Tuesday, July 18, 2017

From the flowers of summer


Having mentioned in my last post one enjoyable book published last year, I'd like to take this opportunity to recommend another, Christopher de Hamel's much-praised Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts.  Plants, birds and animals abound in medieval manuscripts, as is evident in the cover of the book itself, an illustration from the Morgan Beatus, fifth of the twelve Remarkable Manuscripts that the author visits.  Morgan is the Morgan Library in New York, Beatus is Beatus of Liébana (c. 730 – c. 800), a monk whose commentaries on the Apocalypse were written in the Picos de Europa mountains just at the time Charlemagne was fighting the Moors in Spain.  The manuscript was made later, in north-west Spain, and is actually signed by a scribe called Maius (d. 968).  It includes a map ('extremely naive and based on echoes of Roman geography') and Mozarabic paintings with colours and patterns suggesting 'the tiles and mosaics of Islamic architecture', but nothing, unsurprisingly, that could be called a 'landscape'.  Later in the book, though, there is a full-page landscape illustration and it appears in what is probably the most famous of de Hamel's Remarkable Manuscripts.

Illustration from the Carmina Burana
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Carmina Burana is a collection of songs and poems, mainly about love and drinking, made around 1230 somewhere in the county of Tyrol, in what is now Austria.  It has become world famous thanks to Carl Orff's cantata, first staged in 1937; his setting of the first song in the manuscript, O Fortuna, has been recycled endlessly in films and will forever be associated in Britain with the advert for Old Spice aftershave.  Here though I am interested in one of the other poems, which begins "Ab estatis floribus amor nos salutat' ('From the flowers of summer, love greets us...')  The accompanying illustration, de Hamel writes, 'shows two scenes in verdant woodland.  This must be a prime candidate for the earliest pure landscape in all of medieval art.'

As you can see, this woodland in the Carmina Burana is not exactly realistic.  It is not the German forest that will appear, three hundred years later, in the first independent landscapes painted by artists like Altdorfer and Huber.  Nor is it remotely like the detailed scenes that appear in the margins of high-quality fifteenth century illuminated manuscripts, and which resemble those wonderful views seen through windows in contemporary Northern Renaissance portraits.  This illustration was conceived at a time when no landscapes as such were being painted in the West.  Now, as I insert a reference to the Carmina Burana into my international landscape and culture chronology, I can't help wondering what its illuminator would have made of a Southern Song Dynasty scroll painting...

Clearly the scene depicted in this manuscript is not even a naive attempt at topography.  As de Hamel points out, 'the inclusion here of a lion is much more appropriate for the Garden of Eden than for a familiar spring day in the German woods.'  Those strange, luxuriant trees look primeval.  In the top section we see birds which, according to Genesis, appeared on the fifth day of Creation, and in the bottom half are the animals that arrived a day later.  This is not then the setting for a bawdy German love song.  It is a medieval vision of the original landscape, created by God.

Friday, July 14, 2017

View of the Garden of the Villa Medici

 Diego Velázquez, View of the Garden of the Villa Medici, c. 1630
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the course of her fascinating book on Velázquez, The Vanishing Man, published last year, Laura Cumming writes about 'a picture without precedent.'  The View of the Garden of the Villa Medici 'seems to have no pretext, no definitive narrative or focus.  A fragmentary glimpse, strikingly modern in its random observations, it is simply itself - the momentary scene.'  Velázquez was in Rome in 1630 and knew Poussin and Claude, who were painting their great classical landscapes at this time.  But 'to depict nature purely for itself, live and unadorned - in its natural state, as it were - was very much the innovation of Velázquez.'  Cumming sees nothing similar in art before Corot, 'whose silvery landscapes with their secretive air have a genetic link back to Velázquez'.  But is it really the case that Velázquez was so ahead of his time?  

Albrecht Altdorfer, Landscape with Footbridge, 1516
Source: Wikimedia Commons
In Western art, earlier 'independent' landscape paintings, going back to Albrecht Altdorfer, do not have the air of real places seen at real moments.  There are plein air sketches that have this quality, but they do not resemble the Velázquez eitherClaude made such studies in the Roman Campagna and the example below is by another contemporary, Van Dyck, who was court painter to Charles I while Velázquez worked for Philip IV of Spain (The Vanishing Man is about a portrait of the young Charles that was apparently painted by Velázquez, or possibly by Van Dyck, or maybe neither...)  The View of the Garden of the Villa Medici is different, more reminiscent of certain oil sketches made in the late eighteenth century (the cloth on the balcony is like the washing hung out on Thomas Jones' A Wall in Naples).  It could have been a sketch of this kind, but the Prado's curators (quoting Javier Portús) say that it is currently considered to be a finished, self-sufficient work.

