Friday, October 19, 2018

Ground Work

Tim Dee has edited a new collection of place writing called Ground Work.  His introduction recalls an earlier version of the same idea, Ronald Blythe's Places (1981), which featured people like John Betjeman, Susan Hill, Alan Sillitoe and Jan Morris; it's mood was 'wistful and elegiac'.   few years later, Richard Mabey's Second Nature (1984), made for Common Ground, included big names like John Fowles, Fay Weldon and John Berger alongside art by Henry Moore, Richard Long, David Nash and others.  It too was predominantly backward looking.  Ground Work aims to look beyond the picturesque and pretty, at places that are not famous but mean something special to the authors.  However, this degree of attachment means that you will still encounter idylls of various kinds, though some have disappeared or have come under threat.  It is a little hard not to envy some of these writers their childhoods out in nature or the time they have to spend in agreeable places (the Bodleian Library, a wilderness retreat in Finland, an old garden in the Cevannes...)  There are authors who have been able to beautify a ninety-acre Sussex farm, buy a thirty-one foot sloop 'for a book project', or acquire a wood in order to restore it from neglect.  I have to say though that this last example, in an essay by Richard Mabey, was a highlight of the book: his reflections on the moral quandaries of landscape management are fascinating.

Richard Huws, Piazza Waterfall ('Tipping Buckets'), 1967
Photograph taken on my phone, earlier this week.

Given my interest in art, I particularly enjoyed 'Tipping Buckets', the contribution by poet and edgelends explorer Paul Farley, which finds different metaphors in a piece of urban sculpture.  The work in question can be found in a small square near the waterfront in Liverpool.  As I was in Liverpool on Monday I popped down to see it, but sadly there was no sign of life - the buckets were not even 'chugging away in their backwater', they were still and the 'piazza' was empty.  A lot of the writing in Ground Work focuses in on small sites like this - an allotment plot, a bridge, a back garden, a bird hide.  However, in order to justify mentioning the book on this blog I will end here by highlighting an essay that features both landscape and poetry.  'At the Edge of the Tide' is by Michael Viney, a journalist and nature writer originally from Brighton, where I grew up, but resident in Ireland since before I was born. It describes the beach by his home, 'an acre on the wilder coast of County Mayo'.

Viney has explored the strand in the company of two close friends, an ornithologist called David Cabot and the poet Michael Longley, who comes down from Belfast to 'immerse himself in the landscape'. Back in 1993 they even made a film together - sadly I can't find this online.  Over the years, watching birds and looking for rare plants, they have seen the place change - most recently in the interests of promoting tourism.  He quotes a poem by Michael Longley:
'Now that the Owennadornaun has disappeared
For you and me where our two townlands meet,
The peaty water takes the long way round
Through Morrison's fields and our imaginations.
The Owennadornaun was the little river whose ford near the bottom of the boreen was so rich in the spirit of place. A sill of rock made a shallow waterfall just above the crossing, with the sun above the mountain to catch each ripple and splash.  It was here I saw my first dipper, walking under water, and where, in summer, sand martins came to nest in holes in the bank.  There were pied and grey wagtails dancing at the edge and, once or twice, a sandpiper.
This has all gone. [...] A car park behind the strand, with a summer loo, was clearly essential to setting up the Wild Atlantic Way. It meant diversion of the little river and a road bridge built above its bed, this now remaining dry and quite birdless.' 

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Reading in the Wilderness

 Giovanni Bellini, detail from Saint Jerome Reading in the Wilderness, c. 1485
National Gallery. Source: Wikimedia Commons

I've not yet been to see the new Bellini-Mantegna exhibition although I see Jonathan Jones was unimpressed (this is not necessarily a bad sign, of course).  However, the Bellini exhibition I would really like to have seen took place in Los Angeles last year, and focused on his treatment of landscape. The Getty Museum's catalogue is excellent and highlighted for me how our understanding of this great artist is still changing as new facts emerge.  Here I want to focus on Bellini's paintings of Saint Jerome, which are the subject of a catalogue essay by Hans Belting.  Bellini depicts Jerome as if he is a humanist in a library rather than a penitent in the desert.  His paintings can thus be seen as versions of an ideal I have referred to many times on this blog: scholarly retreat to a secluded place, surrounded by nature. In the Uffizi version below, 'the saint's attentive look captures the scene's total silence, interrupted only by voices of birds and running water.'
Giovanni Bellini, Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, c. 1480
Galleria degli Uffizi. Source: Wikimedia Commons

