Sunday, December 31, 2006


Carrigskeewaun in County Mayo is a key landscape for the poet Michael Longley. There is a page on the Teachnet Ireland site that includes his poem 'Carrigskeewaun' and some teacher's notes explaining how it contrasts 'wild natural scenery and the domestic images of picnics, children at play by the sea and boiling kettles'. The site also has a long list of Michael Longley links and some quotes from the poet, including this justification for his landscape poetry: 'The most urgent political problems are ecological: how we share the planet with the plants and the other animals. My nature writing is my most political. In my Mayo poems I am not trying to escape from political violence. I want the light from Carrigskeewaun to irradiate the northern darkness. Describing the world in a meticulous way is a consecration and a stay against damaging dogmatism.'

There is another site for 'Carrigskeewaun' here and a further poem inspired by the landscape, 'Remembering Carrigskeewaun', is at the Poetry Archive.

Postscript: 2011

With the publication of his new collection, Kate Kellaway in The Guardian interviewed Michael Longley.  He told her "I don't go to Carrigskeewaun for escapist reasons. I want the beauty, the psychedelic wild flowers, the calls of the wild birds. I want all of that shimmering beauty to illuminate the northern darkness. We have peace of a kind, but no cultural resolution – the tensions which produced the Troubles are still there. It is important for me to see beautiful Carrigskeewaun as part of the same island as Belfast. I might be most a Belfast man when I am in Carrigskeewaun."  And then a bit later, in the same interview, he envisaged his own death.  "There is a headland as you approach Carrigskeewaun and that is where I want my ashes scattered. And I just want one little stone, with my name on it, to be blown around by the wind and to mingle with the sand grains."

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Monk by the Sea

Among the many fascinating readings in Harrison, Wood & Geiger's Art in Theory 1648-1815 are two versions of a short article on the famous Friedrich painting, The Monk by the Sea, which was exhibited at the Berlin Royal Academy of Art in 1810. These texts clearly show the style of two (possibly three) of the great German Romantic writers. The first is by Clemens Brentano (although 'it is likely' that Achim von Arnim 'contributed towards the composition'): a piece called 'Various Emotions before a Seascape by Friedrich', submitted to the Berliner Adendblatter journal, edited by Heinrich von Kleist. However, this version only appeared in 1826; in 1810 Kleist actually published a cut-down version re-written by himself. Brentano's original is light-hearted and witty, featuring various characters overheard discussing the painting. Kleist's version is much darker ('the painting stands there with its two or three mysterious objects like the apocalypse'); it is a voice instantly recognisable if you've read his stories (Penguin publish an excellent anthology).

Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1809
Source: Wikipedia Commons

One thing the two articles share almost word for word is this memorable opening sentence: 'It is splendid, in infinite loneliness by the shore of the sea under a cheerless sky, to stare at a limitless expanse of water; in part, this is due to the fact that one has gone there, that one must return, that one would like to cross over, that one cannot do so; that everything belonging to life is missing and that one hears one's own voice in the roar of the tide, in the billowing of the wind, in the passing of the clouds and in the lonely cry of the birds; in part it is due to a demand which is made by the heart and by the withdrawal of nature...'

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Route 128 by the power lines

Jonathan Richman has celebrated the landscape of New England in various songs over the years. For example, 'Twilight in Boston' is like one of those solitary, Romantic walking poems, although when you look at the words in isolation from the music they are little more than a simple itinerary: "Now we're walking up Beacon Street / Through the back bay there / Few clouds, heading for Kenmore Square.." The names acquire an aura for those of us who don't know Boston, and we want to believe that those who do know the city would recognise the poetry of the place in these bare phrases.

Perhaps the most effective of Jonathan Richman's landscape evocations is the moment in some versions of 'Roadrunner' where he breaks off to describe the way the world seems from his car:

'Can you feel it out in Needham now?
out in route 128 by the power lines
it's so exciting there at night
with the pine trees in the dark
it's so cold here in the dark
with 50,000 watts of power
we go by faster miles an hour
with the radio on...' 

A friend and fellow Jonathan Richman fan once went to Boston and brought back a photograph of a sign with those magic words 'Route 128'. Looked at here in England I knew it was a resonant metonym for something, but of what I wasn't quite sure: Jonathan Richman? Rock & Roll? American road songs, road movies, road stories...? Or just a sense of freedom?

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A famine road on the borders of Connacht

There is a recording of Eavan Boland reading her poem 'That the Science of Cartography is Limited' on the Norton site. There is also an essay by Boland in the Literary Review in which she taks about her boarding school in England:
"There were no maps in our house when I was growing up, none that I remember. At least not in the obvious places where I saw them in other houses--on the walls, framed, or as pages open on a table. If there were I have no image of them. But there were maps at school... Every day I sat there--six years old, then eight, then ten--always coming back to the same classroom for history, for science, for English, for religion. Always seeing a teacher in front of the map, speaking with certainty and precision. Often entering the strange illusion and that the teacher was mute and the map was speaking through her. Look what I own it said. See what you have lost... I was certainly aware, long before I wrote this poem, that the act of mapmaking is an act of power and that I--as a poet, as a woman and as a witness to the strange Irish silences which met that mixture of identities--was more and more inclined to contest those acts of power. The official version-and a map is rarely anything else--might not be suspect as it discovered territories and marked out destinations."
In 'That the Science of Cartography is Limited', Boland writes about an incident where she came upon an Irish famine road in a wood. This road is not on the map. As she explains in the later essay, "the fact that these roads, so powerful in their meaning and so powerless at their origin, never showed up on any map of Ireland seemed to me then, as it does now, both emblematic and ironic."

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Charnwood Forest

I have started adding labels to these posts, relating them to different types of landscape. This is not necessarily very helpful because, despite the titles for each entry, Some Landscapes is not an inventory of actual landscapes. But I like the idea of clicking on the word and getting up all entries which refer to mountains by way of highlighting some aspect of landscape in culture, or something about the work of a particular artist.

Of course only a subset of cultural landscapes are likely to give insights into particular places, and this is true for all periods of art. For example, I could boost the number of postings on forests by mentioning Charnwood in Leicesterhire, which features in Michael Drayton's Poly-Olbion (The Sixe and Twentieth Song). But being written in 1622 it sounds like this:
'No tract in all this isle, the proudest let her be,
Can show a sylvan nymph for beauty like to thee:
The satyrs and the fauns, by Dian set to keep,
Rough hills, and forest holts, were sadly seen to weep,
When thy high-palmed harts, the sport of bows and hounds,
By gripple borderers' hands, were banished thy grounds.
The dryads that were wont thy lawns to rove...'
And so on. It is possible to strip out the classical allusion here and focus on what the satyrs were weeping about: greedy (gripple) cottagers killing off the deer. But the dryads provide further distraction: they rove to Sharpley and Cademon, real places which are not described, and on Bardon Hill we are merely told that they are joined by 'harmless elves.' To be fair, there are brief bursts of description in this poem but it does not engage directly with the Leicestershire landscape.

