Friday, November 08, 2019

Vaux-le-Vicomte


Last month we visited the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, just outside Paris.  It was the home of Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV's finance minister, and was the creation of three great seventeenth century artists: architect Louis Le Vau, painter Charles Le Brun and landscape designer André le Nôtre.  Throughout Vaux-le-Vicomte there are explanatory signs with diagrams explaining how le Nôtre constructed the estate to create optical illusions.  When you look out from the house across the garden (below), you can see a distant slope with a golden statue, but there is no sign of the garden's canal (above) which actually stretches right across the garden.  A sign informs visitors of what they can expect as they walk down into this landscape.  "The Grand Canal, invisible from the château's front steps, appears out of the blue.  The grottos, which seem to be on the pool's edge, get further away as you progress along the main path of the garden and now seem to be on the opposite side of the canal!  The statue of Hercules now seems impossible to reach..."  I think this clever example of 'decelerated perspective' put Mrs Plinius off walking as far as the Hercules statue but, as you can see below, I was not discouraged and went up to get a good look at it.


The sun was so strong that Hercules himself presented two very different perspectives, shadowy on the way up and gleaming magnificently when you looked back down at him.  Although I felt like I was dutifully walking along a sightline, one of those rays on a diagram connected to an imaginary eyeball, it was impossible not to be distracted by birdsong and the crunch of fallen leaves under your feet.  The sharp shadows and bright sunshine were perfect conditions to enjoy the garden's mathematical aesthetic and indulge in the scopophilia of all those viewing points.  But it was still possible to enjoy the feel of the breeze and smell of the damp grass and choose your own ways of experiencing the space.  My sons got caught up in a game of catching the falling leaves.


On the way back to the château, as you round one end of the canal, there is a great example of borrowed scenery (what Japanese gardeners call shakkei).  What you can see (below) is the Vallée de l'Anqueuil and medieval Pont de Mons, giving the impression that Fouquet's land extended into this idyllic unspoilt landscape.  Here, nature is incorporated within the realm of the garden, but this seems relatively modest when compared to the main design where (as Allen S. Weiss has written) infinity itself, in the form of the vanishing point, is brought into the garden's purview. 

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Chateau d'If


Two years ago I wrote here about the plans-reliefs that Andrew Graham-Dixon visited for a TV documentary - he described them as 'a collection of extraordinary but largely forgotten' table-top landscapes. I mentioned that some of them remain in Paris and last weekend I got to see them - they are on display in Les Invalides.  I framed the photograph above so that this example resembles a real aerial landscape.  However, it is eerily empty - there are roads and buildings but no sign of actual human life: no figures in the fields, no cattle or horses or any other animals.  None of the relief maps show anything happening in these landscapes.  They are quite different from the models we are used to seeing in museums that recreate a key historical event or evoke everyday life at some date in the past.  The plans-reliefs represent a rather bleak vision of the world, as mere terrain to be defended or fought over.  Seeing a relief map of Saint-Tropez in this context was a particular shock - a place that conjures ideas of life at its most joyous - sun, sea, wine, music and Brigitte Bardot on the beach...


Near the glass cabinet dedicated to St Tropez, there is another one containing the Chateau d'If.  I remember that when I first began reading The Count of Monte Cristo I didn't realise that this place, a strangely-named island fortress near Marseilles, was a real location (or that Monte Cristo is an actual island).  But as this relief map from 1681 shows, the Chateau d'If was a key French fortification long before Dumas wrote his novel and the fictional Edmond Dantès was wrongly imprisoned there. Chateau d'Ifs have subsequently multiplied in the many adaptations of Dumas' novel: plays, films and, most recently, video games.  Sometimes other islands have stood in for it - Saint Mary's Tower on Comino, for example, was used in a 2002 film.  Dumas himself would later create another kind of model of the Chateau d'If.  In 1846 he bestowed the name on a grand writer's studio that he had built in the grounds of his country home.  But Dumas spent a lot less time there than Dantès spent in the Chateau d'If - just two years later, short of money, he had to sell it.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Water and sky, suspended like a dream


