Sunday, October 13, 2019

Diamond Mountains

Jeong Seon, General View of Mt. Geumgang, 1734
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In these days of mass global travel it feels as if everywhere of note is being constantly visited and photographed, but one of the most spectacular and culturally significant landscapes in the world is almost inaccessible.  The Diamond Mountains, known collectively as Mount Geumgang, are in what is now North Korea.  The art they inspired was recently the subject of an exhibition in New York which I would love to have seen. The Met's catalogue (a very lovely book) explains the three main areas travellers sought out, following in the footsteps of poets, painters and travel diarists: Inner Geumgang is a lush landscape of streams and pools; Outer Geumgang has steep trails, dramatic peaks and waterfalls; and by the shore, Sea Geumgang has strange rock formations and pillars rising from the waters. The painting above shows the entire mountain range and is by Jeong Seon (1676-1759), the artist who did more than any other to popularise the area.  It is an example of a 'general view' that tries to capture the whole landscape at once, rather like a modern skiing map.  Interpreters have seen this painting in cosmological terms, representing yin and yang - dark and light, wet and dry, earth and universe.

Detail of the General View of Mt. Geumgang

The painting on the cover of the Met's catalogue (below) is also very much a landscape of contrasts.  It is one of the thirteen views in Jeong's Album of Mount Geumgang (1711), painted after what is thought to have been his first visit to the mountains.  It shows the view from Danbal Ridge - 'Danbal' means "cutting one's hair" and comes from the idea that the view here is so astonishing it will lead the traveller to shave his head, become a monk and withdraw from the secular world.  In Korea people spoke of 'entering the mountain', in the sense of going into a spiritual realm, rather than 'ascending the mountain' and conquering it like a mountaineer.  Lee Soomi describes this painting in the catalogue:
'Jeong painted himself and his fellow travellers alighting in the magnificent scene.  Oer the clouds, the mountain's twelve thousand peaks shine as if in greeting.  Jeong juxtaposed the dark and earthy terrain of Danbal Ridge with the white, rocky peaks, defining the forested ridge with short Mi dots and emphasizing the mountain's steepness through sharp, diagonal forms.  A sheer fog hovers between the two kinds of mountains, creating a void that underscores the contrast.'
The Met website has a long and well-illustrated interview with the curator Soyoung Lee which is like a condensed version of the catalogue.  This includes views of the Diamond Mountains painted in subsequent centuries by literati, court painters and folk artists.  There are two remarkable twentieth century ink paintings, one by Byeong Gwansik (1899-1976) with a strange diagonal pinnacle cutting across the view, and another by Lee Ungno (1904-1989), where mountains are painted with strikingly beautiful brush strokes and colours (it would be a wonderful inspiration for anyone posting daily pictures at the moment for 'Inktober'). Soyoung Lee says that both of these artists
"travelled multiple times to the mountains and made sketches during the colonial period before 1945, when the peninsula was divided into north and south. Yet although they travelled and made sketches during this period, the finished paintings all date to post-1945, which speaks deeply to the particular sense of nostalgia people felt at that time, a nostalgia for a place before it was disrupted and divided. [,,,] The work of both these artists is deeply informed by a sense of longing and loss. They were recreating a site they had intimately experienced, which was no longer accessible to them."

Friday, October 11, 2019

Ten Skies and 13 Lakes

‘The only way one can understand landscape is through time.’ - James Benning

This is a still from TEN SKIES (2004) a film by James Benning that lasts over two hours and consists of ten static shots of the sky over California.  You can currently watch it all on YouTube.  Claudia Slanar has written about this film and its predecessor 13 LAKES (2004) that the attention they demand ‘leads to a fluctuation between impatience, immersion and digression.’ Scott MacDonald has described the experience of seeing them for the first time as like going into a horror film, where the viewer has to decide to ‘endure whatever the film is about to send their way.’ By the third ten minute sequence it will be clear that almost nothing is going to happen. So what exactly do they offer? MacDonald suggests they provide a kind of visual and auditory retraining. ‘Again and again during a viewing of either film, we ‘awake’ to realise that our minds have moved elsewhere, into daydream, memory, worry, planning… and we wrestle our consciousness back to the screen and soundtrack, often to realise that in the interim things have altered more than we might have expected.’

