Friday, March 31, 2006

Splice garden

In Anne Whiston Spirn’s book The Language of Landscape there is an entertaining chapter in which she thinks up landscape equivalents for figures of speech: alliteration, anachronism, cliché, euphemism, litotes, metonym, synecdoche etc. etc. Some are more obvious than others. Looking for the more obscure figures of speech I was interested in her discussion of meiosis. Meiosis is defined here as a “reference to something with a name disproportionately lesser than its nature”, and their example, in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, is the Black Knight’s dismissal of the loss of both his arms in a fight with King Arthur as “just a flesh wound”. In landscape design, Spirn associates this kind of belittling understatement with the work of Martha Schwartz. Schwartz’s playful, conceptual gardens reject the ‘Nature Fantasy’ that underlies traditional landscape design. She aroused fierce criticism when Landscape Architecture Magazine featured her Bagel Garden on its cover in January 1980 and she remains a controversial figure. In a recent article by Tim Richardson in the Telegraph, for example, he says “it is surprising what fury Schwartz's work arouses among some horticulturists - in the past weeks, several contributors to this newspaper have told me they think that Schwartz is a trickster.”

The designs of Martha Schwartz can also be used to illustrate other figures of speech. Spirn discusses her Splice Garden (Cambridge Massachusetts) as an exemplification of paradox, oxymoron and conceit. This rooftop space (the location itself to some extent paradoxical) includes plastic flowers and witty juxtapositions, like a formal French clipped tree encircled by the raked gravel of a Zen garden.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Utah Beach

It is now fifty years ago that J.G. Ballard published his first short stories. Rereading one of these, ‘Prima Belladonna’, recently I was surprised how much of the story is rooted in the form of fifties British SF, forgetting how much his work and the issues he writes about have changed, even though his preoccupation with surreal landscapes has always been there. Ballard’s vision of Vermillion Sands, the near future desert resort populated by idle dilettantes, first described in ‘Prima Belladonna’ remains pertinent, although perhaps its location would now have shifted to Dubai.

Another constant in Ballard’s work is his interest in landscapes transformed by military technology. In The Guardian last week, he was describing the strange Modernist structures of Utah Beach, which resemble those blockhouses of a nuclear testing site that feature in his story ‘The Terminal Beach’ (1964). Ballard implies in his article that few tourists visit Utah Beach, although surely it is only a matter of time before there are guide books to such sites, following the example of Robert Smithson’s essay ‘A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic’. There is already a J.G. Ballard group on Flickr, where seekers of the Modernist picturesque can view and deposit photographs of decaying military installations, abandoned hotels, failed utopias and entropic ruins.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Wooden boulder

There is an interview with David Nash in Sculpture Magazine where he says “I think Andy Goldsworthy and I, and Richard Long, and most of the British artists’ collectives associated with Land art would have been landscape painters a hundred years ago. But we don’t want to make portraits of the landscape. A landscape picture is a portrait. We don’t want that. We want to be in the land.”

From a landscape perspective, one of Nash’s most interesting works is Wooden Boulder. This 25 year project is the subject of a documentary film, Boulder, by Pete Telfe, and various photographs and drawings by Nash. It began in 1978 when Nash was asked to fell an oak tree, for safety reasons, that overhung a cottage at Bronturnor, North Wales. Nash cut part of the tree into a large wooden ‘boulder’ with the aim of taking it back to his studio as a wood ‘quarry’. However, he decided instead to push it into the nearby stream, where it became wedged between rocks beneath a waterfall. This, Nash felt, was the right place for it. However, the wooden boulder’s journey had only just begun and in March 1979 it was washed into the pool beneath the waterfall. Nash then decided to give it a helping hand, pushing it over the next waterfall to another pool, where it rested eight years, taking on the appearance of a real boulder. What had originally been intended as the source of a sculpture had become a work of environmental art. The boulder remained in the stream whilst the landscape changed around it, but it continued to move intermittently when the river swelled.

