Friday, November 27, 2015

Mountains rising like teeth from the plain

Whilst in the Courtauld Gallery earlier this week to see the Peter Lanyon exhibition I had a look at the permanent collection and spent some time wondering at the landscape background in an early sixteenth century painting by L'Ortolano, Woman taken in adultery.  Instead of a simple grass bank behind the figures, there is a blur of green in which leaves seem to float like seaweed.  To the left, deep blue rocks frame what appears to be a fast flowing river, looking as if it had been photographed with a long exposure.  There is another painting attributed to L'Ortolano down the road at the National Gallery (below) in which these effects are less marked, but where areas of grass and rock, painted in short Renoirish strokes, bear some resemblance to the surface of water.

L'Ortolano, Saints Sebastian, Roch and Demetrius (detail), c. 1520

The Met own an Adoration of the Shepherds, about which the curators remark 
that 'as in so many Ferrarese paintings, the landscape is enchanting, with itsmountains "rising like teeth from the plain," as they were once described.'  There is a disquieting contrast between the pastoral middle ground and those strange storm-cloud like forms rising from the land beyond the water.  Some more of these billowing mountains can be seen in the Fitzwilliam's St John the Baptist (right) and the Galleria Doria Pamphilj's Nativity with Saints.  In these too they contrast with serene, sunlit scenes just behind the main figures.  At this time painters in Ferrara such as L'Ortolano, Garofalo and Mazzolino seem to have come under the influence of Northern landscape painting. You find rock formations rearing above the landscape in paintings by Joachim Patinir, but they usually resemble shards of ice or crystals.  L'Ortolano's look as if they have surged briefly into life and could soon blow away, like a summer storm.

L'Ortolano, The Adoration of the Shepherds (detail), before 1527

L'Ortolano, Nativity with Saints (detail),1520s

Friday, November 20, 2015

Heard beyond the mountains

So it seems I have now been writing this blog for exactly ten years.  If I had considered this when I started and realised it was going to have more than one or two actual readers, I might have come up with a better name for it...  I recall being too eager to get down to it to think beyond the idea that it would be about 'some landscapes'.  That first post in November 2005 was about two works by Richard Long and Hamish Fulton combining sound, text and art - three ways of addressing landscape through culture that I have continued to write about ever since.  All the subsequent posts are still available on my clickbait-free sidebar, or they can be accessed through the index (itself now nearly 20,000 words long) or through the Google maps I recently added.  However, rather than look back on what I have covered over the years, I thought it might be good here to celebrate other people's blogs that I have particularly enjoyed, with a few autumnal images and quotes thrown in.
'The sun passes lower in the sky, bringing the quickening rush that starts the long winter months. Tresses of drying peppers spread like flames across sheds, turning the stone walls into scenes of tropical design. The elegant stems of onions that have spoked all summer above the swelling bulbs are plaited, woven together like hands in a dance, and hung out of the way of snow. Felled trees are hauled by donkey from the forests, wearing a glaze of lichens and ice. They’re split by axe throughout the day, the thud of blade against wood marking the hours, and stacked to face what is left of the sun.' 
This description is from 'Gathering In', an autumn 2011 post on Julian Hoffman's Notes from Near and Far.  His blog has formed the basis of a book, The Small Heart of Things, on the landscape of the Prespa Lakes in northern Greece.  In 2015 it seems more likely that a Twitter feed will lead to a book deal - Penguin recently won a bidding war over the Herdwick Shepherd.  According to the Guardian, The Shepherd’s Life 'may well do for sheep what Helen Macdonald did for hawks'.  Before H is for Hawk, Helen (as Pluvialis) wrote Fretmarks, a personal blog which flew wherever it wanted - there were obviously a lot of hawk photos but also thoughtful reflections on poetry and nature writing, plus on one occasion a little appreciation of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (that's a JSBX T-shirt being worn by Plinius in the photo accompanying this blog).  Some writers have obviously been told to write blogs by their publishers but there are those who clearly do them for the love of sharing their experiences in the landscape - Melissa Harrison's Tales of the City, for example.  I often turn to Caspar Henderson's A New Map of Wonders for inspiration - today he has quoted Barry Lopez: 'the first lesson in learning how to see more deeply into a landscape was to be continuously attentive...

