Sunday, July 22, 2018

On the Banks of the Yangtze

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Evening Calm, Concarneau

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Down the stream to the City of Camelot

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 06, 2018

The Lake of Ashes

Claude Lanzmann died this week - obituaries can be read here, here and here.  For all the praise that Shoah received, it can still feel as if the film is underrated, perhaps because to praise Lanzmann's settings and use of sound would seem like trivialising his subject.  I have considered trying to write here about landscape in Shoah but felt I could not really do the subject justice.  Shoah seems to demand a response as long and complex as the film itself, and its methods raise many questions about documentary methods and ethics.  However, Lanzmann's approach to landscape can be stated very simply.  Eschewing archive material, he let much of his interviews play out against footage of the sites the victims were talking about, shown as they appeared nearly four decades later: the remnants of concentration camps, rail tracks through dark forest trees, village streets revealing nothing of their past. Lanzmann's style can be seen in the context of other European films from the period that made use of atmospheric long takes - Stalker, Kings of the Road, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser - but I can't think of anything remotely as powerful.  And Shoah still looks extraordinary in comparison with the imagery of contemporary filmmakers, such as Tacita Dean whose work I was discussing here last month.  If you have never watched the whole of Shoah, I cannot recommend it too highly.

Friday, June 29, 2018

From the earth decay is seeping

Heidegger thought that all of Georg Trakl's poetry was really one long poem, and perhaps it could be said that all of his poetry takes place in one landscape, with its and silent woods and dark paths, barren fields and withered gardensSometimes Trakl is content to create a poem almost entirely out of such images in parataxis; at other times they form a setting for the lonely wanderers that drift through his world like the figures in a Munch painting.  It is quite easy to give a sense of this composite landscape through a selection of quotes.  What I have done here is extracted a series of single line descriptions, each from a different poem in his first book, Gedichte, which was published in July 1913, less than 18 months before Trakl's death.  The translations are by Margitt Lehbert.
From the earth decay is seeping.
Flies are buzzing in yellow vapours.
The reed’s small movement sinks and rises.
Pitch-black skies of sheeted metal.
Menacing blossom-claws in treetops.
Swallows sketch lunatic signs.
The pond’s mirror loudly shatters.
Through black branches, the toll of grievous bells.
The tilled field shines white and cold.
It is a stubble field on which a black rain falls.
Ice-cold winds moan in the dark.
An old man turns sadly in the wind.
It is an empty boat that drifts down the black canal in the evening.
The blackbird laments in leafless branches.
'In Autumn', 'Tranfigured Autumn', 'An Autumn Evening', 'Autumn Soul', 'Autumn of the Lonely One'...  These poem titles show how Trakl's themes were suited to autumnal imagery, but he wrote about the other seasons too.  In this, his work reminds me of Japanese poetry.  It is just about possible to rewrite his shorter poems as haiku, making use of their season words.  I won't quote the results here, but I did this this myself with 'In the Park' (autumn), 'A Winter Evening'; 'In Spring'; and 'Evening in Lans'.  Lans is a village in Austria, but Trakl provides nothing specific in that poem to identify it - the whitewashed arches under which the narrator drinks could really be anywhere.  When Trakl names actual locations, like the The Mönchsberg or Hellbrunn Palace, they are 'purely evocative', as Margitt Lehbert says in the introduction to her Anvil Press translationsThe Trakl poem I wrote about here last year was called simply 'Landscape'.

Franz Marc, Red Deer, 1913
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Trakl's work seems to lend itself to reworking as well as straight translation.  An article in Jacket 2 describes two recent examples: Christopher Hawkey's 'writing through' Trakl in Ventrakl, and Daniele Pantano's reordering of lines from his verse in ORAKLIn addition to extracting landscape descriptions and turning poems into haiku, I have contemplated other operations such as arranging Trakl's lines according to colour.  Simple colour adjectives are used in almost every poem.  From his yellow suns, green forests, blue doves and white poppies it would be easy to assemble an expressionist painting resembling those of contemporaries like Franz Marc.  The poems can be searched for one particular colour, noting for example Trakl's red leaves, red deer, fish, wine, dresses, money, breasts and clouds (this last occurs in his famous war poem, 'Grodek').  However, as my list above illustrates, Trakl's places are also haunted by blackness, and in the course of reading him you will encounter black decay, black snow, black wind, black waters, black silence.  

But, rather than end this post in blackness, I will conclude by quoting some of Trakl's uses of the colour blue.
Blue asters in the wind bow low and shiver.
Your lips drink the cool of the blue rock-spring.
The blue river runs splendidly on...
The blue of springtime waves through snapping branches...

