Sunday, May 27, 2007

Landscape near Felpham

I have already mentioned here the exhibition in Chichester, ‘Poets in the Landscape’, and I have now been to see it. It is like three little exhibitions in one.

The first room focuses on the local poet William Hayley (1745-1820) who was a friend of artists such as Blake, Romney and Joseph Wright of Derby. Hayley is not well known now and the catalogue quotes a letter from Southey to Coleridge in 1802 – ‘everything about that man is good, except his poetry.’ He does however provide an interesting figure from which to view the links between poetry and painting at the end of the eighteenth century. The highlight in this room is an unusual watercolour by Blake that I don’t recall seeing before (although it is in the Tate) – a pale, unfinished sketch with a hint of Turner about it: Landscape near Felpham (c1800).

The second room is a fascinating display of engravings and etchings, encompassing the familiar pastoral poetry of Blake, Palmer and the Ancients, and their followers in the 1920s: Goldsmiths students Graham Sutherland, Robin Tanner, Paul Drury, their teacher F.L. Griggs, and contemporary Joseph Webb. Sutherland saw his first Palmer etching when a fellow student bought one in a shop on the Charing Cross Road (those were the days!) He, Tanner and Drury made a pilgrimage to Shoreham and ‘even wore cloaks in imitation of the Ancients’.

The third room includes Neo-Romantic artists like Sutherland, John Piper and Paul Nash, with particular reference again to their links with poetry, through book illustration and work for Horizon, Penguin New Writing and Poetry London. There is Geoffrey Grigson’s The Poet’s Eye, for example, with illustrations by John Craxton: the first in a series of seven anthologies, New Excursions into English Poetry, whose general editors were Sheila Shannon and Walter James Turner. Other volumes included English, Scottish and Welsh Landscape, illustrated by Piper with verse chosen by John Betjeman and Geoffrey Taylor, and Sea Poems chosen by Myfanwy Piper and illustrated by Mona Moore. Walter James Turner was the general editor of Britain in Pictures, a series covering various aspects of Britishness, including Romanticism: John Piper’s British Romantic Art traced the tradition from Wilson, Blake and Constable through to Nash and Sutherland. Other volumes included Grigson’s English Landscape, Betjeman’s English Churches, Vita Sackville-West’s English Country houses, Lord David Cecil’s English Poets and Stephen Bone’s British Weather.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Floating Island at Hawkshead

In 1188 Gerald of Wales and Archbishop Baldwin went on a preaching tour to gain support for the Third Crusade. Their travels were written up in Gerald's The Journey Through Wales, which includes a good example of pre-Romantic description of mountains. When Gerald reached Snowdonia his interest centred not on the snowy peaks and cataracts, but on their usefulness as extensive grazing-grounds (illustrated with a quotation from Virgil) and some of the marvels you could apparently see there:
  • A lake with a floating island, blown around by the winds
  • Another lake in which the eels, perch and trout all had only one eye
  • An eagle that waited to feed on men killed in battle, perched on a particular stone with a hole pierced through it where the eagle would clean and sharpens its beak.
Gerald repeats his facts about the lakes and the extensive pasture lands in a later work, The Description of Wales. Although there is no direct reaction to the mountain landscape in these books, the inclusion of these marvels gives a sense of how Snowdonia could still have been a source of some fascination even in the Middle Ages. And later on marvels like these might easily have inspired Romantic tales or poems. There is for example, a floating island in a poem by Dorothy Wordsworth. Here are some lines from 'Floating Island at Hawkshead: An Incident in the Schemes of Nature' (1820):


Once did I see a slip of earth
By throbbing waves long undermined,
Loosed from its hold--how no one knew,
But all might see it float, obedient to the wind;

Might see it from the verdant shore
Dissevered float upon the lake,
Float with its crest of trees adorned
On which the warbling birds their pastime take...

