Sunday, May 29, 2011

Animated Landscapes

After the aesthetic pleasures of Barcelona's victory against Manchester United last night it seemed fitting to head down this morning to Tate Modern for the Joan Miró exhibition.  The first room is particularly interesting from a landscape perspective, was the artist's signature style can be seen developing through a series of increasingly abstract and surreal views of the Catalan countryside.  Before moving to Paris Miró had painted in a cubist-naive style scenes around his family home in the Tarragona mountains.  Vegetable Garden and Donkey (1918), for example, has a strange sky that looks like a set of painted walls and a vegetable patch patterned like a carpet.  After arriving in Paris in 1920, he spent nine months painting The Farm from memory, a work later bought by Ernest Hemingway, who said ‘it has in it all that you feel about Spain when you are there and all that you feel when you are away and cannot go there. No one else has been able to paint these two very opposing things.’  According to the Tate blog, Miró 'boxed with Hemingway as well as having him to stay at Mont-roig, the place outside Tarragona depicted in astonishing detail in The Farm. Miró told a journalist in 1928, ‘The Farm was a résumé of my entire life in the country.’'  

By 1923-4 Miró's forms were becoming freely floating signs and in The Catalan Landscape (The Hunter) the land is reduced to an undulating orange plane.  Sea and sky are delineated by no more than a thin line ruled over the yellow background.  Wave forms and gull shapes are among the most recognisable symbols; elsewhere, according to the artist, there are such details as "the Toulouse-Rabat airplane on the left; it used to fly past our house once a week. In the painting I showed it by a propellor, a ladder and the French and Catalan flags. You can see the Paris-Barcelona axis again, and the ladder, which fascinated me. A sea and one boat in the distance, and in the very foreground, a sardine with tail and whiskers gobbling up a fly. A broiler waiting for the rabbit, flames and a pimento on the right..."

After a couple more years of accelerated artistic development Miró painted a sequence of 'Animated Landscapes'.  In Dog Barking at the Moon (1926), the ladder that had been propped against the wall of The Farm and drifting in the sky in The Catalan Landscape (The Hunter), can now be seen dominating the left had side of the picture, climbing up into the night sky.  The Tate's exhibition is actually called 'The Ladder of Escape', after a 1940 painting, one of his celebrated Constellations, which were begun during the blackouts in Normandy and completed after his flight from occupied France to Spain.  By this stage Miró was painting a purely inner landscape. The Constellations are probably the exhibition's highlight, although I was pleased to see again the 1968 triptych Painting on White Background for the Cell of a Recluse (usually hung in Barcelona at the Joan Miró Foundation).  As Adrian Searle says in his review, 'there's nothing much to the three white canvases. No colour, no forms. Each enormous canvas is painted with a single black line over an unevenly primed white ground. You can tell where the slender brush has run out of paint, is recharged, then continues on its way with the same unknowable purpose, like the passage of an ant or a bird in flight, or the journey the eye makes along a horizon.'

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Mountain That Had to Be Painted

Contemporary artist Iwan Gwyn Parry tackling Arenig in
'The Mountain That Had to Be Painted'

This week I've been unable to do more than collapse in front of the TV after long days at work, so I have appreciated the fact that BBC4 has been showing a Landscape Season.  There has been a lot of outdoor stuff - lakes (Wainwright), mountains (Munro), the golden age of canals and even a documentary on the A303 ('Highway to the Sun').  They repeated Alice Roberts 'titillating middle-aged men' (according to The Guardian) with her wild swimming, and in 'The Great Outdoors' they took 'a nostalgic look at life for campers, twitchers, ramblers and metal detectors'.  I missed the programme on R. S. Thomas (on too late...) but caught another one set in the Welsh landscape, 'The Mountain That Had to Be Painted'.  This was an account of the time Augustus John and James Dickson Innes spent in the Arenig Valley painting 'a body of work to rival the visionary landscapes of Matisse.'  Whilst it did little to dispel the impression that Auguston John's life is more interesting than his art, the programme provided a valuable introduction to the work of Innes, who died (like some old country singer) at the age of 27 from a mixture of TB and wreckless living.  For more on Innes and the Arenig school, see a recent post on the Footless Crow mountain writing blog. 

