Saturday, December 20, 2014

Factory chimneys across the River Eden

When we visited Aix-en-Provence and Mont Sainte-Victoire, a couple of years before France adopted the Euro, it was mildly gratifying to be able to pay for things using Paul Cézanne banknotes.  At that time the 50 Franc notes honoured another of my heroes, Antoine de Saint-ExupéryThe 20 Franc Debussy notes featured landscapes on both sides: a stormy sea representing La Mer, and scenery for Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), originally painted by Lucien Jusseaume and Eugène Ronsin.  I suppose the Euro notes that replaced these might be seen as having a tangential landscape association, but the bridges on them are really generic symbols rather than specific landmarks (unlike the original designs which included the Rialto Bridge in Venice and the Pont de Neuilly in Paris).  Bridges are popular currency motifs - outside the Eurozone Denmark uses them and here in Britian we can spend five different Bank of Scotland notes, ranging from the 14th century Brig O'Doon (£5) to the Kessock Bridge, completed in 1982 (£100).

Another landscape painter honoured on a banknote is Edvard Munch - he appears with his painting, The Sun on Norway's 1000-kroner note.  There has been a lot of praise this year for the new Norwegian note designs ('the world's coolest currency' according to Slate).  The original Snøhetta Design idea was to pair black and white coastal photographs with pixelated colour versions.  The Norges Bank has kept the pixels but gone for more traditional images on the obverse.  Personally I am even more envious of the new Norwegian passports, designed by Neue, which the Guardian described as 'beautifully simplified depictions of Norway’s natural landscapes drawn with fine lines in pastel shades ... When shone under UV light, the landscapes within the pages transform to show the northern lights in the night sky, a magical touch that adds a deeper sense of intrigue to the already striking document.'

Of course there are many examples of landscapes on banknotes, from the dramatic mountains of Guilin on China's 20 yuan, to the Ulster Bank's vignette's of the Mourne Mountains, Giant's Causeway and Queen Elizabeth Bridge (another one...)  There was a time when individual banks in England as well as other parts of the British Isles issued their own notes. The British Museum site explains how these became increasingly sophisticated in the nineteenth century with the use of steel engraving:
'Printers such as Perkins and Heath in London and W.H.Lizars in Edinburgh exploited this potential to produce exquisite banknote designs combining dazzling machine-engraved patterns – a trademark of Perkins’ firm – with delicate hand-engraved figures and rural scenes that reflected a growing taste for romantic landscape, evident in the popularity of topographical prints, watercolours and poetry. A wonderful note of the Carlisle City and District Banking Company carries a panoramic view of the city with its castle, cathedral, houses and factory chimneys across the River Eden; people stroll in fields in the foreground, while on the far bank cattle are wading and a line of washing is hanging out to dry.' 
This kind of local pride expressed through banknotes seems remote in the era of e-commerce and bitcoins.  Will physical money last any longer than passports or stamps?  I have written here before about landscapes on stamps, which represented the beauty and productive potential of far flung imperial territories.   It would be interesting to compare the iconography of banknotes, which represent financial geography, with stamps that link territories together.  Clearly a lot of thought goes into what they show as well as the ways in which they resist counterfeiters.  The Bank of Canada museum, for example, quotes an internal memo from 1954: 'the traditional ornamentation of bank notes reflects a ‘Victorian’ taste in design….derived from times associated with an immature, colonial status.'  Instead,
'officials at the Bank wanted the notes to feature images of Canadian landscapes that showed little or no evidence of human activity. They chose the final 8 images from over 3,000 photographs supplied from the collections of railways, archives and news agencies. From the Maritimes, through Eastern Canada, the Prairies, the Rockies and the North, what resulted was an extended portrait of The Great Lone Land vision of Canada. This vision was already out-dated, but served as the natural starting point for an evolving manifestation of official identity that would be played out on all future bank notes.'
Bank of Canada 1954 note showing Okanagan Lake in British Columbia, 
engraved by William Ford of the American Bank Note Company

