Friday, December 30, 2011

A Book of Migrations

Rebecca Solnit's A Book of Migrations (1997) was reissued this year and classified as history/memoir rather than travel, though it is ostensibly about a month spent in Ireland.  The book circles round the themes of landscape and memory, place and identity, journey and exile, as Solnit ranges across the history and culture of Ireland from the flight of the cursed King Sweeney to the bitter experiences of Travellers in contemporary Ireland. The ways in which Ireland has been viewed through the prism of English cultural attitudes are illuminated by the frequent reminders of her own radically different experiences growing up in California, with its arid landscapes and long, straight roads, short historical memory and assumptions about the possibility of an unpeopled wilderness. At the Cliffs of Moher she looks out at the sea, 'a deeper blue than my own churning gray Pacific, blue as though different dreams had been dumped into it, blue as ink.  I imagined filling a fountain pen with it and wondered what one would write with that ocean.'
    
Cover photo by Dave Walsh who reviews the book on his website.

I'll try to convey here just one of the many interesting points she makes on landscape and culture, although I should stress that the elegance of her argument is difficult to convey out of context.  In describing the sixteenth century suppression of Ireland by English colonists and its deforestation for shipbuilding and metal smelting, she also talks about the concurrent campaign to suppress the Gaelic poets, whose rhymes in praise of military successes were seen as a kind of propaganda. But 'what is most peculiar about the war against the poets and trees in Tudor era Ireland is the close involvement of the two greatest English poets of the age, Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser.' Furthermore, these were the two writers who practically created the English tradition of pastoral poetry. You might think, she wryly observes, that 'a country of wandering poets and pastoralists should have enchanted the English rather than appalled them.'

Sir Philip Sidney's father was Lord Deputy of Ireland and urged the English to 'spoil' and take the goods of any 'rhymers' they caught.  Sidney himself would later go on diplomatic missions to Ireland for Queen Elizabeth. Spenser went over in 1580 as secretary to Sir Henry Sidney's successor Lord Grey and wrote a lengthy report A View on the Present State of Ireland, which recommends subduing the Irish by starving them.  He took over an estate in County Cork, formerly the seat of the Desmond family, and 'immediately became unpopular with the neighbours'. It was targeted by rebels in 1598 - Spenser was lucky to escape to England, where he died later that year.  Back in 1589, when Sir Walter Raleigh visited him, Spenser's home 'was surrounded with woods of "matchless height"; a few years later only bare fields surrounded the castle.'

The remains of Spenser's Kicolman Castle, County Cork

For Solnit the shadows of Spenser and Sidney's political lives in Ireland lie across their artistic merit.  'The exquisite poetry of Spenser's masterpiece The Faerie Queene is inextricably linked to his brutal prose A View on the Present State of Ireland ... Should the magical trees he celebrated in the poem be weighed against the trees he uprooted in County Cork?  Can one have the latter without the former, since Ireland's lack of a landscape tradition is rooted in its scarred landscape?  Can one understand the presence of English literature without the absences of Irish literature?  Are the presences in the former, at some level, bites taken out of the latter?  Is England gardenlike because Ireland was prisonlike?  Does the English pastoral, and the security and abundance it represents, depend on the impoverished land and people of other lands?'

Monday, December 26, 2011

Winter Journey



It is ten years since the untimely death of W. G. Sebald and earlier this month there was a special event to celebrate his work and launch Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001. There were contributions from Iain Sinclair, A. S. Byatt, Andrew Motion and others who knew him (like poet Will Stone, whose recollections of studying with Sebald were particularly poignant).  It was sad to reflect that the last time I had seen translator Anthea Bell on stage it was next to Sebald himself, reading from the recently-published Austerlitz.  The crumbling Victorian Wilton's Music Hall was a particularly resonant setting for the readings, and for the performance of songs from Schubert's Winterreise by Ian Bostridge.  Hearing the Winterreise in this context prompted thoughts of all the journeys and sadness in Sebald's writings.  

There are many clips online of Ian Bostridge performing the Winterreise - the one I've included above is the opening song in the sequence.  I thought it would be interesting to provide here short summaries of the cycle's twenty-four songs, to show how many of them start with some aspect of the winter landscape - the rustling sound of linden trees, ice on a frozen river, a tree's last few leaves trembling in the wind.  Many of these natural elements are evoked in Schubert's piano score (for example, in 'Der Lindenbaum', 'the piano’s fluttering triplet figuration in E major which opens the song evokes the gentle breezes and whispering leaves of summer: the figure returns later, altered with chromatic harmonies, to depict the cold wind and eerie rustling of the tree in winter, and the young man’s growing sense of delusion'.)  Rather than do a plain synopsis I've turned the Winterreise below into a set of tanka-style verses - I know this is a complete travesty (as Mrs Plinius was quick to point out when she saw what I was doing) but I just found it more fun than writing a set of bullet points... I've based this on the English translation at the Lied, Art Song and Choral Text Archive, using Arthur Rishi's titles; you can follow the link to read proper translations, or the original German poems by Wilhelm Müller. 
Good Night

I leave, a stranger -
Remembering the flowers
And the talk of love
As I walk this path in snow
And write “Good Night” on the gate.

The Weathervane

The weathervane blows
Whistling at this fugitive.
In that house, the wind
Plays quietly with people’s hearts.
What is my suffering to them?

Frozen tears

Frozen teardrops fall
Like morning dew turned to ice
But spring from a heart
That’s burning hot enough to
Melt all the ice of winter.

Numbness

No trace of her now
Walking on this once green field.
Pale turf, dead flowers.
And if my dead heart should thaw,
Her image would melt away.

The linden tree

By a fountain, near the gate:
A linden tree. Though it’s dark
I try not to see
The words of love we carved there.
Still, I hear the tree rustling.

Torrent

The snow drinks my tears,
But when the grass starts to grow
And the ice breaks up
A brook will carry them through
The town’s streets and past her house.
On the stream

Wild stream, with a hard
Solid crust of ice on which
I carve her name, and
A broken ring.  Underneath
There is a surging torrent.

Backward Glance

I’ll not pause until
The town is out of sight where
Once the windows shone,
The linden trees were blooming
And a girl’s eyes were glowing.

Will-o'-the-wisp

A will-o'-the-wisp
Led me astray. Now I walk
Down a stream’s dry course.
Every stream will find the sea,
Every sorrow finds its grave.

Rest

Too cold to stand still
I’ve walked this desolate road.
Sheltering now in
A coal burner’s narrow hut
I cannot rest, my wounds still burn.

A Dream of Springtime

Dreaming of flowers
And the song of birds in May,
I wake in the dark
With ravens shrieking above.
When will all these leaves turn green?

Loneliness

A dark cloud passing
Through clear skies, I make my way
Through bright, joyful life.
When the tempests were raging
I was not so miserable.

The post

What makes my heart leap
At the sound of a posthorn
Coming from the street?
Why would I want to look there?
There is no letter for me.

The grey head

My frost coated hair
Soon thaws and leaves me grieving,
Sad to think that death
Is still far off.  This journey
Has still not turned my hair to grey.

The crow

A crow is circling.
It’s been with me since the town
And won’t leave until
The end.  Not much further now.
Fidelity to the grave.