There is a useful on-line summary of the Poly-Olbion by William Moore. His description of the twenty-sixth song from which the lines above are taken is as follows:
'Topographical competition continues in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, and Derbyshire. The Vale of Bever (Belvoir) matches herself with previous boasting valleys. The Muse defends the slowness of the Soar River, by analogy to a young girl visiting a sumptuous palace for the first time. The Soar praises its Charnwood Forest for containing all the best features of every other forest. The Trent River, comparing herself favorably with the Thames and the Severn, catalogues her fish. Sherwood Forest, in competition with Charnwood, tells the story of Robin Hood and his bowmen. The Peak, a "withered Beldam," tells of her seven wonders (caves, wells, a hill of sand, and a forest) before the song flows down from the hills along the Darwin (Derwent) River.'

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Mountains of the Mind

Oslo's National Museum is organised very well on thematic grounds. There was a lot of criticism when Tate Modern opened with a Richard Long right opposite a Monet, and to some extent I agreed that this tended to diminish both works, but the idea of juxtaposing responses to landscape from different eras is something that I do enjoy (as should be evident from this web log). In Oslo there is an excellent room with striking contemporary works like Marianne Heske's Mountains of the Mind (1988), Per Bernsten's View No. 4, Eggedal 1985 and Hiroshi Sugimoto's Norwegian Sea, Veseralen (1990), placed among nineteenth century Norwegian landscape paintings. Among the latter are Kitty Kielland's beautiful Summer Night (1886), a small Friedrich-like painting by Thomas Fearnley, Old Birch at the Sognefjord (1839), and Johan Christian Dahl's vast and detailed, View from Stalheim over Naerodalen (1842), parts of which are like a hyperreal Chinese mountain landscape.

Johan Christian Dahl, View from Stalheim over Naerodalen (1842)
Source: Wikipedia Commons

I bought a postcard of the Marianne Heske work, a video image of a mountain scene with what appear to be heat-sensitive colours. I can't find the exact image on line but there is a similar one here and a different video image here. Another example in a similar style is Full Moon Mountain (1987). I had not encountered Heske's work before. It says here that Heske created "canvases made up of enlargements of video photograms which had registered the emergence of lava in a volcanic eruption" - I am not sure if this is a reference to Mountains of the Mind? Visually Heske's work brought to mind the more extreme Symbolist and Expressionist landscape paintings - the design of the National Museum invites such comparisons.

Friday, December 15, 2006


Hooray the blog is back! I now seem to be able to get access to Beta Blogger through a Mozilla browser... anyway here's a quick post to resume normal service.

Edvard Munch, The Yellow Log (1911)

I went to Oslo at the start of the month. I was really disappointed by the Munch museum, more notable now for the extraordinarily high level of security than the art: airlock doors, whirring cameras, silent security guards watching your every move. Two landscapes were on display, Winter in Kragero (1912) which looks a bit like a Cézanne hillside suddenly covered in snow, and The Yellow Log (1911) in which a woodland scene is given some ostranenie with the prominent log of the title, a shining Symbol like a felled sunbeam. These two post-date most of Munch's best, and best known, paintings. There is an earlier landscape in the Nasjonalgalleriet which I much preferred: Vinterbillede (1899), a simple image of winter that achieves an atmosphere of oppressive stillness through heavy paint and a cropped view of dark trees in the snow.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Suspension of Blog due to Beta Blogger Problems

As I am continuing to have problems logging in with the new Beta Blogger, I am having to suspend this blog. I cannot now access the Blog through either Internet Explorer or Firefox. I can only get past the login prompt by using Safari (which is what I'm doing now), but then, once in, the options for actually writing an entry seem to be severely limited. I cannot use text formats or include links and I can't copy and paste from other packages. The only thing I seem able to do is type plain text, which is not really much better than nothing. I'll try to work out how to get round these problems and hope that Blogger sort some of them out.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Landscape mosaics of the Omayad Mosque

In The Road to Oxiana (1937) Robert Byron visits the Omayad Mosque in Damascus. 'Originally, its bareness was clothed in a glitter of mosaics. Some remain: the first landscapes of the European tradition. For all their Pompeian picturesqueness, their colonnaded palaces and crag-bound castles, they are real landscapes, more than mere decoration, concerned inside formal limits with the identity of a tree or the energy of a stream. They must have been done by Greeks, and they foreshadow, properly enough, El Greco's landscapes of Toledo. Even now, as the sun catches a fragment on the outside wall, one can imagine the first splendour of green and gold, when the whole court shone with those magic scenes conceived by Arab fiction to recompense the parched eternities of the desert.'

Images: Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Brighton in stitches

In a new exhibition, Running Stitch, Jen Southern and Jen Hamilton are 're-configuring Brighton & Hove by 'capturing' its space through the movement of its inhabitants'. Visitors are given a special mobile phone that tracks their movements and allow their paths through the city to be 'projected live in the gallery to disclose aspects of the city unknown to the artists. Each individual route will then be sewn into a hanging canvas to form an evolving tapestry that reveals a sense of place and interconnection.'

It will be interesting to see a tapestry mapping the sort of places favoured by the kind of people that visit Brighton's Fabrica gallery. However, when I saw it this afternoon, the pattern of stitches was already starting to look like conventional maps of the city. I was hoping visitors would deliberately subvert the city's network of main roads and shops, or employ the kind of chance procedures used in situationist dérives. So will Brighton be re-configured or end up stitched in a conventional pattern? We'll probably know before the exhibition finishes on 17 December.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Hudson River Landscape

Hudson River Landscape (1951) can be seen in the excellent David Smith retrospective at Tate Modern. A 'drawing in space', it has affinities to those abstract landscapes made by painters in the fifties, in which a place is suggested through some recognisable elements that merge with more mysterious expressive gestures, suggesting the difficulty of capturing time, memory and the different views that make up any space. Smith said it 'came in part from drawings made on a train between Albany and Poughkeepsie. A synthesis of drawings from ten trips over a 75 mile stretch...' On one of these drawings displayed in the exhibition you can read the words 'spring snow partially settled.' For a moment the whole sculpture becomes a set of contours in a white landscape, the walls of Tate Modern standing in for the snow and the sky. Then you remember that the sculpture evokes travel in different times and weather conditions, but there lingers an impression that aspects of the sculpture (like the oval with an irregular centre resembling the edge of a snowdrift in a hollow) arise from the memory of early spring referred to in the drawing.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Decorative landscapes at Norbury Park

The Irish painter George Barret (1732-84) was a regular visitor to the house of William Lock of Norbury. As the Redgraves put it in their survey A Century of British Painters, this house 'situated on the summit of a hill in the midst of a park, commands a noble view both up and down the valley. On the slopes of the hill are giant trees, oak and ash and beeches, together with a grove of ancient yews, existing before the Conquest, which may have sheltred the dark rites of the pagan Druids. Around the base of the hill flows the curious river Mole, while distant hills close in the prospect. Such a country must ever be a paradise to the landscape painter.' The Redgraves note that Barret decorated one of Lock's rooms 'from the skirting to the ceiling with a series of scenes' and that this room (in 1866) 'is still in existence and, after some cleaning and repairing, seems to have stood well, and to retain much of its first brilliancy.'

