Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Oder's exit into the Baltic in C sharp major, pianissimo


In Howard's End (1910) E.M. Forster exemplifies some pretentious conversation which a hundred years earlier might have included reflections on the Picturesque. Instead, a landscape is seen through the prism of music:
"People at Stettin drop things into boats out of overhanging warehouses. At least, our cousins do, but aren't particularly rich. The town isn't interesting, except for a clock that rolls its eyes, and the view of the Oder, which truly is something special. Oh, Mrs. Wilcox, you would love the Oder! The river, or rather rivers--there seem to be dozens of them--are intense blue, and the plain they run through an intensest green."

"Indeed! That sounds like a most beautiful view, Miss Schlegel."

"So I say, but Helen, who will muddle things, says no, it's like music. The course of the Oder is to be like music. It's obliged to remind her of a symphonic poem. The part by the landing-stage is in B minor, if I remember rightly, but lower down things get extremely mixed. There is a slodgy theme in several keys at once, meaning mud-banks, and another for the navigable canal, and the exit into the Baltic is in C sharp major, pianissimo."

"What do the overhanging warehouses make of that?" asked the man, laughing.

"They make a great deal of it," replied Margaret, unexpectedly rushing off on a new track. "I think it's affectation to compare the Oder to music, and so do you, but the overhanging warehouses of Stettin take beauty seriously, which we don't, and the average Englishman doesn't, and despises all who do. Now don't say 'Germans have no taste,' or I shall scream. They haven't. But--but--such a tremendous but! --they take poetry seriously. They do take poetry seriously.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Maiden Castle

The photograph I have behind the title of this blog was taken at Maiden Castle in Dorset. The path through the grass reminded me of Richard Long but the green slopes of the castle itself are also reminiscent of recent land art. In an article in the January edition of the BBC's Garden's Illustrated, Ambra Edwards places Maiden Castle at the start of her chronology of landforms:
  • The ancient earth sculptures - ziggurats, pyramids, barrows, henges, tumuli and forts
  • The re-shaping of the land for Renaissance gardens, like Donato Bramante's terraces and ramp for the Belvedere Court of the Vatican
  • Charles Bridgman's military-inspired ramparts, bastions and other landforms - most evident today in the amphitheatre at Claremont
  • Following Capability Brown, a decline of the artificial landform in favour of more natural landscapes, before some signs of revival in mid-twentieth century garden design, like Fletcher Steele's famous Blue Steps at Naumkeag in Massachusetts
  • The earthworks of the late sixties - Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson et al
  • Recent gardens influenced by land art, like Charles Jencks and Maggie Keswick's Garden of Cosmic Speculation
The article ends by describing the work of Kim Wilkie, who has designed an inverse pyramid for Broughton Park to match the existing mount: 'The earthwork will be named after Orpheus to celebrate its descending form and as a place for music and contemplation... An inverted grass pyramid will descend 7 metres below the level of the restored terraces. Walking around the landscape, the new design will be invisible, but drawing near to the mount, a gentle grass path will spiral down to a square pool of still water deep underground. The water will reflect the sky, a little like an inverted James Turrell occulus.'

This description shows how landforms tend to be conceived in terms of movement - walking around them, climbing up or into them - and as sites from which to contemplate the surrounding environment. As objects themselves they are often best seen from a distance; I have mentioned here before the way that some of the early earthworks were conceived as art viewable from the air. The abstract form of Maiden Castle is often shown through aerial photography, as in the Dorset Shell Guide compiled by Paul Nash, or more recently in Julian Cope's The Modern Antiquarian (although the Modern Antiquarian website has many other photographs of the castle, along with field reports and folklore).

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Black Sea


'Black Sea'
, released this autumn, was the first new Fennesz album since 'Venice' (2004). As can be seen here, it has a typically beautiful Touch Records landscape photograph on the cover, but like its predecessor you wouldn't really be justified in calling this a kind of 'landscape' music. For me, 'Venice' was more like the Venice of Howard Hodgkin's paintings than the Venice of, say, Caneletto - an art of vague memories and moods. 'Black Sea' is praised in the latest Wire but also described as 'business as usual' for Fennesz and I see that it doesn't make it into their top electronica releases of 2008. However, another recent Touch record, Lawrence English's 'Kiri No Oto', does make that list. The Touch website explains the title: loosely translated it means 'the 'sound of fog' or 'sound of mist'. In many ways it's a collection that meditates on the sense of displacement and distortion that occurs in environments which undergo extreme mists, snowstorms and sea sprays. In the same way that visual objects loose their perspective, form and shape in these environments, the sound components that make up Kiri No Oto are not quite as they first might appear.'


Touch records are designed by Jon Wozencroft. In a 2000 interview he explained his fascination with landscape photography: 'It’s a response to the tyranny of the close-up of the human face, for one thing. So it’s also a response to a sexual question. Next, it’s based around a feeling I have about sacred images. It’s the way that, as a subject, “natural” landscapes can invoke wonder and respect, which hopefully feeds back into human behavior. There has to be a way that images can teach, but all the didactic methods have failed in the face of mass media, so my concern is to find a language that is the opposite of meta-this, techno-that, and try to get to elemental concerns in a softer way. These landscapes are atmosphere recordings, and they are forensic. When I really started making photographs, at the beginning of the 1990s, I started by photographing material that I’d shot on video off the TV screen. I worked a lot on what could be done with abstraction, and as soon as the PC made it so easy to output abstraction, I decided it was time to make the subject central. And it seemed to me that photography could take the opportunity that Photoshop offered to sleigh off its skin. Maybe documentary photography, and a painterly approach to the medium, could be combined with a choice of subjects that were non-representations. It is the camera, it is the moment, but alongside a series of other processes parallel to the mechanical aspect that make it unique to the viewer, and the only manipulating factor is the light. Questions for the eyes, based on beauty. Saturated beauty.'


Here are a couple more landscape images from the Touch Records catalogue. The first one, above, is a collaborative work which features Fennesz and others. I can't resist repeating an unattributed quotation on the website about this: 'Fennesz's set "...evokes the rolling centuries in all their pain and beauty, leaving us at once becalmed and energised, but never oppressed under the weight of time.' Who writes like this?! The second, 'Surface Runoff' by Jana Winderen, is a pair of soundscapes recorded using hydrophones in various rivers, ranging from the Ping and Mae Taeng north of Chiang Mai, Thailand, to the Ouse in England.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Good Government in the Countryside

The latest New York Review has an article about Siena by Ingrid Rowland which begins with a description of its landscape. 'Unlike its near neighbour and inveterate rival Florence, the city is shaped by the land, from the curves of the three hills on which it sits to the strange volcanic pinnacles and underground springs that mark its territory. The most profound mystery enveloping Siena, then, is the very mystery of our human relation to nature. No countryside seems more harmonious, and more natural, than the rounded slopes that roll outward from the city's shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, and yet the very gentleness of those slopes gives away the fact that this is one of the most worked-over landscapes in the world.

Long familiarity has brought human and natural rhythms into so complete a balance that sometimes the trees truly do seem, like the trees of the Psalms, to clap their hands in exultation. Yet among these forests of exultant trees there are stretches of terrain where bare chalk crags rear up as sere as a hermit's roost. A band of local monks built one of their most beautiful monasteries in the midst of one craggy Sienese chalk bed and called it the Mount of Olives, Monte Oliveto Maggiore. The grapes fortunate enough to grow in the region's chalky soil produce red wines of rare quality, including Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (all created by methods going back to the Etruscans). The same terrain hosts underground deposits of alum, natural gas, and alabaster, as well as artesian springs gushing forth hot and cold, the remnants of ancient volcanoes...'



When some years ago we stayed for a few days in Siena, I was impressed by its streets and squares and buildings, but what really seemed unique was the way the edges of the city melted into the surrounding hills and valleys - a landscape that looked unchanged since the Middle Ages. The view I photographed above, for example, looked to me hardly any different from Ambrogio Lorenzetti's depiction of life in the countryside in the Palazzo Pubblico frescoes of Good and Bad Government. And, as Ingrid Rowland says, it seemed both harmonious and thoroughly 'worked over'.


Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Good Government in the Countryside (detail) c1338-40

There is an interesting discussion of Lorenzetti's painting in Malcolm Andrews' Landscape and Western Art. He recalls that Kenneth Clark placed Lorenzetti at the start of the Western landscape tradition (perhaps unsurprising when you see how 'accurate' the buildings, hills and valleys he painted appear). But the countryside in Lorenzetti is, according to Andrews, 'represented not in order to celebrate a rural idyll, with its implied denigration of urban life, nor as a precocious virtuoso exercise in naturalistic landscape painting'. Instead it is a political landscape: the subject of the work is good government and Lorenzetti promotes the idea that the city and countryside can be strongly linked in a prosperous two-way exchange. This can clearly be read into the activities of the nobles and peasants, but it can also be seen in the use of scale: figures and architecture 'diminish in spatial recession not from the spectator's point of view, but from the point of view of the city itself.' And Lorenzetti even ignored the natural light source (on the right) to make it radiate out from the city of Siena.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Drifting Snow

Drifting clouds
Dry weather
A Day in the Woods
September Night
Drifting Snow
Fire of Frost
Winter Morning
One Flower

This is a list (admittedly unrepresentative) of chapter titles from Independent People, the Halldor Laxness novel which I first read in the cold winter days of February 2003. What struck me then was the almost Japanese quality of these titles - not just in what they convey but in the way that Laxness chose them over more obviously descriptive ones (The Tale of Genji is does something similar). For example, 'Drifting Snow' could more simply have been called 'The Funeral', as that is what it is about. There is drifting snow, which makes the coffin hard to carry, and in which, after the body is lowered into the grave, three crofters with bare heads sing "As the one blossom." But it is typical of the writing that Laxness sums the scene up with an element of the Icelandic landscape, in this case suggesting the way that time will quickly erase the memory of the sheep farmer's wife.

Annie Dillard wrote in the New York Times: 'Iceland grips Mr. Laxness. Northern open lands beyond tree line, over which vast skies change, inspire scenes of metaphysical simplicity. The slowly changing lights at dawn and dusk suggest eternity, and midsummer nights invite dreams. Protestant rigor lies thin over pagan dread. On the other hand, the cruel soils of high latitudes require backbreaking labor. The injustice of hard-working poverty provokes writers to analyze or rage. Nature is both ruinous and fabulous, and people love both temporal justice and spiritual beauty. A redshank's cry over the wastes seems a human soul calling into immense silence. ''One hopes that one may be able to hear it after one's death also,'' Mr. Laxness writes, ''that one may wander about the marshes of a night, the night before Ascension Day after one's death, and listen to this incredible story; yes, this story and no other.'''

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Fountains, rivers and running brooks


I have quoted here before Robert Burton's description of the way a good prospect will ease melancholy, but for those without such a view, similar benefits are available from looking at landscape paintings. Leon Battista Alberti, in his Ten Books on Architecture (1452), provided this advice on interior decoration: 'our minds are cheered beyond measure by the sight of paintings depicting the delightful countryside, harbours, fishing, hunting, swimming, the games of shepherds - flowers and verdure...' (Book VII, Chapter 5).

This passage is quoted in E. H. Gombrich's seminal essay 'The Renaissance Theory of Art and the Rise of Landscape', along with a later one in which the psychological benefits of landscape are further stressed by Alberti: 'Those who suffer from fever are offered much relief by the sight of painted fountains, rivers and running brooks, a fact which anyone can put to the test; for if by chance he lies in bed one night unable to sleep, he need only turn his imagination on limpid waters and fountains which he had seen at one time or another, or perhaps some lake, and his dry feeling will disappear all at once and sleep will come upon him as the sweetest of slumbers...' Of course in emphasising the benefits of landscape without any specific subject matter, Alberti starts to point beyond mere illustration or decoration, towards the new independent genre of landscape painting.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Dessert in the form of a winter landscape

I've recently been reading to my son Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with its chocolate waterfall and minty grass, and so was tempted by a link on Arts & Letters Daily to look at the food landscapes of photographer Carl Warner. Apparently 'the images can take up to two or three days to build and photograph and then a couple of days retouching and fine-tuning them to blend together all the elements, such as parmesan cliffs with sweet potato boulders and cress and savoy cabbage foliage under a red cabbage sky.'

The subject of foodscapes puts me in mind of the Manifesto of Futurist Cooking (1930). Marinetti's section on sculpted meat highlights a recipe devised by Futurist painter Fillia for rissole of minced veal stuffed with eleven kinds of green vegetables provided 'a symbolic interpretation of all the varied landscapes of Italy'. Marinetti also refers to Enrico Prampolini's Equator + North Pole - 'an equatorial sea of poached egg yolks' surrounding 'a cone of firmly whipped egg white'.

Back in 1600, the marriage in Lyon of Marie de' Medici and Henry IV involved (according to Roy Strong in his book Feast) 'every kind of late mannerist fantasy. On the high table were two oak trees seemingly made of snow with white leaves and silver garlands. Beneath their branches a hunt was in progress.' At a certain moment, 'from beneath the floor arose a table bearing dessert in the form of a winter landscape.' The meal ended with a sugar garden full of birds, fruit and flowers. Such sugar sculptures form a whole subgenre of the foodscape - the engraving reproduced below shows a sugar collation from the wedding of Johann Wilhem, heir to the duke of Jülich-Cleve, in 1587.

Friday, November 28, 2008

No Man-Made Obstacles for the Winter Winds

Still on the subject of Land Art, discussed in the last posting, I thought it was interesting that Ben Tufnell divided environmental art into (i) 'healing' land reclamation projects, (ii) symbolic warnings / poetic meditations and (iii) art that simply bears witness to environmental concerns. In the first category he has several exmples, including Agnes Denes' Tree Mountain which I have discussed here before. However, for the other two categories he focuses on just one example each: Joseph Beuys' Eichnen 7,000 and, rather surprisingly, for 'bearing witness' the recent text works of Hamish Fulton.

Clearly Hamish Fulton feels strongly about the natural environment and has contrasted his own 'leave no trace' approach with that of Richard Long, as well as the more American land artists with their bulldozers. Tufnell gives the example of Fulton's To Build is to Destroy. No Man-Made Obstacles for the Winter Winds. 14 Seven Day Walks, Cairngorms, Scotland, 1985-1999, which criticises the building of ski lifts. But I have to say that for me, the idea that Fulton's walks leave no trace is increasingly hard to hold onto when, like any art works that are sold and exhibited, the artifacts generated by his walks create their own carbon footprint. And of course Fulton is not just walking around Britain - text works based on walks in Tibet, say, make no mention of the flight required to get there.

The way Fulton and Richard Long downplay the process of travel to remote parts is discussed in a critical essay 'Ain't Going Nowhere' by Anna Gruetzner Robins (see Gendering Landscape Art edited by her and Steven Adams). She cites Long, describing A Circle in Alaska / Bering Strait Driftwood on the Arctic Circle: 'I just happened to find myself on the Arctic Circle, and it seemed just the perfect opportunity and place for me to make a circle.' In the work of Long and Fulton, 'the viewer is asked to accept that these journeys are a primal quest divorced from time and space.' Robins compares this to the way colonial explorers tended to write up their exploits. I think this is a useful comparison - although it's hardly surprising that Richard Long or Richard Burton would skip the boring bits, we need to bear in mind what comes before and after their wilderness treks. Robins' essay is well worth reading even (especially?) where it goes rather over the top. She obviously feels bitter about Richard Long, whom she once invited to come and talk to her students - apparently all he did was turn up, play country music tapes and say nothing at all.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Marsh Ritual

Looking at some of Cildo Meireles' Arte Física (Physical Art) from 1969-70 at Tate Modern on Saturday I was reminded of the early manifestations of land art being made then in the USA. For example (to quote from the Tate magazine's interview with Meireles) there was his 'Cordões/30km de Linha Estendidos (Cords/30km Extended line), 1969, which involved laying string along 30 kilometres of beach front and then collecting what was left of it'. It's a reminder (if one were needed) that this kind of conceptual engagement with landscape was going on all over the world - in this case, Brazil.