Earlier this year the Huffington Post reported on calls to have a woman on Canadian notes for the first time - their suggestions include Margaret Atwood, Emily Carr (the subject of a retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery that I'll probably be writing about here soon) and, er, Shania Twain ("Canadian country and pop music star, famous for hits such as 'Man! I Feel Like a Woman.'")  Over here there was controversy recently at the announcement that a man (Churchill) would replace a woman, Elizabeth Fry, on the £5 note, until the Bank of England said it was planning to balance things out with Jane Austen on the next £10.  I'll end here on an Icelandic note with another landscape painter, Johannes Sveinsson Kjarval, depicted on the 2000 Kronur.  Björk, who will surely feature on the Icelandic currency herself before too long, named an instrumental after him on the album she recorded as an eleven-year-old in 1977.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Become Ocean

This time last year I wrote a lengthy (for this blog) survey of landscape and music in 2013 (following similar but shorter posts in 2010, 2011, 2012).  Here due to pressure of time I will revert to something much less ambitious and highlight just four releases, beginning with the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Become Ocean, by John Luther Adams.  I wrote a post about Adams here in 2010 and last year I mentioned a recording of his composition Inuksuit.  The Pulitzer jury described Become Ocean as 'a haunting orchestral work that suggests a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels.'  In a New Yorker review of its première, Alex Ross explained that it has the structure of a palindrome.  'One mystery of Become Ocean is how different the material often sounds during the second half of the palindrome. The section after the first climax is thick with minor chords, particularly in the brass. Somehow, as these chords loom again during the buildup to the final climax, they take on a heavier, more sorrowful air. There is a sense of unwinding, of subsiding, of dissolution. I thought of Matthew Arnold’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” and also of the line that the earth goddess Erda utters in the Ring: “Everything that is, ends.”'

J.M.W. Turner has been hard to avoid in 2014.  I've not yet got myself to a cinema to see Mr Turner but did write here recently about the Late Turner exhibition and the Turner-inspired colour experiments of Olafur Eliasson.  In last year's music round-up I mentioned Burkhard Stangl's Unfinished. For William Turner, painter and this year I can refer you to Robert Curgenven's album Sirène, which includes a track referencing the famous story of Turner strapped to the mast in a snow storm (an episode recreated in Mike Leigh's film).  Rob St. John thinks a 'comparison might be made between Turner and Curgenven in the way that their work evokes – in texture, tone and colour – abstractions of the natural world: in this case the power and unpredictability of the sea.'  The track itself sounds foggy and eerie to me rather than tempestuous and chaotic - a long drone based on recordings of the pipe organs of Cornwall's coastal churches.  In the clip below you can hear some of the opening piece from Sirène, although the footage was shot not in Cornwall but at Lake Mungo in New South Wales, making a connection with Curgenven's new LP recorded in remote parts of Australia, They Tore the Earth and, Like a Scar, It Swallowed Them

Michael Pisaro is another American composer I did a post on here four years ago and his new work Continuum Unbound (3 CDs  in a box, with an essay) is reviewed in the latest Wire Magazine. Kingsnake Grey is a field recording of sundown in the Congaree National Park, providing a temporal interpretation of a landscape.  Congaree Nomads by contrast moves across the land from Cedar Creek to the Congaree River.  It is made up of 24 three-minute field recordings but these are overlaid with 'instrumental fogs' - bowed percussion instruments that can  be quite hard on the ear.   Anabasis is 'a composition in 72 parts for five musicians, loosely based on four kinds of materials: Sand, Wind, Tone and Wave'.  It begins quietly with what might be the rustle of something moving through undergrowth, but soon gathers strength until it starts to sound like an oncoming 'weather bomb' (a phrase we heard repeatedly on the news this week).  Overall the segments making up this piece are quite abstract, with no direct relationship to the landscape of the Congaree National Park.  You can read a detailed review on Brian Olewnick's Just Outside blog.