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Dover Beach

‘Dover Beach’ is one of the most famous poems in English, not for the landscape, ‘where the sea meets the moon-blanched land’, nor even the soundscape, ‘the grating roar / of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling, / At their return, up the high strand...’, but for the metaphor prompted by the poet’s impression of the tide receding:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Matthew Arnold’s poem was the starting point for an interesting edition of In Our Time on ‘Victorian Pessimism’. (I have spent the last week doing little but listen to old programmes in this series following an eye injury on Tuesday – today I feel just about able to look at the screen again.) The In Our Time survey of pessimism in nineteenth century culture also included Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘In A Wood’ where landscape clearly lacks the redemptive qualities it had for the Romantics. ‘Dreaming that sylvan peace / Offered the harrowed ease— / Nature a soft release / From men’s unrest’, Hardy finds in the wood only ‘great growths and small... to men akin— / Combatants all!’

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Pale aspens grew, and yews ever dark

Talking of Polish literature, I recently read a translation of the Witold Gombrowitz novel Cosmos in which, among other things, a strange young man strangles the pet cat that belonged to a young woman he is obsessing about . Oddly enough, the next book I read was Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries in which another strange young man poisons the pet dog of the young woman he is obsessing about. Maybe it is not so unlikely a coincidence given that both novels belong to what James Wood, in an excellent article on Hamsun, describes as ‘the kind of Modernist novel which largely ended with Beckett - of crepuscular states, of alienation and leaping surrealism, and of savage fictionality’.

In Cosmos the action shifts late in the book from a claustrophobic pension in southern Poland to the expansive landscape of the Tatra Mountains. After a journey by carriage the characters ‘turned a corner, and came to towering walls and pinnacles, contorted piles of rock and deep chasms...’ However, the book’s protagonist (a student described in the blurb as ‘seedy, pathetic and witty’) cannot help perceiving all this Sublimity in the same way he dissected the microscopic landscapes of the pension’s hot rooms and scruffy back yard. The mountains seemed ‘too much, too much, too much. Weight, mass, piles rising into the sky, piles collapsed, general chaos, huge, swelling mastodons that appeared and a moment later vanished in unruly confusion into a thousand details and then suddenly reassembled again into majestic edifices. It was just as in the thicket or looking at the wall or the ceiling or the rubbish where the pole was, or in Katasia’s room, or looking at the walls and cupboards and shelves and curtains where things also formed themselves into shapes and configurations. But there they had been only little things, here there was a mighty storm of matter...’ (trans. Eric Mosbacher).

The way the action moves outside whilst the characters maintain the strange obsessions of their indoor life reminded me of other Modernist works (of the kind described by James Wood in the quote above). For example, there is the strange landscape garden surrounding the house of Mr Knott in Samuel Beckett’s Watt. ‘In it pale aspens grew, and yews ever dark, with tropical luxuriance, and other trees, in lesser numbers. They rose from the wild pathless grass, so that we walked much in shade, heavy, trembling, fierce, tempestuous. In winter there were the thin shadows writhing, under our feet, in the wild withered grass...’ It is not exactly a pastoral idyll: ‘Birds of every kind abounded, and these it was our delight to pursue, with stones and clods of earth. Robins, in particular, thanks to their confidingness, we destroyed in great numbers.’ The garden is surrounded by barbed wire and ‘through this fence, where it was not overgrown by briars and giant nettles, similar gardens, similarly enclosed, each with its own pavilion, were on all sides distinctly seen.’

Then of course there is Franz Kafka, whose novel Amerika, if read after The Trial and The Castle, has the same kind of effect – liberated from the Kafkaesque city, the protagonist nevertheless wonders through a dreamlike landscape still characterised by the illogical traps and obstacles found in those other books. There is a similar sense of constrained freedom in Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone, where we at last encounter the landscape beyond Gormenghast castle. And one can go on to imagine other places transfigured in this way - say, a sequel to Robert Walser’s Jacob von Gunten set in the mountains of Austria, or a follow-up to Pinter’s The Birthday Party where all that menacing weirdness is somehow transferred outside the boarding house to the beach or the sea...