There is a study for a scene in the room in the Courtauld: Decorative landscape - study for a room at Norbury Park. But are the actual landscape decorations mentioned by the Redgraves still there? I'd be interested to know. The house is privately owned and not open to the public...

Source: Wikimedia Commons, Vox Humana 8

The house and park at Norbury have an interesting history. An old guidebook called Picturesque England by L. Valentine that has been made into an e-book has the following to say:
Edward the Confessor found the remains of a Roman stronghold at Norbury. He converted it into a district lordship held direct from the Crown. At the Conquest it was given to Richard of Tunbridge, and from him was inherited by Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester. He - the earl - may have taken hither the lovely little princess Joanna, when, after their marriage, she loved to visit his noble castles before settling down in their rural home of Clerkenwell. For many generations the Husee family were tenants of the Earls of Gloucester, and at length they purchased Norbury. A daughter received it as her portion when she married Wymeldon in the reign of Henry VI. Heirs male failing, Norbury passed to the Stidolphs, an old Kentish family. In time the Stidolphs also died out, and Norbury was sold to a man by the name of Chapman, who bought it to make money out of it, and cut down every saleable tree. Beautiful Norbury would have been destroyed had not Mr. Lock bought it of him in 1774.
He was a man of great taste, and restored and improved the place, building a fine house on the crest of the hill. The windows commanded an exquisite view, and the decorations of his saloon were so fine that they became the talk of the time.
He entertained here Dr. Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Burke and Gibbon, and all the most distinguished characters in England.
When the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror drove the noblesse of France into emigration the fame of Mr. Lock's house and hospitality, which had long before reached Paris, brought some remarkable exiles to Surrey. At Juniper Hill Madame de Stael established her menage with Talleyrand, the Comte de Narbonne, the Duc de Montmorency, Monsieur Sicard and General D'Arblay; they were all entertained at Norbury. Fanny Burney, the novelist, used to stay at the house, and there fell in love with General D'Arblay. They were both very poor, hut Miss Burney had a pension of a hundred a year from Queen Charlotte, in whose hard service she had spent the best of her life, and she made money by her pen, though not to any great amount. However, they married, and Mr. Lock gave them "a piece of ground in his beautiful park," she writes, "upon which we shall build a little neat and plain habitation." Her novel "Camilla" furnished the funds for building the house, which was finished in 1797, and called after the book, Camilla Cottage. It is now Camilla Lacey. Her diary contains amusing and graphic accounts of their residence here, of General D'Arblay cutting down asparagus with his sword, etc., etc.
At Norbury, in 1819, Mr. Lock's son died, and the property was sold to a Mr. Robinson, then to Mr. Fuller Maitland, who exchanged it with Mr. Speding. At length it was bought, in 1848, by Mr. Grissell, grandson of the builder of the new Houses of Parliament, who has greatly improved the grounds. There is a grove of yews here that are a perfect show, and Sir Joseph Paxton has been seen to embrace and kiss the bark of a magnificent beech here: he declared that the yews and beeches of Norbury were the finest in England.

Saturday, November 04, 2006


John Cage composed a series of works inspired by Ryoan-ji, the Zen garden in Kyoto, starting with a version for oboe and adding other versions for flute, double bass, trombone, voice and orchestra. For each composition Cage traced the outlines of stones onto staves, creating ascending or descending glissandi for the lead instrument. It is quite easy to hear the shapes of the stones after listening for a while, and the simple percussion accompaniment fills the surrounding spaces like gravel in the garden. The music thus outlines a kind of sparse landscape and the path taken on the page by Cage's pencil is like the flow of air pressing against and swirling around a group of rocks, turning them into a a wind instrument. Listening this morning to versions of Ryoanji for flute (played by Dorothy Stone) and trombone (James Fulkerson), I was also reminded of the sounds of birds and animals, heard in the depths of the forest or high among the mountains in Japanese poems.

I took the photograph of Ryoan-ji below in 1998. It shows how the rocks appear quite isolated in the sea of gravel. One of the things I remember being particularly moved by was the beauty of the old wall framing the garden.

Postscript 2015: Youtube clips come and go and so I have replaced the one I originally had with a new one.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Spiral Jetty

The Guardian has started an artsblog with a list of 20 artworks "to see before you die". It includes two landscape paintings - Vermeer's View of Delft (c.1660-61) (for which you need to visit the Mauritshuis in The Hague) and Cézanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire from Les Lauves (1904 - 6) (entailing a trip to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow). The choice of Vermeer reminds me of Proust's character Bergotte who makes the effort to see the View of Delft before he dies, and then dies looking at the painting. I think if I had to contribute to global warming with twenty flights to see landscape art I'd be tempted to visit more site specific works: gardens and landscape architecture, landscape-themed furnishings and frescos, environmental and land art.

Following the recent Robert Smithson retrospective in New York and the re-emergence of Spiral Jetty, there seems to be an ever growing number of people making the pilgrimage to Rozel Point. A quick search reveals several recent accounts of journeys: Jerry Saltz, Contemporary-Pulitzer, Mike Owens... I can imagine going all the way to Utah and finding the place full of land art Grand Tourists (next stop De Maria's Lightning Field). Already the trip Tacita Dean made in Trying to Find Spiral Jetty (1997) seems to belong to another age. In the artsblog Jonathan Jones says "I think a work of art worth travelling to see has to be a really great statement about serious things. Something not just to fill your life but deepen it." Perhaps Spiral Jetty doesn't really fulfil these criteria, but I wouldn't really know as I've not yet seen it...

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Monday, October 30, 2006

Dream of the Vallüla massif

Tacita Dean is an artist who pursues coincidences. I bought the new Phaidon book about her at the weekend and reading it last night I realised she had quoted the same incident in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Wind, Sand and Stars which I had written about here earlier in the day... It comes in an article about Tristan da Cunha (published in Artforum in Summer 2005).

The Phaidon contemporary artists series includes an 'Artist's Choice' section and Tacita Dean has selected a poem by W.B. Yeats and a brief extract from W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn in which the author gazes across the sea at a retreating cloudbank. This cloud formation, glistening 'like the icefields of the Caucasus', reminds Sebald of a dream in which he had walked a mountain range that had felt strangely familiar, and which later he placed as the view from a bus of the Vallüla massif, seen once on a childhood outing. 'I suppose it is submerged memories that give dreams their curious air of hyper-reality. But perhaps there is something else as well, something nebulous, gauze-like, through which everything one sees in a dream seems, paradoxically, much clearer. A pond becomes a lake, a breeze becomes a storm, a handful of dust a desert...'