The new end-of-year Wire Magazine also reviews a Wist Rec compilation of music inspired by Richard Mabey's classic The Unofficial Countryside.  Seven tracks span a range of approaches: Ruhe combine birdsong, electronics and piano, Ian Hawgood includes samples of human voice, Sub Loam (who featured in my 2011 survey) evoke hedges, ditches and weeds with a sound that Sukhdev Sandhu describes in his review as a kind of 'junkyard improv, a dream collaboration between The Clangers and Pierre Schaeffer'.  The Unofficial Countryside comes as a collectable package, with 'Pierre-Emmanuel Tendero's moody photographs, all encased in a wooden box that reproduces, in hand-burned fashion, the pylons on the cover of the book's most recent edition'.  As Sandhu points out, this might seem 'at odds with a book dedicated to landscapes that are messy, sprawling and fertile', although I suppose it is consistent with the idea that such spaces are as valuable in their own way as wild landscapes.

It is increasingly clear each year that any survey of 'landscape' music is also a survey of its accompanying essays, photographs, videos, artwork, hand crafted packaging, maps, instructions and found objects.  Whether the notion of ambient 'soundtracks' to books will take off with mainstream publishers I am not sure, but some of them are starting to offer music as part of the package (a 10" record is planned to accompany Melissa Harrison's second novel In Hawthorn Time, due out next year).  Psychogeography in particular seems to lend itself to the notion of a soundtrack - Gareth Rees put together a mix for his book Marshland: Dreams & Nightmares on the Edge of London, aiming to convey 'that blend of industrial and pastoral noise, the late night raves, the raucous birds, the unrelenting drone of the city and the eternal lapping of the dirty river.'  I will end here by recommending another mix Gareth has curated, the Unofficial Britain Soundtrack 2014.  It opens with the sound of  Howlround's Torridon Gate, an album entirely based around the wrenching metallic sounds of suburban garden gate... It would be quite hard to imagine anything more different to John Luther Adams' Become Ocean.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Wall of Treasures

Frans Francken II, Preziosenwand (Wall of Treasures), 1636


A whole book could be devoted to the history of landscape paintings within paintings (not a potential best seller perhaps, but I'd read it).  The art collection genre might be a place to begin - rooms crowded with paintings, not just on the walls but propped up on the floor and furniture.  The rocky mountain scene above is one of six different landscapes in the Wall of Treasures, first painted around 1610 by Frans Francken who 'may be considered the father of the genre' (Vlieghe, Flemish Art and Architecture 1585-1700).  Within a few decades, artists like Gonzales Coques and Gaspar Jacob van Opstal were doing art collection scenes whose miniature works of art were painted in by the actual artists who had created the full scale originals.  Thus the depiction of a collection was itself a collection of art works.  It makes you wonder whether any artists thought of including the gallery painting itself, anticipating its own arrival into the collection, to create a mise en abyme in which  landscape paintings would be repeated on a smaller and smaller scale ad infinitum. 

Gonzales Coques, Picture Gallery, 1671


What you are looking at here is the reproduction of a photograph of a painting of a painting of a landscape. And that last term might be broken down still further, since at this date a painting of a landscape was not really a painting of a landscape, but an imaginary construct based on observation of actual places and scenes from other paintings.  Just to the right of Francken's Wall of Treasures a 'real' tree can be glimpsed through a window, in what at first looks like a separate room until you realise it is presumably the reflection in a mirror, so that even within the world of the painting we are again only seeing the image of nature.  Galleries often have no windows, for practical reasons of course but aesthetic ones too - actual views might distract us from those the artists have projected onto rectangles of canvas.  Willem van Haecht's The Picture Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest (1628) depicts a high ceilinged room full of art and a group of connoisseurs intent on studying it, but you feel that one or two will eventually tire of this close study and wander over to the tall window visible on one side to gaze out instead on the distant green parkland.  

