Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Vine and blue Appenine, convents and cypresses

Fra Angelico, The Deposition from the Cross, 1432

Following on from my last post on Fra Angelico I'd like to focus here on his depiction of the Tuscan landscape in work of the 1430s.  In a 1979 essay Christopher Lloyd described the city representing Jerusalem in The Deposition from the Cross as 'exquisitely rendered with the precision of a miniaturist' and likened the countryside to Ruskin's description in a letter of 1845: 'one vista of vine and blue Appenine, convents and cypresses.'  In his book The Vision of Landscape in Renaissance Italy, A. Richard Turner writes that these landscapes look as if they had been 'carved by a knife from porous rock, and then smoothly rounded until the pores disappear.  The buildings are cut from soft wood, joined with the simplest of planes, and then painted in a naive and happy juxtaposition of pastels and darks.  The lucid simplicity of this world appeals to the sensibility of our own century.  The landscape is unreal, but also supra-real.  A flood of brilliant light moves across the land, reflected with Mediterranean intensity from stuccoed walls, and intermittently absorbed into deep, cool shadows.  Piero della Francesca's luminous landscapes done thirty years later are but the subtle culmination of Fra Angelico's essays in light.'



Another painting from this time also shows the 'Corotesque purity of tone' that Kenneth Clark noticed in Fra Angelico's backgrounds, and has a special place in the history of landscape.  According to Christopher Lloyd, 'the aged Elisabeth surmounting the steep hill from which one can view the full panoply of the southern Tuscan landscape in The Visitation, a predella panel from The Annunciation at Cortona, is an unforgettable image, especially if one has climbed the hill to Cortona, a town which Henry James described as being "nearer to the sky than to the railway station, in order to see the altarpiece."'  David White (who added notes on the paintings to Lloyd's essay for the 1992 Phaidon's Colour Library book on Fra Angelico) explains that the view behind the woman climbing the hill is 'the first identifiable landscape in Italian art.  In the middle distance a lake, which no longer exists, spreads out in the Chiana Valley; beyond rises the town of Castigliona Fiorentino, and further distant the tower of Monterchi.'  This lake has now been drained but it can be seen in the map of the area made by Leonardo da Vinci.

Fra Angelico, The Visitation, c.1432
Panel from the predella for The Annunciation

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Penitent Saint Jerome

Fra Angelico, The San Domenico Altarpiece (detail), c. 1422-23

In the 1420s Fra Angelico painted three altarpieces and illuminated a choir book for the church and convent of San Domenico in Fiesole, the first of which was a triptych with the Virgin and Child flanked by two sets of saints: Aquinas, Barnabas, Dominic and Peter Martyr.  However, as Diane Cole Ahl explains in her monograph Fra Angelico (2008) it was united into a single panel and repainted by Lorenzo di Credi in 1501.  One of the alterations Lorenzo made was to replace the gold background with a continuous architectural and landscape setting - a serene pattern of water, fields, trees and distant mountains under a misty sky that fades into blue.  Why was this done?  It was possibly part of the renovation of the church, but another motivation could have been to pay homage to the saints and to the revered artist himself:  Lorenzo 'left the figures as they had been painted as precious relics of Angelico's mastery.'  The result is a beautiful hybrid work.  Looking at it, even in reproduction, you feel a particularly strong version of that familiar longing in front of a Renaissance altarpiece to travel beyond the foreground figures and out through the window into the idealised world beyond.

Fra Angelico, The San Domenico Altarpiece (detail), c. 1422-23
landscapes added by Lorenzo di Credi in 1501

When Fra Angelico began his career gilt backgrounds were still the norm and in early paintings like Madonna and Child with Twelve Angels (c1423-4) he placed his figures on solid architecture under a gold leaf sky.  But when he came to paint the Annalena Altarpiece (c. 1435), the simple golden background had been superseded by a realistic interior decoration, showing the Virgin, Child and saints in sacra conversazione before a golden cloth of honour.  This rapid evolution culminates in the San Marco Altarpiece, painted with Benozzo Gozzoli, with its gold throne, mosaic floor and curtains opening onto a golden sunset over a realistic landscape.  It might almost be dusk falling on a Viennese park in the time of Klimt and Schiele. 

 Fra Angelico assisted by Benozzo Gozzoli,
San Marco Altarpiece, c1438-40

Egon Schiele, Autumn Sun, 1914

I'll be saying more about Fra Angelico in my next post, but I can't leave this specific subject without mentioning one more early Fra Angelico painting where the gold background seems less regal or ornamental than harsh and frightening.  Saint Jerome in the wilderness has often been painted by artists interested in landscape, but here he is shown starkly alone, half in shadow, among bear rocks beneath a molten sky. 

Fra Angelico, Penitent Saint Jerome, c1424

Monday, December 27, 2010

Seashore, Venice Beach

There is a good short article by Will Montgomery in The Wire this month about Japanese sound artist Toshiya Tsunoda.  '"The most important thing for my field work is the possibility of describing the experience of landscape," he reports.  "I want to know how to fix the experience of landscape.  It is a different method from using photography to fix it.  We can see the outline of objects clearly in photographs.  But when recording, things are not so clear and it is difficult to distinguish what vibrations travel in the place.  It's like a moving sculpture.  I find many possibilities to connect with perception and recognition.  So I cannot focus only on the aspect of sound or music in my field recordings.  Even if it is not popular as an artwork, I am always pursuing fixing the scenery in my recording work."'

Tsunoda's interest in the experience of landscape has led to some interesting experiments in trying to document objectively a subjective soundscape, like this one described last year on the erstwords blog.  'I am currently making recordings like this: I go to a certain place and choose an object that is interesting to me. I fix a stethoscope with a small built-in air mike onto my temples. The stethoscope captures vibrations of my muscles and blood flows. Because of the nature of the air mike, environmental noises are recorded, too. If the wind blows, some wind sounds are recorded when it passes over my head. The recorded sound is like the sound that is heard when I cover my ears with my fingers. What is this? At this point, I cannot explain this well since my intuition is preceding over my understanding. ... There is no relation among temples, air mike and brain waves. Our brain waves do not stir the air. The position of the air mike can be set anywhere near the ears, but I feel that our temples are the best and only place for that. Is this approach just built on impulse? But I am thinking of developing this idea further...'

Over the years Tsunoda has charted the way sounds vibrate and mutate within different environments, working both in the landscape and the studio.  On his 2005 album Ridge of Undulation, field recordings alternate with the sounds built from layered sine waves and vibrating plates.  Nick Hennies' review on the Hapna site explains that 'through careful editing, Tsunoda can make field recordings sound artificial (e.g. the lock-groove loops within “Seashore, Venice Beach” that are achieved apparently only through volume editing). Thus, he conflates any “essential” difference between the “natural” and the constructed. At the same time, his prepared sonic environments are so closely monitored and manipulated that they approximate and extend effects heard within the field recordings. For example, “An Aluminum plate with low frequencies 1” follows directly after the Venice Beach track and sounds like the wind coming in off the ocean at that location, perhaps as heard from under the tide itself.'

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas in Driftwood Valley

'By the time dawn was coming we had scraped two peepholes in the frost on the panes; and we stood quiet to watch the winter sunrise. The radiant peaks of the Driftwoods, cut like white icing into pinnacles and rims against the apple-green sky, were brushed with pink, that, even as we watched, spread down and down and turned to gold. Rays of the rising sun, coming between the pointed firs of the east shore, stretched straight across the white lake, and as they touched it huge crystals, formed by the intense cold, burst into sparkling, scintillating light. The snow-bowed trees of the south and west shores were hung with diamonds; and finally the willows, around our cabin, were decked with jewels as large as robins' eggs that flashed red and green and blue. No Christmas trees decorated by human hands were ever so exquisite as the frosted trees of this northern forest. The sky turned to deep, deep blue, and the white world burst into dazzling, dancing colors as the sun topped the forest. The dippers, undismayed by a cold that froze dumb all other living things, broke into their joyous tinkling melody by the open water patch below the bank. And our first Christmas Day in the wilderness was upon us.'