Last hope

A few coloured leaves
Are visible on the trees.
If that one I choose
Is caught and blown to the ground
I too will sink down and weep.

In the village

The hounds are barking
Whilst men sleep and dream of things
They do not have. Bark
Me away, you waking dogs.
I am finished with all dreams.

The stormy morning

Weary shreds of cloud
Flit across a storm-torn sky,
Red flames among them.
This morning is to my taste -
It is nothing but winter.

Deception

Before me a light…
I follow it eagerly
Through the ice and night
Imagining a warm house…
But it is all delusion.

The signpost

I search hidden paths
Over cliff tops and wastelands -
One sign before me,
My eyes fixed upon the road
From which no one returns

The inn

I reach a graveyard,
Its death wreaths tempting to
The weary traveller.
But all the rooms are taken
And I must go further on.

Courage

Snow flies in my face.
I shake it off.  My heart cries,
But I sing brightly.
I have no ears for laments
And stride on against the wind.

The phantom suns

Three suns in the sky
They seem to stare down at me.
Gone, the best two suns,
And I do not need the third:
I’m better left in darkness.

The hurdy-gurdy man

Barefoot on the ice,
An old hurdy-gurdy man.
Nobody listens.
Shall I go with him and let
Him play along to my songs?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Landscape in the Trésor des Histoires

Landscape in the Trésor des Histoires, Bruges, c. 1475-80

The British Library's Royal Manuscripts exhibition includes books made from the ninth to the sixteenth centuries but begins with the extraordinary collection of Edward IV, including this copy of a French historical chronicle lying open at 'one of the earliest known European paintings in which landscape is the principal subject.'  I've just found that this image also appears in a list of mill images at the Medieval and Renaissance Material Culture site - a good source for other glimpses of landscape in the Middle Ages.  What I like about this sort of list is the way it ignores the subject of the picture in favour of an unobtrusive detail - yes, there's an interesting windmill in the illustration below, but you have to drag your eyes away from the gruesome murder to see it (the windmill here nicely balances the clump of trees in a V-shaped composition pointing to the heart of the Roman Emperor).  In other images on the site, mills are quietly grinding corn in the background whilst Narcissus looks down at his reflection, King David kneels before God, Elisha raises a woman's son from the dead, Arthurian knights go head to head in a tournament, Priam inspects the reconstruction of Troy, the Romans colonise Latium and ships navigate the coastal waters of Britain. 


The assassination of Vitellius in De casibus, first quarter of the 15th century
BNF Fr. 226, fol. 201v, source: larsdatter

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Kräuterblätter

Writing in The Sunday Telegraph last month, Andrew Graham-Dixon gave a four star review to the British Museum's Landscape, heroes and folktales: German Romantic prints and drawings, an exhibition 'drawn entirely from the holdings of an extremely discerning English private collector, Charles Booth-Clibborn. On this showing, if his collection could be kept together and perhaps, one day, found a permanent home here, it would transform the representation of German art in Great Britain.'  A week later Richard Dormer left the exhibition 'fuming', disappointed not to find 'passion, excess, sweeping emotion' and regretting that the display left 'what must be enormous gaps': his review for The Telegraph gave it just two stars.  I found it fascinating, even though I only had a brief amount of time to look round, and like Andrew Graham-Dixon I was particularly intrigued by the work of Carl Wilhelm Kolbe (1759-1835).

Carl Wilhelm Kolbe, Woodland pool with a man fishing and bystander, detail, 1793

Kolbe was born in Berlin (his father was a gold thread embroiderer) and pursued a career in philology alongside his artistic activities, composing a long book on the French and German languages.  It wasn't until 1789 that he decided to train in art at the Berlin Academy and had to put up with being 'a bearded man in his thirties among a flock of boys, ten to twelve years in age'.  He then obtained a post as court engraver in Dessau, publishing prints in Leipzig and Berlin and acquiring the nickname Eichenkolbe (Oak Kolbe) because he was so fond of depicting oak trees (he said 'trees have turned me into an artist').  The exhibition includes several examples of pastoral and woodland scenes with some impressive oak trees  My photograph above shows a detail from an early etching with some doodles in the margins (the face in profile is possibly a self-caricature).

I've always thought it would be fascinating to compile a dictionary of the many sub-genres of landscape art - sous-bois for example, the French term for woodland scenes of the kind shown above.  Such a book might include micro-genres particular to specific artists and one of the strangest of these would be Kolbe's Kräuterblätter (cabbage-sheets) - scenes featuring over-sized plant life, like his 1801 version of Et in Arcadia Ego.  As Andrew Graham-Dixon writes, these etchings 'plunge the eye into vertiginous screens of foliage, spectacularly sculptural blasted trees and writhing, threateningly enlarged clumps of wild vegetation.  It is hard to say if these are dreams of oneness with nature or fantasies of being consumed by it.'  Kolbe himself came to rather regret these later in life, admitting in his autobiography that he had invented these plants 'completely out of my head, and I acknowledge that I was wrong - very wrong - to do so.  Their perhaps not entirely unattractive forms may seduce the eye of the unlearned; the critical gaze of the naturalist cannot bear them.'

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Iceberg in Mist

Between 1968 and 1970 Gerhard Richter painted a remarkable range of 'damaged landscapes', as they are termed by Mark Godfrey, the curator of Tate Modern's Gerhard Richter: Panorama. These include aerial views of cities in thick grey paint, the colour of ash and rubble, that Richter later likened to images of the destruction of Dresden but which might equally be seen as warnings of some future apocalypse.  One of these, Townscape Paris (1968), is a painting I referred to rather tentatively in one of my very first blog posts here.  At the same time Richter was also painting a very different kind of townscape, reproducing details of architectural models, and these too seem dystopian - windowless blocks showing no sign of life, casting shadows over empty white roads that resemble the patterns on a circuit board.
 

Another monochrome aerial view from 1968, Clouds, provides glimpses of an abstracted version of the German countryside - imagery that Godfrey compares to the opening sequence (above) of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935). Two years later Richter began a very different series of cloud paintings, this time treating them as isolated objects, white against featureless blue-green skies.  They resemble Alfred Stieglitz's famous cloud photographs, Equivalents (1927), which in turn (as Rosalind Krauss points out in that weighty tome Art Since 1900) could be viewed as Duchampian readymades - uncomposed and detached from their environment.  Alps II (1968) might be a close-up of a storm cloud and is barely recognisable as a landscape painting, certainly a long way from the heroic image of German mountains celebrated in those early Reifenstahl films.

Seascape (Sea-Sea) (1970) is described in the exhibition as a 'collage of two photographs of the sea, one inverted to appear as the sky. The painting creates a momentary illusion of a coherent seascape, until it becomes clear that the ‘clouds’ in the upper half of the painting are waves. It creates a sense of discontinuity and suggests Richter’s acknowledgement of the gulf separating him from the moment of Romanticism.' It made me think of Rothko's grey paintings, with the patterns of waves replacing Rothko's brushtrokes.  Mark Godfrey views them as a cross between Capar David Friedrich and Blinky Palermo: an attempt at the kind of radical abstract statement Palermo was making in his Cloth Paintings using the traditional medium of a seascape.  Another point of comparison is Vija Celmins and, like her, Richter also produced images of black and white fields of stars.

