Monday, February 27, 2006

The Waterfall on Lu Mountain

In his poem ‘The Waterfall on Lu Mountain’, Li Po (Li Bai) likened the sight of the ceaseless flow of water to stars falling from the sky. In Arthur Cooper’s 1971 translation it reads: “At first I feared Milky Way had dropped / And sprinkled stars, falling through the clouds!’ Cooper noted that the Chinese words that he renders as ‘sprinkled’ and ‘falling’, ‘sa’ and ‘lo’, are the first syllables of a word that some have suggested as the original for the mysterious term sharawadgy, used by Sir William Temple in his Gardens of Epicurus (1685) to refer to a quality of naturalness. This is what Temple wrote of Chinese gardeners:
“But their greatest reach of imagination is employed in contriving figures, where the beauty shall be great, and strike the eye, but without any order or disposition of parts that shall be commonly or easily observed: and, though we have hardly any notion of this sort of beauty, yet they have a particular word to express it, and, where they find it hit their eye at first sight, they say the sharawadgi is fine or is admirable, or any such expression of esteem.”
According to Arthur Cooper, the sa-lo in Li Po’s poem relates to the notion of Heraclitus: ‘the ever changing yet never-changing waterfall as the symbol of nature; a reason for the special importance of waterfalls in Chinese paintings.’ Whilst these speculations may not pass academic scrutiny, I think they offer a stimulating chain of connections and associations: Li Po – Temple – Heraclitus…
Incidentally, the Poetry Library archive has an old review of the Arthur Cooper translations which is not very complimentary. But I would still recommend the book for the pleasure of the notes and introduction.

Illustration: Li Bai watching a Waterfall by Okutani Shūseki (1871-1936)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Parking lot

Ed Ruscha’s Thirty-Four Parking Lots (1967) used aerial photography to turn banal, functional urban landscapes into abstract designs. Looking at these images it is easy to forget the reality of Los Angeles, city of cars, and perceive the parking lots as earthworks designed for aesthetic purposes. There are currently examples on-line here, here, here and here.
Yves Alain Bois discussed one of these photographs in the book he wrote with Rosalind Krauss, Formless. He notes that after Ruscha captured these parking lots one early morning before the cars arrived, it was possible to see them as “a machine for the production of oil-spots”. The spots appear to be part of the design, a dynamic feature which grow and then are erased when the lots are asphalted over again. They convey some of the entropic quality of urban space that fascinated artists in the sixties and seventies.

Friday, February 24, 2006

The green hills of Casentino

In Dante’s Inferno the landscape of Hell is carefully described and is sometimes instrumental in the punishment of souls. Examples include the Wrathful, mired beneath the swamp-like river Styx, Userers squatting on fiery sand, and Grafters sunk within a ditch of burning pitch. In the Wood of Suicides, the dead are actually part of the landscape: Dante breaks off a branch and the tree starts to bleed (the tree is the soul of Pier Delle Vigne, chief counsellor of Frederick II of Sicily). But there is a different kind of landscape torture in Canto XXX. Here, the poet encounters Master Adam, a counterfeiter, who explains that he is permanently thirsty and that his punishment comes from the memory of “the little brooks which down from the green hills of Casentino splash towads the Arno”, an unattainable landscape that hangs continually before him.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Valley of the Princes

In Dante’s Purgatory (Canto VII), the shade of Sordello leads his fellow poets Dante and Virgil to the Valley of the Princes. This is the description of what they see there, taken from the 1815 Henry Cary translation that is freely available on Project Gutenberg:
Betwixt the steep and plain a crooked path
Led us traverse into the ridge's side,
Where more than half the sloping edge expires.
Refulgent gold, and silver thrice refin'd,
And scarlet grain and ceruse, Indian wood
Of lucid dye serene, fresh emeralds
But newly broken, by the herbs and flowers
Plac'd in that fair recess, in color all
Had been surpass'd, as great surpasses less.
Nor nature only there lavish'd her hues,
But of the sweetness of a thousand smells
A rare and undistinguish'd fragrance made.
According to Mark Musa, Dante creates a locus amoenus here that is unique in classical and medieval literature. Such a place would normally be described to the reader in terms of its natural features and living creatures, but here the valley is likened to precious stones, metals, dyes and pigments. As Musa says, “thanks to the list of metaphors, we are offered artificial opulent beauty, not the pure beauty of nature” (see notes to Musa’s translation). It is a fitting place for the souls of Negligent Rulers and contrasts strongly with the Garden of Eden which Dante reaches at the top of Mount Purgatory.
Musa notes that John Ruskin thought the description of Eden in Canto XXVIII “the sweetest passage of wood description which exists in literature”. Musa’s translation is indeed striking and makes it easy to understand why Ruskin thought this (the Cary version with its ornate English is less easy to appreciate, although the atmosphere is well conveyed by Gustave Doré’s 1867 illustration). For more about Ruskin’s reflections on Purgatory in his book Modern Painters see the Victorian Web.

