Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Stockholm Archipelago

This month we spent a week in and around Stockholm.  I took the photograph here from a boat, although we actually spent most of our time in the city rather than exploring the archipelago.  We saw summer houses along the shorelines and shiny white boats with healthy-looking active people on board, but sometimes it felt more like a vast park than the kind of landscape I'd imagined from Strindberg.  We probably needed to get further away, as the narrator says in this passage from Hjalmar Söderberg's brilliant novel Doctor Glas (1905).   In his view the Stockholm Archipelago is overrated...
'A mincemeat landscape, all chopped up.  Little islands, little waterways, little rocky knolls and wretched little trees.  A pale and poverty-stricken landscape, cold colours, mostly grey and blue, and yet not poor enough to have the grandeur of true desolation.  When I hear people praise the archipelago’s natural beauties I always suspect them of having quite other things in mind and on closer examination this suspicion is always confirmed.  One person thinks of the fresh air and fine bathing, another of his sailing boat, a third of the perch-fishing, yet for them all this falls under the rubric of natural beauty.  The other day I was talking to a young girl who was in love with the archipelago but, as our conversation proceeded, it transpired that in point of fact she was thinking of sunsets; possibly also of a student.  She forgot that the sun sets everywhere and that students are mobile.  I do not believe I am wholly insensitive to natural beauty, but for that I must go further afield, to Lake Vättern or Skåne, or else to the sea.  But I rarely have time, and within a radius of twenty or thirty miles of Stockholm I have never seen a landscape to compare with Stockholm itself – with Djurgården or Haga or the pavement overlooking the Stream, outside the Grand.'

The Grand Hotel, Stockholm, in 1901.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The 'Stream' is Paul Britten Austin's translation of the Strøm, the waters of Saltsjön at the centre of Stockholm.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The rocks of Fårö

'My ties with Fårö have several origins.  The first was intuitive. This is your landscape, Bergman.  It corresponds to your internal imaginings of forms, proportions, colours, horizons, sounds, silences, lights and reflections.  Security is here.  Don't ask why. Explanations are clumsy rationalisations with hindsight. In, for instance, your profession you look for simplification, proportion, exertion, relaxation, breathing.  The Fårö landscape gives you a wealth of all that.'
- Ingmar Bergman in his autobiography The Magic Lantern (1987, trans. Joan Tate)
View from the Bergmancenter on Fårö

This notion of finding ones ideal landscape is an interesting one and prompts me to wonder what my own might be.  Bergman spent much of his life in theatres and the island of Fårö, with its rocks and trees and open skies, seems at first to be a very different kind of space.  But as he says here, it suited his outlook on directing as well as the deeper need for a retreat which we often see in creative artists.  Bergman was only persuaded to visit Fårö in the first place when Svensk Filmindustri requested that he consider an alternative to Orkney as a setting for Through a Glass Darkly (1961).  He made three more films there, along with two documentaries about life on the island and the TV series Scenes From a Marriage (1973), which led to an upsurge in the Swedish divorce rate and was apparently an inspiration for Dallas.
It might be thought that Bergman filmed more often on Fårö than he actually did because rocky coastal settings are so associated with his work.  In a post I wrote just after he died I referred to the chess game on the beach in The Seventh Seal, but this was made four years before he had set foot on the island.  I was only able to quote a description of Fårö then; now I have been myself and walked, for example, the windswept shore at Langhammars, with its strange rock formations, that Bergman used for the final scene in Shame (1968).  In this the couple – Liv Ullman and Max Von Sidow - wait for a boat which they hope will take them and other refugees away from their war-torn country.  The film ends with them adrift in a grey featureless sea.

One of the limestone stacks ('rauks') at Langhammars

Perhaps another reason we associate Bergman so strongly with Fårö is the continuing fascination with Persona, which is I think, after The Seventh Seal, his most famous and iconic film (both are parodied in Woody Allen’s Love and Death).  Fårö's Bergmancenter currently has an exhibition marking its fiftieth anniversary.  Among the exhibits are Liv Ullman’s camera, Bibi Andersson’s shades and some atmospheric behind-the-scenes colour photographs of a film that is hard to imagine in anything other than beautifully-lit black and white.  Sadly it is not possible to visit the actual house used in Persona, situated on the rocky eastern shore of Fårö, where the troubled actress played by Liv Ullman withdraws from the world.  This no longer survives.