This is from Theodora Stanwell-Fletcher's account of her months studying plants and animals in north-central British Columbia, Driftwood Valley (1947). You can read a fuller extract in Lorraine Anderson's Sisters of the Earth anthology.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A snowfall on the Esquiline Hill

Masolino, The Foundation of Santa Maria Maggiore, c1427-8

The snow has been melting here and the passage of days has left Kline-like compositions on the ground mapping the departure of vehicles, the clearing of paths and the making of snowmen.  Looking out of the window now it is not clear why certain patches of snow remain, as if they have some special significance. Masolino's central panel for the Santa Maria Maggiore Polyptich shows Pope Liberius marking out the site of the future church after a miraculous summer snowfall on August 5th 352.  The snow had been predicted in a dream shared by the Pope and a rich Roman couple who wanted to donate their wealth to a worthy cause.  In Masolino's painting, snow floats through the golden sky beneath a fleet of clouds that resemble UFOs.  From the largest of them Christ and Mary look down and snowflakes fall more thickly on the place where the new building will rise, a permanent legacy of this fleeting phenomenon.  Later depictions of the legend by artists like Grünewald and Murillo treat the subject more naturalistically and less interestingly.  Today the miracle of the snow is recreated in Santa Maria Maggiore and other churches every year with a shower of flower petals.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Steal softly thru snow


We'll be raising a glass to the memory of Don Van Vliet / Captain Beefheart this evening.  The clip here shows the band in their final incarnation doing 'Ice Cream for Crow' and features examples of the paintings to which he would subsequently devote himself.  At 1:36 and 2:42, for example, you can see canvasses planted in the landscape that clearly inspired them.  Also, about two minutes in, the band start adding pot plants to the desert - a gesture that may well make some significant point about culture and landscape that I ought to be elaborating upon here.

I saw an exhibition of Don Van Vliet's paintings in Brighton back in 1994.  I remember it was hard to be objective about them when you had 'I'm Gonna Booglarize You Baby' playing on a TV monitor in a corner.  The exhibition's introduction noted that 'for many years Van Vliet lived in the Mohave Desert before moving more recently to the Northern Californian coast and his palette, with its heavy greens, blues and ochres, is entirely reminiscent of the landscape he inhabits and his concerns for that environment, while his strong use of thick washes of black and white serve to delineate his own interior sensibilities.'

London is completely black and white today, lying in thick cold snow, and has been reminding me of a Captain Beefheart song:

Steal softly thru sunshine
Steal softly thru snow
The wild goose flies from winter
Breaks my heart that I can`t go...

Friday, December 17, 2010

The lanes and fields of Gloucestershire

In talking to others about Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places, I have found that those put off by the book's premise, and the accounts of climbing trees and freezing on mountain tops, have nevertheless enjoyed some of its digressions about writers and naturalists.  A section on Ivor Gurney, for example, in Macfarlane's chapter 'Forest', could stand alone as a fascinating short essay.  It charts Gurney's engagement with landscape from pre-war Gloucestershire, to the 'anti-landscape' of Ypres.  Then, back in England, having been shot, gassed and invalided out of the army, Gurney returned to the countryside, taking long walks, often and night, whilst writing and composing prolifically.  But by 1922 he was behaving increasingly oddly and his 'mental state, always precarious, tilted into unbalance...'


There is a poignant description of the visits Edward Thomas's widow Helen made in the late twenties to see Gurney at the mental asylum in Dartford. By that stage 'his madness was so acute that he was able to communicate only briefly with her, and showed little interest in her presence or her association with Edward.  The next time she travelled to Dartford, however, Helen took with her one of her husband's Ordnance Survey maps of the Gloucestershire landscape through which both Thomas and Gurney had walked.'  They knelt by the bed and traced out the old routes.  As Helen recalled, Gurney "trod, in a way we who are sane could not emulate, the lanes and fields he knew and loved so well ... He had Edward as his companion in this strange perambulaiton ... I became for a while the element which brought Edward back to life for him and the country where the two could wander together."

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Ground Aslant

A couple of years ago I mentioned here Harriet Tarlo's essay ‘Radical Landscapes’, in Jacket 32, and went on to describe (briefly, as usual) three poets she featured: Geraldine Monk, Colin Simms and Geoffrey Squires.  In January next year Shearsman are due to release The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry, edited by Harriet Tarlo.  In an interesting preview article she argues that this writing cannot easily be contained within the definition of 'post-pastoral' put forward by Terry Gifford (see my earlier post on this).  She also contrasts radical landscape poetry with ecopoetry; given my occasional feelings of guilt that this blog is about landscape rather than ecology, it is quite heartening to read of a new book that is not another collection of environmental poetry.  She writes: 'although some landscape poets may be ecopoets and some ecopoets may be landscape poets, the two are by no means interchangeable. Ecopoetics goes beyond landscape into a wider political and global sphere and landscape poetry goes beyond an exclusive concern with the environment. For instance, the poetry here is still very much concerned with the relationship between the poet and the landscape, an age-old concern of poetry since the Romantic age, whereas some hardcore ecocritics assert that human concerns should be sublimated in ecopoetry. However, we also find some amazing writing about the relationship between the human and the non-human in innovative poetry.'  I am looking forward to reading it.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Palestinian Walks

Palestinian landscape, photographed by me in 1997

I have been reading Raja Shehadeh's Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape (2008).  In his introduction, Shehadeh explains that he began taking long walks in the late seventies.  'This was before many of the irreversible changes that blighted the land began to take place.  The hills then were like one large nature reserve with all the unspoiled beauty and freedom unique to such areas.'  He describes walks 'in the hills around Ramallah, in the wadis in the Jerusalem wilderness and through the gorgeous ravines by the Dead Sea.'  But as the book progresses, the landscape changes: settlements grow and walking becomes more difficult, particularly after the construction of the separation barrier around and in the West Bank.  It made we wonder how much of what I saw on a trip to Israel in 1997 would still look as it did then.  I was staying then with an economist working with the Palestinian Authority and in his car, with UN plates, we were able to travel pretty much where we wanted.  I can't find my notes for this trip but have included a few snapshots here (you can tell it's the nineties because I'm wearing a SubPop baseball cap!)

 Masada

In Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain said of this 'desolate and unlovely' land: 'Palestine is no more of this work-day world.  It is sacred to poetry and tradition - it is a dream-land.'  Thackeray wrote of 'parched mountains, with a grey bleak olive tree trembling here and there; savage ravines and valleys paved with tombstones - a landscape unspeakably ghastly and desolate ... There is not a spot at which you look, but some violent deed has been done there.'  Raja Shehadeh compares the way these travelers brought with them a Palestine of the mind, where history is more alive than the people around them, to the narratives underpinning the expansion of settlements in the occupied territories. Almost despairing at the construction work deforming the hills around Ramellah, Shehadeh takes comfort in the long view: in a land where Crusader castles now lie in ruins he is reminded of Robinson Jeffers' poem 'Carmel Point', in which the rocks endure while the works of humanity eventually dissolve.

Struggling to climb a small boulder in a wadi
(Robert Macfarlane I am not)

Palestinian Walks does provide a sense of the area's beauty, but it is fleeting and there is less nature description than I was expecting.  On each walk Shehadeh is reminded of the politics of the landscape and begins reflecting on his career as a lawyer, opposing the growth of the settlements.  He describes one walk through sun dappled fields to a wadi, where the path leads up through olive groves, partridges scuttle from the path and through 'an abundance of wild flowers mottled with the shadows of the clouds.'  But the earth underfoot begins to feel wet and 'we soon realized that we had walked into the open sewers of the Jewish settlement of Talmon to the north. This settlement might have had a rubbish collection system but it did not have one for treating sewage, which was just disposed of down the valley into land owned by Palestinian farmers.'