By 1994, Wooden Boulder was resting below the road bridge just before the stream meets the river Dwyryd. David Nash has described the subsequent course of the boulder (see the Annely Juda Fine Art site): “I did not expect it to move into the Dwyryd river in my lifetime. Then in November 2002 it was gone. The ‘goneness’ was palpable. The storm propelled the boulder 5 kilometres, stopping on a sandbank in the Dwyryd estuary. Now tidal, it became very mobile…. The wooden boulder was last seen in June 2003 on a sandbank near Ynys Giftan. All creeks and marshes have been searched so it can only be assumed it has made its way to the sea. It is not lost. It is wherever it is.”

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Dry and verdant branches

In the July 2005 edition of Apollo Magazine, Clovis Whitfield describes the Arcadian landscapes of Francesco Cozza (1605-82). Whitfield is an expert on this period and a dealer in Old Masters (Whitfield Fine Art). The article reflects the connoisseurial importance of identifying Cozza’s landscapes and distinguishing them from more famous contemporaries and influences such as Claude, Poussin, Gaspar Dughet and Domenichino. For example, in discussing two paintings in the style of Claude, Whitfield says that “it is the figures in particular that suggest Cozza’s authorship, but the definition of the trees and foliage also reveals his handwriting.” From a landscape perspective it is perhaps these small differences in the natural elements that are most interesting. It is tempting to imagine that even fairly derivative work can hide a distinctive view of nature, even though Cozza’s trees and foliage are more likely simply to reflect his method of applying paint in the pursuit of idealised landscapes.

Here is a description of the way Cozza paints nature, in Clovis Whitfield’s discussion of a painting in the Rijksmuseum: “the dry and verdant branches of the trees, crossed trunks and sprouting mullein-like foliage on a dry and stony ground in the Amsterdam Hagar and Ishmael are a distinctive language. The trunks of the trees criss-cross the canvas in a way that recalls Poussin in his so-called ‘Silver Birch’ phase, with a dappled light catching the uneven bark. The branches seem to be laid out flat, like fern fronds, while it is the colouring that gives the foliage variety of appearance and depth.” Cozza’s landscape sounds caught between art and nature, both lifeless and alive, like those “dry and verdant branches”, or the “sprouting foliage on a dry and stony ground”.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Singing sands

Landscapes can be more or less musical. Desert sands have been known to sing and beaches that are silent when wet, can sound underfoot like Japanese koto music. David Toop mentions these phenomena in his book Ocean of Sound (1995). He refers to the researches of Shigeo Miwa into the gradual disappearance of singing sands across the world. A sample from Pensacola Beach in Florida was restored to voice by being boiled in water for 40 minutes to remove the pollutants. The sample is now in the Nima Sand Museum in Japan.

Since David Toop’s book there has been further research into the phenomenon of singing sounds. New Scientist reported last year that ‘Stéphane Douady of the French national research agency CNRS and his colleagues shipped sand from Moroccan singing dunes back to his lab to investigate. They found that they could play notes by pushing the sand by hand, or with a metal handle.’ You can hear impressive sounds of sands recorded by Doady at his website.

Singing sands are now being utilised by composers like Pippa Murphy (‘Voix du Sable’). The most famous British site for singing sands is on the Isle of Eigg. My only experience of a sand soundscape was Squeaky Beach, Wilson’s Promontory, Australia: the photograph below was taken there in 1996.



Sunday, March 19, 2006

Deer in snow

Ronald Hepburn’s essay ‘Trivial and Serious in the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature’, argues that whilst it is ‘trivial’ to engage in an unreflective superficial reading of a landscape, it is just as trivial to resort to an ‘ironical, anti-Romantic, belittling, levelling reaction’ to the idea that landscapes can be beautiful. There is a balance to be struck. Nature needs to be respected and seen on its own terms, but this does not mean that only a detailed or objective ‘scientific’ reaction is acceptable. It is valid to appreciate natural landscapes in terms of metaphor, as long as we do not simply fall back on dead metaphors. Aesthetic appreciation of a landscape will involve the viewer in shaping the disparate elements into a unified whole, but serious appreciation means at the same time not losing site of the arbitrariness and otherness of nature.