Jan Vermeer, The Guitar Player, 1672

Willem Pieterszoon Buytewech's The Merry Company, 1622-4

Of course landscape paintings were collected on a more modest scale throughout Europe and are a natural component of interior scenes by artists like Pieter de Hooch, Dirck Hals, Gillis van Tilborch and David Teniers.  They can be found in some famous Vermeers: The Glass of Wine, The Love Letter and The Music Lesson, where there is both a landscape painting on the wall and a landscape painting on the inside cover of the harpsichord.  One that is especially familiar to me from visits to Kenwood House at Hampstead Heath is The Guitar Player (above) - a simple view of a tree that could be a snapshot of the heath that surrounds the house.  The tree's foliage resembles the girl's hair, a kind of compositional echo you often find in these paintings.  Another example (above) is the lacy clouds and plume-like trees in Willem Pieterszoon Buytewech's The Merry Company.  And here is Amy Powell's description of another Merry Company, painted by Pieter Codde (c. 1633):
'Lit from the upper left and painted mostly in white, grey, and sandy flesh tones, the musicians lean and look in various different directions, the men’s hats ending in sharp little points. Lit from the upper left and painted in the same sandy colours, the decaying vegetation in the landscape likewise leans in various different directions and ends in sharp little points, as if the landscape painting had somehow magically adapted itself to the attitudes of its viewers. Thin on iconography (a brewing storm at most), the landscape would have little to recommend itself as a moralising allegory if not for its funny way of resembling the merry company of musicians, who are of course happily oblivious to their inevitable disappearance.'
In this Oxford Art Journal article, Powell notes that paintings in Dutch interiors are often dark or indistinct, subordinate to the surrounding furniture.  She draws a modern parallel with Alan McCollum's Surrogate Paintings (blank images hung in groups) and his Perpetual Photos - blurry blow ups of paintings glimpsed in black and white TV movies. To these I would add the Polish artist Rafa Bujnowski's Framed painting (Whistler), 2002-3, which is a version of the painting hanging beside Whistler's mother repainted 'life size' so that it looks like a radically abstract landscape.  (Of course I'm conscious in writing this that I am only actually seeing it reproduced here on my screen, at a scale smaller than Whistler's).  In an earlier post here I mentioned Gerhard Richter's Details, extreme close-ups of paint that 'appear like fictitious landscapes.'  If you were to enlarge a landscape painting-within-a-painting sufficiently you would reach a scale where a new view seems to emerge in the patterns of its pigments.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler, Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1871


Friday, November 28, 2014

Views from the Internet

Last week I went to a discussion on landscape and photography at Tate Modern.  This wasn't linked to their new exhibition Conflict, Time, Photography but to one at Somerset House I referred to here last year, 'Landmark: the Fields of Photography'.  The event was to promote a book of the show, edited by William Ewing, who chaired the panel of five artists: Thomas Struth, Massimo Vitali, Lauren Marsolier, Penelope Umbrico and Mishka Henner.  This represented a kind of spectrum, from Struth and Vitali who still compose and takes photographs to Umbrico and Henner who construct images from sources found on the internet.  Marsolier might be seen as somewhere in the middle, using her camera to capture fragments of landscape which she then digitally montages into scenes that convey a sense of feeling "disorientated and disconnected".  These oneiric visions with their blank windows and pale skies, "absolutely still with no breath of air" as Ewing observed, seem to fuse the reality of California with the abstract spaces of the internet.

Penelope Umbrico said she sees the Web itself as her landscape.  In Views from the Internet she collected landscapes glimpsed through windows found on home decor sites. 'Used as peripheral devices to elicit desire for the objects (and lifestyles) sold on these websites, the views are an invitation: they invite retreat and escape - into utterly flat space that is nowhere.' She has also made a series called Honeymoon Suites by scanning the candy coloured horizons and skies in holiday brochures to create distilled digital abstractions of happiness. 'While the horizon is intended to signify perfect love and escape, it equally points to the unattainability of both.'  The vast archive of holiday photographs on Flickr is the source for her installation Suns (from Sunsets), which I saw at the Landmark exhibition.  A a sense of the digital sublime is conveyed by retitling the work each time she exhibits it according to the number of sunsets available on Flickr at that date: in 2006 this was 541,795, on the day of the talk last week it stood at 22,177,914.  Apparently people have taken to photographing themselves in front of her wall of sunsets as if they were posing in front of a real sun.   