A couple of years ago the Tate published an introduction to land art written by Ben Tufnell (who curated the Hamish Fulton exhibition there in 2002). It 'attempts to redress a historical imbalance in previous accounts, whereby American artists, particularly those working with earthworks are prioritised over Europeans whose work is perhaps small-scale or ephemeral.' Thus the opening chapter is on Richard Long, with Robert Smithson relegated to chapter 2. However, reading about them in this order really serves to emphasise how full of fertile ideas Smithson was. Long has largely lets his minimal work speak for itself, although Tufnell quotes Long's objection to 'so-called American land art' with its need for large tracts of real estate and earth moving machinery.

Ironically, the perception that it is European artists who create 'small-scale or ephemeral' land art, along with the fame of Andy Goldsworthy, may have obscured the contribution of North American's working in this quieter vein. Ben Tufnell mentions Patrick Dougherty, Roy Staab and Michael Singer. Works by Singer, 'such as the Marsh Ritual Series 1973, Long Island, and the Glades Ritual Series 1975, Everglades National Park, Florida, were composed of sculptural constructions spread across large areas of landscape, each barely visible but gradually revealed, through the ongoing engagement of the viewer, as part of a complex whole.'

Non-Western land art is largely beyond the scope of Ben Tufnell's survey, but he does say that Andy Goldsworthy has inspired a kind of school of land art in Japan, citing the works included in the Hakone Open-Air museum's 30th anniversary exhibition 'Forms in Nature.' Among the artists who exhibited were Masafumi Maita, Takamasa Kuniyasu (see below) and Toshikatsu Endo (whose Epitaph can be seen at Flakstad in Norway). If anyone knows more about the ways in which these Japanese artists see Goldsworthy as an influence, please feel free to leave a comment...


Takamasa Kuniyasu, Spiral of Töölönlahti Bay
Source: tietoukka

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The ring of living beauty

In his memoir Father and Son (1907), Edmund Gosse described the effect of collectors, many inspired by his father's bestseller The Aquarium, on the rockpools of Devon:
'Half a century ago, in many parts of the coast of Devonshire and
Cornwall, where the limestone at the water's edge is wrought into
crevices and hollows, the tideline was, like Keats' Grecian vase,
'a still unravished bride of quietness'. These cups and basins
were always full, whether the tide was high or low, and the only
way in which they were affected was that twice in the twenty-four
hours they were replenished by cold streams from the great sea,
and then twice were left brimming to be vivified by the temperate
movement of the upper air. They were living flower-beds, so
exquisite in their perfection, that my Father, in spite of his
scientific requirements, used not seldom to pause before he began
to rifle them, ejaculating that it was indeed a pity to disturb
such congregated beauty. The antiquity of these rock-pools, and
the infinite succession of the soft and radiant forms, sea-
anemones, seaweeds, shells, fishes, which had inhabited them,
undisturbed since the creation of the world, used to occupy my
Father's fancy. We burst in, he used to say, where no one had
ever thought of intruding before; and if the Garden of Eden had
been situate in Devonshire, Adam and Eve, stepping lightly down
to bathe in the rainbow-coloured spray, would have seen the
identical sights that we now saw,--the great prawns gliding like
transparent launches, anthea waving in the twilight its thick
white waxen tentacles, and the fronds of the duke faintly
streaming on the water like huge red banners in some reverted
atmosphere.

'All this is long over and done with. The ring of living beauty
drawn about our shores was a very thin and fragile one. It had
existed all those centuries solely in consequence of the
indifference, the blissful ignorance of man. These rockbasins,
fringed by corallines, filled with still water almost as pellucid
as the upper air itself, thronged with beautiful sensitive forms
of life, they exist no longer, they are all profaned, and
emptied, and vulgarized. An army of 'collectors' has passed over
them, and ravaged every corner of them. The fairy paradise has
been violated, the exquisite product of centuries of natural
selection has been crushed under the rough paw of well-meaning,
idle-minded curiosity.'

Friday, November 14, 2008

Shoreland

The New Arcadian Press aims 'to generate a continuous programme of artistic, scholarly and poetic research into cultural landscape.' Since 1981 The New Arcadian Journal has discussed William Shenstone, William Kent, John Sell Cotman and Ian Hamilton Finlay, along with varius British Arcadias, from the northern fells to the shingle of Dungeness. The cover shown here is my copy of issue 41/42 (number 199 out of the edition of 300!), bought recently at the Small Publishers Fair in London.

Among the illustrations in Landfall are a set of music boxes by Grahame Jones, each with a different musical landscape on the lid. The first is the Shoreland Musical Box, showing the Seven Sisters, Sussex, 'an invocation of Seafoam, second of the four movements of The Sea by Frank Bridge (1879-1941), inhabitant of the Sussex shoreland.' Next is the Broadland Music Box, 'an invocation of Dawn, the first of the Four Sea Interludes in the opera Peter Grimes. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was a Suffolk man and his music oozes the flatlands. Peter Grimes and the Sea Interludes are as much to do with the land as the sea.' The third musical box depicts Chanctonbury Ring, 'an invocation of the musical response, by John Ireland (1879-1962), to the barrows, tree clumps and hillforts of the Sussex downs; in particular to Chanctonbury Ring, which evokes this tree planted, circular fort.' Then there is an Upland Musical Box, inspired by the North Country Sketches of Delius and a Moorland Musical Box based on the Moorland Suite of Gustav Holst. Finally, to illustrate some Litanies in honour of Alfred Wainwright, there is a Lakeland Musical Box, 'an invocation of the composition for strings, Land of the Mountain and Flood, by Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916).

The main article in this edition of the New Arcadian Journal is Michael Charlesworth's 'Shoreland', about the gardens of Derek Jarman and Brian Yale. It mentions Jarman's The Last Of England (with its 'landscape of rubble and repression'), a film I saw before actually getting to visit the garden itself. I remember being struck by the film's soundtrack with its persistent, oppressive background hum from the nuclear power station. The day we went to Dungeness to see Jarman's garden, the electricity could be heard even above the noise of the wind, which was so fierce you could hardly stand up, and the cold bleakness of the place seemed to discourage any lingering examination of the garden sculptures.


Derek Jarman's house and garden, 2006

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

From the top of Beechen Cliff

One thing that connects the last two postings here is that Jacquetta Hawkes quotes 'The Ruin' in her book. Another rather more tenuous link is Jane Austen - an admirer of George Crabbe, a visitor to Bath. On being told that Mrs. Crabbe had died, Jane Austen imagined being able to "comfort him as well as I can'. Crabbe's poem 'The Parish Register' provided the name for Austen's heroine Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, one of the novels in which Jane Austen refers to landscape gardening and the Picturesque. The wealthy but dull Mr Rushworth talks about improving his estate: "Your best friend upon such an occasion," said Miss Bertram calmly, "would be Mr. Repton, I imagine." This seems to be a dig at Humphry Repton's landscape garden design, although Colin Winborn (The Literary Economy of Jane Austen and George Crabbe) has argued that Repton's approach in the Red Books, seeking to create freedom within boundaries, is consistent with the views of both Austen and Crabbe.


