Friday, June 25, 2021

Untitled (Moon Image)

 

The oceans and deserts of Vija Celmins are monochrome patterns of pencil marks and brush strokes - no landmarks, just abstract surfaces. She may have looked at particular sites but the artworks only reproduce her photographs, or photographs taken by others - landscape at two removes. Their sources are hidden in titles like Untitled (Desert) and Untitled (Ocean). Nevertheless, the patience and attention needed to make her art seems to ask questions about how closely we attend to the world and really spend time in a particular environment. Observational drawing has a long history - Briony Fer cites the examples of Dürer's Large Piece of Turf and Ruskin's advice in The Elements of Drawing in her essay in Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory (ed. Gary Garrels). But art of this kind is closer to still life than landscape. Celmins' drawings of the sea are each 'a graphic rendering of a ready-made image and not a record of the vastness of the ocean.'    

 

A page from Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory showing moon drawings from 1968-9


One sentence from another essay in this book by Russell Ferguson particularly struck me. In discussing Celmins' early paintings he suggests that 'T.V. (1964) shows an everyday object from the studio - a television set - but a very contemporary one: this is probably one of the earliest representations of a TV in painting.' If this is true it is remarkable to think that art can have ignored such an important object in people's lives for twenty years. One could also say that in the late sixties Celmins was one of the first artists to depict the landscape of the moon, although her drawings of NASA photographs are clearly at second hand, deliberately reproducing the blurring and imperfections in the source images. In this way they are quite different from the pastel drawing John Russell made nearly two centuries earlier using a telescope, which despite the vast distance was based on direct observation. 

 

John Russell,  The Face of the Moon, 1793-97

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Knowing the East


Paul Claudel (1868 - 1955) joined the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs after university, where he had begun writing poetry and attending Mallarmé's 'Tuesdays', and in 1895 was made vice-consul in Shanghai, following junior postings in Boston and New York. He would spend the rest of his life as a prominent diplomat and writer, although I suspect that in England he is a lot less well known than his sister Camille (portrayed in the 1988 film Camille Claudel by Isabelle Adjani). When he arrived in the Far East he began composing prose poetry; the first one was written in Ceylon before he reached his destination in China. Some of these poems were sent home and published in outlets lke La Revue de Paris and La Revue blanche. Claudel returned in 1899 intending to become a priest, and his book Connaisance de l'Est came out in 1900. But having abandoned his religious vocation and returned to China, he supplemented this volume with a smaller group of poems written in the period up to 1905. 

No doubt Knowing the East can be read critically in terms of Orientalism and French imperialism, but I found a lot of beauty in these poems. Some titles: 'The City at Night', 'Sea Thoughts', 'The Sadness of Water', 'Noon Tide', 'Hours in the Garden', 'Libation to the Coming Day'. Things I was reminded of as I read them: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Francis Ponge, Lafdacio Hearn, Victor Segalen, Empire of Signs, Invisible Cities. This quote, from their translator James Lawler, summarises my first impressions of the book.

'With what pleasure do we savour these landscapes, this continent so far removed from our own: coconut palms, banyans, Japanese pines; the Yang-tse of 'Drifting', 'The River', 'Halt on the Canal'; Confucian, Buddhist, and Shinto temples and tombs; hermitages, suspended houses; crushing heat, night as clear as day; festivals for the dead, a festival for the rivers; wheat harvests, rice harvests; torrential rain, apocalyptic storms; cities that seem chaotic but have a concealed pattern and sense, 'flayed' Chinese gardens, the Shogun's golden ark. One may label the images picturesque but that is not the way I read them. I recall Julien Green saying of Claudel that he was a man "who had known how to live elsewhere," words I take to mean that we do not find a quest for oddness but affectionate deployment fold by fold of a reality the poet comes to know.'

In keeping with the theme of my blog, here are a few examples of how Claudel treats landscape in his poems:

  • Stopping to survey the mountains that surround him, he measures with his eyes the route he will take. As he walks, he savours the slow passage of time and thinks about 'the bridge still to cross in the quiet peace of the afternoon pause, these hills to go up and down, this valley to traverse.' He already sees the rock where he will watch the sunset.  
  • One December day, 'a dark cloud covers the entire sky and fills the mountain's irregular clefts with haze: you would think it dovetailed to the horizon.' He sweeps the quiet countryside with his hand, caressing the hyacinth plains, the tufts of black pines, and he checks with his fingers the 'details embedded in the weft and mist of this winter day - a row of trees, a village.' 
  • On the vast yellow river he thinks about the nature of water. 'As the segments of a parallelogram come together and meet, so water expresses the force of a landscape reduced to its geometrical lines.' Each drop expresses this as it finds the lowest point of a given area. 'All water draws us, and certainly this river...' 
  • He describes knocking on a small black door somewhere in Shanghai and being led through a succession of corridors to a garden. He follows a labyrinthine path until he can look down on 'the poem of the roofs'. Later he reaches 'the edge of the pond, where the stems of dead lotus flowers emerge from the still waters. The silence is deep like that of a forest crossroads in winter.'
  • And in a Tokyo shop, he finds himself looking at miniature landscapes (bonkei). 'Here is the rice field in spring; in the distance, the hill fringed with trees (they are moss). Here is the sea with its archipelagos and capes; by the artifice of two stones, one black, the other red and seemingly worn and porous ... Even the iridescence of the many-coloured waters is captured by this bed of motley pebbles covered by the contents of two carafes.'

