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Episode 93 - Hokusai's 'The Great Wave'

Hokusai's 'The Great Wave' (painted about 1830), from Japan

In the early nineteenth century Japan had been effectively isolated from the world for almost two hundred years. It had quite simply opted out of the community of nations. Stephen Sondheim's 'Pacific Overtures' describes the secluded and calmly self-contained country in 1853, just before American gunships forced its harbours to open to the world:

"In the middle of the world we float,
In the middle of the sea.
The realities remain remote
In the middle of the sea.
Kings are burning somewhere,
Wheels are turning somewhere,
Trains are being run,
Wars are being won,
Things are being done
Somewhere out there, not here.
Here we paint screens.
Yes . . . the arrangement of the screens."

It's vintage Sondheim caricature - the dreamy and aesthetic Japanese, serenely painting screens while across the seas the world industrialises, and political turmoil rages. Indeed it's an image the Japanese themselves have sometimes wanted to project. And it's how the most famous of all Japanese images, Hokusai's 'Great Wave', is sometimes read.

This best-selling woodblock print was made around 1830 by the great artist Hokusai, as one of his series of 36 views of Mount Fuji. At first sight it presents a beautiful picture of a deep blue wave, curling above the sea, with far in the distance the tranquil, snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji. It is, you might think, a stylised, decorative image of a timeless Japan. But there are other ways of reading Hokusai's 'Great Wave'. Look a little closer, and you see that the beautiful wave is about to engulf three boats with frightened fishermen, while Mount Fuji is so small that you, the spectator, share the feeling that the sailors in the boats must have as they look to shore: it's unreachable, too far away, and you're lost. This is, I think, an image not of timeless serenity, but of instability and uncertainty.

"You can find this image everywhere. All sorts of everyday objects feature 'The Great Wave', so it really has become a very ubiquitous icon, I think, an icon of modernity." (Christine Guth)

In the middle of the nineteenth century, as the Industrial Revolution got into its stride, the great manufacturing powers, above all Britain and the United States, were aggressively looking for new sources of raw materials, and new markets for their products. The world, these free-traders believed, was their oyster, and it was one they were determined to open. To them it seemed incomprehensible - indeed intolerable - that Japan should refuse to play its full part in the global economy. Japan, on the other hand, saw no need to trade with these pushy would-be partners. Its existing arrangements suited it very well.

The country had closed almost all its ports at the end of the 1630s, expelling European Christian missionaries and virtually all other foreigners. Japanese citizens were not permitted to leave the country, nor could foreigners enter - disobedience was punished by death. Exceptions were made only for Dutch and Chinese merchants, whose shipping and trade were restricted to the port city of Nagasaki. Here goods were regularly imported and exported, but on terms of trade laid down solely by the Japanese. In dealing with the rest of the world, they called the shots. This was not so much splendid isolation as selective engagement, and for two hundred years it had worked, the Japanese thought, very well.

If foreign people could not enter Japan, foreign things most certainly could. You can see this very clearly if you look at the composition - physical and pictorial - of 'The Great Wave'. It's printed on traditional Japanese mulberry paper, just under the size of a sheet of A3, in subtle shades of yellow, grey and pink. But standing in front of it now, I'm very conscious that it's the blue - rich deep blue - that dominates . . . and that startles. For this is not a Japanese blue. It is Prussian Blue, or a Berlin Blue, a synthetic dye invented in Germany in the early eighteenth century, and much less prone to fading than other traditional blues. Prussian Blue was imported into Japan either directly by Dutch traders or, more probably, via China, where it was being manufactured from the 1820s. The blueness of 'The Great Wave' shows us Japan taking from Europe what it wants to take, and taking it with absolute confidence. And the series of which 'The Great Wave' was a part - 'The Views of Mount Fuji' - were promoted to the public partly on the basis of this exotic, beautiful blue - prized because of its foreignness. So 'The Great Wave', far from being quintessentially Japanese, as we usually think of it, is in fact a hybrid work, a fusion of European materials and technology with a Japanese sensibility and also, I think, with a Japanese apprehension. As a viewer, you've got no place to stand in front of this, no footing, you too must be in a boat, under 'The Great Wave' and in danger of being overwhelmed. Yet Hokusai has drawn the sea over which these European things and ideas travelled with disturbing ambivalence.

