Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of friends who are always out experiencing the best of entertainment. Be it plays, films, concerts, exhibits, or games, they’ve learned that the arts are best when experienced together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. This week, the Girls dove into one of the most famous oceanic images from the art world. Let’s listen in on their conversation…
“It’s over here!”
“Japanese Art, obviously.”
“Okay, got it, got it.”
The girls bounded down the stairs, Eleanor in the lead. She walked quickly into the thin hallway for Japanese Art, and had barely made it more than a dozen steps into the gallery before stopping. She wormed around an elderly couple to get a better look into the glass case embedded in the wall.
“That’s it,” she said. “It’s over here, guys!”
Dania came next. She stopped beside Eleanor, staring at the print.
“Is that it?” Dania said. “Like, is that the original one?”
“Well, kind of,” Eleanor explained. “The thing is, it’s a woodblock print. So the ‘original’ doesn’t really exist. Just the printings they made.”
“Got it. So is this one of the original prints, or something?”
“It’s gotta be,” Eleanor said. “The fact that it’s so well preserved is what makes it famous, so I’d guess it’s probably an original printing. Look at the linework.”
“Look at the blue!” Dania said. The elderly couple having walked off, Dania could glance at the painting only inches from the glass. “It’s darker than sea blue, more like Facebook Blue or something.”
“The technical term is ‘Prussian Blue,'” Eleanor said. “It was a color they didn’t have in Japan, so it came from Europe when the Dutch brought it. That’s one of the reasons it stood out from the other woodcuts.”
“Cool,” Dania said. “That, and probably the little wave claws.”
Eleanor grinned. She took another step towards the print. The cobalt wave and white foam splashed off the page, the ocean flowing underneath the lithe fishing boats. She silently appreciated how lucky she was to be living so near to one of the best preserved copies – at least in the U.S.
She glanced behind her. Gwen had strayed behind, looking at other Hokusai works scattered around the gallery. With a cursory look Eleanor also caught sight of other prints from 36 Views of Mount Fuji, the series that Hokusai’s “Great Wave” was a part of.
“Come on, Gwen, it’s over here,” Eleanor called as she turned back.
“Be there in a minute.”
“What are all the dots on the wave?” Dania asked. “The little white ones.”
“Probably another way of drawing sea foam,” Eleanor said. “It looks different when it’s not on the top of the wave.”
“Kinda looks like snow,” Dania said. “Maybe it’s supposed to look like the mountain in the back.”
“That’s Mount Fuji. It’s actually supposed to be the subject, except everyone nowadays remembers the wave first.”
“Well, yeah,” Dania said. “Because it’s a huge man-eating wave.”
“‘Man-eating’ is a way to put it.”
“I mean, it’s got teeth,” Dania said, pointing again to the gnarled ends of the wave peak.
Gwen had eventually made her way to the others, and the three stared in silence at the wave for a moment. It wasn’t much bigger than a sheet of printer paper – the colors stamped on and perfectly aligned, in a convincing effect to make it look painted by hand.
“It’s a powerful image,” Gwen finally spoke.
“I’m a fan,” Eleanor said.
“Isn’t it your computer background?”
“That it is. I almost suggested it for the print in our apartment, before we got Starry Night.”
“That would have been a good one. Why didn’t you suggest it?”
“Well,” Eleanor said, “Starry Night‘s in New York. We have the whole Hokusai collection here at home.”
“Smart move,” Dania said.
“Fair,” Gwen said. “Besides, Starry Night is at least calming. The Great Wave is almost threatening.”
“Why?” Eleanor said, as Dania looked up.
“Look at it,” Gwen said. “Look at the fishermen underneath the wave. They’re absolutely going to die moments after this wave crashes. It’s a monster.”
“Ha!” Dania said. “I knew it! I just told Eleanor that I thought it was like a monster! Look at the teeth!”
“What teeth? You mean the surf at the top?”
“It’s like little monster claws,” Dania repeated. “Like they’re gonna rip the boats apart.”
“They probably will,” Gwen said. “The wave is a metaphor for death, at least that’s how I see it.”
“Gwen, you see everything as a metaphor for death,” Dania chided.
“You can’t say it’s entirely a stretch,” Gwen said. “The boatmen are huddled in these thin boats, going over a massive sea that obscures the skyline. If anything, the boats represent the frailty of life, which will inevitably be threatened by death in the form of a wave. It’s unexpected, but ultimately not shocking. Like death.”
