At the heart of the exhibition Dreams of Mount Fuji: Masterpieces of the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Japanese Print Collection are three woodblock prints from renowned print designer Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849). For conservation purposes, these prints are being shown one at a time. On view for only one more week (Feb. 8 is the last day to see it!) is Hokusai’s most famous work, The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa. Coming up next are Red Fuji (Feb 10–March 1), and, finally, Thunderstorm Beneath the Summit (March 3–March 22).
The three prints are part of Hokusai’s series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (1826–1833), which is widely regarded as not only Hokusai’s best work, but also the best work anyone has done about the mountain. That’s saying something, because Mount Fuji has been the subject of art, literature, and poetry for centuries. So why are so many people drawn to Hokusai’s perspectives of Fuji, and why was Hokusai himself so drawn to it?
Robert F. Lange Foundation Assistant Curator of Japanese Art Stephen Salel explains what distinguishes 36 Views from so many other prints that have been done on Mount Fuji. “Hokusai was quite revolutionary for incorporating into his woodblock prints concepts from Western art such as foreshortening, linear perspective, and compositional structures that rely upon geometry,” says Salel, “Look carefully at The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa, and you can notice several ways in which that small triangle of Mount Fuji off in the distance plays a pivotal role in the composition. The peak of Mount Fuji is the fulcrum of an arc defined by the waves that surround it. At the same time, Hokusai is able to lead the viewer’s eye in a carefully proscribed route through the composition: from the center of the right margin, down past the three boats, up the face of the wave, and back down again to…Mount Fuji. Just as we nowadays think of our universe as revolving around the sun, here Hokusai presents an environment that arises from this mountain.”
Mount Fuji is beautiful from any angle. With its conical shape, and its snowcapped peak in the winter, one couldn’t ask for a more majestic backdrop to Japan’s capital city.
On the other hand, even with 36 views—which actually turned out to be 46 (Hokusai added 10 more post-publication as a result of the series being so popular, which was then followed up by One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji)—Mount Fuji’s symmetrical shape makes it look basically the same no matter what direction one looks at it. How many times can one artist draw the same mountain and keep it interesting?
Salel explains that there’s more to the series than just the mountain. “As you can see in prints such as The Great Wave off Kanagawa, the image of Mount Fuji plays a surprisingly minor role,” he explains, ”Hokusai was aware that repeating the same image dozens of times would strip it of that emotional power. So although some images, such as Red Fuji or Thunderstorm Beneath the Summit do indeed focus on the mountain itself, in other compositions, Hokusai is cleverly performing a sort of ‘bait-and-switch.’ He tells us that he’s going to show us Mount Fuji, he presents us with a spectacular image of a wave with Mount Fuji off in the background, and then he says, ‘Isn’t Mount Fuji amazing?!’ In cases like this, the mountain is merely a stand-in for the natural environment of Japan in general.”
Hokusai’s reverence for the mountain extends beyond its place in the Japanese landscape. Obsessed with the idea of prolonged life, the artist was drawn to the belief that Mount Fuji held the secret to immortality. In the 1988 publication of Hokusai’s One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji, Henry D. Smith wrote that “his effort to capture the great mountain from every angle, in every context, was in the deepest sense a prayer for the gift of immortality that lay hidden within the heart of the volcano.”
Perhaps his efforts were successful. After all, now, more than 160 years after his death, Hokusai’s work is not just shown in museums around the world, his immortal status has been cemented by the fact that his work lives on in the form of an iPhone emoji. Seriously, if you’re an iPhone user, check the wave emoji on your phone.
Be sure to see The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa now before it’s rotated out Feb. 8!