In Northanger Abbey, the heroine Catherine is given a lecture on the Picturesque by an admirer and the reader is led elegantly from aesthetics to politics in a way that has made this, I would think, one of the most frequently quoted passages in histories of landscape:
'... a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in everything admired by him, and her attention was so earnest that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste. He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances--side-screens and perspectives--lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape. Delighted with her progress, and fearful of wearying her with too much wisdom at once, Henry suffered the subject to decline, and by an easy transition from a piece of rocky fragment and the withered oak which he had placed near its summit, to oaks in general, to forests, the enclosure of them, waste lands, crown lands and government, he shortly found himself arrived at politics; and from politics, it was an easy step to silence.'

Sunday, November 09, 2008

A Land

Jacquetta Hawkes' A Land can be seen as one manifestation of the widespread interest in Britain's landscape pursued by artists, composers, film makers and writers in the 1940s. It is a consciously poetic history of the land, opening with the author lying in her back garden imagining the earth's strata beneath her. Throughout the book she emphasises her feeling of connectedness with deep time. She describes the formation of rocks, the evolution of animals and finally the influence of people on the landscape - initially good, increasingly malign. The book ends with 'A Prospect of Britain', from the city streets round her home in Primrose Hill to the different landscapes of Britain described in the order they were created: the chalk Downs, the Costswolds, the West Riding, the Lake District. She says of these places that 'their poetry, the images rising from the darkness of unconscious memory, seem to be as much a part of the growth of that countryside as the distinctive plants and animals which it more directly supports. Hardy's poems grew from the Wessex downlands, Clare's from the tiny stretch of the Midlands in which alone he felt at home; Crabbe's are the bitter fruit of the Norfolk Coast: 'There poppies, nodding mock the hope of toil, / There the blue bugloss paints the sterile soil.'

The philosophy of A Land can be read in condensed form in the description of her immediate surroundings: 'the York Stone paving, worn by footsteps into attractive miniature landscapes, survives in the side streets but has recently been replaced in Fitzroy Road itself by lifeless cement slabs.' Like W. G. Hoskins, whose The Making of the English Landscape appeared in 1955, she was no fan of the modern city. Indeed, in a passage impossible to imagine someone writing today, she explicitly locates 'one of the best of times to have been alive in this country' for 'all classes' in Queen Anne's reign and contrasts life then with the materialism of modern Britain. 'It is idiocy to pretend that to live in a lovely countryside, to handle only comely things, and to know that only comely things will issue from your hands is of no importance when set beside the amount of cash in your purse'.

Jacquetta Hawkes moved in artistic circles and was friendly with Henry Moore. In A Land she waxes lyrical about his use of native stones: 'it is hardly possible to express in prose the extraordinary awareness of the unity of past and present, of mind and matter, of man and man's origins which these thoughts bring to me. Once when I was in Moore's studio and saw one of his reclining figures with the shaft of a belemnite exposed in the thigh, my vision of this unity was overwhelming.'

There are hints of a rather overheated imagination in A Land, but it was her 1980 novel A Quest for Love that combined archaeology and sex in a mixture that alienated many of her admirers. Christine Finn has written an entertaining account of this affair. She wonders of Hawkes, 'are her manuscripts, set down in her hard-to-read handwriting, meant to be entirely serious? Her script for Figures in a Landscape, an experimental film, starts: "Cornwall, a horn of rock, Cornwall is England's horn, Its point thrust out into the sea, Smooth or ribbed with waves . . ."' The photograph of Hawkes on the Penguin paperback doesn't give much hint of volcanic sexual passion, but her lover J. B. Priestley described her in elemental terms to a friend: "What a woman — ice without and fire within!"

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Ruin

Earlier this week Mrs Plinius had a well earned rest from some intense work issues and traveled to Bath to take the waters. Her trip reminded me that one of the most intriguing old poems in English, 'The Ruin', mentions the old Roman baths as they appeared in the eighth century. The poem's narrator wonders through the remnants of an old city and sees 'i þær þa baþu wæron, hat on hreþre' (where the baths were, hot at hall's hearth).

I first read this poem in Michael Alexander's anthology The Earliest English Poems (1966) where he says that 'the city of the poem is Aquae Sulis, the Roman Bath, and we may imagine the anonymous author walking about the overgrown streets... the first of many English meditations on old stones.' Another translation can be read at the Anglo-Saxon Poetry Project - 'roofs are fallen, ruinous towers, / the frosty gate with frost on cement is ravaged, / chipped roofs are torn, fallen, / undermined by old age...'

Saturday, November 01, 2008

A bulwark shore

Essex... 'This is a bulwark shore, creating an architecture of sea-walls, lighthouses, forts, tidal defences, gun-emplacements, airfields, Martello Towers, sea-forts, decoys, piers and harbours,' Ken Worpole observes in 350 Miles: An Essex Journey, his collaboration with photographer Jason Orton. The photograph following this description shows a minewatching tower at Dengie, looking like a strange church, isolated against the flat horizon. Later in the book, Orton photographs the 'United Reform with Methodist Church' in Burnham-on-Crouch, a solid brick structure with narrow, almost slit-like windows. Worpole sees 'an uncanny correspondence between some of these austere church buildings, with their minimal window apertures, and the fortified military buildings in and around the coast.'

I have only got to visit certain parts of Essex in the last ten years or so, and have never, for example, made the musical pilgrimage to the jetty at Canvey Island (see below), which features at the end of a bleak sea wall in one of Orton's photographs. However, I've carried around Billy Bragg's musical map of the county, 'A13, Trunkroad to the Sea', since hearing it on John Peel in 1983 and maybe one day I'll do the full trip down to Shoeburyness. The V&A's collection of contemporary writings on Essex (which includes extracts from 350 Miles: An Essex Journey) features Bragg's reflections on the road. He concludes, that whilst memories slide into the past, 'the A13 is still there, rolling through a Springsteenesque landscape in which riverine Essex takes the place of the New Jersey shore, a tarmacadam trail to the Promised Land'.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mt. Cotopaxi Transplant

Forty years ago the Dwan Gallery Earthworks show had two more days to run in New York and you could see the works of Smithson, Heizer, De Maria, Morris, Andre, Oppenheim...

On Saturday, Dennis Oppenheim himself was at Tate Modern for a talk with Lisa Le Feuvre. I thought he came over well, despite a ridiculous interruption at one point, and seemed happy to reminisce about his days doing 'fine art' as well as more recent 'public art' projects. He recalled the radical dematerialisation land art represented as being "like music without sound" and described 1968 as "the summer of the hole in the ground" - although by then quite a few holes had already been dug (Claes Oldenberg's Placid Civic Monument in Central Park, 1967) or proposed (see my earlier posting on Carl Andre's Crater formed by a one-ton bomb).

Oppenheim exhibited Mt. Cotopaxi Transplant at Earthworks, a land art proposal to reconstruct in Smith Center, Kansas the Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador. It featured a plan and a model 'executed in Cocoa Mat to simulate a Kansas wheat field.' As Suzaan Boettger notes in her book Earthworks, Oppenheim was referring to Frederic Edwin Church's 'icon of American nineteenth-century landscape painting' (see below). Oppenheim's proposal brought 'foreign exoticism to bucolic farm country, the mystique of a volcano to bucolic farm country, and the height of a summit to the Great Plains.'

Oppenheim's transplantation of a landscape reminds me of the Situationist method for experiencing a city anew by superimposing the map of another city onto it. Oppenheim actually carried out a landscape transplant near New Haven, Connecticut, projecting a mountain onto wetlands in Contour Lines Scribed in Swamp Grass. He emphasised the conceptual element of this new kind of art: "altitude lines on contour maps serve to translate measurement of existing topography to a two-dimensional surface... I create contours which oppose the reality of the existing land, and impose their measurements onto the actual site, thus creating a kind of conceptual mountainous structure on a swamp grid." So much for the genius loci...

