owned a complete set of the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. Guth speculates that Gonse is likely to have included the Great Wave in an exhibition that he organized in Paris that same year. By that point in time, Hokusai’s work was already well known and widely admired by European and American connoisseurs. Guth mentions that his illustrated books were introduced to Europe as early as the 1830s. By the 1850s, his admirers were pronouncing him an artistic genius. In one of several enthusiastic comments cited by Guth, the British art critic William Rossetti wrote that Hokusai’s illustrations belonged “in various respects to the greatest order of art practiced in our day in any country in the world” (quoted in Guth, 58). Critical acclaim was accompanied by artistic copying. A particularly notable instance was the American illustrator John La Farge’s imitation of a wave from Hokusai’s “Mount Fuji Viewed from the Sea,” a print that was produced at roughly the same time as the Great Wave but was the first of the two to arrive in the United States.

It appears that the Great Wave’s positive reception by non-Japanese viewers was based on considerable previous familiarity with Hokusai’s oeuvre and with Japanese art. As Hokusai’s work was being absorbed into the visual cultures of Europe and the United States, his influence on those cultures was discussed by artists as well as critics. Their writings give us some sense of what Hokusai and the Great Wave meant to them, although the most accurate answers to this question are surely contained in the wave’s many copies and adaptations. Guth pays special attention to the commentary of Edmond de Goncourt, a prominent French critic who published a book on Hokusai. In the book’s opening lines, Goncourt praises Hokusai for freeing Japanese painting from the authority of Persian and Chinese artistic principles, but he also complains that in “both East and West it seems that the same injustices await the artist who breaks with the past!” (quoted in Guth, 81) This statement encapsulates a broader point about the cross-cultural migration of images. The process of adapting another culture’s visual syntax (or, indeed, any other cultural practice) is often, at the same time, a critique or repudiation of aspects of one’s own culture. The French admired the Great Wave not only for the abstract geometry of its design but also for its antithesis to the hyperliteralism and occasional fussiness of academic art. It is sometimes claimed that Hokusai’s acceptance in the West was facilitated by the presence of Western stylistic features such as linear perspective in his pictures. But the testimony of writers such as Goncourt suggests otherwise.

Does the adoption of visual motifs or stylistic elements from another culture have any broader consequences for the lives of those who are doing the adopting? One of the more intriguing notions in visual studies is the idea that pictorial syntax encodes cultural values, and that those values are absorbed by viewers. A substantial body of theory has made this argument with regard to Western linear perspective, which is commonly assumed to have played a role in the establishment of “bourgeois ideology.” When it comes to Japanese visual media, the case for broader cultural impact has been made in considerable detail by Susan Napier, in a history that begins with Japonisme in 19th century France and concludes with global anime fandom in the 21st century. As far as the Great Wave is concerned, Guth points out that non-Western artists and graphic designers who use it in their work are often well informed about Hokusai and Japanese art. However, they tend to assume that the general public is less likely to know or care about the Great Wave’s provenance, and much of the work they produce is only weakly connected to Japanese culture. For example, in her book’s final chapter, Guth points out that many non-Japanese viewers mistakenly think that the Great Wave represents a tsunami, and she notes that this misunderstanding became particularly problematic when a newly acquired print of the wave was exhibited at the British Museum in 2011, after the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that had devastated northern Japan in March of that year. To be sure, Guth’s compendious history of the Great Wave’s migrations outside Japan also includes examples of knowledgeable and thoughtful adaptation or quotation, as in the case of Asian-American artists’ use of the wave to comment about the very nature of cultural exchange. However, one of the most significant virtues of Guth’s book is the fact that she usually lets the abundant visual and archival evidence speak for itself, making it possible for the reader to arrive at her or his own conclusions about questions such as the ones raised in this review.

About

Paul Messaris teaches visual communication and digital media at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.

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