Tuesday, August 13, 2019

River Landscape

Annibale Carracci, The Sacrifice of Isaac, c. 1599-1600

In The Vision of Landscape in Renaissance Italy (1966), A. Richard Turner singled out this painting as the most brilliant landscape painted by Annibale Carracci (1560-1609).  It is quite hard to find on the Louvre's website but I eventually tracked it down ('le drame imminent du sujet biblique trouve un écho dans le paysage environnant.')  Why did Turner rate it so highly?  Partly, it was the way Carracci managed to achieve something monumental on such a small scale (45 x 34 cm).  It was painted on copper - a medium usually approached with the techniques of a miniaturist - but Carracci used a much looser, more confident approach.  Then there are those 'unforgettable' colours, the 'light-drenched blues and greens' of the valley are enough to make you forget the drama taking place on the cliff.  The way the landscape was structured is also unusual - we look both upwards to the scene of sacrifice and downwards towards the valley.  Light flowing in from the left delineates the landforms but then melts 'into softly differentiated colours and luminosities'.  Through his handling of light and colour Annibale showed himself more interested in tonality than form.  He had a 'flawless feeling for atmosphere'.

 Annibale Carracci, Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, c. 1604

Turner's chapter on Carracci goes on to talk about the influence of Paul Bril, who had popularised landscape painting in Italy in the 1580s, showing how Carracci moved beyond him.  Two similar paintings in lunette format offer an obvious point of comparison, Carracci's Flight into Egypt and a Bril landscape in the piano nobile of the Lateran palace.  'Annibale's landscape has a clear focus and is simple, while Bril's is panoramic and laden with discursive anecdote.'  Carracci's painting has its own Wikipedia page and has long been regarded as one of the great works of Western landscape art - numerous people have written about it as an influence on later artists like Claude and Poussin.  By contrast, I cannot find any images or mention of the Bril painting online at all, which just goes to show how valuable books like The Vision of Landscape in Renaissance Italy remain.

Annibale Carracci, The Penitent Magdalene in a Landscape, c. 1598

This time next week I will be in Berlin, where there is a Carracci River Landscape that Turner discusses in his book; perhaps I should try to see it, as I can find almost nothing about it online.  There is though another lovely River Landscape now in Washington that you can access via the Google Art Project - its caption says that 'nature here is appreciated first and foremost for herself and not as the backdrop for a story. A mellow sunlight dapples the land and picks out the ripples disturbing the surface of the river. The gold in the treetops suggests a day in early autumn.'  Turner, by contrast, concludes his discussion of Carracci with a painting in which landscape shares prominence with the penitent Magdalene, who is not so much 'in' a landscape as 'before it'.  He thinks that this painting shows Carracci's strengths as a landscapist and weakness as an artist, since there is no real relationship between figure and setting.  Nevertheless, that dark frame of trees around a brilliant cerulean sky 'suggests the sublimity of calm, permanence and civilised nature, all presented through the hand of a fine painter.'      

 Annibale Carracci, River Landscape, c. 1590

Monday, August 12, 2019

Windsor Castle and Park

Well, here's some interesting news from the British Library:
'With something like a thrill we must record that probably the very germ and protoplasm of landscape art in Britain sprang from a king, and took form and shape in the very national heart of all the kingdom. Somewhere about the year 1550 the son and heir to King Henry VIII, afterwards King Edward VI (1537–1553), sat down in Windsor Park and drew and coloured a view of the Castle.'
Edward Tudor (??), Coloured ink drawing of Windsor Castle and Park

