Saturday, August 11, 2018

River in the Catskills

Thomas Cole, River in the Catskills, 1843
Source: Wikimedia Commons

What was the first appearance of a train in a painting? Most people know Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed (1844), which is the earliest example listed on a Wikipedia page dedicated to railways and art. However, visitors to the National Gallery's Thomas Cole exhibition will see an earlier one in the painting reproduced above, River in the Catskills (1843).  At the scale you're reading this you probably can't see the train, just a faint puff of steam in an idyllic landscape.  But the railroad is in place and there are other signs too that the landscape is being changed - in the foreground men are chopping down trees.  At the exhibition this painting is juxtaposed with a similar view painted in the 1830s, showing a vision of America unsullied.  A baby reaches for the bouquet of wild flowers her mother has picked and on the gentle river an Indian canoe suggests a world of harmonious coexistence. However, as the curators point out, not everyone regretted the way things were going - there is a third view of this river by Asher Brown Durand, painted in 1853, with unmistakable signs of alteration and 'development', entitled Progress (The Advance of Civilisation).

Detail of River in the Catskills showing the train

Thomas Cole, View on the Catskill – Early Autumn, 1836-7
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Detail of View on the Catskill
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It would probably take too long to write here about the main subject of the National Gallery's exhibition, Cole's series of paintings charting The Course of Empire, or about their simultaneous Ed Ruscha show that updates the theme and raises questions about contemporary America.  You can read about these in various online reviews - e.g. Jonathan Jones, Waldemar Janusczcak, Michael Glover.  Instead I will just add a few words more on Cole's remarkable painting Titan's Goblet which normally hangs in the Met, where its curators admit that it 'defies explanation'.  This huge stone goblet is higher than the surrounding mountains and along its rim there are is a flourishing civilisation.  Water falls like divine light onto the ground far below, where there are also signs of habitation but of a more primitive kind.  That small sunlit sea, framed by the goblet's rim, is a landscape-within-a-landscape.  But it could also be viewed as an unusual example of the hybrid genre I discussed in connection with Tacita Dean recently, the still-life-within-a-landscape.  You can lose yourself in most of Cole's paintings but this is particularly true here.  His friend Louis Legrand Noble saw a kind of Mediterranean in those waters, where tourists might travel to versions of Greece or Syria, tracing their fancies in 'in the golden splendours of a summer sunset.'

Thomas Cole, Titan's Goblet, 1833
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Detail of Titan's Goblet
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, August 04, 2018

The Distant Cry of the Deer

Shibata Zeshin, Deer in a Forest, c. 1880s
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This week I attended the opening gala concert of the 2018 World Shakuhachi Festival.  The photograph below (by Jean-François Lagrost) was taken during one of the performances and shows the audience in the Union Chapel, Islington.  In the second half of the concert, Riley Lee and Christopher Yohmei Blasdel performed a shakuhachi duet, Shika No Tōne, 'The Distant Cry of the Deer'.  This began with Blasdel on stage, playing the opening phrase, then, at the back of the audience, Lee answering on his flute and beginning to walk slowly through the audience.  Eventually the two players met on stage.  Listening to this it occurred to me that they had transformed the listening audience into a landscape: we were like the trees in a Japanese forest through which the calls of two animals sounded.  This setting is evoked in the conclusion to the piece, as described on the International Shakuhachi Society website: 'it is as if, rather than viewing deer, the focus is changed to that of the scenery deep in the mountains where the leaves on the trees have turned red and yellow.'


The ISS page on Shika No Tōne has various notes on the piece and I will pass on here a few quotes from texts by Yokoyama Katsuya
'According to legend, Kurosawa Kinko, founder of the Kinko school, was taught this piece by a komusō priest named Ikkei in Nagasaki. The piece is interpreted as a representation either of two deer calling to one another to stress their territorial rights or of a male and a female deer responding to one another's calls deep in the autumnal mountains.'
'In ancient literature, it was sometimes said, "the stag and hind are calling each other." but in fact the hind does not cry, so it should perhaps be interpreted as the echo of the stag's cry.'
'Within its lonesomeness and liveliness, the music depicts the world seikan or the serene contemplation: it is just the same world as an ancient poet once depicted in his famous Tanka-poem:
Far up the mountain side,
While tramping over the scarlet maple leaves,
I hear the mournful cry of the wild deer:
This sad, sad autumn tide.'