Anthony van Dyck, An English Landscape, c. 1635
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Laura Cumming describes The Vanishing Man as 'a book of praise for Velázquez, greatest of painters.'  She writes effusively about the brilliant and subtle ways he found to apply paint to canvas.  In the View of the Garden of the Villa Medici, which is relatively small (48.5 x 43 cm), she notices something remarkable.
'The weave of the cloth is exactly the right size to imitate the pattern of bricks at that distance.  This is one of Velázquez's unimaginably subtle calculations.  How could he guess in advance, or did it come to him as he painted?  This is a great question with his art: what grows out of what, how it all evolves at leisure, or at speed, by chance or design.  But what one sees here is something akin to precision engineering, in terms of vision and judgement: each brick finds its tiny outline in the grid of threads.'
   Diego Velázquez, View of the Garden of the Villa Medici [detail], c. 1630
Source: Prado

Perhaps surprisingly, Cumming makes no mention of the fact that this painting of the Villa Medici has a companion piece, also in the Prado: a view of the same structure seen from a different angle, but with more prominent foreground figures.  It is a marvellously strange, enigmatic image; in the background a man looks out at the distant view, like a Romantic Rückenfigur, and beside him the statue of sleeping Ariadne foreshadows the sequence of mysterious Ariadne paintings de Chirico painted in 1912-13.  There might originally have been two more of these paintings.  It may be that what we have now 'are two of the four little landscapes that the artist sold to Phillip IV in 1634' (Portús).  The disappearance and reappearance of artworks is central to The Vanishing Man and now, after having read it, I can't help wondering about the possibility of other Velázquez landscapes one day coming to light.

Diego Velázquez, View of the Garden of the Villa Medici, with the statue of Ariadne, c. 1630
Source: Prado

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Igualada Cemetery

Commenting yesterday on my post about the Stockholm Woodland Cemetery, Ken Worpole, author of Last Landscapes: The Architecture of the Cemetery in the West, mentioned his high regard for the modern cemetery at Igualada in Spain.  Ken has also kindly sent me three photographs which I have included here (an ArchDaily article on Igualada has more images, including some taken after a snowfall).  Enric Miralles designed the cemetery with his partner Carme Pinòs in 1984 and it was constructed over the following decade.  In Britain, Miralles is best known for the Scottish Parliament Building which was completed after his early death in 2000 (he is buried at Igualada). Writing last year in The Architectural Review, Ken notes that Igualada 'is in harsh rocky terrain punctuated by quarries' and so the architects made use of this in their design, incorporating rusting steel, old railway sleepers, quarried stone.  The result is somewhere that 'possesses a profound spiritual presence within its severe landscape: serious and purposeful without being in any way morbid.'

I have not visited Igualada myself (though we weren't that far away a couple of summers ago).  I will therefore quote here some impressions by two British architects, Joe Morris and Mary Duggan, interviewed in Building Design.
'The work is like no other we had come across. It is an architecture of the land, a work which choreographs the geological and sculptural qualities of the landscape; an architecture of topography. The narrative, one in which the living are brought downwards into a city of the dead, is potent and creates an eerie but contemplative series of spaces. 
'The palette of materials speaks of the site. It is reduced to materials which over time will express the ravages of time and weather and are intended to be subsumed by the landscape within which they sit. Concrete, granite, Corten, each material is selected for the visceral illustration of its origin, forged or excavated from the earth, and slowly returning to the landscape.'

And to conclude, from a lengthier more theoretical article by Tom Bliska, here is another reflection on the way the architects worked with space and time:
'Miralles and Pinos are serving as “exegetes of the landscape,” drawing from the site’s history and local landform precedents to create a space that is itself a program. Every cemetery has an explicit connection to the past, in the sense of a distorted reflection of the city that produced it, but Miralles and Pinos are specific in creating traces of the past through articulation of fragments, frameworks, and the path one takes through them. The long walk down to the mausoleum plaza at the low point of the site is filled with the “immediate and imperfect”: rough aggregate ground surface, violently skewed steel markers, indeterminate edges between precast concrete and gabion wall. It is this layering that builds the narrative quality of the space, boundaries that shift with movement and tactility to present an abstracted history of the site itself as process. In this way, Igualada cemetery can be read as a chronotopia, a space where fragments of the past are either exposed or rearticulated didactically to express the meaning of the site’s current form.'