The Dead Sea

Thinking back to my visit in 1997, I was also coming with preconceptions - partly from talking to my (future) wife, who had recently lived in the region whilst working with Palestinian refugees, and partly from books.  I remember persuading my traveling companions that we should drive along the shore of The Dead Sea looking for surreal salt landforms, which I vaguely recalled from a Michel Tournier novel, Four Wise Men.  I have just dug my old paperback out and found the part I had been remembering.  In it, Taor, Prince of Mangalore, and his companions make their way downhill, 'at times so steeply that the elephants' feet dislodged great masses of gray earth. By the end of the day, white granular boulders made their appearance.  The travelers examined them.  They proved to be blocks of salt.  Then came a forest thinly settled with white, leafless bushes that seemed covered in frost.  The branches were as brittle as porcelain.  They too were salt.  Finally the sun sank behind the travelers, and in a gap between two mountains they saw a distant patch of metallic blue: the Dead Sea.'  The next day they reach the sea itself and see strange white dots on its surface which turn out to be 'great  mushrooms of white salt, rooted in the bottom and emerging at the top like reefs.'  The men are disgusted by the water, with its salt, magnesia, bromine and naphtha, stinging the eyes and coating the body in crystals of salt.  Only the elephants seem to like it, showering each other with their trunks.  But the next day the travelers find to their horror 'two enormous mushrooms of salt, shaped like elephants ... paralyzed, asphyxiated, crushed under their burden of salt, but safe from the ravages of time for several centuries, several millennia.'

Monday, December 06, 2010

The Westway at night


Chris Petit's road movie Radio On (1979) was for years a film I'd heard about but never seen.  Iain Sinclair mentioned it, in that entertaining Jeffrey Archer chapter of Lights Out for the Territory, and the soundtrack alone made it seem worth trying to track down.  Now you can see it on a BFI DVD where the extras include an interview with Petit and producer Keith Griffiths (who has also worked with Patrick Keiller, the Brothers Quay and Jan Svankmajer), along with the digital video essay radio on (remix) (1998) in which Petit retraced the route taken in the original film.  Returning to his original locations, Petit found, like Simon English in the England Revisited project I mentioned recently, some places unchanged and others completely altered.  The most striking shot in Radio On shows two characters illuminated in the windows of Bristol's Grosvenor Hotel, taken from the Victoria Street flyover - a structure that Petit fund being demolished when he returned in 1998.

Wim Wenders lent Petit his director of photography, Martin Schäfer, and the clip above shows another memorable sequence in which the film's protagonist, Robert B, leaves the Westway Interchange to the sound of David Bowie's 'Always Crashing in the Same Car'. As John Patterson's has written, 'the film is peppered with long, coldly stirring shots from B's clapped-out Rover, moving through a series of defamiliarised, Ballardian English landscapes - the Westway at night, the M4, Hopperesque filling stations in deepest Wiltshire, and what Petit's collaborator Iain Sinclair refers to as "typically featureless Petit fields". Between them Petit and Schäfer attempt to remake our understanding of British urban space, much as Godard discerned contemporary Paris's futuristic foreignness in Alphaville.'

In addition to Bowie, the Radio On soundtrack includes Devo, Wreckless Eric and Ian Dury, along with the more cinematic sounds of Kraftwerk and Robert Fripp ('Urban Landscape' - see below).  Ian Penman wrote an article about the music to accompany the DVD, praising the way Radio On manages to avoid being date-stamped with signifiers.  'Spatially, and sonically, it doesn't feel like a UK film ... It's murky, strung out, hauntological.  Indeed there are long stretches of Radio On when we could be in some comparable backwater in Belgium, or France, or Germany.  Industrial estate, dockside, car park.  Rotterdam or the Ruhr or Weston-super-Mare.  Out of season arcades and signless avenues.  Suburban purgatory.  A DJ playing melancholy rockabilly to bored factory workers in spectral white lab coats - it might be anytime in Britain from the previous 30 years...'

Friday, December 03, 2010

Edinburgh from the Calton Hill

I have recently been wondering if the reason I've focused more on landscapes than nature is the want of a decent pair of binoculars.  A few weeks ago, inspired by my reading of The Running Sky and watching a flock of birds in motion, I was lecturing my wife on how we should pay more attention in autumn to the massing of starlings on the roofs of Stoke Newington.  She agreed, but pointed out that what I was looking at was a group of pigeons.  So I've resolved to get some binoculars for myself for Christmas (does anyone have any tips?)  Armed with these I shall be full of New Year's resolutions to get out and study the birds of the Lee Valley, the flora of Clissold Park and the architectural details of Hackney.

J. Wells after Robert Barker, Panorama of Edinburgh 
from the Calton Hill (detail), c. 1800

There is a great essay in Kathleen Jamie's book Findings called 'Skylines' in which she takes a telescope up to Calton Hill in Edinburgh to study the city from above, looking at the spires and domes, inscriptions and statues, clocks and weather vanes.  'The city sends up noise and fumes, and also the symbols of the day, the zeitgeist cast in shining brass and lifted skyward.'  Among the roofs she sees an eight-pointed star, an arrow, a trident, a moon, a red lion, a pelican, five different cockerels.  In the old days of the city, 'before every scrap of land was built on and cities became slums, what was raised up high were cockerels.'  Later generations would elevate allegorical sculptures, great Victorian crosses, aerials and telephone masts.  Now, after centuries of urban development, the newest building visible from Calton Hill has on its roof (invisible from the ground) a garden.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Limestone

Adalbert Stifter's Rock Crystal, which I described in an earlier post, was originally part of a collection called Bunte Steine (Coloured Stones) (1853).  The other stories were Granite, Limestone, Tourmaline, Muscovite and Moonmilk - how great would it be to have an English translation of the full collection?  I'd imagine the theme of coloured stones would be as likely to draw readers in now as it did a hundred and fifty years ago.  You can at least find some of the individual stories translated elsewhere - Limestone, for example, is available in Penguin's much-less enticingly titled Brigitta and other Tales, translated by Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly.

Limestone is no more about limestone than Rock Crystal is about rock crystal - the story was originally titled 'The Poor Benefactor' - but of course being Stifter the rocky landscape in the story is a constant presence.  Watanabe-O'Kelly writes that landscape in Stifter functions 'variously as man's best teacher, as his moral amphitheatre but also as a symbol of his most insoluble problems and as an inimical and destructive force ...  The priest in Limestone learns to see and love the unpropitious karst which most people find hideous.  Here he finds his moral purpose, yet the karst, like himself, is hiding something, for all its flora and fauna are to be found only by attentive searching in little cracks in the stones.  At the same time this very landscape can erupt in a thunderstorm which both at the time and in its after-effects can bring death.'


Adalbert Stifter's stories seem to offer a gentle, enjoyable form of escapism and Watanabe-O'Kelly notes that 'the fatal combination of pine-trees and apple-cheeked country children ... convinced generations of readers that Stifter was a charming chronicler of the countryside and nothing more.'  But, as Thomas Mann wrote, 'it has only rarely been noticed that behind the quiet, inward exactitude of his descriptions of nature in particular there is a predilection for the excessive, the elemental and the catastrophic, the pathological.'  His stories have that combination of gentleness and oddness that I appreciate in later writers like Robert Walser.  The priest in Limestone, along with other Stifter characters like the rich eccentric who finds love in The Forest Path (1845), are descendants of Peter Schlemihl and similar figures in earlier Romantic Novellen: misfits who 'see better than those that fit in.'