In another essay reprinted in The Reach of the Aesthetic (2001), ‘Data and Theory in Aesthetics’ Hepburn continues this theme. He uses the example of a view of deer moving across a hillside in the snow. Here it is not essential to keep in mind the facts of ‘forestry as commerce or animals as food’ but, it is necessary to attend to the reality of this natural event rather than automatically experience it selectively according to pre-existing aesthetic criteria. Must an awareness of environmental concerns colour our appreciation of nature? “Certainly our cherishing of aesthetic experience must not be allowed to displace practical efforts to reduce environmental threats and dangers. But neither do these dangers have to dominate all our approaches to nature. There is room – and great need – for both.”

Hepburn also disagrees with Stan Godlovitch, who has argued for an aesthetic appreciation that recognises the categorical otherness of nature, implying a sense of being outside oneself. For Hepburn we do belong in nature and therefore the partial understanding we possess, conditioned by our culture, is a legitimate starting point for aesthetic appreciation. This appreciation should be is a synthesis that simultaneously encompasses nature’s mutability and stability, the landscape’s present appearance infused with a sense of its past.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Somerset Place, Bath

There is a good essay by Julian Stallabrass, originally published in New Left Review, available on-line at the Courtauld Institute site, ‘Success and Failure of Peter Fuller’. Stallabrass says “for most of his career Fuller was beyond the pale of the art establishment; initially for his materialism, then for the accessibility of his writing, which at points threatened to puncture art's divine, money-spinning mystery, and later for his conservative debunking of the avant-garde. There was however a period in the mid to late eighties when it seemed as though Fuller might actually succeed in his task of turning the tide in favour of a conservative, specifically English art.”

Fuller promoted painters of the School of London and an interest in neo-Romantics like John Piper. Piper was interviewed in the second edition of Fuller’s magazine Modern Painters (Summer 1988). Fuller starts the article with a discussion of the post-war fate of Bath, whose ruins were bombed and painted by Piper, e.g. in Somerset Place, Bath (1942). He sees the possible re-birth of art after Modernism paralleled in the gradual healing of Bath after the horrors visited upon it by insensitive sixties architects. Fuller views Piper as a progressive force and argues that Piper’s work had actually been at its weakest when it tried to accommodate modernism and the influence of contemporary artists like Richard Hamilton (a friend of Piper’s).

It is interesting now to look back at the sort of artists Fuller praised. Later in the same issue of Modern Painters, Fuller reviews and defends the work of two landscape painters, Paul Hempton, who is “not nostalgic”, and Michael Williams, who is “not ashamed” to be a water-colourist. Fuller writes that the current (1988) “remarkable revival” of landscape painting may eventually be recognised as “one of the most significant developments in British art of the current decade”. I think it’s safe to say that this recognition hasn’t happened yet…

Friday, March 17, 2006

Corson's Inlet

A. R. Ammons’ ‘Corson’s Inlet’ is one of the best known twentieth century landscape poems and has generated much discussion about poetic form since its publication in 1965. The poem evokes the movement of a walk in its shapes and rhythms. Here, for example, are the opening lines

I went for a walk over the dunes again this morning 
to the sea, 
then turned right along 
   the surf 
              rounded a naked headland 
              and returned 
 
   along the inlet shore:

There are a series of critical reflections on the poem in the useful Modern American Poetry site. Five examples:

