Monday, December 03, 2018

La Mer Pacifique

Jean-Gabriel Charvet and Joseph Dufour,
 Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique wallpaper, before 1829

A new article in British Art Studies by Tim Barringer provides a history of recent trends in landscape art history. In this century, he explains, there has been a strong focus on art and empire, influenced by Edward Said’s Orientalism, and analysis of paintings made far from Europe, which reveal 'the impediments offered to the totalizing “colonial picturesque” by local geographies'.  He then describes a recent artwork that I was looking at only this weekend:
'The work of contemporary indigenous artists increasingly offers critical reflections on the continuing power of landscape as a contested space open to multiple interpretations, and as a site of historical and contemporary violence. Lisa Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected], (2015–2017), on display at the time of publication in the exhibition Oceania at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, responds to the historical provocation of Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, a scenic coloured wallpaper in twenty panels, created in 1804 by Joseph Dufour on the basis of imagery from the Pacific voyages of James Cook (Les Voyages du Capitaine Cook was proposed as an alternative title for the paper). Reihana’s panoramic video spanning 26 metres embraces the “monarch of all I survey” viewpoint of the painted panoramas of the late eighteenth century, but inserts speaking, singing, and moving figures to contest the silent, stereotypical representations of indigenous people in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sources.'

At the Royal Academy, you encounter this video panorama towards the end of the exhibition and I found it quite hard to drag myself away.  Figures like Captain Cook, Joseph Banks and Chief Kalani'opu'u are seen in various moving tableaux as the viewpoint pans steadily round.  The original wallpaper was not on display in the exhibition (the National Gallery of Australia has an example) - perhaps it would have been out of place among so many beautiful objects from the islands.  In an interview in the Guardian, Lisa Reihana describes its design as
'“a concoction, a fabulation invented in someone else’s elsewhere”.  The greenery, for example, was transplanted not from Polynesia but from South America, which Jean Gabriel Charvet, the Frenchman who designed the wallpaper, had recently visited. Similarly, the idealised, pale-skinned locals are dressed in neoclassical costumes inspired more by what had recently been dug up at Pompeii than by anything from Hawaii or Tahiti.'
In Pursuit of Venus was previously shown at the Venice Biennale and has its own website (it even has an Instagram feed, although there are no posts on it yet...)  Tim Marlow, the RA Director, calls it 'stupendous' in an interview with Lisa Reihana, viewable on the RA's site.  Excellent as it is, there are many more wonders in the show which I could mention but which go beyond the remit of this blog, from the Brancusi-like male deity sculpture tino aitu to a Tobi Island necklace of sea-urchin spines.  As Jenny Uglow wrote in her review, 'Oceania is a powerful demonstration of art’s capacity to fight the tide of loss, honoring tradition, reclaiming places, histories, and identities, and opening the way to the future.'

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Crossing a river

One of the most renowned Buster Keaton stunts involves him getting the better of a landscape feature.  Our Hospitality (1923) has scenes filmed at California's Truckee River and when I first saw it I thought the waterfall scene (above) was filmed at a real location.  In reality the whole waterfall was constructed on a Hollywood backlot, as is explained (with photographs) on the excellent Silent Locations website.  I will quote here what John Bengtson says there:
During the climax of Our Hospitality, Buster rescues his girlfriend, played by his first wife Natalie Talmadge, from sweeping over the brink of a waterfall, by swinging like a pendulum from a rope tied to a log jammed in the rocks, grabbing her just as she starts to fall.  Buster’s waterfall stunt set was built astride the [...] T-shaped concrete pool (or plunge as they were called back then) that stood on the Robert Brunton Studio backlot just north of Melrose Avenue, now part of the current-day Paramount Studios lot.

The Our Hospitality waterfall stunt set
Image from Photoplay Productions Ltd via SilentLocations.
In Sherlock Jr. (1924), Keaton, a projectionist, falls asleep and walks in his dream into the motion picture he is showing.  We then see him in a sequence of cuts that seamlessly position Keaton in different landscapes: a rocky promontory (below), a jungle, a beach, a rock in the sea.  This was done using surveying instruments to position him at precisely the right place in each setting.  From the rock in the sea, Keaton dives into the water and lands in a park, then leans against a tree and finds himself in a garden, after which the main story of this film-within-a-film begins, with the humble projectionist somehow transformed into a Sherlock Holmes style detective. 