Incidentally, the Artist's Choices in Phaidon's contemporary artists series make up a great reading list: Louise Bourgeois - Francois Sagan; Luc Tuymans - Andrei Platanov; Doug Aitken - Jorge Luis Borges; Uta Barth - Joan Didion; Mark Dion - John Berger; Richard Deacon - Mary Douglas; Jimmie Durham - Italo Calvino; Olafur Eliasson - Henri Bergson; Tom Friedman - Robert Walser and Timothy Leary; Antony Gormley - Saint Augustine; Dan Graham - Philip K. Dick; Paul Graham - Kazuo Ishiguro and Haruki Murakami; Mona Hatoum - Piero Manzoni and Edward Said; Jenny Holzer - Samuel Beckett and Elias Canetti; Roni Horn - Clarice Lispector; Ilya Kabakov - Anton Chekhov; Alex Katz - New York School Poets; Mike Kelley - Charles Fort; Mary Kelly - Julia Kristeva and Lynne Tillman; Paul McCarthy - Jean Paul Sartre; Cildo Meireles - Jorge Luis Borges; Raymond Pettibon - George Puttenham, Laurence Sterne and John Ruskin (what would Ruskin have made of Pettibon!); Pipilotti Rist - Anne Sexton and Richard Brautigan; Doris Salcedo - Paul Celan and Emmanuel Levinas; Thomas Schütte - Seneca; Lorna Simpson - Suzan Lori Parks; Nancy Spero - Stanley Kubrick and Alice Jardine; Jessica Stockholder - Julian Jaynes and Cornelius Castoriadis; Lawrence Weiner - W.B. Yeats and Kenneth Patchen; and Franz West - Kathryn Norberg.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Sand and stars

In Wind, Sand and Stars (Terre des hommes) Antoine de Saint-Exupéry describes flying over the desert and seeing high plateaux shaped like truncated cones where the pilots on the Casablanca-Dakar line would occasionally have to make emergency landings. On one occasion he touches down on one of these plateaux, rising from the sand like a polar ice-floe. Leaving the plane, it is clear that he must be the first human being to tread there. 'That white surface, I thought had stood open only to the stars for hundreds of thousands of year.' And yet, looking round he is puzled to see a black pebble lying on the ground... How could this be? 'I was standing on shells to the depth of a thousand feet. The vast structure, in its entirety, was in itself an absolute ruling against the presence of any stone. Flints might be sleeping deep down within it, born of the planet's slow digestive processes, but what miracle could have brought one of them to this all-too-new surface?' As he picks the heavy black stone up he realises what it is - a meteorite. Looking around he finds others, lying undisturbed from where they had fallen, perhaps thousands of years ago. 'And thus did I witness, in a compelling compression of time high up there on my starry rain-gauge, that slow and fiery downpour' (trans. William Rees).

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Red and Yellow Houses in Tunis

No two artists will see the same colours in a landscape. In 1914 Paul Klee and August Macke travelled to Tunisia. Klee immediately noted the pervasive 'green-yellow-terracotta' but his watercolours also included the white of the houses, the blue of the sky and the pinks and oranges seen in the unpolluted, gentle light of dawn and dusk. Although there are similarities in the two artists' approaches, Macke emphasised 'the blue and white contrast in his Tunisian works' while Klee's watercolours like Red and Yellow Houses in Tunis have 'a warm undercurrent of ochre' and 'a pervasive sand colour'. This, at least is the view of Robert Kudielka in Paul Klee: The Nature of Creation, but it is a subjective judgement: perhaps no two critics will see quite the same colours in a painting...

August Macke, Kairouan (III), 1914
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Fall of Schaffhausen

John Ruskin, Falls of Schaffhausen, 1842

John Ruskin's description of the famous waterfall in Modern Painters (Vol. I, Part II) is itself a torrent of language:

“Stand for half an hour beside the fall of Schaffhausen, on the north side, where the rapids are long, and watch how the vault of water first bends, unbroken, in pure velocity, over the arching rocks at the brow of the cataract, covering them with a dome of crystal twenty feet thick, so swift that its motion is unseen except when a foam-globe from above darts over it like a fallen star; and how the trees are lighted above it under all their leaves, at the instant that it breaks into foam; and how all the hollows of that foam burn with green fire like so much shattering chrysopase; and how, ever and anon, startling you with its white flash, a jet of spray leaps hissing out of the fall, like a rocket, bursting in the wind and driven away in dust, filling the air with light; and how, through the curdling wreaths of the restless crashing abyss below, the blue of the water, paled by the foam in its body, shows purer than the sky through white rain-cloud; while the shuddering iris stoops in tremulous stillness over all, fading and flushing alternately through the choking spray and shattered sunshine, hiding itself at last among the thick golden leaves which toss to and fro in sympathy with the wild water; their dripping masses lifted at intervals, like the sheaves of loaded corn, by some stronger gush from the cataract, and bowed again upon the mossy rocks as its roar dies away; the dew gushing from their thick branches through drooping clusters of emerald herbage, and sparkling in white threads along the dark rocks of the shore, feeding the lichens which chase and chequer them with purple and silver.”

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Circles of Time

Alan Sonfist, Time Landscape, 1978

What landscape questions are asked by Alan Sonfist’s artworks? The obvious answer is that they ask environmental questions by creating sanctuaries for pre-industrial landscapes within cities. As the Green Museum puts it: ‘for almost 40 years, Sonfist has dedicated his work to linking city-dwellers and suburbanites to a nature that civilization has destroyed, with the hope that a greater appreciation of nature would encourage them to protect its future.’ His best known work is Time Landscape in Greenwich Village, proposed in 1965, realised in 1978, which creates an urban oasis based on the pre-colonial landscape. Sonfist has been criticised for mere preservationism which disguises present environmental issues by ‘fixing an image of the landscape frozen in the past, privileging one moment in ecological history over all others, and including more complex interactions with various inhabitants, native or other’ (Brian Wallis in Land and Environmental Art). However, this historical aspect of his work may also be one of the things that make it interesting.

Sonfist’s art can take the form of simple works about reclamation, e.g. Pool of Virgin Earth (1975), a circle of ‘pure’ earth on a chemical dumping ground in Lewiston, New York, designed to attract windblown seeds. However, in some larger scale works he has been able to question (or at least illustrate) the way landscapes evolve over time and space. For example, Time Landscape not only uses ‘pre-colonial’ trees and grasses: it also involved planting them on the original land elevations. In Circles of Time (1986-89) Sonfist traces the history of the Tuscan landscape in concentric rings: primeval forest, first settlers, Greeks, Romans and finally a ring linking the sculpture to the surrounding farmland. And his Secret Garden (2001) in Ontario used rocks arranged according to their position in geological time. Judged purely on environmental grounds some of these works may be inadequate, but then it might be asked what kinds of art intervention could ever be consider genuinely adequate to address current environmental concerns?

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Hill of Howth

Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson’s A Celtic Miscellany (originally published fifty-five years ago) contains a whole section on Nature, something the early Celtic writers treated with particular freshness. There are poems on the changing seasons, on rivers, mountains and woodlands, on snow and mist and stars. A few of them describe specific landscapes, like the Hill of Howth, ‘the peak that is the loveliest throughout the land of Ireland.’ The anonymous fourteenth century author of this piece describes the hill in terms that now seem like oxymoron: a ‘vine-grown pleasant warlike peak’ and ‘the hill full of swordsmen, full of wild garlic and trees, the many-coloured peak, full of beasts, wooded.’ It is as if the beauty of this ‘bright peak above the sea of gulls’ can only be enhanced by the part it played in the battles of Irish legend, as the place where ‘Finn and the Fianna used to be.’

