Reading Benjamin’s book it is difficult not to reflect on one’s own childhood memories. Benjamin describes the streets, parks and monuments of
Reading Benjamin’s book it is difficult not to reflect on one’s own childhood memories. Benjamin describes the streets, parks and monuments of
Bruce McLean designed the café-bar at the newly refurbished Arnolfini gallery in
The Arnolfini is one of the sites in
Nevertheless, artists will no doubt continue to seek ways to allow landscape itself to create or adapt their work: kinetic sculpture, sound art or variations on photography (“the pencil of nature”). Outside the art world, simple indexical signs like weather vanes and sun dials let nature signify something (time, wind direction), whilst the landscape itself is full of natural signs that can be read by animals. However, as we know from modernism, art need not point in this way to something specific; signs that give a general sense of an actual landscape may turn out to be more interesting.
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c1380), the poet describes the landscape through which the hero rides with sufficient detail that R.W.V. Elliott has been able to situate the story in the area of Leek in Staffordshire. Here are lines describing the increasingly inhospitable conditions as winter draws in:
For werre wrathed hym not so much þat wynter nas wors,
When þe colde cler water fro þe cloudez schadde,
And fres er hit falle my3t to þe fale erþe;
Ner slayn wyth þe slete he sleped in his yrnes
Mo ny3tez þen innoghe in naked rokkez,
Þer as claterande fro þe crest þe colde borne rennez,
And henged he3e ouer his hede in hard iisse-ikkles.
In Bernard O’Donoghue’s new translation for Penguin, the second and third lines relate that ‘ice-cold water poured from the clouds / and froze before it hit the grey ground’. And Gawain is described sleeping in the naked rocks ‘where cold streams clattered down from the heights / or hung over his head in hard spears of ice.’
Simon Armitage is also currently working on a translation, due from Faber in 2007. However, an extract has already been included in Wild Reckoning: An anthology provoked by Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ (2004). Armitage has ‘clouds shed their cargo of crystallized rain / which froze as it fell to the frost-glazed earth’ and describes Gawain ‘bivouacked in the blackness’, ‘where melt-water crashed from the snow-capped peaks and high overhead hung chandeliers of ice.’
The National Maritime Museum is showing three sets of photographs by Dan Holdsworth: At the Edge of Space (1999), The Gregorian (2005) and Hyperborea (2006). Images can be seen at the artist’s website. For me the most impressive were the last of these, a series of photographs of the Northern Lights taken in
There is monument to Basho which is away from the main tourist area and therefore possible to enjoy in solitude.
An article in the June issue of Natural History magazine explains how excavations at the Neolothic site of Çatalhöyük in
In the Shotetsu monogatari, Shotetsu (1381-1459) wrote ‘If someone asks you in which of the provinces Yoshino may be found, you should answer this way: When I write my poems I simply remember that for blossoms one goes to Yoshino, for red leaves to Tatsuta. Whether those places are in Ise or wherever is not my concern.’ (trans. Steven D. Carter in The Road to Kamatsubara). As this quotation shows, knowledge of poetic geography and the associations of Famous Places were essential for Japanese poets, but familiarity with the real locations was quite unnecessary. As Steven D. Carter puts it, ‘the essence (hon’i) of any
There is a song Sasa no Tsuyu composed by Kikuoka Kengyo (1791-1847) which includes the words ‘Yoshino blossoms and Tatsuta leaves - without sake they would be ordinary places.’ Despite this, Yoshino and Tatsuta Park still promote themselves as ideal locations for viewing cherry blossoms and red maple leaves.
Hokusai included a print of the Tatsuta River in Autumn from his series One Hundred Poems (1835-6). The print illustrates a poem by Ariwara no Narihira (825-80) which states that even in ancient days, when the gods held sway, no water shone red like Tatsuta. (Ariwara no Narihira was a contemporary of Minamoto no Toru, whom Hokusai had depicted, talking in the landscape garden he had designed to resemble Shiogama Bay, in his series A True Miror of Chinese and Japanese Poems).
One of the stories told about Hokusai is that when ‘told to paint red maple leaves floating on the Tatsuta River, Hokusai supposedly drew a few blue lines on a long sheet of paper and then, dipping the feet of a chicken in red paint, chased it across the scroll, making the bird's red footprints his maple leaves.’ (Sandy Kita and Takako Kobayashi). This story features in a 1983 poem by the Czech writer Jan Skácel.
