Saturday, March 28, 2020

Scrub and quarry

Painting en plein air can bring many unexpected problems, from the bandits encountered by Thomas Jones to the waves that drenched Claude Monet.  The British artist Ray Atkins has not made it easy for himself:
'He sets up his boards – sometimes up to 10 foot wide, and weighing a hundredweight – in the landscape he's painting, tethering the work to the ground with rocks and leaving them in situ for weeks at a time. Obviously this method leaves the work at the mercy of the elements and of vandals - indeed, one of his monumental works of the Thames at Millwall ended up floating downstream after his secret painting place was discovered by local vandals.' (The Guardian, October 2012)
Wind is a particular risk if you're going to set up pictures on this scale - once one of Atkins' pictures ended up at the bottom of a quarry, as William Feaver noted in his catalogue essay for a 1996 retrospective.

Catalogue for the 1996 Ray Atkins exhibition at Art Space Gallery, Bristol

It would be easy to criticise this approach to painting as playing out the stereotype of 'man' against nature.  But William Feaver argued that
'there is no need to label Atkins 'heroic' in his persistence. The difficulties he makes for himself are essential to the outcome. Without them he would lack the resistance necessary for deep impetus. Painting on board rather than canvas gives him another sort of resistance. He dedicates himself to laborious cultivation; his is a kind of fieldcraft and makes him more the hunter-farmer than the painter of pleasing projects.' 
Feaver was impressed by Atkins's paintings of Cornwall, which were mainly done inland in an environment of 'scrub and quarry, land worked over and worked out.'  Scrapyard IV (1989) is particularly striking - 'crumpled colours dumped on the landscape'.

Eventually Atkins left Cornwall for the French Pyrennees, where he still lives and paints.  There is a YouTube video of him made in 2018 which shows a soft-focus sun-dappled landscape a world away from the docks of Millwall and scrapyards of Cornwall.  Here, near his home, you see him fixing up one of his boards in a field and beginning to work, before breaking off to enjoy the sunset.  As someone says at the end of the film, artistic fame may have passed him by, but at least he has been able to spend a lifetime painting.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Driving with Greenland Dogs

In these days of forced isolation, lots of people are turning to film streaming sites.  If you are interested in silent movies, I can highly recommend the Danish Film Institute's new site which so far has 64 good quality videos from the Golden Age of Danish cinema, including classics like The Abyss and A Trip to Mars.  The first Danish film, Peter Elfelt's Driving with Greenland Dogs (1897), can also be seen there in all its 40-second glory.  It is like a haiku in its brevity, single memorable incident and strong seasonal imagery.  Of course this film's original viewers would have been amazed by the way motion is captured, but viewing it now, what I like is the moment of stillness half way through, after the sled has left the shot and before it enters again from the other side (see image above).  For a second or so you just see a winter landscape with a line of trees like musical notes on the high horizon and fresh tracks written in the snow.

Another film you can see on is Løvejagten (The Lion Hunt, 1907) made by Ole Olsen's Nordisk Film and directed by Viggo Larsen.  It is an extraordinary eleven minutes - a catalogue of tasteless moments that I can't really do justice to in a short description (do all hunters enjoy a sort of post-coital cigarette with the carcass?)  Attitudes change, but even back then the film caused an uproar because the two lions (bought by Olsen from Hamburg Zoo) were actually killed.  Even before these poor creatures and the film they starred in were shot, the Danish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was protesting in vain to the Minister for Justice.  The publicity just helped the film become a success. 

Most stories from the early years of cinema with external scenes were set somewhere easy to simulate with local scenery.  But Denmark is not well-endowed with jungles and so one was recreated in Jægersborg Dyrehave near Copenhagen, a beautiful deer park (as I recall from visiting it once) but not an obvious setting for a lion hunt.  There's something a bit Douanier Rousseau about the scenes filmed there, with unnatural looking tropical plants sticking out of woodland paths.  The shore on which the lions met their end (see above) doesn't exactly bring to mind a tropical beach either - this scene was filmed on the island of Elleore in Roskilde fjord and watching it you can almost feel the cold wind whipping off the sea.

I will end here with something more uplifting, two lovely tinted photographs which can be found in an article on Danish art cinema by .  He speculates that early non-dramatic travelogue films (now lost) may have had 'atmospheric exteriors' resembling picturesque postcards,
'as could possibly be demonstrated by one of the two Nordisk films Fiskerliv i Norden [literally: Being a Fisherman in the Nordic Countries] (Viggo Larsen, 1906) or Ved Havet [literally: By the Sea] (Ole Olsen, 1909). These two fisherman tales only survive in a Swedish distribution copy in which the two were cut together, but what remains contains two beautiful tinted atmospheric inserts of a moonlit and sunset seascape though it is unclear in which of the two these are featured.'
This footage is not yet available on Stumfilm but perhaps under current circumstances the Danish Film Institute will be able to add more titles like this soon.