In 1971 an exhibition of Richter's recent work, painted in flat colour rather than black and white, prompted various critics to compare him with Friedrich.  Landscape near Hubbelrath (1969), for example, shows an empty view with a road sign where we expect to see, in Friedrich, a church spire.  Richter said that his art lacked the spiritual underpinnings of Romanticism: 'for us, everything is empty'.  However, Mark Godfrey argues that Richter and Friedrich both aimed to create a sense of unfulfilled desire (readers of this blog may recall an earlier post on the way Friedrich composed 'obstructed views').  This approach may have seemed particularly appropriate to a post-war German artist working at a time when the purpose of painting itself was being called into question.

There is one more interesting example of Richter's engagement with Friedrich later in the exhibition, a painting called Iceberg in Mist (1982).  I have mentioned various artists here before who went north to paint the Arctic seas -  Peder Balke, Lawren Harris, Per Kirkeby - and Richter made his own trip in 1972, looking for a motif as powerful as Friedrich's The Sea of Ice.   Mark Godfrey mentions that on his return Richter made 'an extraordinary and little-known book of black and white photographs of icebergs', printed, like the two halves of Seascape (Sea-Sea), both upside down and right side up.  In this way Richter rejected the single sublime image and arranged the photographs in such a way that 'their overt subject became more or less irrelevant.'  Richter's urge to thwart our desire for spectacular landscapes is also evident in the later painting, where we cannot even glimpse the tip of the iceberg as the whole view is shrouded in mist.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Sea of Ice, 1823-4

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Frost's Bitter Grip

About this time last year, influenced by all those end of year lists, I posted ten examples of landscape music released in 2010, along with accompanying YouTube clips (nine of which still work).  Here is a similar list for 2011 and once again it is not supposed to be definitive; I'd certainly be interested in any additional comments and suggestions.  I did a post earlier this year on Toshio Hosokawa's Landscapes so am not including that. And, as I have discussed it before, I'm excluding Richard Skelton's Landings, another version of which appeared this year (the expansion of this project reminds me of the way Robert Burton kept adding material to The Anatomy of Melancholy). 

(1) The obvious place to begin is with Chris Watson, whose El Tren Fantasma, based on recordings of the old Mexican ghost train, has been widely praised.  The soundscape is not restricted to the railway tracks, as you can hear from the SoundCloud extracts below (sections 3 and 5, 'Sierra Tarahumara' and 'Crucero La Joya').  A BBC review describes the wild countryside through which the train passes: 'brushwood and tall grass sway beneath the breeze crossing canyon slopes, while constant cicada chatter is punctuated by the distinctive calls of woodpecker and crow.'  This was not the only Chris Watson release this year - Cross-Pollination, also on Touch, includes 'The Bee Symphony', created with Marcus Davidson, and 'Midnight at the Oasis' - recorded out in the Kalahari desert and nothing to do with the 1974 Maria Muldaur hit.


Chris Watson - El Tren Fantasma album preview


(2) Water Beetles of Pollardstown Fen, was released by Gruenrekorder shortly before they announced the premature death of its creator, sound artist Tom Lawrence.  This is a very specific take on a landscape; as one reviewer says, 'Pollardstown Fen is an ancient, 500-acre, spring-fed alkali marsh in County Kildare, 30 miles west of Dublin, but to listen to these hydrophone recordings by Irish musicologist Tom Lawrence, you’d think it was a well-stocked video arcade circa 1985.' Whilst Chris Watson's El Tren Fantasma was directly inspired by Pierre Schaeffer's musique concrète, the sense in which a record like this qualifies as 'music' is quite debatable.  Richard Pinnell has written that 'aside from some tastefully simple crossfades there isn’t any editing, enhancements or attempts to sculpt these recordings into anything more than the remarkable audio photographs that they are.'


(3) On a different scale entirely, I think it is relevant here to mention Björk's Biophilia, a multi-media project of cosmic ambition based on elements of nature and the landscape, like the sound of thunder and the cycles of the moon. (I think it would be too much of a stretch to include in this list Kate Bush and her fifty words for snow...)  Björk's live shows have featured new instruments devised for the project - the track 'Solstice' for example evokes the rotation of the Earth through the rather beautiful sound of a pendulum harp. The accompanying iPad apps makes me wonder how far these could be used to develop new genres of landscape art.  But despite the involvement of Sir David Attenborough, no less, these still sound limited: the app for 'Crystalline' for example comes with 'a game, in which you collect crystals in a tunnel as the song plays.' We just stuck to buying the actual album.

(4) Earlier this year I wrote here about J. A. Baker's book The Peregrine but had not then listened to the Lawrence English album inspired by it. Matt Poacher reviewed it for The Liminal and identified the way the music seeks to imitate the movement of the hawk: 'the roar of the surface drones do have the feel of the upper air, and the granular detail becomes like the murmarations of desperate starling or lapwing flocks, banking and swarming in the viciously cold winter wind. ‘Frost’s Bitter Grip’ and ‘Grey Lunar Sea’ also manage to portray, using a mixture of high thin metallic and broader cloud-like drones (not dissimilar in texture to some of the sounds Basinki captures in the warping tape recordings of the Disintegration Loops), the shattering cold of the winter of 1962/3, during which countless birds died and significant parts of Essex’s North Sea coast froze for months on end.'


(5) Canadian ambient composer Scott Morgan (who records as Loscil) has named all the tracks on his new album after features of the Coast Arc Range.  Although he uses field recordings the music is mainly built up from slow waves of synthesiser.  Appropriately enough it was released by the Glacial Movements label, whose mission statement may sound better in the original Italian but certainly makes clear what they are aiming for in their artists' 'glacial and isolationist ambient' music: "Places that man has forgotten...icy landscapes...fields of flowers covered eternally with ice... Icebergs colliding amongst themselves..The boreal dawn that shines upon silent white valleys in the Great Northern lands...an explorer lost among the Antarctic glaciers looking for the way home..."


Loscil - Coast/ Range/ Arc album preview 

(6) Guitarist Jon Porras records drones with Evan Caminiti as Barn Owl and has put out solo recordings as Elm.  Undercurrent is the first release under his own name and is described as 'California Gothic set to the tidal rhythms of the Pacific and tuned into the metabolic pathways of the northwest coast ... a love poem to the mist, a prayer cast in ghostly reflected guitar and deep pools of distortion'. Opening with 'Grey Dunes' (clip below), the album moves on to tracks with titles like 'Seascape', 'Shore' and ends gently with 'Land's End' and 'Gaze'.