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Skogskyrkogården, the Woodland Cemetery

I was in Stockholm for a meeting in May and took the opportunity to visit Skogskyrkogården, the famous Woodland Cemetery which in 1994 became only the second location developed in the twentieth century to become a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It was late on Sunday afternoon when I got there - the visitor centre was shut but I had the place almost to myself.  A couple of other tourists, one person tending a grave, a solitary jogger (they are everywhere).  I took a short video clip on my phone (below) which gives a sense of how peaceful it was, though you could never escape the low background rumble of traffic.  I'm not sure how many deer there are in these woods; another one emerged from behind these graves just after I stopped filming.  They were watchful but not fearful.  It did not seem that surprising to find them there - even here in London when you step into a graveyard like Abney Park Cemetery, near my home in Stoke Newington, you become aware that you are among squirrels, birds and butterflies.

Skogskyrkogården was conceived jointly by architects by Gunnar Asplund (1885-1940) and Sigurd Lewerentz (1885-1975), who won a competition in 1915 to design a new cemetery on the site of an old quarry.  In addition to the landscape, they designed distinctive buildings - a classical Resurrection Chapel positioned at the end of a long tree-lined path, an intimate Woodland Chapel amid the pines, and a graceful and a functionalist crematorium.  From this crematorium you look across a pond towards a bare slope on the summit of which is a group of trees.  On my visit this meditation grove was a dark silhouette against a white sky which would soon be filling Stockholm with unseasonable snow.  But you can see the trees in full leaf on the cover of Ken Worpole's fascinating book, Last Landscapes: The Architecture of the Cemetery in the West (2003).  From the vantage point of this photograph (by Larraine Worpole), the foreground is dominated by Asplund's stark granite cross, inspired by Caspar David Friedrich.

Caspar David Friedrich, Cross on the Baltic Sea, 1815
Source: Wikimedia Commons

On the occasions I have visited graveyards over the years, there has usually been at least one prominent memorial I've been keen to find - Ezra Pound at San Michele near Venice, Alejo Carpentier in Havana's Colon Cemetery, Karl Marx at Highgate, dozens of culture heroes at Père Lachaise...  Wandering around the Stockholm Woodland Cemetery it was something of a relief just to be experiencing the landscape, without looking for anybody famous.  Nevertheless, I did come upon the grave of Greta Garbo, whose family chose this for her because it was 'a long way from the hustle and bustle of the world'.  There is no eye-catching monument to the great movie star, but neither is it the case that she is simply buried in an egalitarian spirit along with all the others.  Her headstone stands isolated against the trees -  fittingly perhaps for someone famous for saying "I just want to be alone".  It seems to have the makings of a shrine: a path has been laid to it and, as you can see below, trees are being planted in a semi circle to form a kind of special enclosed space.    

There are no film stars buried in Abney Park Cemetery, though you can find a famous nineteenth century music hall artist, George Leybourne, the original 'Champagne Charlie' - a fact mentioned in Last Landscapes (Ken lives near me in Stoke Newington).  I would agree with Ken that despite the efforts of the Abney Park Trust, it is still in parts 'a forlorn, tangled forest', very different from the woods of Skogskyrkogården.  Originally the early Victorian London cemeteries were designed as Gardenesque landscapes - John Claudius Loudon published an influential book on the subject in 1843.  Abney Park Cemetery Originally (which opened in 1840) was designed as an arboretum and became a kind of tourist attraction like Kew Gardens.  As the population grew it rapidly filled up, but perhaps in its early days it would have had something of the atmosphere of a woodland cemetery.  Today they are very different: as Ken says, the Stockholm Woodland Cemetery gives the impression when you enter it of 'a vast rolling landscape, with deep forest beyond', yet you quickly come upon intimate, peaceful spaces for tranquil reflection.  It is, he concludes, 'the most successful example of large-scale landscape design in the twentieth century.'

