Friday, October 16, 2020

Look into the cataract

I've been a bit short of time recently so here is just a brief post to share a clip from YouTube of the beginning of Werner Herzog's Heart of Glass (1976). Embedded clips like this usually disappear after a while so I am also including some still images from the film too. The Rückenfigur looking over the Bavarian Alps is the herdsman Hias, a character based on the legendary Bavarian prophet, Mühlhiasl who had Nostradamus-like visions of the future.  The second one shows clouds flowing over the mountains, a scene Herzog and his crew filmed frame-by-frame.  These mountains formed the landscape of Herzog's childhood, living until the age of twelve in a remote village which his mother had taken their family to after the house next door to theirs in Munich was bombed in an Allied raid.

After these views of the mountain landscape where the film's story is set (just after the end of the clip embedded here), there is a sequence of stranger, more dream-like images of flowing water. These are supposed to put the viewer into a kind of trance, like the villagers in the story who talk and act as if in a waking dream - Herzog got all his actors to perform under hypnosis, with the exception of Josef Bierbichler who plays Hias (for more on this, see the book Werner Herzog and the making of 'Heart of Glass'). Over the waterfall footage you hear a voice in German: "I look into the cataract... I feel an undertow... It draws me, it sucks me down..."  As this is happening, Popul Vuh's music gently plays in the background.  Herzog described the effect of concentrating intensely on this imagery.  It "gives you a lift as if the waterfall was standing still and you start to float upwards. It's a little but like the effect of staring from a bridge into a river and all of a sudden you start to float..."   

Friday, September 18, 2020

A river made of crystal water-drops

Gaṅgā, the personification of the sacred river Ganges,
early 19th century watercolour in The British Museum

Eric Newby's Slowly Down the Ganges introduced me to the fact that the river has 108 names, all of which he lists so that they form a kind of poem at the beginning of the book.  The river is also a goddess, Ganga, and these names are thus part of Hindu faith, but as I have often talked here about aspects of landscape in European religious art, it does not seem inappropriate to take them out of context here. You can find the full list in English translation online. Here are the first ten, which show the way they mix very short geographical description with snatches of mythology and descriptions of the goddess herself.

  1. One who flows
  2. One who is born from the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu
  3. Dearest to Shiva
  4. Daughter of Lord of Himalaya
  5. One who flows through the mountains
  6. Mother of Kartikeya
  7. One who liberated 60,000 cursed sons of King Sagara
  8. Meeting Saraswati at Allahabad
  9. Being sweet and melodious
  10. Flowing and meeting the ocean

And from the remaining 98 names, here are ten more that together form a word picture of the river.

  • One who is imperishable, eternal (24)
  • One who is delightful (33)
  • A river made of crystal water-drops (34)
  • One whose water is as good as nectar (43)
  • As noisy as a conch-shell and drum (49)
  • One who flows with a force (54)
  • Just like the autumn moon (66)
  • One who drives away all sorrows (72)
  • One who is muttering (94)
  • One who is light amid the darkness of ignorance (104)

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

The mountains and the islands have a blue halo

Sophia de Mello Breyner has been one of my favourite poets since I first read her work in Richard Zenith's translations from the Portuguese in the late 90s. I kept recommending Log Book to people until I realised it had gone out of print and become ruinously expensive. Her poems do not describe landscapes but they are usually set near the sea and speak of sunlight and cicadas, pine trees, wind and wild sea birds. Her early memories were of reading Homer by the seashore in Portugal. Richard Zenith's introduction quotes her recollection of this: 'The ocean was a deep blue, and shone brilliantly. For me this world represented happiness, and I found the same world in Homer, in The Odyssey and then in The Iliad.'

Earlier this evening I watched Rita Azevedo Gomes’ 2016 essay film Correspondências, about the letters exchanged by Sophia (as everyone called her) and Jorge de Sena, her friend and fellow poet, who went into exile first in Brazil and then the USA. Gomes has her own friends read the letters, sometimes in their own homes and sometimes out in the landscape. It reminded me a bit of Tacita Dean's film Antigone, which I mentioned here a couple of years ago - perhaps because that too refers to Greek myth. Correspondência 1959-1978 has not I think been translated into English, but the film had subtitles and I am therefore able to quote below from one of the letters. In it, Sophia de Mello Breyner writes about visiting Greece, finding there what she had long imagined since those days of childhood when she first looked into Homer.

'I won't try to describe Greece to you or try to tell you how happy I was there. It was as if I said goodbye to all my misunderstandings. About Greece, only Homer had told me the truth: but not all of it. The first marvel of the Greek world is nature: air, light, sound, water. It's a mythological nature where the mountains and the islands have a blue halo that isn't imaginary, but an objective physical phenomenon they already debated in ancient times. Under the high sun, in an indescribable blue clarity, the air is so light it gives you wings and the slightest sound stands out whole and clear. The enormous and constant mountains fill everything with solemnity. It smells of resin and honey, an austere and lucid inebriation. ... In Greece everything is built as a connection between man and nature. In a way, in Greece I found my own poetry.'

