Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Scandinavian Landscape with a Waterfall

Jacob van Ruisdael’s Scandinavian waterfall paintings are partly remarkable because, as Seymour Slive says in his guide to the Royal Academy’s Jacob van Ruisdael exhibition, Ruisdael “never laid eyes on such scenes. His motifs for them were derived from Allart van Everdingen, a Dutch artist who visited Norway and Sweden in 1644 and returned to Holland with a stock of Nordic themes for use in his works. In the late 1650s and early 1660s, when Ruisdael began to paint rushing torrents in rocky mountainous northern valleys studded with conifers, he followed Everdingen’s example closely.” The exhibition includes the large Waterfall in a Mountainous Landscape with a Ruined Castle (c1665-70), which is in a private collection. The Fogg Art museum has another famous example, Waterfall with a Half-Timbered House and Castle.

On his trip to Scandinavia Allart van Everdingen (1621-75) visited the south-eastern coast of Norway and the area of western Sweden around Göteborg. As Slive writes in Dutch Painting 1600-1800, there is no reason to believe he ever returned, even though he received a commission to paint the Trip family’s Cannon Foundry at Julitabroeck in Södermanland, Sweden. An example of the kind of Scandinavian landscape by Everdingen that inspired Ruisdael is the Munich Alte Pinakothek’s Scandinavian Landscape with a Waterfall (1650) (unfortunately the image doesn’t seem to be available on-line).

Everdingen’s work would also have an influence on Scandinavian landscape painting: another later artist who admired him was the Norwegian painter Johan Christian Dahl (1788-1837). Contemporary critics described Dahl as ‘the new Everdingen’. According to Andrew Graham-Dixon, Dahl’s training involved “seven years in the Danish capital, where he was taught principally by Christian August Lorentzen, a run-of-the-mill painter who encouraged him to study the many Dutch masterpieces in the Danish royal collection. 'The landscape painters I learn from are Ruisdael and Everdingen,' Dahl wrote in 1812. 'But first and foremost I study nature - a pity there are no cliffs and water here, but then one has to do with fountain water.'”

Monday, May 29, 2006

View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds

 
Jacob van Ruisdael, View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds (c1665) 

At the Royal Academy’s Jacob van Ruisdael exhibition there are several landscapes showing the local bleaching grounds, where lengths of cloth cover the ground, like abstract collages, blank canvases or (at a stretch) Christo wraps. In the Zurich View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds (c1665) for example, the cloth emphasises the light falling in the middle of the wide flat vista, an effect you often see in Ruisdael’s panoramic landscapes. Here is a description of a similar view from the Timken museum site: “Haarlem linen had a great reputation in the seventeenth century, and the linen industry was enormously important to the city's economy. Clothing and uncut cloth were bleached in the fields around the city in a process that took several months. Ruisdael, one of the most important seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painters, completed about fifteen views of Haarlem showing the linen-bleaching fields. In this richly textured canvas, as in other landscapes of the subject, the artist arranges the buildings and rows of linen to lead the eye diagonally through alternating areas of shadow and light.” Whether these paintings could be criticised or praised for transforming scenes of industry into harmonious pictorial compositions is, perhaps, ultimately a matter of taste.

The RA magazine has an article by Jenny Uglow on Ruisdael to accompany the exhibition here.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

A couple of breaks of sunshine

Kenneth Goldsmith’s The Weather is a sort of post-modern version of James Thomson’s The Seasons, based entirely on New York area one-minute weather report transcripts. It begins with ‘Winter’: ‘A couple of breaks of sunshine over the next couple of hours, what little sunshine there is left. Remember, this is the shortest day of the year. Looks like the clear skies hold off till later on tonight. It will be brisk and cold, low temperatures will range from twenty-nine in some suburbs to thirty-eight in midtown. Not a bad shopping day tomorrow, sunshine to start, then increasing clouds, still breezy, with a high near fifty…’

Kenneth Goldsmith has said: “The piece itself is a master narrative of a year, a sub-narrative of the four chapters, and several micro-narratives within the chapters. Storms approach from afar; they get closer; they occur; they pass. Weather, that most organic of phenomenon, is framed as a transaction. Quantified, narrativized, and capitalized, the weather either aids or abets our drive time.” The way weather is treated seems to convey a sense of contemporary landscape, where natural phenomena are present as background noise, like the sound of the radio. Marjorie Perloff has written an interesting essay about The Weather on Ubuweb.

