Tuesday, December 03, 2019

This earth is cursed

I was at the White Cube on Sunday to see the latest batch of Anselm Kiefer paintings, Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knot.  I am a huge admirer, but I know he does not appeal to everyone.  For me, the beauty of these artworks as physical objects is evident regardless of their possible meanings and interpretations.  The composition above, for example, is in a room devoted to the theme of the Gordian Knot, but I didn't immediately start puzzling out its meaning or worrying over whether it is profound or pretentious; instead, what struck me was the feeling that I'd never before seen a field painted with such dramatic intensity.  What you can't appreciate from a photograph is the sense of scale, the texture of paint or the subtleties of its wintry colours (that sunset glow and the purples and greys of the sky).  Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Jones described these waves of wheat as being 'arrayed like a flowing frieze of abundance. Real branches daubed with gold have been used to create their colossal stalks. But two axes hang in the gleaming fullness, waiting to devastate this cornucopian field. This earth is cursed.'

The second landscape I want to highlight here is called Väinämoinen sucht die drei fehlende Buchstaben ('Väinämoinen Searches for the Three Missing Letters' - a reference to the Kalevala, Runo XVI).  Those black posts standing in rows in the snow (or is it ash?) are shaped like runes.  In the foreground some of them are made from actual pieces of charred wood.  This painting is a kind of text (like the Landscripts of Xu Bing) and because runes were used for divination there seems to be some kind of hidden prophecy in this bleak landscape.  The Norns, which Kiefer refers to in the title of his exhibition, were the spinners of fate in Norse mythology.  In an installation stretching the length of the gallery, their names - Urd, Verdandi and Skuld - are written alongside the equations of string theory, suggesting a continuity between ancient and modern means of unlocking the world's secrets.

I'll conclude this post with one of three paintings called Superstrings, each of which measures nearly three metres high and eight metres wide.  All of them appear to be desolate landscapes of earth, snow, muddy water, stubble, straw and leafless trees.  Approaching the one I have photographed here, I felt I could still make an art historical connection to Van Gogh's ploughed fields.  Right up close, the paint surface resembles a rain soaked field or a muddy path.  But from further away, those furrows start to seem more abstract - lines of force, converging at speed towards a grey sunless horizon.  We are used to thinking of the universe in terms of pure and beautiful structures like celestial spheres or Platonic solids, but Kiefer is clearly drawn to a messier, more chaotic theory of the cosmos. 

Friday, November 29, 2019

Troubled Waters

This cool poster gives a strong impression of 'Troubled Waters', an alternative title for Mauritz Stiller's Johan.  The film was an adaptation of Juhani Aho's Finnish novel, published a decade earlier in 1911.  Landscape initiates the story, as a group of men arrive to dig out a canal in the countryside and, in a memorable sequence, people watch from the riverbank as water floods through the new channel.  One of the workers, the film's anti-hero (or villain, depending on how you see it) rows up to the new waterway and surfs down it in his small boat.  Time passes and one day he returns and seduces Marit, the film's heroine, taking her away in his boat over the wild rapids.  Given how skilfully this white water rafting is carried out, I find it amazing that it was the actor Urho Somersalmi who took the boat over the Kamlunge rapids.  Jenny Hasselqvist, who played Marit, was apparently the first woman to make this journey and at one point during the shoot she saved Somersalmi when he was washed overboard.    

D. W. Griffith's Way Down East was released six months before Johan and it too contains a famous river sequence.  Whereas the rapids in Johan feel central to the story, symbolising the attraction and dangers of the seductive stranger, the landscape in Way Down East is really only present at the end of the film, heightening its emotional climax, as Lilian Gish runs despairingly out into a blizzard and then finds herself trapped on the frozen river as its ice breaks up around her.  Again, there were no stunt doubles: it was Gish who lay on the ice while Richard Barthelmess jumped over the cracks to rescue her.  Gish wrote about the experience in her autobiography
"The scenes on and around the ice were filmed at White River Junction, Vermont, where the White River and the Connecticut flowed side by side. The ice was thick; it had to be either sawed or dynamited, so that there would be floes for each day's filming. The temperature never rose above zero during the three weeks we worked there. ... I suggested that my hand and my hair trail in the water as I lay on the floe that was drifting toward the falls. Mr. Griffith was delighted with the effect. After a while, my hair froze, and I felt as if my hand were in a flame. To this day, it aches if I am out in the cold for very long."