Julian Hoffman, photograph for 'Gathering In', 2011 

Both myself and Mrs Plinius are great admirers of the writings of Ken Worpole.  The blog he started with Jason Orton, The New English Landscape, contains short essays on some of the themes I have covered on this site.  British writing, music and film have all been covered in recent years on Landscapism, which I hope Eddie manages to keep going while he pursues his academic studies.  Similar ground has been covered by the collective blog Caught by the River, for which many of those I am talking about here have written short pieces.  Collaborative sites can be as transitory as personal ones, but this one, with its publications, social events and festival appearances, looks like it will become a long-lived and well-loved British institution.  Another excellent blog with many authors is hosted by The Wordsworth Trust.  It's focus is on Romanticism broadly, not just Wordsworth - I have a post on Robert Southey's 'The Cataract of Lodore' coming up on it soon.

Some of the earlier literary blogs posted diary entries of great authors - you can for example read what Henry David Thoreau had to say about cranberries on this day in 1853.  The John Clare Weblog started over a year before mine and reached its 1000th post sometime ago.  Each entry contains a poem or text, often linked to the changing seasons.  From November 2005 here is the first stanza of one of Clare's autumn poems which seems particularly apt in a week of such blustery weather.
I love the fitful gust that shakes
The casement all the day,
And from the glossy elm tree takes
The faded leaves away,
Twirling them by the window pane
With thousand others down the lane. 
The web is full of poetry sites (the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog has a long list of links) but one of the most visually appealing is 'Beyond the Pale', a blog by Tom Clark.  This is the American Tom Clark, not to be confused with Thomas A. Clark who also has a more infrequent blog, highlighting his art works and new publications. 'Beyond the Pale' covers a wide range of material but it does sometimes feature poems with landscape imagery; a recent post for example centred on a translation of Hsieh T'iao's 'Viewing the Three Lakes', from which these are the opening lines
Red clouds mirrored where the waters meet.
From the red terrace -- birds returning,
the encircling plains, mosaic of river isles.
Inklings of spring's luxuriance
as autumn's last yellows fade.

Last yellows, from my window today

These autumn images keep reminding me of the transitory nature of blogs which may aspire to the form of trees but are more often like leaves, sustained only for a short time.  I am sure many psychogeography and walking blogs have been started over the last ten years; among those still being maintained are the Psychogeographic ReviewUnder a Grey Sky (Berlin), Urban Adventure in RotterdamEast of Elveden (Norfolk) and Particulations (theory).  My two favourites (both with exemplary accompanying Twitter feeds) are Lines of Landscape and The Fife Psychogeographical Collective.  The FPC now have a book based on the blog, From Hill to Sea, which I am sure is excellent.  The most recent dispatch from Fife had an Autumnal theme and included these lines from Rilke's Letters on Cézanne
'At no other time (than autumn) does the earth let itself be inhaled in one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more honeysweet where you feel it touching the first sounds. Containing depth within itself, darkness, something of the grave almost.'
Sadly, over all these years, I have never found any other blogs devoted to the history of landscape art.  I had hoped that the Internet's 'long tail' might have given rise to blogs devoted to the art of Cézanne or Balke or Altdorfer, to the Nanjing School or Aeropittura or early seventeenth century copper plate landscapes... perhaps they do exist and I've failed to come across them.  For garden history I always used to enjoy Gardenhistorygirl - silent since 2014 - but the Garden Visit site's blog continues and it sometimes discusses interesting historical questions (e.g. on whether Zen gardens really were 'Zen').  I like the way its latest post begins: 'hard to know what I would write if the Sunday Express asked me to do a few hundred words on garden design but I can put some helpful advice in one sentence: 'don’t take advice from Alan Titchmarsh''.

No doubt someone has already written an academic study of blogging's role in art practice.  Chris Drury has used microcosm and macrocosm to document three of his projects, but it has been dormant since 2012.  He is one of the artists whose progress I follow through Peter Foolen's blog, a reliable source of intelligence on upcoming exhibitions by people like herman de vries, Roger Ackling, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Alec Finlay and the artists wrote about ten years ago today, Hamish Fulton and Richard Long. Alec Finlay's own blogspot site is probably no longer the optimal means of keeping up with his activities but, like Chris Drury, he has used blogger to chart the progress of certain projects.  Five years ago I wrote about The Road North, in which he and Ken Cockburn mapped Basho's famous journey onto the geography of Scotland.  Station 47 was their temple of Zenshoji, Stonypath, the garden created by Alec's parents.  In this post Alec quoted an autumn poem by Basho (the translation is by Cid Corman).
all that night
the autumn winds being heard
beyond the mountains

