‘The Great Wave’: The struggle between humans and nature

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Claudio Zonta SJ

 Claudio Zonta SJ / Art / Published Date:22 January 2021/Last Updated Date:16 February 2021

The Great Wave of Kanagawa, by Katsushika Hokusai, is one of the most famous Japanese works of art. It served as inspiration for Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Debussy’s orchestral work La Mer. It is a woodcut from 1830, belonging to a larger series, as evidenced by the title in Japanese, Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji / off Kanagawa / under a wave. The work was printed in multiple copies, which are in the Library of Congress of the United States of America, the Museum of Oriental Art in Turin, and the British Museum in London. When the elderly artist created this image, he was living through economically difficult times, a situation symbolized precisely by the imposing wave in the foreground which is sweeping away some Japanese fishing boats.

The intensity and depth of the sea are achieved using “Prussian Blue,” a shade that was accidentally discovered by the German Johann Jacob Diesbach. Picasso often used it in his works. This color communicates to the viewer the fascinating impetus of the stormy sea bearing down on the boats. Also reinforcing the feeling of dismay is the pyramidal shape of the wave, bordered by a white foam, which ends with curls that look like claws ready to strike the fishermen. In a not dissimilar way, through poetry, Homer had sung about the monster Scylla as she crashed down on Odysseus’ ship: She has twelve feet, all misshapen, six necks, exceeding long, on each one an awful head, and therein three rows of teeth, thick and close, and full of black death (Odyssey, XII, 89-93).

The boats, with their elongated shape, make their way through the raging waves, carrying the fishermen who are returning home. As the writer Jorge Amado also recounts in Sea of Death, speaking of the fishermen of Bahia: “Each one [of them] has something at the bottom of the sea: a son, a brother, an arm, a saveiro that has been shipwrecked, a sail that the wind of the storm has taken away.” In the background, Mount Fuji, awe-inspiring in its height and whiteness, seems to be an immobile spectator with respect to the alternating human events. But the wave has not yet closed, making “the stern rise up,” as Dante said: the clash between nature and humans is sealed in that prior moment, where anything can yet occur.

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