Wednesday, April 03, 2024

A Tale of the Wind

Mentioning Bert Haanstra, a Dutch documentary maker, in my last post reminded me of the great Joris Ivens. I referred to him back in 2008 when I wrote about the city symphony films being made in the late 1920s. Rain (Regen, 1929) displayed an interest in the elements that persisted all his life. The image above of Ivens on a mountain in China is from A Tale of the Wind, which was released sixty years later, three months before he died. Derek Jarman was an admirer and mentions it three times in Modern Nature:

  • 'Before we turned in: a ravishing film by Joris Ivens, at 90 chasing the elusive wind in China. The most refined work, it made the Hitchcock season look dreadful.'
  • 'So late at night. I weep for the garden so lonely in the shingle desert. Dear Jean [Cocteau], am I the only one who, besides you, has funded a film on his name? Joris Ivens' perfect film of the wind? So few escape to tread this path. Hedges of money, fixed stars.'
  • 'Joris Ivens walking breathless into the desert to find the wind. Asthmatic.'  

Like Jarman and Ivens I have always had asthma and love the idea of the aged director setting off to discover the secret of breathing in the rhythm of the autumn wind. Ivens was born in 1898, so was almost as old as cinema itself and A Tale of the Wind includes a fantasy sequence based on Georges Méliès’A Trip to the Moon (1902), as well as clips from a couple of his own films made in the thirties. When Jarman saw it he was forty-seven, almost half as young as Ivens, HIV positive and starting to suffer from the respiratory illnesses that would restrict his film making. In Modern Nature he describes listening to the wind at Dungeness and storms rattling the old walls of his cottage: 'a wild wind roared through the night, chasing sleep to the edge of dawn.' That morning he woke to 'crystalline sunlight, all the dark humours blown away by the wind. The crocuses open quickly, bright yellow petals spread wide open at noon. The purple and white in the shadows. The snowdrops are out; and before the sun disappears round the house the first daffodil has opened.'

There is an excellent article on A Tale of the Wind by Jonathan Rosenbaum, written in 1992. He concludes by describing its final scene. 

Still later, trekking across mountains and desert with his camera and sound crew in search of the elusive wind, he is told by a Chinese peasant woman, perhaps a witch, that she can draw a magic figure in the sand that will beckon the wind out of hiding. She needs, however, two electric fans, and these are promptly sent for and delivered to the site by a camel, leading to the ecstatic miracle that forms the film’s climax. Like the Mélièsian warrior sequence, it is yet another instance of folklore and technology, archaeology and fantasy being brought into a sublime proximity, even a communication with each another. It is Joris Ivens’s message to — or is it from? — the 21st century, if only we are brave and alert enough to listen.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Mirror of Holland

This morning I walked along our local canal, with bright sunny weather creating reflections of the barges and bridges, the buildings of Hoxton and Haggerston, a few trees and many joggers pounding down the path. This evening I watched Mirror of Holland, made up entirely of shots of canal reflections, which won the short film Palme d'Or in 1951. It begins with the windmill below and a young lad who bends down to see the image the 'right way round' - the rest of the film continues in this way, with the reflections turned into water-blurred moving images of farms, gabled houses, a church tower, locks and canal boats. The director Bert Haanstra went on to make many other documentary films - his other big success was based on another reflective medium, Glass (1958).

Mirror of Holland put me in mind of Haanstra's Dutch contemporary M.C. Escher, whose compositions like Puddle and Three Worlds are interested in how water can contain a landscape. There are some abstract moments in the film that look like Escher's Rippled Surface which also dates from 1950. Of course there are reflections in Dutch Golden Age paintings too and you could probably make a version of Haanstra's film by montaging these together - the example below is in Jan Van de Heyden's Country House on the Vliet near Delft (1665). 

Friday, March 15, 2024

The purple glow of evening

Carl Gustav Carus, Woman on a Balcony, 1824
(used as the cover for OUP edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho).

The Mysteries of Udolpho is one of those famous novels like Wuthering Heights or Frankenstein that I've read with certain prior expectations, only to be surprised by how much else there is beyond the story I imagined it would be. One reason is that, like many people, I came to Ann Radcliffe's Gothic bestseller with a caricature in mind, formed by Jane Austen's parody Northanger Abbey (a book I quoted here back in 2008). But it is also a novel designed to frustrate your expectations, with slow sections and plot digressions that must be read before its numerous mysteries are explained. The obvious reaction on putting it down is that this 670 page novel could have been an exciting 200 page story if it had stuck to the Castle of Udolpho and not allowed its heroine an anticlimactic and relatively easy escape from the villain Montoni. But if you are interested in landscape and the way it was appreciated there is much of interest before and after Emily is incarcerated in the Apennines.