  • Richard Grey (in American Poetry of the Twentieth Century) discusses the form of the poem as a field rather than a closed object, “There are, Ammons suggests, 'no / ... changeless shapes': the poet-seer must invent structures that imitate the metamorphic character of things. The organisms he creates must respond to life as particularity and process; they must be dynamic, unique to each occasion; above all, they must be open.”
  • Paul Lake (‘The Shape of Poetry’ in Poetry after Modernism. Ed. Robert McDowell) thinks that modern developments in chaos theory go against the idea that landscape lacks formal structure. By analogy, there may be more promise in formal poetry than is suggested by the organic natural form Ammons was writing in ‘Corson’s Inlet’.
  • Bonnie Costello (‘The Soil & Man's Intelligence: Three Contemporary Landscape Poets’, Contemporary Literature 30:3) notes that for Ammons the "mirroring mind" is “not mimetic so much as congruent, finding coordinates to match, not copy, the particulars of the landscape.”
  • Steven P. Schneider (in A.R. Ammons and the Poetics of Widening Scope), echoing Harold Bloom, writes that in ‘Corson’s Inlet’ Ammons “finds "direct sight" more liberating than the contemplation of the Sublime. In Ammons's universe, the apperception of physical, manifest phenomena and processes yields pleasure and sometimes pain. Despite the lure of the Transcendent, he resists it.”
  • John Elder (Imagining the Earth: Poetry and the Vision of Nature) says that in Ammons’ poetry the “sequence of natural shifts and the path of human consciousness” provide “an ecologically balanced art”.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Land of Darkness

Thomas Jones is renowned for his Italian oil sketches, but should be just as well known for his memoirs, which are often cited by historians of eighteenth century landscape painting, but, bafflingly, remain out of print. They can be read in Volume 32 of the proceedings of the Walpole Society (for 1946-48). In this extract Thomas Jones and Francis Towne find that Nature can occasionally be just too Picturesque...

June 2nd 1781 This day crossing the Mola piccola I saw a large crowd of People assembled round two circular vacant Spots about ten or twelve pases asunder - in each of these lay a man extended on his back with a knife in his hand - dead - It seems two of the Sbirri or guard of the Place had a quarrel, stabbed each other, and both fell - getting through the multitude as well as I could I proceeded to meet Pars, according to appointment at an Osteria in the road to S'a M'a de Monti - In this hollow Way is a most beautiful Series of picturesque Objects, which I discovered by Accident in one of my perambulations - Here may be visibly traced the scenery that Salvator Rosa formed himself upon - Only taking away the Pinetrees, which were, perhaps, a planted since his time, and which indicate a State of Cultivation not suited to his gloomy mind, with the addition of Water & a few Banditti - And every hundred yards presents you with a new and perfect Composition of that Master - When Towne was in Naples, I took him with me to this romantick place, with which he seemed much delighted - but the following whimsical Incident put a stop to further explorations at that time and which I forgot to mention in its proper place - Proceeding up the valley whose boundaries contracted more and more as we advanced, increasing in proportion the Gloominess of the Scene; We arrived at a Spot, which might very properly have been termed the Land of Darkness and the Shadow of Death - This sequestered place was environed on all Sides, with hanging Rocks here and there protruding themselves from behind dark masses of a variety of Wild Shrubs, and overshadowed by branching Trees - Here, says I, Mr Towne, is Salvator Rosa in perfection we only want Banditti to compleat the Picture - I had scarcely uttered these words, when turning round a Projection of Rocks, we all-at once pop'd upon three ugly-looking fellows dressed in the fantastic garb of the Sbirri di Campagna, with long knives, cutting up a dead jackAss… Towne started back as if struck by an electric Shock… "I'll go no further" says he, with a most solemn face, adding with a forced smile, that however he might admire Scenes in a Picture - he did not relish them in Nature, - So we wheeled about and returned to the more cultivated environs of the City.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Distant View of Lowestoft

In looking at early oil sketches from nature there is a sense that they are pure views unencumbered by picturesque formulae, not only fresher than academic landscapes, but also offering some kind of direct window on the past. This is particularly true when the painting is a simple objective study of a hill, a clump of trees or some scattered buildings, rather than familiar tourist views such as Tivoli, Posillipo, or the Baths of Caracalla. Eighteenth century sketches pre-dating photography are particularly interesting in this respect and the works of Thomas Jones (1742-1803), Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1750-1819) and Simon Denis (1755-1812) have grown in reputation over the last fifty years. Collectors have also discovered more obscure painters, like Thomas Kerrich (1748-1828), a Cambridge antiquarian and librarian who was best known as a draughtsman. One oil sketch by Kerrich is on long term loan to the National Gallery, a Distant View of Lowestoft from the South (possibly 1794), part of the Gere collection of oil sketches. It is a simple view of a bay on a rather grey English day, with broad expanses of sand, sea and sky and very little topographical detail. As Christopher Riopelle noted in the catalogue to A Brush with Nature: The Gere Collection of Landscape Oil Sketches (1999), ‘the simplicity and directness of this image suggest a precocious and original approach to landscape. The work of a trained artist, but not essentially a painter, it is at the same time remarkably unfettered by a reliance on conventional landscape formulae.’

