The Multi-centered Modernities of Hokusai’s “Under the Wave off Kanagawa”
No single image from Japan, possibly even all of Asia, has been reproduced so often or undergone so many reincarnations in so many parts of the world as Hokusai’s “Under the Wave off Kanagawa.” At once abstract and concrete, this archetypical great wave is bound up with powerful mythologies of natural destruction and renewal. It draws attention to the border-crossing movement of ideas, people, technologies, capital, and commodities. It evokes the oceans over which Europe, America, and Japan have struggled for territorial control. It forces us to rethink the fruitful relationship between creativity and hybridity. But above all, it challenges the binary thinking of boundaries and limits, inside and outside, centers and peripheries.
Hokusai’s woodcut has been a site where the tensions and contradictions of globalism have been negotiated and aestheticized since its appearance as part of the artist’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. This paper explored the multivalent meanings of this dramatic image through its iterations across a multi-sited network spanning Japan, Europe and America from the time of its publication in 1831 until 1904 in media ranging from Danish porcelains and French sheet music to Russian book illustrations. By looking closely at the local conditions, strategies, and practices associated with these cultural transfers, it argued for a more nuanced sense of the complex geographies of modernism and modernity.