Saturday, November 05, 2022

The Hills become blurred


It was good to be able to visit London's Small Publishers Fair again last month, where I have found various unusual landscape-related books in the past (five years ago, for example, it was some Scots translations of classical Chinese poems). If this event had been going in the 1920s it might have had a stall for The Vine Press of Steyning, run by the poet and former acolyte of Aleister Crowley, Victor Neuburg. Justin Hopper has recently put together an anthology, Obsolete Spells, providing samples from these books and a short biography of Neuburg (whose other claim to fame was 'discovering' Dylan Thomas). The phrase 'obsolete spells' occurs in one of Neuburg's own poems, 'Downwood' which you can read in full at the 100th Monkey site, 'a resource dedicated to providing an accurate and complete bibliography of the literary output of Aleister Crowley and selected other writers.' Justin sees this poem as 'a chilling precursor to folk horror', evoking the Downs' pagan past. Here is Neuburg's brief preface to it.

                  An Autumn Vesperal, the grey hues merging into Night and the distant sound of the Sea. 

                  The Hills become blurred, a light Rain falls, and before the final Darkness there is a Vision of light low-browed men scudding amongst the gorse. Mingles with the dream of forgotten Races, there is a motif of Reminiscence and a Fireside.

I wrote here previously about Chanctonbury Rings, a musical collaboration with Sharron Kraus based on Justin's last book Old Weird Albion. They have teamed up again for Swift Wings, an album which was reviewed on Caught by the River by Gareth Thompson: 

Within a folk-gothic setting of rippling flutes and sci-fi synths, Neuburg’s words turn a startling corner. Kraus gives each lyric a spooky undercurrent, where dark and buried passions come to life as pagan sonnets. Sunny ballads and mysterious odes are offset by ghostly giggles. Hopper narrates the words in his best fruity tones, Kraus murmurs in tandem, as we drift into a realm of laudanum-laced harmonics.

Sharron says she had initial misgivings about Neuburg's ornate poetry, which is not that easy to like, and is perhaps best experienced via her musical settings. Interestingly, the first Vine Press book, Lillygay, a selection of verse taken in part from old ballad books, was read by the composer Peter Warlock who set some of its lyrics to music. 

Neuburg published landscape poetry by a few other writers through The Vine Press. The one I am familiar with from anthologies of Sussex writing is G. D. Martineau - his second volume The Way of the South Wind was put out by Neuburg in 1925. Martineau went on to become much better known as a cricket writer and his second Vine Press anthology includes some cricketing verse. Justin includes a small selection of Martineau's poems, including one describing the simple pleasure of lying alone at night on Fairlight Hill and another which describes 'black and harsh' Newhaven - 'here you stretch like a loathly sore, / clamorous over the ruined shore.'  

The Latin text on the page below from the volume Swift Wings suggests that the work of the muses is equal in glory. For me, the woodcuts used in the books seem at least as interesting as the poems. They were the work of three Steyning brothers, the Wests, whose printing works is still going strong. 'In their simplicity,' Justin writes, these rough illustrations 'gain an eeriness that's difficult to either pinpoint or dispel. The distance of a century helps: today, early books from The Vine Press give off a sensual leer and a slight air of threat that belies their jolly, bawdy origins, yet - I think - brings the reader to exactly the spot that Neuburg intended.' 

source: 100th Monkey

Friday, September 23, 2022

My Road

M. K. Čiurlionis, My Road I-III, 1907

Dulwich Picture Gallery has frequently provided material for this blog - see my earlier posts on Adam Elsheimer (2006), Paul Nash (2010), Salvator Rosa (2010), Tom Thomson (2011), James McNeill Whistler (2013), Emily Carr (2015), Eric Ravilious (2015), Adriaen van der Velde (2016), Tove Jansson (2018), Edward Bawden (2018) and Harald Sohlberg (2019). Yesterday we went to see their new show devoted to M. K. Čiurlionis, the Lithuanian artist-composer whose work I described here ten years ago. I was looking forward to seeing Fuga (1908), the striking semi-abstract painting of trees resembling a kind of graphic score, but it isn't included. However, the other works I mentioned are on show, including Creation of the World, which takes up a whole wall.

Čiurlionis produced all his art in six years and his earliest work includes symbolist landscapes like Serenity (1904/5), a mountain that resembles a giant figure emerging from the sea. Influences include Arnold Böcklin, Whistler and Japanese prints (including Hokusai's wave), Lithuanian folklore, theosophy, the Indian Vedas, Ruskin and the Young Poland movement. Although his mountains, cities and forests have a dream-like quality, the exhibition does include one relatively conventional specific landscape - the triptych Raigardas (1907). Kathleen Soriano describes this in the catalogue: 'the higher foreground is painted at the bottom left and right of the far panels so that the viewer falls into the valley laid out between them, the silvery line of the Kulbinyčia river streaking across it. The actual valley is very close to Druskininkai and was a favourite walking location for Čiurlionis.' (Google doesn't recognise "Kulbinyčia", but Druskininkai is a spa town in the south of Lithuania where Jacques Lipchitz also grew up - he remembered as a boy seeing Čiurlionis "passing like a shadow always in deep thoughts").