Friday, August 03, 2018

Farther hills as hills again like these

Pieter Breugel the Elder, The Hunters in the Snow (Winter), 1565
Source Wikimedia Commons

To follow up my previous post, drawing on Joseph Leo Koerner's Bosch & Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life (2016), and also to provide some mental respite from this oppressive heat, I thought I would write here today about Breugel's The Hunters in the Snow.  It is a painting I have mentioned here before, in the context of poetry about landscape art ('Jagg'd mountain peaks and skies ice-green / Wall in the wild, cold scene below...' - Walter De La Mare).  It is also a painting loved by Tarkovsky fans as it features in both Mirror and Solaris.  Koerner discusses it in his final chapter, 'Nature', along with Bruegel's other paintings of The Seasons of the Year.  In a rare personal aside, Koerner says that he had a poster of The Hunters in the Snow on his wall right through his college and graduate school years.  Then, despite having a flat in Heidelberg with an 'expansive view of the Neckar Valley' through his window, he was happier losing himself in the depths of Bruegel's painting. 

Koerner imagines the viewer of this painting beginning by focusing on the pack of dogs, before being drawn towards 'one of the deepest depths in European art.'  And yet, 'the paw prints in the snow and the gigantic cliffs are part of the same continuum. Bruegel structures his painting to make our launch into space unavoidable.'  The distances made visible here recall contemporary Flemish atlases. Landscape features like trees and houses are shown in elevation but roads, rivers and valleys are depicted as if in elevation, offering us routes to be followed.  Bruegel reconciles near and far.  As he paints mountains and seas suggesting 'territories yet to be discovered, he pictures them as lifeworlds like our own, those farther hills as hills again like these.'


In the far distance (see above), a procession of figures can be discerned walking towards the horizon over the ice from a harbour town.  The winter before Breugel painted this view, the Scheldt at Antwerp had frozen over.  This flattening of the landscape into a single medium, ice, has effectively 'turned the world into a Borgesian one-to-one map of itself.'  The whiteness of the snow links different parts of the composition, from the hunters marching into the painting to the distant figures heading out of view.  It also dazzles the eye with an overabundance of light.  The roofscape of the mill, covered in snow, is hard to work out at first.  Here, 'Bruegel reverses the elucidating effects that snow has at a distance.'  Thick icicles hang from the buildings. It is a cold village to which the hunters return.  Everyone seems to turn away from us in this picture, 'as nature itself does in winter.  ... Through the mere resources of white paint, Bruegel shows home and the human from the indifferent perspective of the world.'

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The field has eyes and the wood has ears

Hieronymus Bosch, The Tree-Man, c. 1505
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Leo Koerner's magisterial Bosch & Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life (2016) is so rich in interest it could furnish material for many blog posts.  Of the two artists, it was of course Breugel who was most influential on landscape painting.  I will do a post on Bruegel, but here I thought I would focus on Hieronymus Bosch.  The Tree-Man features in the right hand panel of his great triptych The Garden of Delights (c. 1490-1510), one of the monsters of Hell.  But he is also the subject of Bosch's largest surviving drawing (above), transplanted to a scene of marshes like those that surrounded his native town, 's-Hertogenbosch.  Beyond the marshes, as Koerner observes, there are 'harbor towns on a maze of waterways, like the huge delta where the Rhine, Meuse, and Scheldt rivers meet; and beyond the visible horizon, at a distance plotted by church spires and vast like the sky, the sea.  There the Tree-Man idly floats like some outlandish carrack adridt in an inland canal.' 


Some contemporaries of Bosch would have witnessed strange phenomena.  Koerner reproduces a sketch of a beached sperm whale drawn by Hendrick Goltzius in 1598 and recalls the story of Dürer trying to sketch another whale on his trip to Zeeland in 1520, only to arrive after the tide had carried it back out to sea. 'Netherlandish shores were natural theaters where wonders could be observed.'  Moreover, the Tree-Man 'travels in a real world along waters that, connecting near and far, explain how the monstrosity might have got there.'  The fact that this realistic landscape surrounds Bosch's fantastical figure makes the image seem 'to encompass the world complete in itself.'  It was only around 1500 that artist's own drawings became collectable and this strange image may actually be the first autonomous pen-and-ink sketch in northern art.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Field Has Eyes, The Forest Has Ears, c. 1500
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Before leaving Bosch it is worth mentioning another remarkable sketch, which at first sight simply depicts a tree in a landscape.  Here (and note the characteristically witty turn of phrase which makes Koerner's books such a pleasure), the 'dead tree serves as a shadowy refuge for an owl, which eyes us with dubious intent.'  Owls appear at least twenty-five times in Bosch's art and can almost be seen as a kind of signature.  In Dutch they were sometimes called boschvoghele.  Above the owl there are shrieking birds and below, at the base of the tree, a rooster pushing its way towards a fox, apparently resting.  But this is a Bosch drawing and so there are also two large ears standing in the thicket and eyes scattered over the ground.  The slope of the field reminds Koerner of the 'subtle curvature of the surface of the earth, ensuring that whatever the work's statement is, it will be global.'  And what does it mean?  'Historians have managed to reattach these stray sensoria to a proverb current in Bosch's day and published and illustrated in a woodcut dated 1546, "The field has eyes and the wood has ears; I will look, stay silent, and listen."'  In other words, in hostile times, it is wise to keep one's counsel.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

On the Banks of the Yangtze

Isabelle Bird, Trackers Houses on the Banks of the Yangtze, 1896
Source: The Ammonite Press.