The two quotes in the paragraph above are from this book

I found Mishka Henner particularly interesting, although his dry humour seemed to bypass some in the audience (he sounded like Simon Armitage would if he read BLDGBLOG).  He argued that the problem with digital culture is not that there are too many images, but that we have not yet found ways to navigate through them.  He talked about the world of GoogleEarth and online photography as a kind of landscape of infinite detail.  He has been able to construct striking aerial views of oil fields that would have been impossible to photograph directly, exposing the way pipelines have grown like root systems through river valleys, farmland and urban centres.  Thomas Struth took issue with this kind of work, suggesting that it has immediate political impact but no aesthetic value.  Henner didn't argue the point, although it seemed pretty obvious that his images of US feedlots, for example, composed from satellite imagery, have a horrible beauty. Struth has himself chosen political subjects - Ramala, Chinese industrialisation - and his early work in Germany documenting urban architecture always seems to ask the basic question of why we have designed our living environment to look like this.

Although Struth is a major figure I find it quite hard to think of anything particularly interesting to say about him (I went to his retrospective at the Whitechapel in 2011 but didn't write about it on this blog).  His large-scale photographs of people in museums are similar to the beach scenes that  Massimo Vitali has been photographing for the last twenty years.  At first sight such photographs have more in common with the panoramic crowd scenes painted by artists like William Powell Frith than the panoramic unpeopled views we associate with 'landscape photography'.  However, in Vitali's case, what is beyond the foreground seems important: the people sporting around in the water in his 1995 photographs at Viareggio are overlooked by watch towers and cranes, whilst in another image of Rosignano from the same year, the sunbathers are oblivious to the cooling towers of a power station behind them.  There is pathos in the way these apparently unprepossessing strips of coast attract so many people, despite the proximity of factories, viaducts and graffiti.  "Being a tourist," Vitali told the Tate audience, "is one of the worst experiences you can have."

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Watermeadows at Salisbury

John Constable,  Landscape with goatherd and goats, 1823
Source for all images: Wikimedia Commons

The V&A's Constable: The Making of Master exhibition provides a fascinating survey of the way Constable was influenced by other artists throughout his career.  He admired the early Gainsborough and it is easy to see why: the Landscape with Pool (1745-6) which Constable would have seen in Ipswich is absolutely exquisite.  Rubens was another stimulus: Constable's Moonlit Landscape with Hadleigh Castle uses effects he took from Rubens' Landscape by Moonlight.  I was fascinated by another Rubens in the show, Summer, with its sunlit plain and turquoise distances (Mrs Plinius dismissed it as "garish").  Also on display are direct copies of seventeenth century masters - the 'facsimile' of a Claude painting (above), and the version (below) of a Ruisdael winter scene owned by Sir Robert Peel, who insisted that Constable include a small dog to distinguish it from the original (I wonder which version is worth more now?)  This added dog inevitably reminded me of the cruise missiles inserted by Peter Kennard into his 1980 version of Constable's The Haywain, a work now owned by the Tate.

John Constable, A winter landscape with with figures on a path,
a footbridge and windmills beyond, 1832
  Inscribed on the stretcher 'Copied from the Original Picture by Ruisdael in the possession of Sir Robt Peel Bt by me John Constable RA at Hampstead Sep. 1832 P.S. color (...) Dog added (...) only (...) Size of the Original (...) and Showed this pictures to Dear John Dunthrone Octr 30 1832 (...) this was the last time I (...)' and further inscribed 'Poor J Dunthorne died on Friday (all Saints) the 2d of November. 1832-at 4 o clock in the afternoon Aged 34 years.'