Frederic Edwin Church, Cotopaxi, 1862
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Friday, October 24, 2008

Precipice with overhanging grotto

Coach House Books have published a new edition of Christian Bök's Crystallography. Among its crystalline poems the book includes a 'Key to Speleological Formations', relating each letter of the alphabet and four punctuation marks to a specific landform. So, for example p is a 'precipice with overhanging grotto', l is 'an unbroken column of dolomite' and i is a 'plinth from broken stalagmite'. Strung together they can form a complete landscape, e.g.

p l i n i u s

precipice with overhanging grotto
an unbroken column of dolomite
plinth from broken stalagmite
archway of oolitic limestone
an unbroken column of dolomite
trench from alluvial riverbed
escarpment with avalanching scree

It seems a rather arid place, but as Bök has provided the key to a book of poems about crystals it is not really surprising that the landscape resembles a kind of quarry. A book of pastoral poems could define the letters quite differently, and p l i n i u s might then spell out an overhanging branch, a classical column, a fragrant flower, a gently sloping hill, another fragrant flower, a gently sloping valley and a winding stream...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Of flutes & wild roses

There is an interesting Flashpoint article by Mark Scroggins on 'The Piety of Terror: Ian Hamilton Finlay, the Modernist Fragment, and the Neo-classical Sublime'. Scroggins discusses a 1979 proposal for an inscription on a tree-seat, a two line 'poem' that reads "of flutes / & wild roses." Finlay explained "clearly this inscription is not a `poem' as we know it, but equally short fragments appear in recent translations of Archilocus, Alkman & Sappho." Scroggins notes that 'there is behind these translations a complex history of the modernist appropriation of the fragment, one outlined in detail in Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era (54-75). Kenner dates the modernist renaissance of the fragment to such works as Pound's "Papyrus" (1916), where the poet, instead of worrying over what might be missing from the poem at hand (a mere three words, a few stray letters, and three lines from a Papyrus deciphered in Berlin in 1907), translates and presents the scrap as it stands, asserting the status of the poetic, not merely for the poem itself, but for the fragment of the poem.'

Another possible link is to Romantic poems in the form of fragments written by Coleridge and Goethe. For Schlegel, "a fragment, like a miniature work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a porcupine." However, according to Scroggins, Finlay's inscription on the tree-seat 'is a fragment in neither the Romantic nor the Modernist sense: it serves neither as the occasion to meditate on a lost spiritual whole, nor as the surviving index of a historical moment now fallen into desuetude: formally speaking, it is in no way detachable from its context, "complete in itself like a porcupine." Rather, the tree-seat "poem" is an element of the larger garden as a whole. It is a syntagm in the larger signifying complex of the entire piece, and seems fragmentary and abbreviated only when read out of context.'

Ian Hamilton Finlay was on my mind this week after I attended a meeting at No. 10 Downing Street and saw the set of his prints now decorating the waiting room there, e.g. Rock Rose and Seams. An article in The Telegraph attributes this selection to Sarah Brown, the PM's wife. It describes her choices as 'not particularly inspiring'... I would beg to differ.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Itinéraire de Jean Bricard

To the NFT last night for a showing of the Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet film Itinéraire de Jean Bricard. I'm going to be lazy here and quote the BFI's description of it by Helen de Witt: 'Based on the book by Jean-Yves Petiteau, Itinéraire de Jean Bricard is the last film that Straub and Huillet made together. In it they show us the Loire in long moving takes of the river in silvery black-and-white. This is where Bricard grew up on on a river island during the German occupation. Observations of the land and the water accompany Bricard's narration (recorded by Petiteau in 1994) of the rich history of the region, from commercial fishing and farming in the 1930s, though the Occupation, the Resistance and its brutal suppression. The film is a commemoration of the lost livelihood of the earth, the lost lives of the War and to the work of two of the cinema's greatest artists.'

The film starts with a complete circuit of an island in the Loire. It is a very long take (I wasn't timing it - 15 minutes perhaps?), shot from the boat, which gives you time to contemplate the shifting grey waters and the patterns made by winter branches. It reminded me of car journeys as a child, where the rows of passing trees seemed both monotonous and hypnotic, and indeed when the narration finally begins, you realise the film is going to be about both landscape and memory. Boat journeys usually engage all the senses, but here, after a while, I came to feel the absence of wind and spray, as the austere black and white photography and hardly-varying sound of the motor reduced everything to a simple sensation of moving space and passing time.

Itinéraire de Jean Bricard was accompanied last night by Straub's most recent work, Le Genou d'Artémide, which might also be called a landscape film. It starts with the last movement of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (as discussed in a posting on Supposed Aura) and ends with a sequence of shots showing the sunlit woodland where the dialogue between Endymion and a stranger has taken place. I suspect my enduring memory of this film, over and above the music of Mahler and the words spoken by the two actors, will be of the unceasing sounds of birdsong.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Land

One of the ways landscape art may evolve in the future is in the development of actual sites by artists, not simply for aesthetic purposes, as in, say, Roden Crater, but for the purposes of social engagement and interaction. Rirkrit Tiravanija's project The Land is a good example of this. Hans Ulrich Obrist describes it as 'a large-scale collaborative and transdisciplinary project taking place on a plot of land that Tiravanija purchased in the village of Sanpatong, near Chiang Mai, Thailand. The Land is a laboratory for self-sustainable development but it is also a site where a new model for art and a new model for living are being tested out.'

Tiravanija was a participant in 'Remote possibilities: a roundtable discussion on Land art's changing terrain', which appeared in the Summer 2005 Artforum (the whole discussion is worth reading). There he stressed the difference between The Land and earlier land art: 'The Land in itself is just a land, a leveled field to be acted on, and we request that this action be in the sphere of the everyday. Which is to say that we do not encourage earthworks unless we can eat, drink, or live from them. At this point we are more interested in sustainable infrastructure than outdoor sculpture.'

The Walker Art Center has an entertaining video of Tiravanija talking to Bruce Sterling.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Belvedere castle

"The time will come when New York will be built up," Frederick Law Olmsted wrote in his design proposal for Central Park. "The picturesquely-varied, rocky formations of the Island will have been converted into formations for rows of monotonous straight streets, and piles of erect buildings. There will be no suggestion left of its present varied surface with the single exception of the few acres contained in the Park. Then the priceless value of the present picturesque outlines of the ground will be more distinctly perceived." So Olmsted rejected the standard lawns and copses of 'civic pastoral' and instead left woods and outcrops of rock that create a series of local horizons. However, this isn't the case everywhere, as is evident from the fact that the park contains a belvedere tower.


"Sitting high atop Vista Rock (the second highest natural elevation in the park) Belvedere Castle provides a panoramic view in almost every direction. It is also perhaps the most magical monument in Central Park, one that combines function, form and romance - all in one convenient, central location." This photo, which I took on a rather misty morning earlier this year shows what the Central Park website describes as a "breathtaking" view. Maybe I was feeling jaded but I wouldn't describe the view as breathtaking. Perhaps in many cases the prospect tower or belvedere itself is more important than the view - this one is a kind of folly designed by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould. (I looked up belvederes on Wikipedia and see that in addition to places with beautiful views, the word Belvedere crops up as a type of vodka, a helicopter, a cartoon dog, a car and a Canadian punk band.)


Simon Schama's discussion of Central Park in Landscape and Memory ends with a memorable description of it's dark side (I wonder if he would have written it in quite the same way today?) 'Olmsted could have had no inkling, of course, how the very features that made his park unique - the sunken roads, the gullies and hollows that closed off views to the streets - would shelter a savagery at which even Pan himself might have flinched. The woods and trails of Upper Manhattan are certainly not the only lair where ancient myths and demons, best forgotten, or left to academic seminars, have returned to haunt the modern polis. In fact Central Park divides its arcadian life by the hours of the clock. by day it is all nymphs and shepherds, cupids and fêtes champêtres. But at night it reverts to a more archaic place, the realm of Pelasgus where the wolf-men of Lykaon prowl, satyrs bide their time unsmiling, feral men, hungry for wilding, postpone their music.'