In fact this is not news but a quote from a book published over sixty years ago: Maurice Harold Grant's A Chronological History of the Old Landscape Painters (in oil), from the XVIth Century to the XIXth Century (8 vols, Leigh on Sea, 1957-1961), I, p. 31.  However, as the most recent blog post in the BL's excellent 'Picturing Places' series says, 'Grant’s suggestion that this image represents the first stirring of British landscape art has been universally ignored'.  Fred Smith has now looked again at the evidence that the sketch, pasted into the flyleaf of an edition of Myles Coverdale’s 1538 New Testament, may have been done by the future king.  For example, Edward is reported to have been proficient on the lute, but could he have also been taught how to draw?  On the landscape itself,
'Although Edward passed relatively little time at Windsor, he spent a prolonged period there on at least one occasion. Fearing unrest in the capital, Protector Somerset had conveyed the young king to Windsor for his safety in October 1549.  Having spent some days confined to the castle and its grounds, Edward reportedly likened it to a prison, complaining: ‘here be no galleries nor no gardens to walke in’.  Perhaps he took to drawing the castle to divert his attention?'
I have mentioned royal painters here before, from the Qianlong Emperor of China to Prince Eugen of Sweden, but have not been particularly interested in discussing the amateur efforts of our own royal family - Queen Victoria, for example, or Prince Charles (whose watercolours the Telegraph described as 'torpor-inducingly conventional').  This sketch though, if it is by Edward, would be fascinating as it is so early in the history of Western landscape art.  Unfortunately, there is evidence that it was not painted by the prince.  It looks as if it may have been copied from a background in Marcus Gheeraerts’s print 'Procession of the Knights of the Garter', published in 1576, after Edward's death.  Disappointing, although as Fred Smith says, such a conclusion still 'raises some intriguing questions. Where and when did the myth of Edward’s authorship originate?'  And, whoever painted it, there is something charming about those delicately sketched deer sitting, walking and jumping around on the turf, underneath the dark ramparts of the castle.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

Viewing the Three Lakes

 














Hsieh T'iao
'Viewing the Three Lakes'


I have previously devoted a post to Hsieh Ling-yün (Xie Lingyun, 385-433), known as the founder of the shan-shui ("rivers-and-mountains") tradition in Chinese poetry.  Here I want to focus on Hsieh T'iao (Xie Tiao), a younger kinsman also known for his landscape poetry, who lived from 464-499.  His work is not easy to find online and his Wikipedia entry is currently just a stub.  However, I have actually quoted one of his poems before, 'Viewing the Three Lakes' - 'Red clouds mirrored where the waters meet. / From the red terrace -- birds returning, / the encircling plains, mosaic of river isles. / Inklings of spring's luxuriance / as autumn's last yellows fade...'

Cynthia L. Chennault has written a study of Hsieh's work.  In The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, she says that his poetry 'is perhaps best known for the rich variety of ways in which it describes qualities of light'.  She points to two ways in which he developed the nature writing tradition in Chinese poetry:
  • Subject matter: his landscapes are expansive, more generalized, less 'vertical' and often include man-made features.
  • Style: he uses syntactic variation to give more variety to his descriptions and incorporate emotional expression - a river as a metaphor for the poet's directional ambivalence, for instance.

Hsieh T'iao held various official posts and in 495 was made governor of Hsüan-ch'eng (Xuancheng).  'Hardly different from a hermit's life' he called it, with 'few law suits to hear on the grass-grown terrace.'  Hsieh built himself there a pavilion that would later feature in a poem by Li Po (Li Bai, 701-62) - 'Farewell to Uncle Yun, Imperial Librarian, at Xie Tiao Pavilion in Xuancheng'.  A century later another great poet, Tu Mu (Du Mu, 803-52), came to the city and saw Hsieh's old home.  There he wrote poems about Kai-yuan temple, built earlier in the T'ang Dynasty, long after Hsieh's time ('the brook's sound enters the dreams of monks, / and the moonlight glows on its stucco walls.')