Liv Ullman on the rocks of Fårö in Persona (1966)

Friday, August 12, 2016

Voices from the Land

I don't think I've ever embedded a Ted Talk before.  This one covers some of the key points Bernie Krause makes in his recent book The Great Animal Orchestra.  The book's title comes from an insight that came to him after several years of field recording: different species have evolved to fit within their own acoustic bandwidth, so that the natural soundscape is structured like orchestral music. Krause distinguishes the biophony, sounds of living organisms, from the geophony, those natural sounds that spring from the wind, water and earth.  The geophony is the music of the underlying landscape.  In his chapter 'Voices from the Land' Krause recalls a revelatory experience of geophonic sound, back in 1971 when he was still recording with Paul Beaver (their album In a Wild Sanctuary, a pioneering fusion of synthesised music and field recording, had been released the previous year).  One frosty October day Krause was taken by a Nez Percé elder to the edge of a stream feeding Lake Wallowa in northeastern Oregon.
'After about half an hour, the wind began to funnel down from the high southern pass, gaining force with each passing moment.  A Venturi effect caused the gusts passing upstream through the narrow gorge to compress into a vigorous breeze that swept past our crouched bodies, the combined temperature and windchill now making us decidedly uncomfortable.  Then it happened.  Sounds that seemed to come from a giant pipe organ suddenly engulfed us.  The effect wasn't a chord exactly, but rather a combination of tones, sighs, and midrange groans that played off each other, sometimes setting strange beats into resonance as they nearly matched one another in pitch.  At the same time they created complex harmonic overtones, augmented by reverberations coming off the lake and the surrounding mountains.  At those moments the tone clusters, becoming quite loud, grew strangely dissonant and overwhelmed every other sensation.'
What was the source of this strange soundscape?  Krause relates that he was led to the river bank and shown a cluster of reeds, broken over time by the action of the elements into different lengths.  Those reeds with open holes at the top were played by the wind like flutes.  The Nez Percé elder took out a knife and made himself a flute our of a reed, explaining that this sound was the origin of the music of his people.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Circle of Light


Circle of Light is a fascinating new vinyl release on Trunk Records - the soundtrack to a film made in 1972 by Anthony Roland.  A hauntological mixture of electronics and field recordings, it was composed by Delia Derbyshire (in collaboration with Elsa Stansfield) and, at 32 minutes, is the longest surviving piece of her music.  The film itself can be seen online for a small fee as part of the The Roland Collection, where it is filed under the heading 'Landscape into Art' (other subjects include Turner, Friedrich, Corot and the mountain painter I wrote about here last month, Giovanni Segantini).  I have embedded above a short preview which he has made available free of charge.  So much for the filmmaker and composer, but what of the relatively obscure subject of this film, 'The Art of Pamela Bone'?  Jonny Trunk provides some background information on his website:
'The origins of the film can be traced back to 1952 when Pamela Bone, a student at Guildford School Of Art, bought her first camera for £6. This was the start of a long symbiotic journey with photography, Bone developing peculiar techniques, adapting cameras and always trying to somehow replicate the visions she had in her mind’s eye.  ... In 1959, and having had work featured in Vogue, Queen and House And Garden, she was invited to stay with a student friend in Calcutta. It was her escape.  The trip enabled Bone to travel and photograph extensively in exotic locations across India, including Sikkim and Kashmir. On returning home, she began working on a conceptual slide show of her travels and transparencies, one that began to slowly morph over the next seven years into a show of slides influenced by travel, the seasons, children, still life studies and landscapes. The working title of the show was Circle Of Light. ...
'Things took an unexpected turn in 1969 when she was introduced to Anthony Roland ...  Roland was quite overwhelmed by the images in many ways and suggested he made a film with them. Together they began work on Circle Of Light.  Bone had also written poetry and wanted this narrated over the film. But Roland knew that the images needed something a little more abstract. So for a soundtrack Roland commissioned Delia Derbyshire (moonlighting from the Radiophonic Workshop). ... Circle Of Light premiered at the Academy Cinema in Oxford Street on 28th March 1972, and three months later was selected to represent Great Britain in the Art Film class at the very well respected Cork International Festival. It won first prize. ...  There have been very occasional sightings of the film over the last few decades, but it has come into focus more recently because of the unreleased music and the dramatic rise in interest for all things Delia.'
Detail from the cover of Seven Doors by Pamela Bone