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Sentences on the sea

I am looking forward to reading Experiments on Reality, a new collection of essays by Tim Robinson.  Googling him this weekend and looking at his Wikipedia page, it struck me that for all the praise his work has received, and the reverence in which he is held by those interested in writing about landscape, he doesn't seem to be as famous as you would think...  Oh well, here are three quotes from his book Aran: Pilgrimage (1986), which give me a chance to include a few photos from our stay on Inis Meáin six years ago.  The first quote concerns the way sailors use landmarks to navigate - for example, to reach one particular tiny offshore island, Robinson was told you needed to line up a dip in the Cliffs of Moher with the southern tip of Inis Meáin, and then align a small church with some boulders on a cliff edge (my photograph below was actually taken from Inis Meáin and you can see a dip in the distant Cliffs of Moher).
'The currach-fishermen had dozens of these runes to guide them to good fishing grounds and keep them out of danger. They often involve places the fishermen had never visited and to which they gave names their inhabitants would not recognize. ... A tiny patch of green grass clinging to the brinkof the cliff below Túr Mháirtín is well known to the Inis Meáin boatmen as An Réallóg, whereas few Árainn men would know it had a name at all ... Thus offshore usage recreates the surrounding landscapes; like a poet I know who finds his lines by glancing along titles on library shelves, so the fisherman low among the waves raises his eyes and picks words off the land with which to write sentences on the sea.'

My second quote links landscape, myth and music.  Robinson is talking about a sea cave which is said, improbably, to connect to a lake on the north coast.  The story goes that a piper once entered the cave and was never seen again, though his music can still sometimes be heard.
'Tom O'Flaherty mentions this legend in one of his autobiographical pieces.  According to him the piper was a fugitive outlaw from Connemara, and "anyone who hears his mournful music will before long be called to the Piper's Castle, from which none return."  ... I am told by a spelaeologist that similar legends are widespread in other countries too, connecting certain caves with the traditional musical instruments of the locality.  Orpheus himself was probably not the first musician to visit the Underworld.'

There are many paragraphs like these in Aran: Pilgrimage that could be quoted, but I will conclude here with a description of the idea underpinning his walk and his book, the attempt to take 'a single step as adequate to the ground it clears as is the dolphin's arc to its wave'.  To do this it is necessary to bring into unity 'geologies, biologies, myths, history, politics etcetera', not to mention personal associations.
'To forget these dimensions of the step is to forgo our honour as human beings, but an awareness of them equal to the involuted complexities under foot at any given moment would be a crushing backload to have to carry.  Can such contradictions be forged into a state of consciousness even fleetingly worthy of its ground?  At least one can speculate that the structure of condensation and ordering necessary to pass from such various types of knowledge to such an instant of insight would have the characteristics of a work of art, partaking of the individuality of the mind that bears it, yet with a density of content and richness of connectivity surpassing any state of mind.'  
At the end of the book, Robinson concludes that such an artwork has proven impossible to write.  But what does seem evident is that a sequence of steps can still amount to something: momentary propositions, taken with a freedom beyond academic or national boundaries.  There may be a likelihood of 'superficiality, restlessness, fickleness and transgression', but also 'by contraries, goes the possibility of recurrency, of frequentation, of a deep, an ever-deeper, dwelling in and on a place, a sum of whims and fancies totalling a constancy as of stone.'