Constable was also interested in the methods and advice of earlier artists.  The exhibition juxtaposes Twenty Studies of Skies after Alexander Cozens (1823) with a copy of Cozens' own examples.  Constable drew these at Coleorton Hall, home of the great collector Sir George Beaumont, where (as I read on the NGA site) Constable 'also studied Cozens’s list of twenty-seven types of ‘Circumstance’ in nature, consisting of accidents (wind, rain, storm etc.), seasons (spring, autumn etc.) and characters (time of day such as ‘rising-sun’, ‘setting-sun’, and ‘close of day’'.  There is something both seductive and reductive about the idea that landscape can be classified in this way, like the tags used to label internet images.  Constable also took heed of Leonardo's advice on a means of achieving accurate perspective whilst out sketching directly from nature, a method demonstrated in this exhibition with a drawing for Watermeadows at Salisbury.
'Take a glass as large as your paper, fasten it well between your eye and the object you mean to draw, and fixing your head in a frame (in such a manner as not to be able to move it) at the distance of two feet from the glass; shut one eye, and draw with a pencil accurately upon the glass all that you see through it. After that, trace upon paper what you have drawn on the glass, which tracing you may paint at pleasure, observing the aerial perspective.' - Leonardo da Vinci - A Treatise on Painting
John Constable, Watermeadows at Salisbury, 1820 or 1829

The most interesting room in this excellent exhibition is the least colourful, devoted to Constable's collection of prints.  As the curators explain, over his career Constable amassed '59 oil paintings by ‘Old and Modern Masters’ and over 5000 prints, 250 drawings, 37 books of prints and 39 framed prints and drawings.'  This enthusiasm reminds me of Van Gogh, whose letters vividly convey his pleasure in acquiring prints (and also photographic reproductions, an option not yet available to Constable).  The small selection of Constable's collection displayed at the V&A amounts to a history of Western landscape art in its diverse forms: Dürer, Titian, Claude, Rubens, Rembrandt, Rosa, Waterloo.  It was only a few years ago that I too would need to have owned a reproduction of one of these images to study it here in the comfort of my home.  Now they are available to me instantly wherever my phone can get a signal.

Google Image Search: Rembrandt's The Three Trees (1643),
an etching owned by Constable.


Earlier this week, at the LRB bookshop event mentioned in my last post, I met Chris from pastoral punk duo Way Through, who told me that they had been in Constable Country this summer for a Field Broadcast project called Scene on a Navigable River.  As part of this they reworked the track 'Dedham Vale' which appeared on their 2013 album Clapper Is Still.  Field Broadcast is 'a live digital broadcasting platform led by artists Rebecca Birch and Rob Smith. After downloading a special Field Broadcast app, the software waits quietly until the artist’s work is ready for transmission, when a live video stream opens unannounced on the recipient’s computer, tablet or mobile phone desktop.'  I am now imagining what would have happened if Way Through's dissonant music had suddenly activated while I was in an important meeting - I suppose this element of surprise is a way of countering the sheer availability of art online.  Two hundred years ago there was only Constable, leaving his room full of prints to walk out into the landscape his paintings were in the process of 'creating' for us.  He could reproduce an old painting but in working from nature he held up a small screen of glass the size of a modern tablet device and tried to trace what he could see.  'When I sit down to make a sketch from nature,' he wrote, 'the first thing I try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture.' 

John Constable, Dedham Vale, 1802 

Friday, November 21, 2014

A stand of trembling reeds

In The Small Heart of Things (2013) Julian Hoffman writes about the Prespa Lakes, where the borders of Greece, Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia come together in the middle of a stretch of water.  History and politics divide this landscape but artificial frontiers 'make no allowance for the mobile lives of people and animals, for shifting water currents, for the ways of wind and wing.'  In one of the interconnected essays that make up the book he writes of finding bear tracks on the damp sand at the edge of the lake.  'Walking in the bears' steps tightened the weave of the Prespa basin, threaded the lakes and three countries together, transforming the term transboundary into something more than just a human designation.'  He follows them in his imagination through the marsh grass and down from the high mountains, past migrating butterflies and apple trees seeded by storms, over a land bridge once used by refugees and through a quiet wood of oaks and junipers where white ribbons on the trees mark the paths of migrant labourers making their way at night across the border. Finally, 'passing the wide-open eye of a long blind bunker, the bears move off into darkness.'