Pamela Bone gave up photography in 1992, soon after a retrospective exhibition at West Dean College (the former home of Surrealist patron Edward James).  However, in 2009 she published in a very limited edition a book about her work, Seven Doors: Finding Freedom of Expression Through Photography.  In this, she looks back on Circle of Light and recalls her first experience of the soundtrack: 'how well I remember being startled by the crash of a wave with the shell picture, and the hoot of an owl echoing through the Devon woods.'  The most interesting parts of the book explain how she created her transparencies, operating rather like an electronic composer by overlaying elements to build up an atmosphere.  Pale Balloon for example, started as a photograph of a child's balloon tied to a dead tree, to which she added clouds and sea texture.  Then ‘to give interest to the blurred colour of the foreground reeds, I added the pattern of sea foam that I had taken using lithographic film.  Binding together these four layers of film, the pale balloon had become the moon in my imagination.’

I will end here with Pamela Bone's memories of Dartmoor, where she searched for flowing water that could be captured and used later, almost like a painter applying a wash to a watercolour.
‘High on the moors one day, I followed a track leading to these woodlands.  I could hear falling water far below, and I scrambled down over the granite clitter to the upper reaches of the East Dart river.  Sitting on a boulder beside a little waterfall, I watched the bubbles whirl away beneath the water.  As the water flowed beside me, so the landscapes of Van Gogh flowed through my mind; could this be the answer to my pictures.  Between 1967 and 1972 I wandered each springtime beside those lonely reaches of the Dart, photographing again and again the ever changing patterns of sunlight through pools of still and swirling water alike, for I could not tell what the results might be, sometimes beautiful, sometimes useless for my purpose.  The idea worked by combining a water texture transparency with the transparency of the subject I had in mind, allowing their colours to mingle and flow.’

Friday, July 29, 2016

Snow Light, Water Light

The Collected Poems of Frances Horovitz only runs to 118 poems but many are centred on the natural world and the landscapes of Cumbria, the Welsh Marches and the Cotswolds, where she lived for ten years across the valley from the white-roofed cottage that inspired Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie.  Here are some brief examples of her imagistic writing, from the poems 'Irthing Valley' 'Finding a Sheep's Skull', 'Walking in Autumn' and 'Sightings':
'... the wind lays itself down / at dusk / a fine cloth over the stones ...'
'... I hold it up to the sunlight, / a grey-green translucent shell. / Light pours in / like water / through blades and wafers of bone. ...'
'... Pale under-leaves of whitebeam, alder / gleam at our feet like stranded fish / or Hansel's stones. ... '
'... crow's wing / brushed on snow, / three strokes / twice etched / as faint and fine / as fossil bone. ...' 

In a 1984 review of her short posthumous collection Snow Light, Water Light Peter Levi wrote that she had 'perfect rhythm, great delicacy and a rather Chinese and yet very locally British sense of landscape. (I take 'Chinese' to imply high praise).  Her last poems show a healthy influence of Basil Bunting, and of the landscape of Birdoswald and Hadrian's Wall.  She has a thrilling sense of history and archaeology. ... She does in a small degree what David Jones has done, who was the wizard of this age.'  Levi might have been thinking here of a poem I particularly like, 'An Old Man Remembers', which retells the Mabinogian story of a beautiful woman, Blodeuedd, who was formed out of 'the flowers of the oak, the broom and the meadowsweet' but ends her days transformed into an owl.