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Gardens of Fontainebleau

Narcisse Virgilio Díaz, Forest of Fontainebleau, 1868
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Forest of Fontainebleau has a special place in the history of western landscape art: painted repeatedly by the Barbizon School and the Impressionists who took inspiration from them.  That there is still a forest to explore is down in part to Théodore Rousseau: he 'appealed to Napoleon III to halt the wholesale destruction of the forest’s trees, and in 1853 the emperor established a preserve to protect the artists’ cherished giant oaks' (see the Met's online essay on the Barbizon School).  We were in Fontainebleau on that fiercely hot weekend earlier this month and I yearned to head into the forest to find some of that deep shade painted by Rousseau's friend Narcisse Virgilio Díaz.  But we'd come for culture rather than nature, to visit the Château de Fontainebleau.  Emerging from its opulent rooms in the full heat of the afternoon we made our way across the Grand Parterre, with its low hedges and topiary cones stretching into the distance.  This flat, mathematical space, planned out by André Le Nôtre and Louis Le Vau, is as different a landscape as can be imagined from the dense wooded slopes and tenebrous clearings explored by the Barbizon painters.  Strange then to find at its centre, beneath the surface of a square ornamental pool, a miniature forest, swaying gently in the cool, clear water. 

Before the Barbizon School there was the School of Fontainebleau, two schools in fact, the first comprising artists brought to decorate the palace during the sixteenth century (including Benvenuto Cellini, who describes the work in his wonderfully vivid Autobiography), the second at the beginning of the seventeenth during one of the phases of renovation and redecoration that continued down to Napoleon's time.  These Mannerist artists were much more interested in mythological figures and allegorical references than in anything to do with landscape, as can be seen in the print below, where a rocky scene is completely dominated by its framing figures. There are numerous references to hunting in their decorative schemes: the forest as resource for the king's pleasure.  The Palace contains a Gallery of Diana and a Gallery of Stags.  There is also a Jardin de Diane, with a fountain dating from the early nineteenth century dedicated to the goddess; its water comes from the mouths of stags and, as my son's were quick to point out, four "pissing dogs". 

Antonio Fantuzzi, Cartouche with male and female satyrs
carrying baskets and flanking a rocky landscape, 1543
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tommaso Francini, The Château and Gardens, early 17th century
 Source: Wikimedia Commons
One of the Valois Tapestries, showing a festival on the lake at Fontainebleau, 
made shortly after 1580.

The Carp Lake visible in the seventeenth century plan shown above is still there (as are the carp).  The photograph of it below was taken from a rowing boat that I was pressed into hiring.  The lake at Fontainebleau can also be seen in one of the Valois Tapestries, made to commemorate eight of Catherine de' Medici's famous court festivals.  This one took place in 1564 and was just one event in the royal progress that took her and her son, the new king, two and a half years to complete.  The household accompanying them included her 'flying squadron' (L'escadron volant) of eighty seductive ladies-in-waiting, and nine dwarfs who travelled in their own miniature coaches.  The great poet Pierre de Ronsard was present at Fontainebleau, where there were feasts, jousts, sirens singing, Neptune floating in his chariot and an attack on an enchanted island.  I wonder how many of them thought about the real forest beyond the Château as they acted out imaginary battles in an artificial landscape.  A century later the island in the lake was given a small pavilion; later it was restored by Napoleon.  We were warned as we climbed into the boat not to row too close it, although I don't think our inept collective efforts at steering could have got us there anyway.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Pink and White Terraces

Charles Blomfield, Pink Terraces, 1886
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this month news came in that the lost terraces of Lake Rotomahana had been discovered.  The Pink Terrace (Te Otukapuarangi - 'the fountain of the clouded sky') and the White Terrace (Te Tarata - 'the tattooed rock') were three quarters of a mile apart, each a descending sequence of pools formed by silica in the water that welled up from geothermal springs.  Having first been described by a European traveller in the early 1840s, they become a major tourist attraction for visitors to New Zealand; but in 1886, following an eruption of Mount Tarawera, they disappeared.  Two researchers now think the terraces may lie preserved under mud and ash and are assembling a “team of the willing” to explore the site.  However, in its report The Guardian cautions that another team thought they had found the terraces in 2011, and only last year GNS Science New Zealand concluded that most of them had been destroyed.

 Charles Blomfield, White Terraces, Rotomahana, 1903
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Some photographs were taken of the terraces (see below), but our main idea of what they looked like comes from the paintings of Charles Blomfield (1848-1926).  He began making landscape views in the North Island in the 1870s and the sketches he made of the Pink and White Terraces were source material for paintings long after the landscape had been buried.  Contemporary travel writers felt the inadequacy of words to convey the form and colours of what was before them.  In The Australian Abroad (1879) James Hingston was unequal to the task of describing Te Tarata: 'we had better stop until we get the shade of J. M. W. Turner, that great painter of the mystic, to assist us.'  However, as Lydia Wevers says in Country of Writing: Travel Writing and New Zealand, 'like many travel writers who apostrophise the indescribability of the terraces, Hingston proceeds to describe them for several paragraphs.'

