Tuesday, July 18, 2017

From the flowers of summer


Having mentioned in my last post one enjoyable book published last year, I'd like to take this opportunity to recommend another, Christopher de Hamel's much-praised Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts.  Plants, birds and animals abound in medieval manuscripts, as is evident in the cover of the book itself, an illustration from the Morgan Beatus, fifth of the twelve Remarkable Manuscripts that the author visits.  Morgan is the Morgan Library in New York, Beatus is Beatus of Liébana (c. 730 – c. 800), a monk whose commentaries on the Apocalypse were written in the Picos de Europa mountains just at the time Charlemagne was fighting the Moors in Spain.  The manuscript was made later, in north-west Spain, and is actually signed by a scribe called Maius (d. 968).  It includes a map ('extremely naive and based on echoes of Roman geography') and Mozarabic paintings with colours and patterns suggesting 'the tiles and mosaics of Islamic architecture', but nothing, unsurprisingly, that could be called a 'landscape'.  Later in the book, though, there is a full-page landscape illustration and it appears in what is probably the most famous of de Hamel's Remarkable Manuscripts.

Illustration from the Carmina Burana
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Carmina Burana is a collection of songs and poems, mainly about love and drinking, made around 1230 somewhere in the county of Tyrol, in what is now Austria.  It has become world famous thanks to Carl Orff's cantata, first staged in 1937; his setting of the first song in the manuscript, O Fortuna, has been recycled endlessly in films and will forever be associated in Britain with the advert for Old Spice aftershave.  Here though I am interested in one of the other poems, which begins "Ab estatis floribus amor nos salutat' ('From the flowers of summer, love greets us...')  The accompanying illustration, de Hamel writes, 'shows two scenes in verdant woodland.  This must be a prime candidate for the earliest pure landscape in all of medieval art.'

As you can see, this woodland in the Carmina Burana is not exactly realistic.  It is not the German forest that will appear, three hundred years later, in the first independent landscapes painted by artists like Altdorfer and Huber.  Nor is it remotely like the detailed scenes that appear in the margins of high-quality fifteenth century illuminated manuscripts, and which resemble those wonderful views seen through windows in contemporary Northern Renaissance portraits.  This illustration was conceived at a time when no landscapes as such were being painted in the West.  Now, as I insert a reference to the Carmina Burana into my international landscape and culture chronology, I can't help wondering what its illuminator would have made of a Southern Song Dynasty scroll painting...

Clearly the scene depicted in this manuscript is not even a naive attempt at topography.  As de Hamel points out, 'the inclusion here of a lion is much more appropriate for the Garden of Eden than for a familiar spring day in the German woods.'  Those strange, luxuriant trees look primeval.  In the top section we see birds which, according to Genesis, appeared on the fifth day of Creation, and in the bottom half are the animals that arrived a day later.  This is not then the setting for a bawdy German love song.  It is a medieval vision of the original landscape, created by God.

Friday, July 14, 2017

View of the Garden of the Villa Medici

 Diego Velázquez, View of the Garden of the Villa Medici, c. 1630
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the course of her fascinating book on Velázquez, The Vanishing Man, published last year, Laura Cumming writes about 'a picture without precedent.'  The View of the Garden of the Villa Medici 'seems to have no pretext, no definitive narrative or focus.  A fragmentary glimpse, strikingly modern in its random observations, it is simply itself - the momentary scene.'  Velázquez was in Rome in 1630 and knew Poussin and Claude, who were painting their great classical landscapes at this time.  But 'to depict nature purely for itself, live and unadorned - in its natural state, as it were - was very much the innovation of Velázquez.'  Cumming sees nothing similar in art before Corot, 'whose silvery landscapes with their secretive air have a genetic link back to Velázquez'.  But is it really the case that Velázquez was so ahead of his time?  

Albrecht Altdorfer, Landscape with Footbridge, 1516
Source: Wikimedia Commons
In Western art, earlier 'independent' landscape paintings, going back to Albrecht Altdorfer, do not have the air of real places seen at real moments.  There are plein air sketches that have this quality, but they do not resemble the Velázquez eitherClaude made such studies in the Roman Campagna and the example below is by another contemporary, Van Dyck, who was court painter to Charles I while Velázquez worked for Philip IV of Spain (The Vanishing Man is about a portrait of the young Charles that was apparently painted by Velázquez, or possibly by Van Dyck, or maybe neither...)  The View of the Garden of the Villa Medici is different, more reminiscent of certain oil sketches made in the late eighteenth century (the cloth on the balcony is like the washing hung out on Thomas Jones' A Wall in Naples).  It could have been a sketch of this kind, but the Prado's curators (quoting Javier Portús) say that it is currently considered to be a finished, self-sufficient work.

