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 a 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.