Friday, October 13, 2006

The grebes of Lake Biwa

Basho by Sugiyama Sanpû (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The keiki (landscape) style of Haikai was dominant in the period Basho was writing, with its fusion emotion and the external scene. Some of Basho’s verse appears to consist solely of a brief landscape description. For example, Haruo Shirane quotes a hokku written in January 1691: kakurekeri shiwasu no umi no kaitsuburi (hiding in the water – the grebes of Lake Biwa – at year’s end). However the wider context for this poem is provided by the season word ‘shiwasu’ which literally means “teacher running” and has associations of ‘the end of the year, when everybody is rushing about cleaning up and settling their financial accounts’, so that the author of the poem appears in contrast to be ‘a carefree, reclusive person, someone who has the leisure to observe grebes at the busiest time of the year… At first glance, the hokku seems focused on a seemingly minor, if not insignificant, detail, but it gradually expands in the eye of the beholder, creating a tension between the smaller object and the implied landscape, or between the specific moment and the larger river of time.’ (Haruo Shirane’s Traces of Dreams p49).

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Landscape with Hunters

Yesterday’s autumn sunshine gave the views on Hampstead Heath a harmonious classical beauty. At Kenwood, where the grass slopes lead the eye down to the tree-fringed lake and its pair of swans, it seemed easy to gaze over the prospect with the eyes of an eighteenth century landscape connoisseur. Inside Kenwood, the famous Rembrandt and Vermeer paintings are accompanied by a Gaspard Dughet Landscape with Hunters (c1639). However, on first sight the painting looks like a dull expanse of murky brown, a shadow of the sunlit vista outside. Poor Dughet’s paintings often seem to be tucked away, unfashionable and unloved; this one is hung high on the wall so that the title on the frame is actually not even visible. He seems as unappealing to modern tastes as some other great enthusiasms of the eighteenth century, like James Thomson’s poem The Seasons (which Michael Schmidt’s history of English poetry describes as ‘dead pastoral’). The brown-ness of old landscape paintings went out of fashion in the nineteenth century as Constable and others altered the way they underpainted to create more vivid colours. But the Landscape with Hunters is a dawn scene and therefore naturally full of shadows. Paintings that strive for subtle light effects may be most harmed by the passage of time (the same may be true of photographs and films we currently admire). What did Dughet’s painting look like 350 years ago?

Apparently the Louvre does not own a single painting by Dughet. However, there is at least one place where Dughet is honoured: Rome’s Doria Pamphilj Gallery. There they have a Poussin Room entirely full of his paintings (Dughet is also known as Gaspard Poussin after his better known brother in law). It is an amazing space - a total immersion in classical landscape.

Postscript: January 2014
Kenwood has recently re-opened after refurbishing.  The Dughet Landscape with Hunters is still high up but better lit than when I wrote this post in 2006... 

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Lac d’Annecy

Paul Cézanne, Lac d’Annecy, 1896
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I first saw the paintings at the Courtauld Institute when they were still in their old location, stuck out of the way on the top floors of the Warburg Institute building. I went unprepared for the shock of so many outstanding works, in these grey, unimpressive surroundings but the one moment I will never forget was seeing Cézanne’s Lac d’Annecy (1896). Richard Verdi (in Cézanne) has described this painting, simple in form but highly complex in its prismatic colours, ‘with no two strokes of blue or green appearing exactly the same in size hue or direction’. Verdi notes, for example, that ‘while house and château on the distant shore are clearly delineated, the landscape around them appears in an inchoate state, as though still awaiting further resolution.’ This illustrates a general feature of the artist’s approach: rather than distinguishing foreground from background through the degree of detail applied to forms, Cézanne concentrated attention on objects at different points in space. While Cézanne saw in this his difficulty in realizing the full complexity of nature, the result was paintings that have ‘an unparalleled vitality and lay bare the formative process of painting as few other works of art do.’

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Paisaje Plastico

Two examples of landscape visual poetry: Guillaume Apollinaire's 'Paysage' and Guillermo de Torre's 'Paisaje Plastico'.

Apollinaire's poem (below) features a building, a tree and a man smoking. The four elements are themselves individual 'calligrammes', but are united in a landscape composition with a simply delineated foreground and background. Torre published his 'Plastic Landscape' in 1919, a year after Apollinaire's posthumous Caligrammes (it is described in Willard Bohn's book The Aesthetics of Visual Poetry, 1914-1928). It is a longer poem than Apollinaire's, depicting the countryside in the heat of midday ('Mediodia igniscente') and ending with a squadron of aeroplanes flying overhead, to somehow harvest the fields of wheat. Only some of the text resembles landscape elements visually - there is a river flowing diagonally through the poem and a curved line of text describing the gleaners, which may relate to the physical action of their work. Much of the rest of Torre's poem uses typography only for visual emphasis, like the words that stand out in capitals: 'SOL', 'SIESTA', 'LA SED' etc. The two works are ostensibly similar but operate on a different balance between word and image: Apollinaire's poem is easier to see on the page, but Torre's landscape is easier to picture in the mind.

Monday, October 02, 2006

A View near Volterra

In his 1960 essay 'Notes on Corot', the poet James Merrill writes about the transition from Corot's early Italian sketches to his later poetic landscapes, with their woodland glades and stretches of water that 'speak of relinquishment, of escape' . We can escape too among Corot's early views of Rome, investing their simple naturalism with our dreams of Italy. 'Italy - like youth, a simple word for a complicated, often idealized experience. No one would resist its appeal, as rendered in these little paintings. But each of us knows, in his way, what happens when it is over. Corot knew too. A View near Volterra (in the Chester Dale Collection) shows it happening in a scene so ravishing that it emerges unscathed from the jaws of allegory: the artist-prince, in peasant dres, heads his white horse (!) straight into the trees. Slowly it dawns on us what awaits him there, when he dismounts and sets up his easel. A change of light, a corresponding change of sensibility; in short, the paintings of Corot's maturity.'

A View near Volterra, 1838
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Landscape with Satyr Family

The catalogue to the current Adam Elsheimer exhibition is published by Paul Holberton. Holberton himself knows a lot about early landscape painting and it would be good if he could publish a book based on his own PhD researches in this subject. One of the many interesting things in his thesis is a classification of images according to the characteristics of the figures in the landscape, arguing that a typology based on format or place would be less practicable. So for example Albrecht Altdorfer's Landscape with Satyr Family (1509) would come under the heading of landscapes featuring satyrs and centaurs. Other possibilities are landscapes featuring: hermits and anchorites; lovers at odds with society; vagrants or the homeless (including Biblical examples like Adam and Eve after the expulsion); woodsmen or woodhouses; 'natives' on the borders of the known world (e.g. Scythians or New World Indians); and primitives before the rise of civilisation. These varoius characters might all be termed 'landscape beings.'

Albrecht Altdorfer, Landscape with Satyr Family, 1509
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Promisingly, it says on his website, 'Paul Holberton is currrently writing a book on the history of Arcadia in art and literature (working title: Sex in the Bushes).'