In these films, landscape is transformed directly into art. As Slanar says, they 'represent the concept of nature as a ’ready-made’, as a pre-existing object that is turned into a work of art by means of an artistic signature.’  The fragmentary soundtrack of Ten Skies ‘subtly evokes a sense of place without depending on synchronous sound’. She relates Benning's films to other examples of slow cinema – Peter Hutton's Time and Tide (2000) and At Sea (2007), Sharon Lockhart’s Pine Flat (2006), Abbas Kiorostami’s Five (2003).  Her essay, and that of Scott MacDonald, appear in an excellent compilation dedicated to James Benning published in 2007 by the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna. The book discusses his work's engagement with ideas of place and the rapidly changing American landscape.  As Julie Ault says, the films reveal a persistent iconography – ‘groups of cows, passing trains, emitting smokestacks, farmland being ploughed, billboards, gunshots, oil wells, highways, the Spiral Jetty and the Milwaukee neighbourhood where Benning was born and raised.’

Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty is the subject of Casting a glance (2007): seventy-eight one-minute shots made during sixteen trips to the Jetty between May 15 2005 and January 14 2007.  The title refers to something Smithson said that evokes that idea of landscape as 'ready-made': ‘a great artist can make art by simply casting a glance.’  Benning first saw Spiral Jetty almost twenty years earlier.  In those days it was much harder to find - he tried various roads from Rozel Point before finding one that led to wards the lake, then had to walk three miles to find it, submerged at that point under two feet of water.  I will end here with Benning's evocative description of encountering Spiral Jetty as a site constantly changing, illustrating his view that 'the only way one can understand landscape is through time.'
‘The Jetty is a barometer for both daily and yearly cycles. From morning to night its allusive, shifting appearance (radical or subtle) may be the result of a passing weather system or simply the changing angle of the sun. The yearly seasonal shifts and water level changes alter the growing salt crystals, the amount of algae in the water, and the presence of wildlife. The water may appear blue, red, purple, green, brown, silver, or gold. The sounds may come from a navy jet, wildlife, splashing water, a distant car radio, converging thunderstorms; or be a silence so still you can hear the blood moving through the veins in your ears.'

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Emerald City

I’ve been looking through a library copy of The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop, a huge, glossy and expensive book based on material in the Art Directors Guild archives. Among its many full page illustrations there is a relatively brief history of painted backdrops in Hollywood, followed by short chapters on some key figures: George Gibson, Ben Carré, Duncan Alanson Spencer and two family dynasties, the Coakleys and the Strangs.

George Gibson (1904-2001) is possibly the most interesting of these from a landscape perspective, partly because he was also a well regarded water colourist and leading figure in the Californian School of plein air artists (many of whom worked in Hollywood). Gibson had been trained at Glasgow School of Art before emigrating to America during the Depression.  He had quite a low opinion of some of the backdrop artists he found working at MGM...
‘We had a large backing of mountains and pine trees to paint. At that time we had to work off fixed scaffolding with standing levels seven feet apart with a forty foot high backing. The pine trees in the foreground of the backing ran full size top to bottom. [When we] struck the fixed scaffolding, the only part of the pine trees that matched was their trunks. Every section on the seven levels [of scaffolding] had a different version of pine needles because each artist had his own conception of what pine needles should look like. It was obvious that they hadn’t been painting in the out-of-doors, or even bothered to look critically at a pine tree, if ever.’ 
Gibson was put in charge of work on backdrops for The Wizard of Oz, Brigadoon, North by Northwest, Forbidden Planet and many others.  The book includes photographs of the sound stages on which such movies were acted out, with their foreground props merging quite convincingly with painted landscape backgrounds.  There is an example of one landscape setting he painted himself, a church in the snow which can be seen in The Brothers Karamazov (1958).  However, many of the old backdrops have long since been damaged and lost.

