Monday, January 30, 2006

The New Station of Naito at Yotsuya

Ando Hiroshige’s landscape prints often employ traditional Chinese or Japanese techniques, such as the use of mist to separate distant forms and a spatial arrangement where the nearest objects are in the lowest part of the image. However, as Matthi Forrer has written (‘The Art of Hiroshige’), when Hiroshige designed One Hundred Views of Edo (1856-8) he often used Western artists’ repoussoir device of placing large objects in the foreground. For example, in Maple Leaves and the Tekona Shrine and Bridge at Mama the view is framed by tree branches, whilst the Kinryuzan Temple at Asakusa is seen from a doorway with an overhanging lantern. However, it has to be said that the technique was not always successful. There is too much bridge in Nihon Bridge and Edo Bridge and the hanging turtle does not seem to add much to Mannen Bridge and the Fukagawa District. The presence of a large horse’s bottom and droppings in The New Station of Naito at Yotsuya are particularly unfortunate...

The links here are all to images on a beautiful website, The Woodblock Prints of Ando Hiroshige. I came upon the Hiroshige site by following a link on the excellent Pruned blog.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

The road to Cap d'Antibes

In contrast to John Rewald, whose search for the sites painted by Cézanne I described in yesterday's post, the young art critic and painter Patrick Heron (1920-1999) did not go to southern France in 1949 in pursuit of landscapes – he had hoped to meet Henri Matisse in person. In the event, as Heron recalled in his essay ‘Late Matisse’, the artist was too busy to see visitors, but on Heron’s return from Matisse’s villa he came upon a familiar view and recognised the place from which Matisse had painted Route du Cap d’Antibes – Le Grand Pin (1926). Heron took a photograph, standing in the position he thought the pine trees had been seen from in the original picture. As he did this, glancing to his right, he saw “a gleam of red amongst the mosses and lichens in the wall” and after clearing them away he found a tangible trace of the artist’s painting, oxidised palette scrapings of “ultramarine, violet, emerald green and scarlet”…

Friday, January 27, 2006

Millstone in the Park of Château Noir

John Rewald (1912–1994) was the author of the classic study Cézanne: A Biography (1986), a book that had its origins fifty years earlier in research for his prize-winning thesis Cézanne et Zola (1936). Rewald’s efforts were not appreciated by his Sorbonne professor, who ‘felt that Cézanne was not yet “ripe”’, but he received support from various people who had known the artist and when it came to the public defence of Rewald’s thesis, Zola’s daughter and son-in law sat in the front row of the amphitheatre. One of the pleasures of the subsequent book is the inclusion of photographs taken at the site’s of Cézanne’s landscapes (often labelled “c1935”, as Rewald presumably took no precise record of the dates in his wonderings round Provence). These are obviously a valuable historical record of places that have changed, but they have their own beauty. Although the photographs are composed as precisely framed documents, they distil a powerful sense of nostalgia, both for the artist and his times and now, more generally, for that lost idyllic pre-War rural France. Like Cézanne’s paintings, they seem to reflect both the transience of Impressionism and the timeless forms of rocks, trees, mountain. They are also moving mementos of a time when it was still possible for a young researcher to visit Provence and learn about Cézanne by talking to his son Paul and elderly artists like Signac and Denis.

The photographs are now owned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington (which is holding a centenary exhibition of ‘Cézanne in Provence’). A few small images can be seen here, for example Mont Sainte Victoire seen from Les Lauves, which was the subject of a painting of 1904-6. However, the ideal way to look at these photographs is in the context of Rewald’s book. I have just been looking at it again and became lost in thought over the Millstone in the Park of Château Noir, a photograph that catches the original painting’s slanting summer light and shows the millstone just as it lies in Cézanne’s landscape, an abandoned object returning to nature.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Tintern Abbey

The BBC is showing a three part Peter Ackroyd series on ‘The Romantics’. Their site contains a few free MP3 poetry readings, including William Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting The Banks of the Wye During A Tour, July 13, 1798’, a poem describing the redemptive powers of Nature and the consolations that can be had from landscapes held in the memory:

…let the moon
Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain winds be free
To blow against thee: and in after years,
When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
Into a sober pleasure, when thy mind
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies…

If you want to hear the BBC’s recording of John Clare’s ‘Remembrances’ you will have to be quick. As the site says “unfortunately Remembrances will only be available for 7 days due to copyright.” Those not familiar with this sorry situation can read all about the ongoing copyright dispute on this John Clare site.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Nook at Hardt

‘The Nook at Hardt’ is Michael Hamburger’s translation of ‘Der Winkel von Hahrdt’, Friedrich Hölderlin’s short poem of 1803:

Der Winkel von Hahrdt

Hinunter sinket der Wald,
Und Knospen ähnlich, hängen
Einwärts die Blätter, denen
Blüht unten auf ein Grund,
Nicht gar unmündig.
Da nämlich ist Ulrich
Gegangen; oft sinnt, über den Fußtritt,
Ein groß Schicksal
Bereit, an übrigem Orte.

