The mind has mountains

Will the real Mount Fuji please come forward?

by Victoria James

“It’s true,” a friend who has lived here for more than a decade insisted. “Because for them it’s the most important mountain in the world, Japanese schoolchildren don’t draw Mount Fuji the sloping shape it really is, but as incredibly tall and pointed.”

I’ve got news for my friend: On the evidence of “Mountain Scenes — The Beauty of Eastern Japan,” it’s not just schoolchildren but some of this country’s best-known artists who have a perspective problem with Japan’s most famous peak. The show, at the Tokyo Station Gallery, contains 63 works, 60 of which were commissioned specially.

At 3,776 meters high, Mount Fuji is no mere bump on the horizon, but the opening work in the exhibition — “Fuji — Violet Vision,” a 2-meter tall canvas by Tokihiko Adachi — swells it to Himalayan proportions. The indigo mountain looms impassively above a yellow streak of sunlit meadow and a blue lake in the foreground. On the edge of the water, painted as tiny dabs of white and red so insignificant they barely register, are houses — putting humanity in its place in nature’s vast scheme of things.

Their massive, mysterious presence has earned mountains the reverence of humankind. Born from geological upheaval, eons ago, they speak to us of eternity and endurance. Japan has a surface area almost 80 percent covered by hills or mountains, so it is little wonder that particularly sophisticated mountain cults developed here.

Early animist beliefs about mountains, sangaku shinko, held that the very peaks and volcanoes were deities; as religious thinking evolved, they were instead seen as abodes of the gods. In the 11th century arose shugendo, or mountain asceticism, a practice that still survives. Some sacred mountains, such as Mikasayama in Nara Prefecture, to this day remain off-limits to women, believed to be bearers of polluting impurities.

Kasuga Shrine, which stood on Mikasayama before being relocated nearer to Nara in 768, is famed for its so-called Kasuga mandalas — esoteric Buddhist paintings showing both shrine and mountain that are focused on a circular motif (the Sanskrit mandala means “circle”). One of the most striking works displayed in the Station Gallery, which has also been used for the show’s posters, looks like a Mount Fuji mandala.

In bold primary colors, Takayoshi Sakurai’s “Sun on Mount Fuji” shows a conical Fuji rising above an idealized landscape and surmounted by a golden mandala. This is fringed in a starburst of color with at its heart a clear red disk, unmistakably the hinomaru sun.

The hinomaru, in combination with Mount Fuji and the work’s devotional composition, creates an aura of national mythologizing that I found unsettling. Reassurance that I hadn’t misread the imagery was provided by the show’s curator, Takeo Inada, whose nuance was nonetheless more kindly: “Mount Fuji and the sun are symbols of Japan, so the picture and its title seem to mean that Japan is still impressive, still shining,” he said.

More ironic than iconic are the works hanging alongside: two canvases by Shigi Goh, who recently had a solo show at Ginza’s Nishimura Gallery. His subject is Hakone, but there are no picturesque lakeland scenes here. Titled “Hakone — Road to Mount Futago” and “Hakone — Golfcourse Mountain,” colored dull gray and synthetic green respectively, the canvases debunk any notions of holy mountains, instead showing modern man’s trespass on the once-sacred slopes.

Intriguingly, the images appear to dissolve at the edge of each canvas, like leaking colors on an old photograph. By giving contemporary scenes an effect of aging, Goh seemingly propels the onlooker forward in time — and asks whether artists of the future will depict the synthetic scenery of highways and golf courses with the same nostalgia today reserved for nature in its pristine state.

While most canvases here are just such sentimental scenes as Goh comments upon, their invariant subject-matter at least frees the viewer’s attention for other aspects of the works. Choices of media, for example, are revealing. Miyuki Ito’s “Time of First Snow, Mount Iwaki,” painted with a rock-based pigment and sumi ink, captures wet snowfall and fluttering marsh grasses in the foreground, though the mountain behind is a faint nonentity. Conversely, the oils troweled on boldly by Yoshio Oya perfectly suggest the angularity of his subject, Mount Adatara in Fukushima Prefecture.

The most arresting is Takao Otaki’s paired vision, works named “Entrance to the Mountain” and “Corridor to the Heavens,” of earth and a sky torn into by a craggy peak. Otaki has used metal media and glue on washi to create an almost 3-D effect, capturing the dull mineral and organic forms.

Other artists experiment with perspective and composition: Atsushi Suwa offers a memorable long view of Mount Fuji seen across grimy foothills of Shinjuku cityscape; Taisei Sato’s palm-fringed, turquoise Yokohama recalls Raoul Dufy’s bright depictions of the French Riviera; the “Spring Scene of Mount Asama” captured by Teiji Yokoyama is a masterpiece of contour, comprising just a few dozen lines in red, pink or orange.

However, Inada and his curatorial team save the best till last. “Yukiko, Who Cherishes Mount Fuji,” a large circular canvas by Mitsuru Watanabe, fills the final wall of the gallery. Its subject, the artist’s daughter, clad in school uniform with a red camellia in hand, gazes out with composure as if from a Renaissance portrait. Her other hand rests on a cloth-covered table, across which two parties, one of Heian-Era Japanese nobles and the other of foreign merchants, painted byobu-style (folding screen), approach each other. A miniature Mount Fuji sits in the center of the table, surrounded by fallen petals, while the real mountain looms behind, wreathed in mist against a gold-flecked sky.

It’s hard to pin down what the painting is about — I was pondering it long after I left the gallery. But enigma has long been the essence of the mountain — as the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “O the mind, mind has mountains . . . no man fathomed.”

Watanabe has rescued Mount Fuji from its fate as a postcard image or snapshot backdrop, and has succeeded triumphantly in putting a little bit of mystique back into Japan’s most famous peak.