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. (1924)

The bridge scene in The General (1926)

Thinking about Keaton in relation to this blog, it occurs to me that his most spectacular film stunt - building a bridge and wrecking a real train for The General (1926) - had a similar level of ambition to the works of land artists like Christo and Jeanne Claude.  Apparently, bits of Keaton's railtrack can still be seen at the bottom of Row River at low tide.  But if I had to choose my favourite example of Buster Keaton 'landscape art' it would be the moment in The Scarecrow (1920) when he manages to cross a river without getting his feet wet, by walking across it on his hands. 

I will conclude here by recommending again the website, which is still posting fascinating information on Keaton and other silent movie stars.  Browsing through it I came across the photograph below: if Richard Long had been working in the 1920s he might have looked like Charlie Chaplin in this field.  In fact, this circle is the trace of the departing circus, which is just packing up and leaving The Little Tramp behind.  Detective work by Bengtson and other enthusiasts has identified the location for this scene and even a surviving tree that was there when the film was made.  'Just as there are trees that remain today having witnessed the making of The Birth of A Nation, a giant old oak tree in Glendale, appearing onscreen at left, witnessed the concluding scenes from The Circus.'

Charlie Chaplin in The Circus
Image from SilentLocations.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Ellen's Isle, Loch Katrine

Robert S. Duncanson, Vesuvius and Pompeii, 1870
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I now have just over a month left of my project to tweet a landscape a day for 2018.  It is never possible to predict how many 'likes' these will get - obviously I feel they're all interesting or beautiful in one way or another.  Possibly my least popular one this year, with just two 'likes' (one of which came from my mother!) was a Robert S. Duncanson landscape painting showing Vesuvius and Pompeii.  This, despite the fact I posted it with the hashtag #BlackHistoryMonth...  Clearly if anyone was looking for this hashtag during that particular month, they were not interested in my Duncanson painting.  He may have been the first prominent African-American landscape artist, but his style of painting is perhaps too unfashionable to excite much buzz on social media.  But his paintings are interesting in their own right - in my tweet I said that "in this view of Pompeii I particularly like that painting-within-a-painting, a large fresco resembling an outdoor cinema."

Robert S. Duncanson was born in 1821 in the state of New York. His grandfather was a freed slave from Virginia and his father lived there, until growing opposition to freed black men persuaded him to move north.  The family settled in Michigan and then, as a young man, Robert Duncanson taught himself painting in Cincinnati, 'the Athens of the West'.  His first significant landscape painting, Cliff Mine, Lake Superior (1848) was acquired by Charles Avery, one of several abolitionist patrons who bought his work. In 1853 he visited Europe and a year later he collaborated with the prominent African-American photographer James Presley Ball on an anti-slavery panoramic painting, Mammoth Pictorial Tour of the United States Comprising Views of the African Slave Trade.  When the Civil War began, he moved to Canada and then Britain, where he was particularly impressed by the Scottish Highlands.  He returned to America and died at the age of just 51, possibly due to the effects of lead poisoning.  The view of Vesuvius and Pompeii is thus a late work, inspired by his travels almost twenty years earlier.

Robert S. Duncanson, Blue Hole, Flood Waters, Little Miami River, 1851

Until this year, Duncanson did not have a tombstone.  However, it was good to come upon a report in the Detroit Free Press (via a JStor article last week), explaining that this is about to change. 
'For more than a century, his body has remained in Monroe, about 40 miles south of Detroit, with nothing but grass growing over his grave. Now, a small foundation marks the site of his burial awaiting the arrival of a tombstone.
“No one has asked about him — not in my lifetime,” said Michael Huggins, 55, the manager of the Historic Woodland Cemetery for the past two decades, and the person who helped find the exact location of Duncanson’s burial plot. 
[... Now] nearly a century and a half later, Monroe resident Dora Kelley is looking to rewrite a chapter of Duncanson’s life. Kelley worked with LeClair Monuments in Lambertville to design a sleek black granite tombstone for Duncanson complete with his full name, the year of his death and an etched version of his Ellen’s Isle painting from the DIA’s collection.  Kelley also chose a quote from the late artist to grace the monument, which speaks to Duncanson’s unprecedented position as a freeborn artist in the era of slavery: “I have no color on the brain; all I have on the brain is paint.”
Robert S. Duncanson, Ellen's Isle, Loch Katrine, 1871