Thursday, August 27, 2020


Killed by a landscape! This nearly happens in Bong Joon-ho's multiple prize-winning film Parasite. Chekhov famously said that "one must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off," so I did wonder what the significance would be of the scholar's rock in the shape of a mountain range that gets given to the character Ki-Woo near the start of the film. The climactic scene is referred to in an interesting Hollywood Reporter article (spoiler alert).  Torrential rain floods the home of Ki-woo (played by Choi Woo-shik) and his family...

As they wade through murky water, each searching for their most important belongings, the camera cuts to Ki-woo's perspective, looking down. There, the rock — seeming to defy the laws of nature — rises from the depths into his waiting hands. "In the script, the rock didn't originally float," Choi recalls. "But when we were shooting, director Bong was like, 'You know, I think it would be better if the stone floats up through the water.' I remember thinking, 'Whoa. What?' "

In the scene that follows, as the family lies on the floor of a crowded rescue shelter, Ki-woo tells his dad, Ki-taek, played by Bong's regular collaborator Song Kang-ho, that he feels as if the rock is following him. "Essentially, I think it represents this desire in the heart of Ki-woo not to give up on the idea that he can become the kind of guy who can find a way to give his family a better life," Song explains. But in the end, the rock that Ki-woo willed to be a metaphor is symbolic only in the manner of Sisyphus, or plainly literal as in "hard as a rock."

"All it ends up doing for Ki-woo is bashing his skull in," Song says.

Eve Willis wrote a piece about the Parasite landscape rock in The Guardian back in February. She made a connection with Uncut Gems, another excellent film in which rocks represent the aspiration to get ahead in an unfair society. When wealth is intangible and elusive, floating in an unreal world of bitcoins and mad property values, 'faith in the promise of stones and jewels makes abrupt sense.'  In Parasite,

'When Ki-woo is presented with the rock, he coos: “It’s so metaphorical.” In the final scenes, we see the origins of the viewing stone, as a pair of hands pluck the rock from a pristine stream. We hear Ki-woo’s message to his estranged, imprisoned father: he is making “a long-term plan … I’m going to make a lot of money.” The viewer watches, knowing this rock was used to split Ki-woo’s head open.'

I will conclude by quoting one more article (on Artnet), where New York art historian Kyunghee Pyun provided some context for the landscape rock (suseok) in Parasite. 'The golden age of suseok collecting was during the Joseun dynasty (1392–1897), but they regained popularity in the 1980s among a class of businessmen (like Parasite’s newly wealthy Mr. Park).'

"Those in the know “don’t collect loose, granuled rock, or get a rock that might break.” Surfaces with a bit of a pattern or a wave, like the striated suseok in Parasite, are also more desirable, Pyun notes. “Round, three-dimensional is better than sort of a thin slab of stone,” she adds. “Almost like a porcelain type of quality, it should be seen from all directions.”

Prized suseok are found in nature. Ideally, they’re never altered by human hands. “In China or Japan, in order to accentuate the dramatic effect, they put varnish types of materials or trim a little bit,” Pyun notes. “But for Korean rock collectors, the essence is you never touch it. As is, the nature is the beauty of the rock.”'

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Landscape near Arles

In 1908 Pathé created their own version of Le Film d’Art, the new initiative to make more highbrow films whose first production, starring actors from the Comédie-Française, was The Assassination of the Duke of Guise. The Pathé version was the Société Cinématographique des Auteurs et Gens de Lettres and its first film was L'Arlésienne. The film is remarkable not for its acting (lots of arm waving) but for its technical sophistication (use of double exposure to illustrate the hero Frédéric’s hallunications) and use of real locations, most notably the amphitheatre at Arles. At 3 minutes 15 there is a remarkable 180 degree pan across the Provençal landscape. There are also a few other scenes which give a real sense of place, like the image above of a Frédéric deciding to marry his childhood sweetheart rather than the woman of Arles he met at the amphitheatre.

Of course one of the pleasures of seeing glimpses of Arles in 1908 is knowing that it was exactly twenty years earlier that Van Gogh and Gauguin we re painting there. The Gauguin picture below could almost be a view of the farmhouse where Frédéric lives. L'Arlésienne was based on one of the stories in Alphonse Daudet's Letters from My Windmill (1872).  I've never got round to reading this so I will quote from a Guardian piece on the book: 

'There are impressive tragedies at a scant 1,500 words, like the backstories to single paragraphs in an old newspaper: the inn depressed to ruin by deaths in the family, the farm boy obsessed by a flirt from Arles farandoling in her velvet and lace. Daudet based a melodrama on her with music by Bizet, but the stage version expands to lassitude. His sense of place was strongest when pent up in his fragments.'

This music by Bizet can be heard as the soundtrack to the film. And there is one more cultural link (which I read about on the Cinema History blog): the plot of L'Arlésienne is based on a real story which was told to Daudet by Frédéric Mistral, the great poet of Provence, whose statue now stands in Arles. A nephew of Mistral's, disappointed in live, committed suicide by throwing himself out of the window of the family house.