Saturday, September 27, 2008

On the Great Fog in London


Walking by the Thames this morning, I found myself, like a tourist, taking this photograph, beguiled by the autumn mist that had turned the river into a Whistler painting. On the rare occasions when fog descends on London, you feel yourself walking through a city of the collective imagination. I suppose the most famous description of London fog is at the start of Bleak House:

'Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.'

Unlike Dickens, James Eyre Weeks has been rather lost in the mists of time. He wrote a poem 'On the Great Fog in London, December 1762' which describes the transfiguration of the city brought about by the 'black curtain drawn across the sky'. 'The trees, / as we approach 'em seem, seem like hanging webs / spun by the spider - even the great St. Paul, / with his huge dome and cupola, appears / A craggy precipice, rude, uninformed; / Or, like the ruins of an ancient fort / Upon a hill, when twilight shuts the day.' Thus the weather could reduce this city of the Enlightenment into something more primitive, and Wren's cathedral into an old 'uninformed' ruin.

As we walked closer to Tower Bridge, the mist started to lift (as did the Bridge) and the city came more to resemble Wordsworth's, 'all bright and glittering in the smokeless air. / Never did sun more beautifully steep / In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill; / Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! / The river glideth at his own sweet will: / Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; / And all that mighty heart is lying still!'

Monday, September 22, 2008

Mount Fuji seen from the beach at Tago

In Japanese literature certain place names, utamakura, have specific poetic associations. 'To mention Miyagino was to imply hagi, bush clover. Yoshinoyama implied cherry blossoms. Tatsuta(gawa) implied brightly coloured autumnal leaves. There were obviously such coloured leaves in autumn not only at Tatsuta, [both] in nearby Yoshinoyama and in far away Miyagino. But to speak of coloured leaves at Miyagino or cherry blossoms at Tatsuta violated decorum, or the hon'i of the place' (The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature). I have described here before references to Tatsuta and Yoshinoyama. Miyagino was visited by Basho on the Narrow Road to the Deep North, where he saw fields of bush clover, and there is a typical poem in The Tale of Genji: 'Hearing the wind sigh, burdening with drops of dew all Miyagi Moor, my heart helplessly goes out to the little hagi frond.'

Photographer John Tran has undertaken an Utamakura project to photograph these poetic places as they appear now. His photograph of Yoshino, for example, shows a bus parked by a dirty road. 'Utamakura were celebrated for their beauty, their literary associations, their emotive connotations, or some purely associative quality. Generations of poets visited and wrote about these sites, adding layer upon layer of depth and complexity to their mystique. Some survive as beauty spots in contemporary Japan, others have changed irrevocably in the intervening centuries. The former beauty spot of Tago no Ura, for example, on the Pacific coast south of Mount Fuji, is now notorious for pollution caused by paper mill effluent. Sites that are preserved as a consequence of their association in the public mind with historical culture draw such huge numbers of visitors that the attraction of the place itself is often supplanted by the overwhelming human activity that occurs there. The massive disparity between the high culture of uta and haiku sensibility and the everyday culture of advertising, cigarette butts and commuter trains forms the basis of the Utamakura Sites series.'

Tago no Ura was formerly famous for its white strand, wisteria and view of Mt Fuji. It was visited (at least in the imagination) by poets following in the footsteps of Yamabe no Akahito, the Nara period court poet whose famous poem in th Man'yoshu anthology depicts the mountain, seen from Tago Bay, under a flurry of snow.


Tago Bay near Eijiri on Tokaido, Katsushika Hokusai, c1830
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mont Sainte-Victoire

Cézanne's definition of a motif: 'You see, a motif is this...' (He put his hands together, drew them apart, the ten fingers open, then slowly, very slowly brought them together again, clasped them, squeezed them tightly, meshing them.) 'That's what one should try to achieve. If one hand is held too high or too low, it won't work. Not a single link should be too slack, leaving a hole through which the emotion, the light, the truth can escape. You must understand that I work on the whole canvas, on everything at once. With one impulse, with undivided faith, I approach all the scattered bits and pieces. Everything we see falls apart, vanishes, doesn't it? Nature is always the same, but nothing in her that appears to us, lasts. Our art must render the thrill of her permanence along with her elements, the appearance of all her changes. It must give us a taste of her eternity.'

This comes from Joachim Gasquet's recollections (for a fuller quotation see the Webmuseum). Cézanne was clear that there was a difference between a motif like this and a 'beautiful view'. Richard Verdi, in his book on the artist, illustrates the difference by comparing early scenic views of the Gulf of Marseilles (painted in 1879-82) with later landscapes where trees frame a tighter composition. But the great example of a motif is of course Mont Sainte-Victoire, and the example way tree and mountain combine to structure the view in the painting below recalls the metaphor of the interlocking hands that Gasquet quoted.


Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1885-87
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Severn Rhapsody

The most direct means of conveying landscape in music is through 'iconic' signifiers - imitation of natural sounds like birdsong, water and wind. But, as Tim Foxon writes here, English pastoral music is not necessarily distinguished by these sounds. Instead, it is 'dependent upon either ‘text’ (that is, its title, lyrics or programme) or its appropriation of pastoral conventions'. A list of these musical conventions, which are more reflective of a pastoral mood than nature itself, would include 'pedal points, compound time signatures, ‘piping melodies’ and the ‘repetition and measured delivery of material’..., the predominance of quiet dynamics and the major mode, a simple melodic contour, a ‘pervasive rocking motion’ and movement by parallel thirds.' These are the kinds of sounds established in compositions like Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, which begins with the 'Awakening of happy feelings on arriving in the country.' Foxon describes the way that compositions like Gerald Finzi’s A Severn Rhapsody (1923) do not evoke the landscape directly but instead deploy folksong-like modal inflections and simple melodies that reflect the standard pastoral ideals (whether in music, poetry or painting).

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Wall in Naples


A Wall in Naples (1782) is, according to Lawrence Gowing, 'one of the great microcosms of painting, less than five inches by hardly more than six, yet built grandly out of the very stuff of illusion, that stuff of quite finite, yet endless potential.’

I don't think I was conscious of the painting when the National Gallery bought it 1993, but a few years later I was captivated by James Fenton's essay 'Who Was Thomas Jones?' (1997) which reproduced the painting and discussed its inclusion in the 1981 MOMA exhibition Before Photography (where it could be seen as a forerunner of later semi-abstract cropped photographs of walls). Like a photograph, this sketch is a complete image. As Peter Galassi has written in his book Corot in Italy, 'the open air artist undertakes to treat form and space, colour and light simultaneously, as interdependent aspects of an indivisible problem.'

Can this tiny sketch even be called a landscape painting? Tom Lubbock has written, 'this outdoor scene refuses to become a view. The building is seen directly across from a high vantage point. There is no sight of land, no ground level, no base or stage to the scene. The world just drops away out of the bottom of the picture. So there's no sense of place, and there's no proper vista, nothing for the viewer's eye to travel over into a distance, which is traditionally one of the main pleasures of landscape.'

A Wall in Naples and the other sketches Thomas Jones made in and around Naples in the early 1780s are quite unlike his studio paintings. Galassi noted a similar rift in the work of Jones's contemporary Pierre Henri de Valenciennes (whose sketches are equally striking). Bridging this gap would be the task for nineteenth century landscape art.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Moonlight on the Danube

There was a nice article today by William Dalrymple about Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose books include some extraordinarily beautiful descriptions of landscape. Here he is, for example, in A Time of Gifts describing moonlight on The Danube: 'the line of the moon's reflection lay amidstream where the current runs fastest and shivered and flashed there like quicksilver. The reefs and shoals and islands and the unravelling loops of water which had lain hidden till now were all laid bare. Wastes of fen spread from either shore and when the surfaces were broken by undergrowth or sedge or trees, they gleamed like fragments of flawed looking-glass. All was changed. The thin-shadowed light cast a spell of mineral illusion. The rushes and the flags were turned into thin metal; the poplar leaves became a kind of weightless coinage; the lightness of foil had infected the woods. The frosty radiance played tricks with levels and distance until I was surrounded by a dimensionless and inconcrete fiction which was growing paler every second. While the light was seeking out more and more liquid surfaces for reflection, the sky, where the moon was now sailing towards its zenith, seemed to have become an expanse of silvery powder too fine for the grain to be descried. Silence transcended the bitterns' notes and the industry of the frogs. Stillness and infinity were linked in a feeling of tension which, I felt sure, presaged hours of gazing watchfulness. But I was wrong. In a little while my eyes were closing under a shallow tide of sleep.'