“Huh,” Dania said, glancing again at the print. “Interesting.”
“You also have to remember the context, though,” Eleanor said. “In Japan, it reads from right-to-left, so the wave is more of a threat, coming in the opposite direction of the eyes. Which means people will generally see the boats and Mount Fuji first, before the wave.”
“So the wave is then a threatening surprise,” Gwen agreed.
“Sure,” Eleanor dodged. “But like I mentioned to Dania, it’s only one of a series about Mount Fuji. It’s not supposed to focus on the wave.”
“It clearly does, though,” Gwen said.
Eleanor glanced again at the painting. True, the wave was in focus, but it was Fuji that interested her. Even the title – Beneath The Wave Off Kanagawa – was clearly referring to the mountain.
“It’s only a print, though,” Dania said, before Eleanor could respond again. “I mean, it’s not like it’s this brilliant single piece of art. It’s just this print that could be made over and over again. I’m not sure he intended to put some kind of deep meaning into it.”
“There’s always meaning,” came Gwen’s reply.
“Meaning, maybe,” Eleanor said. “But not, you know, message. I agree the wave is threatening, but I agree with Dania – he probably didn’t make it thinking, ‘huh, this is about death.'”
“Well, obviously,” Gwen said, stepping back. “Interpretation is defined by the individual’s response, not authorial intent.”
“So if I want to say the wave is representative of a tsunami off the coast of Japan…” Dania began.
“That’s barely an interpretation.”
“Well, that’s what I see,” Dania said, smiling.
“There is something to the idea that it’s representing Imperialism,” Eleanor said.
“How?” Gwen asked.
“Well,” Eleanor explained, “the wave is coming from the southwest, considering where Fuji is in relation to Kanagawa, with the boats heading right into it. And southwest of Kanagawa was where the Dutch did their trading with Japan. In fact, that’s where the Prussian Blue color came from…”
“Hold on,” Gwen said, stopping Eleanor. “Do you just know all of this?”
Eleanor blushed. “I may have done a report on this print in high school.”
“Oh!” Dania said. “That’s why you knew about the series of other Mount Fuji paintings!”
“Everyone knows about the other Mount Fuji paintings,” Gwen said.
“The point is,” Eleanor continued, “the wave could be seen as this…sorry, but as a wave of Western culture about to hit Japan. I mean, the painting wasn’t even famous until it got famous in Europe. In Japan, it was just throwaway art.”
“Throwaway?” Dania said. “I thought you said it was a woodcut.”
“Yeah, woodcuts were super cheap,” Eleanor said. “This thing only cost, like, the equivalent of a dollar or two.”
Dania looked at the print again. Her eye caught on the detailing of the boat on the left of the image – intricate lines representing the thatch of the hull, splashing under the curls of the waves overtaking it. Throwaway art?
“And even then,” Eleanor continued, “it only got famous through overexposure. It became a symbol, more than an actual respected piece of art. I mean, hell…”
Eleanor took her phone out. As she scrolled through her texts, Gwen stepped back up to the glass.
“It’s almost a perfect fractal, you know,” she mused. Her eyes traced a line from the right-most edge of the water, under the boats and up through the curve of the wave. “Look at the spiral.”
“I mean, that’s just how waves look,” Dania said.
“Yes, I – that’s the point. It looks real.”
“Check this out,” Eleanor said. She tapped her phone, and a moment later, Dania pulled hers out as well.
“Did you just text me?”
Sure enough, the newest message in their group chat was a single emoji:
“Why did you send the wave emo––”
Dania looked up. She held her phone out, comparing the two.
“It’s the same wave!” she exclaimed.
“Yep,” Eleanor said. “Literally just a symbol.”
“Well, it became one,” Gwen said. “It wasn’t intended to be one.”
“Maybe,” Eleanor said. “But it’s become one. That’s why it’s so famous. I mean, what is an emoji but throwaway art?”
“Are you trying to say that this emoji is as much a work of art as the print?” Gwen said.
“No…” Eleanor said, before stopping herself. Was she saying that? It felt instinctively wrong. But considering it…
“No,” Dania said. “The emoji doesn’t even have Mount Fuji in the background. I’d much rather have the painting on my wall than just the emoji.”
Eleanor looked again at the print, then to Dania. “True. Very true.”
Image Credit: Wikimedia