Monday, February 20, 2006

The Stiperstones

The legendary origin of Shropshire’s Stiperstones is related in Frederick Grice’s collection, Folk Tales of the West Midlands. This range of hills was once used as a resting place for the Devil in his travels between England and Ireland. One day he decided to fill in the valley that lay between the Stiperstones and the Long Mynd. He made himself a special apron from the hides of slaughtered cattle and carried in it a load of rocks from Ireland. However, the apron frayed in the heat and the Devil dropped them all over the hillside.

Another landscape myth from Sussex on the origin of Devil’s Dyke is retold on the South Downs Way site: “The story goes that the Devil was angry at the conversion of the Sussex people to Christianity, and resolved to cut through the Downs to the sea to let in the salt water and drown them all. As he dug away by night, an old woman saw what he was up to. She lit a candle and woke her rooster, so that the light and the crowing made him think daybreak was coming. The Devil fled, leaving the Dyke unfinished, and so it remains today.”

Clearly landforms attached to ‘the Devil’ are likely to correspond to those strange rock forms, desolate mountains, deep ravines and so on that people regarded as abhorrent before cultural values changed during the eighteenth century. It would be interesting to consider any specific aspects that are more prevalent than others – perhaps the Stiperstones is an example of a type in which the landform looks as if something destructive has happened. However the naming of landforms after the Devil has not always simply reflected a fusion of folklore and geomorphology. Use of the Devil’s name by European settlers in parts of North America reflected anxiety about the unknown dangers of a new world, including fears about the original inhabitants they were displacing.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Black Mountain

Main Building of the former Black Mountain College 
Source: Wikimedia Commons

At the Kettle’s Yard exhibition ‘Starting at Zero: Black Mountain College 1933-57’ yesterday I was struck by how little the landscape of Black Mountain seemed to impinge on the art works created there. Brochures for the college highlight its location: see for example some of the photographs on display at the North Carolina state archives. Outdoor pursuits were part of college life: hiking trips after morning classes, physical activity in farming and architectural projects. However, the only quotation in the exhibition that directly addressed the positive impact of the landscape was from Julia and Lyonel Feininger: “the location of the college was in itself important to us: pretty high up in the mountains, on the shores of a small lake in a wide valley… The mornings especially were fraught with magic. Vapors steaming from the lake, mists enveloping the world around, and when slowly rising revealing the contours of trees and the mountains, the very element of light appearing as something mysterious and new’ (quoted in the catalogue, from Design, 1946 vol. 7 no 48).

The absence of landscape art partly reflects the interests of those associated with the college – Josef Albers, Charles Olson, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, Willem de Kooning etc. – who were developing different modes of abstraction, expressionism, and interdisciplinary experimentation. The rural location of the college seemed to serve more as a sanctuary and a space for developing ideas with like minded faculty and students. Robert Motherwell, for example, enjoyed teaching the summer schools as “a way of getting a break from New York” but also felt that the college was partly doomed because of its location so far from the centres of avant garde practice, in a place (and time) that viewed the activities at Black Mountain with deep suspicion (see the Smithsonian Archive interview with Motherwell).

Friday, February 17, 2006

By a pine-shaded stream

The first of Wallace Stevens’ ‘Six Significant Landscapes’ depicts an old man in China, sensing the wind blowing a pine tree, blue and white larkspur and his own beard, their movement like water running over weeds. According to Zhaoming Qian, Stevens’ poem is reminiscent of landscape painting from the Ma-Xia school, named after Ma Yuan (active ca. 1189-1225) and Xia Gui (active ca. 1180-1224). For example, Ma Yuan’s Watching the Deer by a Pine-shaded Stream has a scholar gazing at a landscape in which pine trees wave and water streams over rocks. Stevens may not have had a specific painting in mind, but he was certainly influenced by Chinese painting he had read about and seen in exhibitions. In 1909 Stevens had been captivated by the Chinese paintings he saw in New York and wrote to his fiancée Elsie about them, compiling a “private exhibition” from their colours:

pale orange, green and crimson, and white,
and gold, and brown;
deep lapis-lazuli and orange, and opaque
green, fawn-color, black, and gold;
lapis blue and vermilion, white, and gold
and green.