Earlier in the week there was an hour-and-a-half long history of English landscape painting, 'This Green and Pleasant Land.'  The programme discussed a sequence of paintings from the time of Charles I (Rubens and Van Dyck) down to World War Two (Paul Nash and the patriotic posters of Frank Newbould), with a final leap forward to David Hockney's recent iPhone sketches. As it started we wondered who the extraordinarily plummy-voiced narrator was - Brian Sewell my wife thought, but it turned out to be Simon Callow.  Fearing a rather conservative survey we nevertheless ended up enjoying the eclectic mixture of people they had invited to talk about each painting - from the 'editor at large' of Country Life, who suggested that Gainsborough's Mr and Mrs Andrews could easily be imagined in his magazine today, dressed in Barbour jackets and Hunter wellies, to a foundry manager who said he had a reproduction of Coalbrookdale by Night hanging up at home in the hallway.  It was worth enduring Peter York explaining his fascination for Atkinson Grimshaw in order to see John Virtue discussing Constable and sketching the sea. Will Self was on amusing form recalling the horror of growing up, as the son of a theoretician of garden suburbs, while actually living in a garden suburb ("that'll do things to a child!").  The programme generally covered the key works you would expect, although I was surprised they missed out Samuel Palmer and spent so much time on Stubbs (who I see I've never mentioned here).  All in all, well worth watching if you have access to the BBC iPlayer - available for 6 more days as I write this...
 Will Self discusses William Ratcliffe's

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Tortoise above the Venetian lagoon

A year ago in the LRB Marina Warner wrote a fascinating review of Erik Fischer's monumental four-volume catalogue devoted to the work of Melchior Lorck. Born in Danish-controlled Schleswig-Holstein in 1526 or 1527, he trained as a goldsmith but produced maps, medals, heraldry, portraits and landscape drawings.  Lorck travelled to Italy and then, in 1555, following in the footsteps of Gentile Bellini, to the Turkey of Suleiman the Magnificent in the company of humanist scholar Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq.  Before leaving he produced the drawing below in which 'a large tortoise is placed on the sheet as if paddling through the air above the Venetian lagoon. Lorck added the sly inscription, ‘Made in Venice from Life’, as if daring the viewer to see the colossal creature flying overhead, a reptilian version of the Rukh, the huge raptor from The Arabian Nights who lifts Sinbad, but is also capable of carrying off an elephant.'

 Melchior Lorck, Tortoise above the Venetian Lagoon, 1555

Arriving in Constantinople, Lorck sketched the view from his window (rather like the wall in Naples painted by Thomas Jones). Marina Warner quotes Busbecq as saying that the view was blocked by bars and parapets, 'in deference to the complaints of the neighbours, who declared that they had no privacy from the gaze of the Christians. Lorck was probably trying to overcome these constraints when he looked out of the window, or perhaps his curiosity was aroused by them, because, in spite of all the attempts to prevent the gaze of Christians, he captures a tiny vignette of a couple making love on a terrace screened by rushes.'  This drawing wasn't in the LRB article but is readily available on Wikimedia Commons - see below.  Warner says that 'if I hadn’t gone to Copenhagen to look at Lorck’s work, I wouldn’t have noticed these figures, squirming like a sea anemone' (a simile that reminded me of Sebald's couple resembling 'some great mollusc washed ashore' in The Rings of Saturn).  'Lorck,' she says, 'doesn’t draw attention to the lovers’ presence in his roofscape, he doesn’t show or refer to erotic couplings from the Renaissance repertory. He simply sets down what he saw. His sepia ink records one tile as being as interesting as the next, in the manner of a surveyor measuring and recording. This mode was very radical for its time, and it would be hard to date the work accurately without further context. Apart from Rembrandt’s tender intimacies – and occasional frank scatology – I can’t think of another artist who makes so little fuss about looking at sex.' 

Melchior Lorck, View over the rooftops of Constantinople, 1555
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lorck stayed in Constantinople until 1559 and in that year drew a vast panorama of the city from the heights of the fortifications in Galata, overlooking the Golden Horn. 'In the foreground Lorck shows himself at work; the scroll and a chalice for his ink and paint – there are washes of green and pink on the drawing – are being held for him by a seated Ottoman grandee who is wearing the huge rolled turban that marked a mufti or emir, both important definers and upholders of the law. ... The visiting artist is able to record the city, its layout, its dwellings, its fortifications, its trade and shipping, but only because he has been given permission, and that permission was granted because the Ottoman Empire has nothing to fear from being revealed to foreigners, so confident are its citizens, the official proclaims, in what they have achieved and what they are. So The Prospect is triple-faced: an act of intelligence-gathering by a visitor from a hostile power, a reverent homage to a munificent and enthralling country, and a message to the neighbouring European empire about what it has to reckon with.'  

