Thursday, April 18, 2019


It could be argued that John and Yoko made a form of landscape art in Apotheosis (1970), their seventeen minute experimental film of the view from an ascending balloon.  It was shot in December 1969, on a snowy day in Lavenham, Suffolk.  At the beginning you hear the balloon being inflated and see John and Yoko in hooded outfits.  It then becomes clear that the camera is mounted in the balloon, which rises out of the market place until you can see white fields and black trees that could have come from a Bruegel  painting.  This landscape gets progressively whiter and more indistinct until it eventually disappears.  After several minutes, the balloon emerges above the clouds which, in the words of Jonas Mekas, 'opened up like a huge poem, you could see the tops of the clouds, all beautifully enveloped by sun, stretching into infinity.'

Back in 2010, The East Anglian Daily Times published an article about the film and interviewed people who were there that day, such as Roger Deacon, manager of a local building firm, who remembers helping to lift the famous couple out of their balloon.
'John and Yoko didn’t take off on the flight, climbing out of the basket after the photographs to oversee the launch – to shouts of “chicken!” from the gathered crowd – while their collaborator and cameraman, Nic Knowland (himself a Suffolk man, originally from Debenham), ensured the shoot was carried out to their requirements.'
In his essay 'Walking on thin Ice: The Films of Yoko Ono', Daryl Chin compares Apotheosis to the contemporary work of Michael Snow (La Région Centrale, Snow's celebrated three-hour film of an uninhabited mountainous landscape, made with a robotic camera, was shot in September 1970).  However, The East Anglian Daily Times was not impressed by Apotheosis
'The best thing you could say about it is that it left the people of Lavenham - and Yoko - with some bizarre and brilliant memories (“We always have a laugh about it,” says Roger Deacon. “Not many people can say they’ve had their hands around Yoko Ono!”)
Other than that, it was a lot of hot air.'

Friday, April 12, 2019

The Living Stones

The Living Stones (1957) is one of two illustrated travelogues written by surrealist Ithell Colquhoun in the mid 1950s and recently re-published by Peter Owen. They now come with a foreword by comedian and Colquhoun fan Stewart Lee (who, funnily enough, doesn’t mention the negative view of jokes and comedy she expresses on p212 of The Living Stones).  It is easy to see why they have been reprinted now, in a period where so many people have been delving into folk rituals, ancient stones and hidden landscapes.  The Living Stones is an exploration of what we would now call the psychogeography of West Cornwall.  Ithell Colquhoun may be most familiar as an artist (her 1938 painting Scilla in the Tate is a well known example of bodily forms as landscape - two rocks like a woman’s thighs and a patch of seaweed resembling pubic hair), but she was also prominent in esoteric circles. Lee calls her a gnostic travel guide and says that her drawings and cryptic titles originally drew him to buy these volumes, as part of ‘the long-standing folk-mystic second-hand book bender I’m still on.’

I will quote here from the penultimate chapter, ‘Hills of Michael’, in which Colquhoun describes what she calls ‘the ancient centres of Michael-force.’  One Michaelmas Day she climbed a hill to find Chapel Carn Brea, only to find that ‘the summit was littered with dismal reminders of the war, when a radar station had been established here.’
Disused defences collect about them a miasma-like aura which infects them almost physically; this happens to no other buildings in the same degree. Whether this emanation is due to the residues of hatred, fear, boredom and sex-frustration left by the servicemen who have been stationed in them I do not know, but they constitute a centre of astral pestilence. For this reason alone they should be destroyed, but since a plea for their liquidation based on such grounds would be disregarded, one can only point out their deleterious effect on amenity, which is serious enough.  
Turning from this ‘unsavoury debris’ she looked towards a small granite carn and felt drawn to it as ‘the chief remaining vortex of the Michael-force on this much impaired centre’.
Here, perhaps, was the site of that Chapel of St Michael de Bree, which was granted in 1396 by the Mount’s prior to the hermit Ralph de Bolouhal. He kept a light burning in it for the guidance of travellers and fisherman by night, While during the hours of light its whitewashed walls would serve, like those of many coastal shrines, as a day mark. Leaning against the massive boulders or reclining in the shelter they afforded from a wind which otherwise would have made me cough, I mused for an hour, enveloped in air, space and sunlight.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Banana Plantation

