Here are two great artists of the nineteenth century – innovators, visionaries and both of them artists of great influence. Both Hokusai and Cezanne have in different ways exerted huge influence over the course of art, certainly in the west during the crucial period of the avante garde of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In Japan, Hokusai can be fairly said to have been the most influential artist of his time if not of the whole of Japanese art history.
What really binds these two artists together though is an obsession with mountains – not to climb or conquer in the physical sense, but to render them time again in painting, in printing and drawing. Hokusai was to portray Mount Fuji in two huge woodblock printed series, 36 views of Mount Fuji in the late 1820’s and 100 views of Mount Fuji in 1834. Some of his prints such as the Red Fuji or The Great Wave off Kanagawa are some of the most persistent and widely reproduced images in art history. Paul Cezanne started to paint Mont St Victoire in the south of France in 1880 and was to return to the theme over and over again until his death in 1906, producing at least sixty canvasses and dozens more sketches and watercolours of the same scene all of which hang in the great National art collections of many countries..
Why? Why would these artists paint the same motif so many times over so many years? There is undoubtedly for both artists a spiritual dimension to their constant interest. For Hokusai who was a devout Buddhist, as for many Japanese, Fuji was symbolic of eternal life, a goddess having deposited the elixir of life on the peak. As the art historian Henry Smith puts it: “From an early time, Mt. Fuji was seen as the source of the secret of immortality, a tradition that was at the heart of Hokusai’s own obsession with the mountain.” So too for Cezanne, Mont St Victoire was a place of ancient Gods and of faith, particularly so towards the end of his life. The mountains drew both artists obsessively to turn over and over the same numinous image, to depict something which for whatever reason they found inspirational and deeply, deeply moving.
But there is more to it than this. Connected to in some ways but also separate from the spiritual is the relentless need to get below the surface of the motif, to strive to represent something greater than a pedestrian depiction. This reworking has similar roots for both men. Hokusai, self deprecatingly wrote at the age of seventy four: “If I go on trying, I will surely understand them (images of nature), 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. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie.”
Compare this to Cezanne’s comment: “I could paint for a hundred years, a thousand years without stopping and I would still feel as though I knew nothing.” Or again, here: “My age and health will never allow me to realize the dream of art I’ve been pursuing all my life.”
These artists were engaged in an attempt to realise visually something that they felt inherently, at a perceptive and a spiritual depth. In their output they strove to communicate two conflicting identities, the actual and the hidden; both painters strongly believed that they could, given the time, reveal the nature of the mountain, and by this I mean both its image and its soul, purely through repetitive observation… that somehow if I go on trying… I will penetrate its essential nature.
It is interesting to observe from this distance, how unlike the motif is to the pictures that these two men spent so very long producing. It’s interesting that in order to find what they truthfully believed was some kind of objective truth, they had to travel such a long way from what we might glibly call a realistic rendering of a simple view.