In sketching, a landscape is represented by signs on paper, but in photography the actual view is imprinted as an image by the light that shone at that moment in time.  What, though if this 'indexical' process of signification went beyond just the action of light?  An article I was reading in the New York Review of Books this week suggests further possibilities.  Here Colin Thubron is discussing the journey into China of the nineteenth century photographer, Isabella Bird.
'After sunset she would set about developing the glass-plate negatives and toning her prints. Her darkroom was the Chinese night, but she had to block up chinks in the cabin walls to keep out the light of opium lamps. Then she cleaned the chemical from her negatives in the river and hung the printing-frames over the side of the boat. A faint trace of Yangtze mud survives on a few of her prints.'
So, in addition to light, her landscapes were imprinted with Chinese soil, dissolved in its great river.  All four elements could be said to have gone into the formation of these photographs.  The river's form was traced by light, purified by water and earth, and then fixed into permanence by the air that passing over its surface.

Isabella Bird, Hsin Tan Rapid on the Yangtze River, 1896
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Yangtze River that the sixty-four year old Isabella Bird travelled had no modern dams or steam boats.  Thubron admires her courage in ascending its gorges in a shallow-bottomed houseboat, rowed by sixteen men who would 'heave against the current and curl into wadded quilts at night, lost in opium sleep'.  It was a perilous and uncomfortable journey. 'Where perpendicular cliffs constricted the Yangtze into a fearsome torrent, big junks and sampans were hauled upriver by teams of trackers sometimes four hundred strong, threading precipitous paths and rock-cut steps with the din of drums and gongs and the explosion of firecrackers to intimidate the spirit of the rapids ... The steep shores and inlets were littered with ships’ remains, and with human skeletons.'  But this was also a world of beauty, barely known to Western travellers. 'With its canopied bridges and watermills and temples rising from bamboo and cedar groves, it intoxicated Bird by its sheer luxuriance, and by its conformity to some childhood expectation (the word “picturesque” recurs), as if she were traveling through a timeless Cathay.'

Isabella Bird, A Bridge at Wan Hsien of the Single Arch Type, 1896
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Evening Calm, Concarneau


I am over halfway through the year now in my project to tweet a landscape a day. Looking back to January 1st when I launched this initiative, I see I was particularly keen to include as many women artists as possible, and this remains the case.  I recently featured Cecilia Beaux for example, who is not so well known now, but a century ago was highly regarded in America (albeit for her portraits).  Her luminous Half Tide, Annisquam River received just three 'likes' though (including one from my Mum!), suggesting that my 'followers' are not especially bothered about my attempts to unearth unheralded women landscape painters...  Of course little can really be concluded from these Twitter 'likes' - a simple, colourful, modern image is likely to do better than a complicated composition by a Northern Renaissance artist or Ming Dynasty literatus.  I think the most popular image I have tweeted so far was Fuga ('Fugue') by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, which I discussed on this blog back in 2012.  I'm therefore hoping for a few retweets for the painting above, which I'll be tweeting this week - it is another painting inspired by music, with the subtitle: Adagio, Opus 221.

Paul Signac,  Morning Calm, Concarneau, Opus 219 (Larghetto), 1891

Signac's Setting Sun, Sardine Fishing is discussed in Peter Vergo's book The Music of Painting.  He explains that it is one of five that Signac painted while in Brittany that summer, each with musical instructions assigned to them.  Opus 221 was joined by three others with specific tempos: Opus 219 (above) was larghetto, Opus 220 (below) was allegro maesttoso and Opus 222 was presto-finale.  The first in the series of five, Sardine Boat, Concarneau, was smaller and might be seen as a kind of prelude (labelled scherzo, i.e. playful or light-hearted). Vergo suggests that although clearly a series, they were not meant to resemble sections of a single composition (which would imply not giving them separate Opus numbers).  Signac was always fascinated in the analogies between art and music, and in his essay D'Eugène Delacroix au Néo-Impressionnisme, published in 1899, he quoted Charles Baudelaire, who wrote that 'in colour one finds harmony, melody and counterpoint.'

