Friday, February 27, 2015

Meizan inspirations

How Japan's most famous mountain erupted into an Impressionist painting

As it was the Sensei’s birthday, we dropped in at Japanese Inspirations, a new exhibition at the Zurich Kunsthaus. If you happen to be an aspirant meizanologist, you meet Meizan everywhere. So it was no surprise to find Mt Fuji featuring in several landscapes by Hokusai and Hiroshige. The idea behind the exhibition is to highlight how these artists of the floating world influenced the Impressionists, by placing their prints side by side with paintings by Monet, Gauguin, van Gogh and others.

Some of the prints had once been in the personal collection of Vincent van Gogh. An enthusiastic fan of Hokusai and Hiroshige, the artist owned about 400 Japanese prints in all, papering the wall of his studio with them. As if in homage to the master, he even made oil painting renditions of two scenes by Hiroshige (above). The attraction of Japanese woodprints is explained in a letter to his brother:

I envy the Japanese artists for the incredible neat clarity which all their works have. It is never boring and you never get the impression that they work in a hurry. It is as simple as breathing; they draw a figure with a couple of strokes with such unfailing easiness as if it were as easy as buttoning one's waist coat.

Seeing these prints made me wonder what part Japan's top mountain played in van Gogh’s artistic development. He knew Hokusai’s famous views of Mt Fuji, urging his long-suffering brother in a letter of August 1888 to “take (ie buy) the Hokusais as well then, 300 views of the sacred mountain and scenes of manners and customs”. And he greatly admired The Great Wave, one of Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji, commenting on it in another letter to his brother the same year:-

When Paul Mantz saw Delacroix’s violent and exalted sketch, Christ’s boat, at the exhibition that we saw in the Champs-Elysées, he turned away from it and cried out in his article, ‘I did not know that one could be so terrifying with blue and green’. Hokusai makes you cry out the same thing — but in his case with his lines, his drawing, since in your letter you say to yourself: these waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it.

As any art historian will tell you, those waves with claws have crashed with resistless force into van Gogh’s Starry Night, painted less than a year after he wrote the letter quoted above. Mt Fuji itself, alas, seems to have been washed away in the process, unless you discern it, subtly transmogrified into that church steeple or those mountains in the picture’s background.

Unfortunately, the Starry Night wasn’t in this exhibition: quite understandably, the New York Museum of Modern Art wouldn't be keen to let the painting out of its sight.

So, navigating through shoals of banquiers and their lamé-clad dames – this is Zurich, remember – we had a quick look round to see if Japan’s most famous mountain had left its mark on any other works by the Dutch master.

Standing in front of the Portrait of Père Tanguy (left), I thought that perhaps we’d struck lucky. The background to this painting shows a selection of Japanese prints, pinned to the wall of van Gogh’s studio, and there, right behind the subject’s hat, was a tell-tale shape  – conical in form, yet maddeningly indistinct.

One couldn’t be certain; the white blur might be the snowy profile of Japan’s most famous mountain. Or, then again, it might just be a cone of sherbert.

It turns out, though, that van Gogh painted three versions of this portrait - Père Tanguy was a figure of some importance to impecunious artists, kindly providing them with paint in return for a drawing or two. The picture shown in Zurich was the second version. But the final one (right), which today hangs in the Musée Rodin, Paris, shows Mt Fuji with dramatic clarity.

It’s as if, after years of absorbing the lessons of his Japanese mentors, van Gogh had finally gained total confidence in the power of line and colour. And, with it, the painterly panache to give the top Meizan its full due.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

"Characteristics of the Japanese mountain landscape" (3)

Continued: a disquisition on the aesthetics of volcanoes and alpine landscapes by Kojima Usui, founder of the Japanese Alpine Club

Unlike previous theorists of the landscape, I don’t favour volcanoes as special to the exclusion of all other mountains, nor am I taken with the idea, like some young people today, of excluding the volcanoes from the Japan Alps, as if they were some kind of unwanted stepchildren.

Illustrations of volcanic rocks from Shiga Shigetaka's
Theory of the Japanese Landscape (Nihon Fukeiron) 

If the beauty of volcanoes lies, as many have noted, in their dignified solemnity of form, and that of alpine mountains in their ice and snow and ridgelines, then the beauty of volcanic mountains must consist in their contours and colouring. Compared with alpine mountains, where you sometimes have to climb over ice and snow, the stark, bare boulders of Japanese volcanoes must be tackled as pure rock scrambling.

If this is what you choose, you should not garb yourself in two layers of clothing, or wear crampons and nailed boots over three pairs of socks, or carry an alpenstock, as in some alpine expedition, but tramp onwards in straw sandals and so work your way up to the summit crater, grabbing hold of ochre boulders so that you can at last touch the congealed effusions of former eruptions, like so much frozen bile.