Ann Radcliffe's reference points are the standard ones in Britain at the time:

  • The Mysteries of Udolpho is greatly influenced by Edmund Burke's theory of the Sublime and the term itself is frequently used. Descriptions of mountain landscapes, the great gloomy castle and Montoni's fierce face are clearly designed to evoke feelings of delightful terror. 
  • The perilous paths Emily travels are straight out of Salvator Rosa. Banditti and murderous armed men are not just figments of her imagination. The novel is set in the sixteenth century but a 'scene of barrenness' interrupted by 'the spreading branches of the larch and cedar, which threw their gloom over the cliff, or athwart the torrent that rolled in the vale' was 'such a scene as Salvator would have chosen, had he then existed'.
  • The novel's chapters begin with quotations from poets and it is no surprise to see James Thomson's The Seasons featuring along with Shakespeare, Milton and others. Verse epigraphs are still standard practice (Thomas Halliday uses them effectively in his recent book on prehistoric landscapes, Otherlands) but Radcliffe pioneered this technique. 

Like other writers from the Romantic period, Radcliffe's way of viewing nature was influenced by William Gilpin and she had followed him to the Lake District in search of picturesque scenery. Her heroine meets and falls in love with a free-spirited young chevalier encountered while he is on the kind of walking tour alone in the mountains that Coleridge and Wordsworth would later enjoy. As the OUP edition's editor Bonamy Dobrée says in his notes 'it is surely no accident that Radcliffe's villains do not care for landscape'. 

Because Radcliffe had never at this stage set foot in the south of France or Italy, her descriptive passages are based on those of travel writers like Hester Thrale. Some readers might dislike the idea of landscape imagined from a distance and through the prism of other books in this way, but there are moments where The Mysteries of Udolpho reminded me of the dream-like journeys I have praised here before in books by Kafka and Eichendorff. Radcliffe's vision of Venice, with its unintentional anachronisms, is as unreal as Kafka's New York and Eichendorff's Rome, but it has a poetic quality that would appeal to Byron. 

Terry Castle, in her introduction to the OUP edition, describes the early part of the novel as a 'bizarre quasi-travelogue' where 'the narrative repeatedly dissolves into extended diffuse, often phantasmagoric descriptions of landscape'. And she quotes the passage, below, saying that at moments like this the novel 'seems hypnotized by the possibility of not becoming a Gothic novel - of remaining instead in a world of beautiful unfolding description. Transported by the hallucinatory 'charms' of nature, Emily and her friends may in turn remind us of moon-walkers, travelling in endless slow motion through a mauve-tinted dusk.'

It was evening when they descended the lower alps, that bind Rousillon, and form a majestic barrier round that charming country, leaving it open only on the east to the Mediterranean. The gay tints of cultivation once more beautified the landscape; for the lowlands were coloured with the richest hues, which a luxuriant climate, and an industrious people can awaken into life. Groves of orange and lemon perfumed the air, their ripe fruit glowing among the foliage; while, sloping to the plains, extensive vineyards spread their treasures. Beyond these, woods and pastures, and mingled towns and hamlets stretched towards the sea, on whose bright surface gleamed many a distant sail; while, over the whole scene, was diffused the purple glow of evening.

Saturday, February 03, 2024

Cloud tracks and tide-ripples


Last weekend I went to Cambridge to see the Kettle's Yard exhibition Making New Worlds: Li Yuan-chia and Friends. Laura Cumming wrote in her review last November 'I can hardly think of a more uplifting show for the dying days of autumn' and I felt the same way on a cold day in January. 'Everything about it,' she goes on to say, is bright, beautiful, hopeful and as amiable as the subtitle suggests. For the Chinese artist Li Yuan-chia (1929-94) had many friends, and attracted so many more to his extraordinary “museum” in Cumbria in the 1970s that over 300 artists eventually came to work in Banks, a remote village beside Hadrian’s Wall. This show is filled with their spirit.' There's a lot to say about Li Yuan-chia and his gallery space YLC, so if you're not familiar with it I'd recommend reading that review or an article Nicholas Wroe wrote for The Guardian, '"There’s a story of racialised exclusion": the forgotten Chinese artist who transformed Cumbria'.