M. K. Čiurlionis, Sorrow I-II, 1906/7

The photographs I've included here show examples of the 'landscapes' Čiurlionis painted in which natural elements are recognisable but take on strange forms. My Road begins with a path leading towards a towering mountain but the middle panel is more abstract, its striations like 'inverted musical notation' and stars 'somehow still connected to the earth by long stalks reaching up towards them, potentially noting specific achievements in life'; in the third panel the road has reached a kind of castle. Sorrow I-II shows the sun going down on scenes partly obscured by mysterious dark forms. In the first painting they stretch around a bay like some kind of coastal defence and in the second a solitary grey shape occludes the view of a ruined city and distant line of birds. These have been interpreted as black flags, a reference to the flags carried by political protestors, with the birds perhaps symbolising fallen souls. Čiurlionis sadly never lived to see Lithuanian independence, dying in 1911 when his country was still controlled by the Russian Empire.

Sunday, September 04, 2022

Taming the Garden

MUBI was a godsend during Covid lockdowns and is still proving good value for money as far as we're concerned. This week I watched Taming the Garden by Salomé Jashi, a documentary with extraordinary images of moving trees. 'Georgia’s former prime minister [Bidzina Ivanishvili] has found a unique hobby. He collects century-old trees, some as tall as 15-floor buildings, from communities along the Georgian coast. At a great expense and inconvenience, these ancient giants are uprooted from their lands to be transplanted in his private garden.' Peter Bradshaw's review in The Guardian mentions some of the obvious references that spring to mind as you watch it (Macbeth, Fitzcarraldo) and describes Jashi's unobtrusively filmed footage of people involved in moving the trees:

Local workers squabble among themselves at the dangerous, strenuous, but nonetheless lucrative job of digging them up. The landowners and communities brood on the sizeable sums of money they are getting paid and Ivanishvili’s promises that roads will also be built. But at the moment of truth, they are desolate when the Faustian bargain must be settled and the huge, ugly haulage trucks come to take their trees away in giant “pots” of earth, as if part of their natural soul is being confiscated.

I am reminded of a previous blog post I wrote on the creation of Song Emperor Hui-tsung's garden, where plants and rocks were shipped in from all over China, and its later fictionalisation in Ming dynasty novel The Plum in the Golden Vase, which tells the story of a licentious and corrupt character called Hsi-men Ch’ing. 

Resentment has built up during its construction, as the process of shipping 'so many huge rocks and plants had cluttered up the canals and transport system. There had also been endless corruption and compulsion during the entire high-speed plan'. Unsurprisingly Hsi-men Ch’ing got involved in this. At one point in the novel he discusses with an official the way the 'flower and rock convoys' had impoverished ordinary people, before inviting him to partake of a typically lavish lunch. 

Salomé Jashi's slow, beautifully-shot documentary has no Herzogian narrator or any explanation of what is happening - the actual scale of the exercise, its costs, its purpose, its outcomes. Another Guardian piece by Claire Armistead makes the point that 'Taming the Garden is far from a balanced two-minute news report; it stands at the junction of documentary and myth, not even mentioning that Ivanishvili’s garden is now open to the public.' A New York Times article by 'but signs declaring this property private are everywhere. CCTV cameras are installed throughout, and motion detectors stand in front of every tree. Look, but don’t dare touch. And that message goes for the lawn, too. Guards with loudspeakers are quick to scold the noncompliant.' He describes Ivanishvili's political background and links to Russia, where he acquired his vast wealth from metals and banking. He also includes reflections from an academic researching the interconnectedness of trees and their supporting fungal networks, who says she felt physical pain when she heard about the project.

The trailer for Taming the Garden embedded above includes some of Jashi's poetic compositions, including lovely details like drifting steam and water running over metal. As Claire Armistead writes, 'although many trees were involved in the filming, their stories are represented by one symbolic journey.' She goes on to pick out a few details:

Villagers gather with their bicycles to see the tree on its way. A man lights his first cigarette in 30 years. An elderly woman weeps and convulsively crosses herself, while her younger relatives excitedly record the removal on their phones. As the tree is sailed along the coast – in a repeat of the image that inspired the film – two bulldozers await it on a stone mole, their excavator arms lowered like bowed heads at a funeral. And in a rich man’s manicured garden, round the half-buried roots of ancient trees held upright by guy ropes, the sprinklers come on.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

The Path of Perspectives

Last month Dezeen reported on a new landscape intervention by Snøhetta, a 'disappearing walkway' of 55 stepping stones on the Traelvikosen Scenic Route in Helgeland.

