Endless inspiration to be found in Mount Fuji and spring flowers

by Alice Gordenker

Special To The Japan Times

It’s often said by Japanese painters that the most difficult subject of all is Mount Fuji. How is it possible to come up with an original take on a theme that has been painted so often and by so many talented artists? Yet for all their angst, artists clearly manage, as demonstrated by the sheer variety of beautiful images of Mount Fuji currently on display at the Yamatane Museum of Art.

Organized to commemorate the mountain’s designation in 2013 as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, “Mt. Fuji, Cherry Blossoms, and Flowers in Spring” opens with some three dozen images of the sacred mountain representing several centuries of Japanese art. The second half of the space is given over to works depicting cherry blossoms, peonies and other spring flowers, reviving an earlier Yamatane tradition of staging a flower-themed exhibition every spring.

Mount Fuji, an active volcano and the tallest peak in Japan, has been regarded through history as sacred and is ringed by temples and shrines devoted to its worship. Its power and beauty have inspired centuries of literature and art. Early paintings show the mountain with three even peaks, a stylized depiction that may have been influenced by esoteric beliefs about the power of the number three. By the Edo Period (1603-1867), when travel became less restricted and more people had the opportunity to actually see the mountain, depictions in art became more realistic.

Now in its final weeks, the exhibition showcases both paintings and ukiyo-e prints, including examples from Utagawa Hiroshige’s famous series, “Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji.” There are works by big-name artists such as Taikan Yokoyama (1868-1958), who created over 1,000 paintings of Mount Fuji during his lifetime, as well as painters who names might be less familiar. One is Tamako Kataoka (1905-2008), who painted Mount Fuji again and again, particularly in the later part of her career. Her 1991 painting, “Auspicious Mt. Fuji,” is one of the highlights of the exhibition and a good example of her unconventional style and bold use of color.

With so many different interpretations on the same theme grouped together, it’s interesting to observe how artists can take the same elements — say, Mount Fuji and pine branches, a classic pairing — yet produce startlingly different results by varying color and composition. Such comparison is also possible in the flower section of the exhibition, which is a veritable bouquet of variations on the cherry-blossom theme.

Clearly, the singular mountain and spring flowers are a source of endless inspiration for artists. Writing about Mount Fuji in particular, Kataoka explained this eloquently in a 1971 essay: “Fuji soaring above mountains, or glimpsed between mountain peaks; Fuji from a village; Fuji from the ocean, Fuji from a town,” she wrote. “Fuji from the garden of one’s own home; Fuji seen through willows; peonies and Fuji, mountain grasses and Fuji, old trees and Fuji; the sun and moon and stars all suit Fuji well. There is no limit to the possible themes to paint.”

“Mt. Fuji, Cherry Blossoms, and Flowers in Spring” at the Yamatane Museum of Art runs till May 11; 3-12-36 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; Ebisu Stn. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,200. Closed Mon. 03-5777-8600 www.yamatane-museum.jp