Hokusai and Claude Debussy ドビュッシーへの北斎の影響とは
Today I am touching an unusual subject. You will be surprised as it is not related to martial arts at all. It is rather to pure art of drawing and music. I am not sure if the readers are interested in this but if you are interested in the classical music and the Japanese art of Ukiyoe, you may find this interesting.
So, the interesting subject is, believe it or not, that the Japanese art of the Edo period had an influence on that of the 19th century Europe. What I want to share today is that there was an interesting relationship between Hokusai (a famous Ukiyoe painter, image below left) and Claude Debussy, a famous composer (photo right).
Believe it or not, one interesting key element in the creation of Debussy’s most concentrated and brilliant orchestral work, La Mer comes in the form of Hokusai’s iconic “Under the Wave off Kanagawa”—also known as “Great Wave”. Its popularity emblematic of the Japonisme movement that overtook France in the mid-nineteenth century. While a student in Rome from 1885–87, Debussy was often rummaging through the city’s antique shops and purchasing Japanese artifacts to take back to Paris. It comes as no surprise, then, that his studio would retain many of these objects, and chief among the Japanese artwork Debussy kept on his walls was a framed print of Hokusai’s “Great Wave.” (photo below right)
I also share an article on this by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that describes the details of the background of the work done by Debussy and the influence he received from the Ukiyoe works, particularly by Hokusai.
Hokusai and Debussy’s Evocations of the Sea by The Met (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Cultural circles throughout Europe greatly admired Hokusai’s work—a result of the 1853 treaty that opened commercial trade between Japan and the West and therefore created a prolific market for Japanese art, particularly in France. Major artists of the Impressionist movement such as Monet owned copies of Hokusai prints, and leading art critic Philippe Burty, in his 1866 Chefs-d’oeuvre des Arts industriels, even stated that Hokusai’s work maintained the elegance of Watteau, the fantasy of Goya, and the movement of Delacroix. Going one step further in his lauded comparisons, Burty wrote that Hokusai’s dexterity in brush strokes was comparable only to that of Rubens.
The aesthetic parallels between Hokusai and Debussy within their respective disciplines are many, as both artists chose style over realism and placed an intense focus on brilliant color and vibrant energy. Just as Japanese art of the Edo period prized decorative motives independent of system or conventional development, so did Debussy have distaste for formal structure, motivic development, and the use of strict musical forms that composers adhered to during the Classical and Romantic periods.
For both artists, creating dynamic new colors and a sense of motion was of chief importance, and their work moves well beyond that of mere portraiture. The ferocious height and terrifying form of Hokusai’s wave are amplified by his use of the then-rare “Prussian blue” and a jarring sense of perspective that keeps the eye from focusing on the print’s primary subject, Mount Fuji. As such, Debussy’s sea isn’t composed of cymbal crashes and fluttering flutes that allude to a literal oceanic sound, but instead the composer uses a group of sixteen cellos (twice the number found in a standard orchestra) to breathe life into a heaving, slowly blossoming chorale in the first movement, and pentatonic harmonies to create a sense of the ocean’s vast expanse. In fact, one of the only differences between the two artists lies in their portrayal of the sea’s power: Hokusai highlights the cultural fear of the water that ominously surrounded his country, whereas Debussy imbues his work with a sense of wistful nostalgia at the respite the coast provides in his.
Hokusai’s work as a point of inspiration for Debussy was solidified by the composer’s use of a detail crop of “the Great Wave” (image below) on the cover of the 1905 first edition of La Mer p
ublished by A. Durand & Fils. Debussy was notorious for personally curating the cover artwork for his scores (he called it his “cover mania”), and in choosing “the Great Wave”—an image already so recognizable throughout Western Europe—Debussy immediately brought a sense of familiarity and exoticism to his new work. Just as Hokusai’s print was on its way to the immortality it enjoys today as a symbol of the finest of nineteenth-century Japanese art, so was Debussy advertising that his new orchestral score would contain the power, elegance, and color of the work represented on its cover. And, in one last act of homage, Debussy placed his name on the score in the exact position where Hokusai’s is located on his own work—floating in the sky, safely above the wave.
I hope this essay was interesting to you. In fact, this is not the only case of influence by Ukiyoe made upon European art world in the 19th and 20 centuries. I will share the other specific examples in the future.
If you are interested in this subject, here is a short video (7 min 39 sec), “La Mer of Japan” explaining this relationship.