'Traelvikosen Scenic Route was commissioned by the Norwegian Public Roads Administration. It forms part of the Norwegian tourist routes, which is a series of experiences for road travellers. "Along carefully selected roads in Norway, natural wonders are amplified by art, design, and architecture, with emphasis on the unique landscape and qualities of the different locations," Kvamme Hartmann explained. ... "At Trælvikosen, we wanted to intentionally design the site to ensure visitors were enticed to stay longer than normal," she continued. "To truly experience the details, the time and nature itself, and hence also understand it better, as it offers an opportunity to observe the ever-changing rhythms of our nature."'

It's an interesting thought, that an already beautiful landscape needs some additional help from art to get people to stop and experience 'nature itself'. 



Last week I experienced a similar Snøhetta intervention on Nordkette, the mountain overlooking Innsbruck. This viewing platform was also reported on by Dezeen - see their article from 2019. I was expecting this to be something like the suspension walkway on Mt. Titlis in Switzerland, where in addition to getting views across the Alps, tourists are given the thrill of looking down from a vertiginous height over empty space. However the Snøhetta platform is built on a relatively gentle green slope so all you see below you is grass. Whether the corten steel design makes a photograph here especially Instagrammable I'm not sure - there were spectacular backdrops already all around this mountaintop. The metal walkway curves onto a trail circling the mountain, the Path of Perspectives, although everyone I saw on it had clambered down a more direct desire path from the cable car station. There are other Snøhetta structures dotted round this trail - benches and viewing platforms - and they have quotes on them in German and English. I see now from the Dezeen article these quotes are by Wittgenstein (this wasn't evident to me, but it was distractingly hot up there, so I probably missed the explanation!) According to Snøhetta, "the words invite visitors to take a moment and reflect, both inwardly and out over the landscape, giving a dual meaning to the path of perspectives."

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The vault of light as the sun goes down

Philip Terry is an academic at Exeter specialising in the Oulipo and experimental writing - he recently edited The Penguin Book of Oulipo and described the experience in an article for The Irish Times. Carcanet have recently published his new book The Lascaux Notebooks, which they describe as 'the oldest poetry yet discovered, as written down or runed in the Ice Age in Lascaux and other caves in the Dordogne, and now translated – tentatively – into English for the first time.' 

In his introduction, Terry claims to have come across the name of a local poet, Jean-Luc Champerret, while on holiday in the Charente. He was given a box of the poet's papers, which took some opening but were found to contain a set of notebooks. In these he found what appeared to be modernist poetry derived from 'diagrams reminiscent of Chinese calligraphy.' Champerret, Terry learned, had been sent into the Lascaux caves soon after their discovery in 1940 by his Resistance cell, in the hope that they might prove a good hideout. Getting there before the archaeologists, he noticed that some of the marks on the walls resembled a kind of code. Speculating that they were a form of Ice Age poetry, he noted them down and then over time managed to produce translations them by imagining the signs' likely meaning. Initial versions were simple grids of words but, like a translator from ancient Chinese, he added some connectors and imaginative interpretation to render them as French poems.



If Ice Age people had poetry, there would probably have been frequent mention of their landscape in it. The extract above from the list of Lascaux signs used in these poems includes markings interpreted as meaning forest tracks, rivers, mountains and caves. They are of course reminiscent of Chinese ideograms, which were so important for Ezra Pound and which I've discussed here before as natural signs - see 'Climbing Omei Mountain' and 'Water falling, drop by drop'. They also reminded me of the poetry many of us find in studying the legends of Ordnance Survey maps! 

I'll give one example here of a Lascaux poem, but Terry's books is pretty long - 400 pages - so I can't really do his whole project justice. The 3 x 3 grid poem I've reproduced at the start of this post is rendered as follows:

                                light              sun             night

                                birdsong       birdsong     waterfall

                                track             river           mountains 

This is turned initially into simple sentences with the addition of a few words, e.g. line two: 'the song / of the birds / by the waterfall.' The text then undergoes two more transformations (which it is tempting to describe as Oulipian). First a version is made with slightly extended vocabulary - 'the bright song / of the birds / by the waterfall'. Finally, inspired by this, a more recognisable poem is presented: 'The vault of light / as the sun goes down / before nightfall // suffused by the song / of the birds / by the waterfall's torrent // the twisting track / following the river / winds into the distance.' 