(7) Following last year's round-up, Matt Poacher (whose blog Mountain 7 takes a particular interest in landscape and music) left a comment referring me to The Lowland Hundred.  I was therefore interested to read his comprehensive review this year of Diffaith, a project by The Lowland Hundred's Tim Noble. 'East of Aberystwyth is a tract of wild country, windblown and empty. Colloquially it is known as the desert of Wales – not because of a lack of rainfall but because of this character of emptiness...'  Diffaith (Welsh for 'wilderness') comprises six tracks and three complimentary short films (you can explore it further on Tim Noble's website). According to Matt, the album's centrepiece 'is a vast, monstrous thing, named for the blasted valley floor of ‘Llawr-y-cwm-bach’. The track is dominated by long periods of near-silence, punctuated with huge walls of Stephen O’Malley-like guitar that threaten to tear the fabric of the track apart. If Noble’s aim was to make it sound as if the very land were voicing some primeval shriek then he has succeeded. Christ alone knows what went on down there, but this sounds like a howl from the void.'


'Llawr-y-cwm-bach' by Tim Noble

(8) Tim Noble , The Lowland Hundred (whose new album Adit has just been released) and Hallock Hill (whose music Matt locates 'at the intersection between landscape and memory') release their records through Hundred Acre Recordings.  Another small label whose name would lead you to anticipate music with a landscape theme is Wayside and Woodland Recordings, run by epic45, who been recording pastoral indie pop for some years now and this year released an album called Weathering.  Tracks like 'With Our Backs to the City' (below) have reminded reviewers of Mercury Rev's Deserter's Songs - 'yet where Mercury Rev seemed to find what they were looking for in the Catskill Mountains, the best epic45 offer is a fleeting glimpse of salvation; the occasional burst of sunlight through a blackened sky.'


(9)  It is now five years since I first discussed the Ghost Box label on this blog and excellent new releases continue to appear - this year's highlight was As the Crow Flies, an album by Jon Brooks (The Advisory Circle). Also this year, Jim Musgrave, who works with Ghost Box's Belbury Poly, put out an album as Land Equivalents called Let's Go Orienteering which he describes as 'half-remembered educational films, imagined landscapes, foreboding woodland trails and a last minute dash towards a promised utopia'.  This combination sounds very familiar now but there are still more musicians wanting to follow these foreboding woodland trails.  The Ley Hunter's Companion by Sub Loam for example is packaged as another piece of aural psychogeography and described as 'two extended synthesiser and sequencer trips over the summer countryside.'



Sub Loam - Ley Hunter's Companion album preview

(10) As I reach the end of this post I realise it's as much a list of record labels as artists, and the final label I want to mention is Another Timbre.  Their recent releases featuring field recording include Tierce, with Jez riley French, and a CDr from Anett Németh ('A Pauper’s Guide to John Cage' and 'Early Morning Melancholia Two') which Richard Pinnell praised highly on his excellent website. But the album I'm highlighting here is Droplets by the trio of Dominic Lash, Patrick Farmer and Sarah Hughes because it includes a performance of Maria Houben's 'Nachtstück' recorded out in the landscape (a wood near Hathersage in Derbyshire to be precise).  Dominic Lash says that they didn't anticipate in advance accompanying the sound of a rainstorm: 'The plan was simply to record the piece outdoors; we were hoping for a rain-free window. But when the rains came, some way into the piece, they weren't especially heavy so I decided to keep on playing, hoping it would just be a brief shower. It turned out to be a little bit more than that...'

Thursday, December 08, 2011

So we stood, alive in the river of light

On Tuesday I attended the dedication of the memorial to Ted Hughes in Poet's Corner.  Poems were read by Juliet Stevenson, Seamus Heaney and Daniel Huws (the Welsh writer who knew Hughes at Cambridge); there is a Channel 4 news clip which gives a sense of the atmosphere there.  The readings took place in front of Chaucer's tomb, which brought to mind that poem in Birthday Letters where Hughes remembers Sylvia Plath declaiming Chaucer to a field of cows, who seemed enthralled, 'ears angling to catch every inflection.'.  Perhaps it would have felt more apt to have heard Hughes's poems out in the landscape, but there in the Abbey, he was connected to a tradition of English poets that began with Cædmon, who found his voice whilst caring for the animals at the monastery of Streonæshalch.  Seamus Heaney made a short speech in dedication, invoking the closing lines of Beowolf where a memorial mound, high on a headland is built for the dead hero, 'far-famed and beloved'.  The inscription on this new memorial comes from one of the poems in River (1983), 'That Morning', in which Hughes recalled standing solemnly 'in the pollen light / Waist-deep in wild salmon.'   It seemed a moment of blessing, as if the fish had let the world as it is pass away: 'there, in a mauve light of drifted lupins, / They hung in the cupped hands of mountains...'

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Impressionism 2.0

"As my work was often compared to the French Impressionist movement, I decided to follow their traces in Normandy. Filming on the same spots where Monet or Corot used to paint, I will create a kind of Impressionism 2.0" - Jacques Perconte



Impressions: Voyage en Normandie is the latest in a series of digitally manipulated landscape films made by Jacques Perconte. The 'actual' view (at least as seen through the camera lens) gradually pixelates and transforms into something more strange.  The films enter a kind of 'Impressionist' phase where light patterns and subtle motion in nature are slowed and attended to.  But the moving images soon start to resemble Symbolism, Fauvism and eventually Abstract Expressionism - trees turned into jagged patches of colour like a Clyfford Still painting, the horizon flickering like a Barnett Newman zip line.  'We no longer see the image of the landscape, we see the landscape of the image' Perconte says. Violaine Boutet de Monvel has written of a moment in Après le feu, filmed from the back of a train, where a gap appears to open up under the tracks, transforming the real topography. Perconte is interested in this re-imagining of the familiar - as he followed in the footsteps of the Impressionists, he sensed that their landscape was still present, despite the constant movement of clouds and restless activity of the sea.  This process tends towards the dissolution of familiar landscape elements into a vision of pure colour.  In Perconte's notes on Impressions he quotes Rousseau, losing himself in a reverie and feeling objectes slip away so that he feels nothing but the whole: 'Alors tous les objets particuliers lui échappent; il ne voit et ne sent rien que dans le tout.'

The artist has posted numerous Vimeo clips, photographs, production notes and comments on his own site and his technart blog. I'll end here with a recent film I'll be thinking of on my next train journey: a view of nondescript fields under a grey sky which briefly disappears as the train enters a cutting, only to re-emerge partially smeared away, as if to reveal the software behind this fake landscape of tree forms and wind farms, then progressively changes until we are left with just a few remnants of distorted colour before the screen goes white. 


Friday, November 25, 2011

A Voyage Round the Coast of Great Britain

Three years ago the Folio Society published a new edition of William Daniell's A Voyage Round the Coast of Great Britain.  The original book came out in eight volumes between 1814 and 1825, contained 308 hand-coloured aquatints and sold for £60 ('one and a half times what a fisherman or sailor aboard a merchant ship could expect to earn in a year at the time').  A second hand copy of the Folio version (in the excellent Much Ado Books shop) cost me rather less than this.  It includes only 114 of the best aquatints and cuts out almost all of the rather dry commentary Daniell wrote, replacing it with extracts from the writings of contemporary travellers.  The original intention was for Richard Ayton, an aspiring writer and friend of the family, to accompany Daniell on his travels.  But the two of them parted acrimoniously after the first year, having got as far as southern Scotland (the Voyage commenced at Land's End). Daniell pressed on alone, returning to his coastal journey every summer, delayed only by famine in Scotland (1816) and economic crisis and fear of revolution in England (1819).  Ayton never did become a successful author and his short life came to a sad end the year Daniell finally completed his great project.  The cumulative achievement of the Voyage was recognised by the Royal Academy, who elected Daniell a full member in 1822 - as C. J. Shepherd notes in his introduction, 'the artist that he beat to secure his lifetime's ambition was John Constable'.