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Precipices, mountains, wolves, torrents, rumblings

Salvator Rosa, Self-Portrait, c1647

The Salvator Rosa exhibition about to finish at Dulwich and transfer to the Kimbell seeks to show that Rosa is more than simply synonymous with the "precipices, mountains, wolves, torrents, rumblings" that Horace Walpole famously saw on his journey through the Alps in 1739.  The exhibition begins with a room of portraits, including one of the most arresting paintings in the National Gallery which I'd always taken to be a self-portrait (there is now some doubt).  It shows a brooding young philosopher with tousled hair and furrowed brow, holding a Latin inscription: "Keep silent, unless your speech is better than silence."  Nearby was the Met's Rosa self-portrait (not in doubt) where he bears a passing resemblance to Russell Brand.  Rosa was famous for his spontaneous wit and lively character 'with a skill in repartee and improvisation that enchanted and astonished his companions'.  In her biographical essay in the catalogue Helen Langdon describes him shining at conversation, poetry and theatrical performance, although he could take the humour too far on occasions - the reaction to a satirical comedy attacking the playwright Ottavio Castelli and Rome's greatest artist, Bernini, may have contributed to Rosa's decision to leave for Florence in 1640.  Three years later Rosa's performance on stage in Pisa was reported to have been so funny that the audience was 'in danger of bursting, or meeting some such similar mishap.'  Writing of his friend Rosa's performance in another role, Lorenzo Lippi, a poet-painter 'of vivacious and fiery spirit' who excelled as swordsman and dancer and shared with Rosa a passion for practical jokes, declared that 'whenever he moves or speaks / he dislocates the audience's jaws.' 

Away from the city, Rosa indulged in more cultivated pursuits at various Tuscan villas, 'reading "good books", enjoying festive meals with amusing friends, taking the air in the late evening, and then, after dinner, discussing topics that had arisen from their morning's reading' (Helen Langdon, paraphrasing Baldinucci).  A letter written to Ascanio della Penna quotes Guarini's praise of wild countryside in Pastor Fido (1590) and describes life at the Maffei villa where 'freed from worry, they read philosophy by the water and shade of the banks of the streams, and sometimes climb a mountain to satirize the follies of the world beneath.'  But Rosa also used his walks to find inspiration for paintings - at the Maffei villa at Monterufoli he could see rocks, ravines, cliffs, gorges and distant crags.  The poets of Florence praised Rosa's landscape paintings for the way they created a whole world, mixing pastoral beauty with more frightening prospects.  Paganino Gaudenzio said such works "sweetly transported souls and hearts" whilst Antonio Abati wrote that "who gazes at them, remains enchanted."

Rosa continued to seek out what would later be thought of as Romantic landscapes and in 1662 was in the Appenines, where he wrote a letter praising the rugged countryside and remarking on the desolate hermitages visible from the road.  The exhibition at Dulwich has three of Rosa's hermit paintings, where the small figures are seen dwarfed by inhospitable surroundings and, in contrast to Renaissance paintings of saints in the wilderness, there are no glimpses of distant fields and cities. The church at the time was seeking to make links with early Christianity and the hermit motif was pursued by other artists in addition to Salvator Rosa (Philippe de Champaigne, for example).  Roman aristocrats like the Chigi, Altieri and Colonna had hermitages built in their private palaces  - Cardinal Flavio Chigi was so enthusiastic he had three - and they all bought paintings from Salvator Rosa.  

Stories about about the lives of the saints were popularised in Paolo Bozzi's novel Tebaide Sacra, which described penitent monks in rugged Rosa landscapes.  Other writers were talking about the wildness of nature more directly, like Carlo de' Dottori, whose L'Appenino includes "a horrid scene" on a steep mountain path, looking down on a dark misty valley and a sheer drop over the precipice.  Helen Langdon also quotes Daniello Bartoli's L'Uomo al punto di Morte, which evokes the sort of elemental landscape seen in Rosa's late works, like Tobias and the Angel (below), where the figures seem menaced by the powers of nature.  After walking through woods, valleys and fields, Bartoli's man comes to 'a forest, bare and solitary; a desert and wilderness more than a countryside; an earth that is dead and desolate, with mountain crags and rocky alps opposite' and torrents of water cascading off them "con piacere di orrore a vederli" - provoking a feeling of pleasurable horror.

Salvator Rosa, Landscape with Tobias and the Angel, c1670

Friday, November 19, 2010

Green and brown landscapes in conversation

Apart from citing a few writers like Jonathan Bate, I haven't written much here about ecocriticism.  However, much interesting writing on landscape is now done within this academic discipline, so I thought I'd do a post here that provides a bit of background.  In The Future of Environmental Criticism (2005) Laurence Buell traces the history of ecocriticism in overlapping phases:
  • Precursors  - It is possible to look back to early books on literature and the environment, e.g. in the US Norman Foerster's Nature in American Literature (1923) or even Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature (1836).  But two influential texts that stand out as having influenced later writing in Britain and American respectively were Raymond Williams' the Country and the City (1973) and Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in American Culture (1964).
    • Influences - Of the many intellectual influences on ecocriticism, Buell cites three in particular.  The first is Darwin, whose work displaced the privileged position for homo sapiens.  The second is Aldo Leopold, whose 'land ethic' gives rights to non-human life and asked the reader to 'think like a mountain.'  And the third is 'modern continental thought' - specifically Arne Naess, inventor of deep ecology, Heidegger, and phenomenologists Merleau-Ponty and Bachelard.
      •  First Wave Ecocriticism - Ecocriticism proper is seen as originating in work that were influenced directly by the ecology movement, starting in the USA with Joseph Meeker's The Comedy of Survival (1972) which set out the idea that comedy adapts us to the natural world whereas tragedy estranges us from it.  In Britain Jonathan Bate's Romantic Ecology (1991) challenged the view that Wordsworth's nature poetry was simply a refuge from politics and society.  First wave ecocriticism sought an alliance with environmental science, partly as a corrective to cultural relativism, although at the same time other strands (particularly within ecofeminism) were suspicious of scientism.  Early ecocriticism focused mainly on nature writing and was clearly aligned with efforts to conserve the earth and expose pollution. The representative anthology is Glotfelty and Fromm's The Ecocriticism Reader (1996).
      • Second Wave Ecocriticism - There is no clear distinction, but towards the end of the last century ecocriticism broadened its scope, spreading to all forms of text with an environmental interest.  In terms of contemporary writers, interest was extended beyond the likes of Gary Snyder, A.R. Ammons, Barry Lopez and Terry Tempest Williams to writers like Linda Hogan, Chickasaw author of novels dealing in tribal and environmental issues like Mean Spirit (1990), Solar Storms (1995) and Power (1998).  The distinction between natural and built environments is now seen as less clear cut.  Buell writes that between his first book on The Environmental Imagination (1995) and his second Writing for an Endangered World (2001) he moved to the view that 'a mature environmental aesthetics - or ethics, or politics - must take into account the interpenetration of metropolis and outback, of anthropocentric as well as biocentric concerns.'  An anthology that mixes this newer approach with direct political analysis is The Environental Justice Reader (2002).  However, Buell is careful to stress that all strands of ecocriticism are still active and environmental justice concerns have not, for example, replaced criticism inspired by deep ecology.
      Buell's book is by no means the only recent discussion of ecocriticism and you need go no further than the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) website for a whole stack of PDFs examining the field and discussing its evolution - the most recent, at time of writing, is Loretta Johnson's 'Greening the Library: The Fundamentals and Future of Ecocriticism'.  The one book on the subject I would most recommend is Greg Gerrard's excellent Ecocriticism (2004).  In the concluding chapter he cites Laurence Buell's Writing for an Endangered World among examples of contemporary 'hybridized reading practices' and welcomes its inclusion of urban writers like Dickens and Dreiser alongside the likes of Robinson Jeffers and Wendell Berry.  As Buell himself writes, the aim of this was to 'reckon more fully with the interdependence between urban and outback landscapes' and put “‘green’ and ‘brown’ landscapes, the landscapes of exurbia and industrialization, in conversation with one another.”