John Dunkley, Banana Plantation, c. 1945

A recent New York Review of Books introduced me to the art of John Dunkley (1891 - 1947), a self-taught Jamaican painter whose landscapes remind me of Samuel Palmer's.  He was apparently familiar with Blake, Henri Rousseau, Surrealism and even Chinese painting, which was championed by the art historian in charge of the Institute of Jamaica, where Dunkley spent much of his time when he wasn't working as a barber.  In the NYRB article, Sanford Schwartz notes the aptness of the recent exhibition's title, 'John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night': darkness seems to be ever-present in these paintings.  Here is how Schwartz describes Dunkley's landscapes.  
'They take us less to Jamaica (or to the island of popular imagination) than into the mind of someone who happened to be Jamaican. Dunkley’s pictures, which generally are not of particular places in his country, are in many instances like crosses between little theater sets and the creations of a landscape architect. The painter’s characters, so to speak, are meaty plants, assertive leaves, and cumbrous rosettes (or clusters of leaves), which he makes resemble heads of enormous cauliflowers. There are tidy stone walls, brand-new-looking log fences, and strange cut-down trees, which stick out here and there like baseball bats and can strike viewers, we read in the catalog, as “unabashedly phallic.”
[... His backgrounds] are marked by roads or canals—or allées, river beds, shoreline bluffs, or walkways—that swerve, or zoom off in straight lines, into complete darkness. Next to the stilled and emphatic vegetable life at center stage, these many routes to or from somewhere provide a welcome cursive elegance and sense of movement. We are not sure if they represent invitations to depart from our garden world or stand for uncertainties that our garden world keeps us from facing.'
As this exhibition won't be crossing the Atlantic, I can't see Dunkley's intriguing-sounding paintings for myself.  However, here is another description of them, from a review in the New York Times by Roberta Smith (the eminent art critic, nothing to do with the British artist Bob and Roberta Smith):
'Working in a faded-tapestry palette of mostly black, dark brown and white tinted with green, rose and yellow, he energized his images with disorienting shifts in scale, perspective and form. Bushes and trees suggest large vegetables or flowers; chopped-off tree trunks intimate water pipes, corncobs or phalluses. The branches they sprout are often trees unto themselves. Numerous paths and lanes disappear into dark forests or tunnels while reinforcing the flatness of the canvas. The paint textures range from a thick stucco (used mostly for sheep) to a thinned-down Impressionism (thatches of strokes that denote either grassy banks or overflowing water). Sexual tensions abound, along with a mood that has been called melancholy or gloomy.'
 John Dunkley, Back to Nature, 1939

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Places from the Other Side

My favourite parts of Václav Cílek's To Breathe With Birds (2015) are those descriptions of sites in Bohemia that lead off into speculation on the meaning of landscape, and his references to Mitteleuropean culture that are unfamiliar to English readers.  Just one example of the latter: 'the painter Václav Rabas used to say that it is important to find one's own square kilometer of landscape and try to understand it.' A footnote explains that Rabas (1885-1954) was a landscape painter whose artistic focus for several decades was a small agricultural area near Krušovice, a village to the west of Prague.'  The book's twelfth essay, 'Places from the Other Side', is perhaps the best example of his writing on the landscape of the Czech Republic, focusing on sites in the Sudetenland - former kaolin mines, depopulated villages, a musical city where 'trout jump joyfully' above the rivers in summertime...  There are references to Kafka, Borges and Adalbert Stifter but Cilek's focus is on what he experiences.  At a spot where Goethe once picked up phenocrysts of feldspar, Cilek is filled with gratitude by the simple sound of the river in the deepening night.  This region's beautiful old towns - Loket, Úterý, Rabštejn, Slavonice - are fragments of a forgotten dream, like Calvino's Invisible Cities

The last essay in the book, 'Bees of the Invisible', sets out what Cilek has learned about landscape in his decades as an earth scientist and writer. I will briefly paraphrase his twelve 'rules' here, which 'shouldn't be taken too seriously, because the essence of a place and the essence of a person cannot be captured in a single schema'.
  1. The Rule of Home: we must travel, but we are at home in only one landscape
  2. The Rule of Resonance: finding a small place that resonates for you is better than making a large pilgrimage where you are just a visitor
  3. The Rule of Irreplaceability: certain places and cities cannot be replaced by others
  4. The Rule of Blowing: our spirits are blown to certain places; we must respect these sites and that which moved us to go to them 
  5. The Rule of Various Viewpoints: aesthetic, historical and scientific appreciation of landscape are equally important
  6. The Rule of the Lid - some landscapes are covered, their essence concealed
  7. The Rule of Return - it is necessary to return continually to some sites for them to reveal themselves
  8. The Law of the Slow Approach - certain places require respect and an indirect approach
  9. The Rule of Friendly Teasing - if a landscape responds to active questioning its answers may be misleading
  10. The Rule of Sacred Games - the images a landscape conjures may refer to real events, but they may also be impossible to explain
  11. The Rule of Culmination - the spirit of a place grows and changes over the centuries
  12. and finally, The Rule of Mutual Awakening

'By traveling to places, we awaken and heal the earth, which repays us. A place in the landscape corresponds to a place in the heart.'