Li himself wasn't primarily a landscape artist, although there are abstract ink drawings he made before arriving in England that could be imagined as referencing the shapes of roads, fence posts, waves or tree forms. However, deciding to live in Cumbria and establishing the YLC in 'a landscape of farmland, fells and forestry, of uncultivated moors and unpredictable mires' (Ysanne Holt) unsurprisingly brought him into contact with artists working locally with natural materials like David Nash and Andy Goldsworthy. And some of his work did draw on the history of these borderlands - there is a photograph of him in the LYC in front of an artwork based on a map of Hadrian's Wall that resembles the gallery works made by contemporary land artists. A catalogue essay by Elizabeth Fisher compares his decision to work away from urban art centres to Kurt Schwitters in his Merz Barn and Ian Hamilton Finlay creating Little Sparta.

Li Yuan-chia's friends and associates included people I have referred to here before, like Winifred Nicholson, Frances Horovitz, Delia Derbyshire and Elsa Stansfield. The exhibition also includes Nash and Goldsworthy, Naum Gabo, Ian Hamilton Finlay (The Land's Shadows) and a Cumbrian artist I hadn't encountered previously, Donald Wilkinson (an etching/aquatint of The Greta Joining the Tees/Winter). They are among the long list of LYC Museum artists on the Li Yuan-chia Foundation website. There were also several examples of concrete poetry by Dom Sylvester Houédard (dsh), including SANDROCKTIDE, shown in my photograph below. The correspondence between dsh and Li is referred to in Amy Tobin's interesting essay 'Friendship as Method' and I'll end with a nice quote from this. 'dsh said his work was akin to 'dual-space probes of inner & outer' that should be read like 'cloud tracks and tide-ripples, lichen patterns and gull flights, or simply as horizons or spirit levels.''

Saturday, January 27, 2024

Radical Landscapes

Back in 2022 Tate Liverpool held an exhibition of 'Radical Landscapes'. I didn't make the effort to go because it sounded like I would be familiar with a lot of the work as well as the underlying theme. I have written here before about exhibitions questioning 'traditional' ideas of landscape and land use in Britain - see for example my post in 2012 on Patrick Keiller's Tate Britain installation The Robinson Institute. I was also rather put off by Jonathan Jones's review (even though my views often diverge from his). He took the curators to task for their naive view of Constable and illogical politics. By defining Constable’s 'love of the British countryside as something retrograde, oppressive and literally Tory, it makes nonsense of its own thesis that the land belongs to us all, as well as its warnings of the urgency of climate crisis. If loving green fields is wicked, why go there? If nature is exclusive, why save it?' Laura Cumming also noted that 'Constable gets the usual pasting for showing a rural England where the poor are free to farm and roam the land as if the Enclosure Acts had never happened,' but was overall much more positive. Anyway, I didn't get to go, so I can't really comment on all this.

The reason I mention this exhibition now is that a cut down version of it has been on display in Walthamstow's William Morris Gallery. This is just a short tube journey away for me, so I popped along last week. It was certainly full of familiar work - Derek Jarman's garden, Peter Kennard's Constable missiles, Homer Sykes' Burry Man - and went through some predictable radical history landmarks: Kinder Scout, Greenham Common, Newbury. I've seen footage of the Spiral Tribe in various music documentaries and exhibitions and it never makes those nineties outdoor raves look remotely appealing! The Neo-Naturists were on show again here - they are unavoidable at the moment, getting naked at the Barbican in RE/SISTERS and (apparently - I haven't been yet) in Tate Britain's 'Women in Revolt!' But I was expecting to see a lot of this and in such a small show there were also inevitably obvious omissions - no Ingrid Pollard or Fay Godwin for example, both of whom are in RE/SISTERS.


Anwar Jalal Shemza, Apple Tree, 1962

If you want to read about this Walthamstow exhibition, there is a comprehensive review of it in Studio International by someone a bit less jaded than me! I suspect I might have found more eye-opening art among works from the original Liverpool exhibition that had to be left out here. But it was definitely worth a trip (and free!) and I will end here by mentioning a Klee-like painting by Anwar Jalal Shemza that I particularly liked. I don't recall seeing this one before. Shemza was born in India and published Urdu novels in the fifties before permanently relocating to Stafford, his wife Mary's hometown, in 1962. The Hales Gallery website notes that 'throughout his career, Shemza’s visual vocabulary drew on an array of deeply studied and lived experience, from carpet patterns and calligraphic forms to the environments around him: Mughal architecture from Lahore and the rural landscapes of Stafford, England.' 