          Monday, November 15, 2010

          Wistman's Wood

           

          To the Small Publishers Fair at Conway Hall on Saturday, where I bought a copy of Englands Helicon (1600) from the Shearsman stall - more on this in a future post.  I found I was talking about my recent trip to Scotland with various people, including Peter Foolen, who was recommending to me the work of Scottish artists and writers like Alistair Peebles, Robert Alan Jamieson and Alexander Hamilton.  I learned that Hamish Fulton had been in earlier and had left behind with Colin Sackett a copy of his new book, The Uncarved Block, a beautifully produced volume from Lars Müller Publishers.  It is about the Everest expedition last year where Fulton went where no land artist has gone before and became the oldest British person to reach the summit (unfortunately Sir Ranulph Fiennes took away this record just two days later).  It is odd to think of a trip like this, with Hamish Fulton one of the group being led to the summit, as one of his art works; we are conditioned to thinking of Fulton's walks as solitary ventures, like paintings, or, more recently, collaborations where others take part but Fulton is still the artist-creator.  The book must therefore be more than usually important as a record of the experience and his take on the culture of Everest expeditions - I'd have liked more time to take a proper look at it.
            

          It was interesting to compare opinions with Colin (below) on the English landscape, recent nature writing and cultural geographers.  He told me his next project is a book about Wistman's Wood, a haunted spot associated with druids and said to harbour 'writhing adders who spawn their young amidst the moss and leaf strewn tree roots'.  Back in 1797 the Reverend J. Swete wrote that 'silence seemed to have taken up her abode in this sequestered wood - and to a superstitious mind some impression would have occurred approaching to dread, or sacred horror.'  More recently John Fowles wrote about this remnant of the primeval forest in his book The Tree: 'it is the silence, the waitingness of the place, that is so haunting; a quality all woods will have on occasion, but which is overwhelming here — a drama, but of a time span humanity cannot conceive'.

          Friday, November 12, 2010

          Grosvenor Square


          We arrived for our holiday in St Ives this summer a few weeks too late for the Dexter Dalwood exhibition.  I was therefore glad when he was nominated for this year's Turner Prize because some of the paintings are now on show again at Tate Britain, including The Death of David Kelly (2009) which he describes in the video above.  Dalwood's paintings of culturally significant places include landscapes like  Gorbachev's Winter Retreat (2000), Bay of Pigs (2004) and Grosvenor Square (2002).  This is how the Saatchi Gallery describes the 'comic Armageddon' of Grosvenor Square, home of the American embassy: 'The sculpture of a dead president stands in ominous glory, a lone caped panto-villain master-minding the elements of world power. Dexter Dalwood pictures this landmark circa 1969: the upside-down trees are taken from a Georg Baselitz painting from this period. Painted during the Iraq war, Dalwood envisions the park as a place of protest, citing the anti-Vietnam demonstrations that took place there. In this epic work Dexter Dalwood captures the enormity of historical resonance: the leaf-strewn grass is weighted with pastoral calmness, giving a grounded continuity of order to the lingering aura of violence.'

          Giovanni Bellini, The Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr, c. 1507

          The Courtauld's Art and Architecture site has an interesting interview with Dalwood in which he describes the genesis of another landscape, The Trial of Milosevic (2004). "I think it was seeing the Bellini in the National Gallery, and thinking that I had never done a painting with a European wood in it... I started thinking about woods and landscapes, and it made me a think of a Robert Gober installation I saw years ago where the walls are all wall papered to look like a kind of Arcadia. I also started thinking about Anselm Kiefer and those paintings of Germanic woods, and then of course from Kiefer back to Caspar David Friedrich. And then I started thinking about what kind of subject I could place in these words, and that brought me back to Milosevic... By using the Bellini I’m saying that the European arcadia, the forest becomes a symbol not of beauty and continuing regrowth and life but as a dystopian location, a witness to human cruelty."

          Finally, if it's not too outrageous a leap from Giovanni Bellini and the Courtauld, here is a reminder that long before painting pictures about Slobodan Milosevic, Dexter Dalwood was teenage bassist in Bristol's first punk band, The Cortinas, whose debut single in June 1977 was 'Fascist Dictator'.

          Sunday, November 07, 2010

          The Water Table


          On Monday last week I went to see Philip Gross reading from The Water Table and interviewed by Simon Armitage, one of the judges who awarded this book the 2009 T. S. Eliot Prize.  They both noted that water has been a dominant element in recent recipients of this award - in 2007 it went to Sean O'Brien's The Drowned Book, which has been described as 'a municipal reworking of Alice Oswald's Dart', another T. S. Eliot Prize winner in 2002. The Water Table is inspired by the Severn Estuary, a place of 'stillness and energy' known on one shore as the Bristol Channel and on the other as Môr Hafren (the Severn Sea).  Poems like 'Sluice Angel', 'Bridge Passages' and 'Severn Song' describe the rivers shifting channels, the continual flux of water and mud, the forty-foot tide of 'liquid solid as rock' the gulls converging out to sea.  Ten poems called 'Betweenland' look at the water in different ways - as a mouth debouching our secrets, as an ear amplifying distance, as a mind constantly changing and, at sunset, a place for 'the draining down of daylight, westwards and out of the world.'  

          Gross has said that a poem is "a piece of extraordinary attention" and last week he talked of the importance of looking for a long time at something until it yields a poem.  This reminded me of Merleau-Ponty's description of Cézanne, studying his motif, which I mentioned here before in connection with Charles Tomlinson (a poet Philip Gross sometimes resembles).  I thought it would sound too pretentious at a poetry reading to ask Philip Gross about phenomenology or Merleau-Ponty, so I cannot say whether there is a direct connection.  Perhaps a general one though - in the New York Review recently the poet Durs Grünbein was quoted as saying that artists are "an army of phenomenologists working on expanding the confines of our shared imaginaries."  When I read Philip Gross's meditations on the action of water (like his poem 'Pour') I thought of those short phenomenological prose poems in which Francis Ponge conveyed the 'voices of things' (writing that led him to be described by Italo Calvino as 'the Lucretius of our time').  In C. K. Williams' translation, one of Ponge's poems begins: 'The rain I watch fall in the courtyard comes down at quite varying tempos. In the centre it's a fine discontinuous curtain (or net), an implacable but relatively slow downfall of fairly light drops, a lethargic, everlasting precipitation, a concentrated fragment of the atmosphere. Near the left and right walls, heavier, individual drops fall more noisily. Here they seem the size of a grain of wheat, there of a pea, elsewhere almost of a marble...'  And so it goes on, until the description reaches a natural conclusion, the sun comes out and 'all soon vanishes...'

          Towards the end of the evening Simon Armitage asked in jest if Gross did "requests" and, if so, whether he would read the poem 'Globe', in which a whole world is reflected in the sphere of a newel post.  Gross politely declined to take him up on this, but if we had been encouraged to call out for our favourites in some raucous display of appreciation I would have shouted "Designs for the Water Garden!"  It describes a set of imaginary gardens that would appeal I think to Gardenhistorygirl and readers of BLDGBLOG and Pruned. The first features a set of glass stepping stones that allow one to walk on water 'when a low mist frosts the lake'.  The second is a 'rain-gazebo' in which rain is deliberately allowed to fall through a ceiling well and into a floor grille, 'passing through, a slim visitor'.  The third involves a salmon treadwheel, the fourth a mist maze, the fifth a 'slow gusher' of eels, pouring across the lawn.  The sixth, a 'flood-feature', requires us to contemplate the aftermath of a 'the water-beast dragging its bulk through the garden' and the seventh, most magical of all, imagines a 'water-glass lens through which you can see only water' revealing ourselves to be 'lattices of mostly water, flowing side by side.'

