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 amde 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.”’