What of the landscape behind Saint Jerome? Here is Belting's description:
'Alongside a river, a zone of barren land puts the fortification of a walled city into the farthest distance.  It is crossed by a long, winding path, which allows us to measure the journey to reach the solitary place.  A hind and a stag roam freely in this depopulated land, while humans appear only below the city walls. The river is flanked by settlements, the city or castello with a Venetian bell tower, and, on the other side, some sort of fortified monastery that resembles San Vitale in Ravenna. The topographical allusions have found various interpretations, since the cityscape is, in Felton Gibbons's words, "a curious potpourri of identifiable monuments".  Only the ruinous bridge over the river, connected to the city gates by wooden planks, seems to be a true portrayal of the old Roman bridge in Rimini as it looked in Bellini's time.  What matters is the realism of the Venetian settlements in the background and the contrasting view of solitary life in nature.'
Giovanni Bellini, Saint Jerome Reading in the Wilderness, c. 1485
National Gallery. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Here in London, the National Gallery has a very similar version of this composition (above), with the saint again intent on his book, but a different landscape behind him.  This painting was in the Getty Museum's exhibition, along with a later panel now in Washington (below), in which the saint sits by the entrance to a grotto.  A whole range of possible allusions have been found in its detailed landscape, which Bellini painted with the attention to detail we would associate with Flemish artists. As Susannah Rutherglen's catalogue essay points out, these are often contradictory...
  • A lizard is possibly a reference to the Garden of Eden's serpent or the concept of Resurrection, though in its darting motion it could equally be a metaphor for the saint's lively intellect.
  • A pair of rabbits facing each other could suggest either Christian meekness or sinful lust.
  • A squirrel may refer to intellectual pride or resistance to adversity.
  • A fig tree might symbolise temptation, but could also refer to the cross.
  • The water in a cistern could be associated with both 'demonic polymorphism and the rite of Baptism'    
  • And a bird of prey suggests either magnanimity or mystical contemplation, but also looms over the scene as a symbol of death.

Giovanni Bellini, Saint Jerome Reading in the Wilderness, 1505
National Gallery of Art, Washington. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Finally, there is an unusual altarpiece which Bellini painted as an old man. By this stage he had come under the influence of Giorgione (and outlived him).  Jerome is again shown reading, sitting on the trunk of a fig tree.  Belting quotes Roger Fry, writing in 1899, who found this 
'the strangest, most romantic enthronement ever conceived - an old hermit, who has grown by long years of secluded contemplation into mysterious sympathy with the rocks and plants and trees of his mountain solitude, sits in a scarlet robe, silhouetted against a golden sunset sky, across which faint purplish clouds are driven by the wind; and below him there spreads a vast expanse of valley and mountain ridges.  Bellini's intimate Wordsworthian feeling for the moods of wild nature finds here its remotest and sublimest expression.'
Giovanni Bellini, Saint Jerome with Saint Christopher and Saint Louis of Toulouse, 1513
Church of San Giovanni Crisostomo, Venice. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Sacred landscapes


Simon Bening, The Baptism of Christ and The Temptation of Christ, c. 1525-30

Last year the J. Paul Getty Museum mounted an exhibition called Sacred Landscapes: Nature in Renaissance Manuscripts. The catalogue contains many appealing images that I am tempted to share here, although of course landscape itself is rarely the main subject of these paintings.  The full page illustrations above are in a prayer book, commissioned by Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, Elector and Archbishop of Mainz.  In these two scenes certain elements of the landscape settings seem deliberately to echo each other: the cliff, the river, the distant blue mountain.  They were the work of perhaps the greatest of miniature painters, Simon Bening, who was based in Bruges and specialised in books of hours. Interestingly, as the Getty website explains, Bening's 'eldest daughter, Livinia, became court painter to Edward VI of England, and another daughter became a dealer in paintings, miniatures, parchment, and silk.'