Gerald Bullett (1893-1958) is perhaps not very well known today, but he was a fairly prolific writer and according to Wikipedia (quoting a 1950 dictionary of authors), a "liberal socialist" who claimed to detest "prudery, Prohibition, blood sports, central heating, and literary tea parties".  Bullett spent the summer of 1945 making translations of ‘a Chinese rural sequence’ by the Song Dynasty geographer-poet-politician Fan Cheng-Ta (Fan Chengda 1126–1193).  These were published in a slim volume the following year as The Golden Year of Fan Cheng-Ta.  Like Ezra Pound and other Western translators, he was working from literal translations made by a Chinese scholar, Tsui Chi. The sequence comprises sixty poems in all, each eight lines long in his versions.  I doubt if they will ever be reprinted because although Bullett was fond of Whitman and didn't go overboard with his rhyming, they are a bit old-fashioned.  What follows here is an excercise in cutting these up and representing them as a kind of landscape poem.  I've condensed each poem into three fragments and strung these haiku-like images together to give a sense of the unfolding year in Suzhou in 1186. 

The Golden Year of Fan Cheng-Ta

Early Spring

Willow flower | young leaves of the mulberry | bright noon
Ten thousand spears of grass | showers | new shoots
The green of the wheat | river meadows |flowering almond and peach
Field-shrine | offerings to the spirit of the earth | faggots and rushes
After the festival | strewn on the grass, flowers | serene air
From the east | rumour of horsemen | a bright cloud, on noiseless hooves
Salad festival | a clear sky | wide panorama of Hu Chiu
Long is the day | in this arbour | we warm the wine
Rain over | to walk where earlier wayfarers have gone | a broad brook
Children and birds | thieving friends | net the cherry flowers
Rice-seed | thunderquake | filling the fields with water
Mulberry tree | measured rows | chives and cabbage

Late Spring

Close-folding lettuce | spring onions white as snow | wind and rain
Lake and sky | green coins of water-lily | bulrush shoots
Butterflies | enter the vegetable flowers | golden stream of the long day
Flood’s edge | the islet-dweller is doing her household washing | twilight is falling
Cool glow of dawn | falling petals | odour of spices borne on a light breeze
On golden mornings | dew that lingers | gather the mulberry leaf
Mud | an island sinking in the flood | weakness of a planted water-fence
Downy, pointed reedlings | russet berries | my walking stick
Rice-in-husk festival | the rain is silken | peony blossoms
After the rains, morning | soft radiance | listening to the golden orioles
Rivers rising | edible miscanthus roots | the oriental lilac blooms
Few come this way | shadows of dove-grey dusk | alone, I weave my fence

Summer

Heavy the trees | long barley blossoms into snow | hedged in with summer
Innumerable tadpoles | fields of the rice crop | water a foot deep
Abundance this surprising year | the oven’s crammed | season of ripening rice-grain
Cocoons, in boiling vats | wheels of the spinning-cart | mulberry-girls cross hands
Day after day | labour at the loom | the mulberry
Watercourses flowing full | upon this water engine | feet of the young men
Sons in the fields | little grandchild | under the mulberry his melon-seeds would grow
Air serenely cool | the rhamnus grows | benign shade
A millstone | a freshet of wind in the willow-shaded air | the noon hour
Lotus-flowers | I drift my boat | small waterfowls wise up, in sudden flight
Gathering caltrops | blood from his pricked fingers | tinges the pale water vermilion
Shadows extend | the cicadas’ bubbling noise | night falls.

Autumn

Golden lilies, red chrysanthemums | concealed nearby, in sedgy marshland | crickets
Girls laugh and sing | the festival Begging Good Luck | river-ferrying stars
Between the boughs | shedding the husk | a brilliant many-coloured moth
Web under the low eaves | a dragonfly and bees | hang there
Fields ready | burden of the year | half the crop must go to pay our debts
Autumn come | we take the unthreshed grain | and spread it in the sun
A full moon | on idle oar | water and sky, suspended like a dream
Threshing of rice grain | fine frosty weather | beat of the flail
Tributary stores | still there’s left to us | husky rice to feed the children
Pulse and corn | jars of earthenware | Day of Double Brightness
Onions finely minced | this mess of fish | a tolerable dish
Unexpected frost | the woods | wear now a richly-embroidered silken dress