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Land Makar


Land Makar is a half hour film by Margaret Tait, whose centenary is being celebrated this year.  Here is a brief description from the BFI's website, where it is listed as one of '10 films that defined Tait’s filmmaking style.'
'Starting with harvest, Land Makar (‘makar’ is a Scottish word for poet) is divided into seasons. The main character, Tait’s farming neighbour Mary Graham Sinclair, is filmed driving a tractor on the fields of an Orkney croft, going about her daily activity on the land and talking about “the beauty of a work day”. Tait started filming this place in 1977, observing the hard labour and activities that define the land. With Sinclair, she also explores the rarely told story of women and land labour.'
Maragaret Tait was a doctor-poet (like William Carlos Williams) as well as a film maker.  In a recent piece about Land Makar, for Sight and Sound, Becca Voelcker quotes the poem 'Now' in which Tait advises the reader to take poetry quickly, 'without water'.
'For Tait, poems are as ephemeral as wildflowers.  Prescribing a quickness of mind and body, like a capsule 'without water', the poem ends with urgency: 'Tomorrow they'll be something else.'  The poem, like Land Makar, imagines place as a cluster of transforming elements.  For Tait, landscape is a continuing process.'


I went to see Land Makar last week - it was part of the BFI season 'Rhythm and Poetry: The Films of Margaret Tait'.  Watching Sinclair on her tractor, scything long grass and climbing onto a compost heap, it was impossible not to admire her energy - all the physical effort put into this stretch of land.  At one point she recalls helping some swans build their nests (I caught the drift of this, but found the Orcadian dialect impossible to follow exactly).  Voelcker quotes another poem, 'The Scale of things', where Tait describes 'all the tiny plants and flowers / Which, together interlaced and inter-related, / Make the fine springing turf which people and animals / walk on.'  Crofters and poets (and swans) are makers' whose collective labour sustains the land.' 

Land Makar was shown at the NFT with The Drift Back (1956), a ten minute 'offical' documentary on the return of some families to Orkney, and The Big Sheep (1966), a 41 minute essay film concerning the landscape of East Sutherland, with striking music and sound effects.  Here is Margaret Tait's own description of The Big Sheep:
"A picture of East Sutherland in 1966. Tourists come north, coach-load after coach-load; and here is the countryside they come to see, dotted with sheep continually nibbling at grass and whin. Then the lamb sales, an open-air auction, after which the lambs are carried south, float after float. Vote, vote, vote, on the posters for a general election, but "Why don't you get your sheep to go and fight for you ? " echoes a voice from the past, at the sight of a recruiting poster at the local Drill Hall. In the glens stand stand roofless houses, as well as more ancient (prehistoric) remains, beside the Highland river.

PART TWO and the seaboard life of today; the railway line along the very edge of that marvellous strip of coast, school sports near the salmon river, crofter's fields where the Cheviot sheep now figure, local buses, electricity, the Highland Games and pibroch contest. Then John N MacAskill plays the "Lament for Donald of Laggan", while a small burn tumbles endlessly seaward, sometimes quietly, sometimes spate, and the film searches the same few yards of it again and again, watching along with the coalman who stands listening to the sound of it as if he could listen to it for ever."
It was that final sequence that I found most moving, with the pibroch constantly changing as it flowed from the pipes, before giving way to the natural music of the river.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Soundless hang mountain waterfalls, rainbows of jade

I have been reading J. D. Frodsham's translations, The Collected Poems of Li He, recently reissued by Calligrams.  If you are not familiar with Li He (790-816), here's how he's described in the blurb:
Li He is the bad-boy poet of the late Tang dynasty. He began writing at the age of seven and died at twenty-six from alcoholism or, according to a later commentator, “sexual dissipation,” or both. An obscure and unsuccessful relative of the imperial family, he would set out at dawn on horseback, pause, write a poem, and toss the paper away. A servant boy followed him to collect these scraps in a tapestry bag.
The book is wonderfully well-furnished with notes and an extensive introduction.  There is a short analysis of Li He's use of colour, similar to what I wrote about recently in relation to Georg Trakl (1887-1914).  Despite living 1,100 years and over 7000 km apart, Li He and Trakl had a lot in common.  I mentioned Trakl's use of black - 'black decay, black snow, black wind, black waters, black silence'.  For Li He, there was white, which in China is associated with mourning and misfortune.  'Even in the West, psychologists tend to associate a strong liking for white with psychic abnormality ... He's landscapes, drenched in this white radiance, shine with an unearthly pallor.' 