Moving further ahead in time to 1170, another great poet, Lu Yu (Lu You, 1125-1209), visited Hsieh's old residence, and also the Southern capital of Chin-Ling (Jinling) where Hsieh had lived and written poetry.  There is a good article by Nathan Woolley, based on Lu's 'An Account of a Journey to Shu', of his time at Chin-Ling.  It quotes three of Hsieh's poems - here are the opening lines of 'About to Set Forth From Stone Fortress, I Ascend the Beacon-fire Loft':
Wavering and hesitant, I pine over the capital;
With dragging steps, I tread up to the storied loft.
Seen from a height, the palace grounds and gate towers seem close by,
But as I peer into the distance, windblown clouds are many.
Departure for Hsieh was hard when all he could see beyond the city was upsurging hills and a sea of dashing waves. 

Ten poems by Hsieh appear in the anthology New Songs from a Jade Terrace (compiled 534-45) but none of them are 'landscape' poetry.  Five might be considered 'still life' - 'object poems' on a lamp, a candle, a bed, a mirror stand and falling plum blossom.  He also wrote a set of 'Songs of the Drum and Flute', dedicated to the Prince of Sui which Cynthia Chennault describes as charming early works. Arthur Waley translated one of them in his seminal anthology, A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1919), a 'Song of the Men of Chin-Ling' who are marching back to the capital.
The green canals of the city stretch on and on 
And its high towers stretch up and up. 
Flying gables lean over the bridle-road: 
Drooping willows cover the Royal Aqueduct.
Hsieh T'iao did not make it into our sixth century - he died in prison in 499.  It was a sad echo of the fate of his predecessor Hsieh Ling-yün, who was executed following a third and final banishment from court.  A year before his death, Hsieh T'iao wrote a 'Poetic Essay Requiting a Kindness', addressed to his fellow poet Shen Yüeh (it is the subject of a 1990 article by Richard Mather).  After Hsieh's death, Shen wrote a lament for him.  'His melodies resound in tune with bells and lithophones; / His thoughts soar high above the winds and clouds.'

Chinese edition of The Selected Works of Xie Tiao and Yu Xin

Thursday, August 01, 2019

The sky was a subtle newsprint grey

Last month, in connection with the Apollo landing anniversary, I mentioned Earth-Moon-Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon) (2007), Katie Paterson's work in which Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was translated into Morse code and sent to the Moon and back.  Morse code has been used since 1844 and I guess Samuel Morse, who developed an early version in 1837, must be one of the most universally known eponymous inventors.  But Morse only became an involved in telegraphic communication in the 1830s - until then he had been a professional painter, mainly of portraits, although he did do landscapes too.  A profile of Morse in Wired, 'The American Leonardo', notes that he 'died rich and famous in 1872.  Congress passed a memorial resolution praising his contribution to modern communications.'  Morse had once written to his friend Fenimore Cooper that "I have no wish to be remembered as a painter, for I never was a painter."

Samuel F. B. Morse, Landscape composition: Helicon and Aganippe
(allegorical landscape of New York University), 1836 

This was Samuel Morse the painter, of an allegorical landscape that relocates NYU’s University Building from Washington Square to an idyllic Claudian landscape.  Aganippe is a fountain at the foot of Mount Helicon dedicated to the Muses.  In her book Anglophilia: Deference, Devotion, and Antebellum America, Elisa Tamarkin notes that in this painting Morse 'finds the promise of the college not in the vitality of its students and faculty (which he joined) but in the symbolic grandeur of the institution and in an organic vision that admits no sign of change but a formulaic dawn.'  Such conservatism was in line with Morse's reactionary politics - he was anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant and pro-slavery.  This was the kind of worldview that would influence elite American universities as they developed policies to exclude minorities.