When Mark Cousins was directing the Edinburgh Film Festival in the mid 90s he decided to draw a link between The Wizard of Oz and the city of Gibson's birth.  "We thought it would be fun and challenging to transform Edinburgh Castle into the Emerald City. No-one knew about the Gibson connection at that time."  I'm not sure what this transformation entailed, but certainly the connection has now been established and you'll find Gibson referred to in several online guides to Edinburgh.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

A Timeline for Landscape in the Arts

I have put together a new timeline of landscape and the arts based on entries in this blog.  It covers five hundred people, ranging in time from Sargon II, King of Assyria, to Robert Macfarlane.  It replaces the earlier chronology I did.  This long list was starting to feel a bit burdensome to keep up (I've also decided to drop my index for the same reason, and because in practical terms the search function here works pretty well).  The software for the timeline is free and uses Google Docs - I think it is pretty cool.  It was not really designed to have as many entries as I have so you will need to use the zoom buttons to navigate clearly through the more recent years.  I have shown an example of this below for a point in the twentieth centur.  If you want to go straight to a version that is on maximum zoom and pointed at the current year, click here.  But from any point you can drag the timeline forwards and backwards.  It is also easy just to move along one entry at a time.

As this timeline relates to people rather than events, there is only one entry per person.  So Emily Carr is recorded in 1942 (late in her career), the year she published 'The Book of Small', rather than, say, 1928 when she painted KitwancoolWilliam and Dorothy Wordsworth, Charlotte Smith and Lord Byron all get one entry only.  I could have included a lot more than 500, based just on the blog as it now stands.  However, I have omitted artists only mentioned in passing, lesser artists and more peripheral figures or well known names that have not really been prominent in exploring landscape (I decided not to include Picasso).  The timeline also concentrates on creative figures rather than critics, theorists, geographers and historians. I intend to amend it occasionally and add to it gradually, especially for earlier years; you can see now why I was interested in writing last week about a datable art work from 1072.  But the blog won't be skewed towards filling in gaps in the timeline.  Some Landscapes is not intended to be a historical encyclopedia of landscape and the arts and doesn't aim at being comprehensive (hence the word 'some').  It will continue to evolve through a process of serendipity, featuring whatever I have come across that seems interesting and worth sharing.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

A dialectic of the near and the far

Guo Xi, Early Spring, 1072

In 1072 the Chinese artist Guo Xi completed one of the most celebrated landscape paintings, Early Spring.  It is his only surviving large scale work - there are smaller scrolls in museums (I have mentioned one here before).  There is a story that he would 'have plasterers roughen the surface of a wall so that in painting his mountains and chasms he could follow the bumps and hollows they had made and get an even more convincing effect of relief' (Michael Sullivan, Symbols of Eternity).  One day I may do a post devoted to Guo's theories of painting, assembled by his son - Lofty Ambition in Forest and Streams (Ernest Fenollosa considered it, with the exception of a few dry sections, 'one of the greatest essays of the world').  Here I'll just provide five quotes about Early Spring interspersed with close-up details. 

