Finding strength in Hokusai’s Wave

Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa (1830) has been on my mind a lot recently.

As a print, it’s widely owned by museums around the world as about 5000 copies would have been made from the original color woodblock. Yet, it’s rarely displayed because prolonged exposure to light can too easily fade its contrasting Prussian blue and indigo. It’s so iconic and recognizable but most of us would know it from cheap reproductions, so how closely have you looked at its many subtle variations?

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Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjurokkei), (c. 1830–32), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, polychrome woodblock print, (25.7 x 37.9 cm). Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Great Wave is an unmistakably Japanese image, charged with the uncertainty that Japan would have faced as it was forced out of its self-imposed 200 years of isolationism by the battleships of US Commodore Perry. Fast forward to our daily dose of news from the world and The Great Wave keeps on resonating, bringing to mind the force experienced in the surf as one wave retreats and the next one crests.

Processing my feelings through the filter of Art helps me put things in perspective. Think about it. When you’re looking at the Great Wave, as viewer you are also in a boat! And here, Hokusai provides a canvas of universal appeal for everybody to lay down their big (or small) fears and take away the necessary serenity to keep going.

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Under the Wave off Kanagawa, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mt Fuji, Hokusai, 1831, photo from the British Museum Collection

Like the dwarfed fishermen facing the giant and menacing wave, I am absolutely terrified about my second 2017 resolution but I can see my aim as clearly as eternal Mount Fuji.

My Mount Fuji this year will be to run a marathon… 26.2 miles…42.16 kilometers. I really should insert a picture of Munch’s The Scream here!

As in Hokusai’s Great Wave, my goal is both close and far: training is a healthy discipline yet how ready I feel keeps receding away each time I have a day “without” (meaning a day when I hate the hills!).

Japanese people read Hokusai’s print from right to left (opposite to how I have been brought up) so how ironic that my eye first goes to the serrated and sharp edges of the wave visible at right? Clearly, I am scared of the distance and the pain that running a marathon involves.

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Katsushika Hokusai, Under the Wave off Kanagawa , also known as the Great Wave, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji , c. 1830/33, photo Art Institute of Chicago

But then looking at the frothy little hands terminating the foaming curling wave, I understand, much like the helpless fishermen in the boats, that I have to embrace the challenge and enjoy the eery calm that only a situation you have no control over can bring.

Look at the pretty spray coming off the wave like “snowflakes” falling on Mount Fuji? I am lucky to know running can be that beautiful too.

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So here is my resolution: I will keep having fun running – since I can doodle my routes in the shape of a heart while listening to Art History books – I will avoid getting injured during training and I will complete a marathon in 2017. In that order.

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I already have the shirt to go with it, so what’s the worst that can happen??

If you’d like to reflect on Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa, the MET in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, LACMA in Los Angeles and Monet’s house in Giverny all own a copy. It’s rarely on view so always check their websites before going.

The British Museum owns three prints, including an early impression with paler grey sky and a later one with dark sky, a result from the woodblock wearing out. They have not been exhibited since 2011. So what a treat that Hokusai will be the subject of a large retrospective running from May 25, 2017 till August 13, 2017.

I would love to read how YOU feel looking at The Great Wave, so please use the blog comment box, follow it for a weekly email or even share it so that we all work on vanquishing our fears.

Acknowledgements: I would like to blame my husband and my friend Sara for getting me into running 5.5 years ago, my friend Nina who put into my head “Make every mile count” and marathoner David (met in Cuba) without whom this resolution would have never seen the light of day.

© 2017 Ingrid Westlake

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18 thoughts on “Finding strength in Hokusai’s Wave

    1. I am with you, Virginie, I much prefer the comfort of looking at waves on ukiyo-e than having my feet in real ones 😂 I find the refinement of Japanese Art always so calming. I will keep in mind your books for when the time comes for a course on Asian Art.

