Friday, June 15, 2018

Trodden by the feet of gods

I've been twice now to see Charmed Lives in Greece, a highly enjoyable (free) exhibition at the British Museum celebrating the creative lives of Patrick Leigh Fermor, John Craxton and Niko Ghika.  In between these visits, we actually had a holiday in Greece (this wasn't planned, but in his review of Charmed Lives Alastair Sooke wrote that it will 'make you itch to book a holiday beside the Aegean Sea, because the Hellenic fantasy it offers is so irresistibly compelling.')  Whilst I'm sure readers of this blog will be familiar with Craxton and Leigh Fermor, Niko Ghika is perhaps less well known.  His paintings are as colourful and appealing as those of Craxton - nothing ground-breaking but very redolent of a time when the art world was still coming to terms with the influence of Picasso and Matisse.  The exhibition includes photographs, letters and wall quotes that convey the joie de vivre and intellectual curiosity you experience in reading Leigh Fermor...

Of course Leigh Fermor's 'charmed life' in Greece was facilitated by his partner Joan's private income and loyal, emotional support.  He and Craxton also made use of their friend Ghika's house on Hydra (there's a nice photograph of Craxton sketching there on the British Museum's blog post about the exhibition).  It was on Hydra that Leigh Fermor wrote Mani (1958), his digressive account of a journey round the southernmost tip of the Peloponnese.  Here is a passage from my favourite chapter, 'Short Summer Nights'.  It describes the unique sharpness of the sunlight in Greece.
...'All the vapours that roam the Italian atmosphere and muffle the outlines of things are absent here.   A huge magnifying glass burns up the veils of distance, making objects leagues away leap forward clearly as though they were within arm's length.  The eye shoots forth a telescopic braille-reading finger to discern the exact detail and texture of a church, a wood or a chasm ten miles off.  Things in the distance co-exist on equal terms with those hard by; they have a proprietary and complementary share in the patterns that immediately surround one.  A distant cordillera completes a curve begun by the vein along the back of a plane-tree leaf, a far-off belfry has the same intensity as a goat's horn a few yards away, a peninsula leans forward to strike the stem of a dried up thistle at right angles.  Mountain ranges that should melt with the heat-haze and recession, lean forward and impend till one is at a loss to say whether a hill is a small nearby spur or a far-away Sinai...'
This long paragraph continues with further examples before progressing to other properties of Greek light, such as the way it seems to sprinkle surfaces with 'a thin layer of pollen like the damask on a moth's wing.'  These surfaces retain light in the same way that they retain heat. Shadows appear more real than the phenomena they echo.  And 'it is probably because of all this that a strong mystical and sentimental significance pervades the actual surface of the earth, the rocks and the stones of Greek mountains.  The adjective theobadiston, 'trodden by the feet of gods (or God)' in ancient Greek and in the Byzantine liturgy comes to mind.'  All of this, he concludes, has a strange effect on the Greek landscape.  Nature becomes supernatural and 'the frontier between physical and metaphysical is confounded.'

John Craxton's cover for Mani

Saturday, June 09, 2018

The Canmore Mountain Range

The Dulwich Picture Gallery's Edward Bawden exhibition has a room devoted to 'Spirit of Place'.  It includes 'Houses at Ironbridge' (1956/7 owned by the Tate) which is a good example of the way Bawden experimented in his watercolours - the detailed, colourful brickwork might come from the illustration to a children's book but the cloud above is roughly scrawled like something in a contemporary abstract painting.  The same year he was elected as a Royal Academician and submitted as his 'Diploma Work' a watercolour of Lindsell Church.  This church, near Bawden's home, was also the subject of perhaps the most impressive work in the 'Spirit of Place' room, a large lithograph from 1963.  Bawden was generally happy to concentrate on depicting his small corner of Essex, but the exhibition also includes the work he did as a war artist in Italy, North Africa and the Middle East, and a rather striking view of The Canmore Mountain Range (1950), also in the Tate, which was painted on a teaching trip to Canada.  In this, the foreground is filled with the gravestones and spiked railings of a Ukrainian cemetery which crowd together and point up to the jagged facets of the mountains, all under a dark grey sky. 

