Since our beginning, when artists first scratched their stories on cave walls, picture making has been about the human experience, often momentous, like those of love, loss and war. Trepidation about forces beyond human control, the very unpredictability of life, is the main idea. For example, we all know death awaits us, but we don’t know when or how.

What will happen next?

One picture maker who has described apprehension about the unknown in a particularly memorable way is 19th-century Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai whose woodcut known popularly as “The Wave” is now showing at the British Museum in his print series “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji." What you see is a mammoth swelling of the ocean so menacingly tall that before it breaks its crest resembles a monstrous claw.

The inevitable crash leaves us to wonder if this will be a tsunami that will engulf land and life or a storm at sea that will crush all boats in its path. The image, then, is a metaphor for angst.

Caution: danger ahead

Other pictures telling similarly fateful stories include Henri Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy,” which shows a lone female lying on a deserted moonlit beach except for a jungle lion hovering nearby.

The image seems to pose the following questions: is the figure sleeping or so terrified that she’s playing possum? Or is the scene an illusion, part of a dream, perhaps a nightmare? The uncertainty can leave you uneasy – the upshot of all anxiety as we know it.

Life in the balance

Winslow Homer poses similar questions in his nighttime view of life on the sea in his painting “Fog Warning,” which illustrates a fisherman in his dory full of fish, rowing back to his ship barely visible on the distant horizon.

Visibility is becoming difficult due to a thick haze rolling toward him. You imagine the ship captain is sounding a warning, telling him to hurry if he is to avoid getting lost in the miasma and strong sea. His head turns skyward as if wondering if he will make it - the same state of mind in “The Wave.

Will she or won’t she?

But you don’t need the dangers of a stormy sea or the threat of a carnivorous beast to tell the story of life’s uncertainties.

Consider Islamic artist Karolina Larusdottir’s vision of a marriage proposal in “Man Gives Woman Flowers.” The figures, middle-aged and stumpy not unlike Fernando Botero’s squat people, are not made to look attractive. The emphasis is on the situation of a man stepping forward toward a woman to offer the bouquet of flowers.

Her head is held back, her eyes cast aside, as if not sure what to do. A grandfather clock stands behind her, suggesting that time for her decision has run out. Adding to the drama are figures peering in from a doorway clearly intent on her decision. “Man gives Woman Flowers” is a variation on the disquiet in Hokusai’s “The Wave.” Causes for anxiety may vary, but unease is unvarying.