Friday, May 13, 2011

Beyond Twelve Nautical Miles

Two photographs in magazines I’ve been reading this month caught my eye.  The first, from Tate etc. (Summer 2011) is Magritte’s Les Idées Claires (1955), an image chosen by Jeff Koons (who likens the boulder floating over the sea to one of his basketballs in water).  The second, from The Wire (May 2011) is Herbert Distel’s Projekt Canaris (1970), showing a three metre long polyester egg which the artist launched from the coast of West Africa.  A similar piece is referred to in David Clarke’s recent book Water and Art – in Beyond Twelve Nautical Miles (2000) Zhan Wang set one of his stainless steel rocks adrift at sea near Lingshan Island.   And I have written here before about David Nash’s Wooden Boulder, which began as a sculpture in the landscape but after describing the course of a river ended up as another of these art boulders, set free on the sea.  As far as I know the current location of Wooden Boulder remains a mystery.  Distel’s egg  was driven by trade winds across the Atlantic and reached Trinidad seven months later.

I wonder why there hasn’t been more ‘sea art’, floating equivalents to the famous land art projects of the American West?  Tacita Dean may have had trouble ‘Trying to Find Spiral Jetty (1997) but tracking down a sculpture in an ocean could have been even more interesting.  Herbert Distel sought help from the Cuban authorities in locating his egg after it sailed beyond the Canary Islands and was thought to be heading into the Caribbean.  It was eventually spotted by the captain of a Dutch ship who sent a telegram: ‘Egg seen on 6 December 1970 gmt 17.50, about 100 km east off the island of Trinidad.’ Of course I’m not really advocating that we litter the sea with permanent floating art works.  Instead sea artists might take inspiration from Buster Simpson, who has an ongoing project to drop disks of limestone into the Hudson River: rocks that will gradually dissolve and counteract the effects of acid rain.

Monday, May 09, 2011

The Englishman's Home

Garden on the roof of Queen Elizabeth Hall

To the South Bank Centre yesterday where the sixtieth anniversary of The Festival of Britain is commemorated in themed areas 'filled with pop-up structures, artworks, films and exhibitions. Each of these ‘lands’ is themed according to one of the most significant themes in 1951: Land, Power & Production, Seaside and People of Britain.'  These additions may not do much for the architecture of the site but they are clearly going to be popular with visitors and add to the vibrancy you always sense there in summer.  We had a drink in the garden installed on the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hall which features 'a lush lawn sprinkled with daisies and fruit trees that conjure up a country orchard. With over 90 varieties, the wildflower area is a celebration of the diversity of British flora, attracting insects and butterflies while providing nectar for bees from the hives on Royal Festival Hall’s roof. The garden has a patchwork of vegetable plots – a roof, after all, can be both productive and attractive. And a rustic pergola, clothed with sweetscented climbers, crowns a bridge to the Hayward Gallery punctuated with drought-resistant plants.'

John Piper's mural for the Festival of Britain, 
The Englishman's Home, 1951

Inside the QEH you can see the mural John Piper created for the Festival, comprising 42 separate panels with English buildings that he particularly loved. The Englishman's Home was later installed on the wall of Harlow Technical College's main assembly room, where it remained until the college re-located in 1992.  According to Frances Spurling's recent book on him, Piper was assisted in painting the mural by Joy Mills, who Myfanwy later described as "one of John's girls" and who was 'aware that John found her very attractive, and that Myfanwy knew this.'  Also around the QEH there are other 'Land' installations - a giant Urban Fox, Ben Kelly’s walled Enclosure, and a coal chamber, Black Pig Lodge, by Heather and Ivan Morison (which was roped off for repairs).  Apparently you can also hear 'a collage of sounds taken from across Britain’s landscape through the seasons', which 'reverberates across the incongruous setting of Southbank Centre’s concrete terraces and walkways.  Using an array of speakers and audio tracks, Marcus Coates and Geoff Sample have recreated the acoustic atmospheres of rural Britain.'  I couldn't actually hear anything but possibly didn't locate the correct place to stand - the installations are around until September so no doubt I'll be back at some point.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Landscape with a Natural Arch and Waterfall