Anthony van Dyck, An English Landscape, c. 1635
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Laura Cumming describes The Vanishing Man as 'a book of praise for Velázquez, greatest of painters.'  She writes effusively about the brilliant and subtle ways he found to apply paint to canvas.  In the View of the Garden of the Villa Medici, which is relatively small (48.5 x 43 cm), she notices something remarkable.
'The weave of the cloth is exactly the right size to imitate the pattern of bricks at that distance.  This is one of Velázquez's unimaginably subtle calculations.  How could he guess in advance, or did it come to him as he painted?  This is a great question with his art: what grows out of what, how it all evolves at leisure, or at speed, by chance or design.  But what one sees here is something akin to precision engineering, in terms of vision and judgement: each brick finds its tiny outline in the grid of threads.'
   Diego Velázquez, View of the Garden of the Villa Medici [detail], c. 1630
Source: Prado

Perhaps surprisingly, Cumming makes no mention of the fact that this painting of the Villa Medici has a companion piece, also in the Prado: a view of the same structure seen from a different angle, but with more prominent foreground figures.  It is a marvellously strange, enigmatic image; in the background a man looks out at the distant view, like a Romantic Rückenfigur, and beside him the statue of sleeping Ariadne foreshadows the sequence of mysterious Ariadne paintings de Chirico painted in 1912-13.  There might originally have been two more of these paintings.  It may be that what we have now 'are two of the four little landscapes that the artist sold to Phillip IV in 1634' (Portús).  The disappearance and reappearance of artworks is central to The Vanishing Man and now, after having read it, I can't help wondering about the possibility of other Velázquez landscapes one day coming to light.

Diego Velázquez, View of the Garden of the Villa Medici, with the statue of Ariadne, c. 1630
Source: Prado

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Igualada Cemetery

Commenting yesterday on my post about the Stockholm Woodland Cemetery, Ken Worpole, author of Last Landscapes: The Architecture of the Cemetery in the West, mentioned his high regard for the modern cemetery at Igualada in Spain.  Ken has also kindly sent me three photographs which I have included here (an ArchDaily article on Igualada has more images, including some taken after a snowfall).  Enric Miralles designed the cemetery with his partner Carme Pinòs in 1984 and it was constructed over the following decade.  In Britain, Miralles is best known for the Scottish Parliament Building which was completed after his early death in 2000 (he is buried at Igualada). Writing last year in The Architectural Review, Ken notes that Igualada 'is in harsh rocky terrain punctuated by quarries' and so the architects made use of this in their design, incorporating rusting steel, old railway sleepers, quarried stone.  The result is somewhere that 'possesses a profound spiritual presence within its severe landscape: serious and purposeful without being in any way morbid.'

I have not visited Igualada myself (though we weren't that far away a couple of summers ago).  I will therefore quote here some impressions by two British architects, Joe Morris and Mary Duggan, interviewed in Building Design.
'The work is like no other we had come across. It is an architecture of the land, a work which choreographs the geological and sculptural qualities of the landscape; an architecture of topography. The narrative, one in which the living are brought downwards into a city of the dead, is potent and creates an eerie but contemplative series of spaces. 
'The palette of materials speaks of the site. It is reduced to materials which over time will express the ravages of time and weather and are intended to be subsumed by the landscape within which they sit. Concrete, granite, Corten, each material is selected for the visceral illustration of its origin, forged or excavated from the earth, and slowly returning to the landscape.'

And to conclude, from a lengthier more theoretical article by Tom Bliska, here is another reflection on the way the architects worked with space and time:
'Miralles and Pinos are serving as “exegetes of the landscape,” drawing from the site’s history and local landform precedents to create a space that is itself a program. Every cemetery has an explicit connection to the past, in the sense of a distorted reflection of the city that produced it, but Miralles and Pinos are specific in creating traces of the past through articulation of fragments, frameworks, and the path one takes through them. The long walk down to the mausoleum plaza at the low point of the site is filled with the “immediate and imperfect”: rough aggregate ground surface, violently skewed steel markers, indeterminate edges between precast concrete and gabion wall. It is this layering that builds the narrative quality of the space, boundaries that shift with movement and tactility to present an abstracted history of the site itself as process. In this way, Igualada cemetery can be read as a chronotopia, a space where fragments of the past are either exposed or rearticulated didactically to express the meaning of the site’s current form.'