Friday, November 08, 2019


Last month we visited the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, just outside Paris.  It was the home of Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV's finance minister, and was the creation of three great seventeenth century artists: architect Louis Le Vau, painter Charles Le Brun and landscape designer André le Nôtre.  Throughout Vaux-le-Vicomte there are explanatory signs with diagrams explaining how le Nôtre constructed the estate to create optical illusions.  When you look out from the house across the garden (below), you can see a distant slope with a golden statue, but there is no sign of the garden's canal (above) which actually stretches right across the garden.  A sign informs visitors of what they can expect as they walk down into this landscape.  "The Grand Canal, invisible from the château's front steps, appears out of the blue.  The grottos, which seem to be on the pool's edge, get further away as you progress along the main path of the garden and now seem to be on the opposite side of the canal!  The statue of Hercules now seems impossible to reach..."  I think this clever example of 'decelerated perspective' put Mrs Plinius off walking as far as the Hercules statue but, as you can see below, I was not discouraged and went up to get a good look at it.

The sun was so strong that Hercules himself presented two very different perspectives, shadowy on the way up and gleaming magnificently when you looked back down at him.  Although I felt like I was dutifully walking along a sightline, one of those rays on a diagram connected to an imaginary eyeball, it was impossible not to be distracted by birdsong and the crunch of fallen leaves under your feet.  The sharp shadows and bright sunshine were perfect conditions to enjoy the garden's mathematical aesthetic and indulge in the scopophilia of all those viewing points.  But it was still possible to enjoy the feel of the breeze and smell of the damp grass and choose your own ways of experiencing the space.  My sons got caught up in a game of catching the falling leaves.

On the way back to the château, as you round one end of the canal, there is a great example of borrowed scenery (what Japanese gardeners call shakkei).  What you can see (below) is the Vallée de l'Anqueuil and medieval Pont de Mons, giving the impression that Fouquet's land extended into this idyllic unspoilt landscape.  Here, nature is incorporated within the realm of the garden, but this seems relatively modest when compared to the main design where (as Allen S. Weiss has written) infinity itself, in the form of the vanishing point, is brought into the garden's purview. 

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Chateau d'If

Two years ago I wrote here about the plans-reliefs that Andrew Graham-Dixon visited for a TV documentary - he described them as 'a collection of extraordinary but largely forgotten' table-top landscapes. I mentioned that some of them remain in Paris and last weekend I got to see them - they are on display in Les Invalides.  I framed the photograph above so that this example resembles a real aerial landscape.  However, it is eerily empty - there are roads and buildings but no sign of actual human life: no figures in the fields, no cattle or horses or any other animals.  None of the relief maps show anything happening in these landscapes.  They are quite different from the models we are used to seeing in museums that recreate a key historical event or evoke everyday life at some date in the past.  The plans-reliefs represent a rather bleak vision of the world, as mere terrain to be defended or fought over.  Seeing a relief map of Saint-Tropez in this context was a particular shock - a place that conjures ideas of life at its most joyous - sun, sea, wine, music and Brigitte Bardot on the beach...

Near the glass cabinet dedicated to St Tropez, there is another one containing the Chateau d'If.  I remember that when I first began reading The Count of Monte Cristo I didn't realise that this place, a strangely-named island fortress near Marseilles, was a real location (or that Monte Cristo is an actual island).  But as this relief map from 1681 shows, the Chateau d'If was a key French fortification long before Dumas wrote his novel and the fictional Edmond Dantès was wrongly imprisoned there. Chateau d'Ifs have subsequently multiplied in the many adaptations of Dumas' novel: plays, films and, most recently, video games.  Sometimes other islands have stood in for it - Saint Mary's Tower on Comino, for example, was used in a 2002 film.  Dumas himself would later create another kind of model of the Chateau d'If.  In 1846 he bestowed the name on a grand writer's studio that he had built in the grounds of his country home.  But Dumas spent a lot less time there than Dantès spent in the Chateau d'If - just two years later, short of money, he had to sell it.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Water and sky, suspended like a dream