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

A dark and desolate place

... it seems to me that I had a dream
And in that dream
I am suddenly woken up by
the fracas of deafening explosions.
I open my eyes
on infinite smoke and fog.
The incandescence of the ground
under my feet reveals to me that
I am in a dark and desolate place.
With one glance around me I discover
That I have arrived at the edge
of the well of hell.

Zhao Liang’s documentary, Behemoth (2015), on environmental destruction and the blighting of lives in Inner Mongolia, is consciously modelled on Dante's The Divine Comedy.  The black pits created by mining and the fiery furnace in which men toil, shaping lumps of metal, certainly resemble Hell. Later in the film we see the grey industrial Purgatory that has arisen where once the steppe was verdant grassland.  Finally, in a brilliantly ironic touch, we reach Paradise: the ghost city of Ordos, built by developers with the materials that have caused so much suffering to extract, but empty of all life except a solitary street cleaner.  Zhao, interviewed for the Walker Art Centre by someone with the appropriate name of Bosch, said he read The Divine Comedy whilst making the film.  At several points we see a 'guide', walking ahead with a mirror on his back, reflecting the landscape.
'The pneumoconiosis patients who carry the mirror represent the poet Virgil, who leads Dante. The naked guy in the broken mirror represents “me”—and is also Dante himself. The mirror being carried on the back and the broken mirror echoed each other. The black frame symbolizes death. The broken mirror also symbolizes broken mountains and rivers.'

A review of the film for The Guardian points to some obvious visual reference points:
'Panoramic shots of the mines, and the termite trail of trucks that crawl down the side of these gouged-out wounds in the land, evoke iconic photographs by Sebastiao Salgado of the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil. There are also parallels with the work of Edward Burtynsky, whose large-format shots of factories and industrial blight were the subject of Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary Manufactured Landscapes, and with Dorothea Lange’s seminal portraits of Americans displaced by the Great Depression.'
Some critics have felt that Zhao could have given the workers more of a voice, rather than simply filming them as they worked and later, trying to wash away the filth of the day. But Zhao told The New York Times that he didn't need "to introduce the background of each person specifically. All we know is that this is a group of people who’ve been tossed about on earth and in the end they didn’t get anything. Their bodies are worn out and the environment is damaged. That’s all.”

Footnote: the lines quoted at the start of this post I found on a movie script site.  I could have used the slightly different English version in the subtitles for the film, but the translation seems less good.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Winter Night in the Mountains

Harald Sohlberg, Flower Meadow in the North, 1905
Images: Wikimedia Commons

The Dulwich Picture Gallery have done it again with another superb show and catalogue: this time devoted to the Norwegian landscapes paintings of Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935). When I featured him last year in my 'tweet of the day' sequence I chose 'Flower Meadow in the North', with its extraordinary carpet of flowers.  Sohlberg was known for his very precise rendering of detail, against the prevailing impressionist fashion, but he didn't do this everywhere on his canvases, as can be seen here in the way the daisies become a blur of white in the middle ground. 

The catalogue includes his beautiful study of daisies in pen and pencil - it reminded me of the gentle precision of Laurie Clark's flower drawings.  Looking at the full size painting as opposed to a reproduction, I was really struck by the way the flowers in the foreground seem to float loose from the canvass. Your eye is led from them to those dark bushes which, as the curators point out, resemble an assembly of figures.  Then, beyond these, the silvery-white river and low sun.  It all looks so fresh and modern and yet the frame and label don't look as if they have been cleaned for a century, reminding you of how much time has actually passed since Sohlberg sketched these flowers and view of a river, so as to combine them in his memorable composite image.

 Harald Sohlberg, Winter Night in the Mountains, 1914

I could talk here about many of Sohlberg's paintings but will focus here on Winter Night in the Mountains, (1914) described by Øivind Storm Bjerke in his catalogue essay as 'arguably the most compelling symbolic expression of the sublime in Norwegian painting'. The exhibition also includes other versions and sketches dating back to 1899, when Sohlberg first visited the mountains on an arduous eight-day ski trekking holiday 'organsied as a kind of polar expedition'.  

Winter Night in the Mountains is initially most striking for its colours, although this could be said of almost all Sohlberg's paintings.  The blue that dominates the upper half of the painting in 1901 is everywhere in the 1914 version.  Øivind Storm Bjerke discusses the influence of colour symbolism in the nineteenth century, going back to Romanticism and the Blue Flower of Novalis and stretching to Edvard Munch, who had used a reduced palette in his recent paintings.   

