Hiroshige, Hokusai and The Waters of Japan.

Updated: Jun 8, 2019



The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai, c. 1829

Water, an essential of life on this planet, has never been easy to deal with. We take it for granted until we either don't have enough or are drowning in its surplus. When I walked into Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum last summer, I had no thoughts of floods, tsunamis or whirlpools. In fact, I wasn't even thirsty. However, once inside the museum, I was drawn to a particularly thoughtful exhibit of images from non-Western cultures on an element common to all human cultures: Water.


This exhibit focused on images from Asia, in particular China and Japan. My attention fell upon a display of objects, a Chinese vase with mountains and waterfall, a Japanese pot in the form of an open-mouthed carp, and a contemporary Japanese ceramic of a curving skin of fish scales. All of these were considered to be items of good fortune and protection. Behind these three art pieces was a mosaic of scenes from various Japanese prints featuring ocean waves, floods, and whirlpools. Once back to my AirBnB lodgings in Beaches, a lively Toronto neighborhood with a boardwalk that fronts Lake Ontario, I went to YouTube to look at videos of tsunamis in Japan. ( I don't think there are tsumamis on Lake Ontario, though squalls that blow in can drench the city in minutes.) Compared to an angry Great Lake, what an amazement to see the power of the ocean, and how it rises, and rises, and rises, destroying everything with fabulously beautiful emerald green to sapphire blue waters. I then turned to look at Japanese prints of water images to see how these tremendous battles with the deadly waves surrounding their islands were interpreted by two of Japan's most famous print makers: Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Ando Hiroshige.


One of the most famous waves in the whole of art history, subject of countless prints and posters, is Hokusai's Great Wave, in which boats of fishermen are confronted by enormous waves with foam edges that take on the aspect of menacing fingers reaching for the lives of these men (see photo above). In the distant background is that eternal symbol of Japan, Mt. Fuji, as if to give these imperiled men one last look at their beloved homeland. Though on closer inspection, those very practical fishermen seem to be focused on hunkering down to ride out the waves, which might just be survivable.



The Sea at Satta Suruga by Utagawa Ando Hiroshige, c. 1855

Just as unsettling is this print by Hiroshige. The middle ground of the print shows a placid sea with boats sailing calmly. Yet by some quirk of geology, the waters flow through a passage of rocks and churn toward the viewer in a gushing life-threatening flash flood. As in Hokusai's Great Wave, Hiroshige juxtaposes the life giving element of water (the image of the fishermen), against the violence of nature, a reminder that that which gives life can also take it away.


Menace comes in many forms, like whirlpools. To illustrate that aquatic danger, Hiroshige gives us the Whirlpool at Naruto.


The Naruto Whirlpool by Utagawa Ando Hiroshige, c. 1855

Once again, the distant background is calm with a placid sky filled with birds and the colors of the dawn. However, that is not where the viewers are. No, we are about to be swirled down into the vortex of that whirlpool. Our last view will be of the rocks against which the waves crash and the gorge whose narrow passage funnels the waters that wash us away.


My mind turned back to those pieces of pottery, those good luck water symbols I had sketched in the museum. I decided to do my own version of Hiroshige's sudden flood and have it washing away our puny little votive figures of protection.

Hiroshige Washes Away the Artifacts by M. Vernelle, 2018.

So here's to those great Japanese print makers, their genius, and their ability to load those water images with a lot for us to think about.


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For more of my own water paintings, click on Land and Sea here in this website.


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All photos are in public domain, except the last one, which belongs to this website.



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