Levi goes on to quote in full an atmospheric short poem entitled 'The Crooked Glen' - a translation of 'Camboglana', the Celtic name for Birdoswald.  Camboglana has been identified as one of three possible sites for Arthur's last battle, after which, mortally wounded, the king asked Sir Bedevere to take Excalibur back to the waters whence it came.  (I saw this scene recreated a couple of years ago when my son took the role of King Arthur in his school play and other children shook a sheet of blue plastic to simulate the waves on the water).  Bedevere's words on his return,  I saw nothing but waves and winds, are the first line of 'The Crooked Glen'.  Horovitz writes of an ushering wind shaking ash and alder by the puckered river and stirring the blood-dark berries. 

In October 1983, Frances Horovitz died - she was just forty-five years old.  I find some of her final poems almost too poignant to read, like 'For Adam, nearly twelve' and 'Letter to My Son' (my own son is now twelve; Adam Horovitz grew up to become a poet himself).  Her last poem, a haiku, reminded me, sadly, of the late poems of Masaoka Shiki (described here previously) who died even younger, at thirty-four.  A disciple of Shiki's had glass installed in the sliding doors of his room, so that he was able to see out into his garden.  Frances Horovitz could see Garway Hill through the window by her bed, but in 'Orcop Haiku' it is glimpsed through September rain, 'glass beads flung on glass'.  In an obituary in Poetry Review Anne Stevenson observed that 'the fine poems of her last collection, Snow Light, Water Light, forecast her own death in the images of light and dark, water and stone, she always made her own. We who loved her miss her very much. But everyone inherits these poems which, like Hardy's and Edward Thomas's, will outlast all fluctuations of fashion.'

Friday, July 22, 2016

Coulisses de Forêt

 Six friezes for a paper theatre, 1880-1920
Source: 50Watts

I have been rather busy of late, as the tidal wave of consequences from the Referendum has swept over and fundamentally altered my place of work, and so it's been hard to find time to think about landscape and art.  However, I've just looked back at some draft posts and come upon the material here, which I wrote in 2011 after reading Will Schofield's 50Watts blog, where he reproduced various sets of scenery, like the one above, from a Dutch Puppetry Museum database.  They are all in muted colours, like memories of childhood.  When we were growing up I wasn't that taken with the Pollock’s Toy Theatre my parents got us; more recently, however, my sons did play a little with a Czech magnetic theatre.  The novelty wore off quite quickly though.  In an essay on the toy theatre, Robert Louis Stevenson looked back on the pleasure he had experienced admiring and painting these scenes and figures.  But then what?  'You might as well set up a scene or two to look at, but to cut the figures out was simply sacrilege; nor could any child twice court the tedium, the worry, and the long-drawn disenchantment of an actual performance.'

Another of my favourite blogs back in 2011, the now defunct Venetian Red, did an informative post on the history of toy theatres and their enthusiasts (you can read it here).  Writers and artists who remembered them with fondness included Goethe, Jack B. Yeats, Cocteau and Chesterton, who asked
“has not everyone noticed how sweet and startling any landscape looks when seen through an arch? This strong, square shape, this shutting off of everything else, is not only an assistance to beauty; it is the essential of beauty… This is especially true of toy theatre, that by reducing the scale of events it can introduce much larger events… Because it is small it could easily represent the Day of Judgement. Exactly in so far as it is limited, so far it could play easily with falling cities or with falling stars.”

Marcel Jambon, set design model for Verdi's Otello, 1895
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I wonder if there were painters who toyed with toy theatres while working up their compositional ideas, like set designers experimenting with their scale models?  Thomas Gainsborough, after all, was said to have 'built model landscapes in his studio, consisting of coal, clay or sand with pieces of mirror for lakes and sprigs of broccoli to represent trees, in order to help him construct his compositions.'  The set of Coulisses de Forêt below could have been used to design a hunting scene with framing trees and repoussoir stag, except, I suppose, that by the time it was printed in 1889, art had largely left behind these classical conventions.  The Toy Theatre blog says that the Épinal-based firm behind this example, Pellerin, produced scenes that were 'very distinctive in style and very French, but for all that rather second rate. The Pellerin sheets were like its other cut-out products, intended to be made, set up and looked at but not performed. There were no Toy Theatre plays as such, only tableaux.'