The poem describes a ‘nook’ or ‘shelter’ of trees. The ground is covered with flowers and is “able to speak for itself” - here ‘Ulrich’ once walked, giving the site a sense of destiny. The Ulrich referred to is Duke Ulrich of Württemberg, who hid in the forest in 1519.

According to Theodor Adorno in Aesthetic Theory, the forest in this poem is only beautiful because it bears the mark of a past event. Otherwise it would just be some trees. Adorno felt that it is only possible to distinguish beauty in nature to the extent that a landscape is eloquent and conveys more than is literally there. This poem depicts an eloquent place that is, in effect, a spectacle. For Adorno, "natural beauty is suspended history" and therefore "artworks that resonate with this moment of suspension are those that are justly said to have a feeling for nature.” (p71, translation by Robert Hullor-Kentor).

Friday, January 20, 2006

Thermal

Photograph reproduced on the wall of the Science Museum, London

In paintings like Thermal (1960) Peter Lanyon fused the roles of glider pilot and landscape painter. However, he was by no means the first painter to take to the air. One could go back to the stories of flying experiments by Leonardo da Vinci, or another polymath and painter, Paolo Guidotti. And in the twentieth century Italian Futurists were among many artists considering the implications of powered flight. However, long before Marinetti wrote his Manifesto dell Aeropittura (1929), a precursor to Lanyon was building some of the earliest successful gliders. José Weiss (1859-1919) was a Paris-born landscape painter who lived in England. Just as Lanyon drew inspiration from watching the seagulls flying around the cliffs of Cornwall, Weiss had a lifelong interest in birds, as is evident from his designs for gliders. Photographs show them to be beautiful constructions (and, incidentally, more reminiscent of the sculptures Lanyon later made than the streamlined post-war gliders Lanyon flew). The combination of scientific understanding and artistic flair has led aviation historians to liken Weiss to Leonardo (see the comments here for example). But how did Weiss’s researches into flight affect his painting? Unsurprisingly perhaps, hardly at all. His landscapes reflected prevailing trends, influenced by the Barbizon school and Impressionism. Here are some links to images currently on-line: Barbizon Lakeside Landscape with Path, The Stream and Barbizon Landscape.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Morning

Giuseppe Ungaretti’s poem ‘Mattina’ (‘Morning’) may be the shortest great poem of the last century:

M’illumino
D’immenso

As Alistair Reid says in his anthology Italian Landscape Poems, this is ‘a landscape poem with no landscape in it, no history, and no person but the narrator’. Ungaretti began his career as Italy’s poet of the Great War, and ‘Mattina’ reflects the poet’s feelings after surviving another dangerous night (for more information, in Italian, see this Ungaretti site).

Alistair Reid tried out several English versions of the poem in an attempt to capture its many possible meanings, but perhaps it hardly needs to be translated. Patrick Creagh made no attempt in the Penguin Modern Poets edition of Ungaretti’s verse (1971), saying that ‘Mattina’ is untranslatable. Nor does it feature among the more recent Carcanet Selected Poems translated by Andrew Frisadi, although Frisadi does have a stab at it in the introduction.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Ocean Rain


For rock albums, iconic images of the band/artist have usually been so important that any landscapes are relegated to something like the Renaissance parergon, a secondary feature. To the extent that rock is the ‘sound of the city’, rural or wild landscapes would normally be inappropriate. However, one band who specialised in landscape settings were Echo and the Bunnymen (see for example the images on Villiers Terrace.com). The covers of their albums Crocodiles and Ocean Rain retain a theatrical quality, with colourfully lit landscapes serving as backdrops for the band. But Heaven Up Here and Porcupine are dominated by sublime landscapes: the windswept beach and the frozen glacier. The band actually recorded their video for ‘The Cutter’ in Iceland and embarked on a tour in 1983 taking in Iceland, Denmark and the Isles of Skye and Lewis.