From the pre-war years the exhibition has some watercolours of Newhaven Harbour, very like those of Bawden's friend Eric Ravilious.  They have the same Downland colour palette and the same fascination with mark making - stippling, scratching and washing the paint in various directions.  Curiously, the landscape itself seems to tilt down to the right, as if a straight horizon would have made the view look too boring.  There is a playfulness and energy in everything Bawden did, even if the results were sometimes rather twee or nostalgic.  The gallery obviously thinks the exhibition will appeal to children and (irritatingly) the main painting captions seem to have been written with them in mind.  It is, as the review in The Independent points out, easy to compare this exhibition unfavourably to the excellent Ravilious show at Dulwich which I wrote about here three years ago.  However, perhaps you can judge for yourself if I end here with an embedded clip of curator James Russell walking through his show.  I've also included a screen grab from this above, by way of illustration, as Bawden's actual images are still in copyright.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Deep mellow shades breaking upon the view

Harriet Gouldsmith, A View of Hampstead Heath Looking Towards Cannon Place, 1818

I recently came across a curious publication in which a landscape painting is the narrator of its own story.  A Voice from a Picture, privately printed in 1837, was by 'A Female Artist'; a review three years later, revealed that the author was Harriet Gouldsmith Arnold (1787–1863), an English landscape painter.  This review can be read online, as can the full text of A Voice from a Picture.  According to the reviewer, 'the idea of making a picture tell its history is not new; but it will bear a new treatment'.  This is interesting initself - are there actually earlier examples of landscape paintings relating their autobiographies?  In her introduction, Gouldsmith (she used the name Arnold after her marriage in 1839) says that she hopes her little book will help spread the knowledge of art 'as the fittest guide to the instructive love of nature in her better forms.'

The painting begins its autobiography with an account of 'the sorrows, hopes, and fears' of its 'parent': an artist (male) who possessed 'an unfeigned delight for the sublimities and beauties of nature.' 
Often have I witnessed the feelings of my fond parent, whilst gazing upon the last gleams of the setting sun, - the deep mellow shades breaking upon the view, 'ere night shed silence and repose upon all earthly things; and often has grey morning, the sweet harbinger of another day, brought vigour and renewed exertion to his enthusiastic and unwearied mind.  At length, after many solitary wanderings, and anxious efforts, I became a Picture.  Then, again, new fears and anxieties arose. - What was to be thought of me, amongst the thousands of connoisseurs, amateurs, artists, and critics, whom I should be compelled to face?
The painting was right to be anxious.  It imagines being neglected like the 'unobtrusive works' of Richard Wilson, put into the shade by the flash and fire of Loutherbourg.  For a long time it hangs unregarded on a London wall, while the painter accumulates a body of work, and is then taken to be exhibited in Manchester, but remains unsold.  People praise it but, because the artist is not a big name, nobody will buy it.  More exhibitions and an auction follow, without success, and eventually the painter becomes so poor that he sells all his possessions, including the landscape painting.  Then, at the low point of the story, the painting gets 'carried into a back garret, to answer all the purpose of a chimney board.'  However, after the poor artist dies in a debtors prison, his work starts to become sought after.  Found and restored, the painting becomes highly praised and ends up decorating 'the mansion of nobility.'

Richard Wilson, Lake Avernus, c. 1765

Before leaving A Voice from a Picture I can't resist a digression, to quote an anecdote Gouldsmith includes as an illustration of the straits to which poverty reduces artists.  Here a landscape painting is actually worn.
'A party of English artists meeting together in Italy, for the purpose of making studies from nature.  The weather proving very sultry, the members proposed that all should take off their coats, which was strongly objected to by one of the party, but at last submitting to the others, a Waterfall was discovered on his back, his waistcoat having been made out of a picture of that subject.'
Harriet Gouldsmith was painting during the Golden Age of British landscape painting.  She first exhibited at the RA in 1807 and was elected to the Water Colour Society in 1813.  The painting below is a late work and can be found in the Egham Museum, which purchased it in 1985.  I wonder how its 'life' played out over the preceding 140 years...  Its subject, Magna Carta Island, was itself put up for sale four years ago, with an asking price of £3,950,000 (see the BBC's report).  This island includes a Grade II-listed house, built a few years before Gouldsmith's painting, that features a specially-built Charter Room to house the stone on which the charter is supposed to have been signed.  Perhaps someone should write A Voice from an Island, to relate the history of its owners since that day in 1215 when Runnymede took its place in the story of England.  The Times reported that as a result of the sale, Magna Carta Island has been acquired by a Chinese family.

