Hokusai at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts

With his Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, Katsushika Hokusai, whose prints are currently on exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, seems to reinvent the very idea of point of view over and over again. He must have traveled widely to have actually seen the fabled mountain from so many different vantage points. There’s no formula—each is a fresh take. Often the mountain is seen in terms of some human activity, as though watching over the people who fish, harvest, and make the things they need to live. In other images, Fuji is merely itself, framed by trees, overlooking water. The mountain can be close or very far away.

Most famous of the views is Hokusai’s iconic image Under the Wave Off Kanagawa, also known as The Great Wave. Fuji sits beneath the breaking wave, a massive wall of water turning on itself with white anthropomorphic fingers that seem to clutch at the small boats loaded with humans attempting a passage across a tempestuous ocean.

Most of the world is familiar with The Great Wave. Seen frequently in reproduction, in media, in advertising, and used on personal products from totes to umbrellas, the image has journeyed far from its source. This is a small work, measured in inches not feet. Here we have this massive rogue wave, possibly even a tsunami, spiraling, rising, threatening the small, precarious boats that seem to represent human endeavor in the face of huge natural forces.

Beneath the wave, in a circle framed by its curve, we see the perfect cone of Fuji, a sleeping volcano—implacable, unmovable, and holy—a form that, like the wave itself, suggests the purity of geometry and mathematical certainty. While the wave is ephemeral—we know that its presence is momentary: it will rise, crash, and return to the sea—the mountain hunkers down like a rounded pyramid.

Perhaps Hokusai deliberately planned this contrast, but I think it’s just as likely that, for him, it was simply one more view of the mountain, another inventive way of seeing his subject. The ideas about it probably came later. They are our ideas and not his.

Hokusai was a journeyman printmaker, a commercial artist really, bent on making a living in an era when these printed pictures sold for the equivalent of a bowl of noodles. Yet he lived in a time when the printed image was far less common than it is now. People were not inundated by images. In his massive output of prints, paintings, game boards, and banners, Hokusai manages to capture so much more than we can possibly take in—humans, animals, landscape, work, leisure, theater, story—few modern artists could claim to have so much breadth or humility.

A favorite image of mine from the exhibition is Carp That Climb the Waterfall. It has some of the qualities of The Great Wave—a sense of the force of the falling water and the fish struggling upward, fighting the current. We don’t know if the effort will result in success or failure, just as we can’t say whether the great wave will drown the tiny humans in the boats or allow them to survive. There is in these images a sense of the precariousness of life and also its liveliness and unpredictability. That takes us back to Fuji, the seemingly eternal rock, something dependable, out there in the distance, ineffable but perhaps reachable, if only one could find the right point of view!

Boston Museum of Fine Arts Hokusai Show