This quotation should indicate why Dalrymple talks about Leigh Fermor's 'sublime prose style' and calls him 'arguably our finest living prose-poet.' Out of context this kind of writing may seem a bit full on; but A Time of Gifts is not a dispassionate account - it describes the impressions of a eighteen year old who is awakening to a world 'luminescent with promise'. For the same reason, I enjoyed the way Leigh Fermor started to see the landscape of the Low Countries and Germany through the eyes of painters: Brueghel in particular. Of course in this he was just following the picturesque tradition, but young Leigh Fermor was rediscovering these artistic correspondences for himself. They were part of an appetite for culture and history (fed in part by the erudite and civilised conversations he manages to have en route) which give all his 'landscapes' a vivid connection to the past.

Monday, September 01, 2008

St Ives... tomfoolery about scenery

I have just read Michael Bird’s book The St Ives Artists; A Biography of Place and Time (2008) and found it hard to put down. You can get a sense of why this is from an entertaining interview he conducted with Anthony Frost, Andrew Lanyon and Rose Hilton in Tate Magazine. There are some droll anecdotes – Peter Lanyon sneaking into the Leach pottery and making rude pots, Terry Frost urinating in Barbara Hepworth’s garden, mammoth drinking sessions with Roger Hilton and Sydney (W.S.) Graham. But as Michael Bird says, “if you want to understand the art, then the social side is crucial. It's not just a string of stories that are a sort of background to the art”. Discussions in pubs, studios and out in the landscape shaped the paintings - Andrew Lanyon (Peter’s son) points out: ‘artists have the desire to communicate. That's why you had these long sessions with Sydney and Roger. It was not just social, it was helping the work.’

Here are some observations from Michael Bird’s book on the different attitudes to landscape in the work of St Ives artists:
  • In 1928 Ben Nicolson and Christopher Wood made the trip to St Ives where they famously ‘discovered’ Alfred Wallis in his cottage by Porthmeor beach. Both artists made paintings called Porthmeor which resemble modernist stage sets. They stayed at Pill Creek, the subject for another painting by Nicholson, described by his wife Winifred as a ‘sleeping beauty landscape’. Michael Bird links these works to the contemporary verse of Auden ‘in which a distinctly modern sense of dislocation infuses a traditional landscape setting with hints of some encounter yet to be enacted.
  • The influx of contemporary artists to St Ives began ten years later with the arrival of Adrian Stokes, Naum Gabo, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. By 1950 the work of artists like Peter Lanyon, Bryan Wynter and Terry Frost had all developed into a kind of abstract landscape painting. Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s beautiful Crystal, Grindelwald (1950) is seen by Bird as demonstrating ‘the fusion of the Constructivist spirit with a revivial of landscape art for which the town was becoming known.’
  • Peter Lanyon drew on Constructivism for his dynamic engagement with space and form in the landscape – exploring by foot, travelling at speed round the coast roads and eventually taking to the air in his glider. This physicality was reflected in the paintings, which fused images of the body with natural forms. Lanyon was also highly conscious of his Cornishness - an artist of place [Bird makes a connection between Lanyon and W.G. Hoskins; space vs. place in art was raised in an earlier posting here].
  • Bird describes a review of Lanyon’s paintings written by Patrick Heron: ‘what started out as Lanyon’s landscape – ‘cromlech-studded, rock-infested,’ ‘riddled by mines’, metamorphosed into Heron’s own, defined not by the much-hyphenated residue of history but by the ‘quality of light’ – more, in other words, by space than place.’ Heron was echoing the views of another artist-critic, Adrian Stokes who had bought the house Little Park Owles in Carbis Bay 1939 (built as the servant’s wing to the house of Frances Horne, benefactress of the Bernard Leach pottery, it was later owned by Peter Lanyon). Stokes, a lover of Italian art, had described the effect of Cornish light in Colour and Form (1937). Heron ‘poured into his vision of the Cornish landscape all his passion for Bonnard and Matisse.’ The garden Heron created at his Zennor home, Eagle’s Nest, was like a further expression of this, a living painting surrounded by grey crags, wild grass and sea.
  • Barbara Hepworth also created a garden (the photograph here is from my last visit in June). Bird writes that ‘apart from collecting Brancusi-shaped beach stones, Hepworth was not particularly fond of outdoor pursuits. She was never to be seen clambering around the cliffs, looking upside down at horizons or waving her arms around in a Force 8 gale in the Lanyon manner. Yet she was capable of rhapsodising on Cornwall’s wind-scoured beauty and chthonic, art-generating power...: “The sea, a flat diminishing plane, held within itself the capacity to radiate an infinity of blues, greens and even pinks of strange hues, the lighthouse and its strange rocky island was the eye, the Island of St Ives an arm, a hand, a face. The rock formation of the great bay had a withinness of form that led my imagination straight to the country of West Penwith behind me...”’
  • The idea of Cornwall also attracted writers - Bird describes the influx of poets to Zennor after the war: ‘with its Lawrentian associations and air of immemorial continuities, the landscape of Zennor was the kind of outsider country you’d expect a real poet to retreat to.’ Among these writers were W.S. Graham, David Lewis, David Wright, Michael Hamburger, John Fairfax, George Barker and the near-blind John Heath-Stubbs, whose ‘sight of the landscape around Zennor was limited (friends frequently had to retrieve him from the brambles and ditches into which he strode while out walking); unbeguiled by its dramatic contours or Mediterranean light, he was convinced that its real nature was anything but benign.’
  • ‘The real landscape overflows into the unconscious and the unconscious wells up peopling the real landscape with its own images,’ wrote Bryan Wynter in 1945, after moving to Zennor Carn. The result was a ‘fusion of robust, literal landscape and angst-sharpened dreamscape that was peculiarly his own.’ Terry Frost’s abstract paintings also drew on emotion and memory. I’ve already described here the genesis of his painting Moon Quay (and since writing about it have experienced, like him, an early morning walk along St Ives quay to quieten a crying baby).
  • Finally, there’s Roger Hilton who first rented a studio in St Ives in 1956 and joined in those creative discussions with his fellow artists, listening to Patrick Heron and Peter Lanyon ‘extol the mysterious creative power the Cornish landscape. At the same time, as his first wife Ruth, recalled, Hilton perceived that it was ‘dangerous provincial nonsense. “It’s all here”, I remember him saying once, tapping his head. “All this tomfoolery about scenery.”’

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Turf rich and fragrant with thyme and burnet

In The Literary Pilgrim in England, first published in 1917, Edward Thomas described the 'homes and haunts' of British writers. He covered a good range of poets and topographical writers: London and the Home Counties (Blake, Lamb, Keats), The Thames (Shelley, William Morris), The Downs and South Coast (Aubrey, Gilbert White, Cobbett, Jefferies, Hardy, Belloc), the West Country (Herrick, Coleridge, W.H. Hudson), The East Coast and Midlands (Cowper, Crabbe, Clare, Tennyson), the North (Wordsworth, Emily Bronte) and Scotland (Burns, Scott). Mostly obvious names, but not all. John Aubrey, for example, is perhaps not as immediately synonymous with a particular landscape as some of these writers, although his magnum opus was a book on Wiltshire antiquities.