Sometimes there’s nothing more pleasurable than the lucid prose of a scholar of the old school. A particular favourite of mine is Gilbert Highet’s Poets in a Landscape (1957) which brings alive the Roman poets through vivid translations and an imaginative evocation of their environment. There is, for example, Sextus Propertius, one of whose elegies includes the line
among the woods where the Clitumnus hides its lovely
springs, and white oxen bathe in the cool stream
Highet gets underneath this brief description by quoting other writings by Virgil and Pliny the younger; Pliny says in a letter to his friend Romanus: ‘There is a fair-sized hill, dark with ancient cypress-woods. Beneath this the spring rises, gushing out in several veins of unequal size. After the initial flow has smoothed out, it spreads into a broad pool, pure and clear as glass, so that you can count the coins that have been thrown into it and the pebbles glittering at the bottom.’
Highet himself provides his own description of the site, as he follows in the footsteps of the Roman writers: ‘the springs are about three feet deep. Their bed is creamy white gravel mixed with fine sand. Even in the smallest inlet, a pool the size of a little table, the gravel is constantly stirring, and the surface quivers every fifteen seconds with a tiny explosion of water… All water in motion is wonderful. Cool copious fresh water, absolutely clean, rising out of dry earth under a hot sun, is very wonderful…Willows hang over the wells, gazing into them with a soft narcissus melancholy. Poplar trees, lifting heads and arms to the sky, disdain their own reflections. Between their trunks we see the glinting sides of white oxen, and the timbre of church bells drifts faintly over the water. There is no noise: but there is, in the water and in the air, a ceaseless happy whisper, as though kind spirits inhabited the place.’
He is glad the springs are off the tourist trail and thus little-frequented, ‘… even so it was depressing to see, in one of the fountain-beds, half a dozen Coca-Cola bottles set to cool for possible sale to tourists. Only the charm and quiet of the scene made us forget the profanation’.
Back in 1999 Art News did a list of the ’25 Most Influential Artists’ of the twentieth century. These were: Beuys, Bourgeois, Brancusi, Dali, Duchamp, De Kooning, Judd, Kandinsky, Le Corbusier, Malevich, Man Ray, Matisse, Mies Van Der Rohe, Mondrian, Nauman, Monet, Paik, Picasso, Pollock, Rauschenberg, Sherman, Smithson, Stieglitz, Warhol and Frank Lloyd Wright. It seems a reasonable list to me, although worth bearing in mind perhaps that Louise Bourgeois was much talked about when the list was compiled. It is possible to find some connection to landscape in any of these artists, but here are a few specific links mentioned in the Art News article:
The Magnum site currently has an exhibition of war photography from
The strangest and most compelling of Abbas’s images shows the Green Line demarcation zone between Christian East and Muslim West
Lorine Niedecker’s poetry might be thought too spare, too minimal to give a true sense of landscape. And yet, as Charles Tomlinson has written, ‘the space of an environment, sparse in detail and mocking the trite inadequacy of the names that American locations so often bear, stands at the back of Miss Niedecker’s terse formulations – they are fragments shorn against long winters, spring floods and literary isolation.’ In a 1961 essay Jonathan Williams described her house at
In fact Niedecker did write longer poems that convey the watery expanses of
A slightly muffled but engrossing recording of Niedecker from November 1970 can be heard here. In it she reads from her last collection Harpsichord & Salt Fish. There is a real poignancy in hearing her reading these poems a month before she died, at the age of 67, on the last day of the year.