Winter

A pale slice of moon | tall trees | leaves scatter the ground
Under the eaves | back to the sun | bleak north wind
Safe from winter's harm | the wind | playing his flute in the fence of bamboo-stakes
A pine-tree flare | the aroma drifting slow | reddening sun
Under the constellation of the Ox | the earth-spirit | our simple shrine
Let the boat take me | air grows ever more crystalline | a brittle sheet of ice
Sweeping away the snow | cabbages | like honeyed lotus-roots
Night of snow | knobs of smokeless charcoal burn | chestnuts in the ashes
Wine to make ready | you who live in towns | are you better off?
Tax-paper | a smooth black-coated gentleman from town | how tiresome
A well-born youth | sees a flowering peach-tree | celestial sight!
The year ends | mutual visiting | linen garments, white as snow

As you can see, the golden year of Fan Cheng-Ta unfolded in a succession of seasonal plants, foods and festivals, while he observed the villagers labouring to produce silk, grain and rice, paying their taxes and receving occasional visitors from the city.  Moments of landscape beauty seem to have come when the author was drifting on a boat, like Rousseau or Wordsworth.  I'll end here by quoting in full one of the poems, No. 54, from which I took some words about the icy lake above.
Let the boat take me leisurely where it will,
So of these snow-bright slopes I have my fill.
The wind falls, is still.  Cold and fine,
The evening air grows ever more crystalline.
The rhythmic pole makes music in my ears
Like breaking jade or shatter of pearly spheres :
By which I guess the water's shining face
Already wears a brittle sheet of ice.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Rising sun over the landscape of Mount Paektu

Last week I discussed here the way artists over the centuries have depicted Korea's Diamond Mountains, but these extraordinary peaks are are not the most revered landscape in this part of the world.  The great stratovolcano, Mount Paektu, features in both North and South Korea's national anthems and has always been considered a sacred site - the birthplace of Dangun, founder of the first Korean kingdom, whose father was the Son of Heaven.  Mount Paektu is in what is now North Korea and has become inextricably linked with ideas of the country's leaders, a process that began with an epic poem, Cho Ki-chon's 'Mt. Paektu' (1947).  A recent example is 'We Will Go to Mount Paektu', a song which Laibach wanted to cover on their controversial visit to North Korea in 2015.

Heaven Lake, Mount Paektu

For his 2016 documentary Into the Volcano, Werner Herzog visited Mount Paektu with volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer.  In the film they note how frequently it appears in official iconography as a backdrop to images of North Korean leaders.  They are also shown another pilgrimage site, Kim Il-sung's secret log cabin where, according to his official biography, Kim Jong-il was born in 1941.  Herzog says in his voiceover that "in the Christian World, this would be like visiting the birthplace of Jesus - the stable in Bethlehem".  I have featured the humble retreats of poets and artists many time on this blog in the past; here again we have an example of the cultural significance of a solitary hut in a mountain landscape. 


The film goes on to show images of this log cabin in the snow and Mount Paektu at sunrise.  These represent a form of landscape art that requires vast numbers of people all obeying strict instructions, neither creating or seeing the image but themselves forming a human canvas.
"In the country's biggest stadium, more than 100,000 people participate in creating a unique artform.  The picture of the hut in the snow is not a painting.  It is made of human pixels.  And this is how it's done.  A prearranged pattern of coloured cards is held and flipped over in sync.  Here: the rising sun over the landscape of Mount Paektu." 
We often think of the way nature is reshaped in response to our dreams and desires, or the way artists have painted mountains as an expression of their individuality and subjective experience.  Here, in a setting that approaches the scale of a real landscape, there are no individuals and only one official story. 
  