Paul Signac, Evening Calm, Concarneau, Opus 220 (Allegro Maestoso), 1891

Peter Vergo quotes Signac, writing about painting in general but in words that could well describe his paintings of Concarneau: 'if he is sensitive to the play of harmony, he will soon perceive ... how the kind of symphony created by boats with blue sails is completed by the arrival of the crew dressed in orange clothing.'  In addition to colour harmony, these compositions, with their pointillist dots and visual repetitions, convey a clear sense of rhythm.  In painting, the visual field is punctuated by objects that can be perceived in two ways: as they would be in three dimensional space (some boats nearer than others) and as they appear on the image (spaced across the water).  Such patterns play through all the Concarneau paintings but they are most obvious in Setting Sun, Sardine Fishing.  Here, Vergo writes, 'there is so little to distract us - only sea and sky and the ever-present line of the horizon - that the eye inevitably lingers on the repeated patterns of the fishing boats with their identically shaped hulls and steeply raked masks.'   

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Down the stream to the City of Camelot

Illustration from Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory
printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1498

I have written before here about the description of nature in Gawain and the Green Knight, with its journey through a wintry Britain, where 'ice-cold water poured from the clouds / and froze before it hit the grey ground.'  Sadly there are no such descriptions in Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, even where landscape features in the story.  The lake, for example, into which Excalibur is thrown by Sir Bedevere, has to be imagined by the reader.  Tennyson, in his reworking of Malory, Idylls of the King, gives us more to go on: Bedevere takes zigzag paths past 'juts of pointed rock' until he comes to 'the shining levels of the lake' where there are dewy pebbles, bulrush beds and 'wild water lapping on the crag.'  Malory though, does make Bedevere say to the dying king that he had seen "nothing but waves and winds" a phrase somehow evocative because of its concision.  As I wrote here previously, these words begin a poem by France Horovitz, 'The Crooked Glen' - the title referring to 'Camboglana', the Celtic name for Birdoswald, one of the sites identified as the setting for Arthur's last battle.


The main way that landscape comes into Le Morte d'Arthur is through the book's locations, mentioned if not described, which cover the British Isles, France and sometimes further afield.  As a geographical region it feels both strange and familiar.  Often Malory himself provides a link with somewhere his readers will know, associating Camelot with Winchester, for example:
'Also Merlin let make by his subtilty that Balin's sword was put in a marble stone standing upright as great as a mill stone, and the stone hoved always above the water and did many years, and so by adventure it swam down the stream to the City of Camelot, that is in English Winchester.'
This sentence also illustrates again the way Malory's text might be unpacked and reimagined more fully - that magical stone heading downstream in a manner reminiscent of David Nash's Wooden Boulder.  As you read Malory you start to imagine an Arthurian Britain just below the surface, even in the Home Counties.  At one point he has King Arthur stay at the castle of Ascalot 'that is in English Guildford' - an identification probably due simply to its location between London and Arthur's intended destination, Winchester.

The topic of Arthurian topography is discussed by Geoffrey Ashe in The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. He dismisses the idea that Camelot would have been an actual city, as opposed to a military headquarters: 'the claim of the Somerset hill fort Cadbury Castle carries unrivaled weight.'  There are places in Britain that may be the connected with a historical Arthur, like the ten battle sites mentioned by Nennius in his Historia Brittonum, and then there are places that are merely named for him (or, less frequently, Merlin, Tristram, Guenevere and Lancelot).  I mentioned a Welsh landscape feature, Arthur's Chair, in my abecadarian piece on the Itinerarium Kambriae of Gerald of Wales (1188).  This was a lofty spot with a well-shaped pool, fed by a spring, in which trout were sometimes seen.  Earlier in the century, Hermann of Tournai, travelling through Devon and Cornwall in 1113 encountered another Arthur's Chair and also Arthur's Oven (the latter may be what is now called King's Oven on Dartmoor).

Some Arthurian features are natural, others are ancient megaliths that have become linked to his legend.  In descending order of scale there are: a mountain - Ben Arthur in Scotland; the saddle-like hills that have suggested Seats and Chairs; five earthworks known as 'Round Tables'; and many stones - at least six called Arthur's Stone and eleven called Arthur's Quoit.  The idea of Arthur has been fused with local folklore in places, turning him into a giant. Thus, 'seated on King's Crags in Northumberland, he tossed a huge boulder at Guenevere on Queen's Crags - which are half a mile away.  It bounced off her comb and now lies on the ground between, showing the toothmarks.' Geoffrey Ashe goes on to describe the way this folkloric Arthur differs from the knight of Romance, in the manner of his survival after death.  In the chivalric stories, Arthur resides in the Isle of Avalon, but in folklore he sleeps with his knights in a cave.  Intriguingly though, these may both point to a common source deep in Celtic myth.  In 82 CE a Roman official in Britain (quoted by Plutarch) reported that the Britons believed in a god lying asleep in a cave, attended by spirits.  This was on an island, a warm and pleasant place "in the general direction of sunset".