Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 3, 2017
Christine Guth Hokusai's Great Wave: Biography of a Global Icon Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015. 272 pp.; 70 color ills.; 5 b/w ills. Paper $20.00 (9780824839604)

Christine Guth’s Hokusai’s Great Wave: Biography of a Global Icon is a landmark in multidisciplinary scholarly sophistication. It examines the long and storied history of one Japanese artwork as it has circulated around the world being imagined, reimagined, and reimaged, thereby fusing the local and global across time. Methodologically, the book offers the field of art history dynamic intersecting modes of critical inquiry for revisiting questions of global flow and cultural appropriation using the varied lenses of visual culture, material culture, design history, and the anthropological model of the social life of things.

Under the Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), now known widely as simply The Great Wave, was produced between 1830–33 as part of the woodblock print series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. Despite the multiple images in this series and numerous others by the same artist, it has accrued a global resonance and familiarity unparalleled within Japanese art, raising its recognition to the stratospheric level of works like the Mona Lisa. This phenomenon certainly warrants investigation.

The book starts out with some basic questions about what makes the image of The Great Wave so easily recognizable, and explores its “highly adaptable symbolic attributes.” These attributes include the eternal, universal, and powerful aspects of waves themselves, the evocative relationship between humans and nature, and the work’s distinctive stylistic abstraction that lends itself to adaptation. The Great Wave’s multivalence, particularly as the image of the wave itself was untethered from majestic Mount Fuji and the geographical specificity of Japan, contributes to the work’s universal appeal and global currency in wildly disparate spheres. Malcolm Gladwell might call this enduring ability to stay relevant the image’s “stickiness factor.” Such qualities enable the work to negotiate and mediate vast ethnographic and cultural differences.

It is clear that even in its late Edo-period context of production, Under the Wave off Kanagawa, which was printed with the stunning imported chemical dye Berlin or Prussian blue (bero), was already a vivid conduit for communicating transnational exchange, and as such, instantiated within Japan the world beyond. Always careful to distinguish between the woodblock print Under the Wave off Kanagawa and The Great Wave as a cultural phenomenon, Guth does not make any claims for the former’s greater authenticity. Rather, similar to William Hosley’s notion of “The Japan Idea,” an aesthetic ideology formulated in relation to art and life in Victorian America (William H. Hosley, The Japan Idea: Art and Life in Victorian America, exh. cat., Hartford: Wadsworth Atheneum, 1990)—which he rightly argues should not be mistaken for Japan or Japanese culture—for Guth The Great Wave constitutes a constellation of meanings that are sometimes partial, sometimes surplus, but are never strictly delimited by any one time or place. Like Hosley and others, who have recognized the impossibility of any single understanding of Japan or Japaneseness, Guth vigorously affirms the validity of The Great Wave’s manifold interpretations, choosing to embrace the open-ended possibilities of hybridity rather than police the boundaries of national culture.

In the individual chapters, Guth digs deeply into The Great Wave’s complicated peregrinations through a matrix of transnational cultural exchange involving a multi-sited network of production, circulation, and reception. The work’s themes and motifs also travel across a multi-sensory array of media including prints, painting, ceramics, sculpture, posters, and even music. Theorizing a kind of distributive agency in the work’s reception, she addresses the critical issues of seriality, cultural imperialism, the chronopolitics of civilizational discourse, and the deterritorializing tendencies of globalization, among others.

The book carefully attends to the importance of international audiences in the appreciation of The Great Wave, specifically how the work was initially imbricated with the concerns of Japanese national identity construction abroad—its international nationalism—and with the radical aesthetics of Western modernism through the nineteenth century’s widespread Japonisme movement. Then the wave becomes entangled in the complicated relationship between Japan and the United States, which was initiated by the forced “opening of Japan” by Commodore Matthew Perry’s gunboat diplomacy, extends through the country’s occupation by U.S and Allied forces after Japan’s devastating defeat in World War II, and goes into the postwar period of democratic rebuilding. The Great Wave, and woodblock prints in general, did important diplomatic work in rehabilitating Japan in the American imagination soon after the war, transforming it from ruthless foe to cultured ally. In the wake of economic rebuilding and democratization, Japanese artists and designers rediscovered “Japan,” deploying the wave as cipher, citation, and even postmodern pastiche, constituting a genealogy of domestic cultural appropriation across time and space that is simultaneously ebullient and deeply subversive.

Guth takes the story up through the present to the commoditized lifestyle branding of worldwide retailers and the masterpiece branding of contemporary museum shops. She shows how citation of the wave adds value to disparate products simply by allusion to its cultural cachet and alterity. Visual satire is a centerpiece of this production as the spume of the wave leaps out of Mrs. Hokusai’s laundry machine and a surfing Santa hangs ten under the crest.

The brief but incisive epilogue was penned in response to the catastrophic disaster of March 11, 2011, when a 9.0 magnitude earthquake devastated the northeastern region of Japan generating a massive tsunami that killed thousands and severely damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on the coast of Tōhoku causing widespread nuclear radiation exposure. Returning to an earlier theme in the book in which the menacing aspects of the wave were evoked to conjure up biblical images of the flood and incipient calamity, Guth nudges the reader to think about how and why representations of Hokusai’s wind-driven giant wave have often been conflated with the more catastrophic imagery of earthquake-generated tsunami, particularly in discourses of global environmentalism and disaster. Since the nineteenth century, harmony with nature has taken on mythic proportions in Japan’s national identity narrative. By harkening back to eternal questions about relationships between humans and nature, Hokusai’s wave can testify to either mastery over the environment or nature’s punishing powers. In either case, The Great Wave commands respect in these debates because it has accrued ethical stature.

Hokusai’s Great Wave is a book that is both accessible to undergraduates but also offers valuable theoretical models for graduate teaching. Akin to her other masterful monographs on collecting and reception that have helped reshape the intellectual landscape of Japanese art history in the past two decades, Guth’s current work is a tour de force, not only in terms of its multidisciplinary perspective, but also its rigorous and meticulous archival research. To say that this is a fascinating story does not do it justice. Interrogating the evolution of iconicity over a century and a half of global circulation and transnational cultural exchange, Guth elegantly lays out step by step how The Great Wave participates in and resists cultural appropriation, providing a profound commentary on how objects mediate and produce globalization.

Gennifer Weisenfeld
Professor, Department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies, Duke University