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Diamond Mountains

Jeong Seon, General View of Mt. Geumgang, 1734
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In these days of mass global travel it feels as if everywhere of note is being constantly visited and photographed, but one of the most spectacular and culturally significant landscapes in the world is almost inaccessible.  The Diamond Mountains, known collectively as Mount Geumgang, are in what is now North Korea.  The art they inspired was recently the subject of an exhibition in New York which I would love to have seen. The Met's catalogue (a very lovely book) explains the three main areas travellers sought out, following in the footsteps of poets, painters and travel diarists: Inner Geumgang is a lush landscape of streams and pools; Outer Geumgang has steep trails, dramatic peaks and waterfalls; and by the shore, Sea Geumgang has strange rock formations and pillars rising from the waters. The painting above shows the entire mountain range and is by Jeong Seon (1676-1759), the artist who did more than any other to popularise the area.  It is an example of a 'general view' that tries to capture the whole landscape at once, rather like a modern skiing map.  Interpreters have seen this painting in cosmological terms, representing yin and yang - dark and light, wet and dry, earth and universe.

Detail of the General View of Mt. Geumgang

The painting on the cover of the Met's catalogue (below) is also very much a landscape of contrasts.  It is one of the thirteen views in Jeong's Album of Mount Geumgang (1711), painted after what is thought to have been his first visit to the mountains.  It shows the view from Danbal Ridge - 'Danbal' means "cutting one's hair" and comes from the idea that the view here is so astonishing it will lead the traveller to shave his head, become a monk and withdraw from the secular world.  In Korea people spoke of 'entering the mountain', in the sense of going into a spiritual realm, rather than 'ascending the mountain' and conquering it like a mountaineer.  Lee Soomi describes this painting in the catalogue:
'Jeong painted himself and his fellow travellers alighting in the magnificent scene.  Oer the clouds, the mountain's twelve thousand peaks shine as if in greeting.  Jeong juxtaposed the dark and earthy terrain of Danbal Ridge with the white, rocky peaks, defining the forested ridge with short Mi dots and emphasizing the mountain's steepness through sharp, diagonal forms.  A sheer fog hovers between the two kinds of mountains, creating a void that underscores the contrast.'
The Met website has a long and well-illustrated interview with the curator Soyoung Lee which is like a condensed version of the catalogue.  This includes views of the Diamond Mountains painted in subsequent centuries by literati, court painters and folk artists.  There are two remarkable twentieth century ink paintings, one by Byeong Gwansik (1899-1976) with a strange diagonal pinnacle cutting across the view, and another by Lee Ungno (1904-1989), where mountains are painted with strikingly beautiful brush strokes and colours (it would be a wonderful inspiration for anyone posting daily pictures at the moment for 'Inktober'). Soyoung Lee says that both of these artists
"travelled multiple times to the mountains and made sketches during the colonial period before 1945, when the peninsula was divided into north and south. Yet although they travelled and made sketches during this period, the finished paintings all date to post-1945, which speaks deeply to the particular sense of nostalgia people felt at that time, a nostalgia for a place before it was disrupted and divided. [,,,] The work of both these artists is deeply informed by a sense of longing and loss. They were recreating a site they had intimately experienced, which was no longer accessible to them."

Friday, October 11, 2019

Ten Skies and 13 Lakes

‘The only way one can understand landscape is through time.’ - James Benning

This is a still from TEN SKIES (2004) a film by James Benning that lasts over two hours and consists of ten static shots of the sky over California.  You can currently watch it all on YouTube.  Claudia Slanar has written about this film and its predecessor 13 LAKES (2004) that the attention they demand ‘leads to a fluctuation between impatience, immersion and digression.’ Scott MacDonald has described the experience of seeing them for the first time as like going into a horror film, where the viewer has to decide to ‘endure whatever the film is about to send their way.’ By the third ten minute sequence it will be clear that almost nothing is going to happen. So what exactly do they offer? MacDonald suggests they provide a kind of visual and auditory retraining. ‘Again and again during a viewing of either film, we ‘awake’ to realise that our minds have moved elsewhere, into daydream, memory, worry, planning… and we wrestle our consciousness back to the screen and soundtrack, often to realise that in the interim things have altered more than we might have expected.’


