Fuji, land of snow
conference visit by Sylvie Ahmadian, lecturer at the National Museum of Asian Arts - Guimet.
With its conical silhouette of eternal snow, Mount Fuji - inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 2013 - is one of the most sacred places in Japan. He was also a major source of inspiration for many artists, masters of Japanese prints and early photographers, who placed him at the heart of their creation.
As said before, Mount Fuji is a sacred place not only for Shinto but also for Buddhism and remains an important place of pilgrimage for the Japanese. A painting of the 17st s. figure Ko-no-Hana, the goddess of Mount Fuji, standing in front of the mountain framed by the sun and the moon. In Shinto, the natural elements are inhabited by kamis and Ko-no-Hana is the kami of the Fujisan Hongū Sengen-taisha shrine.
To get to the top, there are four paths, each punctuated by ten stages. A monochrome print by Okumura Masanobu (1686-1764) depicts a Traveling monk observing Mount Fuji (1740). The figure, seated on a buffalo, turns to contemplate the mountain emerging from the clouds. This artist is credited with the introduction of the vertical format of prints, reminiscent of that of kakemono. a A surimono by Yashima Gakutei (1786-1868) produced around 1823 takes up the theme of Pilgrim in front of Mount Fuji. A surimono are luxurious prints. Published in few copies and privately, they were used to accompany a gift or a wish. Generally square in format, the finesse, delicacy and richness (silver or gold powder) of the execution make them highly sought-after works. In this case, the paper has even been embossed to give extra refinement. This A surimono comes from the old collection of Isaac de Camondo (1851-1911).
Mount Fuji has also inspired ceramic artists and a very beautiful raku (bowl for the tea ceremony) by Ryonyu (1756-1834) is decorated with the silhouette of the mountain which is recalled by a conical notch on the foot. Ryonyu was the ninth in a dynasty of renowned potters.
A very narrow vertical print attributed to Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770) represents the Monk Saigyō dreaming of mount fuji. The treatment of the monk's clothing in a vigorous calligraphic style brings a special effect to this polychrome print.
The series of thirty-six views of Mount Fuji is certainly the most famous cycle of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Before him, the landscape was not absent from the art of prints but rather appeared as a background of the main scene. With Hokusai, he becomes the subject of a series whose success was immediate. Using different framing and all the technical resources of the print, he will decline the highest peak of the Japanese archipelago according to the seasons and times of the day. Hokusai was also one of the first to use Prussian blue (called bero-have) imported from Europe from 1820 to create prints in shades of blue (aizuri-e). So Cool wind on a clear morning (1831) is the original impression, in blue, of the view called "Red fuji". This blue is essentially devoted to the representation of the sky and the water, because it allows all the nuances and the intensities. Such was the success that the publisher asked Hokusai for additional prints and, in fact, there are forty-six views.
Felice Beato (1832-1909) was the first to photograph Mount Fuji around 1863. Mount Fuji seen from Murayama (1864-1866) is reminiscent of prints with its framing, the clouds standing out in white against the gray cone of the mountain and the very dark foreground. There will be some kind of dialogue at the end of the 19thst s. and the beginning of the 20st s. between photography and print. Felice Beato also asked print masters to colorize certain photographs. The result is much more discreet and refined than the western colorized shots.
A preparatory drawing by Hokusai helps to understand the process that culminates in a print. Fuji under a night storm (1834) is drawn with a brush and Indian ink with some indications in red to locate the clouds. This drawing will be given to the engraver who will execute the first wood, "the wood of lines", which will make it possible to make prints in black and white. From these we will make as much wood as colors. It should be remembered that the prints are the fruit of the collaboration of four people: the artist, the engraver, the printer and the publisher who could also be the sponsor.
Le Mount Fuji attributed to Sukoku (1730-1804) is a remarkable print that evokes the technique of ink on paper. The mountain is evoked in a minimalist way and the poem written on the left part reinforces the impression of a painted work.
The print Crossing the Rokugo River near the Kawasaki Relay on the Tōkaidō (1810-1820), by Shōtei Hokuju (active 1789-1818) who was one of Hokusai's best students, is characterized by an attempt to use the Western perspective. Even if he had a knowledge of the principles, the absence of technical works (prohibited at the time) means that there are often approximations such as several vanishing points. In addition to this singularity, Hokuju gives his mountains triangular geometric shapes, almost cubist. He was also the only one to put the shadow of the characters on the road in his landscape prints.
