Mountains in Art

  • Mountains in art

    by Tom Glover
  • "In what does a gentleman's love of landscape consist?

    – Guo Xi, c.1017 ad, China


    Conrad Jon Godly’s NEVERTHELESS has begun at the gallery. The subject matter is immediately obvious. Mountains, lots of them. 18, to be precise, each one an imagined mountain painted in one of three themes: light, mist, or night.

    Godly is always looking to capture the essence of landscape, and as a result his mountains are caught between representation and abstraction, painted from memory after many years of love and study. He loves the alps at Chur as Cézanne loved Mont Sainte-Victoire.


    Which leads me to ask: What is it that has driven Godly to depict the mountains so devotedly? How and why have they inspired other artists? It would be easy to say that mountains command an allure because they represent the sublime[1], but I want to ask what isit about the mountains that mean they fit neatly into the Western concept of the sublime?

    I think the allure exists because mountains operate both as real structures and as abstract concepts. There is no refuting their truth, their existence; they are monumental, indestructible products of processes outside of our control. Natural certainty. They are there. Yet they exist differently; Shifting and fading, the size and longevity of the mountains force us to contemplate our significance. They are impactful in memory, and therefore important in defining cultural identity. They are vessels for secular spirituality, and represent longing, nostalgia, awe, and power all at once.


    By depicting an eternal and true entity well, artists can evoke a multitude of ideas, emotions, and theories. This is where Godly flourishes, painting from memory, painting his connection to the mountains, and letting themes of insignificance and spirituality make their way to the viewer. These are the ideas that I will be looking at, a swirl of memory, insignificance, and spirituality.


    Which begs the question, how have I arrived at this thought? I searched a combination of ‘mountains and art’ into google, and the algorithm spat out a selection of suggested artworks which have guided me as they will guide this entry. Confronting me first and foremost with Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the sea of fog, and other works by the German romantic.


    Of course! Casper David Friedrich, it is so obvious.[2] Looking into his art, it contains those important mountainous themes of memory, insignificance, and spirituality.


  • Wanderer is his most famous work. Unlike Godly’s work, a figure is present, surveying the landscape below. However, like Godly,...

    Jeong Seon, General View of Inner Geumgang, c.1740s. Album leaf; ink and light color on silk, 22 × 54.3 cm

    Wanderer is his most famous work. Unlike Godly’s work, a figure is present, surveying the landscape below. However, like Godly, the land that Friedrich’s wanderer is above is an imagined one, drawn from memory after intense study. I came across an article from Medium that says that the landscape in Wanderer “is not a real view but was pieced together from different places visited by Friedrich during his sketching travels across Germany and Switzerland.” Alina Cohen writes for Artsy that “to construct the composition, Friedrich travelled to the Elbe Sandstone Mountains southeast of Dresden, sketching individual rocks and natural forms with intense detail. Back in his studio, he cobbled these together to create a new, imaginary landscape.”

  • We pick up again with Medium, this time saying that “there is a cauldron of swirling mist beneath his feet. He is all alone in this place, in whose limitless dimensions he recognises, by contrast, his own uncertain existence.”

  • Uncertain existence is tied up in insignificance, and it is painted from memory, representing an emotional rather than representational state....

    Shen Zhou, Poet on a Mountaintop, c. 1471. Album leaf, ink on paper, 38.7 x 60.3 cm

    Uncertain existence is tied up in insignificance, and it is painted from memory, representing an emotional rather than representational state. There is one more thing to tie these two artists together. Godly, as the exhibition catalogue states, is painting grand canvases of hope. He is offering these pictures to us as a spiritual antidote, using the natural world instead of any religious imagery. 

  • We can see this idea most prominently in Friedrich’s Cross in the Mountains. It is an altarpiece created in 1808, depicting a crucifix atop a mountain covered in fir trees, viewed from a distance. It caused quite a stir for suggesting that nature was above religion. Britannica has called it “his first important oil painting,” which is “characterized by an overwhelming sense of stillness and isolation and was an attempt to replace the traditional symbology of religious painting with one drawn from nature.” Cohen continues this point, saying that “the work posits that nature—which takes up more of the frame than Christ himself—was itself divine.”