Saturday, April 17, 2021

In the twilight there is a field


Yosa Buson, Travels Through Mountains and Fields, c. 1765
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I've been reading The Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson, translated by W. S. Merwin and Takako Lento. The collection was put together just after Buson's death in 1784. Such brief verse can evoke a landscape through metonymy but rarely makes you think immediately of landscape views like the Buson painting above, the Met's Travels Through Mountains and Fields. I did notice a general exception to this rule though and it occurs when fiels are the subject of the poem - you can't really talk about a field without evoking a landscape. There are 868 haiku in the volume so I think it is probably OK under fair use to reproduce just four here, one for each season. For spring it is a toss-up between numbers 58, 140 and 183 but I'll go for the first, which actually has a 'landscape' title, 'Looking across the Field'.

Mist in the grass

the water silent

just before sunset

This summer poem, no. 317, also has a title, 'On the Way Home from Seeing the Nunobiki Waterfall with Tairo and Kito'. Tairo and Kito were his disciples. Nunobiki Waterfall I have mentioned here before in connection with The Tales of Ise (c. 900).

Evening sun slipping behind the hills

a waterwheel is turning

in the field of ripening wheat

The autumn poem, no. 487, is again set at sunset

The mountains darken after the sun goes down

in the twilight there is a field

of silver grass

And finally, no. 742, winter

Vast dry field

out in the desolation

the sun slips into the rock

Clearly these are all variations on a theme: the field and the sunset are constants, but the atmosphere is different in each poem.

 


Finally, a message I have to pass on from Blogger. 'Recently, the FeedBurner team released a system update announcement , that the email subscription service will be discontinued in July 2021.
After July 2021, your feed will still continue to work, but the automated emails to your subscribers will no longer be supported.' Sorry about this...

Sunday, April 04, 2021

A Landscape Painter in Albania

  

 Edward Lear, The valley of the Shkumbin River
near Elbasan in central Albania
, 26 September 1848 

Edward Lear's travel writing is, as you would expect, written with a sharp wit and punctuated with discriptions of landscape. The fact that he was travelling and then writing as a landscape painter gives his books a double interest for me. Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania for example begins with a description of his equipment - only the essentials needed to travel light, in what was then still a region barely visited by English travellers. He complains a lot about his accommodation but explains that he had no choice but to stay in roadside khans - if he had tried to stay instead with the local pashas he would need to have fitted in with ceremonies and meals that would have left no time for sketching. Lear was there in the autumn of 1848 and mentions finding a German newspaper to read and being amazed at the news of revolutions across Europe. His route through what is now Albania was partly forced on him by widespread quarantine and travel restrictions (cholera, rather than Covid-19, in those days). It began in the east, after he had travelled overland from Thessalonika via Bitola and Ohrid. He then headed towards Tirana and just before reaching it wrote this description of the mountain landscape.

'How glorious, in spite of the dimming scirocco haze, was the view from the summit, as my eyes wandered over the perspective of winding valley and stream to the farthest edge of the horizon — a scene realizing the fondest fancies of artist imagination! The wide branching oak, firmly rivetted in crevices, all tangled over with fern and creepers, hung half-way down the precipices of the giant crag, while silver-white goats (which chime so picturesquely in with such landscapes as this) stood motionless as statues on the highest pinnacle, sharply defined against the clear blue sky. [...] 
It was difficult to turn away from this magnificent mountain view — from these chosen nooks and corners of a beautiful world — from sights of which no painter-soul can ever weary: even now, that fold beyond fold of wood, swelling far as the eye can reach — that vale ever parted by its serpentine river — that calm blue plain, with Tomohr in the midst, like an azure island in a boundless sea, haunt my mind's eye, and vary the present with visions of the past. With regret I turned northwards to descend to the new district of Tyrana; the town (and it is now past eleven) being still some hours distant.
 