Among the texts assembled to accompany Daniell's aquatints in this edition, the most vivid impressions of the coastal landscape are provided by writers like Keats, Southey, Scott and Dorothy Wordsworth (whose travels in Scotland I have discussed here before).  But the book encompasses many other interesting voices - Joanna Schopenhauer at Lancaster, Jane Austen at Lyme, the 'exquisitely fashionable' Hermann von Pückler-Muskau in Brighton, James Johnson, author of 'An Essay on Indigestion; or Morbid Sensibility of the Stomach and Bowels', in Liverpool, a gentleman called Charles Cochrane who for some reason went to Margate disguised as an itinerant Spanish gypsy guitarist, the ornithologist Charles Fothergill who visited Flamborough Head 'resplendent in 'white and green hat; a Belcher neckcloth with my short collar appearing over it; a dark green jacket with silver buttons; [and] sky blue pantaloons'', composer Felix Mendelssohn, who sent home a few bars of music which would become the Hebridean Overture, and the 'excitable young Polish tutor and future revolutionary' Krystyn Lach-Szyrma, who was so overwhelmed by Fingal's Cave, a 'glorious cathedral made by nature's hand', that he threw himself into the sea.

Cover by David Eccles,
after William Daniell's In Fingal's Cave, Staffa

In his Preface to A Voyage Round the Coast of Great Britain, Robert Macfarlane writes that seeing Daniell's aquatints leads us to imagine Britain only by its outline.  'The interior falls away, and all that is left is the frame.  And what a frame it is!  Some 7,500 miles of coastline, forming a continuum from storm-crashed headlands to beach-front amusements, from salt-marsh to heathland, from 400-million-year-old gneiss to endlessly recast mudflats.'  With this in mind it is clearly impossible to pick out a typical view - the two shown below I liked for the non-naturalistic regularity of their rock formations and the precisely distributed seabirds and grazing sheep.  Yet despite their variety all of Daniell's aquatints have the same harmonious, muted palette of slate blue, grey green and pale browns.  He may, as Macfarlane says, portray all kinds of meteorological conditions - 'a doldrummish sea day in Ilfracombe, sails drooping in the heat, gives way to a Force 7 off Holyhead' - but the weather somehow always looks British.    

 Near view of one of the Shiant Isles

Needles Cliff and Needles, Isle of White

William Daniell's journeys coincided with the rise of picturesque tourism and bathing resorts, the Napoleonic Wars, the Highland Clearances and the rapid development of industry and infrastructure.  Robert Southey, for example, toured the Highlands with Thomas Telford, whom he nicknamed Pontifex Maximus, the great bridge builder. In one of this book's extracts from Southey's Journal of a Tour in Scotland in 1819, the conversion of the Marquess of Stafford's estate's into extensive sheep-farms is criticised: 'a quiet, thoughtful, contented, religious people' forcefully transplanted from the glens to the sea coast.  At the other end of Britain, Dover had recently been scarred by vast new fortifications to keep out the French, a fact that William Cobbett found perplexing - 'what the devil should they come to this hill for, then?'  He concluded bitterly that 'more brick and stone have been buried in this hill than would go to build a neat new cottage for every labouring man in the counties of Kent and of Sussex!' Shakespeare's Cliff (which I have written about here before) was also visited by artist Benjamin Robert Hayden who stood looking at it, 'almost lost in the embruno tint of twilight'.  There he imagined 'a Colossal Statue of Britannia' built on top of it, 'surveying France with a lofty air.'

I could go on, but I'll end this post at Lulworth Cove, where Daniell painted the rocky outcrop of Stair Hole with its striking recumbent folds.  The book includes an extract from the recollections of the Irish playwright John O'Keeffe who spent a summer at Lulworth with his children.  As soon as he arrived, O'Keeffe set off with his son, called Tottenham, to explore the Cove itself and the craggy rocks above.  At the end of the day 'we returned to our abode with appetites sea-sharpened, and sat down to a roast loin of lamb, delicate boiled chickens, tongue, green-peas, young potatoes, a gooseberry pie, thick cream, good strong home-brewed ale and a glass of tolerable port-wine.'  Next morning they were off again, climbing Hanbury Hill where O'Keeffe recorded two of the local landscape terms - patches of land called 'knaps, larger or smaller, each divided from the other by a grassy rising, termed a launchet.'  Tired from the climb, he and Tottenham sat down to look at the view - 'before us, the great expanse; above, the blue serene; around, the melody of birds; scarce a breath from the still bosom of the deep, and the vertical sun shedding his glories on the scene.  Neither the scream of sea-gulls, crows, and puffins, could prevent me falling into a slumber, and, in a sort of sweet demi-dream, I could hear the rushing pinions of birds that must have flown by very near me, and felt the rabbits that I fancied ran over me.'

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The kill of New York is a brook in New England


BRANCH – RUN – FORK – BROOK – KILL – STREAM – BAYOU – SWAMP – SLOUGH – WASH – CAÑADA – ARROYO - RIO 

I came across Derek Watkins' excellent map, showing the distribution across America of different toponyms for 'river', on the Spatial Analysis blog (where James Cheshire has added his own UK version).  It reminded me that I have been meaning for some time to do a post here about Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney and compiled by a team of writers between 2002 and 2006.  Robert Macfarlane described this book in a wonderful essay published last year ('A Counter-Desecration Phrasebook'): 'Its ambition was to retrieve, define and organise nearly 1,000 terms and words for specific spects of landscape.  Its ethical presumption was that having a language for natural places is vital for two reasons: because it allows us to speak clearly about such places, and because it allows us to fall into the kind of intimacy with such places which might also go by the name of love or enchantment, and out of which might arise care and good sense.'

So what does Home Ground have to say about these river terms?  For the first one, BRANCH, the reader is referred to FORK and the entry, written by Bill McKibben, describes some of the geographical variation evident in Derek Watkins' map.  Easterners are likely to call forks branches, tributory is used elsewhere, 'and those in west Texas would call smaller forks prongs.'  His example of a 'prong' is the North Prong of the Little Red River Fork in Briscoe County Texas.  RUN, according to Kim Barnes, always denotes movement and 'can refer to any small stream, brook, creek, rivulet, channel, overflow, or swiftly flowing watercourse.'  Early Virginian settlers, naming the landscape, came to think in terms of a hierarchy by size: rivers > creeks > runs.  BROOK needs no explanation, but KILL?  It is the Dutch word for brook and appears in the name of landforms of the Hudson and Deleware Valleys, most famously the Catskill Mountains.  The term is not seen in the lower Hudson Valley, probably because, as Jan DeBlieu explains in Home Ground, the Dutch colony was subsumed into the surrounding English speaking culture after the capture of New Netherland in 1644.

