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

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.'

Friday, July 08, 2016

Here in the immortal empire of the grasses

You can now read an online supplement to the journal Reliquiae which includes some archival material provided by myself and flowerville.  I've listed out the full contents below.  Here I thought I would highlight just one selection (as I have done with previous editions of the journal), but rather than pick one of my own I have chosen one of flowerville's: 'Letter XXX' by Étienne Pivert de Senancour.  It is from his Rousseauesque epistolary novel Oberman (begun in 1801, published in 1804, revised in 1833) and begins with the melancholy hero, on seeing a jonquil in bloom, apprehending for a moment 'all the happiness destined for man'.  According to the Danish critic Georg Brandes (quoted in Wikipedia) Senancour's book has been 'understood only by the highly gifted, sensitive temperaments, usually strangers to success.'  Here is another extract, from Letter II, in which Oberman first heads into the mountains.
I was under the pines of Jorat; the evening was fine, the woods silent, and the air still; the western sky was hazy, but cloudless. Everything seemed settled, light-filled, motionless, and when I happened to lift my eyes after keeping them long fixed on the moss beneath me, I experienced a wonderful illusion which my pensive mood prolonged. The steep slope which fell away to the water's edge was hidden from me by the knoll on which I sat, and the surface of the lake seemed inclined at a high angle, as though its opposite shore were lifted into the air. The Alps of Savoy were partly veiled by clouds indistinguishable from themselves and of the same tint. The sunset light, and the dim air in the depths of the Valais, lifted these mountains and cut them off from the earth by making their bases invisible ; and their huge formless bulk, neutral-tinted, sombre and touched with snow, light filled and yet partly invisible, seemed to me nothing but a mass of storm-clouds suspended in the air; and the only solid earth was that which held me up over empty space, alone, in immensity.
That moment was worthy of the first day of a new life; I shall have few like it. ...

Senancour's novel was influential.  I have referred here in passing before to one of the songs in Liszt's Années de pèlerinage cycle; the video clip embedded above is another, Vallée d'Obermann in E minor.  In England the book was important for Matthew Arnold, who wrote an essay on Senancour and two poems about Obermann (the hero's name had an extra 'n' added after Senancour's first edition). In 'Stanzas in Memory of the Author of Obermann' Arnold writes of feeling the mountain air blowing through Senancour's pages.  However, audible beneath the sounds of a lone torrent, wind in the pines and cowbells in the high pastures, he can hear a 'ground tone / of human agony'.  In 'Obermann Once More' Arnold returns to the Alps after many years, finding 'all unchanged / the turf, the pines, the sky', and recalls his youthful reading of Obermann.  As night falls the figure of Obermann appears to him, dressed as a shepherd and holding a mountain-flower, with a pensive gaze that seems to rest on his soul.  Obermann says that the times he lived through left him no choice but to live in solitude in the mountains.  But now,
"Despair not thou as I despair'd,
Nor be cold gloom thy prison!
Forward the gracious hours have fared,
And see! the sun is risen!

Reliquiae Supplement contents

New work:

  • Alyson Hallett: A ritual of release and remembrance at the Church of the Storms, Lizard Peninsula, Cornwall.
  • Maximillian Hartley: Moments sink into millennia on the ruins of black sands.
  • Mark Leech: The archaeological remnant, ‘two eyes under the sheet, trenched and ditched’.
  • Christopher Page: Pooled words, petitions, auguries, air and earth.
  • Richie McCaffery: On movement, transience and a hill’s ‘show of solidity’.
  • Sally Ann McIntyre: Boulder clay, erosion, evergreen flowers, wind moves words, memory sings.
  • John Morgan: Of Puerto del Suspiro del Moro – Pass of the Moor’s Sigh – in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Spain.
  • Jennifer Spector: Natural chaos, soil drumlins, the carry of clouds, glyphic sediment.