If you are familiar with Robert Smithson's writings you can probably guess where I am going with this...  'A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey' on 30 September 1967 famously begins with Smithson purchasing a copy of the Brian W. Aldiss novel, Earthworks to read on the bus.  But he also picked up a copy of that morning's New York Times and there he saw a reproduction of Morse's allegorical landscape:
'the sky was a subtle newsprint grey, and the clouds resembled sensitive stains of sweat  reminiscent of a famous Yugoslav watercolourist whose name I have forgotten.  A little statue with right arm held high faced a pond (or was it the sea?).  “Gothic” buildings in the allegory had a faded look, while an unnecessary tree (or was it a cloud of smoke?) seemed to puff up on the left side of the landscape.'
So much for Morse; Smithson makes no mention of his role in developing an entirely new form of signification and communication.  Smithson got off the bus when he reached the first 'monument' of his tour, a bridge over the Passaic.  He must still have been thinking about the dead landscape reproduced in the paper.  As he watched the bridge open to let a barge go past, he viewed these actions as 'the limited movements of an outmoded world.'

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Mountain R


Mountain R is a 1996 novel by the French Oulipian writer Jacques Jouet (1947-) about a failed attempt to construct an artificial mountain.  The Dalkey Archive published an English translation by Brian Evenson in 2004.  The story is a dark satire told in three parts, from three different points of view.  It begins with a speech by The President of the Republican Council, setting out the proposal for this grand projet and arguing that a 1,500 meter high mountain would bring in tourism, reduce unemployment and provide a fitting symbol for the greatness of the nation.  The second part is a dialogue between one of the contractors involved in building Mountain R and his daughter, which gradually reveals shocking truths about the human cost of its construction.  The third part is an excerpt from the trial of those responsible for the project's failure, recounted by another unreliable narrator, a novelist paid to write about Mountain R, whose full role in the enterprise becomes progressively more apparent.

As I began reading I thought back to The Man Without Qualities, a novel about a pointless national celebration that I read at about the same time the Millennium Dome fiasco was unfolding here. However, as a construction project driven by hubris, funded in murky circumstances and failing to leave anything worthwhile it actually reminded me more of several recent initiatives, some of them in London.  For many years, cities have measured themselves on who can erect the biggest tower.  In Mountain R the President begins his speech by complaining that the Republic, though magnificent already, 'looks like a flat-chested girl.  Too bad!  But we are going to alter her, the Republic ... we are here to act ... to give her what we can: a womanly figure.'  It sounds like 'Northumberlandia', the proposal for a giant 'curvaceous woman' which I wrote about here in 2009 (it was subsequently built and opened in 2012).  

I have discussed the construction of other artificial mountains here before, from the marble peak on a Greek island made sometime between 2550-2400 BCE, to the holy mount for the first Celebration of the Supreme Being in post-Revolutionary France.  All such ventures share common traits, but perhaps the closest precursor to Mountain R that I have written about is the Mountain of Stability, centre piece of Emperor Huizong's great garden at Kaifeng, which led to instability in China as resentment rose over the costs of building it, until Huizong was deposed and his construction left in ruins. Mountain R is built by migrant workers who have to live in appalling conditions.  There are an unknown numbers of fatalities as the authorities try to hide the true cost of the project.  Reading this brought to mind what we have heard about the Qatar World Cup - see for example the BBC's 2015 report on the death toll there, which had been put then at 1,200 workers.

There was an article about Mountain R in The French Review by Oulipo scholar Warren Motte (whose actually crops up in the book as the name of an American funding body).  He shows how the book is about language and the processes of narration, pointing in particular to a passage in which the third narrator compares the writing of a novel to a construction project.  The failure to complete his novel mirrors the failure to complete the mountain.  Motte has also provided a useful introduction to Jouet's work on the Dalkey Archive website.  Of Mountain R he says that 'Jouet asks us to consider how we view monuments and how we tend to monumentalize our leaders, our progenitors, and the tasks we pursue, both individually and severally.' 