Alec Finlay, Autumn (fallen), 2010 

Music and sound art blogs have come and gone - the useful Field Reporter site for example seems to have become inactive a year ago.  It looked for a while as if Alex Ross would stop writing The Rest is Noise but he is still at it (I quoted him in a recent post about Mahler).  His latest post is about a 'mobile opera' performed out in the landscape, HopscotchSome of the composers I have featured in my end-of-year landscape music surveys have kept blogs.  The Land Observations site documents the work of James Brooks which I first mentioned here in 2012.  Jez riley French has a blog for his field recordings but also another one, treasure hiding, that is more of an online notebook featuring art and photography as well as music.  Richard Skelton has one blog under his own name one for his Landings project.  The Corbel Stone Press which Richard runs with Autumn Richardson has its own elegant Wordpress blog - newest posts concern the latest edition of their journal Reliquiae.  (I will shortly be editing the first Reliquiae Digital Supplement in collaboration with flowerville, whose own blog engages with an intriguing range of writers).

There are more I should mention... hard to classify like The Art of Memory (the link I've embedded here is to posts labelled 'sea'), or at the outer limits what I cover on this site: Friends of the Pleistocene, Ecology without Nature.  Design, with its constant flow of striking images and new ideas has been an ideal subject for blogs, some of which have grown into more ambitious undertakings (two of my neighbours run an excellent site called Dezeen which often features nature-related design and landscape architecture).  I have kept links here to a few blogs that investigated landscape futures even though they are no longer being updated: Deconcrete, Landscape and Urbanism and the much-missed Pruned.  But the best of these speculative blogs, indeed the finest blog of any kind I have encountered, Geoff Manaugh's BLDGBLOG, passed its tenth anniversary last year.  I'll end by repeating here what Geoff wrote then, thanking you 'for reading, commenting, critiquing, and following along, whoever and wherever you are.'

Thursday, November 12, 2015


'There is nothing that lasts on this scene of forgetting, nothing stands firm and endures.  It changes its face, continually trying to draw borders and shorelines.  The river is new for each story.' - Haroldo Conti
Rivers lend themselves to linear narratives but deltas, with their tides, silt, shifting channels and networks of shallow tributories, suggest stories that will not necessarily lead anywhere, not even to the sea.  I have been reading the Argentinian writer Haroldo Conti's novel of the Paraná Delta, Southeaster (1962), recommended to me for its treatment of landscape.  I could quote here descriptions of sandbanks, shorelines and mist-shrouded islands but it would be hard to convey the cumulative effect of two hundred pages on these waters.  You can read a review by Melissa Harrison in the Financial Times which sums the book up very well.  As she says, the protagonist 'is a drifter who has worked for some time with a nameless old man, cutting reeds in the wetlands of the Paraná Delta. This is a landscape Conti knew intimately, and in his sensuous and meticulously observed descriptions of the alluvial basin and islands, the dense scrub and the humid, oppressive weather, there is a sense of a way of life unchanged for centuries — yet in the distance, if the light is right, the towers of Buenos Aires shimmer, and every so often military aircraft scream overhead. The effect is unsettling.'

There is an 'Afterword' by John King, whose excellent Modern Latin American Fiction: A Survey I read avidly at university when it seemed as if all the most interesting writers were from South America.  Three of the novels I enjoyed back then, Love in the Time of Cholera, The General In His Labyrith (both by García Márquez) and The Green House (Vargas Llosa) concerned river journeys but they were very different to Southeaster, with its slow pace, muted imagery and precise descriptions of fishing and navigation.  King mentions other pre-Boom writers admired by Conti for whom landscape was important: the Uruguayans Juan José Morosoli and Juan Carlos Onetti, the Brazilian João Guimarães Rosa, and the poet most associated with the Paraná river, Juan L. Ortiz.  He also draws parallels with Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, the nineteenth century president of Argentina in whose political writings the river was a central theme.  Conti lived near Sarmiento's old home and both their houses have now become museums.  Politics only featured in Conti's last novel, Mascaro, the American Hunter, published in 1975.  A year later a new military regime came to power and Conti became one of the disappeared.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