What makes for a spontaneous looking landscape? One might imagine paint applied directly and confidently, in broad, vigorous strokes, as in the sketches of Constable or Turner. But this was not the only route to a lively image, as the watercolours of Francis Towne (1739-1816) demonstrate. Towne started with a pencil sketch, followed this with the application of paint, and then a further process of drawing in which the original sketch re-emerged. As Timothy Wilcox has pointed out in his book on Towne, the ‘initial drawing is retained by being recreated, like a repeat performance, within the painted image, line and colour preserved together in a perpetually resolved tension. The line was the very stuff of the ‘on the spot’ experience: Towne did not want to lose it when he added colour to his drawing.’ This approach can be seen in his
The Wilcox book also includes a fascinating inventory of the contents of Francis Towne’s library in 1816. There are dictionaries and maps from his trips abroad, along with travel books (Gilpin, Addison) and guide books to the Lakes. There are, unsurprisingly, books on art (Hogarth, De Piles) and Reynolds’ discourses, but also compositions by Handel and ‘2 Written Books of Music bound in Calf’. Literature includes Don Quixote, The Beggars Opera, Metamorphoses and Gil Blas. Other titles include New Heraldry in Miniature, The Wild Irish Girl, The Provok’d Wife – A Comedy and Bona Mors – or the Art of Dying happily.
The BBC website has an enjoyable virtual exhibition, ‘Painting the Weather’, with an audio tour in which you can hear the soothingly authoritative voice of Neil MacGregor describing some of the pictures. However, the site also has some no-nonsense comments by weather forecaster, Bill Giles, which are well worth a listen. Looking at Canaletto’s Old Walton Bridge Over the Thames (1754), for example, Giles imagines himself there with his family, forecasting a rain shower on the evidence of the cloud pattern above the bridge. Whistler’s Green and Silver: The Great Sea (1899) reminds him of winter walks after a big Sunday lunch. Sometimes he is a doubtful about the artists’ meteorological accuracy: Louis-Gabriel-Eugène Sabey’s Hurricane before Saint Malo (1860) actually shows a storm giving “hurricane force winds” rather than an actual hurricane (these tropical revolving storms not being found off the
My favourite Bill Giles contribution is his analysis of Courbet’s L’Eternité (c1865). This painting is described on the site as ‘intense and melancholy… painted over a dark ground (or underlayer) which explains its sombre tone; as Courbet himself said: ‘Nature without the sun is also dark and black. I do as the light does, I illuminate the parts that project and the picture is done’. The title (Eternity) draws our attention to the vast expanse of sea and sky, its timelessness and our own relative inconsequence.’ In splendid contrast, here’s how Bill Giles describes this brooding seascape.
After the War, Peter Lanyon returned to
It is fifteen years now since the Whitechapel Gallery held its Richard Diebenkorn retrospective. My memories of the exhibition - walking in from the grey city streets to experience the space and light of Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park paintings - now seem like the distant recollections of a sunlit summer. Abstract works like Ocean Park No. 115 (1979), shown here, evoke only a vague landscape of the mind, but one I persist in wanting to think of as real place. Never having been to California, I'm happy to believe Robert Hughes when he says ‘there is a kind of light on Diebenkorn’s stretch of coastline – mild, high and ineffably clear, descending like a benediction on the ticky-tacky slopes just before the fleeting sunset drops over Malibu – that is all but unique in north America, and Diebenkorn’s paintings always appear to be done in terms of it.’
Source: Mark Harden
To the Tate’s Constable exhibition, where the six-footers have been hung with their full-size sketches. Looking at the sketch for Stratford Mill (1820), I was taken with the powerful shaft of light hitting the water in the middle of the painting – absent from the finished work, which is serene, harmonious, calm and maybe a little bit dull. In moving from sketch to exhibited painting, Constable took out the central figure of the fisherman with his eye-catching red scarf, whose prominence may, I suppose, have detracted from the landscape, and also found no room for a duck that skitters across the water in the original composition. The clouds are less rough and turbulent too, although they remain a dramatic counterpoint to the trees – and it was with reference to this painting that Constable made his comment that the sky in a painting is the ‘chief organ of sentiment.’ In fact the more you look at the clouds and trees in the finished painting, the more you realise they are both highly composed and expressive. The sketches may be freer and more direct, but the six-footers themselves were startling in their day.
As I write this peering at frustrating little jpegs on the screen, I’m reminded why I found a visit to the exhibition worthwhile even though the six-footers are so familiar. Revisiting them is like going back to reread nineteenth century literature – I tend to think of Constable’s succession of large-scale major works as resembling a sequence of books, perhaps the equivalent in painting of Thomas Hardy’s novels. The first two rooms of the exhibition are crowded, but it is possible to enjoy the six-footers in an atmosphere of relative calm, both as paintings in their own right and in pairs with their full-size sketches.