Motte also discusses some of Jouet's other works and, although it has nothing to do with Mountain R, I can't resist ending here by quoting the first of Jouet's Poèmes de métro, which itself defines the Oulipian constraint involved in writing them.  Something to consider, for those of us who use the London Underground everyday...
A metro poem is a poem composed
in the metro, during the duration
of a trip.
A metro poem has as many verses as
your trip has stations, minus one.
The first verse is composed in your
head between the two first stations
of your trip (counting the station
from which you departed).
It is transcribed onto paper when the
train stops at the second station.
The second verse is composed in
your head between the second and
third stations of your trip.
It is transcribed onto paper when the
train stops at the third station. And
so forth.
One must not transcribe when the
train is in motion.
One must not compose when the
train is stopped.
The last verse of the poem is
transcribed on the platform of
your last station.
If your trip involves one or more
changes of subway lines, the poem
will have two or more stanzas.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Lunar surface and horizon

Apollo 11 Mission image - Lunar surface and horizon
Source: Internet Archive
Tomorrow is the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing and it feels too momentous to let it pass without mention on this blog.  I have written here before about landscape art and poetry in which the moon plays a central role, like the poetry of Du Fu, the drawings of Samuel Palmer or the long-exposure photographs of Darron Almond.  I have also mentioned here the lunar landscape itself, as imagined by artists before the Apollo programme, like Chesley Bonestell who painted a mural for the Boston Museum of Science, and then photographed by astronauts from orbit and the surface of the moon.  Jonathan Jones (or his Guardian sub-editor) recently called the shots taken by Armstrong and Aldrin 'the greatest photographs ever'.  In Armstrong's images of Aldrin, 'his scientific work seems ritualised and meaningless. It’s the astonishing fact of being on this desolate landscape that we’re drawn to.'


There are photographs of the moonscape from the Apollo 11 mission in which the astronauts do not feature.  They have an austere beauty, despite the absence of colour or any significant landforms.  The ones I have embedded here resemble Rothko's black paintings.  Paintings of the lunar surface have been made by the fourth man on the moon, Alan Bean, who pursued a career as an artist after retiring from NASA in 1981.  He has incorporated dust from the lunar surface into some of these. Here is what he has written about his influences:
"I have been inspired by other explorer artists such as Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt and Frederick Remington and Charles Russell. As the first artist on another world, I believe I am doing the same thing for the opening of the universe that they did for the opening of the American West, that my painting will satisfy the human need to record and remember new beginnings."


Naturally the anniversary of the moon landing has prompted various art events, like The Met's exhibition, 'Apollo's Muse'.  Last month, James Attlee wrote a piece on artists and the moon, appropriately for Apollo Magazine, mentioning the Katie Paterson piece I discussed here recently, Earth-Moon-Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon). Moon-related music is a theme at this year's Proms, which opens with Zosha Di Castri's 'Long Is the Journey - Short Is the Memory', a piece partly inspired by the famous moon poems of Sappho and Leopardi.  There's an acclaimed documentary that I haven't seen yet, Apollo 11, and many new or reissued books about the mission. The photograph below shows two of my own books - a Penguin Special published in 1969 that my father passed on to me and Andrew Chaikin's superb account of the Apollo programme.  Chaikin carries the story all the way through to Apollo 17 and it is noticeable how much emphasis there was on geology in those final missions.  With no life to discover, the moon landings became increasingly focused on the moon's grey landscape, and eventually there was not enough interest in this to keep the Apollo programme going. 