In his book Rip it up and Start Again: Post Punk 1978 – 1984, Simon Reynolds notes that the Bunnymen were not alone in using dramatic landscape imagery. The Blue Orchids, who toured with the Bunnymen, eschewed a band photograph in favour of a simple sunset on their album The Greatest Hit. And in the early eighties many British bands were using rather nebulous elemental lyrics: ‘Under a Blood Red Sky’, ‘The Whole of the Moon’, ‘Fields of Fire (400 Miles)’. Perhaps it was in part a reaction to the bleak urban imagery that had dominated songs by The Clash, The Fall and Joy Division.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Black Ripple

How can a contemporary artist paint a landscape without making it ironic? To take just one of artist wrestling with this issue, consider Kate Bright, who paints mountain landscapes and images of water using acrylics and glitter, like Black Ripple (2001). In an interview on the British council site she says

The glitter, from the moment I picked it up, was screaming to be sunshine on water. It was like water in my hand. I earnestly want to capture that in a painting. In a way, it's about the impossible notion of possessing the sublime. I seem to be trying to make these contemporary landscape paintings that aren't really to do with anything that has been done in landscape painting before. Apart perhaps, from Christmas cards painted by people with their feet, which unfortunately, you can't find anymore. There is always this thing with glitter, all the references to kitsch and camp, which those Christmas cards had. But at the same time they are genuinely endearing, in an 'old lady-ish' way. There is a sweetness to them. As a kid it became the Christmas card, loosely painted with a splash of glitter on, the epitome of Christmas.

But in my work, the same language doesn't apply. This is always something I have to mention about my work - that it's not about kitsch or irony. It's completely. I want to say heartfelt, but heartfelt is still so kitsch. Perhaps they are romantic, or dare I say genuine. Irony is like saying 'look at me, I am crying, but not really. These are not real tears, I am being quite clever (fake crying) and you have to pat me on the back for that'! But the paintings are not like that at all. They try to be like beautiful mountains and lovely sunshine on water. They really are trying to be like that. I know they don't really achieve it, they are never quite what I want them to be. I have this idea in my head that I want them to be a certain way and something happens in the process so they end up different. Have I failed or not? They surprise you. Or perhaps I surprise myself. I was always thinking that my paintings might be seen as someone painting in vain. Is it impossible to capture that moment when, awe struck, you witness some natural phenomena?

It is a delicate balance and there will be different views as to whether Kate Bright succeeds in retaining visual pleasure and a connection with nature. However, as Barry Schwabsky wrote in ArtForum (Summer 2001) of one snowy landscape, its “amalgam of intricacy and generalization is surprisingly effective in creating a sense of encompassing scale. You could almost lose yourself in this place, for all your awareness of the flimsy artifice. Could it be that this painting is not about the sublime becoming kitsch but instead constitutes an effort to reclaim from kitsch the sublime that's embedded there?”

Friday, January 13, 2006

Grieve-Not Lake

Grieve-Not Lake is the title of an undated handscroll painting by Wu Hong (c1615-after 1683) in the Royal Academy’s Three Emperors exhibition (for some discussion of other landscape exhibits, see also Mount Pan and Jade Mountain). In the centre of the image is a grey lake, surrounded by reeds and rustic buildings. Some of these, particularly in the foreground, are in a state of disrepair. Two scholars contemplate the lake, sitting in a temple that has clearly seen better days. There is a tiny image of the painting on the Orientations site and, as it says there, Wu Hong’s melancholy landscape refers to the Manchu conquest of China – the artist remained loyal to the Ming and preferred to work as an independent artist rather than serve the new dynasty. Alfreda Murck links this painting to Kong Shangren’s play The Peach Blossom Fan which opens with a reference to the lake and dramatises the fall of the Ming Dynasty. She makes the interesting point that whilst ruins had always been a subject for poetry, Wu Hong was one of the first Chinese painters to depict them extensively in his work.


Wu Hong was one of the Eight Masters of the Nanjing School. The most famous painter in Nanjing at the time was Gong Xian (Kung Hsien) (1618-89). He too was a Ming patriot who generally tried to avoid depicting the sky (a symbol of imperial authority) and whose Thousand Peaks and Myriad Ravines (not in the exhibition) suggests a clouded, dark, desolate future under the Manchu. However, his later work is lighter in tone, reflecting the more peaceful, prosperous times under the first of the Three Emperors.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Mountains and pylons