          Saturday, November 06, 2010

          The grey sea turns in its sleep


          To the South Bank Centre last night for the launch of a new anthology of prose and poetry about landscape and place - the second manifestation of The Re-Enchantment project.  I am also planning to be at their next event in January, the premiere of Grant Gee's film Patience (After Sebald), inspired by The Rings of Saturn.  The first Re-Enchantment project, England Revisited, has just come to an end - the return of Simon English to each of the sites he marked with a St. George's flag when making his All England Sculpture in 1971.  Back then he 'mapped and graphically marked out the word ENGLAND physically, precisely and equally down the length of a Bartholomew’s ordnance survey map of the country, dividing the word into 75 component points, thus converting the place into the word' (see above). The new work reflects the changes time has brought to these locations and there is a website where you can select a point and compare the landscape in 1971 and 2010.  There are also videoclips of the artist - I've included an example below.


          Anyway, back to last night and the anthology: Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and its Meanings. The launch featured three poets: Elisabeth Bletsoe, Robin Robertson and Kathleen Jamie.  Elisabeth Bletsoe went first, prefacing her own work with a poem on the Sussex Downs by a key influence, Brighton poet Lee Harwood.  She then moved on to her 'Here Hare Here' (which initially set me thinking about Withnail and I) and some bird poetry inspired by The Sherborne Missal.  Her poem for the Re-Enchantment collection fuses the topography of Dorset and the story of St Wite, also known as St Candida, traditionally held to have been a Saxon woman killed by the Vikings, whose medieval shrine can still be seen at Whitchurch Canonicorum.


          "I'm Robin Robertson and I'm from Aberdeen" announced the evening's second poet, and he proceeded to read 'Aberdeen', a poem that begins and ends with the lines: 'The grey sea turns in its sleep / disturbing seagulls from the green rock.'  His contribution to the anthology, 'Tillydrone Motte', is also set in Aberdeen, describing the highest point of Seaton Park - a mound he played on as a child, when it was thought to be the remains of an old castle.  Now the poet is older, no longer able to climb the trees or ford the river, and the motte has been found to be a Bronze Age burial cairn.  Robertson is a mesmerising performer, as you may be able to see from the clip I've embedded below, and everyone seemed engrossed as he read out his poems. 


          The evening concluded with Kathleen Jamie's, 'On Rona', a prose account of a trip she made to an island 'far over the horizon, out in the north Atlantic', forty miles from the coast of Scotland - 'one last green hill rising from the waves.'  Like the landscapes in her book Findings, this was a location freshly observed with close attention and warm humour.  Her encounters with birds - the rare Leach's petrels with their secret nests dotted over the island - echoed some of the evening's earlier readings.  She closed the event with a Norman MacCaig poem, read partly in tribute to a writer whose centenary is this month.  There is a lot more to say about these poets and I will try to write more about them in future posts.  Indeed there is rich landscape material throughout the Re-Enchantment book - essays by Ken Worpole, Richard Mabey and Robert Macfarlane for example, along with a piece by Iain Sinclair on one of our local parks which concludes with an encounter with Stoke Newington's own Chinese landscape poet, Yang Lian.

          Sunday, October 31, 2010

          Water Asleep

          Eadward Muybridge, Rekootoyen (Water Asleep) 
          Mirror Lake from the Western Bank, 1867

          The Tate's Eadward Muybridge exhibition gives a good account of his famous experiments in the photography of movement but also includes his earlier landscape photographs and panoramas of San Francisco, in which all movement is frozen and the emphasis is on the clarity of a single view.  In Rekootoyen (Water Asleep) Mirror Lake from the Western Bank (1867) he found a subject in which the lake surface was so still that you can see the individual trees reflected on the distant mountains.  Looking at Toloolweach Fall in South Canyon, Yosemite (1867) you see the waterfall slowed by the long exposure to a shaft of light which could just as easily be shining upwards, out of the rocky valley. When Muybridge returned to Yosemite in 1872, he went to great lengths to capture the view he wanted - the Daily Alta California reported worryingly that 'he has cut down trees by the score that interfered with the cameras from the best point of sight'.  And to bring out 'the full beauty of the object to be photographed' Muybridge apparently had himself lowered over precipices by ropes.  Back in the studio, like a nineteenth century Andreas Gursky, he would touch up and combine images: two landscapes in the exhibition, photographed a year apart in Yosemite and at Pigeon Point in California, have exactly the same sky.

          Seeing these panoramic photographs so carefully composed into timeless views, followed by Muybridge's sequences of images where motion is abstracted from any setting, made me think about the separation of space and time in his work.  Having downloaded the Tate's Muybridgizer iPhone app to take little zoopraxiscope movies of my sons, I tried filming the view across the river outside Tate Britain, to see the small changes visible over even just a few seconds.  It's probably impossible to make out from the composite image below, but the waves on the Thames and the wind in the trees can be seen moving if you view these photographs in quick succession. 

          Friday, October 22, 2010

          Hearing the leaves and the breathing shore

          W.S. Merwin, the current American poet laureate, long ago renounced the city for a life of poetic retreat on the island of Maui, where he writes and plants trees, restoring the natural forest surrounding his home.  In The Compass Flower (1977), the first book published after his move to Hawaii, he looked back without fondness on city life, where 'the light of the streets is the color of arms kept covered' and 'the veins of the sleepers remember trees.'  Living in the city myself, I can't help feeling something of a reproach in poems like this.  'Are you modern', he asks in 'What Is Modern' - the lack of a question mark adding extra weight to the enquiry.  Well, yes, I think, and not ashamed to be counted as an admirer of Joyce and Mies and Mondrian...  Then he asks: 'Is the first / tree that comes / to mind modern / does it have modern leaves.'  Well, right now, yes (see below), but I take the point - real trees aren't 'modern' and we should see them for what they are. In another poem, 'Native Trees', Merwin complains that his parents never knew what the trees of his childhood were called, and it's not just trees that we fail to register: among the ironic 'Questions to Tourists Stopped by a Pineapple Field' Merwin asks 'What and where was the last   bird you noticed / do you remember   what sort of bird it was'.  

          Piet Mondrian, Trees in Blossom, 1912

          Merwin has written some of the best known modern ecopoems, like 'Place', where he says that on the last day of the world he will plant a tree, and 'Witness' where he suggests that a forgotten language is needed to tell what the forests were like.  However, in these poems the trees are ideas of trees and it is perhaps surprising not to find in his books more poems of place that specify and describe the island's natural features in detail.  A poem like 'Anniversary on the Island', which you can hear read by Garrison Keiller at his Writer's Almanack site, gives only a general idea of the landscape - backdrop to an idyllic life, waking day after day as 'the light rises through the drops on the leaves', watching 'the long waves glide in through the afternoon' and at night 'hearing the leaves and the breathing shore.'  Perhaps Merwin's interest in the island's trees is ultimately more direct and practical - he is one of those artists who has created his own landscape and the intention is that it will be preserved after his death by The Merwin Conservancy and Hawaiian Coastal Land Trust.

