Saturday, September 30, 2006

Aurora

To Dulwich today for the Adam Elsheimer exhibition, a welcome break from computing woes which are partly to blame for infrequent postings at the moment. The Dulwich Picture Gallery is a good place for classical landscape painting anyway: Claude, Canaletto &c. but also less renowned artists like Herman Saftleven, painter of a lovely misty View on the Rhine. Adam Elsheimer fits perfectly in this company – a forerunner who is, according to the exhibition leaflet, ‘little known today’, but was ‘recognised in his own time as a genius.’ There still doesn’t seem much danger of him suddenly becoming very popular and the exhibition was relatively quiet even on a Saturday. Three highlights:

• The series of Saints and Figures from the Old and New Testaments from the Egremont Collection at Petworth House show Elsheimer’s amazing gift for creating poetic landscapes on a tiny scale. The pictures are 9 x 7 cm each (like playing cards) and the landscape details are much smaller. An example is Saint John the Baptist (c. 1605), which can be seen on the National Galleries of Scotland site (the exhibition was on in Scotland before coming to Dulwich).

Aurora (c. 1606) started as one of Elsheimer’s paintings after Ovid but was left as a nearly pure landscape. A print of it made by Hendrick Goudt was an influence on later Dutch landscape painting. As you look at the painting your eye drifts away from the figure and off into the distant vista of a golden morning in the Roman Campagna.

The Flight Into Egypt (1609) is the last painting in the exhibition and is extraordinary for the realistic full moon and stars. There is an ongoing discussion about the extent to which Elsheimer was painting a particular night sky - astronomers have examined the position of the stars and suggested it was painted on 16 June 1609. It is thought Elsheimer may have used a telescope – he was in contact with scholars in Rome who were familiar with the new methods and ideas pursued by astronomers like Galileo . In some ways the sky is almost too accurate to seem realistic and the figures, glimmering by the light of a torch and a fire, have an unreal quality to them. Rembrandt’s Flight into Egypt (1647) is similar in composition but fmuch more believable, although it is difficult to imagine it without the example of Elsheimer's original vision.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

View from Yarmouth Bridge

In a recent New York Review of Books, tucked in among the articles on various depressing Middle Eastern political issues, there was an article by Sanford Schwartz about John Sell Cotman. Schwartz regrets that ‘there is still no volume of good reproductions of his pictures in all the mediums he tackled’. Although famous for his watercolours - to the extent that Winsor & Newton use his name as a trademark (they introduced the ‘Cotman’ brand of sable watercolour brushes in 1906) – Cotman’s ‘far less known oils, and to a slightly lesser extent his pencil drawings and etchings often exist on the same level of uncanny harmony and order’.

Among its collection of Cotman watercolours, the Tate has an oil painting, Seashore with Boats (c1808), of which they say ‘the scene here is possibly Cromer beach. Anne Miles, whom Cotman married in 1809, lived two miles away from Cromer and Cotman exhibited four Cromer subjects between 1808 and 1810.’ In this painting Cotman reduces the busy beach to a set of simple flat forms in a manner familiar from his watercolours. Perhaps even more striking for its modern-seeming abstraction is another oil painting in the Tate: Wherries on Breydon (c1808).

Cotman returned to oil painting in the 1820s. There are examples in the Norwich Castle Museum: Dutch Boats off Yarmouth and View from Yarmouth Bridge, looking towards Breydon, just after Sun-set. In connection with the latter, there is a good example of prevailing attitudes to artists like Cotman in a piece written for the Norwich Mercury describing an exhibition at the Norwich Society in 1824. The reviewer felt the landscape had been ‘quitted prematurely by the artist’ and declared rather pompously ‘we are no friends of “sketches” in oil painting’ (quoted by David Blayney Brown in Romantic Landscape: The Norwich School of Painters).

