Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The floating world

"The Great Wave off Kanagawa," Katsushika Hokusai, about 1820 - from Wikipedia Commons. In the public domain. Click to "embiggen."

is a genre of Japanese woodblock prints produced during the later part of the 18th century and the first part of the 19th century. "Ukiyo-e" means, literally, "pictures of the floating world."

One of the most famous artists of the genre was Katsushika Hokusai, who lived from 1760 - 1849. And one of his most famous prints is the one above, titled "The Great Wave off Kanagawa."

Created in the 1820s and the first in a folio of prints called "Thirty-Six View of Mount Fuji," it shows three fishing boats tossed on turbulent seas while the peak of Mount Fuji appears on the horizon.

"The Floating World" is a notion taken from writer Asai Ryoi's 1661 novel "Tales of the Floating World". It takes the Buddhist teaching that life is transitory and nothing material lasts forever, and, rather than counseling us to focus on the spiritual, instead celebrates the enjoyment of fleeting pleasures when you have the chance.

One translation goes:
... Living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; ... refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world
It was an urban culture; entertainers, courtesans, actors and merchants enjoyed themselves in the city of Edo, or Tokyo. They told stories, attended theatre, read novels and bought pretty things. Books with scenes of urban or rural life, or travel were very popular. Illustrations of popular theatre, myths, or ghost stories sold well. Woodblock prints made picture books inexpensive - from each carving hundreds of prints could be struck and sold.

"South Wind, Clear Sky," Katsushika Hokusai, about 1830. Click to "embiggen."

In the 1840s, Japan opened its ports to Western trade after many years of isolation. As western technology like photography became popular in Japan, these woodblock prints fell out of favor at home, but in Europe they inspired artists such as James Abbot McNeill Whistler, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mary Cassatt. Claude Debussy is said to have written his symphonic suite "La Mer" after viewing Hokusai's print of "The Great Wave off Kanagawa."

These fresh and brilliant Japanese images revitalized and inspired American and European arts just at the same time Japan embraced American and European technology, giving rise to an era of rapid industrialization and growth.

It's been over a hundred years since American Admiral Matthew C. Perry entered Japanese harbors and our two nations began our relationship. We've been enemies and allies. America defeated Japan, devastated it by fire, helped rebuild it, and watched it overtake us.

When one of America's greatest cities was deluged by storm and flood, Japan helped us. Now we need to help them. People are hungry, thirsty, and without shelter. And now as we watch, it experiences the worst crisis of its history, as the nuclear crisis at Fukushima unfolds.

Sara-yashiki, or "The Plate Mansion Ghost" - Katsushika Hokusai, 1830s. Illustration of ghost stories. The ghost of a murdered woman rises from the well where she was buried. Click to "embiggen."

It's a floating world. Things drift, dissolve, go with the current. You can't contain them or escape them. Water finds its home; oil floats and so do houses pulled from their moorings; vapor and unseen things waft through the crevices and up from the depths. Minute particles travel on jetstreams across continents and oceans, linking us all across the earth. How will we deal with it?

Although Hokusai's "Wave" is one of the most familiar images of Japanese art in the world, when I see it now, after the earthquake and tsunami of March 11 and the fears of today, it amazes me afresh with its terrible power.

In the face of towering waves that dwarf the very mountain itself, the fishing boats with their brave sailors deftly navigate them. The sun is in the East, on the ocean - it's morning and the water sparkles with a terrible beauty. Hokusai, inverting the traditional formula of landscape composition, places the tiny pyramid of the mountain as the still point around which the swirl and movement, the jagged crests and spangled droplets, the storm and the exhilaration all revolve.

What can we do to help bring the sailors back to safe harbor? What can we do to shelter them and ourselves?

You can see an exhibit of the art of ukiyo-e at the Library of Congress site, here.


Alexia said...

So interesting! Thanks for taking the time to post this.

kcinnova said...

Here, but without words to add.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful yet poignant post. Something to think about as I lie In the comfort of my bed tonight. What can we do indeed.

Mary said...

This was a fascinating post. Thank you so much for it. I hope you have a good evening. Blessings...Mary

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I've been busy so I'm catching up, but this post was particularly beautiful.

Thank you.