Private Life Of A Masterpiece

I was delighted to see that this BBC2 show on April 17th was to focus on the Hokusai print generally known as The Great Wave: it’s among my favourite works by one of my favourite artists, but also because I have a great interest in Japanese art, and it doesn’t get a lot of coverage or exposure.

But what an irritating show. They manage to discuss ukiyo-e without using the term, skimming the sexual content without explaining it, let alone showing it (this was a mid-evening show), which was an important and often central part of this major strand of Japanese art. They try to half-explain the physics that could produce such a wave, as if it is realism (and as if that would provide added value to the work!), which ignores Hokusai’s body of work (was his octopus raping a woman supposed to be realism?), the way Japanese landscape painting has always worked (landscapes did not have to represent a real site) and indeed the fascinatingly different notions of realism and the way art is seen to relate to the world in Japan. They waffle a bit about fractals, as if noticing things that are now explained thus is something extraordinary, whereas everyone has noticed self-similarity in nature countless times. Even when analysing the composition they do a weak job, including missing the significance of the shape of the clouds, admittedly only clear in the better quality prints.

It also tries to suggest an ancestry for the work, pointing at an earlier painter who produced a beach painting with a wave, and stating that Hokusai may have seen this work. Of course he may have, but the wave bears no resemblance at all to Hokusai’s, and the fact that Hokusai painted the very same beach is highlighted as significant without mentioning that this beach was a common setting painted by many artists. They also touch on the Impressionists’ love of Japanese art in the most superficial way, completing missing (or missing the point of) some major influential aspects.

So much is missing. Hokusai was one of the most original and interesting figures in art anywhere, anytime, and there are lots of extraordinary anecdotes, almost none of which get a mention here (apart from the famous deathbed prayer, at the age of 90, for 10 more years in which to become a true artist). I also think that the fact that this is part of his great set of 36 prints of Fuji is something worth discussing – examining this as a single work strips away another special feature that means this requires, I think, a different way of thinking from the usual Western paintings. I guess the phrase ‘missed opportunities’ sums up my feeling about this messy programme.