The Japanese architect Sei Takeyama believes that the ability of the Japanese to narrow their focus has led to some of the environmental destruction of recent years. Rather than see a full landscape vista, he thinks that the Japanese prefer to focus on some small area of perfection – as in a haiku or garden. As Alex Kerr explains in his book Lost Japan (1993): “I recently gave a talk to the Junior Chamber of Commerce in the town of Kameoka, where I live. When I remarked that looking out from the highway one could easily count over sixty giant utility pylons towering over the surrounding mountains, my audience was shocked. Not one of them had ever noticed these pylons.” Is this fair? After all, there are pylons everywhere, although Kerr believes more effort is made to conceal them in countries like Switzerland with a tradition of wider landscape views. Even as a partial explanation, the narrowness of vision idea seems a bit too neat to be plausible, but it is an interesting thought.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Landscape Lieder

The Lied and Art Song Texts Page is a fascinating archive of poetry that has been set to music. For example, look up John Clare and you can read the text for Ivor Gurney’s ‘Ploughman Singing’ (1920) or Benjamin Britten’s setting of ‘The Evening Primrose’ (one of Britten’s Five Flower songs from 1950, the others being Robert Herrick’s ‘To Daffodils’ and ‘The Succession of the Four Sweet Months’, George Crabbe’s ‘Marsh Flowers’ and the anonymous ‘Ballad of Green Broom’).

Here are a selection of ten more landscape lieder by famous composers:

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The River Dart


It is interesting to compare the Dartmoor Sounds project with Alice Oswald’s much-praised poem Dart (2002). The poem uses local voices recorded by Oswald over two years as part of the Poetry Society’s Poetry Places scheme (most of the projects in this scheme were not directly connected to landscape, but there were some other Environmental Projects). In reproducing natural sounds and the conversation of people working on or enjoying the river, her writing deliberately aims for a written soundscape, (“a sound-map of the river” as she says in the poem’s introduction). However, the words of those she met are mediated through her poetry - we cannot tell how closely they resemble what was ‘actually’ said. In an interesting interview for the BBC she says that it was important to talk to people but forget some of what they said before writing the poem. Oswald emphasises that “all voices should be read as the river’s mutterings.”

Friday, January 06, 2006

Dartmoor soundscape

Another online soundscape project has tried to capture the sounds of Dartmoor. For example, you can hear the River Dart at Newbridge, jackdaws at Haytor Quarry and coniferous trees in the wind at Beardown Hill. There are a few less bucolic sounds too, like a plane flying over Yarner Wood, but generally the aural impression is quite traditional and idealised: local fairs, church bells, hounds hunting over the moors…

Thursday, January 05, 2006

New York soundscape

The New York Society for Acoustic Ecology have created an on-line soundmap of the city. The map includes recordings from a range of locations: Fulton Street Fish Market, Ludlow Street, Broadway from 26th to 28th Streets, Staten Island, Carroll Park in Brooklyn... The map could do with some further development as it is not yet very detailed, but it will be worth seeing how it progresses (it launched in August 2005). This soundmap is part of a wider group of related projects – see: NYSoundmap.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Promenade in the Forest


Jungles in Paris, the exhibition of Henri Rousseau paintings at Tate Modern prompts several questions about landscape.

Myself Portrait-Landscape (1890) is an example of a ‘new’ type of hybrid painting Rousseau felt he had invented. Hardly new, one might think, and it is easy to see the signifiers in the landscape as a poor substitute for the more subtle qualities of portraiture by a skilled painter. Trying to combine portrait and landscape can be viewed as a naïve error, like an amateur photographer trying to get ‘both in’ to a picture. But perhaps the strangeness of Rousseau’s vision lends both portrait and landscape a dreamlike quality pointing to the way we see people in our imagination.

An earlier work, Carnival Evening (1886), was Rousseau’s first painting for the Société des Indépendants exhibition. Far from being obviously ‘primitive’ it is an intriguing Symbolist landscape, although what gives the painting its arresting quality is not the mysterious characters and the moonlight, but the strange, sinuous shapes of the trees. The same could be said of his other early work: familiar-but-strange trees dominate Promenade in the Forest (c1886) and Rendezvous in the Forest (1889).

Henri Rousseau, Promenade in the Forest (c1886)

When Rousseau came to paint jungles he famously used as his source the tropical foliage on view in the Jardin des Plantes, in Paris. However, he did not use them realistically: the lilies in The Flamingos (1907) for example are simplified and inflated – dominating the canvas far more than the birds. Some of his plants are exaggerated versions of the flowers cultivated in Paris homes. Rousseau’s landscapes are more exotic than any real jungles.