Gerald Bullett (1893-1958) is perhaps not very well known today, but he was a fairly prolific writer and according to Wikipedia (quoting a 1950 dictionary of authors), a "liberal socialist" who claimed to detest "prudery, Prohibition, blood sports, central heating, and literary tea parties".  Bullett spent the summer of 1945 making translations of ‘a Chinese rural sequence’ by the Song Dynasty geographer-poet-politician Fan Cheng-Ta (Fan Chengda 1126–1193).  These were published in a slim volume the following year as The Golden Year of Fan Cheng-Ta.  Like Ezra Pound and other Western translators, he was working from literal translations made by a Chinese scholar, Tsui Chi. The sequence comprises sixty poems in all, each eight lines long in his versions.  I doubt if they will ever be reprinted because although Bullett was fond of Whitman and didn't go overboard with his rhyming, they are a bit old-fashioned.  What follows here is an excercise in cutting these up and representing them as a kind of landscape poem.  I've condensed each poem into three fragments and strung these haiku-like images together to give a sense of the unfolding year in Suzhou in 1186. 

The Golden Year of Fan Cheng-Ta

Early Spring

Willow flower | young leaves of the mulberry | bright noon
Ten thousand spears of grass | showers | new shoots
The green of the wheat | river meadows |flowering almond and peach
Field-shrine | offerings to the spirit of the earth | faggots and rushes
After the festival | strewn on the grass, flowers | serene air
From the east | rumour of horsemen | a bright cloud, on noiseless hooves
Salad festival | a clear sky | wide panorama of Hu Chiu
Long is the day | in this arbour | we warm the wine
Rain over | to walk where earlier wayfarers have gone | a broad brook
Children and birds | thieving friends | net the cherry flowers
Rice-seed | thunderquake | filling the fields with water
Mulberry tree | measured rows | chives and cabbage

Late Spring

Close-folding lettuce | spring onions white as snow | wind and rain
Lake and sky | green coins of water-lily | bulrush shoots
Butterflies | enter the vegetable flowers | golden stream of the long day
Flood’s edge | the islet-dweller is doing her household washing | twilight is falling
Cool glow of dawn | falling petals | odour of spices borne on a light breeze
On golden mornings | dew that lingers | gather the mulberry leaf
Mud | an island sinking in the flood | weakness of a planted water-fence
Downy, pointed reedlings | russet berries | my walking stick
Rice-in-husk festival | the rain is silken | peony blossoms
After the rains, morning | soft radiance | listening to the golden orioles
Rivers rising | edible miscanthus roots | the oriental lilac blooms
Few come this way | shadows of dove-grey dusk | alone, I weave my fence


Heavy the trees | long barley blossoms into snow | hedged in with summer
Innumerable tadpoles | fields of the rice crop | water a foot deep
Abundance this surprising year | the oven’s crammed | season of ripening rice-grain
Cocoons, in boiling vats | wheels of the spinning-cart | mulberry-girls cross hands
Day after day | labour at the loom | the mulberry
Watercourses flowing full | upon this water engine | feet of the young men
Sons in the fields | little grandchild | under the mulberry his melon-seeds would grow
Air serenely cool | the rhamnus grows | benign shade
A millstone | a freshet of wind in the willow-shaded air | the noon hour
Lotus-flowers | I drift my boat | small waterfowls wise up, in sudden flight
Gathering caltrops | blood from his pricked fingers | tinges the pale water vermilion
Shadows extend | the cicadas’ bubbling noise | night falls.