'His greatest surviving work, the Early Spring of 1072 in the National Public Museum, Taipei, shows him as a master of monumental design, in which the realistic details of buildings, boats, and fishermen are totally subordinated to broad effects and dramatic contrasts of light and dark.' - Michael Sullivan, Symbols of Eternity

'Rather than an expression of the painter's love of nature in the abstract, it may have been understood by contemporary audiences at court as showing, not real nature, but the ideal landscape of a Daoist paradise.' - Craig Clunas, Art in China

'The man Guo Xi served, the emperor Shenzong, only rarely in his life had occasion to directly enjoy the natural world outside of his imperial palaces ... Early Spring is a vision of flux, growth, life, and order precisely suited to the imperial gaze.' Richard M. Barnhart, Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting

'The mountain as majestic lord is complemented by the figures that reflect perceptions of social hierarchy.  At the bottom of the composition, country fol and fishermen represent the foundation of society.' - Alfreda Murck, Poetry and Painting in Song China

'One cannot keep the near separate from the far; the two mesh intimately, mirroring each other rather than standing apart; so much so that there is no place for middle distance in a work such as this, which exhibits a dialectic of the near and the far - of the rocks below and the mountains above and behind it.' - Edward S. Casey, Representing Place: Landscape Painting and Maps

My reason for highlighting one datable painting from history in this way will become clear in my next blog post.  Suffice it to say now that I find it fascinating to think about the point at which this painting emerged into the river of world history: in the time of Omar Khayyam and El Cid, and just as a group of needleworkers whose names have not come down to us were embroidering the Bayeux Tapestry.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Bare plain, leafless, treeless

Reading the exiled Ovid's Tristia and Black Sea Letters you keep wanting him to tell his correspondents back in Rome about the landscape at Tomis.  But all of these poems are about one thing - his desire to get back home - and so his brief descriptions do not go into any details, they are a means of provoking sympathy in the reader. Here is what translator Peter Green says about Ovid's account of the region where Tomis was situated, on the tip of a peninsula, seventy miles south of the Danube delta. 
'Its treeless, monotonous steppe, he writes, resembles a frozen grey sea, patched - appropriately enough - with wormwood, a maquis of bitter and symbolic associations.  There are no vines, he repeatedly complains, no orchards: spring in the Italian sense doesn't exist and few birds sing.  The countryside is ugly, harsh, savage, inhuman.  The water is brackish, and merely exacerbates thirst.  But Ovid's two great fearful obsessions are the biting cold and the constant barbarian raids. Again and again he returns to the snow, the ice, the sub-zero temperatures: bullock-carts creaking across the frozen Danube, wine broken off and sold in chunks, the violent glacial north-easter (today known as the crivat) that rips off roof-tiles, sears the skin, and even blows down buildings if they are not solidly constructed.' 
Was he exaggerating? In the tenth Black Sea Letter Ovid actually gave some scientific proof that the Black Sea did actually freeze at Tomis.  In this area many freshwater rivers flow into the sea and there is a cold north wind that chills the air.  As Peter Green says in one of his endnotes (which are wonderfully witty and erudite): 'Dr. Stefan Stoenescu informs me that 'the rich salty waters [of the Danube delta] create a brackish region ear the littoral which allows an inversion of temperature to take place.  The unsalty waters of the Danube have sufficient power to maintain a thin layer of comparatively sweet fresh water above the deeply settled salty Mediterranean current.  As a result, near the Danube delta shores freezing is not an unusual occurrence.  Ovid was right.''

Eugène Delacroix, Ovid among the Scythians, 1862

Nevertheless, Ovid does not really say what Tomis was like outside winter.  Now called Constanța, it is a tourist destination and has 'a humid subtropical climate' with cool breezes in summer and warm autumns.  The treelessness Ovid complained about was true of his immediate location but if he had ventured further afield he would have encountered forests.  Presumably the dangers from the local tribesmen, with their poison-tipped arrows, prevented him leaving the town.  So this wasn't a poetic exile like some others that I have written about here - Xie Lingyun, for example, banished in 422 to the southeast coast of China, but able to draw solace from his walks in the mountains.  Ovid was trapped and desperate to leave.