Christine Guth has studied Hokusai's work in depth, especially 'The Great Wave':

"It was produced at a time when the Japanese were beginning to become concerned about foreign incursions. So this great wave seemed, on the one hand, to be a kind of a symbolic barrier for the protection of Japan, but at the same time it also suggested the potential for Japanese to travel abroad, for ideas to move, for things to move back and forth. I think it was very closely tied to the beginnings of the opening of Japan, if you will."

In the long years of relative seclusion, Japan - governed by a military oligarchy - had enjoyed peace and stability. There were strict codes of public behaviour for all classes, with laws on private conduct, marriage, weapons and so on for the ruling elite. In this highly controlled atmosphere, the arts had flourished.

All this depended on the rest of the world staying away, and by the 1850s, there were many outsiders who wanted to share in the privileges and profits enjoyed by the Chinese and the Dutch, and to trade with this prosperous and populous country. The Japanese were reluctant, and the Americans came to the conclusion that free trade would have to be imposed by force. The story told in Stephen Sondheim's ironically titled 'Pacific Overtures' actually happened in 1853, when Japan's self-imposed isolation was breached by the very real Commodore Perry of the US Navy, who sailed into Tokyo Bay uninvited, and demanded that the Japanese begin to trade with the US. Here's a snatch of the letter that Perry, on the authority of the President of the United States, delivered to the Japanese emperor:

"Many of the large ships-of-war destined to visit Japan have not yet arrived in these seas . . . and the undersigned, as an evidence of his friendly intentions, has brought but four of the smaller ones, designing, should it become necessary, to return to Edo in the ensuing spring with a much larger force."

This was text-book gun-boat diplomacy, and it worked. Japanese resistance melted in the face of Commodore Perry's threats, and very quickly the Japanese embraced the new economic model. They became energetic players in the international markets they had been forced to join, and they began to think differently about the sea that surrounded them, and about the opportunities that their new role in the world offered. Here's expert on Japan, Donald Keene, from Columbia University:

"The Japanese have a word for insularism, which is literally the mental state of people living on islands - 'shimaguni konjo'. Shimaguni is island nation, konjo is character. The idea is, they are surrounded by water, and unlike, say, the British Isles, which were in sight of the continent, these were far away. A new trend of interest in the world, breaking down the classical barriers, begins to emerge about half way through this period. I think that the interest in waves suggested the allure of going elsewhere, the world around Japan, the possibility of finding new treasures outside Japan. And some Japanese at this time secretly wrote accounts of why Japan should have colonies in different parts of the world, in order to augment their own riches. I think the wave itself is a very interesting part of the Japanese culture at this time, the way in which it is constantly changing. And the attraction of the wave was that it was never the same for very long."

'The Great Wave', like the other images in the series, was printed in about five thousand - maybe as many as eight thousand - impressions, and we know that in 1842 the price of a single sheet was fixed officially at 16 mon, the equivalent of a double helping of noodles. This was cheap and popular art, but when printed in such quantities to exquisite technical standards like this, it could be highly profitable. The British Museum has three impressions of 'The Great Wave'. This is an early one, taken when the woodblock was still crisp, which means it has sharp lines and clear, well-integrated colours. An impression like this one lets you see very clearly that Hokusai took far more than just Prussian Blue from Europe - he has also borrowed the conventions of European perspective to push Mount Fuji far into the distance. He must have studied European prints, which the Dutch had imported in modest quantities but which circulated among a small number of collectors, scholars and artists inside Japan. It is no wonder that this image has been so loved in Europe. It can be seen, not as a complete stranger, but as an exotic relative.

After Commodore Perry's forcing of the Japanese ports in 1853, Japan resumed sustained contact with the outside world. Japanese prints, like 'The Great Wave', were exported in large numbers to Europe, where they were quickly admired and imitated by Van Gogh, Whistler and many others. The Japanese artist who had been so influenced by European style and materials now influenced the Europeans artists in return. Japonisme became a craze, influencing the fine and applied arts of both Europe and America well into the twentieth century.

In the decades after 1853, Japan vigorously followed the example of the industrial west, and it was transformed in the process into a great imperial economic power. Yet just as Constable's 'Haywain', at roughly the same time, became the iconic image of a fantasy, pre-industrial England, so Hokusai's 'Great Wave' became - and in the modern imagination has remained - the emblem of an earlier, simpler Japan, reproduced today on everything from textiles to tea cups.

What Japan had discovered was that, by the middle of the nineteenth century, no part of the world would be allowed to opt out of the global system. We'll see the same phenomenon, but more bloodily, in the next programme. We'll be in Sudan, exploring the biography of a drum . . . a war-drum.

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