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Sea and Sand Dunes

Here's what you see when you enter the Royal Academy's new exhibition, a view of a bay with oddly sketchy waves, scattered black buildings and stick trees like Chinese characters. In Jonathan Jones' Guardian review he says

'Avery is sometimes hyped as an American Matisse but he is much stranger, and better, than that. Far from simply emulating Matisse, he translates the pleasures of beach life and summer days the French fauve painted into the brooding land and seascapes of America with wild results. Little Fox River, from 1942, seems joyous and summery at first sight, with its butter-yellow landscape surrounded by blue waves, but then you notice how big and inhuman the waves are, how tiny the swell of the sea makes the frail houses and church look.'

 Milton Avery, Little Fox River, 1942

The first room of the exhibition begins with some of Avery's early, unremarkable Impressionist-style landscapes and a range of later ones which can seem wilfully ugly in their choice of thin paint, dull colours and awkwardly drawn animals and buildings. But he could also hit on a combination of forms that seems wonderfully original and appealing, like Blue Trees (below - available to buy as a jigsaw in the RA shop!) My favourite works in the exhibition weren't the landscapes or his snapshots of city life, but domestic scenes which he painted in increasingly simplified forms, like Reclining Blonde (1959). Here's Laura Cumming describing his technique in another five-star review:

'Avery thinned his oil paint to the diaphanous consistency of watercolour so that it lay on the surface in floating patches and veils. Sometimes he scribbled upon it – the outline of a pencil or a pipe, a fleet of horizontal nicks that somehow manifest as leaves on a rust-coloured autumn tree. Sometimes the brushstrokes of one colour merge into those of another to produce a soft frisson, as in the snow-white nude against a black background, where the overlap glimmers.'

Milton Avery, Blue Trees, 1945

I first came across Avery years ago when I was reading a lot about his friend Mark Rothko, but I've never seen an exhibition devoted to his work - unsurprising as there hasn't been one in Europe. This one was a real pleasure and, despite the glowing reviews, not too busy with other visitors. It ends with paintings from 1957 inspired by Cape Cod, where, as the curators explain, 'Avery spent four consecutive summers, often in the company of Rothko and Gottlieb. These later works, with their larger scale and more abstracted forms, reveal the influence of the younger painters. Intensifying what he had striven towards over the previous five decades, Avery omitted detail, distorted forms and used non-associative colours.' These non-associative colours are evident in the painting I photographed below, Sea and Sand Dunes, a truly weird landscape in shades of red, white and mauve. A painting like this actually looks more contemporary than the abstract expressionists, reminding me of Alex Katz or Peter Doig. Jonathan Jones concludes that after visiting this exhibition 'you’ll never be able to see a Rothko again without picturing a seashore at dusk where the red blazing sky is layered above the wine dark sea, in an apocalyptic revelation.'

Milton Avery, Sea and Sand Dunes, 1955

Friday, June 17, 2022

Chessboard fields


I remembered how from the air the valleys, hills and rivers gained a certain distinction but wholly lost that quality which is perceived by a countryman whose day's travel is bounded by the earth of three of four meadows, and whose view for most of his life may be constricted by some local rising of the ground. In the air there is no feeling or smell of earth, and I have often observed that the backyards of houses or the smoke curling up through cottage chimneys, although at times they seem to have a certain pathos, do as a rule, when one is several thousand feet above them, appear both defenceless and ridiculous, as though infinite trouble had been taken to secure a result that has little or no significance.

This is a paragraph from Rex Warner's novel about the arrival of an aerodrome in the middle of the English countryside. It was published in 1941 and I am sure there must be many other stories from this period with Nietzschean pilots who look down on historic landscapes that can no longer contain them. In John Cowper Powys's A Glastonbury Romance (1932) the industrialist Philip Crow purchases his own aircraft to fly to Wookey Hole, the extraordinary cave system that he wants to fill with modern electric lights and then transform with a tin mining operation.

As he watched down upon the earth, that clear March evening, and watched the chess-board fields pass in procession beneath him, and watched the trees fall into strange patterns and watched the villages, some red, some brown, some grey, according as brick or stone or slate predominated, approach or recede, as the plane sank or rose, Philip's spirit felt as if it had wings of its own ... How small and unimportant Wells cathedral had looked from up there. ... His brain whirled with the vision of an earth-life dominated absolutely by Science, of a human race that had shaken off its fearful childhood and looked at things with a clear, unfilmed, unperverted eye.

But at the end of the novel a flood inundates Glastonbury. Mayor Geard, who has tried to create a new spiritual centre drawing on the town's legendary past, feels his earthly work is done and heads off in a small boat. He comes upon his antagonist Philip Crow, who is keeping his head above water by standing on his submerged plane. Geard surprises Crow by asking to swap places. Crow needs little persuading and Geard leaves the boat to rest on the plane as it gradually sinks. At one point he kicks it to help it on its way. Eventually the wing beneath him disappears and Geard, with one final glimpse of Glastonbury Tor, follows it down.