Sunday, January 22, 2023

House near Gardanne

Paul Cézanne, Montagne Sainte-Victoire, c. 1890

This is a photo I took on my phone of a painting in the Tate's superb Cézanne exhibition. I won't attempt to discuss this exhibition (you can read Laura Cumming); instead I will talk about T. J. Clark's book about the artist, If These Apples Should Fall: Cézanne and the Present which I recently read. I thought I might try to distil here some of what he says about the landscape paintings, although as ArtForum's reviewer Joseph Henry points out in his review, the book 'confirms that Clark should rarely be read for his “takeaways” or “arguments.” ... What drives If Apples Should Fall is less the task of scholarly exposition than the swelling momentum of interpretation itself.' Condensing down the flow of his prose, written in 'a tone both chatty and always-already erudite', risks leaving nothing but the most familiar observation about landscape painting - that it is both an image of the world and a performance of marks on canvas. Nevertheless I'll briefly summarise some of the paragraphs from the book's concluding chapter, which mainly discusses a painting in Indianapolis, House near Gardanne.


Paul Cézanne, House near Gardanne, c. 1886-90

Clark begins by noting that the painting is not large but its landscape has 'a formidable implied scale ... The ordinariness of the house and surroundings is accompanied by a kind of distance.' In Cézanne at his strongest 'nearness and apartness' coexist.

He then starts looking closely at some of the oddities in the painting - the kind of thing we always find in Cézanne. But none of this 'ends up robbing us of 'world' and putting 'painting' in its place'.  

Next he goes back into art history to contrast a Ruysdael landscape, where the viewer is invited to follow a path into the scene, with a more depthless image by Rembrandt. Cézanne's painting resembles the latter. His house fits into the landscape 'like a piece in a jigsaw, not a thing on the earth'. 

House near Gardanne is an example of a kind of picture that seems 'to be interested in the world, or not-quite-world, that crops up between places...' In this it resembles the Rembrandt (Goldweigher's Field) or the paintings of Jan van Goyen. The scene is not empty - it is packed with things, but the viewer can be left mystified as to why this particular stretch of nature's continuum was chosen.

Clark then returns again to a close examination of the marks making up the house, which stands out as an intervention in nature but at the same time seems porous at its edges, opening into its surroundings. That house is itself like a painting, both closed and open to the world.

Finally he shifts to a painting of Montagne Sainte-Victoire and finds in it a counter-allegory to House near Gardanne. 'The mountain is the picture, not the four-square house. And the picture, it follows, is not a closed thing', it is 'the world we are in.'

Friday, December 02, 2022

Autumn is the End

Today I found myself lying in bed with a cold, listening to an old album by Steven R. Smith, Autumn is the End (1998). The record label describes this as 'an instrumental soundtrack for more introspective moments, when time seems to wind itself down, and one gains opportunity for perspective on the landscape.' Smith was one of the Californian Jewelled Antler collective of musician/artists who often recorded outdoors and drew inspiration from nature. Last year Aquarium Drunkard had a feature by Brent Sirota on Jewelled Antler, which was originally a CD-R label founded by Loren Chasse and Glenn Donaldson. It begins a list of recommended listens with Thuja's The Deer Lay Down Their Bones (1999):

'Virtually all roads in Jewelled Antler run through Thuja. Loren Chasse and Glenn Donaldson originally founded the label with an eye toward releasing material by the quartet they had just formed with Steven R. Smith and Rob Reger. And virtually every project in the broader scene shared at least one member with this core ensemble. Named for the great red cedars of the Pacific northwest, Thuja inaugurated much of the mythos of the Jewelled Antler. Appropriately, they borrowed the name of their astonishing debut from California writer Robinson Jeffers’ poem about encountering the decaying remains of a deer in a mountain clearing.'

This poem, 'The Deer Lay Down Their Bones', begins as follows: 

'I followed the narrow cliffside trail half way up the mountain
Above the deep river-canyon. There was a little cataract crossed the path, flinging itself
Over tree roots and rocks, shaking the jeweled fern-fronds, bright bubbling water
Pure from the mountain, but a bad smell came up...'

I'll include one more passage from that Aquarium Drunkard article (the log-with-lichen quote below actually comes from Jim Haynes' 2022 Wire magazine article on the Jewelled Antler Collective):

'Sound artist and teacher Loren Chasse once mused about “releasing a piece of log with lichen on it” as an album. It was a joke, but a telling one. Chasse’s work, especially under his Of (and later, Ov) moniker, revolves around playing the found world as an instrument. He once described his art as a search for “acoustical situations,” often around the frontiers where the built environment dramatically gives way to the natural one. Sometimes this amounts to an aural observation, like his “Green Laughter” on The Jewelled Antler Library, which documents the choir of frogs, birds and crickets and cicadas on a summer pond. But, more often, Chasse enlists his natural surroundings as an accompanist, playing alongside and through the tumbling brooks and the wind in the switchgrass.' 

Loren Chasse was maintaining his own website ten years ago which is worth a look if you're interested (few seem to bother with blogger any more!) As I'm not feeling up to writing anything here myself, I'll conclude this post with relevant quotes from three Pitchfork reviews:

  • On The Blithe Sons' We Walk the Young Earth (2003): 'Recorded last summer in a World War II-era bunker in the Marin Headlands and under a creek bridge in San Gregario, We Walked the Young Earth picks up where 2001's achingly ephemeral Waves of Grass left off. Here, however, the duo forges the din of acoustic guitar, harp, bells, harmonium, toy amplifiers, gongs (submerged in a creek), battery-powered keyboards, vocals, banjo, birds, pipes, bell-blocks, drums, and branches into even quieter spaces of beauty.'
  • On The Skygreen Leopards' One Thousand Bird Ceremony (2004 - the name and title come from the writings of Kenneth Patchen): 'Like much of Glenn Donaldson's other work, One Thousand Bird Ceremony starts off with ambient forestal noises, chirps, the acoustic peregrinations of other animals, and properly spare bells. While certainly making use of Jewelled Antler [tenets] such as recording without predetermined lyrics or chord changes, instead of droning psychedelia, The Skygreen Leopards create blissful pop songs interwoven with ambient hiss and naturally occurring sounds.'
  • On Thuja's Pine Cone Temples (2005): 'As with their previous works, Thuja have recorded these pieces in a variety of natural settings, using strategically placed contact mics to help integrate the tiniest audible details of their ambient surroundings into the group's gentle commotion. Theirs is a uniquely intuitive, egoless species of improvisation, as the musicians seem to be competing not for the listener's attention, but to see who can most thoroughly camouflage himself in the underbrush'.

And finally, fast forwarding to 2022, here's a video clip from Steven R. Smith's latest album, which offers a glimpse of spring...

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.'