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Encountering Hokusai’s “Great Wave at Kanagawa”

I visited the Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence, Kansas on the KU campus this week. Since two of the galleries were closed for installation, the entire museum took only an hour to see.  Contemporary art addressing recent issues and creating a space for activism was an odd fit with the 17th and 18th century European religious art on the first floor. The second floor galleries were also an odd, yet intriguing mixture of periods and styles: contemporary Native American art, European Medieval and Renaissance painting, and Asian woodblocks, ceramics, screens and statues.

The Japanese woodblock prints on display all shared in common one element: they each included a representation of Mount Fuji. This mountain has long held a special place in Japanese culture and arts. I was intrigued to see how most of the prints on display partially obscured and/or minimized the presence of the popular landmark.

In particular, I was fascinated to see a print of Katsushika Hokusai‘s “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” (from his series 36 Views of Mount Fuji) in the selection. Though I’ve considered myself familiar with this image for years, seeing reproductions of it everywhere from art books to journal covers, I realized I’d never truly seen the image before.

For instance, I never realized that the farthest “wave” in the image was, in fact, Mount Fuji! Once I processed this realization, I started scanning the waves for other surprises and found three fishing boats. Having never noticed any of these details before, I was astonished that an image I thought I was familiar with could offer so many surprises when I actually encountered it.

In the past, my eyes were always caught up in the massive wave preparing to crash into the ocean. Being able to stand in front of the original artwork and take it all in as the artist fully intended it to be seen was an incredible experience. The care and detail Hokusai put into his print gave me new appreciation for the sense of beauty and wonder “The Great Wave” has always evoked in me. Lawrence may be a bit of a drive, but it is completely worth it to view this amazing print first-hand.