It is the year of the Ox in Asia and the lunar new year officially starts on February 12th. Casting about for a suitable image with which to open my February newsletter, my sister came across a wonderful 19th century woodblock print in the Harvard Art Museums’ Collection - a woman, seated on an ox, gazing at Mount Fuji. This in turn inspired me to think about Japan’s best- known mountain and the contemporary printmakers I know who have put their impressions of the mountain down on paper. You will see that they are each quite different in style and substance despite the common theme.
Artist: Ryuryukyo Shinsai (act.1799-1823) Woman on an Ox Looking at Mount Fuji (Illustration from a Printed Book) woodblock printed surimono ink and color on paper Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of the Friends of Arthur B. Duel Photo: ©President and Fellows of Harvard College 1933.4.1300
Fuji san represents the soul of Japan and as such has endured countless attempts by artists to capture its aloof majesty. As anyone who has tried to snap a picture while whizzing by on the bullet train knows, this feat is not easily achieved. Most of the time fog and mist shroud the mountain from view. I am pleased to present these renditions of Mount Fuji, all available for purchase, that one can view in any weather from the comfort of one's own home.
It is said that every artist in Japan will attempt to commit Mt. Fuji to paper. Sometimes the mountain is instantly recognizable. For example, KINOSHITA Taika (b.1957) has made Fuji san one of his leitmotifs, to date releasing more than 40 woodblocks of the national peak that he first encountered on a school outing from his home in Hiroshima. Entranced by the “sacred, noble and gallant” mountain, he decided to devote an entire series to it that he has named Strawberry Fields Forever, with a nod to one of his other passions, the musical group from Liverpool, the Beatles.
Strawberry Fields Forever 18 - woodblock from 2009. Ed. 30. 22" x 30"
For the Japanese, Mount Fuji is THE mountain. Said to be the most-climbed mountain in the world, it is the symbol that depicts Japan, beckoning so many travelers to discover this exotic place. It even turns up on the back of the ¥1000 banknote. There is even a Japanese proverb that says that "he who climbs Mt Fuji once is a wise man, he who climbs it twice is a fool." (Having climbed it once in my younger years I am inclined to agree though it was a truly fun experience. And somehow the hours-long ascent was much easier than skidding down gravelly, trash-strewn paths - a literal come-down.)
Fujiyama - woodblock from 1988. Ed.100. 26" x 35"
Clifton KARHU, “the blue- eyed Japanese” (1927 - 2007), also tried his hand at depicting Mount Fuji and, in doing so, printed one of the largest woodblocks of his career. His take is unusual in that he shows one of the small villages at the base of Mount Fuji, totally dominated by the mountain that looms boldly over it. In our appreciation of this famous mountain, we rarely consider the human element but Karhu, in showing us the village and adding a touch of red in one of the houses’ windows, draws us in and beautifully contrasts the majesty of nature with the comfort of home.
Peak - Aquatint from 2000. Ed.48. 31" x22"
Sarah BRAYER (b.1957) evokes a more serene, mysterious mountain in her aquatint above, enveloping the distant snowy mountain in a misty ensō. The ensō symbolizes absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe, and mu (the void). It is characterized by a minimalism born of Japanese aesthetics. Drawing ensō is a disciplined, creative practice of sumi-e, Japanese ink painting. In this image the ensō somehow also evokes water, and the swirl and motion of it remind me of Hokusai's "The Great Wave Off Kanagawa" -- a print which also happens to include the artist's version of Mount Fuji.
Japanese is an extraordinarily complex language, full of plays on words, puns and homonyms, which make the deciphering of any literary text interestingly challenging. There are two words that are pronounced the same way as Fuji -- one is the word for wisteria and the other means unparalleled, peerless. TAKAHASHI Hiromitsu (b.1959) created a triptych of Fuji-san, where each panel depicts a different iteration of the word.
Fuji triptych - stencil from 1999. Ed.14. Each sheet 26.3" x 19.6"
As we navigate the start of the year of the Ox, I hope that its sturdy back bears generous allotments of health, happiness and peace for us all. Let us take a moment to draw a deep breath, gaze off into the distance at our favorite mountain, and set our sights high for a great year to come.