Harriet Gouldsmith Arnold, Magna Carta Island, 1845

Friday, June 01, 2018

Potted landscapes on the Tōkaidō

Utagawa Hiroshige, Hiratsuka on the Tokaido, 1833–1834

The Public Domain Review is a constant source of fascinating material and I thought I'd share here something I read about there recently, a book called Tokaido Gojusan-eki Hachiyama Edyu.
Connecting Edo (now known as Tokyo) to Kyoto, the Tōkaidō road was the most important of the “Five Routes” in Edo-period Japan. This coastal road and its fifty-three stations has been the subject of both art and literature, perhaps most famously depicted by the Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige in his The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō, a series of ukiyo-e woodcut prints created in the 1830s. This book from the mid-19th century, Tokaido Gojusan-eki Hachiyama Edyu, presents a series of fifty-three prints created by a relatively obscure ukiyo-e artist named Utagawa Yoshishige, each illustration depicting a Tōkaidō station in the form of a potted landscape. The preface tells us that the illustrations are based on actual pieces constructed by the preface writer’s father, Kimura Tōsen. Creating the models in 1847, a year before publication, Tōsen commissioned Utagawa Yoshishige to make illustrations of each model for a book through which he could share them with the world, and (due to his modesty) asked his son to write the preface.
The Public Domain Review article doesn't identify Kimura Tōsen's landscapes, but you can puzzle them out.  The image below is clearly a view of Hiratsuka - I have reproduced Hiroshige's version above. The other two examples below are (I think) Chiryū (No. 39, scene of a horse fair) and Kanbara (No. 15, a snow scene). Here landscape has been refracted first through the prints of Hiroshige, then through the tray landscapes of Tōsen and then once again through the medium of print, a trace of a trace of a trace of the views from the Tōkaidō road.

The article goes on to explain that of the two main types of Japanese potted landscape, these are likely to have been bonkei - sculpted models featuring people or buildings - as opposed to saikei in which real miniature trees and plants would grow.  The art of creating miniature landscapes was widespread and there were versions of it in China (penjing) and Vietnam (hòn non bộ).  The Wikipedia article refers as well to the Western model railway, a form of landscape art I have so far neglected on this blog!  In Japan there is another related art form, bonseki, in which sand and rocks are used to make a landscape on a black lacquer tray.  Below I have included three examples of women making bonseki tray landscapes, concluding with a recent Youtube clip showing the use of special tools and materials.  These bonseki could be seen as a subgenre of sand art, which reminds me of another childhood pursuit that I've never mentioned here, the art of the sand castle.  Perhaps next time we are on a beach I will have a go at some of the Fifty-three stations of the Tōkaidō... 

Katsushika Hokusai, Woman making a bonseki mountain, n.d.

Yōshū Chikanobu, A woman making a bonseki tray landscape showing the full moon, 1899  

Friday, May 18, 2018

Ideas for Sculpture in a Setting

Paul Nash, Event on the Downs, 1934

The Tacita Dean exhibition Landscape starts today, but before I get to that, I wanted to mention here the Still Life exhibition which is still on for a few more days at the National Gallery.  It is free, unlike Landscape and Portrait, and it also incorporates other artists' work (and so reminded me of An Aside, the excellent exhibition she curated back in 2005 at Camden Arts Centre).  It includes examples of an overlapping genre, 'still life in a landscape', of which Event on the Downs is a famous example.  Long before Surrealism though, Thomas Robert Guest was recording archaeological finds by painting them close to, towering over the places in which they were found.  There is a Tate Paper ('Thomas Guest and Paul Nash in Wiltshire') with more information on the rediscovery of Guest's paintings in the late 1930s.  Such hybrid works, situating the still life in a landscape, differ from the kind of painting I featured here last year, where the two form separate worlds within the same artwork.  John Crome's Study of Flints is another example, similar in composition to Guest's paintings.  In the exhibition it is represented not by the original but by a postcard (Tacita Dean is known for collecting and using postcards in her art).  Crome's painting relates closely to two of Dean's own works, films of flints owned by in Henry Moore, called Ideas for Sculpture in a Setting (Diptych) (2017).