Nothing to do with landscape, but there are some Goldsmith songs here based on cultural theory, for example text by Frederic Jameson sung to the tune of John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things. Not, I think, on this evidence a musical genre likely to flourish.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Winter Landscape with a Gypsy Encampment

We think of modern artists as obsessively returning to certain types of landscape, whether for their symbolic value or formal qualities. In earlier centuries it is easier to imagine artists merely cornering particular sections of the landscape market. For instance, among early seventeenth century Flemish landscape painters, there were several in Antwerp specialising in woodland scenes, and among these Gijsbrecht Leytens (1586-1643/56) was the master at painting woodlands in winter. In Winter Landscape with a Gypsy Encampment there is a striking contrast between the dark foreground and the silvery-white branches beyond, the wood’s deep shadows and the golden winter light glimpsed through tunnel-like paths between the trees. The Bridgeman library has several other ‘Winterkens’ by Leytens: The Flight into Egypt, The Massacre of the Innocents, Winter Landscape. All these diverse scenes are covered in Leytens’ fine powder snow.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Valois mists

‘There was a slight stretch of open country to cover before reaching Othys. The village spire was already visible on the bluish hills that extend from Montméliant to Dammartin. The Thève was once again burbling over rocks and pebbles as it dwindled to a narrow stream near its source – where it rests among the meadows forming a small pond amid irises and gladioli’. This is a landscape in the Valois described by the narrator of Gerard de Nerval’s ‘Sylvie’ (1854). The translation is by Richard Sieburth, who observes that Nerval worked like a plein air painter: Nerval’s ‘limpid landscapes have often been compared to those of his friend Corot’. However, as with Corot, there is more to Nerval than mere description – this simple landscape quoted out of context conveys almost nothing of what makes ‘Sylvie’ so special (for me ‘Sylvie’ is one of the most perfect works of literature). Sieburth writes that ‘Sylvie’ is not simply ‘a regionalist roman champêtre in the bucolic manner of George Sand’. It has affinities with Poe and Proust: a shifting landscape of memory and ghosts. The Valois of Nerval’s youth merges with that of Rousseau, Catherine de Medici and Charlemagne. So perhaps a more representative landscape is from a dream in which the narrator sees a castle lit by the setting sun, its green lawn framed by elms and limes and on it young girls dancing. The shadows descend and ‘thin clouds of mist drifted over the lawn, spreading tufts of white upon the tips of the grass. We thought we were in paradise.’

For more on ‘Sylvie’ see this French Nerval site.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Memory of Marcoussis

Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Souvenir of Coubron, 1872

Like Howard Hodgkin, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot was an artist who, at least in his later work, painted memories of landscapes rather than views. This is suggested in titles like Memory [Souvenir] of Coubron (above) and many others: Souvenir de Mortefontaine, de Sologne, de Toscane, du lac d'Albano, de Castelgandolfo...   Michael Clarke (Corot and the Art of Landscape) calls such painting an art of ‘reflection and reminiscence’ and compares it to the poetry of Lamartine and de Musset, who also used the term ‘Souvenir’ in their titles. Indeed ‘Corot’s The Shepherd Star of 1864 was possibly inspired by lines by de Musset, of whom the artist recalled "Ah! Musset what a poet… He also has greatly suffered. He took notice of me in the past when none recognized me. I owe him a debt of gratitude."’

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Venice / Shadows

The Green Château, In Central Park, Bombay Sunset Howard Hodgkin sometimes chooses titles that would suggest landscapes, but the paintings themselves never do more than suggest landscapes. House Near Venice (1984-88) includes what appears to be a house reflected in water, but other Venice pictures are no more than blurred hazes of colour. Venice / Shadows (1984-88) suggests the idea of a cool doorway or the pattern of sunlight and Venice Grey Water (1988-89) gives a sense of the lagoon – not grey but shifting greens and blues. Hodgkin’s Venice, like Turner's, is a city of memory and floating forms. Rather than landscapes, these paintings are about passing time, with its moments of clarity and confusion. As Andrew Graham-Dixon has written, they are works in which ‘topography is displaced by metaphor.’