The pass where Roland fell

We went down to Chichester last weekend to see the Pallant House David Jones exhibition. I have written here before about Jones' book The Anathemata but not previously described his paintings, which are discussed in the excellent catalogue by Ariane Bankes and Paul Hills.  Landscape became a central concern for Jones in the late 1920s when he lived with Eric Gill's family at Capel-y-ffin (shown above on the cover of the book).  After his turn to writing and breakdown in 1932 there are fewer landscapes and these mainly views from windows ("I like looking out on the world from a reasonably sheltered position").  Finally, after the war, there are his tree paintings - simples studies to begin with and then, in 1947-8, the complex multi-layered symbolic vision Vexilla Regis which now hangs at Kettle's Yard, the home of his friend Jim Ede.  I like what it says of Jones on the Poetry Foundation website: 'he spent the last years of his life quietly working, trying to salvage the remnants of traditional Western culture from the onslaught of the twentieth century'.  Paul Hills suggests that Jones' art, which became unfashionable when 'any whiff of the literary or the illustrative in painting was suspect', may find a new audience in a world where major figures like Sebald, Twombly and Keifer are revered for their interweaving of personal memory, history and myth.

Here are three examples of David Jones landscape paintings that reach into the past:
  • Y Twmpa, Nant Honddu (1926) - a view of the distinctive hill visible from Capel-y-ffin. 'The Welsh hill ponies in the foreground, gracefully cropping the turf, were a motif to which Jones returned throughout his life; for him they represented a living link to the last days of Arthurian Britain, when the riderless horses of Arthur's defeated knights 'gone to grass in forest and on mountain, seem as their masters to have a new yet aboriginal liberty.'' 
  •  Roman Land (1928) - a seemingly timeless view of farmland made on Jones' first trip abroad since his return from the trenches.  'The plough team, drawn by oxen,' Jones wrote, 'seemed to sum up the whole feeling of France as part of the Imperium and that is why it is called Roman Land.'
  • Landscape, Salies-de-Béarn (1928) - a vibrant painting with echoes of Bonnard and Dufy painted on the same trip.  In a footnote to his book In Parenthesis Jones says he associates Béarn with Le Chanson de Roland 'because, once, looking from a window in Salies-de-Béarn I could see a gap in the hills, which my hostess told me was indeed the pass where Roland fell.'

    Jean Fouquet, The death of Roland at the Battle of Roncevaux, c.1455–1460 

Tuesday, November 03, 2015


I seem to have written rather often about Andrei Tarkovsky on this blog, but perhaps it's not so surprising - how many other directors made two major films about possibly-sentient landscapes?  Last week I went to watch one of them, Stalker, at the BFI Southbank, where there is currently a 'Mirroring Tarkovsky' season.  It is some years since I last saw the film - this was the first time since having read Geoff Dyer's book about Stalker, Zona (2013), which was fun to turn to again after seeing the film.  One scene I had forgotten about is where the three men have come to a temporary halt on their journey and the earth seems to undulate like waves.  In my memory of Stalker the landscape of the Zone was mysterious but entirely free of any special effects.  This strangely rippling ground prompts from Dyer a couple of the many humorous digressions that make up much of his book and which some readers will find self-indulgent (on quicksand and LSD trips).  But he also provides the interesting background information that this footage came from an earlier stage of filming, when there were more science fiction elements than appeared in the final cutHowever, he doesn't fully explain what is going on here...
'The little islands of grass do not ripple.  The trees in the background do not ripple: it's just the boggy-looking dried earth that ripples and then, gradually, stops rippling.  How does Tarkovsky do this, how does he achieve these effects?  Or are they not effects?  Was it simply luck that he came across a patch of ripply quicksand and then it started snowing where, a few seconds earlier, it had been dusting and blossoming?  Is this part of the random magic of cinema that Herzog discovered in a sequence of footage shot by Timothy (Grizzly Man) Treadwell?  Treadwell plunges into and then out of shot, leaving the camera to record only the wind-whipped bushes and foliage. 'In his action-movie mode Treadwell probably did not realise that seemingly empty moments have a strange beauty,' Herzog explains as the bushes and trees bend and sway in the wind as if in unconscious homage to Tarkovsky*.
'* Or, of course, to Herzog himself, specifically the famous epigraph - 'Don't you hear the terrible screaming all around you?  The screaming that men call silence' - and shot of wheat swaying in the wind at the opening of The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.'