Friday, March 20, 2020

A Lane Near Arles

One of the many pleasures of Vincent van Gogh's paintings is the way he changes his style of painting at different places in the composition whilst retaining their overall harmony.  Here we have densely stippled foliage, a path defined by broad strokes of yellow and lavender, and a sky in which the zig-zag swirls of blue suggest the movements of a Provençal breeze. As you can see below, there are also blocks of pure colour - the green of the fields, the yellow of the house, the blue (!) of the tree trunks.  But it all works perfectly together. The same can be said of other landscapes from this time, like Farmhouse in Provence with its wonderful lilac wall and turquoise sky.  You imagine van Gogh looking at these landscapes and intuiting the phenomena before him - tree, path, sky - in such a way that the right means of conveying them in paint came almost instinctively.

Vincent van Gogh, A Lane Near Arles, 1888

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Wandering on the Tiantai Mountains

Unknown artist, Jade Mountain Illustrating 
the Gathering of Scholars at the Lanting Pavilion, 1790
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This landscape in jade shows Mount Kuaiji (in present-day Zhejiang) and the celebrated Orchard Pavilion Gathering that took place there during the Spring Purification Festival on the third day of the third month in the year 353.  The event is most famous for a piece of calligraphy, the Lantingji Xu - 'Preface to the Poems Collected from the Orchid Pavilion' written by Wang Xizhi (303-361).  He describes the location, with its
'mighty mountains and towering ridges covered with lush forests and tall bamboo, where a clear stream with swirling eddies cast back a sparkling light upon both shores.  From this we cut a winding channel in which to float our wine cups, and around this everyone took their appointed seats.  True, we did not have harps and flutes of a great feast, but a cup of wine and a song served well enough to free our most hidden feelings.' (trans. Stephen Owen)
Feng Chengsu, Tang Dynasty copy of Wang Xizhi's Lantingji Xu (now lost) 
Source: Wikimedia Commons

There were forty-two literati at this famous party and one of them was the poet Sun Chuo (Sun Ch'o, 314-71), whose fu 'Wandering on the Tiantai Mountains' has also been translated by Stephen Owen.  Here is an extract:
... I pushed through thickets,     dense and concealing,
I scaled sheer escarpments     looming above me.
I waded the You Creek,      went straight on ahead,
left five borders behind me     and fared swiftly forward.
I strode over arch     of a Sky-Hung Walkway,
looked down ten thousand yards     lost in its blackness;
I trod upon mosses     of slippery rock,
clung to the Azure Screen     that stands like a wall ...
Burton Watson has also translated this poem and writes of Sun's journey that 'as he proceeds up the mountain, the scenery becomes increasingly fantastic and idealized, until at the end he reaches a plane of pure philosophy, in which Taoist and Buddhist allusions are balanced one against the other.'

Dai Xi,  Rain-coming Pavilion by the Stone Bridge at Mt. Tiantai, 1848
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Sky-Hung Walkway referred to in this poem was a natural stone bridge.  It has often been depicted in art - The Smithsonian has a twelfth century painting of it by Zhou Jichang and they describe it as follows:
'The natural rock bridge spanning a waterfall is one Tiantai's most famous sights. According to legend, this arch is also a pathway to paradise where the five-hundred luohan, saintly guardians of the Buddhist faith, worship and dwell among magnificent celestial temples. Those who venture to tread this perilous trail, however, find that the bridge, which narrows to a width of several centimeters, is obstructed at its far end by an insurmountable block of stone.'
There are some photographs online of tourists admiring what I assume is this same rock bridge (e.g. on Wikimedia).  In the Japanese ink painting below by Soga Shōhaku (1730–1781) it looks much more spectacular.  In this dramatic scene a mother lion throws cubs over the cliff to see which will succeed in life by being able to climb back up to her.