Friday, May 12, 2006

Pier and ocean

Franz Marc, Tirol (1914)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Robert Rosenblum has succinctly described some of the ways in which artists turned away from landscape at the start of the twentieth century (in his essay ‘The Withering Greenbelt’, published in Denatured Visions: Landscape and Culture in the Twentieth Century edited by Stuart Wrede and William Howard Adams). This included
  • landscape reduced to exquisite, almost abstract detail in the paintings of Monet and Augusto Giacometti;
  • landscape sanctified or mystical, archaic or primordial, as in the work of symbolists like Ferdinand Hodler;
  • unreal expressionist landscapes, both pastoral and apocalyptic, like Franz Marc’s gentle Horse in Landscape (1910) and violent Tirol (1914);
  • landscape reduced to fragments in the Modernist city, in the work of artists from Seurat to Leger, and symbolised by Corbusier’s Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau (1925) in which a single tree integrated into the design points to the containment and absence of nature.
However, for Rosenblum it is Piet Mondrian who best exemplifies the process, going ‘from an espousal of nature and its mysteries, to a rejection of it in favour of an imagery rooted in the utopian city.’ Indeed Mondrian’s gradual artistic rejection of landscape and nature paralleled his own personal movement in 1909-11 ‘to the dunes on the cold northern shores where he felt he could immerse himself in the void.’ The simplified dune landscapes he painted there would be followed by The Sea (1912) and Composition No 10, Pier and Ocean (1915), from which it was a short step to complete abstraction.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Holy Mountain

Arnold Fanck, the director whose work defined the Bergfilm genre, was born in 1889 and first encountered mountains at Davos as a child while recovering from asthma. He became a professional geologist, but also found time to become a skier and amateur photographer. Fanck’s debut film was The Wonders of Skiing (1919) and subsequent films celebrated the mountains through a mixture of documentary and narrative elements. In 1924 Mountain of Destiny so impressed the young dancer Leni Riefenstahl that she got in touch with Fanck to ask if she could appear in his next film. The Holy Mountain (1926) was the first of six mountain films they made together.

The Holy Mountain’s full title was Der heilige Berg: Ein Heldenlied aus ragender Högbenwelt. ‘Heldenleid’ means ‘heroic song’ and the film features a Nietzschean hero (Luis Trenker) who climbs the Alps to find himself, and to escape the rabble below. These elements of the story are undoubtedly difficult to take in light of the subsequent careers of actors and director under the Nazis. Trenker’s tormented Romantic idealist contrasts with the light-hearted young skier Vigo (Ernst Peterson) who features in the joyous and visually beautiful footage of the winter sports. The uneasy blend of fiction and winter sports in the film mirror the divided characters of the two men, who both desire the dancer played by Riefenstahl. Whilst The Holy Mountain is marred overall by Romantic cliché and a proto-Fascist aesthetic, there are certain scenes where the beauty and excitement of mountains is vividly captured.

Mountain landscapes in The Holy Mountain are filmed in dramatic black and white. There is a memorable long-shot of skiers descending a slope, carving patterns in virgin snow. In the opening scenes Riefenstahl is silhouetted against the sea, and in the climactic scene on the mountain, the two climbers are fragile dark figures making their way up, as wind-blown snow cascades down the slope. Riefenstahl developed a similar visual sense in the later films she directed. In Tiefland, filmed during the Second World War at a time when colour films had become the norm, she explicitly set out to show what could still be achieved by black and white photography. And back in 1926, in Fanck’s temporary absence, Riefenstahl had directed one of the best scenes in The Holy Mountain, in which night skiers glide along carrying flares, their moving images reflected in water.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Sahara line

Among critical writing dealing with the origins of land art, Rosalind Krauss’s essay ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’ is particularly interesting (it is reprinted in her stimulating collection The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths). She argues that for most of its history sculpture was site specific, but that increasingly Modernist sculpture (the kind of work made by artists like Brancusi and Caro) was site-less and self-referential, no longer directly connected to buildings or landscapes. Sculpture had become implicitly defined as not-landscape and not-architecture, but all this started to change in the late sixties when artists began to seek an expanded field of possibilities.