          Fifteen years ago Dinitia Smith interviewed Merwin for the New York Times. 'I'd got lost looking for W. S. Merwin's house on the Hawaiian island of Maui, driving along roads lined with palms and sugar cane, then turning into a dense area of ironwood and heliconia trees. It was almost like rain forest here -- pink and red hibiscus, ginger flowers filled with rain from the night.  Then, suddenly, there he was, as if he'd somehow materialized out of the rain ...  Over the years, Merwin has almost reinvented himself in the 19th-century Romantic ideal of the poet at one with nature. When he isn't writing, he's down in his forest, trying to restore it to its primeval state. In conversation, he refers constantly to "the environment," to a tree that doesn't belong in Hawaii but was brought here by merchants or missionaries, to a geothermal project on a neighboring island that he's campaigning against. ... One afternoon, in the rain, Merwin takes me on a tour of the garden. "That's a koa tree, what Hawaiian canoes were made from," he says as we trudge along a wet, rocky path. "I put that in as a tiny tree." We come to an eroded ledge, one patch he hasn't restored yet. "See there, that's what it used to be like. It wants to be a forest!"'

          Saturday, October 16, 2010

          Dream Vision in The Time of the Wolf

          Albrecht Dürer, Dream Vision, 1525

          There has not been much time for this blog of late as I've been working on a big publication that appeared last week.  It has all been rather tense, so I'm not sure why I ended up last night trying to relax by watching a typically bleak Michael Haneke film...  Le Temps du Loup (The Time of the Wolf, 2003) is set after an unspecified apocalypse and begins with a family escaping from the city and then, after the father is shot, wandering through the inhospitable countryside until they meet other people waiting at an abandoned station.  The hoped for train never comes, although the long take that ends the film is the view from a train.  It passes through a landscape of hills, trees and valleys but with no signs of humanity anywhere.

          At one point in the film Eva, the daughter, looking round the empty rooms of the station, comes across a reproduction of Dürer's Dream Vision taped to a wall (see the start of the YouTube clip below).  Dürer's watercolour tried to capture his fear of an apocalypse, falling in the form of water on a landscape resembling the countryside in Le Temps du Loup.  The text below it reads:

          `In 1525, during the night between Wednesday and Thursday after Whitsuntide, I had this vision in my sleep, and saw how many great waters fell from heaven. The first struck the ground about four miles away from me with such a terrible force, enormous noise and splashing that it drowned the entire countryside. I was so greatly shocked at this that I awoke before the cloudburst. And the ensuing downpour was huge. Some of the waters fell some distance away and some close by. And they came from such a height that they seemed to fall at an equally slow pace. But the very first water that hit the ground so suddenly had fallen at such velocity, and was accompanied by wind and roaring so frightening, that when I awoke my whole body trembled and I could not recover for a long time. When I arose in the morning, I painted the above as I had seen it. May the Lord turn all things to the best.'

          Friday, October 08, 2010

          The Mosques of Tanger

          Last night I sat in a room full of people listening intently to the sound of an egg being fried.  We were at Cafe Oto for The Wire Salon, Environmental Agents: The Art of Field Recording, and  Lee Patterson was playing some of the sounds he has recorded in and around his home in Prestwich.  Using cheap contact mics and home made hydrophones, he explores the unheard sounds around us, staging experiments that transmit a kind of magical realism - the sonic equivalent of writers like Bruno Schulz whose characters perceive the strangeness of ordinary rooms, streets and gardens.  The evening ended with Patterson's unnerving recordings of pondweed, apparently shrieking in pain, although the noises result from the release of thousands of tiny oxygen bubbles.

          The panel discussion started with Peter Cusack playing us two field recordings from specific locations.  One turned out to be the buzzing of a hoverfly, captured inadvertently in Prague whilst trying to record the sound of a rail as a train passed over it.  The other documented an encounter with the London transport police, who were suspicious of the recording equipment he was using at London Bridge station. (I've just checked and this recording doesn't appear on Cusack's Sound Data Base - click on London Bridge and you just hear trains and announcements).   Asked about the politics of sound recording and acoustic ecology, he described his work, with a sonic metaphor, as political 'in a muted way'.  He also modestly put the activities of sound artists in perspective, reminding us of the huge range of environmental recordings constantly being made but not presented to the public as aesthetic objects - by scientists, the military, archeologists, geographers, anthropologists, planners and so on. 


          The third speaker was Justin Bennett, sound artist and member of BMB con., who played an extract from Sundial, the closest thing we heard to a sonic landscape.  The aim of the piece was to analyze the daily rhythm of a particular city over 24 hours from one single location. Listening to 'Istanbul' and imagining the sights took me back to the opposite experience watching Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) and imagining the missing soundscape.  Bennett also makes urban sound walks and praised the work of Dutch artist Cilia Erens who gets people to walk around a landscape while listening to noises from a contrasting location.  At Justin Bennett's website you can download a different work made in Istanbul, The Well: 'voices, machines, footsteps, tunnels, but also bronze cymbals and electric guitars ... a personal journey through layers of narrative, memory, sounds and music - an attempt to uncover the secret well that lies deep under the city.' And as I write this I'm listening to another of his soundscapes, The Mosques of Tanger, of which Wire writer Clive Bell says: 'it begins and ends with Mediterranean dawn ambience, cicadas and cockerels. We hear the first call, maybe a mile away; gradually other calls are layer in, but the best moments are to do with the eerie beauty of sound heard at a great distance.'

          Friday, October 01, 2010

          A Galloway Landscape

          George Henry, A Galloway Landscape, 1889

          While in Scotland I visited the Kelvingrove Museum's exhibition 'Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880–1900' (it was full of visitors, very popular).  Among the works on show was George Henry's experimental Galloway landscape, which mystified contemporaries. A reviewer from the Helensburgh and Gareloch Times wrote in 1890 that 'it may be clever but it is not art.  It is utterly destitute alike of perspective, atmosphere, and poetry, three very serious defects, as we take it, in a landscape picture.' The painting has many admirers today, including broadcaster Andrew Marr who praises it in the current RA magazine. 'A truly great painting is endlessly mysterious and never quite reveals its secret. The flatness, the hot haze of umbers, pinks and yellow-olive, and the radical design of the dark burn or small river in the foreground, added by the artist to the ‘real’ view, can be continuously analysed. Perhaps Henry is nodding to Hokusai, yet there is also something of the Dutch Golden Age, and something, too, of the late landscape pastels of Degas, but in the end it’s a mystery, and I know of no painting that is like it.'

          Dumfries and Galloway Council have started a website, Artists Footsteps, which features various paintings by the Glasgow Boys. 'Landscape and light have combined to lure painters to live and work in the area for at least 200 years. The Artists’ Footsteps website documents the landscape paintings, their artists and the places that inspired their work.'  In the case of  Galloway Landscape they cannot provide a specific site - 'although some have tried to identify the location of the painting it seems a pointless exercise.  It is simply a hill, a burn and some cows.'

          In 1893 the dealer Alexander Reid and shipping magnate William Burrell paid for George Henry to travel to Japan with fellow artist E. A. Hornel - some of the paintings they did there have been on show at the Kelvingrove exhibition.  The two artists had collaborated in 1890 on The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe (1890), a kind of combination of Japonisme and Celtic Revivalism.  There is an interesting Tate Paper by Ysanne Holt which sees the same combination in a Japanese garden Hornel later designed at his home in Kirkcudbright (her photographs put me in mind of Little Sparta).  Planted with pink Japanese wind flowers, magnolia, and cherry trees, it included, in addition to Japanese elements like a lily pond and stone lanterns, 'relics of local origin; meal querns, curling stones, a tiny stone trough (actually an ancient coffin for a young child), an eleventh or twelfth century wayside cross from nearby Dalshangan village and a collection of stones, some decorative or inscribed, purloined from the ruins of nearby Dundrennan Abbey.'

          Sunday, September 26, 2010

          Windings of the River Tummel


          Inspired by a recent visit to Scotland, I have been reading the Yale edition of Dorothy Wordsworth's Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland.  The pleasures of this text are considerably enhanced by editor Carol Kyros Walker's atmospheric black and white photographs, taken as she retraced Dorothy's route.  Walker explains her decision not to use colour photography with reference to the process of writing an account of a journey. 'In calling up, and re-collecting the images of a place there must be a moment just before total illumination in the mind when what is there pauses for the final investment of the thinker.  For me, that instant is in black and white.'  The Recollections itself comprises two distinct sections and modes of recall: the first written in 1803 just after Dorothy's return from Scotland and full of daily detail, the second written in 1805 and prefaced with a note explaining that the style and tone had been affected both by the passage of time and the recent loss of her brother in a shipwreck.