    Next up from the algorithm was Poet on a Mountaintop by Shen Zhou, painted in Ming Dynasty China around 1471. This can (sort of) be read as a precursor to Wanderer, showing a man stood surveying a mountainous cloud-strewn landscape below him. There isn’t much by way of internet-accessible scholarship on this work, so I have had to go by the Wikipedia page, which is never desirable, but it does have a reasonable amount of citations.

  • It reads that “the entire work attempts to display man's insignificance in comparison to the brilliance of nature,” going on to say that “the poetry found in the painting makes observations that undermine concepts of Anthropocentrism, which views humans as the primary and/or only dictators of morality.” The mountains stir something within to create this response, this idea that, when confronted with them, everything else is irrelevant. Nature over us, over religion, over everything.


    Travelling to Korea via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I want to talk about the exhibition Diamond Mountains: Travel and Nostalgia in Korean Art. Going off of a NYT review (they always have pretty good reviews), it tells me that “the Diamond Mountains are a vital touchstone of Korean cultural identity, but since Korea was divided after the second world war, it is closed off to South Koreans.” As such, “the mountains, central to the cultural history of both countries, have become a misty mirage in the South Korean imagination.”


    Even before this division, the Diamond Mountains “inspired not just awe but also longing, wistfulness, regret.” A static collection of mountains loads these emotions into the Korean psyche, which is exemplified in the work of artists after the country split in two. Focusing on Jeong, the pre-eminent painter of the Korean golden age (18th – 19th C), the NYT says that his works “alternate between painstaking depictions of specific mountain features and sweeping general views;” this enhances the canine nature of the jagged rocks, the majesty of the range, ignoring specifics, to present the most emotionally charged aspects of the landscape. Of course, this is similar to Godly and Friedrich, but the feeling in these works and the mountains are so strong that Korean artists in the same period, such as Sin Hakgwon, through to post-war painters, such as Lee Ungno, would depict those mountains having never visited them. This strength of cultural feeling, of shared memory, comes from the power of the mountains.


    On the final stretch of the algorithm rollercoaster, we find ourselves passing 50s New York. I want to briefly look at Helen Frankenthaler’s landmark 1952 painting Mountains and Sea. This will be brief as there is not much to link NEVERTHELESS and Frankenthaler’s work, the latter is too washy, suggestive, to be artistically similar to Godly. But what is relevant to us is, again, the evocation of memory that Frankenthaler uses to create this painting. The Guggenheim says that the work is “titled after the seaside cliffs Frankenthaler had visited in Nova Scotia the previous summer, Mountains and Sea is one of her many abstractions that evoke memories of landscapes.” I think that Frankenthaler gets closer than anyone else to Godly’s goal of depicting the essence of a landscape, as it is a simple, pure evocation of mountains and sea.


    You could say the only thing that ties all these examples together is just the fact that artists never depict specific mountains, they cobble them, but where would the fun be in that? I think something more interesting is at play, something that ties a thread through Godly, Friedrich, Zhou, Jeong, and Frankenthaler. The mountains are a powerful and deep source of inspiration for artists because of their ability to imprint themselves on our psyche by simply being. In two spaces at once, one eternal, the other in our minds. Their essence is somewhere between them. 


    [1] Defined by Wikipedia as:

    The quality of greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, aesthetic, spiritual, or artistic. The term especially refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement, or imitation.

    [2] Now, before I look like an oracle of all artworks ever created, I first came across Wanderer whilst watching the finale of a Stewart Lee stand-up routine.



    How to Read Paintings: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, Christopher P Jones, Medium

    Encyclopaedia Britannica, Caspar David Friedrich: Biography

    Unraveling the Mysteries behind Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer”, Alina Cohen, Artsy

    Poet on a Mountaintop, Wikipedia

    Review: When a landscape (and memory) is all you’ve got, Jason Farago, New York Times

    Streams and Mountains without End: Landscape Traditions of China, Metropolitan Museum of Art

    After ‘Mountains and Sea’: Frankenthaler 1956–1959, Guggenheim Bilbao