Saturday, October 21, 2017

Red Cliff

Unidentified artist in the style of Sheng Mou, 
Fan painting illustrating Su Shi's 'Second Ode on the Red Cliff', 
late 14th/early 15th century 
Source: The Met, public domain

Earlier this year I wrote about the Battle of Red Cliff, focusing on landscape in the poetry of Cao Cao, the warlord whose army was defeated there by the combined forces of Sun Quan and Liu Bei.  The battle's most famous literary retelling is in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of China (I discussed one of the others, Dream of the Red Chamber, here five years ago).  There is no dwelling on natural scenery in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms - the focus is entirely on the action, one of hundreds of battles in this vast novel covering an extraordinarily turbulent historical period.  But The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is only one lens through which the conflict has been remembered, as you can see in A Thousand, Thousand Churning Waves - The Legendary Red Cliff Heritage, an online exhibition at the Taiwan National Palace Museum.  Here I want to focus on the influence of Su Shi's two Red Cliff Odes, written in 1082, three centuries before The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  These two poems have themselves been the inspiration for artworks in many forms; I mentioned one - a stone seal - 1,002 posts ago, and have included some others here: a fan, a vase, a scroll, a plate and another stone seal.

 Square form vase decorated with Su Shi's Odes on the Red Cliff, c. 1662–1722
Source: The Met, public domain 

The two 'Odes' Su Shi wrote were in the wen fu form - fu were prose poems, and the wen fu was more prose than poem.  Burton Watson includes translations in his wonderful Selected Poems of Su Tung-p'o (Tung p'o means Eastern Slope and was the literary pseudonym Su assumed after building a residence on a Huangzhou hillside in 1081, thus incorporating a landscape feature into his actual name).  I will summarise the two poems here, with the knowledge that this can't really do them justice - they are very beautiful even in translation, so it does not seem surprising that they have been so admired in China over the last thousand years.  Just one thing to note though: the landscape that so moved Su Shi was not really the place where Cao Cao's forces were defeated in 208 CE (the precise location is still disputed).  As Burton Watson writes, 'because of its fame, many other spots on the Yangtze came to be called Red Cliff; the one where the poet and his friends are the spending the evening is not the actual site of the battle but considerably farther down the river.'

 Zhao Mengfu, The First Red Cliff Ode of Su Shi and His Portrait, 1301
Source: Wikimedia Commons 

The First Ode.
On an autumn night, Su Shi and some friends ventured out in a small boat to the foot of Red Cliff, drinking wine and admiring the moon.  'White dew settled over the river, and its shining surface reached to the sky.  Letting the boat go where it pleased, we drifted over the immeasurable fields of water.'  Inspired by the wine and the scenery Su composed a song while one of his friends played mournful notes on the flute.  They remembered the poem Cao Cao composed (see my earlier post) and his vast army on the river, 'yet where is he now?'  Su Shi suggested that they should take comfort in the changelessness of things - the river water never ceases to flow and the moon always rises.  Realising they had nothing left to eat, the friends lay down in the boat to sleep, 'unaware that the east was already growing light'.

Silver plate showing a scene from the First Ode, 13th century
Source: Minneapolis Institute of Art, public domain 

The Second Ode.
Later that autumn, with the trees bare and frost on the ground, Su Shi was joined at his home by two guests.  They decided to make another trip to Red Cliff but when they got there Su realised the landscape had changed.  'The river raced along noisily, its sheer banks rising a thousand feet.  The mountains were very high, the moon small.  The level of the water had fallen, leaving boulders sticking out.'  Su begun to climb the embankment, leaving his friends trailing behind.  At the summit he gave a shrill whoop and the trees and grass swayed.  A wind suddenly rose and he felt a chill of fear.  He returned to his friends and they got back into the boat, letting it drift on the water.  A single crane flew in from the east, swooping low over the boat.  That night, back at home, Su dreamed that a Daoist immortal in a feather robe came to him and asked whether he had enjoyed his outing to Red Cliff.  Su recognised him as the crane.  The immortal just turned and laughed and when Su woke up, he was gone.