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Hudson Valley in Winter from Olana

The National Academy Museum in New York is currently hosting the touring exhibition ‘Treasures from Olana: Landscapes by Frederic Edwin Church’. Olana is the Persian style home Church built overlooking the Hudson (see the Olana website). Chuch made sure that after his death in 1900 the house and its contents would remain together.

In his review of the exhibition in the New York Review of Books, John Updike points out the irony that this crowded oriental fantasy house crammed with Victorian bric-a-brac should also house Church’s freshest works: rapid oil sketches that the artist kept and framed. The Hudson Valley in Winter from Olana (c 1871-2, 13 x 20 ¼ inches) for example is praised by Updike for the “dashing dabble of rapid brown strokes that does for winter foliage”, “the boldly crude splatter of white clouds scattered on the blue sky overhead” and snow “more creamy, and drifts more sweepingly indicated” than can be found in the landscapes of almost any other American painters.

It is of course a familiar story - the oil sketches of a celebrated artist appealing more to modern tastes than the large scale finished works. It will be interesting to see how this theme is addressed in the forthcoming Constable show at Tate Britain. Another British parallel to Church is Lord Leighton, whose vivid oil sketches are often much more appealing than the paintings that brought him fame and the presidency of the Royal Academy. Like Church, Leighton was fascinated by the Near East and created for himself an idealised oriental space in Leighton House (this interior photograph dates from about 1879). It too is open to the public and is, I am told, an excellent party venue.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Streets of Paris

Back in August 1992 there was an article in Sight and Sound by Peter Wollen about cities in film. I made a note at the time that, according to Wollen, there was someone at the City of Paris museum who was aiming to build up ‘a library on disc which would allow viewers to find all the moving images made of any given street in Paris in any given year. Ultimately a global dream archive would cover all the major cities of the world.’ Was this a real project? I cannot see anything about it on-line so perhaps, if it was a plan, it came to nothing. However, it is easier to envisage now than it would have been in 1992... Someone should do it.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Ruined apartment building, Khabul

Simon Norfolk was another landscape photographer talking at Tate Modern on Friday (as part of ‘Art Photography Now: Landscape’) and like Elina Brotherus he draws on the work of earlier landscape painters. As he says in the ‘Et In Arcadia Ego’ section of his website, the techniques of Claude and Poussin provide an inspiration for the way he composes his photographs of Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq. See for example, the image of a partially ruined apartment building in the Karte Char district of Khabul, with its pastoral sheep and golden light. This is a war zone seen through a Claude glass. On the face of it his use of these pastoral nostalgic references is ironic. It tempts the viewer to see the images as beautiful before the accompanying text provides the grim context. However, Norfolk also wants to associate these images with the ‘dark side’ of classical and picturesque landscape painting, where even the ruins in old paintings are understood to reflect real histories of decline or destruction.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Very low horizon

Continuing the theme of Mark Rothko’s influence, there is the contemporary example of Finnish photographer Elina Brotherus. In Low Horizon (2) (2000) the cloud has the consistency of Rothko’s paint and Horizon 7 (2000) resembles one of Rothko’s late black paintings. In other works, like Very Low Horizon 2 (2001), she reduces the landscape to a zip of colour and creates an image that recalls the paintings of Barnett Newman. Speaking at Tate Modern on Friday, Brotherus was happy to talk about the influence of painters like these (she also mentioned Cézanne, Bonnard and Vuillard), but it is clearly their formal characteristics that she is interested in: colour, light, shapes… She is not particularly interested in landscape per se. Her photographs use the landscape like a palette to explore the concerns of Modernist painting, and indeed her recent work has been exhibited under the title, ‘The New Painting’.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Contemporary sunset