          The Recollections demonstrate an impressive willingness to endure physical discomfort in the search for Romantic scenery.  Dorothy Wordsworth travelled with her brother and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in an Irish 'jaunting car' - an open-air two wheeled cart that made the landscape more accessible than a chaise, and which provoked amused or suspicious looks at various points along the way.  Their poor horse had a miserable time of it, ending up frightened by even the suspicion of another awful loch crossing, and the travellers encountered dirt and inhospitality at many of the inns and homes along the way (not surprising given the prevailing poverty and resentfulness towards England and the ongoing Highland Clearances).  The terrain and roads could be difficult too and Carol Kyros Walker lists the distances travelled, along with the adjective Dorothy uses for that part of the route.  The resulting table reads to me like a Richard Long text piece, for example:

          Killin (tolerable) 7
          Kenmore (baddish) 15
          Blair (bad) 23
          Fascally (wretchedly bad) 18
          Dunkeld (bad) 12
          Ambletress (hilly - good) 10
          Crieff (hilly - goodish) 11
          Loch Erne Head (tolerable) 20
          Callander (most excellent) 14

          Dorothy Wordsworth used various means of evoking the landscape - topographical description, reference to earlier writers like Sir John Stoddard, quotation from Wordsworth's poems ('To a Highland Girl', 'Stepping Westward', 'The Solitary Reaper' etc.) She also made some sketches, like this one of the River Tummel, 'a glassy river' gliding through the level ground 'not in serpentine windings, but in direct turnings backwards and forwards.'  There is no doubt that she was influenced by writers on the Picturesque (Walker refers to a study on this by John R. Nabholtz which notes, for example, that her sensitivity to the absence of trees may reflect the aesthetics of Uvedale Price).  She remarks upon the landscape's 'inhabited solitudes' and sometimes sees isolated figures in pictorial terms, like the melancholy woman alone in a desolate field and an old man exhibiting 'a scriptural solemnity'.  These provoke the thought that in Scotland 'a man of imagination may carve out his own pleasures'.  Walking over the brow of a hill at twilight, she sees a boy wrapped in grey plaid, calling to his cattle in Gaelic. 'His appearance was in the highest degree moving to the imagination... It was a text, as William has since observed to me, containing in itself the whole history of the Highlander's life - his melancholy, his simplicity, his poverty, his superstition, and above all, that visionariness which results from a communion with the unworldliness of nature.' 


          Both Dorothy and William Wordsworth noticed the changes being made to the landscape - deploring the felling of trees at Neidpath Castle, for example, and complaining at Douglas Mill that 'large tracts of corn; trees in clumps, no hedgerows ... always make a country look bare and unlovely'.  Carol Kyros Walker finds much of what Dorothy wrote about unaltered, with a few obvious changes (the photograph of a 'solitary reaper' shows a distant tractor).  Nevertheless, the 'astounding flood', as William described the falls of Cora Linn, appears less impressive now that hydroelectirc power has been introduced to the Clyde.  Dunglass Castle can still be seen on its promontory, where Dorothy, admired the view 'terminated by the rock of Dumbarton, at five or six miles distance, which stands by itself, without any hills near it, like a sea rock.'  However, the accompanying footnote explains that the castle, later home to Charles Rennie Mackintosh, eventually became a stationery store.  'It is now on the grounds of an ESSO oil terminal which is kept under strict security.  To visit the castle one must be escorted by an ESSO guard and agree to don a hard hat.'

          Sunday, September 12, 2010

          Carmel Point

          I have been kindly invited to go to Glasgow this week to take part in a conversation as part of the Values of Environmental Writing Research Network.  Part of the discussion will consider Dark Mountain, 'a new cultural movement for an age of global disruption', and Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto, with its call for writing and art grounded in a sense of place and time, which steps outside the human bubble to reengage with the non-human world.  The authors, Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, state that 'our whole way of living is already passing into history. We will face this reality honestly and learn how to live with it.  We reject the faith which holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of 'problems' in need of technological or political ‘solutions’.'  This pessimistic view has met with opposition, from George Monbiot for example: 'to sit back and wait for what the Dark Mountain people believe will be civilisation's imminent collapse, without trying to change the way it operates, is to conspire in the destruction of everything greens are supposed to value.'  In a critical Guardian article, Solitaire Townsend worries that 'Dark Mountain isn't a prophesy: it's the outcome of inaction' and likens them to the diners at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

          Robinson Jeffers' Hawk Tower, Tor House, Carmel

          These criticisms echo those made at various times of Robinson Jeffers, the poet cited by Dark Mountain as a key inspiration, who advocated a philosophy of 'inhumanism' and opposed US involvement in the war - 'the fever-dreams of decaying Europe'.  Addressing the tower he built at Carmel, he wrote "look, you gray stones / Civilization is sick: stand awhile and be quiet and drink, the sea-wind, you will survive / Civilization."  This poem, 'Pearl Harbor', and others in his 1948 book The Double Axe provoked a disclaimer from his publishers and many hostile reviews. The Dark Mountain Manifesto acknowledges that Jeffers' reputation has suffered: 'today his work is left out of anthologies, his name is barely known and his politics are regarded with suspicion. Read Jeffers’ later work and you will see why. His crime was to deliberately puncture humanity’s sense of self-importance. His punishment was to be sent into a lonely literary exile from which, forty years after his death, he has still not been allowed to return.'

           Robinson Jeffers, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, July 9, 1937

          Robinson Jeffers may not be as well regarded now as he was eighty years ago, but his poems are still read and 'Carmel Point' appears in two recent anthologies of environmental poetry, Earth Shattering and Wild Reckoning. His inhumanism in this poem is not too extreme: 'we must unhumanize our views a little', he says. 'This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses— / How beautiful when we first beheld it, / Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs.'  Jeffers is reassured that the landscape 'knows the people are a tide / That swells and in time will ebb, and all / Their works dissolve.'  This theme of ecofatalism recurs in many Jeffers poems.  In his book Ecocriticism Greg Garrard draws a connection between Jeffers (along with Lawrence and Nietzsche) and the more extreme biocentric beliefs espoused by some radical environmentalists.  He also quotes Gary Snyder, who, though influenced by Jeffers, complains that his 'tall cold view' does not seem to have room for 'the inhuman beauty / of parsnips or diapers, the deathless / nobility at the core of all ordinary things.'

          I think it is possible to agree with Snyder without wishing to read too many poems about diapers (having had six years of them I am thoroughly acquainted with their deathless nobility). Jeffers had two sons, and wrote 'I shall die, and my boys / Will live and die, our world will go on through its rapid agonies of change and discovery; this age will die.'  This poem also illustrates the way Jeffers could write about the Californian landscape: 'we stayed the night in the pathless gorge of Ventana Creek, up the east fork. / The rock walls and the mountain ridges hung forest on forest above our heads, maple and redwood, / Laurel, oak, madrone, up to the high and slender Santa Lucian firs that stare up the cataracts / Of slide-rock to the star-color precipices...' For more on Jefferson and landscape you can browse the archives of the Jeffers Studies site: see for example 'Robinson Jeffers and the California Sublime', 'Robinson Jeffers' California Landscape and the Rhetoric of Displacement', 'The Essential landscape: Jeffers among the photographers' and three articles on Jeffers, geology and rocks.  Of particular relevance to this post is Peter Quigley's article 'Carrying the Weight: Jeffers’s Role in Preparing the Way for Ecocriticism'.