These illustrations are both 6⅝ by 4½ inches - similar to a small paperback (an old Pelican book I have to hand by Jacquetta Hawkes measures about 7 by 4½ inches). The Getty site allows you to zoom into these images in great detail, noting the beauty of their colours and delicacy of Bening's brushwork, before quickly losing yourself in their imaginary worlds. In the baptism scene, you can peer down into the water, whose ripples are picked up in the curving forms of reeds and riverbank, or look into the distance where a boat glides past rocks the colour of clouds.  In the temptation scene, deer graze on the slopes and venture down to drink from the winding river. The mountain peak is painted in blues, pinks and orange that resemble a pastel by Degas, or a watercolour by Cézanne. The two figures looking down from this summit represent another part of the Bible story. 'The devil takes Christ to a high mountain from which all the kingdoms of the world can be seen and offers him these lands if Christ agrees to adore him. Jesus coolly refuses all of these temptations and commands the devil to leave.'

Sunday, September 23, 2018

A view of the gardens of the Palais du Luxembourg

Jacques-Louis David, View of the Gardens of the Palais du Luxembourg, 1794 

'After walking through a play area, as usual not very pretty – poorly designed swings and toboggans, painted in glaring colours, since it is an established fact that children have no taste – I enter a piece of woodland that seems almost wild, as the gardeners have taken care to let it grow with the least constraint possible. Then, between the edge of this forest and the side of the square, marked by the walls of the Mobilier National, in the centre of the open space we find a 'creation' – in the sense that Encelade's copse at Versailles is a creation. There is a topiary quincunx of box bushes, with roses in the middle: four open semi-cylindrical arbours frame a small obelisk of raw stone. The roses climb over the arbours and embrace the obelisk. To give an idea of the charm of the place, you have to recall one of those painters who were not landscape artists but painted almost by chance a single landscape – I have in mind the Villa Medici Gardens by Velázquez, or David‘s view of the Luxembourg, painted from the cell where he awaited the guillotine after Thermidor.'
-  Eric Hazan, describing the Square René-Le Gall in A Walk Through Paris, translated by David Fernbach, 2018

Diego Velázquez, View of the Garden of the Villa Medici, c. 1630

Reading this passage I thought it was an interesting way of describing the charm of an urban park, encountered as unexpectedly as these modest landscape views among the works of artists known for their figure painting.  I wrote here last year about the Velázquez, but what of David's painting? There was actually a good article devoted to it in The Independent a few years ago, by Michael Glover. In the course of it h, discusses details like that group of figures engaged in some sort of activity.  
'Are these people raking the earth itself? Are they mark-making? Are they engaged in an inscrutable game of some kind? What we do know for certain is that after the Revolution, parts of the Luxembourg Gardens were handed over to be tilled by the common people – in the new spirit of egalitarianism, no doubt. There is not much to be tilled here though, not at this time of year, not much evidence at all of Keats's season of mellow fruitfulness.'  
Why was David confined to this cell?  I have written a post here before about the artificial landscape he designed for the first Celebration of the Supreme Being in June 1794.  This marked the zenith of Robespierre's power - already people were turning against him and within a month he had been guillotined.  David, apparently ill, managed to avoid the same fate but was eventually arrested and spent August to December 1794 in prison. Michael Glover reads the politics of revolution into the landscape David painted there.
'Two factors seem to be at odds with each other in this painting: order and disorder. That fence looks makeshift in the extreme – shockingly makeshift for such an august location. And yet the layout of the gardens themselves, that perfect alignment of trees, for example, somewhat reminds us of how the Luxembourg Gardens are these days, a project that depends for its grandeur and its power to impress upon the taming and ordering of nature in the interests of human reason. And so it is here. But the tops of the trees tell quite a rather story. In these gardens, we are used to the sight of severely pollarded trees. Nature is to be tamed and regulated. Here things have got out of hand. The unruly crowns of the trees are rejoicing in their untamed spirit.'
He concludes by imagining David, in his high prison cell looking down on this view.  'Meditating upon partially untamed nature in this way may have helped his spirit to breathe.'

