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The Majesty of Mountains

By Christopher Andreae / July 18, 1994

One of the least persuasive justifications for foolhardiness is surely that put forward to explain why people climb mountains. The north face of the Eiger, they say, is climbed ``because it is there.'' Because it is there?

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As a timorous, level-ground, low-lying plain individual, I would advance precisely the same reason for not climbing a mountain. I greatly appreciate the fact that the Wetterhorn, the Matterhorn, the Lauteraarhorn, and even the Finsteraarhorn are ``there,'' but I prefer, on the whole, to keep them there - at a distance - to be looked at rather than ``conquered.''

Certain paintings in the exhibition ``Caspar David Friedrich to Ferdinand Hodler: A Romantic Tradition,'' from the Oskar Reinhart Foundation of Winterthur, Switzerland, do, however, remind me of a minor episode in the lesser-known annals of human temerity vis-a-vis mountains. It was an episode all mine own, belonging to my callow period.

If one thing had emerged about me at school, it was that I wielded a paint brush with more gratifying results than I wielded a cricket bat. In the final stages of my school days, the more senior boys at our establishment were innovatively permitted to opt out of cricketing away long summer days if we could offer some worthy alternative pursuit. I suggested painting.

Actually, I enjoyed painting more than most things. And - with the encouragement of my parents - I took oil paints with us when we went on family vacations. One such trip took us to Austria (others had taken us to Switzerland), and it was in Austria that I painted my one and only vertiginous-romantic-expressionist mountain picture.

Don't ask me the name of the mountain. I don't recall. But what I distinctly remember is taking a chairlift alone way up into the thin air for at least three days in a row and tramping with my painting equipment (easel and all) across a grassy slope to the edge of a terribly steep ravine. I stood there gazing in total terror at a gigantic mountain on the other side of said ravine.

A slight puff of alpine breeze, and the easel, plus canvas, would have undoubtedly taken off like Leonardo da Vinci's flying machine, to descend into the misty depths. And, art lover though I may have been, I would have left it to its murky fate. Definitely.

As far as I know, that painting still exists in the house of one of my brothers. I haven't seen it in a while, but I know his wife inherited it from her mother who, presumably out of pity, had bought it from me during the period of recovery on level earth that necessarily followed my only close encounter with the petrifying exultation of mountainhood.

All I will add is that every time I see that painting, I feel two things: slightly wobbly at the knees and slightly cross with Ferdinand Hodler.

It must have been the example of Hodler's paintings that had moved me to try my hand at a precipitous alpine painting; small touches and hints of Hodler are somewhere under the skin of my modest result, as evidence. To Hodler, then, I attribute one of the more intrepid three days of my youth.

Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) was a truly great painter of mountains, becoming obsessed with them in his later years. Two outstanding examples are in the Reinhart collection. Hodler was himself Swiss, so presumably the Alps were in his blood. And, although his paintings were in line with a long tradition of mountain painting (Joseph Anton Koch's ``Wetterhorn'' being an impressive early 19th-century contribution to the genre), he captured as no painter before him had the way in which a mountain, though at a considerable distance, has the immediacy and power of something so near that you feel you could reach out and touch it.