Friday, October 30, 2015

What the rocky mountain tells me

Mahler's hut at Steinbach

I have often written here about writers' huts but said nothing about composer's retreats, apart from one reference to a Tomas Tranströmer poem on Grieg in his work-cottage, 'shut in with silence.'  Gustav Mahler had three composing huts: in the Salzkammergut at Steinbach, further south at Maiernigg, and in Toblach (now Dobbiaco, in Italy).  They are all in spectacular settings and can form the basis of a tourist itinerary, although it is questionable how far we can still experience the landscapes Mahler knew.  Ten years ago, visiting the hut at Steinbach which Mahler had built in 1893 to avoid noise in the inn where he was staying that summer, Alex Ross suspected that his 'unquiet ghost is no doubt upset by the fact that his idyllic lakeside retreat is surrounded by an RV site and campground, where kids squeal all day long and German rap pumps from boomboxes.'  Nevertheless, 'if you look up to the colossal rockface of the Höllengebirge, which towers hundreds of feet above the lake, you can get a sense of why Mahler found this site so inspiring.'  Ross quotes 'Bruno Walter's memoir of Mahler: "As on our way to his house I looked up to the Höllengebirge, whose sheer cliffs made a grim background to the charming landscape, he said: 'You don't need to look — I have composed all this away!" The rockface became the introductory theme of the Third Symphony, the unison chant for eight horns, which he dubbed in one sketch "What the rocky mountain tells me."'

On that trip to Steinbach in 2005 Ross was accompanied by the critic Jeremy Eichler.  Earlier this month in the Boston Globe Eichler described a return trip.  (The article's picture caption refers to 'Gustav Mahler’s conducting hut' which leads me to imagine somewhere built because his family got fed up with him waving his baton around in their holiday inn).  Eichler writes that 'the walk had changed since my last visit. In Mahler’s time, meadows covered with wildflowers led down to the lake. Later, livestock were kept here. Eventually the site was converted into a campground. On this visit, the mobile homes I had recalled at the periphery seemed to have multiplied to the point that the area had the feeling of a full-fledged camping village.'  Apparently the hut itself had been attached to camp bathrooms until its restoration in the eighties, and prior to that it had been used as a slaughterhouse.  Leaving the hut, Eichler wonders whether more great works of art 'should have their own tiny huts, physical places you could visit that symbolize their very essence. Of course someone is always fixing their generator nearby, or wanting to turn the hut into a bathroom. But maybe the impulse to seek out these places nonetheless is not naively literal-minded so much as it is part of how we make the works our own, the way we locate their cosmic expressions on a more humble map of lived experience.'

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Stone Bell Mountain

A short way downriver from Jiujiang, where the the Yangtze meets Boyang Lake, there is a famous sonorous landscape called Stone Bell Mountain (Shizhong Shan).  According to the Song dynasty poet Su Shih, 'Li Po of the T'ang was the first to travel to the site, and he found a pair of rocks protruding from the lake. "I struck them and listened," he wrote. "The one to the south sounded deep and turbid, the one to the north had a high, clear pitch. After they were struck, the sounds continued to reverberate as the vibrations slowly faded." He thought that he had thus solved the matter. But I still had my doubts about this theory.'  Su found himself in the area in July 1084 and went to investigate.  Testing Li Po's explanation he found that the rocks in the lake merely gave off a dull thud.  Later that evening, he and his son took a boat out under the cliff and heard the piercing cries of falcons, followed by the cry of an old man, or was it a crane?
'I had just begun to feel uneasy and wanted to return when loud sounds were emitted on the surface of the water, booming "tseng-hung " like continuous bells or drums. The boatman was frightened. We slowly approached to investigate and found that at the foot of the mountain were grottoes and fissures in the rock. I could not tell how deep they were, but it was the small waves which entered, surged around, and crashed against each other that were causing this sound.
'As the boat returned, it passed between two mountains and was about to enter the harbor. There was a huge rock standing in the middle of the current, which could accommodate a hundred people seated. It was hollow inside, and it also had many holes in it. It swallowed and spit out the wind and water, giving off ringing sounds—"k'uan-k'an t'ang-t'a "—as the water struck it. It seemed to reply to the booming sound we had previously heard, just like a musical performance.'
Su Shi felt he had solved the mystery of the Stone Bells, but his account stimulated further enquiries, as Richard Strassberg writes in Inscribed Landscapes, from which this translation is taken.  'Among those visiting the place during the Ming and Ch'ing periods were Ch'iu Chün (1420–1495) and Lo Hung-hsien (1504–1564), who argued that the name was based on the mountain's shape, and P'eng Yü-lin (1816–1890), who discovered an underwater grotto and asserted that the mountain was hollow like a bell.'  Are people still seeking to understand the mysteries of this landscape?  I can't find anything much about Stone Bell Mountain online beyond a few tourism sites - we need a sound artist like Wang Changcun, Yan Jun, or Chris Watson to go there and investigate in the spirit of Su Shi.