Li He in Wanxiaotang Zhuzhuang Huazhuan (1743)

Frodsham writes that Li He 'was haunted by the mystery of whiteness as another great, poet, Lorca, was haunted by the spell of green.'  This is a reference to Lorca's 'Romance Sonambulo' which begins 'Verde que te quiero verde', 'Green, how I want you green.'  Start looking for doomed poets who were obsessed with colour and you will quickly encounter other cases.  Dylan Thomas, for example, uses green 46 times in his poetry, black 39 and white 37.  This information comes from a 1972 article comparing Thomas and Lorca's use of green.  'Fern Hill' is the Thomas poem most infused with the colour green, where it means youth, innocence, and the hills and fields around a Carmarthenshire farmhouse where the poet went to stay as a boy.  

An analysis by Eliot Slater revealed that Shelley and Keats were 'relatively abundent' in their use of colour.  However, 'Shelley uses for the greater part straightforward and commonplace words: yellow, blue, snowy, purple, green, grey, white, black, golden, hoary, dun, azure, etc., and very rarely such exotic terms as "moonlight‑coloured". Keats is much freer with such words, and phrases as vermeil, damask, verdurous, Tyrian, rubious‑argent, ruddy gules, volcanian yellow, etc.'  Shelley favoured blue and green, Keats used white more than any other colour.

Which brings us back to Li He... J. D. Frodsham provides a table showing that white (bai), ecru (su) and jade-white (yu) appear 172 times in Li He's poetry.  After that, comes gold or metal (jin, 73), red (hong, 69), blue-green (ching, 68), emerald (lu, 48), yellow (huang, 45), sapphire (bi, 26) and purple (zi, 25).  Frodsham lists of some of the 'white' lines in Li's verse (which is what I did for Trakl, only with blue). For example,  

The entire mountain bathed in a white dawn
A white sky, water like raw silk.
Jade mist on green water / like pennants of white.
And, as Frodsham writes, it is against this pallid background that 'the other colours burn with a brilliant flame...'
A thousand hills of darkest emerald

Smoky yellow mantles the willows 

Twilight purple freezes in the dappled sky
I will end here with a longer quote, as these isolated lines cannot do Li He's poems (and Frodsham's translations) justice at all.  I think it should be alright to include one whole short poem here, 'Cold up North', which describes ice on the Yellow River (a subject I once wrote a whole post about here).  The poem is unusually straightforward for Li He, and requires no particular explanation.  In its colours, it moves from the darkness of a winter sky to the jade white of frozen waterfalls.
One quarter lours black while three turn purple,
Ice vaults the Yellow River, fish and dragons die.
Tree-bark three feet thick splits against the grain,
Chariots of a ton or more travel on the river.

Frost-flowers on the grass, big as silver-coins,
No brandished blade could penetrate the sombre sky.
Swirling in a raging sea the flying ice-floes roar,
Soundless hang mountain waterfalls, rainbows of jade.

Monday, October 29, 2018

The Narrow Waters

In Julien Gracq's fluvial revery The Narrow Waters (1976) he recalls the childhood sensation of being drawn down the river Evre by an almost imperceptible current.  It was a memory that would provoke intense pleasure when he came to read 'The Domain of Arnheim', a story by Edgar Allan Poe that I discussed here a few years ago, in which the narrator's skiff seems to be pulled along by an invisible force. Then, again, 'years later, Lohengrin's swan moving up- and downstream on the imaginary waterways of the opera scene recalled once again, momentarily, that sensation of an almost troubling happiness.'  I too love this image of a boat gliding with no obvious means of propulsion, taking its passenger to some special destination.  It can be found in various legends associated, like Lohengrin, with King Arthur: indeed the Grail itself is said to have arrived in Britain this way, carried by Joseph of Arimathea in a ship guided by God.  

Wang Ximeng, A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains (detail), 1113

Later in The Narrow Waters, Gracq returns to the theme of the effortless river journey.
'Only Chinese painting (Song Dynasty landscapes in particular) has been haunted by the humble theme of a solitary rowboat moving through a wooded gorge.  Clearly the great charm of such an image derives from the contrast between the sheer physical effort evoked by the steep slopes and the level, incredible ease of the river flowing eternally between peaks: the jubilant feeling born, in the dreamer's consciousness, of the discovery of an effortless solution to contradictions here becomes a fixed reality.  Vaulted tree branches beneath which one glides along, branches of rock-loving pines that hang in angles over the water in Chinese drawings, intensify the feeling of calm intoxication and can give way, in a moment - with the whimsy of a ribbon of water ringed by precipices - to a protected intimacy, the alluring fancy of canopies of trees cradling a canal that runs straight into the horizon.'
At the end of the book, Gracq reflects on why he is not tempted to return to the Evre and make this journey again. It is 'not the fear of dispelling the charm of memories.  Rather, it's the impossibility of reanimating a dream, or at least of finding again its rhythm which, although devoid of any notion of speed, never ceases to change.'