Saturday, September 30, 2006


Adam Elsheimer, Aurora, c. 1606
Source: Wikimedia Commons

To Dulwich today for the Adam Elsheimer exhibition, a welcome break from computing woes which are partly to blame for infrequent postings at the moment. The Dulwich Picture Gallery is a good place for classical landscape painting anyway: Claude, Canaletto &c. but also less renowned artists like Herman Saftleven, painter of a lovely misty View on the Rhine. Adam Elsheimer fits perfectly in this company – a forerunner who is, according to the exhibition leaflet, ‘little known today’, but was ‘recognised in his own time as a genius.’ There still doesn’t seem much danger of him suddenly becoming very popular and the exhibition was relatively quiet even on a Saturday. Three highlights:
  • The series of Saints and Figures from the Old and New Testaments from the Egremont Collection at Petworth House show Elsheimer’s amazing gift for creating poetic landscapes on a tiny scale. The pictures are 9 x 7 cm each (like playing cards) and the landscape details are much smaller. An example is Saint John the Baptist (c. 1605), which can be seen on the National Galleries of Scotland site (the exhibition was on in Scotland before coming to Dulwich).
  • Aurora (c. 1606) started as one of Elsheimer’s paintings after Ovid but was left as a nearly pure landscape. A print of it made by Hendrick Goudt was an influence on later Dutch landscape painting. As you look at the painting your eye drifts away from the figure and off into the distant vista of a golden morning in the Roman Campagna.
  • The Flight Into Egypt (1609) is the last painting in the exhibition and is extraordinary for the realistic full moon and stars. There is an ongoing discussion about the extent to which Elsheimer was painting a particular night sky - astronomers have examined the position of the stars and suggested it was painted on 16 June 1609. It is thought Elsheimer may have used a telescope – he was in contact with scholars in Rome who were familiar with the new methods and ideas pursued by astronomers like Galileo . In some ways the sky is almost too accurate to seem realistic and the figures, glimmering by the light of a torch and a fire, have an unreal quality to them. Rembrandt’s Flight into Egypt (1647) is similar in composition but much more believable, although it is difficult to imagine it without the example of Elsheimer's original vision.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

View from Yarmouth Bridge

John Sell Cotman, Beach Scene, c. 1820

In a recent New York Review of Books, tucked in among the articles on various depressing Middle Eastern political issues, there was an article by Sanford Schwartz about John Sell Cotman. Schwartz regrets that ‘there is still no volume of good reproductions of his pictures in all the mediums he tackled’. Although famous for his watercolours - to the extent that Winsor & Newton use his name as a trademark (they introduced the ‘Cotman’ brand of sable watercolour brushes in 1906) – Cotman’s ‘far less known oils, and to a slightly lesser extent his pencil drawings and etchings often exist on the same level of uncanny harmony and order’.
Among its collection of Cotman watercolours, the Tate has an oil painting, Seashore with Boats (c1808), of which they say ‘the scene here is possibly Cromer beach. Anne Miles, whom Cotman married in 1809, lived two miles away from Cromer and Cotman exhibited four Cromer subjects between 1808 and 1810.’ In this painting Cotman reduces the busy beach to a set of simple flat forms in a manner familiar from his watercolours. Perhaps even more striking for its modern-seeming abstraction is another oil painting in the Tate: Wherries on Breydon (c1808).
Cotman returned to oil painting in the 1820s. There are examples in the Norwich Castle Museum: Dutch Boats off Yarmouth and View from Yarmouth Bridge, looking towards Breydon, just after Sun-set. In connection with the latter, there is a good example of prevailing attitudes to artists like Cotman in a piece written for the Norwich Mercury describing an exhibition at the Norwich Society in 1824. The reviewer felt the landscape had been ‘quitted prematurely by the artist’ and declared rather pompously ‘we are no friends of “sketches” in oil painting’ (quoted by David Blayney Brown in Romantic Landscape: The Norwich School of Painters).

Friday, September 22, 2006

Hestercombe landscape garden

Source: Wikimedia Commons

At Hestercombe Gardens they have been rebuilding some of the eighteenth century features. So for example, it is now possible to admire a 1996 replica of the 1770s replica of a Tuscan Doric temple. The landscape garden was designed by the owner of Hestercombe, Coplestone Warre Bampfylde, between 1750 and 1786. It is an anthology of eighteenth century themes – a Great Cascade, a Gothic Alcove, a Witch House and a Temple Arbour – but with some very beautiful views both within the garden and out to the Vale of Taunton. When we visited we stood for some time admiring the sunlit Box Pond, humming with dragonflies and reflecting the surrounding wooded slopes. There was a small group of people sitting on the opposite bank who we assumed were sketchers, but who turned out to be having a break from work renovating the garden. This misconception felt a bit like a lesson in the perils of the picturesque… but it was hardly a glimpse of what John Barrell would call the ‘dark side of the landscape’: the labourers we saw looked like volunteers having a thoroughly rewarding time bringing the old garden back to life.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Housatonic at Stockbridge

Whenever I read about Charles Ives I find myself intrigued by the stories of his father George. As a seventeen year old, George’s musical talents were noticed by Ulysses S. Grant, who told Lincoln that the band of the First Connecticut Heavy Artillery led by Ives senior was the ‘best in the Army.’ Some of the ways in which George Ives went on to influence his son’s music are described here. A good example is the second of Ives’ Three Places in New England, ‘Putnam’s Camp, Redding, Connecticut’ which was inspired by an experiment of George Ives in which he arranged for his band and another one to march in opposite directions around the town square playing conflicting tunes. In Alan Rich’s book American Pioneers, there is a memorable image: ‘George Ives held a lifelong fascination with the notion of experimentation, spending long hours playing musical instruments across a nearby pond to study the nature of echoes…’

The third of Ives’ Three Places, ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’ records the memory of a walk that Ives took with his wife, Harmony, along the banks of the Housatonic River. As critic Alex Ross notes, ‘there are dissonances and ambiguities in the river’s flow. This is the New England landscape that generated not only Norman Rockwell’s small-town idylls but also the American apocalypse of “Moby-Dick.”’ There is a Robert Underwood Johnson poem that accompanies the music but more interesting perhaps is a brief note that Charles Ives himself wrote (quoted from a Charles Ives site):

… River mists, leaves in slight breeze river bed--all notes and phrases in upper accompaniment . . . should interweave in uneven way, riverside colors, leaves & sounds--not come down on main beat . . .

Monday, September 11, 2006

After the Summer Rain

Art of the States is a website that includes a range of free music samples from American composers. One of these is sound artist Jorge Boehringer, whose Fresnel Lens Ø7: An Awkward Squad was inspired by the landscape at Point Reyes, California. Boehringer explains that “Point Reyes (which, incidentally, resides on a different tectonic plate than the rest of California) is a place of awe for human beings. Attempts to civilize this place repeatedly have failed. Fog at night often makes driving along the thin strips of land a potentially fatal undertaking; lighthouses tumble into the sea one after the other, unable to withstand the presence of the dialogue between ocean and rock...” The title of this piece “refers to the type of lens on the lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore, and the 'awkward squad' is the name given to a group of pelagic cormorants, but carries with it the connotation of stumbling movement.”