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Black ice

Sólheimajökull glacier, Iceland
Photographed by me in May 2019

After returning from Iceland recently I was keen to write something about its landscape but realised I had already covered a lot of the ground here previously - see for example 'An eagle, a mountain, a ship' and 'To Place: Verne's Journey'.  The photograph above was taken at a rapidly retreating glacier, beautifully sculpted by melting water and blackened by the underlying volcanic rock.  My excuse for including it here is a bit tenuous - it's that I was reading in Robert Macfarlane's new book Underland about glacier ice.  In Greenland he encounters a very different kind of black ice, dark from the compression of millenia, emerging 'from so deep down in time that it has lost all colour.'  As Colin Thubron writes in his review, this sight 'induces a kind of nausea.'
'The first block has fallen from the glacier’s face before he and his companions turn to look, and then an enormous white train seems to be driving out of its wall before plunging into the water, and it pulls white wagons after it, followed by the semblance of a cathedral and a whole fracturing city. ... Then, he adds, something terrible happens. A submerged, black pyramid of ancient, compacted ice rears up from the water as high as the glacier itself, a shape as hard as meteorite, and he and the others are dancing and shouting, “appalled and thrilled to have seen this repulsive, exquisite thing rise up that should never have surfaced.”'
An object like this can perhaps only be conveyed effectively in words.  Googling for images of black icebergs, I learned that a few years ago one particular photograph went viral - someone described it as 'goth as fuck' - and there was an article about it on the Smithsonian website.  Apparently 'flipped' icebergs, with the older parts on top, may become more common.  Glaciers no longer stretch into the cold seas but break apart at the edge of the land, "so you get these really thin pieces of ice that flip over right when they’ve broken off."  Nonetheless, this black iceberg was extremely rare, and the photographer considered himself incredibly lucky: "it’s like if you see a double rainbow over a whale breaching".  You can imagine Rob Macfarlane feeling equally lucky that the landscape had delivered up such a perfect metaphor for him.

Blue iceberg, Greenland
Photo: Wikimedia Commons - claire rowland

When I got back from Iceland, several people at work asked if I had gone 'to see the northern lights'.  It brought home to me what a bucket-list tourist phenomenon this has become.  No, we had not, and I suspect that if I did organise such a trip it would only be disappointing.  One of my colleagues went recently, to Norway I think he said, and said it had been cloudy until the last night, when they finally experienced the sky flickering, but witnessed none of the green light you see on photographs.  In Greenland, Rob and his companions first experience the Northern Lights as 'a scarf of radar-green' with the mountains shooting 'jade searchlights into space.'  On another night it appears as 'green fog-banks, rolling, coalescing, ebbing.'  And finally, at the end of the trip, they see a display that is 'profuse, extravagant, spinning over thousands of miles of sky.'  The stars seem to shine more brightly through the aurora. It seems paradoxical - 'none of us can explain how the green light could be collaborative rather than competitive with the starlight.'

Collaboration is a key theme in Underland and one of the reasons why companionship is important on the trips it describes.  Rob is accompanied to Greenland by Helen Mort, 'a rock climber, a runner and a writer of rare abilities', and Bill Carslake, a composer who is able to hear notes in the sound of wind on the glacier ("it's the harmonic series of D!")  Nick Papadmitriou has complained that everyone encountered in Underland is 'imbued with a wisdom and roundness of character that marks them out as irritatingly exceptional human beings', but this is not a conventional travel book and there isn't space to develop proper portraits of people.  As a reader, part of the pleasure is trying to imagine travelling with Rob and his companions, coping with the exhausting ice peaks and crevasses, negotiating a dangerous scree slope and a narrow snow bridge, not to mention keeping pace conversationally with three erudite Cambridge graduates (a kind of intellectual Sublime).  I know I would not have made it far (I've an image of myself stuck on the glacier, driven mad with fear and exhaustion, like Leni Riefenstahl's husband in The White Hell of Pitz Palu, who has to be tied up for his own safety).  Fortunately, our holiday in Iceland presented no such hazards.  There were also many memorable sights in addition to the black and white Sólheimajökull glacier.  Nevertheless, I would love to have been on that beach in Greenland to witness the appearance of that extraordinary iceberg...

Twenty minutes after falling into the sea, it settles in the water.  Gulls land 'on this new territory in their dozens, shake out their wings, tuck one leg up into their breast feathers for warmth, hunker down.'  The next day Rob finds a small chunk of it, washed up on the shoreline and, with difficulty, lifts the dark ice and carries it back to the tents.
'The sun shines through it.  Air bubbles inside it show as silver: wormholes, right-angle bends, incredible zigzags and sharp layers.
That night an arctic fox comes to our camp, a playful blue shadow.
The little berg takes two days to melt.  It leaves a stain on the rock that won't vanish.'