I will end here with a few lines of Ovid's poetry, from Tristia Book III, written de profundis in his frozen hell.  The north wind screams and 'no comber will surge up from the hard packed flood' and Ovid sadly recalls those early autumn days when everything in Italy is ripening. 
... No sweet grapes here beneath thick shady vine-leaves,
   no frothing must to top up the deep vats;
no orchards, no fruit trees, no apple on which Acontius
   could cut the message for his love to read:
nothing to meet the eye here but bare plain, leafless, treeless -
   not the habitat any luckier man would choose -
and this, with the whole wide world's expanse to choose from,
   is the region selected for my punishment!

Sunday, September 08, 2019

A map of Elmbourne

I have just read All Among the Barley, the third novel by Melissa Harrison, whose writings and nature observations I've been following over the last few years via her prolific Twitter feed.  Looking online afterwards to see what had been written about the novel, I found a piece in Elementum by the artist who drew maps for her book, Neil Gower.  He says that over the years the most indecipherable author sketches he has had to work with are those of Jilly Cooper, 'A2 Basquiat-esque collages of who’s bonking whom (and where)'.  I was actually given a copy of Jilly Cooper's Riders as a joke birthday present recently and have just dug it out to see if it has a map in it.  I can't see one - perhaps they're in her other books?  Anyway, back to Melissa Harrison, who, by contrast, gave Gower very meticulous notes on her imagined Suffolk village of Elmbourne, along with 'stylistic cues in the form of an 1853 tithe map and a 1941 Tunnicliffe map (from Faber’s first edition of Henry Williamson’s The Story of a Norfolk Farm).'  Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter and supporter of Oswald Mosley, is mentioned in the novel - his opinions are admired by Constance FitzAllen, whose arrival from London leads to conflict in the village and confusion in the mind of Edie, the novel's teenage protagonist. 

From the perspective of this blog, I suppose I would rather the protagonist had been this character Connie, so as to learn more about her thinking on landscape.  It would have been interesting to read a bit more about the wider currents of nativist politics and rural revivalism - Lord Lymington, Rolf Gardiner and so on.  But that would have been a different novel; this one is very much contained within the fields and lanes that make up the world of Edie Mather.  According to Gower, Melissa Harrison too 'inhabits the landscape intimately, like her characters'.  For example, she advised him that in 'Suffolk lanes you often get a little triangle of grass left as an island with a white signpost on it. This is because the junctions were formed by carts/wagons and not cars. Carts can't turn such a tight corner as cars can...'  There's a potential paradox here, in reducing such a richly textured place to a two dimensional diagram.  But a map is a portal that can help the reader enter a novel's world and experience more than the author has been able to set down.

A few years ago The New Yorker carried an article on 'The Allure of the Map', beginning inevitably with Treasure Island and Lord of the Rings.  It went on to say that
Genre fiction often involves cartographic illustration, but so, too, do highly regionalist works. Sherwood Anderson commissioned a map of the titular town “Winesburg, Ohio,” as did the novelist Jan Karon for her novels set in the fictional town of Mitford, North Carolina. Henry David Thoreau surveyed Walden Pond for a map that he included in “Walden,” and William Faulkner drew his own map of Yoknapatawpha County for the publication of “Absalom, Absalom!” Faulkner revised the map ten years later for “The Portable Faulkner,” going so far as to call himself “sole owner and proprietor,” and adding a note: “Surveyed & mapped for this volume by William Faulkner.”
The list could be added to with British novels of place: I have mentioned here before Thomas Hardy's sketch map of Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native, for example.  All Among the Barley is part of this history of deeply imagined literary landscapes.

Finally, as a kind of postrscript, I can't resist mentioning another map in that New Yorker article, the one Ursula K. Le Guin drew for the Earthsea trilogy.  Just as I was reading All Among the Barley, my younger son was finishing A Wizard of Earthsea.  We have been talking about the book and he says he loves the way the archipelago contains so many different lands and ways of living.  It made me think about the way books open up our horizons, something that starts to happen to Edie in All Among the Barley...  The map of Earthsea particularly appealed to my son and he has identified on it his three favourite places (Too, Tor and O).  It is clear that he is now sailing his way among those islands in his imagination.