Two of the essays in the book can be read in the journal Terrain - one centred on the work of the Society for the Protection of Prespa, another on time spent recording the movement of birds for an environmental assessment on the region's karst plateau.  These online versions are illustrated with photographs but the book relies solely on its vivid descriptions of landscape and nature.  Reading it I sometimes felt as if I had entered a Poussin painting... enigmatic ruins, trees stirring in the wind, light penetrating storm clouds, a shepherd playing a flute, a snake choking a heron.  The book is full of chance encounters with animals and birds - dolphins cresting the surface of the sea, kestrels sheering across the grasslands, snipe exploding out of a marsh, a fire salamander, a caterpillar, an old collection of micro-moths, 'delicate as filaments, ephemeral as dust.'  Such moments, he suggests, arise from a receptivity to experience: 'everything beckons us to perceive it'. This line, from one of Rilke's poems, is 'an invitation to openness, encouraging us to let in the wild and unpredictable, the ordinary and overlooked, the fleeting and unexplained.'  It is possible to find more mystery in 'a few moments spent in a stand of trembling reeds than a lifetime passed in an unperceived world.' 

Last year Julian delivered a presentation on the Hoo Peninsula at the Shorelines Festival that I didn't get to see but have heard a lot about (Diana Hale called it 'mesmerising' on her blog).  It sounds like he had a kind of Hendrix-at-Monterey impact - Gareth Evans described this entrance into the New Nature Writing scene as so electrifying that Robert Macfarlane, next on the bill, had an almost impossible job following it.  Gareth was talking at the LRB Bookshop this week, introducing Julian as part of a panel there to discuss 'Place Writing Now'.  They were joined by Ken Worpole's, whose New English Landscape I featured here last year, and Philip Marsden, whose recently published Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place I've not yet read.  It was a fascinating discussion ranging across language and representation, regeneration and displacement, ritual and memory.  Julian's short talk, prepared specifically for this event, felt perfectly pitched.  I'll be looking out for news of future gigs, although this current four-stop tour will soon be over and he'll be heading back home to the Prespa Lakes.  You can follow him there on his blog, Notes from Near and Far.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Mountain with boat

We made our annual visit to the Small Publishers Fair this afternoon, where there were various new publications with a landscape theme: from Shearsman, the book version of Alec Finlay & Ken Cockburn's The Road North; from Corbel Stone Press, Mark Peter Wright's Tasked to Hear; from Peter Foolen, herman de vries - an edition in two parts.  I was talking to Peter about his son's new boat tattoo and he was explaining that it is based on a design by sailor/artist Graham Rich.  Peter gave me the bookmark below, showing a similar boat scratched onto a broken end of wood.  Its jagged edge resembles a mountain landscape, like the ones Hamish Fulton ('HF') photographs or draws in outline to represent his walks.  Seen upside down, this vessel draws attention to the way the bottom of the sea is an inverted mountain range.  The course of a boat is like the path of a walk.

The paintings Graham Rich makes do not need to describe a place directly because they are made from fragments that have a synecdochal relationship to the rivers and estuaries through which he and his wife sail.  Indeed these pieces of wood can have a kind of "magical" resemblance to the wider landscape, as he explains in the YouTube clip below.  "Very often the material that we find will reflect the place where we found it ... We were in the mouth of the River Otter and we found a piece of wood and I held it up and it was the shape of the mouth of the River Otter."  These remnants of old boats, detached from their original use and immersed in the water for an unknown period, have soaked in something essential about the environment.  And their traces of paintwork, faded by the elements, can even guide the artist to a better understanding of the landscape.  "I've actually discovered the light on the upper reaches of the estuary," he says, "from having found the light on pieces of wood."