Mountains in Art



Kate Learmouth takes a brief look at why mountains feature so prominently in Eastern art.

Going 'back to nature' is not a modern philosophy although, it could be argued, one especially attractive in today's chaotic world. The realisation of the interdependency of all living things and the earth is something that has long marked the differences between Eastern and Western culture, particularly within art.

As the Western art world has focused on religious icons, figurative and historical paintings, along with the desire to explore new themes and medias, nature, instead, has dominated the art of the East, in particular Japan, China and Korea.

And while there are sentiments in the subject matter that might be shared in the West, it is how the East has embraced nature that sets it apart. It has not been about realistic depictions of nature, at least not until Western influences started to emerge in the late 19th century. Rather, it was, and still is, the ability of a piece of art to convey the very spirit inherent in nature. And none more so than the hundreds of years of work representing mountains. So what is it that has kept nature in the minds eye of the Eastern artist?

The mountainous physicality of Japan, Korea and China provides some level of explanation. Living and breathing amongst such magnificent features would make it hard to rid the psyche of mountains, as a recent New York exhibition bore testament. The Mountain, curated by Art Projects International, brought together four Korean artists: Myong Hi Kim; Tchah- Sup Kim; Choong Sup Lim; and Il Lee. All four live in New York but their work is still strongly influenced by their culture and mother country.

It is, however, the relevance of nature and the landscape to the belief systems of these countries that offers a greater understanding.
The common denominator is that nature is sacred, and within nature certain elements are given particular reverence: the moon, cherry blossom, snow, water and mountains. In fact, the Chinese and Japanese word for landscape, Shanshui, (or Sansui in Japanese) is made up of mountain (shan / san) and water (shui / sui).

Shinto, the native religion of Japan, although no longer formerly practised, views each and every natural object as the bode of spirits called kami, which are believed to have a strong influence on humans and their activities. These spirits are seen as being especially concentrated in the mountain areas, lending great respect to the mountains for their role in human existence.

Within Confucianism and Daoism, the two great philosophies of China and Korea, there is a profound faith in nature's powers to uplift and nourish the spirit and purify the soul. The 8th century Korean poet and famous mountain painter Wang Wei's poem to Mount Song reflects this:
"...Far away, beside Mount Song, I shall close my door and be at peace." Buddhism, present across all three countries, also follows suite in using art to express humankind's place within the natural order. Mountains became a retreat for Buddhist monks and were central to their spiritual teachings. Overtime mountains have become something to worship. Their mysterious presence, rugged terrain and awesome height reinforced these places as the home of the immortals. What's more, the mountains have remained a constant in times of upheaval, offering a place to escape to the natural world away from chaotic, ordered society.

Mountains continue to play a central part in the lives of those in the East. In Japan, for example, Mount Fuji, considered one of the country's most sacred mountains, is represented in many works. Its importance on everyday life is reflected in work such as that of Katsushika Hokusai. From his series of block prints 'Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji', it is perhaps Kanagawa-oki Nami-ura (Fuji Behind the Waves off Kanagawa) that is best recognised. Fuji 'stands as the still point at the heart of natural forces and man's perilous journey'.

The poet Basho also demonstrates Fuji's respect in his Haiku about the mountain, which talks about its absence.

Misty drizzle
A day you cannot see Fuji

Art has been key in communicating the greater realm of mountains, and nature per se. And rather an incidental human activity, in the East art is viewed as an integral element of everyday life. I think we in the West still have a lot to learn.