Soga Shōhaku, Lions at the Stone Bridge of Mount Tiantai, 1790 
Source: Met Museum

An article by Zornica Kirkova explains that Mount Tiantai also features in a poem by Sun Chuo’s friend, the Buddhist monk Zhidun (314–366).  This 'opens in the idyllic setting of a spring garden, where the poet leisurely reflects on the passage of time and, “moved by things” ... lets his thoughts soar up to the sacred realm of the Celestial Terrace Mountain'.
The piping creek plays clear tunes.
Empyrean cliffs nurture numinous mists,
Divine plants, holding moisture, grow.
Cinnabar sand shimmers in the turquoise stream,
Fragrant mushrooms sparkle with the five brilliances.
In this poem, 'the mountains are envisioned as a sublime and sacred realm of purity and beauty.'  As with Sun Chuo, more realistic images - the cool breeze, the clear tunes of the creek - are combined with 'fantastic paradise depictions, pertaining to the theme of immortality (eternal divine plants, cinnabar sand, magic mushrooms)'.  It is easy to forget when you read poetry like this that it is a real mountain, so I will end here with an image from the internet taken with an iPhone 6S in June 2016, 1,663 years after the Orchard Pavilion Gathering.

The cliffs of Mount Tiantai
Source: Huangdan2060

Saturday, February 29, 2020

White torrents and emerald depths

Because this blog focuses on the arts, I have rarely mentioned books by geographers, although it goes without saying that they often write beautifully about landscape.  In A Commentary on the Book of Rivers, Li Tao-Yuan (Li Daoyuan, d. 527) quoted no less than 437 different sources, but he also drew on his own memories and included the kind of description that would become common in future Chinese travel writing.  His monumental book was an expansion of an earlier author's Guide to Rivers, now lost, and it described 1,389 Chinese rivers (or 1,252 - I've seen both numbers quoted, but either way, that's a lot of water).

Li is regarded as the first writer to describe the famous Three Gorges landscape in detail.  For example:
'When winter turns to spring, there are white torrents and emerald depths; reflections appear upside down in the swirling eddies. Many oddly shaped junipers grow forth from jagged mountain peaks from which waterfalls plummet clamorously. Pure, verdant, lofty, flourishing—such qualities provide innumerable kinds of fascination. After a storm has cleared, or on frosty mornings, among forests chilled and streams desolate, the loud cry of a gibbon is often heard, prolonged and mournful. As it echoes through the empty valleys, its despairing wail lingers before disappearing. So the fishermen sing,
Of the Three Gorges in Eastern Pa
   Shaman Gorge is the longest.
Three cries of the gibbon
   and one's clothes become drenched with tears.'
Xie Shichen, Clouds and Waves at the Wu Gorge, 1368

This translation is from Richard E. Strassberg's Inscribed Landscapes, a wonderful book I have quoted from here before.  Strassberg also includes Li's descriptions of two other landscapes.  Meng's Gate Mountain (Meng-men-shan) straddles the Yellow River and Li describes its slanting cliffs with giant boulders poised to fall, white mist on the water where currents collide and colossal waves that 'multiply and collapse all the way down to the outlet.'  Lotus Mountain (Hua-shan) is one of the Five Sacred Mountains of China and Li describes climbing it: ascending through junipers and past shrines and rock altars until, at the summit, he is able to see two sacred springs, one called Reed Pond that flows westwards, and the other, Supremely Exalted Spring, flowing east.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

An artificial island on the Arno

Netherlandish Master, after Jacques Callot, 
The Mock Battle Between the Weavers' and Dyers' Guilds
on the Arno in Florence on 25 July 1619 (detail), c. 1620

In seventeenth century Florence there was an annual festival in which the Weavers' and Dyers' Guilds fought for possession of an artificial hill, built in the middle of the river.  This painting of the event, in Frankfurt's Städel Museum, was based on an etching by the French artist Jacques Callot (1592-1635).  Several museums have copies of Callot's print, which was made in the form of a fan.  The Grand Duke, Cosimo II, had these fans made before the event and distributed to the spectators.  It would be good if one of the people shown in the foreground of this picture could be seen holding one of those fans, but I can't see one. Callot may have included one though in his original design, as a Courtauld blog post about the print explains.

From a landscape perspective I would love to know more about this artificial island.  Who designed it?  How was it made?  It looks pretty big.  How was it anchored so that it didn't drift away or collapse under the weight of the battling weavers and dyers? An earlier artificial island on the Arno, complete with a temple, had been constructed as part of the extravagant wedding celebrations for Cosimo and Maria Magdalena on the 18 October 1608.  It was the stage for a re-enactment of Jason and the Golden Fleece and you can see it in the print below by Matthaeus Greuter (1564–1638).  But this doesn't look as impressive as the one built in 1619, which resembles a real landscape.  Did this hill only look real from a distance?  Were actual trees used?  I imagine a group of picnickers rowing out to enjoy this temporary idyll on the night before the battle.