Charles Spencer, Hot Water Cups, White Terrace, 1880
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1877 the prolific travel writer and painter Constance Gordon-Cumming visited Lake Rotomahana (her account can be read in Chapter XXV of At Home in Fiji).  The White Terraces were 'in nature what the Taj Mahal at Agra is in architecture, — a thing indescribable — a fairy city of lace carved in pure marble, — a thousand waterfalls suddenly frozen and fringed with icicles.'  The next day she took in Te Otukapuarangi and 'got a large very careful drawing from the ridge overlooking these terraces, with our tent and the white terraces on the other side of the lake.'  Lydia Wevers criticises the proprietorial birds-eye view Gordon-Cumming adopted in her sketches and the very Victorian attitude of colonial entitlement evident in her writing.  After painting the landscape she got into a dispute over whether a payment should be made to the local Maori (they had been asking £5 for a photograph and thought paintings would warrant a higher fee).

The Pink Terrace, New Zealand 
from Oceana, or England and her Colonies by James Anthony Froude (1886)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Before this unpleasantness over money occurred, Constance Gordon-Cumming had been relaxing in the waters of the Pink Terraces.  You can see from a description like this why people would be motivated to try to find them again, though surely their original magic would be unrecoverable:
'Rock and water are alike smooth and warm and pleasant, and you can prolong the delight of the bath to any extent, passing from one pool to another, sometimes receiving a gentle shower as the sparkling drops trickle from the overhanging rim of a pool, perhaps eight or ten feet above you, or else lying still in passive enjoyment, and watching the changing lights that flit across lake and hill, and all the time the kindly water is coating you with a thin film of that silica which makes the bath so smooth and the bather so silky'
I will conclude here with another description of this experience from perhaps the most famous visitor to the terraces, Anthony Trollope.  He was there in 1873 and remarked on the shell-like appearance of these natural pools, in which 'four or five may sport ... each without feeling the presence of the other.'
'In the bath, when you strike your chest against it, it is soft to the touch. You press yourself against it, and it is smooth. You lie upon it, and though it is firm, it gives to you. You plunge against the sides, driving the water over your body, but you do not bruise yourself. ... I have never heard of other bathing like this in the world.'

Charles Blomfield, White Terraces, Rotomahana, 1897
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Great Forest

Jacob van Ruisdael, The Great Forest, 1655-60

Peter Handke's text The Lesson of Mont Sainte-Victoire (1980) unsurprisingly focuses on Cézanne and the landscape of Provence, but it ends with a painting by Ruisdael, The Great Forest, which can be seen in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, and a detailed description of a walk to an unregarded stretch of woodland on the outskirts of Salzburg.  As Handke points out, the title of Ruisdael's painting may simply refer to its size (1800 x 1390cm) rather than the scale of the forest it depicts, which at first sight hardly appears 'great'.  Then again, perhaps in this picture we are only at the beginning of the forest.  The wayfarer may simply have 'turned to cast a look before going deeper into the woods.  The feeling of spaciousness is further intensified by a peculiarity of seventeenth-century Dutch landscapes: for all the minuteness of their forms, they nevertheless, with their patches of water, their roads over dunes, their dark woods (under spacious skies), begin to grow as one beholds them' (trans. Ralph Manheim).

The woodland Handke walks to from Salzberg is also nothing like a great forest, 'yet it is wonderfully real'.  Few in Salzberg know of this space, lying between the city and the castle of Hellbrunn: 'here there are only logging roads and irregular paths, and you seldom see a walker; at the most you may hear a jogger's panting and see the skin of this face, mask replacing mask, change from dead to alive and back again at every step.'  Handke's description of the forest is as detailed as Ruisdael's and as attentive to light and colour.  Trying to follow his route on Google Earth (see my aerial view of the woodland below) only emphasises the unreality of that medium as it currently stands and its inadequacy in comparison with Handke's prose.  But this is not an idyllic landscape isolated from the surrounding suburbs.  At the end of his walk, Handke stands looking at polystyrene floating on a pond and a woodpile covered in plastic tarp.  We know from earlier in the book that a woodpile has complex associations for Handke and here in the woods it stimulates a kind of epiphany, a brief Tree of Life-style cosmic reverie.  The forest opens onto a vast spaciousness that encompasses both space and time.  Then it is over and he takes a deep breath and sets off back along the path to return to the city.