  • Archive work:

    A fragment on the soul of nature by Henri Frédéric Amiel; a descriptive passage on a ‘paradise of fish’ in Florida by William Bartram; a series of poetic excerpts from A Swedish Calendar by Alexander Malachias Berger; a poem for the ‘silent and dark and trackless swells’ of the north, by Charlotte Brontë; on trees, and ‘uniting the life of Earth and Sky’ by Edward Carpenter; the story of the Oriole by Florence Holbrook; Hyperion’s Song of Fate by Friedrich Hölderlin; a fragment on nature and solitude by Horace; excerpts from a treatise on nature, from the earthly sphere to the starry vault, by Alexander von Humboldt; a poem from the revelatory collection, Moosewood Sandhills, by Tim Lilburn; one of five gnomic, poetic Cantations for Endangered Species by Gerry Loose; on noticing the unnoticed by Amy Lowell; an evocation of moorland by night from Charlotte Mew; a contemplation on nature and perception by Alice Meynell; a Meskwaki myth documented by Truman Michelson; a Manx folktale from Sophia Morrison; an extract on wind-storms in a Californian winter by John Muir; a fragment from a depiction of the fabled Henry of Ofterdingen by Novalis; a poetic reflection on ‘the immortal empire of the grasses’ by Marjorie Pickthall; an inuit creation myth documented by Knud Rasmussen; a reflection on the radiance of flowers by Grace Little Rhys; a fragment on the sound of Scottish streams by John Ruskin; a letter, ‘lost in the abyss of darkness’ by Étienne Pivert de Senancour; an elegy for the badger, ‘that most ancient Briton of English beasts’ by Edward Thomas; poetic fragments from the forthcoming Epidote Press monograph on Hans Jürgen von der Wense; on cascades, cataracts and the currents of thought by Mary Wollstonecraft; an extract from The Waves by Virginia Woolf.

    Sunday, July 03, 2016

    Journey to Mount Tamalpais

    The Journey To Mount Tamalpais took over two decades to write, a slow accumulation of material as Etel Adnan painted, thought and looked each day at the mountain beyond her window.  It was published in 1986 by the Post-Apollo Press, which had been set up a few years earlier by her partner, the artist and writer Simone Fattal.  In Fattal's essay 'On Perception: Etel Adnan’s Visual Art', she describes the book as a philosophical meditation on Nature and Art, which it is, although what I found reading it was that you also gain a wonderful sense of the milieu that gave rise to both the book and Adnan's paintings of the mountain.  Interspersed with her thoughts on perception there are references to the regular artist workshops - 'peaceful parties with the seriousness of children at play' - organised by Ann and Dick O'Hanlan.  It is like reading Gary Snyder, where you remain aware that his writing is set within a wider project of how to live.  In an interview with Brooklyn Rail Fattal says that 'it’s a book that is very important for any person, not only artists, but of course for artists because it’s a meditation on art and its relationship with nature. What you receive from it is this very strong sense of morality and the strength with which you conduct your life.'

    Etel Adnan, Mountain, 2012  
    At the Serpentine Gallery, photography permitted

    Etel Adnan has depicted mountain forms - some more abstract than others - in oils, watercolours and ink.  According to Fattal, ‘the natural pyramidal shape of the mountain became embedded in her whole being. It became her identity.  She could draw it while in Lebanon, at night and at dawn; the mountain was for her the ever-revealing mystery, the ongoing manifestation.’  The leporello above can be seen at the wonderful exhibition of her art now on at the new Serpentine Sackler Gallery.  In an interview with co-curator Hans Ulrich Obrest, Adnan said that coming upon this format gave her 'a good way to get out of the page as a square or a rectangle; it was like writing a river.’  Obrest is a great admirer of Adnan's art and writings, which he first encountered in the form of one of these Japanese folding books.  He has said (in the catalogue for an earlier show, Etel Adnan in all her Dimensions) that he then sat down to read her novel Sitt Marie Rose (1977) and before long found himself addicted – the first time he had felt that way since high school when he had tried to read every single word Robert Walser ever wrote. 