Edward Lear: Tepeleni, Albania, c. 1848–1849

Unfortunately, as this suggests, Lear's descriptions of scenery are not all that interesting, even if they do make you want to visit Albania. You wouldn't expect anything like his nonsense verse but you might hope for a more original mode of landscape description. In an NYRB review (from which the image above is taken) of a reprint of the journal, Brad Leithauser says

'The book imparts almost no sense of Lear’s reading, the literary spirits he might have been seeking to commune or contend with during his travels. Most of the few literary references are to Byron, only because he happened to precede Lear to Albania by a couple of decades. Sentence by sentence, the book gives scant indication of a poet’s sensibility, for Lear was a slapdash prose stylist. Edward Lear in Albania often seeks to portray panoramic landscapes through words, a challenge that typically elicited from Lear sweeping and obvious adjectives: “noble,” “majestic,” “sublime.” He was especially fond of “picturesque,” which at one point appears three times in a single paragraph.'

Despite this defect, it is fascinating to read about Lear's experiences of a country that had so recently been under the rule of Ali Pasha. I'll end here with his decription of visiting Tepelenë:

'At the end of the space enclosed by the walls, and overhanging the river, is a single mosque — solitary witness of the grandeur of days past ; — and beyond that, all the space, as far as the battlement terrace looking north and west is occupied by the mass of ruin which represents Ali's ruined palace. The sun was sinking as I sat down to draw in what had been a great chamber, below one of the many crumbling walls — perhaps in the very spot where the dreaded Ali gave audience to his Frank guests in 1809 — when Childe Harold was but twenty- four years old, and the Vizir in the zenith of his power. The poet is no more ; — the host is beheaded, and his family nearly extinct ; — the palace is burned, and levelled with the ground ; — war, and change, and time have, perhaps, left but one or two living beings who, forty years back, were assembled in these gay and sumptuous halls.'*



*I'm not sure what Tepelenë is like today. In 2013, Tim Neville, on the trail of Byron, described it in a travel piece for the Financial Times: 'I drove to Tepelena, where the remains of Ali Pasha’s palace stood derelict and littered with rubbish. A plaque celebrating the poet’s visit hung from the side of a wall next to a petrol station...'

Sunday, March 28, 2021

the quiet island

Last year Carcanet published The Threadbare Coat: Selected Poems by Thomas A. Clark, a writer I have often referred to on this blog. There is an introduction by Matthew Welton that briefly discusses the poems' language and formal properties. He notes, for example, the repetition of words from poem to poem: 'the hills, clouds and water give us a sense of where we are in the landscape. And the mentions of nothingness, aloneness and longing, say something of what we can expect from territory of this kind.' He suggests that the 'reuse of a limited vocabulary across a range of poems feels appropriate to the landscapes that are the focus of these poems.' These places are only occasionally identified but it is clear that we are reading about the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Perhaps some of the poems are about the idea of this landscape rather than anything more specific - 'the quiet island', for example, is like a parable where the narrator finds peace but misses the melody of events, and so one morning, quietly leaves.

I could mention several of the book's landscape poem sequences but will just highlight one here. 'a walk in a water meadow' suggests that we will be given a series of ambulatory observations, but in the first stanza, a gentle mist closes in. This mist dampens sound and detaches objects from their context. The walker attends to the world in a different way: as places disclose themselves, vision is both impaired and repaired. The water meadow takes on the forms of mist: fine webs, cotton-grass and cuckoo-spit, alders wrapped in wool and skeins of mist snagged on larch. A walk in mist, he concludes, 'makes no progress / history is suspended / resolve dissolves.' History feels suspended in almost all of these poems, which offer the chance to concentrate on timeless phenomena: dusk and dawn, wind and waves, raindrops in a pool, light falling on a leaf, water flowing over roots and stones.

There is a YouTube clip where Tom introduces the book and reads 'the quiet island'. I have embedded it below and transcribed here what he says about the Highlands and Islands:

'These are landscapes of great clarity and resilience; they often have a surprising gentleness - all qualities that I want to percolate into the poetry.  But this is not where I live. I live on the east coast, above Edinburgh. So I'm always at some distance from the landscapes I write about. No doubt this distance sharpens desire. I always want to head out into the Highlands. Somehow I feel more relaxed there than anywhere else. I seem to be more responsive and resourceful than anywhere else. It's as if a whole set of cultural accretions has fallen away, or more likely, blown away. And this is one sense of The Threadbare Coat, the title of this new book from Carcanet Press. It's an image of poverty and exposure, as if there could be only the lightest membrane between you and the landscape.'