In Stevens’ exhibition Chinese handscrolls have been distilled into abstract landscapes of pure colour. This is an approach that would be taken by many Western painters later in the century.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Rocks at Ploumenac’h, Brittany

Surrealist painter Eileen Agar visited Brittany in 1936 with her husband. Inspired by the rock formations and the example of her friend Paul Nash, who had photographed the stones at Avebury and Stonehenge, Agar bought a Rolleiflex and began taking tightly framed images of the rocks. According to Tacita Dean, these photographs “deny the landscape” but trap the rocks’ “creatural intensity” (see the catalogue to Dean’s exhibition An Aside). Whilst it is possible to see the Rocks at Ploumenac’h, Brittany as beautiful abstract shapes, it is equally open to follow the Surrealists in re-imagining the landscape by thinking up identities or associations for these strange stones. So when is it OK to anthropomorphise the landscape? Perhaps when the artist doesn’t do it explicitly, but the work invites this kind of response from the viewer.

There is an informative ‘Tate Papers’ essay on the photographs by Ian Walker, ‘The 'Comic Sublime': Eileen Agar at Ploumanac'h’. Walker draws parallels between these natural rock forms and both the sculptures of Henry Moore and the Surrealist landscape art of Graham Sutherland. However, he also notes a possible influence from the continental artists who had exhibited with Agar in the International Surrealist Exhibition in London that year: Yves Tanguy, who had spent childhood summers in Brittany, and Salvador Dali, who was inspired by the coastal scenery of Cadaqués. Agar’s photographs may in turn have inspired artists she showed them to, including Paul Nash himself, e.g. in his photograph Monster Field. Finally, in 1985 Agar herself used the images as source material for a series of paintings called Objects from a Landscape.

Paul Nash Monster Field, 1938 
Source: Tate Gallery - public domain (image added 2017)

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Piute Creek

In ‘Ripples on the Surface’, the last poem of Gary Snyder’s No Nature (a selection of his poetry up to 1992) he says that “Nature is not a book, but a performance, a high old culture” of “ever-fresh events”. Snyder has always thought about the relationship between books and landscape. In the very first poem of No Nature, ‘Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout’, the young poet had written of being immersed in nature, miles above the cities, able to say “I cannot remember things I once read.” Two other poems in his first published collection Riprap talk about books. In ‘Milton by Firelight’ (written at Piute Creek in August 1955) he rejects Paradise Lost, a “silly story”: once the fire is down, it is too dark to read, but he can still hear the sound of a bell-mare, reminding him of a day’s work in the summer heat. And in ‘Piute Creek’, looking up at the “sky over endless mountains” the poet finds “words and books / Like a small creek over a ledge / Gone in the dry air.”

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Lake of Deep Conviction

In the latest issue of the New York Review of Books there is a Wislawa Szymborska poem ‘Moment’ (trans. Satanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh) in which a simple picturesque landscape of green hill and misty sky seems unreal, with its woods and brook acting out their roles politely, distracting us from the possibility of “snarling crags, upturned abysses” and the violent history of geological transformation through ice and fire. In other poems Szymborska has contrasted slowly changing landscape with the unchanging cruelties of humanity. In ‘Reality Demands’ (trans. Joanna Trzekiak) she wonders whether the long history of conflict means that now “maybe there are no fields but battlefields, those still remembered, and those long forgotten”. In ‘Tortures’ she reflects that pain persists over time: “nothing has changed. Except for the course of boundaries, the line of forests, coasts, deserts and glaciers.”

By contrast, for a different use of landscape in Szymborska’s verse, see her witty allegory ‘Utopia’, which features among other things The Tree of Valid Supposition and the Lake of Deep Conviction.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Dawn growing grey

In Greek drama, before the invention of the skene (a scene building), the open air theatres had no sets beyond what was provided by the stage and the sky. It is possible to identify moments where the landscape was brought into play: references to the rising sun which would have coincided with the dawn, when some performances started. For example, at the start of Euripides play Iphigenia at Aulis, Agamemnon tells an attendant

Away! already the dawn is growing grey, lighting the lamp of day yonder and the fire of the sun's four steeds...

William Turner of Oxford, Before Sunrise, 1847
Source: Libson & Yarker (public domain)

Another play that starts before dawn is Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, where a watchman waits for news of the capture of Troy. Reading these lines now can take you directly to a sense of the time and space in which these plays were first performed...