Often the authors of Home Ground include illustrative quotations from American literature, like the 'dark stream shooting along its dismal channel' in Melville's Typee.  Gretel Ehrlich's entry on STREAM describes it as a dynamic force that 'receives, and thus reflects, the abuses that have taken place on the land.'  The next few terms, BAYOU, SWAMP and SLOUGH, sound aything but dynamic.  'The bayous are spaces of open water, sluggish or stagnant' and a slough 'is a narrow stretch of sluggish water in a river channel'. The city of Chicago is built on filled sloughs. The word bayou is derived from the Choctaw word for a small stream, bayuk.  Okefenokee Swamp gets its name from a Creek Indian word meaning 'Land of the Trembling Earth'.  A Harry Crews quote explains why: 'most islands in the swamp - some of them holding hundreds of huge trees growing so thick that their roots are matted and woven as closely as a blanket - actually float on the water; and when a black bear crashes across one of them, the whole thing trembles.'

With the word WASH we move into the American Southwest : Carrizo Wash in Arizona, Hunter's Wash in New Mexico. These are areas of land over which 'subtle contours allow water to flow, or "wash", from elevated to lower zones.'  ARROYO can be used to describe the same general feature, or, more specifically, a steep-walled, flat-bottomed creek.  Either way it is ephemeral, 'carrying water only briefly during such events as spring runoff or the summer monsoons.'  Two more Spanish terms complete the map: RIO and CAÑADA, 'a wetland rich with river reeds'.  The words RIVER and CREEK are also included but, are so common that they have been coloured grey.  Here in Britain, a creek is a saltwater inlet or the estuary of a stream.  In the entry for 'creek' in Home Ground, novelist Charles Frazier explains that the term spread to mean any flow smaller than a river.  'In a few places, though, a distinction was retained.  M. Schele DeVere, in his 1872 Americanisms: The English of the New World, put it succinctly: "The kill of New York is a brook in New England, a run in Virginia and alas! a crick or creek, almost everywhere else."'

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Walter Benjamin's Grave

'The cemetery faces a small bay directly looking over the Mediterranean; it is carved in stone in terraces; the coffins are also pushed into such stone walls.  It is by far one of the most fantastic and most beautiful spots I have ever seen in my life.'
- Hannah Arendt, letter to Gershom Scholem, 21 October 1940


Michael Taussig's essay, 'Walter Benjamin's Grave: A Profane Illumination', describes the cemetery of Portbou, the small town on the border of France and Spain where Benjamin died in 1940.  Carrying his possessions in a heavy black briefcase, Benjamin was led there over the mountains by a young woman, Lisa Fittko.  'It was the first time she had made the trip.  Benjamin was her first refugee ... She got lost.  They backtracked.  Then they found their way to the summit: "The spectacular scene appeared so unexpectedly that for a moment I thought I was seeing a mirage ... the Vermillion Coast, an autumnal landscape with innumerable hues of reds and yellow-gold.  I gasped for breath - I had never seen such beauty before."' But the the Franco government had cancelled all transit visas and on the night of September 25th Walter Benjamin, fearing repatriation, took an overdose of morphine tablets.  Hannah Arendt, then still in the South of France, came to look for his grave soon afterwards. Lisa Fittko and her husband Hans continued the dangerous work of escorting refugees across the border.  Hans took to wearing a Basque cap and sandals to blend in with the locals.  Sometime he would sit for hours on a cliff projection looking out to sea.


Dani Karavan, Walter Benjamin Memorial at Portbou, 1994

The beauty of this place, which so struck Hannah Arendt and Lisa Fittko, seems at variance with its  history of displacement and disappearance.  Michael Taussig first visited Portbou in 1987 and found the whole town a sad monument to Benjamin's death - 'cold, nasty, and enigmatic.'  But now, on returning fifteen years later, he comes upon the new monument to Walter Benjamin, designed by Dani Karavan, an artist from Tel Aviv.  An iron triangle forms a doorway leading to steps that take you down the slope of the hill towards the sea.  At the bottom there is a thick pane of glass inscribed with Benjamin's words: 'It is more arduous to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned.  Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless.'  The words could be taken to refer as much to the victims of Franco as to the Nazis.  Looking back up the stairs, the doorway frames a rectangle of blue sky, echoing the view of the breaking waves below.

Later, inside the cemetery itself, Taussig is struck by a virtually identical set of steps, leading from the graves to the chapel.  He recalls Benjamin's surrealist conception of the 'profane illumination', where something provides a new kind of experience whilst retaining the trace of the kind of religious illumination it has surpassed. In the cemetery at Portbou there are niches bearing the names of the dead and a common grave, the fosa común, in which Benjamin's remains may actually lie.  The monument, by contrast, is a profane illumination, which 'gathers its strength through the open expression of namelessness as empty space, sea and sky.  It truly is an emphatic statement on the weighting of the world by its nameless dead.'  Standing on the headland Taussig feels the full force of the transmontaña wind.  'Can we imagine a state, a religion, or a community bound to remembrance which would have thye courage or craziness to call a wind a monument?'  Walter Benjamin once wrote that the best way to light a cigarette is with a flintstone and fuse.  'The wind blows the matches out, but the harder the wind blows, the more the fuse glows.'

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Ice Music

Terje Isungset, the Norwegian percussionist renowned for his ice horns, is here in Britain again.  We went to see him last night at LSO St. Lukes in a concert that began with the solo percussion piece called Tribute to Nature.  This was played on his special drum kit, featuring sheepbells strung up with rope, a ride cymbal on a weathered stick, bundles of clave-like arctic birch sticks and pieces of granite. It started quietly with the tapping of sticks and the scraping of stones, grew louder and more expressive with horns and Jew's harp, and ended with a long sigh of breath. He then left the stage to be replaced by the LSO's Wind Ensemble, who performed Carl Nielsen's Wind Quintet (1922).  A film collaboration between Isungset and Phil Slocombe, 'The Idea of North', was supposed to be played at the interval but never materialised - instead we waited expectantly for the appearance of the ice instruments.  Eventually they emerged - two white blocks carried onto stands and adjusted by a sculptor-roadie, wrapped up in a parka and woolly hat.  The ice had been driven here from Norway; the first clip below shows Terje Isungset carving his instruments directly from the frozen landscape.




Ice Music, the second part of last night's concert, featured Isungset's regular singing partner Lena Nymark (you can see them on stage together towards the end of the second clip above).  She is evidently pregnant, prompting my wife to speculate on the benign influence this music was having on the unborn child.  Isungset began by crunching and tapping one of the ice blocks before moving on to an ice xylophone which he played with ice sticks and bare hands (as he says in the clip below, ice has a surprisingly warm sound when tapped with the finger).  The ice horns only came out for a short time - but since they melt whilst being played this was not too surprising.  At the end of the concert I went up to the stage and held a shard of ice lying on the floor, wondering if this had come from the 600 year old Jostedalsbreen glacier.  Terje Isungset has said that the instruments he makes are eventually returned 'back to nature where they belong.'