Friday, March 12, 2021

The Mummelsee, a supposedly bottomless lake

I have been looking back at some books I read before starting this blog and have never got round to mentioning. One of these is Simplicissimus, the picaresque novel by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, written in 1668 and translated for Dedalus by Mike Mitchell. Near the end of the book, its hero Simplicius hears various tales told about 'the Mummelsee, a supposedly bottomless lake on one of the highest mountains in the neighbourhood.' (Wikipedia's entry on this Black Forest lake begins, disappointingly: 'the Mummelsee is a 17-metre-deep lake...') The stories told to Simplicius concern disappearing animals and sightings of water sprites. On one occasion, he learns, a Duke of Württemberg tried to measure the depth of the lake with a length of twine but his boat started to sink and he had to abandon the attempt. Curious about this strange place, Simplicius decides to set off to see it for himself.

When he arrives with his companion after a walk of less than six hours, the two of them polish of the food and drink they brought and then proceed with some scientific observations, drawing a map and tasting the water to see if it would explain why some trout that had been introduced on one occasion all died. They then locate a spot 'where the water, otherwise as clear as crystal, seems to be pitch black on account of its awesome depth'. Ignoring his companion's advice, Simplicius throws stones into the lake. Storm clouds begin to gather and, looking into the water, he sees creatures swimming up from the depths, bringing back the stones. One of them, the Prince of Mummelsee, comes to the surface and takes Simplicius back down with him. Eventually they reach the centre of the earth where they discuss politics, religion and geography. He doesn't spend long there before returning to the surface, but he does give a memorable short description of the way this land of the sylphs is lit by the lakes of the world.

'While I was there I observed how the sun shone on each lake in turn and sent its rays down to these awesome depths, making it as bright in this abyss as on the surface and even casting shadows. The lakes were like windows for the sylphs through which they received both light and warmth. Even if they didn't always come directly, because the sides of some lakes were twisted, they were transmitted by reflection because nature had set whole slabs of crystal, diamonds and rubies where necessary in the angles of the cliffs.'

The Mummelsee
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The magical lake of Mummelsee also appears in a poem by Eduard Mörike, who I wrote about here last month. 'The Ghosts of Mummelsee' is one of his poems later set to music by Hugo Wolf. There is a New York Festival of Song blog post on this Lied, which gives an English translation by Charles L. Cingolani. The narrator, hiding in some bushes, sees a funeral procession for the king of the lake. The ghosts walk over the water and then enter it through a sparkling gate. However, there is a twist at the end when they realise they have been watched...

How lovely the fires glow on the water! 
They flare and then turn green;
Fog moves in clusters along the shore,
The pond is turning into a sea—
Be still!
Is there something stirring out there?

In the middle a twitching—For heaven’s sake! Help!
They come back again, they are coming!
A bellowing in the reeds, a crunching in the rushes;
Make haste, take flight!
Away!
They sense trouble, they are on my tracks!

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Landscapes of Detectorists

When I look back on this period of lockdown I think the 'highlight' will probably be the fortnight or so we spent as a family watching Detectorists on the BBC iPlayer. What my sons say they most appreciated was the gentle humour and escapism of it, but I suspect too there was something comforting in the idea that historical imagination and curiosity can transform a small stretch of landscape. Despite some sunny weather, this has been another weekend of staying indoors except for the short permitted exercise along familiar streets, and yet each time we walk them we see some new detail in the design of a house or the contents of a garden. Every day I pass a house with a blue plaque to the poet Louis MacNeice but I have long since taken as much interest in the houses surrounding it, wondering about the lives they have contained. The terminus of my regular walk is Canonbury Tower, an old Tudor building once owned by Thomas Cromwell which reminds you of the layers of history anywhere in London.

Last year Colin Sackett's Uniformbooks brought out a book on Detectorists in which four geographers analyse the series in terms of different ways of reading landscape, aspects of verticality, gender roles and the resonance of lost, everyday objects. It is a pleasure to read, although if you have just binge-watched the series you'll find it covering familiar ground. In some ways I was more interested in what writer Mackenzie Crook and producer Adam Tandy had to say about the making of the programmes and the ways in which they made metal detecting more televisual. I didn't realise, for example, that it is best done in autumn or winter on muddy, unattractive ploughed fields - very different from the sunny Constable-like landscapes we see in the series. Crook took up the hobby when he started writing the script and actually managed to find a piece of gold Roman jewellery, which is now in the British Museum. And it was wonderful to learn that one of the more poetic moments in Detectorists had happened to him in real life. One day, while he was out detecting on a farm in Suffolk, he 'dug down four inches to find an exquisite bronze hawking whistle.'

'I took a few minutes to unclog the mud with a piece of straw, then held it up to my lips and blew. The note that issued from the whistle was a ghost, a sound unheard for centuries, and the last person to hear that sound, that exact sound, was the person who dropped it just yards from where I was standing. And it wasn't a faint, feeble ghost either: it was an urgent, piercing shrill that echoed across the field and back through time.'