For Hara, one of the fifty-three relays of the Tōkaidō (1850-51), Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) stages a foreground populated by small figures who seem overwhelmed by the majesty of Mount Fuji whose summit overhangs the frame in the background.
In The Sazai pavilion, temple of the Five Hundred Rakan (1830-32), Hokusai completely changes the framing. The characters in the foreground have their backs to us and one of them points his finger towards the horizon. It is only in a second step that we understand the object of this contemplation: the cone of Mount Fuji appears very small, behind a second plan of the village and much closer barriers. The genius of Hokusai is to have varied the points of view, the atmospheres and the framing, which avoids the monotony in this series of thirty-six views of Mount Fuji.
Mount Fuji also inspired a lacquer artist who produced on a lacquered wooden box (first half of 19st s.) a decoration illustrating the fifty-three relays of the Tōkaidō.
Artist settling down to draw Mount Fuji shows a preparatory drawing of Hokusai for the One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji (circa 1834) next to the printing of the “wood of lines”. Here again, the artist gives indications to the engraver who will interpret them in a less stylized way.
A courtesan of House Asahimaruya (1775-1780) by Isoda Koryusai (active 1764-1788) illustrates the life of the great courtesans (Tayū ou oiran) which were often at the forefront of fashion. We see a oiran to whom his two following presents a new model of fabric decorated with an image of Mount Fuji. The finesse and precision of the textile patterns is remarkable.
Laughing women by Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), executed in 1798, shows a group of women in front of a screen adorned with Mount Fuji.
In The first days of spring from the series Glories of the Twelve Months (1772-1781), Koryūsai represents a couple asleep on a game of Go and having the same dream: a pilgrimage to Mount Fuji illustrated in the bubble at the top of the print. It is a poetic evocation of the love uniting a man and a woman.
Monk Nichiren walking in a snowy landscape Series Illustrations of famous monks (1835-36) by Ishiyusai Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), shows this much contested monk, of the Kamakura period (1185-1333), who founded a new Buddhist school. He is alone, walking in a snowstorm, against a backdrop of the seaside landscape. The work is very refined and the play of colors, white for the snow, intense Prussian blue for the sea, gray for the sky and orange for the clothes, accentuates the feeling of loneliness and opulence. The composition is very dynamic thanks to the oblique planes of the mountain and the foreground.
For Chinese poet Su Dongpo Series Chinese and Japanese verse mirror (1834), Hokusai used Prussian blue for the sky and for the water and there is no separation between the two spaces (ducks float on the water at the level of the monk's straw hat). The blue highlights the whiteness of the snow that is in reserve.
Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770) is famous for his female portraits and the invention of "brocade prints" where the work is magnified by embossing, gold powder, mica or silver. For the Parody of the story of "trees in pots" (1765-70), Harunobu alludes to a Kabuki play. As for Young woman in the snow, parody of a kabuki theater role (1765-70), some details are embossed for an even more refined effect.
Susaki Fields in Fukagawa from the series Hundred views of Edo's famous landmarks (1857) by Hiroshige presents a bird's eye view of the snowy landscape, completed by the presence of the eagle in flight which crowns the print. This bird's-eye view system had also been widely used in painting for centuries.
Hiroshige illustrates a precise moment in The shrine of Gion under the snow from the series Famous places in Kyoto (1837-38): two women sheltered under a parasol turn around to look at a third who is losing her balance on the snow.
The great Hiroshige triptych Mountain and river on the road to Kiso, Series Snow, moon, flowers (1857) shows a bird's eye view of the landscape with tiny figures to suggest the monumentality of the mountains.
A series of triptychs illustrates episodes from the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95).
The second half of the 19thst s. saw a certain decline in the art of printmaking and it was not until the first half of the 20st s. to see a revival of the process which will be greatly influenced by photography. Kawase Hasui (1883-1957) is one of those who strongly contributed to this renewal. He paints cityscapes with few or no characters. Snowy evening in Terajima (1920) shows a modern city with utility poles and light in the houses. The only small human silhouette, seen from the back, is located at the intersection of the median axes and becomes the center of the composition. Sparing, a rather dark atmosphere and great loneliness will be Hasui's most constant marks. However, his last great print, Snow on the Zojoji Temple (1953) seduced by its liveliness and mastery. The off-center framing and the chromatic intensity of the door, in contrast with the white of the snow, revives the classic art of printmaking. Here, the influence of photography is evident in the precision of the architecture, the presence of electric wires and the figures dressed in overcoats. It is thanks to this last work that Hasui received in 1953 the honorary title of “living national treasure”.