Mount Fuji: the obsession of a nation and Edo's greatest artist
Mount Fuji Reflects in Lake Kawaguchi | From the majestic series 36 Views of Mount Fuji
Mt Fuji - it’s ever-present in Japan: on T-shirts and coffee mugs, in films, in ads on trains, books and anime.... It's also a site of modern pilgrimage, with over 300,00 people visiting this active volcano each year.
So why is Fuji so deeply embedded in the heart of Japanese culture? And why was one artist so obsessed with this mountain; using it as the subject for more than 150 prints?
To understand the answers to these questions one need only catch a glimpse of Fuji from the plane window flying into Tokyo.
Rising from the clouds like a mythical castle of rock among an otherwise flat panorama Fuji stands at over 12 thousand feet and is venerated as the home of the gods dominating the backdrop of Japan.
Some research into its name suggest it’s the place to find the secret to immortality as ancient origins believe it to be derived from `Fu-Shi’ meaning “Not Death”.
Legends abound in Japan and one depicts the story of a moon princess who falls in love with the emperor giving him the elixir of life which he burns at the top of Mt Fuji.
Today people visit Fuji en masse, stopping at the shrines dotted along the way to pay their respects to this magical region. At the foothills thousands of religious sects have “sprouted like shitake mushroom” as people come to visit with ancestors, find personal revelations, and to even find release from this life to the next in the surrounding suicide forest of Aokigahara.
Old man, crazy to paint
Hokusai or “Old Man Crazy to Paint” may not be a name familiar to all, but his prints can be seen in museums, CEOs’ offices and hanging in sushi restaurants. A superstitious, eccentric man with a leaning towards OCD, Hokusai changed his name 30 times and moved house 93 times during his life.
Struck by lightning
At the age of 50 he was struck by lightning and hence forth would draw pictures of Chinese dragons to throw out the window every morning in hopes of warding off demons. Hokusai was a successful commercial artist but he was seeking more, he wanted immortality both artistically and spiritually. At this point he became obsessed with Mt Fuji as he believed this was the key to achieving his great desires. He made it his mission to gain intimate knowledge of this mountain as only in truly knowing his subject could he steal its life-giving secrets for himself.
In his own words; “If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive.”
36 Views of Mount Fuji
At the ripe age of 70 Hokusai created his most famed works “Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji” including the most known print “The Great Wave”. Using woodblock and adopting the newly created Prussian blue pigment for his first five prints in the series, Hokusai created feelings of somber strength and a hidden mysticism throughout his images.
Later, incorporating subtle coloring in pinks, reds, and greens Hokusai’s works depict life along the Tokaido road.
At times Fuji is portrayed larger than life and the center of the universe and at others as only a single line in the distant framework while locals go about their daily lives.
So, did Hokusai achieve immortality?
Though he did not reach his sought-after age of 140 years, today his works are world renowned with countless museum exhibitions, explorations into his art and research on his life. People in Japan know him well and his images such as “The Great Wave”, have become synonymous with Japanese culture.
For those wishing to experience the madness and magic of Fuji through Hokusai’s eyes, browse the full collection of 36 Views of Mount Fuji and seize a bit of immortally for yourself.