Claude Lorrain, Perseus and the Discovery of Coral, c1671
(preparatory drawing for the Holkham Hall painting,
Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In Helen Langdon's catalogue for last year's Salvator Rosa exhibition she refers in her notes on his painting Landscape with a Natural Arch and Waterfall to the art history of a specific landform, the rocky arch.  These were painted more frequently after 1626, when an ancient Roman landscape painting with a rocky arch was discovered in a nymphaeum near the Barberini palace.  It was a favourite motif of Rosa's - either inland, as in the Detroit Finding of Moses, or by the sea, as in the Doria Pamphilj's Coastal Scene. In the Palazzo Pitti's Landscape with a Bridge the form of the rocky arch is echoed below by the arches of a crumbling bridge.  Peering at small online images of picturesque landscapes, as I have just been doing, it is sometimes hard to distinguish ruined architecture from natural rock formations.  Both feature in the work of Northern artists working in Italy in the seventeenth century, like Paul Bril and Jan Breughel I. Rosa was probably influenced by his fellow Neapolitan, Filippo Napoletano, who included the rocky arch in his frescoes for the Palazzo Rospigliosi Pallavicini, and by Claude Lorrain who 'worked numerous variations on it.'  It would be fascinating to write a proper history of rock arches in art, covering these imaginary scenes and later works where artists sought to paint or photgraph real examples, like the cliffs at Etretat.  We have recently had cultural histories of mountains, forests etc. and now I think it is time to focus on particular geographical features... 

Gustave Courbet, La falaise d'Étretat après l'orage, 1870
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, May 01, 2011

The region appeared to be smiling

Robert Walser's novel The Assistant (1908) opens on a spring morning as Joseph Marti knocks on the door of a lakeside villa owned by his new employer, the inventor Carl Tobler, and ends the following winter with his departure, leaving Tobler's family mired in debt and contemplating the inevitable sale of their property. In the afterword to her translation Susan Bernofsky says that the book's last paragraph was trimmed before publication, but that the original ending encapsulates 'the mood of the book's final pages in a poignant vignette in which the landscape that has been granted such powers of expression throughout the novel appears as lost in thought as its observer.'  Joseph looks back at the house one more time, 'silent in wintry isolation ... The landscape appeared to have eyes, and it appeared to be closing them, filled utterly with peace, in order to reflect.  Yes, everything appeared a bit pensive.  All the surrounding colors appeared to be gently and sweetly dreaming.'

The landscape's 'powers of expression' are evident almost every time Joseph leaves the workshop and experiences the natural beauty around him.  These exaggerated examples of the pathetic fallacy read as the imaginative projections of a lonely young man, unsure of his place in this world and witnessing the hopes of his employer sinking into inevitable failure. 'Yes, you tell yourself, colors like this produce warmth!  The region appeared to be smiling, the sky seemed to have been made happy by its own appearance, it appeared to be the scent and substance and the dear meaning of this smiling of land and lake.  How all these things could just lie there, radiant and still.  If you gazed out over the surface of the lake, you felt - and you didn't even have to be an assistant for this - as if you were being addressed with friendly, agreeable words.'

Joseph stays on at the villa despite not receiving his salary, unable to bring himself to leave.  But, he reflects, nature itself never really changes - lakes do not suddenly transform themselves into clouds.  'A wintry image could superimpose itself upon the world of summer; winter could give way to spring, but the face of the earth remained the same.  It put on masks and took them off again, it wrinkled and cleared its huge beautiful brow, it smiled or looked angry, but remained always the same.  It was a great lover of make-up, it painted its face now more brightly, now in paler hues, now it was glowing, now pallid, never quite what it had been before, constantly it was changing a little, and yet remained always vividly and restlessly the same.  It sent lightning bolts flashing from its eyes and rumbled the thunder with its powerful lungs, it wept the rain down in streams and let the clean, glittering snow come smiling from its lips, but in the features and lineaments of its face, little change could be discerned.'

As time passes and autumn turns to winter Joseph still sees nature in benevolent terms, as the countryside 'peacefully and languorously allowed itself to be covered with thickly falling snow, calmly holding out, as it were, its large, broad, old and wide hand to catch everything.'  The last day of the year is unseasonably sunny, reminding him of the time in May when he first arrived at the villa.  The weather 'simultaneously calmed and agitated him', but as evening comes - the last evening he will spend there with the Toblers - Joseph, in 'an almost holy mood' goes for a walk. 'The entire landscape appeared to him to be praying, so invitingly, with all its faint, muted earthen hues.  The green of the meadows was smiling out from beneath the snow, which the sun had broken into white islands and patches'.