Sunday, September 09, 2018

The road plunged at once into a beautiful wood

Because News From Nowhere is a dream vision of the future I have found myself wondering sometimes if certain details I recall are really in it, or whether I dreamed them myself.  After a trip to Hammersmith last weekend, when we walked past William Morris's old house on the Thames, I had an urge to go back to the text, to check whether he really had name-checked Stoke Newington, the part of London where I live.  In Morris's future London, I recollected, it was possible to walk all the way here from Hammersmith along a forest path.  And indeed it was as I remembered it - the description comes in Chapter 5, which begins with the narrator at Hammersmith Broadway (now a shopping centre from which the Thames can be reached only by negotiating a complex system of noisy roads round the Hammersmith Flyover).  'Past the Broadway there were fewer houses on either side.  We presently crossed a pretty little brook that ran across a piece of land dotted over with tree...'  Presently they reach Kensington, where the urban woodland begins.
"People are apt to gather here rather thick, for they like the romance of the wood; and naturalists haunt it, too; for it is a wild spot even here, what there is of it; for it does not go far to the south: it goes from here northward and west right over Paddington and a little way down Notting Hill: thence it runs north-east to Primrose Hill, and so on; rather a narrow strip of it gets through Kingsland to Stoke-Newington and Clapton, where it spreads out along the heights above the Lea marshes; on the other side of which, as you know, is Epping Forest holding out a hand to it..."
They walk on and
'The road plunged at once into a beautiful wood spreading out on either side, but obviously much further on the north side, where even the oaks and sweet chestnuts were of a good growth; while the quicker-growing trees (amongst which I thought the planes and sycamores too numerous) were very big and fine-grown.
'It was exceedingly pleasant in the dappled shadow, for the day was growing as hot as need be, and the coolness and shade soothed my excited mind into a condition of dreamy pleasure, so that I felt as if I should like to go on for ever through that balmy freshness.  My companion seemed to share in my feelings, and let the horse go slower and slower as he sat inhaling the green forest scents, chief amongst which was the smell of the trodden bracken near the wayside...'
A constant delight in the natural world is central to life in this future London.  As Fiona MacCarthy writes in her biography of Morris, there is no real dividing line between country and town life. 'Morris's visionary landscape is both decorous and lavish, mysterious and homely, an extraordinary and deeply imagined image of urban possibility. We can see its effects as the Garden Cities burgeoned early on in the next century...'   The narrator of News From Nowhere eventually leaves London for a journey up the river by boat, arriving at an old house resembling Kelmscott Manor, Morris's home in Oxfordshire.  Here the dream has to end and after a period of darkness he finds himself back in 'dingy Hammersmith.'  We left Hammersmith in bright sunshine and walked along the Thames Path and over the bridge, eventually reaching the Wetland Centre, with its otters and sand martins and dragonflies.  It is almost possible there to imagine a city partially reclaimed for nature.  Meanwhile, News from Nowhere continues to inspire readers across the world - I read just yesterday that Korean artists Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho will be using the title for a new exhibition, coming to Tate Liverpool later this year.

Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Water Willow, 1871
Jane Morris with Kelmscott Manor in the background

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Desert tracings

Last week the BBC published an interesting article by Paul Cooper on the theme of ruins and Arabic writing.  He notes that the 'motif of the atlal (‘ruins’) originates in the pre-Islamic period', possibly with the 6th Century poet-king Imru’ al-Qais. In 'The Mu’allaqah of Imru al-Qais', the landscape conveys an overwhelming sense of loss: 'The courtyards and enclosures of the old home have become desolate; / The dung of the wild deer lies there thick as the seeds of pepper.'  Robert Irwin includes a translation of this qasida (ode) in his excellent anthology of classical Arabic literature, Night & Horses & The Desert, and notes that in English Literature, Tennyson's 'Locksley Hall' begins in the same way, with the poet asking companions to leave him in peace with his memories.  Ruins recur in Arabic poetry down the years, even though the trope was being mocked as early as the eighth century, in a poem by Abu Nuwas: 'The wretch paused to examine an abandoned campsite, / While I paused to inquire about the neighbourhood tavern.'

Having set the historical context, the BBC article goes on to give three examples of ruins in more recent Arabic culture:
  • In the novels of Iraqi author Sinan Antoon, e.g. The Corpse Washer, where a character wonders through 'the ruin of the Baghdad National Library, which was destroyed during the 2003 invasion, and the National Film Archive, the repository of a century of Arab film-making destroyed by a US bomb.'
  • In the film Son of Babylon by Mohamed al-Daradji, in which a Kurdish boy searches for his imprisoned father through the earliest remains of civilisation - Ur, Nimrud, Bablyon - and the new ruins created by the Iraq war. But 'rather than seeing memories held in the ruins, al-Daradji’s characters find only blankness and emptiness...' 