 Paul Gauguin, Landscape near Arles, 1888

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Industry on the Riverside

Thomas Bewick, Industry on the Riverside, 1804
'The unframed scene casts landscape into a new kind of subject.  The view is not given an off-the-peg edge, independent of and indifferent to its contents.  It is given a bespoke edge that responds to and defines the character of the scene.'

Tom Lubbock makes this interesting observation in his essay 'Defining the vignette', written to accompany a 2009 exhibition Thomas Bewick: Tale-pieces and reprinted in his posthumous collection, English Graphic. You can see in the image below of a thirsty traveller how the vignette's edges are defined by branches, leaves and tufts of grass. Lubbock saw this as 'place-portraiture', with Bewick isolating a site's distinctive features, 'those elements by which you would know it again'.
Thomas Bewick, Tail-piece - apparently of Thomas Bewick himself
as a thirsty traveller drinking from his hat, 1797

In his essay Lubbock includes a vignette of a hunter in the snow and then, underneath, the same image with a rectangular frame added.  Without the frame, the snow's whiteness feels stronger, drawing into itself the whiteness of the surrounding page. Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner had previously described the way light in Bewick's landscapes 'changes imperceptibly into the paper of the book, and realises, in small, the Romantic blurring of art and reality.'  Unfortunately I cannot convey the effect here because the background of the JPEG is a different white to the computer screen and thus creates its own frame.  

Thomas Bewick, Hunter in the Snow, 1804

When Bewick drew something like the sea, he had no clear border to give the vignette its outline and so his lines seem to fade and blur at the edge of the image.  Bewick's soft and hard edges draw attention to the ontology of perception, the distinction between things that can be delineated, like a tree, and things that cannot, like the sky.  Sometimes the sky is given shading, as in the view of sea-cliffs below, and sometimes it is left blank, to give a feeling of clear open air.  
Thomas Bewick, Bird's Eggs from Sea-Cliffs, 1804

Lubbock concludes his essay by drawing attention to the way vignettes differ from traditional window-like landscape views.  Their figures cannot pass out of view, they are rooted in their scenes. You cannot imagine the man below ever coming to the end of his piss and walking away - if he did, he would 'start to dematerialise or break up'.  (NB: this pissing figure is my example - Lubbock has a much more idyllic scene of a man on a grassy bank looking up at the sky!)  Bewick's vignettes remind us how the world shrinks to what we are conscious of at a particular moment. 'They communicate what it's like to be in the middle of something, to feel things in the now, to be entirely absorbed in your sensations.'

Thomas Bewick, That Pisseth Against a Wall, 1804
All images from Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Garden of Eusebius

Eusebius: 'Now that the whole countryside is fresh and smiling, I marvel at people who take pleasure in smoky cities.'
Timothy: 'Some people don’t enjoy the sight of flowers or verdant meadows or fountains or streams; or if they do, something else pleases them more. Thus pleasure succeeds pleasure, as nail drives out nail.'

This exchange can be found in The Godly Feast, one of the Colloquies written by Erasmus (first published in 1518 and then added to over the years; the Craig R. Thompson translation is available at the Catena Archive). Erasmus has Eusebius argue that "nature is not silent but speaks to us everywhere and teaches the observant man many things if she finds him attentive and receptive."  To prove his point he suggests a visit to his "little country place near town, a modest but well-cultivated place, to which I invite you for lunch tomorrow."  Timothy is worried he and his friends will be putting Eusebius out, but Eusebius reassures him: "you’ll have a wholly green feast made, as Horace says, 'from food not bought.'"

When they meet at this villa, Eusebius shows Timothy his statue of Jesus at the entrance to the garden: "I’ve placed him here, instead of the filthy Priapus as protector not only of my garden but of everything I own; in short, of body and soul alike." Eusebius stresses the utility and lack of luxury in his garden. What appears to be marble is merely painted concrete - ''we make up for lack of wealth by ingenuity".  There is a lesson for life in this: appearances can be deceptive, he warns Timothy.  A delightful stream is not all it seems either.  It is used to drain kitchen waste to the sewer, like Sacred Scripture cleansing the soul.  Elsewhere there are herbs for cooking and medicine, exotic trees, an aviary, orchards and bee hives.

In addition to the garden itself, Eusebius has had frescoes painted showing views of nature. This second, painted world even extends beneath their feet: "the very ground is green, for the paving stones are beautifully colored and gladden one with painted flowers".  He explains to Timothy that:
"One garden wasn’t enough to hold all kinds of plants. Moreover, we are twice pleased when we see a painted flower competing with a real one. In one we admire the cleverness of Nature, in the other the inventiveness of the painter; in each the goodness of God, who gives all these things for our use and is equally wonderful and kind in everything. Finally, a garden isn’t always green nor flowers always blooming. This garden grows and pleases even in midwinter."
Eusebius is proud of his garden but he is just as keen to mention his library, globe and paintings.  I like the fact that place names have been added to his religious paintings, "to enable the spectator to learn by which water or on which mountain the event took place".  It is clearly the ideal of a Renaissance scholar, and the garden is a highly artificial landscape.  Indeed, John Dixon Hunt has pointed out that it is 'substantially architectural: walled, with galleries and pillars, it may be seen as much as a city as a garden.'