What makes volcanoes beautiful is the way they show the exquisiteness of their form. I’ve read my Ruskin thoroughly, but I find it utterly tedious to read the landscape aesthetics of a person who never experienced volcanoes – in fact, it’s like being preached at in a foreign language. In his Stones of Venice Book 1, Chapter XX, Materials of Ornament, Section XIX, Ruskin describes the line of a small glacier of the second order, about three quarters of a mile long, on a spur of the Aiguille de Blaitière at Chamonix as “the most beautiful simple curve I have ever seen in my life” (he was then thirty-three years old).

To which I say, unhappy Ruskin, that he never saw a woodprint of Hokusai or Hiroshige and thus could never even imagine the exquisiteness of the curve presented by Mt Fuji on its left-hand skyline. This is the great line that falls - if you stand looking up from somewhere between Yoshihara on the Tōkaidō and Iwabuchi - that falls in one strong, bold catenary sweep from an altitude of 3,788 metres, a line that all but thrums with tension as it falls through the pure empyrean of an autumn or a winter sky. Or it is the line that, in the vaporous days of spring and summer, almost fades from sight, like the easy curve of a kite’s string.

Apart from the horizon on land or sea, this is the mightiest line, curved or slanting, that you’ll ever see in our country of Japan, and so I am convinced every time I gaze up at it from the train on that Tōkaidō line.



Beta translation from Kojima Usui, Characteristics of the Japanese mountain landscape (日本山岳景の特色), originally published in "Nippon Arupusu (1910), Vol IV, reprinted in Nippon Arupusu, Iwanami Bunko edition, 1992.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Images and ink (23)

Image: On Arashima-dake, Fukui Prefecture

Ink: Cheryl Strayed on mountains, from "Wild", a memoir of the Pacific Crest Trail:

"As I ascended, I realized I didn’t understand what a mountain was, or even if I was hiking up one mountain or a series of them glommed together. I’d not grown up around mountains. I’d walked on a few, but only on well-trod paths on day hikes. They’d seemed to be nothing more than really big hills. But they were not that. They were, I now realized, layered and complex, inexplicable and analogous to nothing."

Monday, February 9, 2015

Translating Hyakumeizan (1)

Why it's good to invoke a dead poet before launching into your translation project

People who plan to confront an NHK video camera should be warned - the journalistic staff of Japan's national broadcasting company are fearsomely well prepared. During our video interview about Nihon Hyakumeizan, which took place atop Arashima-dake last October, the director Miura-san asked me about the way I'd translated this sentence:-

"A mountain watches over the home village of most Japanese people ..."

Now this isn't just any old sentence. It happens to be the first words of the first paragraph of the chapter about Hakusan, the Hyakumeizan author's home mountain. And, so aptly does that paragraph seem to sum up the book's spirit and theme, that I'd chosen to use it as the epigraph for the English version of Nihon Hyakumeizan:

A mountain watches over the home village of most Japanese people. Tall or short, near or far, some mountain watches over our native village like a tutelary deity. We spend our childhood in the shadow of our mountain and we carry it with us in memory when we grow up and leave the village. And however much our lives may change, the mountain will always be there, just as it always has been, to welcome us back to our home village.

Miura-san sounded aggrieved. "The Japanese doesn't run like that at all," she pointed out "so why did you translate it in this way?" Miura-san had raised an interesting point. The Japanese sentence runs as follows:-


Which you might translate as:

Most Japanese have a home-village mountain.

So why did I choose an alternative wording? Hard to say, really. This random and unpremeditated act of translation took place one evening more than a decade ago, after a full day's work at the office. I might have been thinking that, rhetorically speaking, it would be neat to carry the subject and syntax of the first sentence through the entire paragraph.

Or I might just have been overcome by the warmth of a drowsy summer dusk - or even by the fumes from the glass of the Bündner pinot noir that I may from time to time have poured myself to wash away the dust of dictionary work.

Debates like this erupt about almost any translation. This is why the classics are ceaselessly reinterpreted, usually once a generation. The poet, playwright and critic John Dryden (1631-1700), who reinterpreted quite a few classics himself, said that translations could range between the poles of "metaphrase" and "imitation".

Metaphrase is "turning an author word for word, and line by line, from one language into another" - in other words, a fairly literal approach, as practised by the likes of Google Translate. Imitation, on the other hand, is "where the translator - if he has not lost that name - assumes the liberty not only to vary from the words and sense, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion".

In his own translations of Ovid, Virgil, Juvenal and others, Dryden sought a middle way. Steering somewhere between metaphrase and imitation, he aimed for a "paraphrase", which he defines as a "translation with latitude, where the author is kept in view by the translator so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly followed as his sense, and that, too, is admitted to be amplified but not altered."

In practice, Dryden was not above slipping into a bit of imitation if the mood took him. And, when the going got tough, he could resort to metaphrase. Yet his overriding purpose was always the same. According to Nobuyuki Yuasa, an expert on Japanese-to-English literary translation, this was no less than to "make the ancient author speak as he would have done if he had lived in the present age".

It's a pity that John Dryden couldn't have joined us in person atop Arashima-dake. Had he been there, Miura-san might have got a much more informed answer to her question.