Sunset from our bedroom window

Mark Rothko denied his abstract paintings were in any way supposed to be landscapes, although he is reported to have said at the 1964 Turner show in New York “that chap Turner learned a lot from me.” That year there was a New Yorker cartoon with a modish couple staring out at a sunset over the sea, the view resembling a Rothko painting, the caption: “Now, there’s a nice contemporary sunset.” The cartoon reminds me of comments on Turner in Oscar Wilde's The Decay of Lying (1889):
“Nobody of any real culture, for instance, ever talks nowadays about the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old fashioned. They belong to the time when Turner was the last note in art. To admire them is a distinct sign of provincialism of temperament. Upon the other hand they go on. Yesterday evening Mrs Arundel insisted on my going to the window, and looking at the glorious sky, as she called it. Of course I had to look at it. She is one of those absurdly pretty Philistines to whom one can deny nothing. And what was it? It was simply a very second-rate Turner, a Turner of a bad period, with all the painter’s worst faults exaggerated and over-emphasised.”
The question this raises in relation to Rothko is over the extent to which our aesthetic response to landscapes is now affected by the form of Rothko’s paintings, even though Rothko himself was engaged in abstract expressionism. And whether this in turn leads artists to adopt Rothko-like compositions for their landscapes, as in Andreas Gursky’s Rhein (1996).

Friday, March 03, 2006

Nacreous cloud, Iceland

There are various sites about rainbows and related atmospheric effects, e.g. the excellent Atmospheric Optics site. A recent addition is an extraordinary nacreous cloudscape in Iceland, whilst elsewhere there are images of a glory and broken spectre in Ireland, a low bow in Australia and a moon bow in Hawaii. The site provides technical information and software for simulating different optical effects: HaloSim. There is also some history: Lowitz arcs are named after Tobias Lowitz, who sketched a complex display visible from St Petersburg on June 18th 1790, and Parry arcs were first recorded by William Perry on 8 April 1820, near Melvile Island in the Candian Arctic, during the search for the Northwest Passage.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Buttermere Lake, a shower

In his book Colour and Culture John Gage discusses the way in which a few artists of the Romantic period strove to paint unusual forms of the rainbow. There are double rainbows by Constable, a parhelion by Cotman (in a drawing of 1815) and a lunar rainbow in a landscape by Caspar David Friedrich (1808). Depicting strange atmospheric effects could have appealed either as a form of scientific naturalism or as a means of heightening the mood of sublime landscapes. Given the opportunity they afforded for examples of artistic virtuosity, it is perhaps surprising that examples of these strange rainbows are relatively rare. However it is consistent with the sense that mere ‘accidents of light’ did not really have a place in classical landscape painting (as was indicated by Joshua Reynolds in his fourth Discourse). Nevertheless, rainbows in general were frequently used, retaining some of their symbolic value from earlier periods of art. Turner was perhaps the most prominent exponent and his Buttermere Lake, Cumberland, a shower of 1798 is just the first landscape with a rainbow that he exhibited. It shows the rare white fog bow.



J. M. W. Turner Buttermere Lake, Cumberland, a shower (1798)
Source: Wikimedia Commons (The Atheneum)

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A panorama of New York

In his unfinished novel Amerika, Franz Kafka's hero leaves New York to wander through a landscape that has more in common with Austria than America (translator Michael Hofmann describes it as an 'exploded Bohemia'). There is one particularly moving description: “The road started to climb and when they stopped from time to time they could see, looking back, the panorama of New York and its harbour continually unfolding. The bridge that connected New York with Boston lay slender across the Hudson, and trembled if you narrowed your eyes. It seemed to be carrying no traffic at all, and below it was the smooth unanimated ribbon of water.”

Of course whether or not Kafka meant to write 'Boston' or ‘Brooklyn’ is irrelevant, for this is Amerika, a European dream landscape.