A glance of blue / breaks from crumbling cliffs
A blue animal wants to bow before death...
A blue gust of air played placidly through the old elder...
O to dwell in the soulful blue of night.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

The sun is slowly eclipsed

I wrote here a few weeks ago about two of the Tacita Dean exhibitions in London this year; this post is about the third one, 'Landscapes', at the Royal Academy.  The first thing that will strike any visitor is the venue itself, the new RA extension, and (if you're my age) a feeling of déjà vu as you realise you're entering what was once the Museum of Mankind.  Then, the first room is full of clouds.  They were all created on slate, using spray chalk, gouache and charcoal pencil.  These obviously stand in the long tradition of artist cloud studies - Cozens, Constable, Stieglitz - but are immediately recognisable as the kind of blackboard drawing she became well known for in the nineties (her Turner Prize nomination was twenty years ago).  One cloud triptych is called Bless Our Europe and another Where England?  I found myself thinking about the chalk cliffs I wrote about in Frozen Air and the way clouds float freely over national borders. 

Beside these cloud studies, a whole wall is taken up by one of Dean's large-scale mountain drawings, The Montafon Letter (2017).  Here the brief textual annotations, which are a feature of her work in different media, come from the account of a devastating avalanche that took place in 1689.  A priest tending to the dying was buried by falling snow, but then unburied when another avalanche struck, and survived.  There is a photograph of Tacita Dean working on this, accompanying an interesting Guardian interview prior to the opening of this exhibition.  Another mountain scene dominates the second room: Quarantania (2018).  This shows a forbidding rock wall under a blood red sky - Mt. Quanrantania is the site in the Judean Desert where the devil is said to have tempted Jesus.  The image was constructed by manipulating early photographs and above the desert floor there is a kind of blurred mirage effect.  

In the final room you can watch Antigone, a new hour-long film which Tacita Dean has finally completed after one false start and many years reflecting on its underlying themes.  Landscape footage (which is of most relevance to the subject of this blog) is set alongside various approaches to the story of Antigone and her father, so that, for example, two bubbling volcanic vents remind you of the blind eyes of Oedipus.  In the catalogue she explains that: 
'Antigone has taken form as a result of the inherent blindness of film. Using masking inside the camera's aperture gate, I filmed one part of the film frame before rewinding the camera to film another part. This meant that the film was composed without the possibility of seeing what was already exposed in the frame. So Bodmin Moor under February drizzle sat in blind relationship with the shores of the Mississippi or geysers in Yellowstone with the total eclipse of the Sun. Only when I returned to California in the late Summer of 2017 and processed and printed my rolls of negative, did the film revealed itself to me.'

Sunlight on the catalogue for Landscapes, showing pages related to Antigone 

Adrian Searle, in his Guardian review, said that 'it is impossible to do justice' to this film. 
'We visit the floodplains of the Mississippi in Wyoming, the town of Thebes, Illinois, and the courthouse where Abraham Lincoln first practiced. Here we meet Anne Carson and actor Stephen Dillane.  For much of the film, Dillane is an Oedipus blinded by tinted glasses made for viewing the eclipse, and wearing a huge, straggly beard. He maunders across the world as though without purpose, at one point followed by a pair of curious dogs. As he walks out of frame, the dogs start copulating. Think ZZ Top. Think Saint Jerome. Think Harry Dean Stanton in the film Paris, Texas. A man on a mission, escaping his fate. Eagles circle the sky, their call a distant mewing. There are vultures and a crow stalks the horizon. Every moment of Antigone is a confusion, a complexity and a delight – a rich muddled stew of words and images, places and atmospheres. And through the imaginary day on which everything takes place, the sun is slowly eclipsed.'
I know what he means about ZZ Top, although I was thinking more of Warren Ellis from The Bad Seeds.  Those eclipse glasses were like the distinctive sun goggles in Herzog's Fata Morgana and the split-screen wandering of Oedipus reminded me of Ori Gersht's film about the last walk of Walter Benjamin, Evaders The idea of filming in Thebes, Illinois may seem a bit forced, but its old courthouse was a wonderfully atmospheric setting.  The whole film is worth seeing just for the way the early evening light falls on its old books and floorboards, and for the view across the river of the sun glowing and setting behind distant trees.  I would recommend arriving at the start (there's a showing every hour) and trying to get a front seat.  We did, and were engrossed by Antigone from start to finish.

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