To describe these developments Krauss uses a structuralist diagram based on the Piaget group. Sculpture is in one corner, but there are three other options. The opposite of sculpture is art that is both landscape and architecture: site-constructions like Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed (1970). Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden Little Sparta would seem to fit this category (Krauss saw Japanese gardens as an example of non-Western art that is both architecture and landscape). The architecture but not-architecture category covers various kinds of interventions into real buildings - Gordon Matta-Clark’s work springs to mind. Then there is art that is both landscape and not-landscape, which Krauss identifies as the marked sites of land art, including the work of Richard Long. A work like Long’s Sahara Line (1988) can thus be seen as art in the landscape that is nevertheless, like sculpture, an autonomous art work separate from any landscape.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Views of Suma

In the preface to his book on Japanese Linked Verse Earl Miner discusses the way Japanese poems are affective - responses in words to something moving – and that recipients of poems would in turn be moved by the way these emotions had been expressed. The same principle applies to landscape paintings. For example, in The Tale of Genji, the sketches and poetic descriptions Genji made during his exile in Suma move Prince Hotaru almost to tears. Miner relates this affective-expressive mode to two terms: ‘”kokoro” means heart, mind, or spirit – the human capacity to be affected and to understand. “Kotoba” means words, languages, signs, or techniques – the human capacity to make known to others what has been gained by kokoro… Not to possess kokoro was to be barbarian, worse than animals. The warbler among plum blossoms, the frog in summer waters, the stag crying for a mate in autumn – all were poets. All gave voice to experience. Thus being moved and being led to expression defined poetic activity. In addition these animal singers and criers moved one to respond in poetry, just as would the poem of a friend.’ So it is not simply that landscape views provoke an emotional response; the possessor of kokoro will literally be spoken to by the natural world.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Fallen willow leaves

For landscapes in haiku, an obvious writer to consult is the poet-painter Buson (1706-83), famous for his objective style and visual imagination. For example, from 1742 this poem about a willow tree:

Yanagi chiri
shimizu kareishi
tokorodokoro

The translation posted in several places on the web is by Robert Hass: ‘The willow leaves fallen / the spring gone dry / rocks here and there.’ Earl Miner has translated the last two lines as ‘in fresh waters weathered stones scattered here and there.’

The poem seems to be a simple landscape, describing a scene encountered by Buson, but it is also about poetry and the passing of time. The willow tree alludes to a poem by Priest Saigyo (1118-1190) in which he lingers in the shade watching the reflection of the tree in rippling water:

Michi no be ni
Shimizu nagaruru
Yanagikage
Shibashi tote koso
Tachidomaritsure.

Buson is also referring to an encounter with the tree at Ahino by Basho (1644-94) on the Narrow Road to the Deep North. As Haruo Shirane writes, ‘Basho pauses beneath the same willow tree and before he knows it, a whole field of rice has been planted. In contrast to Basho's poem, which recaptures the past, Buson's poem is about loss and the irrevocable passage of time, about the contrast between the situation now, in autumn, when the stream has dried up and the willow leaves have fallen, and the past, in summer, when the clear stream beckoned to Saigyo and the willow tree gave him shelter from the hot summer sun. Like many of Basho and Buson's poems, the poem is both about the present and the past, about the landscape and about other poems and poetic associations.’ For Buson (as Miner puts it in Japanese Linked Verse), ‘Saigyo and Basho are gone from the earth, remaining however in the mind as a cherished idea shrouded in the mystery of memory.’

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Cloud

The exhibition A Mirror of Nature: Nordic Landscape Painting 1840-1910 looks interesting but is not coming to Britain. One of the artists included is Prince Eugen of Sweden, a royal landscape painter who bought and promoted the work of the Impressionists. His work is influenced by Impressionism but tends to have a symbolist quality, as in The Cloud (1896). As it says on the exhibition website, ‘The intensity of the colour, the path into the unknown and the cloud in the distance, together with the absolute stillness, can all be interpreted as symbols of a longing for the life to come.’ A sense of Prince Eugen’s range can be obtained from the Waldemarsudde website, including an earlier version of The Cloud (1895). The 1890s must have been the last time a landscape-painting prince could be at the cutting edge of art…