Despite the omnipotence of the “Great Wave” (see lots 242 and 246), the Japanese, and most connoisseurs, find “Red Fuji” the centerpiece of Hokusai’s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. It, like its variant “Fuji over lightning,” is the only design without human element in a set otherwise devoted to activities in familiar places, presided over by the sacred mountain. The scene here is late summer or early autumn on the eastern side of the volcano. Dawn is breaking over the Pacific Ocean, flushing the slopes, here printed in brick red and brownish saturations at the crown. The fine wind of the title is blowing from the south, penetrating cumulus clouds that the Japanese liken to a shoal of small fish. The great off-center triangle of the mountain reduces the tree line to a peppering of blue dots. Unusual in Japanese depictions of sky, the air is a wide swath of Berlin blue pigment, a novelty import in the 1830s, that gradually darkens to the top. In this impression, the printer has gone for dramatic effect with measured fuss, using the natural grain of the wood block for contour and contrast.
With utmost simplicity of shapes and palette, Hokusai delivers not verisimilitude but a sensation of the majesty and supernatural power that inspired his personal devotion to Mount Fuji, as is obvious from his countless drawings of it that culminate in his 1834 book One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji. Unlike other prints in the series in which he uses perspective to link the foreground human scene to the background theme, Mount Fuji, his emphasis on two-dimensionality is deliberate: it accentuates both the symbolic aspect and the visual drama. Much has been said about the influence of this design on Western painters a few generations later, in particular the parallel between Cézanne/Mont Sainte Victoire and Hokusai/Fuji. Both artists revered a mountain for its cultural and physical significance. While they invented unique combinations of form to express it, the mode is abstraction that defies age. For the astonishing variety of printings of “Red Fuji,” one is commended to comparably fine impressions in museum collections accessible online.