On March 17, one of the most iconic artworks in all of history was scheduled to go on display at the Honolulu Museum of Art.
The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) is so ubiquitous in modern pop culture that even if you’ve never heard of this woodblock print, you will almost certainly recognize it when you see it. From posters to graffiti, from refrigerator magnets to bumper stickers, it is everywhere.
Hokusai made the original design sometime around 1830 (the exact date isn’t known), as part of a series called Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. HoMA is exceptionally fortunate to have the entire series, including one of the world’s finest impressions of The Great Wave. Japanese prints are delicate artworks made from paper and often-fugitive colors (although one of the innovations of this series was its prominent use of more stable imported synthetic blue dye from Europe). For this reason, The Great Wave is rarely displayed, and it is special when it is. The last time it was shown in the museum was for a single day, in honor of a state visit to Hawai‘i by members of the Japanese royal family. This time, it was scheduled to be displayed for two weeks, with events going on around the museum to celebrate it.
On March 17, HoMA closed its doors for two weeks due to COVID-19.
In some ways, The Great Wave is an apt image for the uncharted waters of quarantine and social distancing in which we currently find ourselves. It shows hapless boaters hunkered down as they are tossed about on a rough sea, suddenly menaced by a wave so massive it even seems to dwarf Mount Fuji in the background. If one pauses to consider the print’s historical context, it becomes even more relevant to our present circumstances. By 1833, Japan was beginning to experience a famine, which soon became severe and reached a peak during the middle of the decade. People were reduced to surviving on leaves and weeds, and thousands died, from both the famine and the spread of infectious diseases. Hokusai himself survived, but the famine hit right at a period of great creativity for him (of which The Great Wave was only the start), and some of his most ambitious projects were canceled or cut short because of it. We can only imagine what masterpieces the world lost.
The famine was not the only upheaval Hokusai experienced. Like most of his fellow shitamachi (“downtown”) Edo urbanites, he was living payment to payment, moving frequently and changing his name to escape his creditors. It is this very instability, the “floating world,” from which the genre of ukiyo-e takes its name. Many of us can relate as local businesses continue to close down, even if only temporarily.
Rest assured that we are already planning on rescheduling the display of The Great Wave in the Atsuhiko & Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Thematic Gallery once the museum reopens. In the meantime, this is perhaps an opportunity to remind everyone that thanks to support from the Robert F. Lange Foundation, HoMA’s entire collection of more than 10,000 woodblock prints is available online, and you can explore not only The Great Wave and the rest of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, but also Hokusai’s other remarkable series of the 1830s leading up to the famine, such as One Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse (which was never completed, but still stands at the pinnacle of his accomplishments as a print designer).
Curator of Asian Art