    Adnan and Fattal now live in Paris.  Their apartment is described in a recent Wall Street Journal article which gives a good overview of her life and relatively recent fame.  There, 'when her painting is done, she might sit down to work on any number of projects in progress—a tapestry, a book of poems, a film, an opera.'  Adnan can no longer travel to California but carries the memory of the mountain with her.  She told Obrist that ‘Mount Tamalpais represents all mountains, all the dimensions of America in my head.’  Here is how The Journey to Mount Tamalpais ends
    ‘In this unending universe Tamalpais is a miraculous thing, the miracle of matter itself: something we can single out, the pyramid of our own identity.  We are, because it is stable and it is ever changing.  Our identity is the series of the mountain’s becomings, our peace is its stubborn existence.'

    Thursday, June 30, 2016

    View of Auvers-sur-Oise

    I have been reading A Burglar's Guide to the City by BLDGBLOG's Geoff Manaugh which has interesting things to say about buildings, street patterns and the way urban space is used.  With its focus on illegally entering enclosed structures there is little directly about 'landscape', although I did learn that a popular lock picking tool is a kind of landscape in miniature: the Bogotá rake, 'named because its waves and bends apparently resemble the mountains surrounding Bogotá, Columbia, where the tool was invented.'  Also that there is a thorny plant, trifoliate orange, popular with security conscious landscape designers because it 'is so dense and fast-growing that it can stop speeding vehicles; it is used by the U.S. military to help secure the perimeters of missile silos and armories.'  And that there was a burglar in Oregon
    'who dressed up in a ghillie suit, a tangled mass of fake vegetation woven into nets, originally meant to camouflage military snipers by making them indistinguishable from plant life.  Disguised as a plant, he then slipped into his target, which, of all things - because you couldn't make this up, it would be impossible to take seriously in a work of fiction - was a museum of rocks and minerals.  He was after their gold and gemstones.  Simulating one kind of landscape, he broke into a museum of another...'

    Stories like this got me thinking about landscape art in a different way, as a target for burglary. A Cézanne painting, View of Auvers-sur-Oise (c. 1879-82) that I've always liked (the postcard I'm holding above was purchased just after I did my A-levels) can no longer be seen because it was stolen on millennium night.  Here's how The Guardian reported the burglary on 3 January 2000.
    'The theft of a £3m painting by Paul Cézanne in Oxford on millennium night was carried out by a professional burglar who created a smokescreen to foil security cameras, it was disclosed yesterday.  With the noise of his break-in masked by celebratory fireworks, the burglar cut a hole in the roof of the Ashmolean museum and descended to its art gallery by rope ladder.  He had a holdall containing a scalpel, tape, gloves, a smoke canister and a small fan. He set off the canister, and used the fan to spread the smoke and obscure the view of the gallery's closed circuit cameras. In less than 10 minutes, he had seized the painting, View of Auvers-sur-Oise, climbed up the ladder, and gone.'
    There are apparently suspicions that this painting was stolen to order by a collector, obviously not a person to be satisfied with an Ashmolean Museum postcard.  Fortunately art thefts are too rare to consider any prevailing aesthetic in the landscapes targetted.  There's the painting that gave a name to an art movement - Monet's Impression, soleil levant - stolen in Paris by a yakuza gangster; Nebelschwaden by Caspar David Friedrich, taken along with two Turners by thieves who had hidden overnight in a Hamburg gallery; Govaert Flinck's Landscape with an Obelisk, lifted along with other Dutch masterpieces in Boston by a gang dressed up as policemen (one wearing a fake wax mustache); and Marine by Claude Monet, owned by a museum in Rio de Janeiro, which disappeared with its burglars into the carnival crowd, melting into the city like the thief who got away with his Cézanne while millennium fireworks created the perfect diversion.