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Nothing will take place, but the place.


Flicking through a book my son got out of the library last week called 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, I came to the year 1982.  Bladerunner, E.T, Gandhi are all there of course, but the first 'movie' you come to for that year is Trop Tôt, Trop Tard by Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet.  The half page entry for this film (Too Early, Too Late in English) was written by Jonathan Rosenbaum, who calls it 'one of the best landscape films', making me wonder if perhaps he could write a book called 1001 Landscape Films You Must See Before You Die.  His entry in the book is reproduced in full online, so I will quote its description of the film here:
'The first part shows a series of locations in contemporary France, accompanied by Huillet reading part of a letter Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Kautsky describing the impoverished state of French peasants, and excerpts from the “Notebooks of Grievances” compiled in 1789 by the village mayors of those same locales in response to plans for further taxation. The especially fine second section, roughly twice as long, does the same thing with a more recent Marxist text by Mahmoud Hussein about Egyptian peasants' resistance to English occupation prior to the “petit-bourgeois” revolution of Neguib in 1952. Both sections suggest that the peasants revolted too soon and succeeded too late. One of the film's formal inspirations is Beethoven's late quartets, and its slow rhythm is central to the experience it yields; what's remarkable about Straub and Huillet's beautiful long takes is how their rigorous attention to both sound and image seems to open up an entire universe, whether in front of a large urban factory or out on a country road.' 

None of the landscape footage in the film is particularly picturesque, it just seems to record the countryside as the filmmakers found it.  This unprepossessing muddy track, for example, appears just over an hour into the film, in the Egyptian section. The camera slowly pans across fields to this point and stays motionless for almost five minutes as a few figures pass, going about their business.  The view is fixed. You cannot turn around to see what a noise off screen might be or look more closely at something in the foreground. As people slowly approach you are almost forced to wonder what brought them here at this particular moment, about their lives and the lives of everyone around them.

The length, form and sequence of shots in the film seems almost arbitrary, so when this one ends at the point that an aeroplane can be heard overhead, you wonder if you should hear this as a symbol and a reminder that there is nothing 'timeless' in this view, or simply regard it as another chance element of the soundscape. The shot that follows this is another long take, this time from a vehicle travelling along a road.  Watching this reminded me of recent experiments in slow television, although these have been much more glossy and set in landscapes with clear visual appeal.  The rather grainy 16mm footage of Too Early, Too Late is sometimes reminiscent of Shoah, which I wrote about here last year.  Landscape in these films has to convey authenticity, both in the moment of its filming and the political history it has passed through.  

In 2011 Staub was interviewed during the Egyptian uprising, which seemed to add another layer of meaning to the film. The opening exchange does not auger well: 'Céline Condorelli: I only have three questions for you. Jean-Marie Straub: That’s very good, because I don’t have anything to say about this film.'  However, Straub does have some interesting things to say, e.g. about the reasons for juxtaposing as 'a diptych' the French and Egyptian footage - 'to compare places that in France look deserted with places that in Egypt are full of life and people.'  I will conclude here with three quotes from the interview, pertaining to landscape.
CC: [...] How does one choose the appropriate position for the camera?  JMS: That is the least one can do when filming…. You need to go there and walk around. Walk around a place or a village three times, and find the right topographic, strategic point. In a way that one may be able to see something, but without destroying the mystery of what one sees… but this isn’t specific to this film, this is the case in all our films.
JMS: [...] There is an element of fiction, but it comes from the place itself. When you see a donkey passing by chance, and of course this only happened for one take, pulled with a rope by a man, with a woman sitting on it… of course this becomes mythological.  Things like this cannot be anticipated, and are the gift of chance. But of course you need to have enough time, margins, and space for things like that to occur.
CC: But does the topography speak, can it have a voice?  JMS: Well cinema is, or should be, the art of space. Even though a film exists only if that space is able to become time. But the basic work is space. As Mallarmé said: “Nothing will take place, but the place.”