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  1. Looked forward readind you and I love the subject.You are so careful and I am sensitive for your choice of pictures ..From lifeguards to you with your shirt with this fascinating wave makes me smiling…
    I love the comparison beetween your way to reach your goal needing” the Mont Fuji”… You must go to see “l’Ascension” The Everest 8848 m climbed by an inexperienced person for love of a woman…Your Mont Fuji will be to do a marathon…you are able to…I am sure.
    You discribe nicely this japonese enormous wave .It fascinates me.
    Thank you so much.
    Hope we can talk about this interesting subject in front of the real Mont Fuji..Pity that Papa can’t read it it will give him strenght ..

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    1. Thank you so much, I am so happy you liked it. Hopefully we will see Hokusai’s wave in Japan as well. I will check which museum has it on view. Maybe try google translate for Papa and let me know how it works 😘

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    1. Querida Patty, you are a sunshine I am so lucky to see everyday! A tip for running a marathon is apparently picking one person to reflect about for each mile…I have one with your name on it, for sure! 🙂

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  2. What strikes me here Ingrid is that from my perspective I know you will be fine with the marathon. It’s the obvious choice, the logical one for you. You might have fear but I can see you are ready. Although I don’t know anything about running. Its all in your spirit, energy and determination. And you have all of that in bucket loads to achieve your dream. But from your perspective, the fear is the size of the challenge. The greater the light, the greater the shade too. No big dream without any big fear. It’s just human. Just think about it as a resource that’s part of the process. What’s the positive function of your fear? I am only a skype away for more discussions on your fears or even interesting exercises to help you picture your Mount Fuji with more serenity 😘

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    1. Marlene, thank you for always giving me something to think about and improve. I would love to skype on the subject, for sure 😉 Let’s work on a date soon 😘

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  3. You see this massive tidal wave coming in your direction, but it’s painted in a way that says steady and focused with its sharp forms and blue shades that have a calming effect, and then you feel you can manoeuvre. Strength and trusting yourself.

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    1. Thank you Martine! Yes exactly, there is a beautiful discipline that truly helps getting to that grounding effect to act almost serenely instead of giving in to panic. I completely see it too 😘 Thank you for looking and reading!

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  4. Good Luck Ingrid. May I suggest to change the word resolution with dream? The word resolution kicks me into fear where dream opens me to the challenge. I never understood why we hit ourselves with resolutions, as if something was wrong with us and needed to be resolved! Your blog is a wonderful dream and I am totally looking forward to your marathon run. I know you will run smooth like a wave ! Have fun

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    1. Thank you Sahar! I like your dream vs. resolution approach but I think what’s motivating in a resolution is the discipline and tenacity put towards getting something done. I know I am the kind of person who needs (and lives by) working hard to complete. The dream approach, I do like but my next instinct is designing a plan to make it come true instead of enjoying the dream I have imagined. Having said that, it would do me good to try to relax a bit instead of always “doing” which reminds me of this wonderful article I had read once. It talked about how when we ask somebody “how are you doing?”, we should consider saying “how are you being?”… I will try to find it again, or better still I won’t, I will just try to just be 😂

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      1. Who said a dream cannot be implemented? You are very right, the difference is that we change inside and what we are is what we see out there. It’s great to be in touch again! I missed you.

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      2. Who said Dream doesnt include implementation? 🙂
        You’re right that it involved being more than hardworking, controlling. It’s more a relaxed attitude to life with intent. more being and becoming that change we see out there. It’s good to be in touch. I missed you

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  5. A marathon! Wow, that’s impressive Ingrid. Hats off to you. The wave looks absolutely terrifying to me. I guess I’m not a water person but I find the repetitive nature–the ebb and flow of tides incredibly calming. The predictability of waves anchors and reassures me for i know that while some may consume me, pulling me into their depths…there will be others that will soothe and fortify me for the next storm. I draw comfort knowing that no matter how many lives come and go, the ocean is a steady fixture. It will continue to ebb and flow like its meant to for generations to come. Now as far as your marathon is concerned…you make me mad proud of you. I’ll be there to cheer you on body and soul.

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    1. Thank you dear Roma! I agree that all the strength and calm we need is to be found in these Earth fixtures that have been here long before us and will continue to be long after we’ve gone…all we have to do is try, and this, we can! 😘😘

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