Friday, May 11, 2007

View of Kósciuszko Mound, Krakow

Looking through the Polish landscape paintings in Warsaw’s Muzeum Narodowe there are examples of topography, Claudian idyll, the sublime (a dramatic Mountain Landscape with Waterfall (c1820) by Franciszek Ksawery Lampi), Impressionism, Symbolism... It’s difficult to get very excited about some of these and perhaps a Polish visitor to Britain would feel the same about paintings by, say, Richard Wilson. There seems to be more scope for unfamiliar artists to leave a distinct impression when you reach the late nineteenth century, even when they’re relatively derivative, e.g. Józef Pankiewicz’s striking Whistler-style Nocturne – Swans in the Saski Garden in Warsaw at Night, 1894. I am thinking here in particular of the pastel landscapes drawn by Stanislaw Wyspianski (1869-1907), like his View of Kósciuszko Mound, Krakow (1905). These have a certain calm harmony but at the same time a creeping sense of unease in the slightly discordant colours and shadowy, skeletal trees; you have a sense of someone trapped in their studio and looking out with a sense of quiet desperation.

Stanislaw Wyspianski is actually much better known as a writer and ‘founder of modern Polish drama’, so has much in common with that other painter of strange landscapes, August Strindberg. The excellent Adam Mickiewicz Institute which I visited in Warsaw has an article about him. (Incidentally, among the fascinating artefacts on display at the Institute was a volume of Byron poems given with a dedication by Mickiewicz to his friend Pushkin – ah, heady times...) There is a Wyspianski museum in Krakow and an image of one of the pastel landscape views at a Katowice museum site.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Scenes from the Life of Christ and the Virgin

Warsaw’s National Museum (Muzeum Narodowe) has an impressive collection of ‘medieval’ art, most notably some dramatic and occasionally gruesome wooden sculptures, my favourites being a set of scenes from the Childhood of the Virgin (early C16) full of expressive faces and a joyful Coronation of the Virgin (c1370), both from Silesia. Among the paintings there is polyptych from Legnica by Mikolaj Obilman (1466) showing Scenes from the Life of Christ and the Virgin in which landscape elements are prominent. Who was Obilman? He was active in Wroclaw - beyond that I know nothing. A bit of googling fails to yield anything about him and sadly no image of the polyptych I can link to. Nobody online seems too bothered about 15th century Silesian artists... well, here’s my little contribution for what it’s worth. When I encountered the Obilman polyptych, I immediately thought ‘landscape’ because the dominant colour was green. But the fields on which the action takes place are no more than a vivid ground to set off the figures. There are strange little rocks and cloud-shaped bushes spaced over the grass like a rather unimaginative piece of wallpaper. The compositions are tapestry-like and the fields have a very artificial feel to them. Does this mean the landscapes are unimportant - green space left by an artist without the resources to provide a more interesting or realistic foreground? Or are they a decorative device to attract the eye without distracting it from the stories of Christ and the Virgin? All I can say now is that they made an impression on me, although without a reproduction available I am already struggling to remember exactly what the paintings looked like.

Monday, May 07, 2007

View of Warsaw from Praga

Bernardo Bellotto left Italy for Dresden in 1747. His uncle Canaletto, whose pupil he had been and whose name he often used, had departed a year earlier, for England. After twenty years painting landscapes in German cities, Bellotto set off for Russia but never arrived, stopping in Warsaw where he worked for King Stanislas Poniatowski and remaining there until his death in 1780. His views of the city can be seen in the recently restored Bellotto room of the Royal Palace, where I happened to be this time yesterday. Like everyone else, I was struck by the precision of detail in these paintings, which was very useful in the reconstruction of Warsaw’s old town after the Second World War. The clarity in which distant houses and figures are delineated does not seem to diminish the overall impression of a harmoniously composed view. As you stand there, your eyes can zoom in and out as they would in looking at the actual city. Works like the View of Warsaw form Praga below are an eloquent argument for the art of topographical landscape painting, famously disparaged by Fuseli as merely the ‘tame delineation of a given spot’.

 
Bernardo Bellotto, View of Warsaw from Praga, 1770