BY Susan-Marie Best in Reviews | 09 SEP 01
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Issue 61

100 Views of Mount Fuji

BY Susan-Marie Best in Reviews | 09 SEP 01

Two of the most famous images in Japanese art, Hokusai Katsushika's Kanagawa-oki namiura (Under the Wave, Off Kanagawa)and Gaifu kaisei (South Wind, Clear Sky; both works 1830-33), could be seen at the British Museum's first major exhibition to celebrate the Japan 2001 festival. Popularly known in English as The Great Wave and Red Fuji, the prints are part of the series 'Fugaku sanju-rokkei' (36 Views of Mount Fuji). In Red Fuji the abstracted slopes of the volcanic mountain are suffused with the red rays of the rising sun. When climbers today ascend to the summit they hope that the effects of pollution will not obscure their glimpse of a once-in-a-lifetime sunrise. Following in the seventh century steps of religious pilgrims, notably En no Gyoja, founder of the Shugendo mountain-venerating sect of Buddhism, or leaders of the Fuji cult that spread among Tokyoites during the Edo period (1600- 1868) and which climbers continue to venerate the mountain as home to Shinto and Buddhist deities. Despite its phallic configuration, Fuji inspired analogies with the female body and came to be seen as a female deity (Konohanasakuya-hime), yet Shinto prohibition forbade women to reach its peak until 1872.

In the late Medieval period reverential mandalas were made to explain the complexity of Fuji's religious identity. However, in secular classical poetry the mountain became a metaphor for both passion and the Buddhist detachment from worldly concerns. The ascendancy of Zen culture and aesthetics influenced the taste for Japanese painting in the style of Chinese monochrome ink scrolls and the standard views of Mount Fuji that were later adopted by artists from different schools. Particularly popular were the views from the Tokaido Highway which followed the Pacific coast between Tokyo and Kyoto. These were the images that were to thrill Western audiences who discovered the multi-faceted icons of the Edo period - ukiyo-e or 'pictures of the floating world' - through Hokusai or Hiroshige Utagawa's major colour landscape series, 'Tokaido gojusantsugi no uchi' (53 Stations of the Tokaido Highway, early 1830s).

These sensibilities were later incorporated and often parodied in ukiyo-e. One such image by Harunobu Suzuki , Parody of Monk Saigyo Gazing at Mount Fuji (c. 1765), cheekily depicts a seated courtesan seemingly overwhelmed by the view of Fuji on a free-standing screen. This is a reworking of a famous image of the 12th-century monk-poet 'Monk Saigyo Gazing at Mount Fuji'. Travelling around Japan, Saigyo composed some of the greatest Japanese poetry: 'Trailing on the wind, the smoke of Mount Fuji fades in the sky, moving like my thoughts toward some unknown end ... '

The sweeping cone, with its stylized 'triple-peak', is an eternal motif, sometimes dominating, sometimes distant within the ever-changing physical, cultural and political landscape of the past three centuries. Offering a panoramic range of stylistic and spiritual interpretations by Japanese painters and print designers, the exhibition shows how some sought innovation while others found emotional solace in the depiction of 'Fuji's lofty peak' as affirmation of Japanese national identity at times of real or perceived foreign threat.

The late 18th-century cult of Mount Fuji saw not only a huge popularity for cheap mass-produced prints and exquisite silk-mounted hanging scroll paintings but also the construction of 'mini-Fujis' allowing the infirm or the lazy to engage in substitute pilgrimage. The image permeates 21st-century Japanese applied arts such as ceramics or metalwork and in graphic media from stamps to toilet paper wrapping, while snow-dome paperweights and ashtrays dominate the souvenir items.

As anyone who looks at Japanese art will know, Fuji is big in Japan but, while curator Timothy Clark tells us that there are officially '220 artists who do Fuji subjects', the exhibition (drawn entirely from the British Museum's collection) includes only a handful of post-World War II images. Of these, Hideo Hagiwara's Biru no tanima ni (In the Valley between the Buildings), from the series 'Sanju-roku Fuji' (36 Fujis, 1977-86), captures a famous classical view across Musashi Plain, which places the mountain, as Clark describes it, in a 'stand-off between the jumble of urban sprawl picked out in sunshine and shadow, Fuji sectioned off into an isolated corner of our world, surrounded by pure blues and greens'.