The Majesty of Mountains

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?

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.

This is a cliche, of course. But Hodler's realization of this stark nearness - in ruggedly applied paint - gets back startlingly to the naked truth that the cliche has covered over.

Hodler was a symbolist, and his mountain paintings evince much more than a romantic, sublime admiration for their awe-inspiring properties. Art historian William Vaughan, in his essay for the exhibition catalog, explores an intriguing theory that ``Hodler's Alps, like those in the Magic Mountain - the novel by Thomas Mann... - rise above the transience and uncertainties of human affairs.''

Professor Vaughan points out that Hodler's ``alpine ridges stand out with firmness and clarity, while all below melts into mist or uncertainty.''

He continues: ``Perhaps it is significant that, as he painted these celebrations of symbols of his native country, Hodler was surrounded by disintegration.'' This disintegration was personal and political (Lenin was in nearby Zurich plotting a certain revolution). It was also aesthetic: The Dada movement, which was to shake the art world, was also being hatched in Zurich.

Yet the point is that - as when Cezanne painted Mont Saint-Victoire - disintegration is emphatically challenged by the image of a mountain painted with as great a solidity and rocky certainty as could be wrought by a loaded paintbrush.

Earlier in his essay, Vaughan had written that Switzerland in the 18th century contributed two vital factors to the development of romanticism - the philosophy of natural goodness expounded by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who was, indeed, Swiss) and ``a motif - the Alps.''

``These huge mountains had been known to travellers,'' writes Vaughan, ``from time immemorial; but they had not been much appreciated. The common view of them was one of fear and loathing; danger and loss of life.'' But, he adds, the 18th century started to see them in a different light, as ``heroic forms of nature, inspiring visions of divine grandeur.''

Yet mannerist painters of the early 16th century had painted mountains with an excitement that was not ``loathing'' at all. Pieter Bruegel, partly inspired by them, and partly by his deliberate route through the Alps on his way home to Flanders from Italy in the early 1550s, drew the mountains with an appreciative objective accuracy and not the slightest hint of distaste.

A decade earlier, a Swiss physician, Conrad Gesner, had expressed striking enthusiasm for the Alps: ``I sense my spirit struck by these astonishing heights, and ravished in the contemplation of the sovereign architect.''

Even Leonardo da Vinci, fascinated though he was with the destructiveness of the earth's elemental forces, at the beginning of the 16th century, drew them without medieval superstition.

Clearly, artistic admiration for mountains began long before the 18th century, and Hodler's mountainscapes appeared after centuries of painterly contemplation of the subject.

For my own part, I am rather taken with a paradoxical thing Hodler had to say about the mountains he painted with such positive strength. He is quoted in the exhibition catalog as saying: ``All objects have a tendency towards the horizontal ... Even mountains diminish in height over the centuries until eventually they will be flat like the surface of water.''

Maybe I should enjoy them while they last.

* The exhibition ``Caspar David Friedrich to Ferdinand Hodler: A Romantic Tradition'' is at London's National Galery through Sept. 4. Its tour will end at the Musee d'Art et d'Histoire (Mus'ee Rath), Geneva, where it will be seen from Sept. 30 through Feb. 12, 1995.

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