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Renamed City

Talking this weekend with my teenage son about holiday ideas, we agreed that the place we would both most like to visit is St. Petersburg. I wonder when that might be possible again... I have never been, but I've always assumed I would go one day. I’m not sure I associated Leningrad with anything much when I was a child - it was when I started to read Russian literature that St. Petersburg came into focus, accompanied by a shock of recognition. In Gogol, men ‘scuttle between their offices in vast ministerial buildings and the equally soulless tenement apartments in which they live.’ When I first read his stories, I too was a lowly, alienated civil servant living in shabby accommodation. And then there was Dostoevsky’s Petersburg, ‘full of dreamers, a fact which he explained by the city’s cramped conditions, by the frequent mists and fog which came in from the sea, by the icy rain and drizzle that made people sick’ (Orlando Figes, Natasha's Dance).


 Vasily Sadovnikov, Panorama of Nevsky Prospect, 1830s

In his 1979 essay 'A Guide to a Renamed City' Joseph Brodsky talks about how the city has been reflected in Russian literature. The presence of the Neva means that St. Petersburg's 'architectural landscapes' are already reflected in water, 'as if the city were constantly being filmed by its river, which discharges its footage into the Gulf of Finland, which, on a sunny day, looks like a depository of these blinding images.' But behind these surfaces, it was the interior of the city that became the subject of Russian poetry and novels. And as this was happening, St. Petersburg itself grew and changed at extraordinary speed, until the Revolution came and it entered a long period of stasis and decline - 'quiet, immobilized, the city stood watching the passage of the seasons.' Brodsky concludes his essay with Russia's literary city preserved in the memories of Soviet school children, as they learn verse and re-read nineteenth century prose. He ends with a memorable final paragraph, that describes the cityscape in June...

A white night is a night when the sun leaves the sky for barely a couple of hours - a phenomenon quite familiar in the northern latitudes. It's the most magic time in the city when you can write or read without a lamp at two o'clock in the morning, and when the buildings, deprived of shadows and their roofs rimmed with gold, look like a set of fragile china. It's so quiet around that you can almost hear the clink of a spoon falling in Finland. The transparent pink tint of the sky is so light that the pale-blue watercolor of the river almost fails to reflect it. And the bridges are drawn up as though the islands of the delta have unclasped their hands and slowly begun to drift, turning in the mainstream, toward the Baltic. On such nights, it's hard to fall asleep, because it is too light and because any dream will be inferior to reality. Where a man doesn't cast a shadow, like water.

Tuesday, January 09, 2024


Derangements of My Contemporaries is Chloe Garcia Roberts's 2014 translation of Li Shangyin's Za Zuan ('Miscellaneous Notes'). This work is a delightful oddity in literary history - the most obvious comparison is The Pillow Book that Sei Shōnagon compiled at the Heian court in Japan around a hundred and fifty years later. They both feature whimsical Borgesian lists and many of Li Shongyin's concern people's potential failings, ranging from 'Judgment Lapses' and 'Brief Odiums' to 'Raging Stupidity'. His notes refer to things you can still easily agree with, but also aspects of ninth century Chinese life that now seem remote or bizarre. 'Aggressive Posturing' for example starts with 'Seeing another's writings, aggressively rifling through them', which would sound relevant if it wasn't for our recent move from writing on paper to laptops. Next comes 'Seeing another's saddled horse, audaciously riding it', which is maybe less relevant unless you live in Texas or go in for show jumping. 'Seeing another's bow and arrow, aggressively drawing and shooting it' also sounds rude, and even less prevalent in the twenty-first century. Then we are back to something many people will have experienced, 'Reading another person's essay, aggressively drawing out its contradictions.' And so on.

I have referred here before to the poetry of Li Shangyin (c. 813–858). The reason I'm now mentioning this book (published as New Directions Poetry Pamphlet #14) is because one of his lists pertains to landscape: 'Scenery-Killers'. Here are the thirteen things Li complained about, which I've re-ordered and accompanied with a modern interpretation.

Damaged landscape: 'A weeping willow, felled'

Inappropriate architecture: 'Raising a tower on the ridge of a mountain'

Land use confusion: 'Vegetables planted in a fruit orchard'

Incongruous nature: 'Under a flowered arbor, rearing poultry' 

Incongruous underwear: 'Undergarments drying below blossoms'

Poor parking: 'A horse tethered to a stone pillar'

Disrespecting the beauty of the night: 'Carrying a flame in moonlight'

Obscuring nature with something artificial: 'A mat spread over moss'

Encumbered landscape appreciation: 'Carrying something heavy on a spring outing'

Hierarchy disrespected: 'A high-ranking officer on foot'

Nature appreciation thwarted: 'Among pines, ordered to make way'

Unexpected sadness: 'Looking at flowers, falling tears'

And not rising to the occasion: 'Speaking of mundane affairs at a banquet of courtesans'