After the concert - ice remnants

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Gausta Peak

I mentioned Peder Balke in connection with the National Gallery's 'Forests, Rocks, Torrents' exhibition but thought I would add another post because he is an interesting example of that not uncommon phenomenon, the rediscovered landscape artist. Christopher Riopelle says in the catalogue that Balke is only emerging now 'in international eyes as a master of Norwegian landscape, the subject of exhibitions, scholarly publications and bidding wars in auction rooms.'  The National Gallery recently bought a small seascape The Tempest -  the first Balke painting to enter a British public collection.  Riopelle compares Balke to August Strindberg, whose landscape painting (see my earlier post) has also only come to prominence in recent decades.  'Like Strindberg, Balke was blithely convinced his work sat squarely in the mainstream,' whilst for us the paintings look more like forerunners of expressionism.   From the 1860s Balke gave up trying to make his living as a painter and turned instead to real estate (a sad fate for a landscape painter, one might think).  When he died in 1884 his art was forgotten, but in his spare time Balke had continued to produce experimental landscape paintings, drawing on the memories of his travels, and 'small black and white improvisations' like The Tempest.

Peder Balke, Gausta Peak, 1877

Another Nordic artist I've discussed here before, Per Kirkeby, wrote a book about Peder Balke in 1996 which in turn inspired a joint exhibition two years ago.  I have not had the opportunity to read this book but the website for Norwegian artist Espen Dietrichson includes a description.
'Kirkeby writes that, by looking at artists such as Balke, Turner and Delacroix, we can discover an alternative historical realism. This depends on identifying a range of painters’ ‘dirty tricks’, such as how texture can be used to create calculated, dramatic effects, and how experimentation with new perspectives can change perception. Kirkeby maintains that the pervading art historical distinction between pure abstraction and less honourable effects has traumatised art in relation to its history. This is why he finds it so important to solve the enigma of Peder Balke and to thereby understand why the elevated and sublime can only be achieved through the ‘dirtiest of means’. For example, Balke’s outsider position as a small-town painter-decorator [i.e. his early background, before training as an artist] allowed him to eschew the codified illusionism of (Norwegian) national romanticism, and hence to make use of techniques that differed radically from those of his contemporaries – marbling, or the use of sponges or combs on wet paint – which would have seemed a profanation of academic dogmas.'

Friday, November 04, 2011

The waving moorland and the level beach

I have been listening to the audiobook of The Woman in White, read by Ian Holm (whose voice always takes me back to childhood memories of the Radio 4 adaptation of Lord of the Rings).  The novel begins with the narration of a drawing master, who is distracted from the landscape by the beauty of one of the young ladies he is supposed to be teaching. 'The most trifling of the questions that she put to me, on the subject of using her pencil and mixing her colours; the slightest alterations of expression in the lovely eyes that looked into mine with such an earnest desire to learn all that I could teach, and to discover all that I could show, attracted more of my attention than the finest view we passed through, or the grandest changes of light and shade, as they flowed into each other over the waving moorland and the level beach.'  There follows an interesting passage on Art and Nature which I thought I would quote here in full.  You could contrast the closing sentences with the way other writers have taken comfort in the thought that it is the landscape that will outlast humanity (see, for example, my earlier post on Robinson Jeffers).
'At any time, and under any circumstances of human interest, is it not strange to see how little real hold the objects of the natural world amid which we live can gain on our hearts and minds? We go to Nature for comfort in trouble, and sympathy in joy, only in books. Admiration of those beauties of the inanimate world, which modern poetry so largely and so eloquently describes, is not, even in the best of us, one of the original instincts of our nature. As children, we none of us possess it. No uninstructed man or woman possesses it. Those whose lives are most exclusively passed amid the ever-changing wonders of sea and land are also those who are most universally insensible to every aspect of Nature not directly associated with the human interest of their calling. Our capacity of appreciating the beauties of the earth we live on is, in truth, one of the civilised accomplishments which we all learn as an Art; and, more, that very capacity is rarely practised by any of us except when our minds are most indolent and most unoccupied. How much share have the attractions of Nature ever had in the pleasurable or painful interests and emotions of ourselves or our friends? What space do they ever occupy in the thousand little narratives of personal experience which pass every day by word of mouth from one of us to the other? All that our minds can compass, all that our hearts can learn, can be accomplished with equal certainty, equal profit, and equal satisfaction to ourselves, in the poorest as in the richest prospect that the face of the earth can show. There is surely a reason for this want of inborn sympathy between the creature and the creation around it, a reason which may perhaps be found in the widely-differing destinies of man and his earthly sphere. The grandest mountain prospect that the eye can range over is appointed to annihilation. The smallest human interest that the pure heart can feel is appointed to immortality.'
- Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White, 1860
William Collins, the father of Wilkie Collins, 
Children on a Mountain Top, before 1847

Friday, October 28, 2011

Landscape with Ascanius shooting the Stag of Sylvia

The Ashmolean Museum's exhibition Claude: The Enchanted Landscape, which I looked round yesterday, provides a good opportunity to compare the artist's drawings and sketches.  A preparatory sketch for Claude's last painting, Ascanius shooting the Stag of Sylvia, shows the foreground figures standing out from their background and Ascanius (the son of Aeneas) just left of centre.  Trees, portico and people are all on a more realistic, less monumental scale.  In the painting, as Martin Sonnabend and Jon Whiteley point out in the catalogue, 'everything has been suffused with an air of fantasy.  The hunters are impossibly elongated - Ascanius, in particular, is absurdly top-heavy - but even they are overwhelmed by the landscape, lit by a silvery sky, which arches over them and recedes far back into the blue, snow-capped hills.'

Claude Lorrain, Ascanius shooting the Stag of Sylvia, 1682

I was curious to compare the two figures of Ascanius directly and so had a play on Photoshop, as you can see below.  It would seem facile to say this shows Claude could have painted more naturalistic figures if he'd wanted to, but the point is worthwhile because contemporaries criticised this aspect of his painting and Claude himself reportedly joked that when he sold his landscapes he threw the figures in for nothing.  Of course the figures in Ascanius shooting the Stag of Sylvia can't be seen in isolation (or cut out from their setting); the painting's harmonius colours and soaring forms combine to convey a legendary time and place, dreamed from the poetry of Virgil.  Goethe summed up the nature of landscapes like this in 1829, when he said that Claude's paintings 'possess the highest truth, but no trace of reality.' 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Valley of the Ladies

"Do not hold back," I cried, "I beg you, by Zeus and by Eros himself!  It will give me all the more pleasure if your tale is indeed like fiction."
And with these words, I took him by the hand and led him to a neighbouring grove, where the plane trees grew thick and plentiful, and the water flowed by cool and clear, just as it comes from freshly melted snow.  I sat him down there on a low bench, and sat myself next to him.
"Well, it is time to hear your story," I said, "A setting such as this is delightful, and just right for erotic fiction."
- Achilles Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon, Book 1, 2nd century CE (trans. Tim Whitworth)
What is the best kind of landscape in which to listen to a story?  I suppose it may vary according to genre, as Achilles Tatius implies, but a grove like the one Clitophon is led to, a locus amoenus of comfort, privacy and natural beauty, would seem ideal.  Here landscape is a gentle backdrop, not a distraction or a subject for discourse itself.  In Plato's Phaedrus Socrates is taken to a similar location, but makes a point of reminding Phaedrus as they walk there: 'I am a lover of knowledge, and the men who dwell in the city are my teachers, and not the trees or the country.'  He is nevertheless very pleased with the quiet location they find by the cooling water of the Ilissus, 'full of summer sounds and scents. Here is this lofty and spreading plane-tree, and the agnus castus high and clustering, in the fullest blossom and the greatest fragrance; and the stream which flows beneath the plane-tree is deliciously cold to the feet. Judging from the ornaments and images, this must be a spot sacred to Achelous and the Nymphs. How delightful is the breeze:--so very sweet; and there is a sound in the air shrill and summerlike which makes answer to the chorus of the cicadae. But the greatest charm of all is the grass, like a pillow gently sloping to the head. My dear Phaedrus, you have been an admirable guide.'