When he turned to the landscape around Paris, Rousseau could provide an unusual perspective, sometimes bringing in aspects of the modern city in a dream-like way, as in Ivry Quay (c1907). However these paintings are not always as strange as one might hope – almost always less inspired than Rousseau’s jungles of the mind.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Avalanche in the Grisons

Whilst Samuel Palmer was appending poetic quotations to his rural scenes, J.M.W. Turner was thinking about the relationship between poetry and painting and adding verse to his exhibited works. A nice example of his use of poetry is Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage – Italy (1832) which had as its caption Byron’s lines:

‘… and now, fair Italy!
Thou art the garden of the world.
Even in thy desert what is like to thee?
Thy very weeds are beautiful, thy waste
More rich than other climes’ fertility:
Thy wreck a glory, and thy ruin graced
With an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced.’

The sculptor Richard Westmacott described this painting as ‘the most magnificent piece of landscape poetry that was ever conceived.’

John Gage has discussed the use Turner made of poetry – both by established writers and his own work (see J.M.W.Turner: ‘A Wonderful Range of Mind’ chapter 7). The verse tends to be used to amplify the allegorical or historical content of the landscapes, thus helping to raise them above the level of mere topography. This can be rather off-putting, although there are effective examples, such as the Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons (1810) which was exhibited with Turner’s lines

The downward sun a parting sadness gleams,
Portenteous lurid thro’ the gathering storm;
Thick drifting snow on snow,
Till the vast weight bursts thro’ the rocky barrier;
Down at once, its pine clad forests,
And towering glaciers fall, the work of ages
Crashing through all! Extinction follows,
And the toil, the hope of man – o’erwhelms.

Turner’s poetry didn’t really need to describe the landscape itself so it is not surprising that the main purpose was to draw out moral points, as in the last line above. However, there are some examples of purely descriptive verse, as in these unpublished lines to complement a view of Minehead, Somersetshire (c1820) (‘welkin’ is an archaic term for the sky):

In oranges, reds and golden glows the rich welkin cheek,
Blue claims but little share in the sky,
While distant hills maintain the powerful dye
In all its changes, even the russet down embrowned
By midday sun, or rock or mossy crownd;
And as [?] sunk hamlet smoke assumes a tone
That, true to nature, art is proud to own…

This poetry is clearly still very much that of a painter and it is hard to argue that it could stand alone without the image. Gage downplays the temptation to compare Turner’s verse to his celebrated Romantic contemporaries, seeing him rather as one of the many artist-poets at that time: Henry Fuseli, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Henry Tresham, Richard Westall, Thomas Gisborne, Charles Lock Eastlake, Martin Archer Shee…

Monday, January 02, 2006

Early morning

Samuel Palmer, Early Morning, 1825

There is still time to see the British Museum’s Samuel Palmer exhibition before it transfers to the Met in New York. One of the highlights is the ‘Oxford sepia series’ of 1825: early monochromes in gum and sepia ink, showing idealised rural scenes and mysterious atmospheric light effects. Most of them are accompanied by a poetic inscription:

A Rustic Scene: lines from Virgil’s Georgics evoking the autumnal equinox
Libra die somnique pares ubi fecerit horas
et medium luci atque umbris iam dividit orbem,
exercete, viri, tauros, serite hordea campis
usque sub extremum brumae intractabilis imbrem;

The Valley with a Bright Cloud: lines from Shakespeare’s As You Like It:
This is our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in ye running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

Early Morning: lines from the poem A Complaint of the Black Knight thought by Palmer to be by Chaucer but now believed to have been written by John Lydgate:
I rose anone and thought I would be gone
Into the wode, to hear the birdes sing,
When that misty vapour was agone
And cleare and fair was the morning.
 
Late Twilight: a line from Macbeth, oddly misattributed to Milton
The west yet glimmers with some streaks of day

The Skirts of Wood: no quotation is given

The Valley Thick with Corn: a quotation from Psalm 65:
Though crownest the year with Thy goodness: and Thy clouds drop fatness. They shall drop upon the dwellings of the wilderness; and the little hills shall rejoice on every side. Thy folds shall be full of sheep, the valleys also shall stand so thick with corn that they shall laugh and sing.

Even without the images these quotations evoke the mood of Palmer’s work. The lines for Early Morning by Lydgate were new to me and have a timeless simple beauty. As William Vaughan explains in the exhibition catalogue, these quotations became associated with the pictures sometime during Palmer’s life, possibly well after they were painted. However, the practice of exhibiting landscapes with accompanying poems was common in England at the time.

It is interesting to compare the effect of these paintings with that of Chinese landscapes currently on display at the Royal Academy where poetry also accompanies the image, for example the twelve Scenes Described in Poems of Du Fu by Wang Shimin (1592-1680) or the Eight Scenes of Yangzhou by Gao Xiang (1688-1754) that are accompanied by quatrains by different authors.