Golden lilies, red chrysanthemums | concealed nearby, in sedgy marshland | crickets
Girls laugh and sing | the festival Begging Good Luck | river-ferrying stars
Between the boughs | shedding the husk | a brilliant many-coloured moth
Web under the low eaves | a dragonfly and bees | hang there
Fields ready | burden of the year | half the crop must go to pay our debts
Autumn come | we take the unthreshed grain | and spread it in the sun
A full moon | on idle oar | water and sky, suspended like a dream
Threshing of rice grain | fine frosty weather | beat of the flail
Tributary stores | still there’s left to us | husky rice to feed the children
Pulse and corn | jars of earthenware | Day of Double Brightness
Onions finely minced | this mess of fish | a tolerable dish
Unexpected frost | the woods | wear now a richly-embroidered silken dress


A pale slice of moon | tall trees | leaves scatter the ground
Under the eaves | back to the sun | bleak north wind
Safe from winter's harm | the wind | playing his flute in the fence of bamboo-stakes
A pine-tree flare | the aroma drifting slow | reddening sun
Under the constellation of the Ox | the earth-spirit | our simple shrine
Let the boat take me | air grows ever more crystalline | a brittle sheet of ice
Sweeping away the snow | cabbages | like honeyed lotus-roots
Night of snow | knobs of smokeless charcoal burn | chestnuts in the ashes
Wine to make ready | you who live in towns | are you better off?
Tax-paper | a smooth black-coated gentleman from town | how tiresome
A well-born youth | sees a flowering peach-tree | celestial sight!
The year ends | mutual visiting | linen garments, white as snow

As you can see, the golden year of Fan Cheng-Ta unfolded in a succession of seasonal plants, foods and festivals, while he observed the villagers labouring to produce silk, grain and rice, paying their taxes and receving occasional visitors from the city.  Moments of landscape beauty seem to have come when the author was drifting on a boat, like Rousseau or Wordsworth.  I'll end here by quoting in full one of the poems, No. 54, from which I took some words about the icy lake above.
Let the boat take me leisurely where it will,
So of these snow-bright slopes I have my fill.
The wind falls, is still.  Cold and fine,
The evening air grows ever more crystalline.
The rhythmic pole makes music in my ears
Like breaking jade or shatter of pearly spheres :
By which I guess the water's shining face
Already wears a brittle sheet of ice.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Rising sun over the landscape of Mount Paektu

Last week I discussed here the way artists over the centuries have depicted Korea's Diamond Mountains, but these extraordinary peaks are are not the most revered landscape in this part of the world.  The great stratovolcano, Mount Paektu, features in both North and South Korea's national anthems and has always been considered a sacred site - the birthplace of Dangun, founder of the first Korean kingdom, whose father was the Son of Heaven.  Mount Paektu is in what is now North Korea and has become inextricably linked with ideas of the country's leaders, a process that began with an epic poem, Cho Ki-chon's 'Mt. Paektu' (1947).  A recent example is 'We Will Go to Mount Paektu', a song which Laibach wanted to cover on their controversial visit to North Korea in 2015.

Heaven Lake, Mount Paektu

For his 2016 documentary Into the Volcano, Werner Herzog visited Mount Paektu with volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer.  In the film they note how frequently it appears in official iconography as a backdrop to images of North Korean leaders.  They are also shown another pilgrimage site, Kim Il-sung's secret log cabin where, according to his official biography, Kim Jong-il was born in 1941.  Herzog says in his voiceover that "in the Christian World, this would be like visiting the birthplace of Jesus - the stable in Bethlehem".  I have featured the humble retreats of poets and artists many time on this blog in the past; here again we have an example of the cultural significance of a solitary hut in a mountain landscape. 

The film goes on to show images of this log cabin in the snow and Mount Paektu at sunrise.  These represent a form of landscape art that requires vast numbers of people all obeying strict instructions, neither creating or seeing the image but themselves forming a human canvas.
"In the country's biggest stadium, more than 100,000 people participate in creating a unique artform.  The picture of the hut in the snow is not a painting.  It is made of human pixels.  And this is how it's done.  A prearranged pattern of coloured cards is held and flipped over in sync.  Here: the rising sun over the landscape of Mount Paektu." 
We often think of the way nature is reshaped in response to our dreams and desires, or the way artists have painted mountains as an expression of their individuality and subjective experience.  Here, in a setting that approaches the scale of a real landscape, there are no individuals and only one official story.