Other compositions with a landscape link at this site are Okkyung Lee’s On a Windy Day, which recalls the sound of Korean temple bells blowing in gusts of wind, Zhou Long’s four Poems from Tang, including a setting of Wang Wei’s Hut Among the Bamboo, and Hideko Kawamoto’s After the Summer Rain, a Rilke-inspired evocation of “a summer forest, including rain pouring onto trees, shiny silver spider webs, and dark wet ground.”

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Monument Valley

There is an excellent new reader on Landscape and Film edited by Martin Lefebvre. Lefebvre’s own essay in the collection, ‘Between Setting and Landscape in the Cinema’, draws on art history to illuminate the ways in which landscapes can be used in film. There are genuine ‘autonomous landscapes’, similar to the kind we associate with painters from Altdorfer to Turner to Cézanne, but such films tend to be experimental (e.g. David Rimmer) or semi-documentary (e.g. Walter Ruttmann). Most cinema is structured around narrative and to analyse landscape in these films, Lefebvre (like Gombrich and other art historians) argues that landscape is in the eyes of the beholder. Just as sixteenth century connoisseurs could see Flemish biblical scenes as ‘landscapes’ because the quality of the setting seemed to dominate the ostensible subject, so the spectator of a film can watch sections of a narrative film as if they were viewing landscape art.
Within narrative cinema, Lefebvre distinguishes between (1) those films where the film maker (often a modernist auteur) deliberately structures the film to shift the viewers gaze from subject to setting, and (2) those films in which landscape is used less overtly by the director. Among examples of the first type he discusses the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, e.g. L’avventura which begins on a rocky island which the camera lingers over in a way that is more than simply a function of the need to establish where a woman disappears. Examples of the second type are John Ford’s nine westerns filmed in Monument Valley, a location that is not integral to the plots but which nevertheless comes to dominate the films in many viewers’ imaginations.

In his discussion of Ford, Lefebvre notes that The Searchers was filmed in Monument Valley despite being set in Texas, and that this risks implausibility (the settlers have set up a farm but Monument Valley is a desert). Nevertheless, the strength of the narrative in this film (in contrast to L’avventura for example) means that the viewer is never forced to contemplate the landscape or notice the discrepancy between film location and fictional setting. This means that it is up to the viewer to see Ford’s films as landscapes, perhaps drawing on their own knowledge of the West as seen by painters (Frederic Remington) or photographers (E. S. Curtis). Ironically the viewer’s knowledge of autonomous landscapes in art can turn pure narrative films like The Searchers into a form of ‘impure’ landscape cinema.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Sayreville Strata

Edward S. Casey, an American philosophy professor, has written a book about recent American landscape art called Earth-Mapping: Artists Reshaping Landscape. It covers the work of Robert Smithson, Margot McLean, Sandy Gellis, Michelle Stuart, Eve Ingalls, Jasper Johns, Richard Diebenkorn, Willem De Kooning and Dan Rice. However, as will be clear from this list, ‘mapping’ is used in a fairly loose sense, and indeed the author spends a lot of time explaining why some of the work discussed cannot under any definition be described as a ‘map’.

I found it a hard book to enjoy - sentences like this soon becomes wearisome: ‘perhaps the quintessential Stuart of this period, however, is an instance of what Heidegger might call “the two-fold” (die Zweifach), in this case, the combination of distinct image and indeterminate rubbing.’ It often reads like a strange mix of the pretentious and the naïve: little ‘jokes’ signalled with exclamation marks, snippets of context (‘thus was born pop art’) and gushing praise.: ‘the central nervure of Michelle Stuart’s immense evolving oeuvre… is to be found in her decided gift for plumbing paradoxical extremes of medium, presentation, and subject matter, thereby confounding her critics and delighting her devotees.’
Michelle Stuart actually worked briefly as a cartographer for the US army while at art school and her early works used the same basic material: muslin-mounted rag paper. For example, in Sayreville Strata (Quartet) (1976) she rubbed earth from a New Jersey quarry onto four parallel sheets of rag paper. Casey notes how the work shows that ‘the earth itself is far from dull in its colorations!’ He sees the effect ‘as numinously dazzling as certain late paintings of Rothko’. They remind him of Cézanne’s studies at Bibemus quarry ‘but the French master’s colors are approximations of the natural hues of quarried rock, while Stuart’s colors are those of the earth itself.’ Well, yes.

Postscript 2019: I was thinking back on this post as I've been tempted to read Edward S. Casey's latest book on the phenomenology of edges, which might have been useful for my study of cliffs, 'Frozen Air'.  I was also wondering about Michelle Stuart's more recent work over the last decade.  This has dealt with bigger themes of space, time and evolution, e.g. 'These Fragments Against Time' (2018), an installation shown in a New York exhibition earlier this year. You can read an Apollo interview from last year which looks back over her career. There is also now a photograph of  'Sayreville Strata (Quartet)' available on Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The sea at Balbec

À la recherche du temps perdu includes some memorable seascapes. You get the impression that Proust’s descriptions would be much more impressive than the paintings he describes by his fictional seascape painter, Elstir. Here for example is one of Proust’s sentences on the view from his narrator’s window at Balbec, where he notes the way the waves recede to that point in the distance where they resemble the glaciers one sees in the backgrounds of the Tuscan Primitives:

'Fenêtre à laquelle je devais ensuite me mettre chaque matin comme au carreau d'une diligence dans laquelle on a dormi, pour voir si pendant la nuit s'est rapprochée ou éloignée une chaîne désirée, -- ici ces collines de la mer qui avant de revenir vers nous en dansant, peuvent reculer si loin que souvent ce n'était qu'après une longue plaine sablonneuse que j'apercevais à une grande distance leurs premières ondulations, dans un lointain transparent, vaporeux et bleuâtre comme ces glaciers qu'on voit au fond des tableaux des primitifs toscans.'

(from Project Gutenburg)

Marcel Proust’s first book, Les Plaisirs et les Jours (1896) includes a beautiful passage headed ‘Seascape’. He thinks of the sea at Normandy, or rather ‘the wooded paths from which you occasionally catch sight of it and where the breeze mingles together the smell of the salt, damp leaves and milk…. Suddenly I would see her; it would be on one of those days of somnolence beneath a dazzling sun, when she reflects the sky that is as blue as she is, only paler. Sails white like butterflies would be dotted over the motionless water, happy not to move any more, almost swooning in the heat. Or alternatively, the sea would be rough, yellow in the sunlight like a great field of mud, with swells that, from such a distance, would appear stationary and crowned with dazzling snow’ (trans. Andrew Brown). The last two sentences are like paintings, but the first part of the quotation here hints at the full power of words, with the subject moving through the landscape and the different senses engaged.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Ebb at Evening