David Hopkins, John Dryden: Translator and Theorist of Translation, Lecture, University College London, 7 March 2013

Noboyuki Yuasa, Translating 'The sound of water': Different versions of a hokku by Bashō, in The translator's art: Essays in honour of Betty Radice, edited by William Radice and Barbara Reynolds

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Mountain photography in yellow brick mode

Camera review: wading with a Weathermatic up the wildest river in the Japan Alps

Ah, the joys of yestergear. Yes, you read that right – I mean, today’s gear gets plenty of attention from Bre’er Hendrik and many other puissant hiking and mountaineering bloggers.

But what about the kit that Workmen Alpinists used twenty years ago? Who’s going to write about that? Well, I guess I’ll have to fill the gap myself, starting with a review of the Minolta Weathermatic Dual 35 (above). This, for the benefit of youthful readers, was an imaging device that captured light on a chemical-smeared synthetic substrate. We called it “film”.

As I had to get my Weathermatic in a hurry, from Yodobashi Camera’s pullulating multi-storey emporium in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, I probably paid close to the full list price of ¥36,800. Back home, I unpacked what looked like a yellow brick, solid as a bank vault, with an armoured window jutting from its front casing.

“Your Minolta Weathermatic DUAL 35 is a fully waterproof 35mm camera that is designed so that you can take pictures anywhere you go,” I read in the instruction leaflet. Apparently, I was the proud owner of “the world’s first waterproof camera that lets you select either standard (35mm) or tele (50mm) lenses at the touch of a button.”

I needed a waterproof camera because Sawa Control had just invited me on his return match with the fearsome Kurobe River, a multi-day swimming and scrambling expedition through the upper reaches of Honshu’s wildest mountain river gorge. No ordinary camera was going to survive this epic. And even the Weathermatic’s creators seemed to have their doubts.

“The Weathermatic DUAL 35’s watertight seals and rugged body are designed so that you take pictures in any weather and anywhere,” the manual says, “however, special attention must be given to the following precautions:”

In the event, the river let us off lightly - there was no need to surf or dive.  In just two days, we made it all the way through the Kurobe’s “inner corridor” to the hut in Yakushi-sawa. Perhaps we relaxed too much. On the second day, I tripped over in a boulder field, falling on top of the camera. The Weathermatic wasn’t even scratched; it was my ribs that came away with contusions.

But can this yellow brick actually take pictures? Eccentrically, the camera works only with two film speeds – ASA 100 or 400. I opted for 400-speed Fuji slide film, as river gorges can be dark and gloomy. Alas, the Provia proved a touch too fast in brightly lit places, where some pictures came out overexposed.

Where it mattered, though, the Weathermatic’s metering was spot on. The photo above shows Sawa Control moving pack-awash through a deep channel. Note how the film manages to capture the shadowed foreground without getting completely burned out by the sunlit rocks behind. That’s a trick that digital sensors still struggle to emulate.

Sharpness, said Henri Cartier-Bresson, is a bourgeois concept. Weathermatic users are compelled to agree. In anything less than the brightest light, this lens is what Ansel Adams would call a fuzzy-wuzzy. It harasses the light a little as it passes by; its zones of confusion would extend beyond the planet Pluto. It is, in short, an optic of the Anti-Leica.

Does it matter, though? To my mind, the unsharp image (right) does honour to the way that the late-afternoon light shimmered off the river as we worked our way towards that first day’s bivouac site. On the other hand, National Geographic is never going to beat a path to your door if you use a Weathermatic.

On the fourth and final day of our expedition, we went home over Washiba-dake. The camera’s metering coped well with all manner of lighting, from the pre-dawn airglow over Yari, through fogbows above the clouds, to the gloom of forest glades on the long, straggling ridge that we descended. Only the flower pictures were a bust – the autofocus couldn’t cope with close-up subjects.

After this trip, though, the crappy lens, the limited zoom (35mm or 50mm, but nothing in between), and the sketchy autofocus meant that the Weathermatic stayed at home whenever I could get away with something less robust. On our second visit to the Kurobe, three years later, I took along one of the newfangled Pentax Zoom WR90s, which had a proper zoom lens and better metering.

My last outing with the Weathermatic was a winter climb on Yatsu-ga-take. The last pitch of Sekison Ridge takes you into a steeply angled lava tube, almost like a miniature subway tunnel, except that the roof had fallen in. I was halfway up this defile when the rope came tight – we’d run out of slack, and Mike, belaying 50 metres below, couldn’t hear my shouts for him to come up.

For a moment, it looked as if an unstructured situation might develop. Jammed in my tube like a Northern Line train in the London Underground, I could move neither up (no rope) nor down (too steep). Spindrift came blasting up the tunnel, driven by a fierce cold northerly. The last piece of protection was far below. A giant chock was desperately needed, to slot into the only wide crack within reach. Unfortunately I had no such gear with me. Unless, perhaps, the camera would fit.

Before the Weathermatic could be put to this ultimate test, Mike moved up and the rope came free. So I never did find out how this most bombproof of cameras might function as a makeshift bong. No, not that kind of bong. In our day, a bong was a kind of expanded piton made of folded aluminium, specially shaped for off-width cracks. Really, is it necessary to spell out everything for the youth of today?