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Skogskyrkogården, the Woodland Cemetery

I was in Stockholm for a meeting in May and took the opportunity to visit Skogskyrkogården, the famous Woodland Cemetery which in 1994 became only the second location developed in the twentieth century to become a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It was late on Sunday afternoon when I got there - the visitor centre was shut but I had the place almost to myself.  A couple of other tourists, one person tending a grave, a solitary jogger (they are everywhere).  I took a short video clip on my phone (below) which gives a sense of how peaceful it was, though you could never escape the low background rumble of traffic.  I'm not sure how many deer there are in these woods; another one emerged from behind these graves just after I stopped filming.  They were watchful but not fearful.  It did not seem that surprising to find them there - even here in London when you step into a graveyard like Abney Park Cemetery, near my home in Stoke Newington, you become aware that you are among squirrels, birds and butterflies.

Skogskyrkogården was conceived jointly by architects by Gunnar Asplund (1885-1940) and Sigurd Lewerentz (1885-1975), who won a competition in 1915 to design a new cemetery on the site of an old quarry.  In addition to the landscape, they designed distinctive buildings - a classical Resurrection Chapel positioned at the end of a long tree-lined path, an intimate Woodland Chapel amid the pines, and a graceful and a functionalist crematorium.  From this crematorium you look across a pond towards a bare slope on the summit of which is a group of trees.  On my visit this meditation grove was a dark silhouette against a white sky which would soon be filling Stockholm with unseasonable snow.  But you can see the trees in full leaf on the cover of Ken Worpole's fascinating book, Last Landscapes: The Architecture of the Cemetery in the West (2003).  From the vantage point of this photograph (by Larraine Worpole), the foreground is dominated by Asplund's stark granite cross, inspired by Caspar David Friedrich.

Caspar David Friedrich, Cross on the Baltic Sea, 1815
Source: Wikimedia Commons

On the occasions I have visited graveyards over the years, there has usually been at least one prominent memorial I've been keen to find - Ezra Pound at San Michele near Venice, Alejo Carpentier in Havana's Colon Cemetery, Karl Marx at Highgate, dozens of culture heroes at Père Lachaise...  Wandering around the Stockholm Woodland Cemetery it was something of a relief just to be experiencing the landscape, without looking for anybody famous.  Nevertheless, I did come upon the grave of Greta Garbo, whose family chose this for her because it was 'a long way from the hustle and bustle of the world'.  There is no eye-catching monument to the great movie star, but neither is it the case that she is simply buried in an egalitarian spirit along with all the others.  Her headstone stands isolated against the trees -  fittingly perhaps for someone famous for saying "I just want to be alone".  It seems to have the makings of a shrine: a path has been laid to it and, as you can see below, trees are being planted in a semi circle to form a kind of special enclosed space.    

There are no film stars buried in Abney Park Cemetery, though you can find a famous nineteenth century music hall artist, George Leybourne, the original 'Champagne Charlie' - a fact mentioned in Last Landscapes (Ken lives near me in Stoke Newington).  I would agree with Ken that despite the efforts of the Abney Park Trust, it is still in parts 'a forlorn, tangled forest', very different from the woods of Skogskyrkogården.  Originally the early Victorian London cemeteries were designed as Gardenesque landscapes - John Claudius Loudon published an influential book on the subject in 1843.  Abney Park Cemetery Originally (which opened in 1840) was designed as an arboretum and became a kind of tourist attraction like Kew Gardens.  As the population grew it rapidly filled up, but perhaps in its early days it would have had something of the atmosphere of a woodland cemetery.  Today they are very different: as Ken says, the Stockholm Woodland Cemetery gives the impression when you enter it of 'a vast rolling landscape, with deep forest beyond', yet you quickly come upon intimate, peaceful spaces for tranquil reflection.  It is, he concludes, 'the most successful example of large-scale landscape design in the twentieth century.'