Has anyone done a study of such islands?  They seem to have featured prominently in various European festivals and royal pageants.  In 1638, for example, another Medici, the Queen of France, was led in procession to an artificial island in the Amstel River for a display of dramatic tableaux. In England, Queen Elizabeth was entertained at Kenilworth Castle in 1575 with a famous display that included a floating island with the Lady of the Lake attended by nymphs (these festivities may have inspired Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream). There is an interesting description on the Brown University site, of one of these islands, made for the marriage of Louise-Elizabeth of France and Philip, prince and grand admiral of Spain, in August 1739.  It was not designed to resemble a natural island; this was pure stagecraft - it even contained a salon for an eighty-piece orchestra.
'The structure was suspended on two large boats which were concealed beneath the artificial rock outcroppings along the island’s perimeter. ... The citizens of Paris would instantly recognize that the island was not part of the natural landscape, but an illusionary construct on the river’s surface. However, rather than detracting from its ability to awe, in fact it added to the island’s captivating quality. The entirety of the structure was created for the conspicuous consumption of the spectators.'

Friday, February 21, 2020

Mirages of landscapes leaping upwards

In July 1942, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Tullio Crali published in Rome a Futurist Manifesto entitled 'Plastic Illusionism of War and Perfecting the Earth'.  It was inspired by Crali's work on camouflage projects and it suggests that the 'plastic illusionism' used in Futurist painting could be used both to deceive enemy pilots and confuse them with 'visions of accelerated fractured cityscapes' and 'mirages of landscapes leaping upwards'.  And it goes further, arguing that the landscape itself could be altered - giving 'a volumetric character to plains', for example, by raising up artificial mountains.  These points read like a manifesto for Land Art and indeed Crali himself later argued that he had 'anticipated the interventions of American artists in this sphere by thirty years.'  In their vision for 'perfecting the earth', Marinetti and Crali wanted to 'refine the severe rugged aspects of wartime landscapes and cityscapes and their brutal masses.'  They would both 'virilise' and 'feminise' war-torn Italy, spirtualising and purifying it through the interventions of aeropainters, aeropoets, aeroarchitects and aeromusicians.

The aeropaintings of Tullio Crali are currently on display at the Estorick Gallery - their earlier exhibition devoted to the aeropainter Gerardo Dottori was the subject of a post I wrote here back in 2014.  Crali was much younger than Futurists like Dottori and Marinetti; he was only born in 1910, the year of the first Futurist Manifesto, and he lived until 2000, long after Futurism had become part of art history.  By the time the American Land Artists were coming to attention, Crali was a step ahead, thinking about extraterrestrial artworks.and writing his Futurist Manifesto of 'Orbital Art' (1969).  Some examples of his ideas are below - I particularly like the idea of the 'message-trains of audiovisual poetry' heading out into the cosmos like the Voyager golden record.

Another of Crali's artistic projects at that time (for which he had written a Manifesto in 1959) were the Sassintessi, compositions of stones mounted on neutral black or white backgrounds.  These were originally inspired by trips to Ploumanac'h where he saw the rocks that had fascinated earlier artists like Eileen Agar (her photographs have been admired, in turn, by Tacita Dean - see my earlier post, 'Rocks at Ploumenac’h, Brittany').  In her review of the Crali exhibition, Laura Cumming notes the novelty of the Sassintessi and thinks that 'every now and again they hit the mark, when Crali takes some sea-carved rock and twists it out of kilter, so that it suddenly looks like a rushing futurist figure.'  I was intrigued by the idea and by some examples, like Future Fossil of the Mechanical Civilisation (1963) which would fit right into a contemporary Anthropocene-themed exhibition.  Crali's rock collecting also inspired his son Massimo, who became a geologist.  Massimo's wife, Anna, was partly responsible for the exhibition and has been interviewed about it for a piece in the Telegraph.  

Finally, I should mention Tullio Crali's paintings.  After the war, he made various aerial views that combine abstract space with details of lakes or mountain peaks.  They reminded me a bit of Peter Lanyon's later works, particularly in the way they convey the intense blue of the sky.  Even as a nineteen-year old, Crali was making interesting compositions of intersecting clouds and planes of light, expressing the excitement of his first flight in 1928 ("the rebelliousness of the wind, air pockets, steep climbs: everything was wondrous...")  Arcs of overlapping colour are used to great effect in Lights at Sunset in Ostia (1930).  As Laura Cumming writes, this captures a moment when 'the shadows of hill and vale deepen, and rays of dying light arch between earth and sky. Translucent green patches stand for trees and clouds, and everything meets at the vanishing point of the ocean, radiant and serene – perhaps the most beautiful scene Crali ever painted.'