Coulisses de Forêt, 1889
Source: Geheugen van Nederland

It is a month later and I have just seen a toy theatre - the one used at the start of Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander.  As I mention in my most recent post, I visited the Bergmancentrer on Fårö and it is on display there. I have included a photograph below (sorry about the unavoidable reflection from the window opposite).  The sign above the stage means 'Not for Pleasure Alone'.  The film begins with running water and then cuts to this theatre, where a young boy's face is revealed as he pulls up the background landscape scenery.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Panorama of the Engadine

Giovanni Segantini, Spring Pastures, 1896
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In Journey to Mount Tamalpais, Etel Adnan's book that I discussed here a fortnight ago, she looks backwards to the mountain-haunted art of Hokusai and Cézanne.  Hans Ulrich Obrist mentions these artists too in the course of the interview transcribed in Etel Adnan in all her Dimensions, but he also refers to another painter of mountains, Giovanni Segantini, who ‘lived higher and higher up and when he died he was at 2500 metres in his cabin.’  This ascent was parallelled by his growing fame at the end of the nineteenth century, as the Segantini Museum in St. Moritz points out.  Segantini's search for ever higher places to paint en plein air was influenced in part by his reading of Nietzsche and he chose to work in the Swiss Engadine mountains that had inspired Thus Spake Zarathustra.   He was only 41 when he died in 1899, whilst painting the middle section of his Alpine Triptych, his health having been affected by working at altitude on the mountain of Schafberg.

 Giovanni Segantini, Alpine Triptych: Death, 1898-99
Source: Wikimedia Commons

A year after Segantini's death, the Universal Exposition in Paris might have contained his extraordinary panorama of the Engadine region.  In the event it was never painted, despite having initial financial support from a group of hotel owners inspired by Segantini's 'proclamation', which is quoted in Stephan Oettermann's book The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium.
Men of the Engadine!
       The project I have the honour of submitting to you, dear Engadiners and sons of the Alps, is a bold one, but as clear as the sunlight that shines on the mountains.  The world knows me as a painter of Alpine scenes.  My art was born amidst the solemn majesty of these peaks and here achieved the heights of its form. [...]  My panorama will have nothing in common with previous products of this genre. I intend to capture this portion of the Alps on canvas, the quality of its light and the clarity of its air; I will create the perfect illusion that the observer is high in the mountains, in a green meadow, surrounded by jagged peaks and sparkling glaciers, which feed our woody slopes with never-failing streams of fresh water and lave the smiling, fruitful valleys like emeralds in the hollows....
But this painted vista, stretching over 40,000 square feet, was by no means the summit of his ambition.

Segantini's 1897 sketch for the rotunda to contain his panorama (Segantini Museum).
This original design echoed the architecture of the Engadine's old Alpine houses.

As the proclamation goes on to explain, visitors would enter the building through a 'gallery hewn in rock' and ascend until they emerged on a craggy prominence 50 feet high with fir trees, 'mossy stones, little bridges, streams and gorges, wild flowers and fragrant herbs'.  Electrical ventilators would provide fresh air (his original idea had been to include giant ozone-producing machines) and a realistic atmosphere would be provided by lighting and hidden acoustic and hydraulic devices.  Between this viewing place and the wall of the panorama Segantini pictured 'barns full of fragrant hay, grazing cattle, and various geological features as well as the most important botanical and zoological specimens of our region.'  The building's facade would include symbolic representations of villages in the Upper Engadine, but also provide 28,000 square feet for advertising purposes.  Oettermann concludes that the withdrawal of support for the project 'spelled the end for a project that would have resulted in the most ambitious panorama of all time, in quality as well as sheer size.  It was also the death knell of the age of panoramas.'