In these films, landscape is transformed directly into art. As Slanar says, they 'represent the concept of nature as a ’ready-made’, as a pre-existing object that is turned into a work of art by means of an artistic signature.’  The fragmentary soundtrack of Ten Skies ‘subtly evokes a sense of place without depending on synchronous sound’. She relates Benning's films to other examples of slow cinema – Peter Hutton's Time and Tide (2000) and At Sea (2007), Sharon Lockhart’s Pine Flat (2006), Abbas Kiorostami’s Five (2003).  Her essay, and that of Scott MacDonald, appear in an excellent compilation dedicated to James Benning published in 2007 by the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna. The book discusses his work's engagement with ideas of place and the rapidly changing American landscape.  As Julie Ault says, the films reveal a persistent iconography – ‘groups of cows, passing trains, emitting smokestacks, farmland being ploughed, billboards, gunshots, oil wells, highways, the Spiral Jetty and the Milwaukee neighbourhood where Benning was born and raised.’


Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty is the subject of Casting a glance (2007): seventy-eight one-minute shots made during sixteen trips to the Jetty between May 15 2005 and January 14 2007.  The title refers to something Smithson said that evokes that idea of landscape as 'ready-made': ‘a great artist can make art by simply casting a glance.’  Benning first saw Spiral Jetty almost twenty years earlier.  In those days it was much harder to find - he tried various roads from Rozel Point before finding one that led to wards the lake, then had to walk three miles to find it, submerged at that point under two feet of water.  I will end here with Benning's evocative description of encountering Spiral Jetty as a site constantly changing, illustrating his view that 'the only way one can understand landscape is through time.'
‘The Jetty is a barometer for both daily and yearly cycles. From morning to night its allusive, shifting appearance (radical or subtle) may be the result of a passing weather system or simply the changing angle of the sun. The yearly seasonal shifts and water level changes alter the growing salt crystals, the amount of algae in the water, and the presence of wildlife. The water may appear blue, red, purple, green, brown, silver, or gold. The sounds may come from a navy jet, wildlife, splashing water, a distant car radio, converging thunderstorms; or be a silence so still you can hear the blood moving through the veins in your ears.'

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Emerald City


I’ve been looking through a library copy of The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop, a huge, glossy and expensive book based on material in the Art Directors Guild archives. Among its many full page illustrations there is a relatively brief history of painted backdrops in Hollywood, followed by short chapters on some key figures: George Gibson, Ben Carré, Duncan Alanson Spencer and two family dynasties, the Coakleys and the Strangs.

George Gibson (1904-2001) is possibly the most interesting of these from a landscape perspective, partly because he was also a well regarded water colourist and leading figure in the Californian School of plein air artists (many of whom worked in Hollywood). Gibson had been trained at Glasgow School of Art before emigrating to America during the Depression.  He had quite a low opinion of some of the backdrop artists he found working at MGM...
‘We had a large backing of mountains and pine trees to paint. At that time we had to work off fixed scaffolding with standing levels seven feet apart with a forty foot high backing. The pine trees in the foreground of the backing ran full size top to bottom. [When we] struck the fixed scaffolding, the only part of the pine trees that matched was their trunks. Every section on the seven levels [of scaffolding] had a different version of pine needles because each artist had his own conception of what pine needles should look like. It was obvious that they hadn’t been painting in the out-of-doors, or even bothered to look critically at a pine tree, if ever.’ 
Gibson was put in charge of work on backdrops for The Wizard of Oz, Brigadoon, North by Northwest, Forbidden Planet and many others.  The book includes photographs of the sound stages on which such movies were acted out, with their foreground props merging quite convincingly with painted landscape backgrounds.  There is an example of one landscape setting he painted himself, a church in the snow which can be seen in The Brothers Karamazov (1958).  However, many of the old backdrops have long since been damaged and lost.

When Mark Cousins was directing the Edinburgh Film Festival in the mid 90s he decided to draw a link between The Wizard of Oz and the city of Gibson's birth.  "We thought it would be fun and challenging to transform Edinburgh Castle into the Emerald City. No-one knew about the Gibson connection at that time."  I'm not sure what this transformation entailed, but certainly the connection has now been established and you'll find Gibson referred to in several online guides to Edinburgh.