Tianhuang Seal showing Su Shi beneath Red Cliff, first half of the 19th century
Source: The Brooklyn Museum, public domain 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The ghats at Haridwar

Sita Ram, The Firoz Shah Minar at Gaur and a Palash tree, 1817

This watercolour is owned by the British Library and is one of several reproduced in a fascinating blog post by J. P. Losty, 'The rediscovery of an unknown Indian artist: Sita Ram's work for the Marquess of Hastings'.  The work of Sita Ram first attracted attention when some paintings of his were sold in 1974, with no real clue as to who he was or who had commissioned them.  From these and a few subsequent discoveries, scholars knew that he must have been working in Calcutta around 1810-15.  It was only in 1995 that his identity was pinned down (see India Today, 'An unknown painter of great talent emerges from the past').  This was when, as Losty writes, the BL was offered
'part of the collection of albums of drawings formed in India by the Marquess of Hastings, the Governor-General of Bengal 1813-23. The ten albums by Sita Ram illustrate Lord and Lady Hastings’ journey from Calcutta to Delhi and back in 1814-15. There were in all 25 albums of drawings in the collection, by Indian, Chinese and British artists. They had been for the last 150 years in the collection of the Marquis of Bute in Scotland, and indeed hitherto unknown and unsuspected.' 
This sort of story always makes you wonder what might still be buried in the homes of our aristocratic families.  I can find no comment from the current Marquess on this discovery; I see from Wikipedia that he is a former racing driver who actually made the Lotus Formula 1 team in 1986.  Sita Ram's paintings are now accesible to all and can be viewed in a handsome-looking book written by Losty for Thames & Hudson, which includes edited highlights of Lord Hastings' journal.

Sita Ram, The ghats at Haridwar, 1814-15

The watercolour above is one of the views Sita Ram painted on the Hastings' journey, showing the the holy city of Haridwar.  The entire seventeen-month trip took the Hastings from Calcutta to the Punjab and back, accompanied by officials, bodyguards and an army battalion.  When they left in 1814 they needed 220 boats.  After they got back, in October 2015, Sita Ram continued to work for Hastings in India. 
'Another two albums of drawings also by Sita Ram contain views in Bengal taken on subsequent tours, one during a sporting expedition to northern Bengal in 1817, and the other during a convalescent tour in the Rajmahal Hills in 1820-21. Sita Ram has matured even more as an artist by then and they contain some of his most beautiful works. With Hastings’ departure from India in 1823, however, Sita Ram disappears from the record and no further work is known from his hand.'

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Luxuriant Forest among Distant Peaks

Li Ch'eng, A Solitary Temple amid Clearing Peaks, Sung Dynasty

In Michael Sullivan's history of Chinese landscape painting, Symbols of Eternity, he describes the predicament of one of the great painters of the early Sung Dynasty.
'Li Ch'eng - unsuccessful aspirant to office, gentleman, poet, recluse - came of a family of Confucian scholars that had gone down in the world.  One wonders what he lived on.  To a persistent patron, owner of a fashionable restaurant in the capital, he is said to have written: "Since antiquity the four social classes have not mixed.  I am a Confucian scholar, and although I paint, I do it only for my own pleasure.  Why should I submit to being a retainer in a great household who grinds and licks his colours and is classed with the hua shih [i.e. men who hold office by virtue of their skill as painters] and other such riffraff?"  Yet he had to live, and did not consider it beneath him to exhibit his paintings in that same restaurant, which the emperor himself patronised.  Li Ch'eng's son and grandson were rather ashamed of him, for in spite of his disclaimer, he was a professional by necessity.  This was a predicament that was to face more and more artists of the scholar class, and the most delicate and indirect ways had to be found to reward them for their work without causing them to lose face as amateurs and gentlemen.'
I wonder how Li thought about that restaurant and its diners.  Mark Rothko apparently said of his murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, "anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine." 

 Li Ch'eng, Luxuriant Forest among Distant Peaks (detail), Sung Dynasty

Detail of that detail

The paintings here are both attributed to Li - possibly painted by his followers but probably no later than the tenth century.  Attribution of early Chinese paintings is always tricky - there is a story that Mi Fu (1051-1107), who lived only a century after Li Ch'eng (919-67), could locate only two genuine scrolls painted by Li and wondered if in fact any really existed.  Recently the art historian James Cahill caused controversy by suggesting some paintings from this period were twentieth century forgeries.  He thought Li's Reading the Memorial Stele, now in Osaka, was a copy, but valuable nonetheless.  I wrote about that painting here four years ago, after seeing it in an exhibition in London.  The warlord depicted in it trying to decipher the memorial stone, Cao Cao, was the subject of another Some Landscapes post earlier this year.