Thomas begins his essay on Aubrey by praising the way he was able to isolate telling details: 'who but Aubrey would have noticed and entered in a book the spring after the fire of London "all the ruins were overgrown with an herb or two, but especially with a yellow flower, Ericolevis Neapolitana."' Aubrey seems to have been the first to notice the stones at Avebury which he first encountered in 1648 and later showed to Charles II. Thomas relates that the grey wethers, the 'grey stones scattered sheep like over the slopes' of the Marlborough Downs, were then much more numerous and looked to Aubrey like the scene "where the giants fought with huge stones against the gods, as is described by Hesiod in his Theogonia". On another visit to this country, Aubrey wrote, "our sport was very good and in a romantic country, for the prospects are noble and vast, the downs stocked with numerous flocks of sheep, the turf rich and fragrant with thyme and burnet... nor are the nut-brown shepherdesses without their graces." Sadly Aubrey never quite finished his book on antiquities but hoped that some "public-spirited young Wiltshire man" would polish and complete his "natural remarques."

Although brief lives and landscapes such as the account of John Aubrey make for an enjoyable read, they proved a bore to write. In a December 1913 letter Edward Thomas complained: 'Homes & Haunts I have got to Detest, & I believe I have been doing it intolerably ll through indifference & haste to be done with it.' He worked on it through the spring and summer of 1914, finally sending it off to the publishers at the beginning of August. By this time war was imminent and Thomas wondered whether the book would sell. He wrote, 'I am a little at a loose end after sending off Homes and Haunts yesterday. Who will want the thing now? I may as well write poetry.'

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Solar Mount

This is a diptych dial that I saw in Oxford recently: incorporating a compass and astronomical data, it was designed by Paul Reinmann's workshop in 1612 and it actually includes a miniature landscape view. Sundials are one of those indexical instruments that allow the environment, as it were, to communicate with us and therefore seem connected to recent art in the landscape, such as sound and kinetic sculpture, that reacts to the elements. The most spectacular example of a sundial as the basis for land art is probably Laurent Maget's 'Le Mont solaire' (2006). With the help of the French army he erected reflective aluminium plates on scaffolding bases around Mont Saint Michel to form Roman numerals, 'swept by the shadow of the 150 foot spire of the abbey atop the Mont, which thus became the pointer of a sundial, its shadow three quarters of a mile long.' On a more human scale, Ian Hamilton Finlay has made various sundials, including one at Little Sparta with the inscription 'poems written upon the breath / poems read between the hour lines'. Stephen Scobie has written about another: 'facing west, it also bears the full force of the Scottish weather—and, as the years have gone by, this sundial has weathered too. Moss grows on the wood; the carving of letters is worn and evened down. Marking the passage of time on a yearly as well as an hourly basis...'

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The royal park in Nineveh

The ancient kings of Assyria had an interest in collecting animals and plants stretching back at least as far as Tiglath-Pileser I (reigned 1115 - 1076 BCE), who extended the Assyrian empire to the shores of the Mediterranean and Black Sea. He wrote of ‘Cedars and Box I have carried off from the countries I conquered, trees that none of the kings my fore-fathers possessed: these trees I have taken and planted in my own country, in ... Assyria’ (Penelope Hobhouse, Plants in Garden History). Four hundred years later, Sargon II (722 – 705 BCE) laid out parks north of Nineveh, around Khorasabad, where he grew cedars, cypresses, junipers, dates, olives, almonds, apples, pears, quinces, figs, grapes, ebony, oak, terebinth, ash, tamarisk, oriental planes, willows and poplars. A bas relief (c. 715) shows this park to have had a man-made hill planted with a grove of trees, along with a small temple. It is one of the earliest depictions anywhere of a managed landscape.
Sargon II’s son Sennacherib (reigned 705 – 681 BCE) was built his own palace and gardens at Nineveh from around 700. The relief below is a detail from the South-West Palace showing the capture of prisoners at Lachish, a city in the rebel kingdom of Judah. The prisoners are being marched through a rocky landscape of vines, fig trees and possibly olives. Another relief from the palace shows giant reeds (up to 25 feet high) which were introduced from the marshlands of the Tigris and Euphrates to the landscaped parks of the empire’s northern cities where they provided cover for game as well as building material and fuel. Hobhouse quotes Sennacherib’s description of the irrigation system: ‘to dam up the flow of water I made a pond and planted reeds in it... at the command of the gods, the gardens with their vines, fruit, sirdu wood and spices waxed prodigiously. The cypresses, palms and all other trees grew magnificently and budded richly’ (The History of Gardening).

Prisoners from Lachish, Nineveh, South-West Palace

Sennacherib was murdered in 681 and succeeded by Esarhaddon (680-69 BCE), who planned another great garden based on the vegetation of the Amanus mountains near the Black Sea. His successor Ashurbanipal (668-27 BCE) is renowned for creating the great library at Nineveh. The British Museum has a series of reliefs showing scenes from a lion hunt, including the one I photographed here which shows Assyrians rushing up a wooded knoll crowned by a building. Penelope Hobhouse describes another delightful scene in a relief dated 645: King Ashurbanipal and his Queen sit in the royal park in Nineveh dining under an arbour of grape vines. ‘In a neighbouring part of the garden the decapitated head of the conquered king of the Elamites hangs from a tree’ (Plants in Garden History).

Royal Lion Hunt, Nineveh, North Palace

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Dover cliff

This posting concerns King Lear, ‘which it is surely impossible for anybody who cares about poetry to write on without some expression of awe’ (Frank Kermode, Shakespeare’s Language). There is an awesome description in Act IV of the view from the top of a cliff, when Edgar tells his blinded father, Gloucester
‘Come on, sir; here's the place: stand still. How fearful
And dizzy 'tis, to cast one's eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles: half way down
Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head:
The fishermen, that walk upon the beach,
Appear like mice; and yond tall anchoring bark,
Diminish'd to her cock; her cock, a buoy
Almost too small for sight: the murmuring surge,
That on the unnumber'd idle pebbles chafes,
Cannot be heard so high. I'll look no more;
Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong.’
This description is a reminder that landscapes appear relatively rarely in plays – there is not normally a reason for a character to describe what lies before them. But here, Gloucester has been blinded and cannot see the danger ahead of him. Edgar says “Give me your hand; you are now within a foot / Of the extreme verge: for all beneath the moon / Would I not leap upright.”
Reading the play to myself, I pictured the distant fishermen like the peasants in Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icraus, unaware of the drama being enacted in their midst. In his essay ‘Perspectives: Dover Cliff and the Conditions of Representation’, Jonathan Goldberg likens Edgar’s description to a Renaissance painting, with Gloucester asked to imagine distant objects progressively smaller, reducing them to near invisibility. Goldberg thinks Shakespeare was influenced by ideas of perspective which were being incorporated at this time into English stage design by Inigo Jones.
Watching the play you can’t stop to admire the view – the action continues and Gloucester falls, although not to his death. I went to see King Lear performed at The Globe theatre last week, a place which doesn’t give any real scope for landscape stage sets or other illusionistic devices to help the audience visualise the scene. Trystan Gravelle (Edgar) and Joseph Mydell (Gloucester) stood at the edge of the stage and delivered their lines surrounded on three sides by groundlings with upturned faces just feet away. It was hard to imagine a precipitous cliff and the distant pebbles below.
Nevertheless, this whole scene is curious as it’s not clear how much of what Edgar describes is really there. He tricks his father into believing he has fallen down the cliff and survived, telling him:
‘Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,
So many fathom down precipitating,
Thou’dst shiver’d like an egg; but thou dost breathe,
Hast heavy substance, bleed’st not, speak’st, art sound.
Ten masts at each make not the altitude
Which thou hast perpendicularly fell:
Thy life’s a miracle.’
Earlier, as they approach the cliff, Gloucester cannot picture their location and his ‘view’ actually resembles the one we in the audience have – no slope, no sea:
Glo. Methinks the ground is even.
Edg. Horrible steep: Hark! do you hear the sea?
Glo. No, truly.
We, just as much a Gloucester, have to rely on the power of Edgar’s language to visualise what he could apparently see before him.