Thomas Robert Guest, Bronze Age Grave Goods from a Bell Barrow
Excavated at Winterslow, Wiltshire, 1814

John Crome, Study of Flints, c. 1811

In her introduction to the catalogue, Tacita Dean writes about a Paul Nash painting that manages to combine all three genres: landscape, portraiture and still life.  Cumulus Head is 'said to be a portrait of his wife, Margaret.  She appears in a cumulus cloud landscape with a green, possibly grass, middle ground.'  Furthermore, this portrait 'is painted as a statue head carved in stone and mounted on what appears to be a stepped pedestal.'  There is nothing quite like this in the exhibition*, although the human form is evoked in Two White Manikins by Albert Reuss (the manikins are propped up among rocks in what looks like a desert).  There is though one small, strange work from the National Gallery's own collection, which from a distance appears to be another close-up view of a flint-like rock.  It includes two figures, plus an angel who is probably part of a scene that was cut from the panel.  St Benedict is in a cave, receiving food lowered down to him by St. Romanus.  But, as Marjorie E. Wieseman writes in the catalogue, 'whether by accident or design, Romanus' grey robed figure seems to rise out of / melt into the rocky forms encroaching Benedict's hermitage, inviting fantasies of a landscape come alive or, alternatively, of a figure turned to stone and subsumed into the land itself.  The stillness come awake; or life, become still.'

Paul Nash, Cumulus Head, c. 1944

Workshop of Lorenzo Monaco, Saint Benedict 
in the Sacro Speco at Subiaco, c. 1415-20
* the Paul Nash painting Cumulus Head is actually included at the RA in the third part of the Tacita Dean exhibition, 'Landscape'. 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The paulownia of Lung-men

Ming Dynasty painting of a scholar playing a qin in a landscape
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Having just written a post about Chinese rhyme-prose (fu) I can't quite bear to leave the topic, which is full of interest for those looking for ways of writing about landscape.  In his introduction to Chinese Rhyme-Prose, Burton Watson refers to a subgenre on the subject of musical instruments. 'In such pieces, it is customary to begin with an evocation of the wild and beautiful mountain forest where the wood or bamboo from which the instrument is fashioned grows.  These passages are among the earliest descriptions of nature to be found in Chinese poetry.'  He goes on to provide a translation of a fu of this kind by Mei Sheng, who died in 140 BCE.  Here is part of the opening (prose) section, describing the Longmen (Lung-men) mountain setting of the paulownia from which a qin would be made (for more on this instrument, the Chinese zither, see my earlier posts).
'The paulownia of Lung-men soars a hundred feet before it puts out branches, its center spiraling up amid a tangle of dark foliage, its roots sprawling outward this way and that.  Above it stand the thousand-yard peaks; below, it peers into a hundred-fathom hollow, while swift torrents and lashing waves eddy and tug about it.  Its roots are half dead, half alive; in winter it is buffeted by sharp winds, settling frost, the driven snow; in summer the sharp crack of thunder and lightning assaults it.  At dawn yellowbirds and pies are found singing there; at dusk the mateless hen, the lost bird roost there for the night.  The lonely snow goose at daybreak calls from the top of it; partridges, sadly crying, flutter beneath its boughs.'
This fu on music is one of 'Seven Incitements' (Qi fa) making up Mei Sheng's full poem.  Each of these stimuli is supposed to cure a prince who is suffering from sensual overindulgence.  This explanation is from an online article about Mei Sheng:
'The first six enticements are versified descriptions of various pleasures that the guest invites the prince to enjoy. They include in order: (1) music, (2) a banquet, (3) a chariot race, (4) an excursion to a scenic place, (5) a hunt, (6) a view of the spectacular tidal bore of the Qu River of Guangling. At the conclusion of each of these tantalizing descriptions, the guest asks the prince if he wishes to rise from his bed and participate. After the first four enticements, he replies that he is too ill to rise. The fifth enticement, a stirring description of a hunt, almost succeeds in reviving him. After hearing of the tidal bore that even has curative powers, the prince remains as sick as before. Thus, it takes the final enticement, the promise to introduce the prince to the “essential words and marvelous doctrines” of great sages and philosophers, to rouse him from his sickbed.' 
So neither the idea of music or a spectacular landscape phenomenon did the trick for him (you can read a translation of the tidal bore description on Wikipedia's fu page).

I would love to read more of these nature descriptions that Burton Watson refers to, but I am not sure whether many fu of this kind have been translated.  Some are listed on John Thompson's Silkqin site, but there are no English texts.  I also wonder whether there are any examples in Western poetry of writers thinking about the material origins of their lute or flute or zither?  (Or, for that matter, poems about books and paintings, sculpture and ceramics that begin with their physical sources in earth, rock and wood?)  It is quite easy to think of examples that compare the effects of an instrument to natural forces (Lorca's guitar, for example, wept 'as water weeps / as the wind weeps / over snowfields.')  But the only poem that comes to mind on a landscape that gave rise to an instrument is by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  'A Musical Instrument' describes the riverbank visited by 'the great god Pan' to find the reed to make his pipe.  She writes of how he tramples over nature in order to get at this reed and, though afterwards the lilies revive and the dragon-fly returns, there is a 'reed which grows nevermore again / As a reed with the reeds in the river.'