William Everson (1912-94) was a very Californian poet. Part of the San Francisco Renaissance, he was known as the Beat Friar, having become a Dominican monk in 1951, and it was as Brother Antoninus that he wrote one of his best known poems, ‘A Canticle to the Waterbirds’. However he was also a literary critic: the author of Archetype West: The Pacific Coast as a Literary Region. The Modern American Poets site has a description by Everson of the Californian landscape.  Here are some brief excerpts:
'It is early morning. The sun, peering over Mescal Ridge, leaves its near flank in shadow. The giant redwoods that line Bear Trap Canyon, huddled together without distinction, are deep in shade.'
'A slight haze has thickened against Mescal Ridge, but the cool of the morning is not all dispelled. The distant redwoods, as I anticipated, stand out like phallic flames, each green cone thrust at the sun. Bear Trap Canyon kinks its wrinkle up the groin of Bixby Mountain. Time seems to hang over the world, suspended.'
'Pausing in my writing I look out over the vast expanse of Bixby Canyon. It is mid-afternoon. The sun is beginning to slant down toward the western rim, but the solar intensity is still at crescendo. Down below me a redtail hawk circles and dips, his remorseless gaze searching for prey on the slopes beneath. After a time he gives up and cries angrily, disturbed by something intruding below him which I can't see. In the redwoods over my head a jay answers the hawk feebly, only a scrawny imitation of the master he cannot rival.'
In his book Imagining the Earth, John Elder discusses poetry in which there is a genuine identification with nature. Of William Everson’s poem ‘Ebb at Evening’, he says ‘in such a gathered moment, to identify the human body with the ocean is to gain a power of participation in nature beyond all ideas of its goodness and beauty.’ Elder believes that ‘many of our most valuable poems of integration are set at evening and the ebb. With the grey light, things that seemed distinct in the strong outlines of noon begin to merge… The tide’s ebb and sunset are two times attentiveness to the earth can guide us to the peace of presentness.’ He provides a further example in a Denise Levertov poem ‘The Coming Fall’ in which the eye and mind retreat and bodily impressions take over. As Levertov says, ‘In the last sunlight / human figures dark on the hill / outlined- / a fur of gold / about their shoulders and heads, / a blur defining them.’

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Walking from Lake Como

The other day I was talking to a friend about the fashion for participative art works. This kind of relational aesthetics opens up many interesting possibilities for artists (or ‘semionauts’ as Nicolas Bourriaud calls them…) And yet there’s also a risk of it leading to worthy and banal institutional art, especially when funding for an installation is predicated on the idea that it will ‘engage’ with local people in some way. There are incentives for landscape artists to devise conditions in which art can be created in collaboration with the public: sound walks, mapping projects, artistic renovation and reclamation activities, and so on. How much of this activity will have lasting aesthetic value is an interesting question.
One of the more recent developments in Hamish Fulton’s work has been the organization of group walks. For example, in 1998 Fulton took 25 artists from 15 countries on group walks in the hills around Lake Como in Italy (commemorated in Pilgrims’ Threads). In 2002 he got 25 people to walk 10 kilometres backwards on footpaths at the Domaine de Chamarande (see photograph on his website). A group walk is entirely different to a solo walk, leaving behind associations with Romantic individualism and linking instead to traditions of protest and pilgrimage. Nevertheless in making increasingly extreme and testing walks (Fulton suffered frostbite in Tibet in 2000) he still sometimes gives the appearance of the Modern Artist seeking out his own existential limits. For this kind of climbing though, Fulton has needed to join commercial expeditions. Above a certain altitude, walking has to be collaborative.
It should be pointed out that Fulton has not always walked alone. Between 1972 and 1990 he made eleven trips in the company of Richard Long. Back in 1967 Fulton and Long organised a slow group walk from Greek Street to St Martin’s College which can be seen in a similar light to the recent collaborative walks. Rather than responding to the fashion for collaborative art, Fulton has returned to the type of performance that characterised his earliest experiments in the art of walking. How interested he is in the idea of engaging with the wider public might be gauged from his reaction to an interviewer (in the catalogue to his Tate Britain show) who asked whether he wanted to encourage others to make walks. Fulton replied: “For the first twenty years I didn’t really consider it. But in more recent times I’ve been thinking that it’s not a bad idea. It’s a potentially interesting by-product.’

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Red Arch Mountain, Utah

In Berlin Childhood around 1900 Walter Benjamin relates his childhood immersion in watercolours to the story of an old Chinese painter. The old man invited friends around to see his most recent picture. They were shown a landscape with a footpath leading along a stream and through a grove to a small cottage. When they turned around and looked for the painter, he had gone. They saw that he had entered the picture and was walking up the path to the door, where he paused ‘quite still, turned, smiled and disappeared through the narrow opening.’

Reading Benjamin’s book it is difficult not to reflect on one’s own childhood memories. Benjamin describes the streets, parks and monuments of Berlin but he also dwells on the landscapes of furniture and household objects that a child negotiates. He remembers the power of postcards and the old Imperial Panorama where ‘one afternoon, while seated before a transparency of Aix, I tried to persuade myself that, once upon a time, I must have played on the patch of pavement that is guarded by the old plane trees of the Cours Mirabeau.’ On reading this I went down to our cellar and found my father’s old stereoscope which had enchanted me as a child. The image below, for example, is Red Arch Mountain, Utah, probably photographed in about 1947 (some of the discs have this date). An anonymous photographer’s tiny image in Kodachrome “natural colour”, it now has the time capsule qualities of a miniature landscape in a Book of Hours. What seemed a strange, distant mountain to me as a child is now potentially accessible, but the world that produced the stereoscope is irretrievable, along with the imaginative space of childhood.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

150 ft Seaskape, Largiebeg

Bruce McLean designed the café-bar at the newly refurbished Arnolfini gallery in Bristol. It is bright and colourful, like his paintings and prints. Not really my cup of tea (although the coffee they serve is good!) It seems a far cry from the late sixties when McLean was dabbling in a kind of land art. For 150 ft Seaskape, Largiebeg (1969) he laid a huge sheet of sensitised paper on the shore hoping for an indexical print of the landscape, but it floated out to sea. Another piece, 2 Rock and Shoreskapes, Largieberg (1969) required only 33 ft of white paper, laid on a rocky shore and covered with watercolour paint, leaving the landscape to tear and stain its presence onto the work.

The Arnolfini is one of the sites in Bristol currently hosting the sixth British Art Show. One of the works on show at the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, created by Juneau/Projects/, seems to update McLean’s attempts to record the landscape directly: a scanner was pulled along the ground and the resulting images pinned to the gallery wall. However, it is clear from the artists’ installation that the intention here was not simply to facilitate a work of landscape art in which nature is the creator. Their focus is on technology (other works involve microphones, walkmans etc.), the idea being to take them outside and let natural forces demolish them. The British Art Show notes explain that ‘in good morning captain (2004) a scanner is dragged along a forest floor, documenting its own destruction with a series of blurred scans.’
Nevertheless, artists will no doubt continue to seek ways to allow landscape itself to create or adapt their work: kinetic sculpture, sound art or variations on photography (“the pencil of nature”). Outside the art world, simple indexical signs like weather vanes and sun dials let nature signify something (time, wind direction), whilst the landscape itself is full of natural signs that can be read by animals. However, as we know from modernism, art need not point in this way to something specific; signs that give a general sense of an actual landscape may turn out to be more interesting.