Friday, September 22, 2006

Hestercombe landscape garden

At Hestercombe Gardens they have been rebuilding some of the eighteenth century features. So for example, it is now possible to admire a 1996 replica of the 1770s replica of a Tuscan Doric temple. The landscape garden was designed by the owner of Hestercombe, Coplestone Warre Bampfylde, between 1750 and 1786. It is an anthology of eighteenth century themes – a Great Cascade, a Gothic Alcove, a Witch House and a Temple Arbour – but with some very beautiful views both within the garden and out to the Vale of Taunton. When we visited we stood for some time admiring the sunlit Box Pond, humming with dragonflies and reflecting the surrounding wooded slopes. There was a small group of people sitting on the opposite bank who we assumed were sketchers, but who turned out to be having a break from work renovating the garden. This misconception felt a bit like a lesson in the perils of the picturesque… but it was hardly a glimpse of what John Barrell would call the ‘dark side of the landscape’: the labourers we saw looked like volunteers having a thoroughly rewarding time bringing the old garden back to life.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Housatonic at Stockbridge


Whenever I read about Charles Ives I find myself intrigued by the stories of his father George. As a seventeen year old, George’s musical talents were noticed by Ulysses S. Grant, who told Lincoln that the band of the First Connecticut Heavy Artillery led by Ives senior was the ‘best in the Army.’ Some of the ways in which George Ives went on to influence his son’s music are described here. A good example is the second of Ives’ Three Places in New England, ‘Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut’ which was inspired by an experiment of George Ives in which he arranged for his band and another one to march in opposite directions around the town square playing conflicting tunes. In Alan Rich’s book American Pioneers, there is a memorable image: ‘George Ives held a lifelong fascination with the notion of experimentation, spending long hours playing musical instruments across a nearby pond to study the nature of echoes…’

The third of Ives’ Three Places, ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’ records the memory of a walk that Ives took with his wife, Harmony, along the banks of the Housatonic River. As critic Alex Ross notes, ‘there are dissonances and ambiguities in the river’s flow. This is the New England landscape that generated not only Norman Rockwell’s small-town idylls but also the American apocalypse of “Moby-Dick.”’ There is a Robert Underwood Johnson poem that accompanies the music but more interesting perhaps is a brief note that Charles Ives himself wrote (quoted from a Charles Ives site):

… River mists, leaves in slight breeze river bed--all notes and phrases in upper accompaniment . . . should interweave in uneven way, riverside colors, leaves & sounds--not come down on main beat . . .

Monday, September 11, 2006

After the Summer Rain

Art of the States is a website that includes a range of free music samples from American composers. One of these is sound artist Jorge Boehringer, whose Fresnel Lens Ø7: An Awkward Squad was inspired by the landscape at Point Reyes, California. Boehringer explains that “Point Reyes (which, incidentally, resides on a different tectonic plate than the rest of California) is a place of awe for human beings. Attempts to civilize this place repeatedly have failed. Fog at night often makes driving along the thin strips of land a potentially fatal undertaking; lighthouses tumble into the sea one after the other, unable to withstand the presence of the dialogue between ocean and rock...” The title of this piece “refers to the type of lens on the lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore, and the 'awkward squad' is the name given to a group of pelagic cormorants, but carries with it the connotation of stumbling movement.”

Other compositions with a landscape link at this site are Okkyung Lee’s On a Windy Day, which recalls the sound of Korean temple bells blowing in gusts of wind, Zhou Long’s four Poems from Tang, including a setting of Wang Wei’s Hut Among the Bamboo, and Hideko Kawamoto’s After the Summer Rain, a Rilke-inspired evocation of “a summer forest, including rain pouring onto trees, shiny silver spider webs, and dark wet ground.”

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Monument Valley

There is an excellent new reader on Landscape and Film edited by Martin Lefebvre. Lefebvre’s own essay in the collection, ‘Between Setting and Landscape in the Cinema’, draws on art history to illuminate the ways in which landscapes can be used in film. There are genuine ‘autonomous landscapes’, similar to the kind we associate with painters from Altdorfer to Turner to Cézanne, but such films tend to be experimental (e.g. David Rimmer) or semi-documentary (e.g. Walter Ruttmann). Most cinema is structured around narrative and to analyse landscape in these films, Lefebvre (like Gombrich and other art historians) argues that landscape is in the eyes of the beholder. Just as sixteenth century connoisseurs could see Flemish biblical scenes as ‘landscapes’ because the quality of the setting seemed to dominate the ostensible subject, so the spectator of a film can watch sections of a narrative film as if they were viewing landscape art.