Although Sohlberg's contemporaries were painting mountians (Hodler and Segantini, for example), he was more familiar with the legacy of Norwegian Romantic artists like Johan Christian Dahl and Thomas Fearnley.  What really impresses me about this painting is not the mountain peaks, but that mysterious foreground, framed by branches, which is more or less detailed depending on the version of the painting.  A photograph in the catalogue shows the darker lines to be ridges of distant fir trees.  Sohlberg said of this foreground that it should not be too crowded or too desolate, 'for it is here that the night and the fear in the picture should lie.'

Harald Sohlberg, Winter Night in the Mountains, 1901

Rondane and its mountains had already inspired nineteenth century writers, including Ibsen whose Hall of the Mountain King is beneath Rondslottet. Aasmund Olavson Vinje's poem 'At Rondane' (1864) was set to music by Edvard Grieg in 1880 - Sohlberg himself used to play Grieg's piano works and probably knew this piece. And there was Theodor Caspari's book, Norwegian Mountains (1898), with illustrations by contemporary artists.  This included a poem urging the reader to ascend and gaze over the mountain valleys, but also to 'lower your sights' and experience the lichen and mosses growing on the rocks.  This dual vision - far and near - is what Sohlberg achieved so perfectly in paintings like Flower Meadow in the North.

Friday, March 08, 2019

Pastoral Project

When Beethoven premiered his Pastoral Symphony in Vienna on December 22, 1808, he wrote that it should be considered "more an expression of feeling than painting." It is a feeling for nature that comes over strongly in a letter:
"How delighted I will be to ramble for awhile through the bushes, woods, under trees, through grass, and around rocks. No one can love the country as much as I do. For surely woods, trees, and rocks produce the echo that man desires to hear"
(quoted in NPR programme notes on the Pastoral Symphony).  
I have written here before about this 6th Symphony, although the theme of that earlier post was a much more obscure work that it resembled in form, Justin Heinrich Knecht's A Musical Portrait of Nature (1784).  Here, I want to highlight an interesting project that is due to culminate in 2020, Beethoven's 250th anniversary.  The Beethoven Pastoral Project 'invites artists from all over the world to form a network through their engagement with Beethoven's 'Pastoral’ Symphony', to 'take a stand against environmental degradation and to stand up for the UN's sustainable development goals and the Paris Agreement with a performance of 'their Pastoral''.  These performances will be on June 5 2020.

According to a Deutsche Welle, in a Novermber 2017 article shortly after the project launched at COP23 in Bonn, several artists  had already signed on, 'including the Chinese composer and conductor Tan Dun, the American composer Uri Caine, the German jazz musician Gregor Hübner, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and its principal conductor, Paavo Järvi, as well as the Beethoven Orchestra Bonn and its principal conductor Dirk Kaftan.'  DW later interviewed Dirk Kaftan (great name!) about the project. He described the movements of the symphony, from the first - which is "about exhaling, letting go - and seeing nature as a refuge, a source of harmony and a point of balance" - to the last:
"Kuhreigen" – a cow waltz. This kind of melody is still played today on the alphorn in Switzerland to encourage cows to produce more milk. You could see this moment as simply a romanticized dream of Swiss milk and high-quality chocolate. But at the time when the Sixth Symphony was written, Switzerland was highly charged politically, and listeners at that time would have associated that with those sounds. Freedom struggles were taking place in Switzerland; just think of William Tell [I think he's referring here to Schiller's 1804 play]. I see this last movement as a hymn to humanity and the power of humans to change things.
It's hard to tell how the Beethoven Pastoral Project is progressing and whether they have had as many big names as they would have liked signing up to it.  I see that David Rothenberg (who I've mentioned here before) has become involved.  There is not a lot of recent news online, though perhaps people are busy working on their compositions rather than unveiling things in advance.  There are a few video clips on the project site, including one of Paul Barton playing Beethoven an upright piano to four elephants eating a pile of yams (performing classical music to rescued elephants in Thailand is what he does).  It would be a pity if the reputation of Beethoven and the (over)familiarity of the Pastoral Symphony put people off making more musically interesting interpretations for the project.

Given the link this initiative makes between environmental destruction and the Pastoral Symphony, I thought it would be appropriate to conclude here with a clip from Soylent Green (1973) - the scene in which Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson in his last role) lies listening to the music as he is about to die.  He has chosen euthanasia rather than live any longer in the polluted hell that the planet has become in 2022.  But before he dies, he watches a montage of vanished nature, landscapes he remembers from his youth that nobody will ever see again...