Friday, May 11, 2018

Shanglin Park

 Qiu Ying (attributed), Shanglin Park (detail), 16th century

One of the most famous descriptions of landscape in Chinese literature must be the Shanglin fu, 上林賦,, composed by Sima Xiangru.  It was written for the young Emperor Wu, who had summoned Sima to court in 137 BCE, and it describes the royal hunting park southwest of the capital Chang'an. There is a magnificent Ming Dynasty scroll attributed to Qiu Ying (c. 1494-1552) which illustrates the poem - I have extracted a few details to illustrate this blog post.  The first one above shows the poem's three narrators in discussion.  Burton Watson translates their names as Sir Fantasy, Master No-Such and Lord Not-Real.  In the first part of the fu, Sir Fantasy and Master No-Such describe hunts in Chu and Qi; in the second part, Lord Not-Real blows them away with his description of the far-more-extensive parkland of Shanglin and the hunting and entertainment that goes on there.  The park is shown to be not just representative of China, but a microcosm of the whole universe.

The fu rhyme-prose form became known for its ornate language and lists (in an earlier post I referred to a 5th century critic of Sima's poetry, who complained that his 'characters were strung together like fish'). This could make it difficult to translate, but Burton Watson does it brilliantly, as Lucas Klein explains in his preface to the recent reprint of Watson's Chinese Rhyme Prose (1971, 2015). Watson, a contemporary of the Beat poets, 'reaches beyond Snyder and Ginsberg, past Rexroth and Pound, back to Walt Whitman.'  Klein quotes this example from near the beginning, where Sir Fantasy is describing the hunting park he had seen in Chu (Watson explains that some of the plant names he uses are necessarily guesswork):
Here too are precious stones: carnelians and garnets,
Amethysts, turquoises, and matrices of ore,
Chalcedony, beryl, and basalt whetstones,
Onyx and figured agate.
To the east stretch fields of gentians and fragrant orchids,
Iris, turmeric, and crow-fans,
Spikenard and sweet flag,
Selinea and angelica,
Sugar cane and ginger.

As my theme here is landscape, here is a brief summary of the first part of the Shanglin Park section of the poem:
  • Eight rivers are described, 'twisting and turning their way / through the reaches of the park' until eventually they reach giant lakes, 'shimmering and shining in the sun.'
  • Then the poem moves in, to list the dragons and turtles that inhabit these lakes and rivers, the precious stones on their beds and the waterfowl that 'flock and settle upon the waters, drifting lightly over the surface.'
  • Next the mountains and valleys are recalled, with the hills and islands at their base and the level land beyond.
  • There follows a long list of the flowers and herbs that line the river banks and spread over the plains, wafting a hundred perfumes upon the air.
  • After conveying a sense of the park's vast scale, the poem lists some of its exotic animals: zebras, aurochs, elephants, rhinoceroses.
  • It then mentions the emperor's palaces, retreats and mountain halls, with their fabulous grottoes and gardens. There are fruit trees and flowers, dense copses and forests that blanket the mountain slopes.
  • Finally, before getting on to the hunt itself and the activities of the courtiers, the poem describes apes, gibbons and lemurs, sporting among the trees and chasing over bridgeless streams.

There is obviously some exaggeration going on in this poem, so what was Shanglin Park really like? In Mark Edward Lewis's book The Early Chinese Empires, he writes that Emperor Wu installed in it 'rare plants, animals, and rocks that he had received as tribute from distant peoples, as booty from expeditions to Central Asia, or as confiscations from private collectors. The emperor's exotica included a black rhinoceros, a white elephant, talking birds, and tropical forests.'  The park contained a palace complex and an artificial lake with a statue of a whale which has recently been found during an archaeological excavation.  Emperor Wu's ambitious landscape gardening would be emulated by later Chinese rulers - see for example my post here on the Song Dynasty Emperor Huizong's rock garden. And Emperor Wu lived only a century or so after the First Emperor, whose mausoleum with its rivers of mercury and terracotta army was a kind of dead equivalent to the abundant parkland described by Sima Xiangru.