Within narrative cinema, Lefebvre distinguishes between (1) those films where the film maker (often a modernist auteur) deliberately structures the film to shift the viewers gaze from subject to setting, and (2) those films in which landscape is used less overtly by the director. Among examples of the first type he discusses the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, e.g. L’avventura which begins on a rocky island which the camera lingers over in a way that is more than simply a function of the need to establish where a woman disappears. Examples of the second type are John Ford’s nine westerns filmed in Monument Valley, a location that is not integral to the plots but which nevertheless comes to dominate the films in many viewers’ imaginations.

In his discussion of Ford, Lefebvre notes that The Searchers was filmed in Monument Valley despite being set in Texas, and that this risks implausibility (the settlers have set up a farm but Monument Valley is a desert). Nevertheless, the strength of the narrative in this film (in contrast to L’avventura for example) means that the viewer is never forced to contemplate the landscape or notice the discrepancy between film location and fictional setting. This means that it is up to the viewer to see Ford’s films as landscapes, perhaps drawing on their own knowledge of the West as seen by painters (Frederic Remington) or photographers (E. S. Curtis). Ironically the viewer’s knowledge of autonomous landscapes in art can turn pure narrative films like The Searchers into a form of ‘impure’ landscape cinema.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Sayreville Strata

Edward S. Casey, an American philosophy professor, has written a book about recent American landscape art called Earth-Mapping: Artists Reshaping Landscape. It covers the work of Robert Smithson, Margot McLean, Sandy Gellis, Michelle Stuart, Eve Ingalls, Jasper Johns, Richard Diebenkorn, Willem De Kooning and Dan Rice. Casey tries to make sense of work that can range from a traditional oil painting to a spiral jetty. Unfortunately I find it hard to encapsulate his conclusions because the book is so annoying it would take someone more dedicated than me to plough through to the end. What is clear even from the list of artists here is that ‘mapping’ is used in a fairly loose sense, and indeed the author spends a lot of time explaining why some of the work discussed cannot under any definition be described as a ‘map’. There are undoubtedly some interesting points buried in the book, but anyone interested in recent landscape art will need to look elsewhere for something well written, judicious in its use of theory and grounded in the historical context of the work discussed.

Although reading Earth-Mapping soon becomes wearisome, there are a few passages early on that are ‘so bad they’re good’. For example, in the chapter on Michelle Stuart there is the paragraph that starts ‘Perhaps the quintessential Stuart of this period, however, is an instance of what Heidegger might call “the two-fold” (die Zweifach), in this case, the combination of distinct image and indeterminate rubbing.’ Simple points are padded out with references to philosophers, etymological digressions and grammatical contortions. But the book is a strange mix of the pretentious and the naïve: little ‘jokes’ signalled with exclamation marks, snippets of context (‘thus was born pop art’) and gushing praise.: ‘the central nervure of Michelle Stuart’s immense evolving oeuvre… is to be found in her decided gift for plumbing paradoxical extremes of medium, presentation, and subject matter, thereby confounding her critics and delighting her devotees.’

Michelle Stuart actually worked briefly as a cartographer for the US army while at art school and her early works used the same basic material: muslin-mounted rag paper. For example, in Sayreville Strata (Quartet) (1976) she rubbed earth from a New Jersey quarry onto four parallel sheets of rag paper. Casey notes how the work shows that ‘the earth itself is far from dull in its colorations!’ He sees the effect ‘as numinously dazzling as certain late paintings of Rothko’. They remind him of Cézanne’s studies at Bibemus quarry ‘but the French master’s colors are approximations of the natural hues of quarried rock, while Stuart’s colors are those of the earth itself. How profound!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The sea at Balbec

À la recherche du temps perdu includes some memorable seascapes. You get the impression that Proust’s descriptions would be much more impressive than the paintings he describes by his fictional seascape painter, Elstir. Here for example is one of Proust’s sentences on the view from his narrator’s window at Balbec, where he notes the way the waves recede to that point in the distance where they resemble the glaciers one sees in the backgrounds of the Tuscan Primitives:


'Fenêtre à laquelle je devais ensuite me mettre chaque matin comme au carreau d'une diligence dans laquelle on a dormi, pour voir si pendant la nuit s'est rapprochée ou éloignée une chaîne désirée, -- ici ces collines de la mer qui avant de revenir vers nous en dansant, peuvent reculer si loin que souvent ce n'était qu'après une longue plaine sablonneuse que j'apercevais à une grande distance leurs premières ondulations, dans un lointain transparent, vaporeux et bleuâtre comme ces glaciers qu'on voit au fond des tableaux des primitifs toscans.'