Here is one more quote concerning Li Ch'eng - Richard M. Barnhart's description of A Solitary Temple amid Clearing Peaks and Luxuriant Forest among Distant Peaks (in an essay in Yale's Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting).  He sees them as wonderfully detailed alternative worlds to escape into, but also models of the new Chinese state.
'Li Ch'eng's works contain rich human and architectural details - temples, villages, bridges, pagodas, wine shops, pavilions and pathways - and constitute deep miniature realms of imaginative construction, dream worlds that one is invited to enter like tray landscapes, or penzai (bonsai in Japanese).  Their compositional structure, however, is the very structure of the new empire of Sung, with the Son of Heaven represented in the dominant central peak, his ministers and associates in the supportive ranges and hills around the central peak, and the entire vast structure as ordered, clear and infinite as the great empire of China itself.  There is no dust or dirt, no violence or disorder, nature is placid and benevolent, controlled by the power and wisdom of the enlightened ruler who has brought humanity to this lofty condition through wise interaction with Heaven.'

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Memoryscapes

I was pleased that Caught by the River made Frozen Air their Book of the Month, although they have now sneaked in a second one - The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris - a book it's been impossible to avoid this week, with coverage everywhere from the reviews pages to the Today programme.  There was a typically rich and thought-provoking essay by Robert Macfarlane on children, nature and reading in The Guardian, and I am tempted to set down my own reflections here, but they would be based on nothing more than personal experiences as a child and parent.

For fans of Macfarlane, The Lost Words will fill a gap while he completes Underland, a book that sounds from scattered interviews to be increasingly ambitious in scope.  Whatever it covers, it is certain to delight in language and the physical challenges of exploring a landscape.  In The Telegraph, two years ago, he described exploring the River Timavo which flows through the karst region of Slovenia and northern Italy. “I descended a 100ft doline, a sort of narrow, eroded vertical channel, with a 70-year-old Italian man called Sergio, who smoked a briarwood pipe all the way down. That was one of the most extreme places I have ever been: a great black river roaring out of a cave mouth on one side and disappearing down a rabbit hole on the other, and the sense of the earth’s surface above us.”

Alojzij Schaffenrath,  Postojna: view of the Great Cave, c. 1821

'The right names, well used, can act as portals.'  A doline is the name for a portal to the underland, and there are others too on the karstic plateau: foiba (a deep inverted funnel), abîme (a vertical shaft) uvala (a collection of sinkholes).  My only experience of descending into this world was on a family holiday to Yugoslavia, when we visited the spectacular Postojna cave system in Slovenia.  It felt as if I had suddenly entered the marvellous subterranean settings of my recent childhood reading: The Silver Chair, The Hobbit, Journey to the Centre of the Earth.  I can still recall the soundscape too - a a strange babel of amplified sound as competing tour groups listened to guides in the different languages of Europe.

As can be seen in the image above, tourism at Postojna stretches back to the early nineteenth century.  When Crown Prince Ferdinand visited in 1819, soon after the main caves were opened, he was greeted with a band and singers.  Perhaps the caves would have been too eerie, experienced in dripping silence.  They have subsequently hosted orchestras, jazz bands and even the La Scala chorus.  There is a long tradition of music making in caves and now, it seems, a new trend for concert halls themselves to be built underground.  I have written about caves and music before, so here I will conclude by returning to the surface and highlighting some recent music made in the karst landscape of Slovenia.


For Memoryscapes, the experimental folk trio Širom returned to the regions of Slovenia they grew up in and improvised outdoors, curious to see how the environment would affect what they played.  The film of the project (embedded below) begins with the construction of some bamboo balafons which they carry down into the hollow of the Bukovnik sinkhole.  As they sit under the trees, the camera pans slowly round, catching motes of light and the slight movement of branches in the breeze.  Watching this made me think that taking children into the woods to make and play instruments would be another way to reconnect them with nature.

On Mt Tolminski Migovec, the music is harsher and the surroundings cold and inhospitable.  In a mountain hut they do some more percussion with pots and pans (it looks like this would get annoying pretty quickly, as I know from having heard my own sons try it).  In the final segment, they sit surrounded by a sea of yellow flowers; if the music was as pretty as the visuals it would be too much to take.  The film ends by a watermill, with an insistent rhythmic sound, like hundreds of squeaky gears and cog wheels.  Eventually the music fades and breaks apart, leaving nothing but sunlight on the water.