    Claude Monet, Charing Cross Bridge, 1901
    Image: Wikimedia Commons, via Rotterdam Police

    I will end here with a quote from A Burglar's Guide to the City concerning the role of architecture in a theft involving two more Monet paintings.  The following paragraph is reprinted on the Fast Company website:
    'One of the most spectacular art heists of the last decade is thought to have succeeded precisely because of a flaw in a museum’s architectural design, which inadvertently allowed the general public to study the internal patterns of the security guards and visitors. The Kunsthal in Rotterdam, designed by Rem Koolhaas’s firm OMA, was robbed in the middle of the night back in October 2012; seven paintings were stolen, including works by Matisse, Gauguin, Monet, and Picasso. Ton Cremers, founder of the Museum Security Network, an online forum, put some of the blame for this on the building itself: the museum’s expansive floor-to-ceiling windows offered a clear and unobstructed view of many of the paintings hanging inside. More important, they also allowed a constant, real-time surveillance of the internal workings of the museum for anyone passing by—the patterns of visitors and the comings and goings of the guards were effectively on public display. Thus thieves could have sat outside in a nearby park, watching until they found the right moment to strike. The museum had its own internal rhythm of events that the burglars interrupted with a perfectly timed counter-event: the heist. This is the rhythmic spacetime of burglary.'

    Friday, June 24, 2016

    Quick Light

     Alex Katz, West 1, 1998

    The Serpentine Gallery currently has two excellent exhibitions, not to mention the striking new Bjarke Ingels pavilion.  I'll write about Etel Adnan separately; here I offer a few words about Alex Katz, and some images too because, unusually, you are allowed to take photographs.  The show is called 'Quick Light', suggesting moments of illumination, sun glancing off objects or perhaps, in the large painting above, windows glimpsed at night from a passing car.  Get up close to this painting and there are no further clues to the forms of the buildings or the identity of the city, all is black.  Such scenes are non-specific but were painted in New York, where Katz was born back in 1927 and where he started painting among the Abstract Expressionists and hanging out with the New York School poets. In another nocturnal image, Untitled Cityscape 4 (below), we see only a fragment of a dark building, a two-dimensional shadow against a cold grey sky streaked with ghostly cloud forms.  It is like a cropped detail from an Edward Hopper painting.  The fork of an aerial and corner of a dimly lit window have an air of menace.  What we are shown of the roof resembles a fortification. 

     Alex Katz, Untitled Cityscape 4, 2014

    Some of the daylit scenes in this exhibition have an unsettling quality too - an air of mystery that you find in younger artists Katz has influenced like Peter Doig4pm 2014 is painted in sickly shades of green and the view of what looks like a distant boathouse is obscured by a tree whose leaves are blowing into the cold sky.  As with Doig's landscapes, you often find yourself picturing a scene from a film, just before or after some darkly significant event.  That cloud of leaves in motion reminded me of the park in Antonioni's Blow Up where you hear nothing but the wind in the trees.  The painting below could be the illustration of a fable or fairy story, or some dream-like narrative by a Robert Walser or Franz Kafka.  It is painted in flat planes of colour, like a Matisse, except for the feathery strands of grass which seem to be animated by a breeze.  I thought again of cinema - the wind in the buckwheat in Tarkovsky's Mirror, the wheat swaying in Herzog's Kaspar Hauser.  Katz has said that he wanted his large-scale paintings to have the quality of the blown-up faces and landscapes you see on a movie screen. 

    Alex Katz, Red House 3, 2013
    Leaving the Serpentine Gallery and walking back out into the bright sunshine of Hyde Park I found myself seeing the lake and trees and various tableaux of figures in terms of Katz's vision of landscape.  A recent article in the Telegraph described the way Katz experienced something similar himself in the art of Cézanne.  'About a decade ago, Katz visited an exhibition of work by the French post-impressionist. “I was looking at his stuff and saying: ‘See, the guy couldn’t paint, it’s terrible, this is overworked’ – stuff like that,” he recalls. “Then, when I got on a train, all I could see were Cézanne landscapes. His vision is so strong that it dominates your mind. And that, for me, is the highest thing an artist can do.”'