(from Project Gutenburg)


Marcel Proust’s first book, Les Plaisirs et les Jours (1896) includes a beautiful passage headed ‘Seascape’. He thinks of the sea at Normandy, or rather ‘the wooded paths from which you occasionally catch sight of it and where the breeze mingles together the smell of the salt, damp leaves and milk…. Suddenly I would see her; it would be on one of those days of somnolence beneath a dazzling sun, when she reflects the sky that is as blue as she is, only paler. Sails white like butterflies would be dotted over the motionless water, happy not to move any more, almost swooning in the heat. Or alternatively, the sea would be rough, yellow in the sunlight like a great field of mud, with swells that, from such a distance, would appear stationary and crowned with dazzling snow’ (trans. Andrew Brown). The last two sentences are like paintings, but the first part of the quotation here hints at the full power of words, with the subject moving through the landscape and the different senses engaged.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Ebb at Evening

William Everson (1912-94) was a very Californian poet. Part of the San Francisco Renaissance, he was known as the Beat Friar, having become a Dominican monk in 1951, and it was as Brother Antoninus that he wrote one of his best known poems, ‘A Canticle to the Waterbirds’. However he was also a literary critic: the author of Archetype West: The Pacific Coast as a Literary Region. The Modern American Poets site has a description by Everson of the Californian landscape.

In his book Imagining the Earth, John Elder discusses poetry in which there is a genuine identification with nature. Of William Everson’s poem ‘Ebb at Evening’, he says ‘in such a gathered moment, to identify the human body with the ocean is to gain a power of participation in nature beyond all ideas of its goodness and beauty.’ Elder believes that ‘many of our most valuable poems of integration are set at evening and the ebb. With the grey light, things that seemed distinct in the strong outlines of noon begin to merge… The tide’s ebb and sunset are two times attentiveness to the earth can guide us to the peace of presentness.’ He provides a further example in a Denise Levertov poem ‘The Coming Fall’ in which the eye and mind retreat and bodily impressions take over. As Levertov says, ‘In the last sunlight / human figures dark on the hill / outlined- / a fur of gold / about their shoulders and heads, / a blur defining them.’

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Walking from Lake Como

The other day I was talking to a friend about the fashion for participative art works. This kind of relational aesthetics opens up many interesting possibilities for artists (or ‘semionauts’ as Nicolas Bourriaud calls them…) And yet there’s also a risk of it leading to worthy and banal institutional art, especially when funding for an installation is predicated on the idea that it will ‘engage’ with local people in some way. There are incentives for landscape artists to devise conditions in which art can be created in collaboration with the public: sound walks, mapping projects, artistic renovation and reclamation activities, and so on. How much of this activity will have lasting aesthetic value is an interesting question.

One of the more recent developments in Hamish Fulton’s work has been the organization of group walks. For example, in 1998 Fulton took 25 artists from 15 countries on group walks in the hills around Lake Como in Italy (commemorated in Pilgrims’ Threads). In 2002 he got 25 people to walk 10 kilometres backwards on footpaths at the Domaine de Chamarande (see photograph on his website). A group walk is entirely different to a solo walk, leaving behind associations with Romantic individualism and linking instead to traditions of protest and pilgrimage. Nevertheless in making increasingly extreme and testing walks (Fulton suffered frostbite in Tibet in 2000) he still sometimes gives the appearance of the Modern Artist seeking out his own existential limits. For this kind of climbing though, Fulton has needed to join commercial expeditions. Above a certain altitude, walking has to be collaborative.

It should be pointed out that Fulton has not always walked alone. Between 1972 and 1990 he made eleven trips in the company of Richard Long. Back in 1967 Fulton and Long organised a slow group walk from Greek Street to St Martin’s College which can be seen in a similar light to the recent collaborative walks. Rather than responding to the fashion for collaborative art, Fulton has returned to the type of performance that characterised his earliest experiments in the art of walking. How interested he is in the idea of engaging with the wider public might be gauged from his reaction to an interviewer (in the catalogue to his Tate Britain show) who asked whether he wanted to encourage others to make walks. Fulton replied: “For the first twenty years I didn’t really consider it. But in more recent times I’ve been thinking that it’s not a bad idea. It’s a potentially interesting by-product.’