Source: Film Walrus

I have summarised Paul Cooper's article here but I could equally have drawn this from his Twitter thread on the same subject. Personally, I find these threads irritating to read and suspect they are quite fiddly to compose.  Perhaps the thread is developing its own form, like a qasida...  I still prefer to use this blog to write about landscape, rather than split thoughts up into Twitter threads.  But of course nothing beats a good old fashioned book, and Cooper's article prompted me to dig out Desert Tracings, an anthology of six classical odes translated by Michael A. Sells.  Particularly moving is 'The Mu’allaqah of Labid', which begins, again, with the poet looking for traces of his beloved's campsite.  The images that follow convey the way memory can be effaced and restored.  The dung-strewn ground that suggests how long it has been since humans were present, is replenished by the rain:
The rills and the runlets
uncovered marks like the script
of faded scrolls
restored with pens of reed.
And yet, 'although renewed, the inscriptions are indecipherable.  When the poet questions the ruins, they are summ (hard, deaf), offering only a lapidary silence, or words whose meaning is unclear.'

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

End of the Glacier

We enjoyed a family day trip to Hastings at the weekend, where I am pleased to say I was victorious at crazy golf.  As a child I always imagined designing my own courses and on the way round I was daydreaming about one based on the great works of land art, where golf balls have to be putted through models of Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels and Michael Heizer's Double Negative, round the Spiral Jetty, through the Lightning Field and into Roden Crater... 

I was thinking about art because we had just been to the Jerwood Gallery, which is currently showing exhibitions by Mark Wallinger and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. The Wallinger includes Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (2007), which refers back to the great painting by Bruegel but is just a video installation with You've Been Framed clips. He also had some photographs of the local Birdman competition and a room with a wall of mirrors and an Eadward Muybridge grid, with encouragement to take photographs (my sons were happy to oblige). Here, I will focus on Barns-Graham, who I've only ever mentioned once before on this blog.

The Jerwood's display, Sea, Rock, Earth and Ice, is described on The Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust website.
'The Jerwood Gallery takes their own Barns-Graham painting Winter Landscape, 1952 as the rationale for the display. The starting point is a strong group of glaciers that includes Glacier Painting, Green and Brown, 1951 from Sheffield Museums (the show travels to the Graves Gallery, opening 8 December) before showing how the series developed away from having direct glacier references to one of rock forms...'
The sketchbooks and texts displayed alongside the paintings show the artist trying to uncover the shapes of the mountains' steep rock faces and curving ice fields.  I noted down part of a quote, next to End of the Glacier, Upper Grindelwald (1949), which conveys a strong sense of the Sublime.
"Once while working against the evening light rapidly fading, I experienced a terrifying desire to roll myself down the mountain side.  Calmly as I could I came down the wood steps cut in the ice, Grindelwald far below. ... I heard the awful roar of an avalanche and seeing what looked like a trickle of salt in the distant heights.  All this and the many moods beautiful and frightening fascinated me."

I have always loved Barns-Graham's glacier paintings, in particular Glacier Crystal, Grindelwald (1950) - not in this show, but reproduced (above) on the front of the Tate's 2005 exhibition catalogue.  Maybe this is partly because they resemble frozen air.  The Grindelwald glacier, she wrote, seemed to breath. "This likeness to glass and transparency, combined with solid, rough ridges made me wish to combine in a work all angles at once, from above, through, and all round, as a bird flies, a total experience..."

Sea, Rock, Earth and Ice took in other work from Barns-Graham's long career, and was a reminder of the abiding interest she showed in other naturally abstract landforms, from the quarries she sketched in the late fifties to the lava she drew in the early nineties.  The waves of the Lanzarote lava field were conveyed in white chalk and pastel on black paper, reminding me of the Tacita Dean drawings I saw recently in London. The fact that for a decade or so these artists were contemporaries is rather amazing.  When Barns-Graham died in 2004 at the age of 91, her 'radiant' late work was evidently as highly regarded by critics as anything else she had painted.