John William Waterhouse, A Tale from the Decameron, 1916

The history of literature is full of frame stories but the most famous to be set in a locus amoenus is surely The Decameron.  In fact Boccaccio's ten young Florentines find refuge from the plague in three such locations: two gardens, described on the first and third days, and then a garden-like landscape, The Valley of the Ladies, which they explore on the sixth.  Despite being outside the protecting walls of country villa, this valley has the essential element of seclusion - the only means of entry is a narrow path, beside which flows a clear stream.  The valley floor is so circular it seems to have been drawn with compasses, 'though it seemed the work of nature', and the valley's sides are terraced like a natural amphitheatre.  Vines and fruit trees grow on the south side, thick trees on the north.  The stream feeds a tiny lake so transparent that you can count the stones in it.  On discovering it the ladies are unable to resist a swim, the water concealing 'their chaste white bodies no better than a thin sheet of glass would conceal a pink rose.'  You can well imagine one of them echoing the words of Achilles Tatius, "a setting such as this is delightful, and just right for erotic fiction."  And it is on a grassy spot by this lake that they resume their storytelling the following day.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Two Years at Sea

Ben Rivers' first feature film Two Years at Sea (2011) follows the solitary life of Jake Williams in his ramshackle house in the woods of Aberdeenshire.  It has a wonderful landscape sequence where Jake floats slowly across the frame on a home-made raft.  The film was shot using reclaimed 16mm Bolex cameras on Kodak Plus-X (which, if I remember rightly, was what Grant Gee used in Patience: After Sebald) and processed in the film-maker's own kitchen.  This film stock seems to add extra layers of fog to the low hills and fir trees.  Watching it on Friday, I was conscious at one point that I was seeing a view successively filtered through falling rain, a car windscreen, an old camera lens being shaken around as Jake drove up a track, and the grainy black and white film itself, hand-processed and then re-projected onto the cinema screen. The Q&A session after this London Film Festival screening revealed the extent to which the film constructs its own version of the real Jake.  Jake himself was there answering questions, dispelling some of the films' mysteries and revealing how far it was a collaboration: the raft idea, for example, had been a long-standing idea of Jake's but it was the presence of the camera that prompted him to construct it and paddle out onto that grey, misty lake.

Image from David Bordwell's site.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Jack Pine

Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven is another superb exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, following others I've described on this blog: Salvator Rosa, Paul Nash, Adam Elsheimer.  Reviewers (like Brian Sewell) will inevitably have to provide some background information on the Group of Seven, whose work has not often been seen in the UK.  In Canada, as Ian A. C. Dejardin says in the catalogue, their work has been endlessly discussed 'to the point of exhaustion.  Yet their visual legacy remains supremely powerful: many Canadians, raised with reproductions of the Group of Seven's most famous paintings on their classroom walls, still see their own country through the Group's eyes ... Few of us in Europe could point more than vaguely on a map to any of the locations these artists depicted.  These are painted woods, trees, lakes and mountains only.  Nonetheless, non-Canadians should be aware: we are on holy ground.'  As I know some readers of this blog are Canadian (see comments on my last post...) I'd better admit that a lot of these paintings were completely new to me.  

Tom Thomson in Algonquin Provincial Park, 1914-16
Source (all images here): Wikimedia Commons 

At the start of the exhibition, there is a quotation from Fred Housser, who wrote the first book about the Group of Seven in 1926: "This task [of expressing the spirit of the Canadian landscape in paint] demands a new type of artist; one who divests himself of the velvet coat and flowing tie of his caste, puts on the outfit of the bushwacker and prospector; closes with his environment; paddles, portages and makes camp; sleeps in the out-of-doors under the stars; climbs mountains with his sketch box on his back."  The idea of an artist who 'closes with the environment' reminds me of recent British land artists who have walked in Algonquin Park and other landscapes explored by the Group of Seven.


When Tom Thomson died in 1917, his memorial described him as 'artist woodsman and guide'.  Photographs show him fishing and canoeing; one of these was the basis for Peter Doig's White Canoe (1992) (see also my earlier post on Doig's Figure in a Mountain Landscape paintings).  However, as Dejardin points out in the catalogue, Thomson was actually rather a snappy dresser when out and about in Toronto and he made a point of adding some expensive cobalt blue to the marine grey used in painting his canoe.  In 1919 the wealthiest of the group, Lawren Harris, had a boxcar fitted out as a travelling studio for a trip north on the Algoma Central Railway.  It sounds more comfortable than the floating studios of the Impressionists, but this didn't detain some of the artists: as A. Y. Jackson observed, sitting in the boxcar, 'the other chaps are all out sketching under umbrellas.  They are all trying to turn out four a day and can't stop if it rains.'

 Tom Thomson, The Jack Pine, 1916

Tom Thomson's most famous paintings, The Jack Pine and The West Wind, are shown alongside their original sketches in the exhibition's first room.  Each is a majestic landscape visible behind the drooping form of a pine tree, its branches seemingly surrounded by a faint aura.  Pine trees seem to have inspired poets and artists all over the world so it seems surprising in retrospect that (according to Housser) the Canadian artistic establishment, unable to see beyond European and Hudson River landscape visions, considered their native Jack Pine trees unpaintable before Thomson came along.  There is a Pine Island in Georgian Bay (part of Lake Huron) and this exhibition includes two 1914 sketches of it by Thomson and a night scene by Jackson, where the trees stand over a pool of deep blue in which you can see the reflections of stars.
 
Six of the Group of Seven, plus their friend Barker Fairley, in 1920
From left to right: Frederick Varley, A. Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris,
Fairley, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, and J. E. H. MacDonald.

In 1925 a critic noted that the Group had been 'tree mad', but also, successively, 'lake-lunatic, river-ridden, birch-bedlamed, aspen addled, and rock-cracked.  This year they are mountain mad.'  The exhibition's room of mountain views includes Frederick Varley's Hodleresque The Cloud, Red Mountain (1927-8) and Lawren Harris's stylised, almost art deco Mt Lefroy (1930), although I preferred the more direct, less abstract approach of J. E. H. MacDonald, especially a view of a small turquoise lake in the gathering snow with the Japanese-sounding title, Mountain Solitude (Lake Oesa) (1932).  The final room collects more of Harris's Theosophically-inspired landscapes from the late twenties - radically simplified mountains and ice bergs under grey skies, sometimes parted with shafts of light, reflecting his search for those 'moments in the North when the outward aspect of nature becomes for a while full luminous to her informing spirit - and man, nature and spirit are one.'