Monday, February 06, 2006

A lake and a tree

In his enjoyable survey of one hundred years of cinema, Flickers, Gilbert Adair discusses a still from Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1985 film The Sacrifice, an image which Tarkovsky himself captioned (in his book Sculpting in Time) ‘Little Man waters the tree his father planted, patiently waiting for the Miracle which is no more than the truth’. Adair suggests that this caption, “flatulently theoretical”, is the opposite of the image, “limpid and serene”. What makes the image so effective is the absence of spectacle. We see a “shimmering (but not dazzlingly shimmering) lake and a skyscape of placid (un-baroque, resolutely unapocalyptic) clouds.” In the unlikely event that Hollywood were to make such a film, the lake, Adair thinks, would inevitably have been “straight out of National Geographic.”

I think this insight is equally true of other Tarkovsky films, e.g. the scenes around the dacha in Solaris. For Mirror Tarkovsky altered the landscape before filming it, growing buckwheat round the old house to accord with his memories, even though the current owners assured him the soil would not support it (when the buckwheat flowered, Tarkovsky recognised a good omen). For all its beauty, the landscape he shot in Mirror is very real, like the lake in The Sacrifice, and gives the scene an opportunity to work naturally on the viewer’s emotions.

[Postscript: since writing this it has become possible to embed YouTube clips in blog posts.  I have therefore added above the 'wind scene' from Mirror.]

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Barges at Flatford Lock

John Constable, Flatford Mill (Scene on a Navigable River), 1816-17

In his atmospheric oil sketch Barges at Flatford Lock (c1810-12) and the more famous Flatford Mill (above), John Constable depicted a productive and prosperous countryside, but one that would soon be overtaken by agricultural depression and rioting. It is nevertheless still possible to walk along the tow path and see a landscape recognisable from these paintings. It was therefore sad to read today in The Guardian of plans to commercialise ‘Constable Country’ with a new ‘"an interactive interpretation experience" of the life and times of Constable’ and ‘a fine art "outstation" in an existing Regency villa, including works of Constable and other local painters’, although where they intend to acquire these Constable paintings is unclear. Ronald Blythe has described the proposals as “naive and catchpenny”, the developers see it as a boon for the local economy. Constable’s vision of a harmonious working landscape may have been idealised from the start, but it seems more distant now than ever.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Frozen Mist above Lititz Run

The World Wide Panorama site is devoted to VR panoramas submitted by photographers from around the world. The current exhibition is a collection of favourite images from 2005. Since Robert Barker coined the term ‘panorama’ and exhibited his view of Edinburgh, landscape subjects have been associated with the form. However, action scenes were also crucial to the early popularity of painted panoramas, and many of the most interesting modern VR panoramas involve people rather than beautiful vistas. Nevertheless, here are a few landscape panoramas from 2005 that appealed to me: Frozen Mist Above Lititz Run by Tom Fulmer, Moscow River Fog by Andrew M. Zubetz, Old Man and the Sea by Troy Ward, Beech Woods in Autumn by Tudor Jenkins and the similar Forest in Winter by Helmut Koelbach.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Dead Farms, Dead Leaves

Many modern writers on landscape are operating in what can be called a ‘post-pastoral’ mode. Terry Gifford has identified six overlapping characteristics of post-pastoral (see his book Pastoral, 1999).  
These are
1. A sense of awe in nature that comes with the re-positioning from anthropocentric pastoral to ecocentric post-pastoral. An example of this feeling can be found in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem ‘God’s Grandeur’.
2. A celebration of both constructive and destructive forces and an understanding that nature is not merely a pleasant idyll. Gifford cites the example of glacial action described by John Muir in his Travels in Alaska (1915).
3. Acknowledgement of a link between human and external nature, where the landscape can affect our ideas, perception and well-being. The poems of Peter Redgrove, for example, make this link between inner cycles and changes in the landscape.
4. The recognition that culture is nature, because they are both ultimately the result of natural processes, i.e. nature and culture do not stand in opposition. For example, Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Dead Farms, Dead Leaves’ encompasses both natural and cultural decay.
5. The transition from consciousness to conscience, so that observation of landscape gives rise to ecological concern or sympathy for nature, as in D.H. Lawrence’s poem ‘The Snake.’
6. A sense that exploitation of nature resembles human exploitation, as in various works of ecofeminism, for example Adrienne Rich’s Your Native Land (1986).

I think it is interesting to think about these characteristics in relation to contemporary landscape art as well as considering how effective they are in defining post-pastoral literature.  Or music and cinema for that matter.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Scenes from an Eclogue

Nobody has proved any direct link between Giorgione’s mysterious Tempesta and the pastoral poems of his contemporaries. The art historian Terisio Pignatti, for example, once wrote that there was nothing in the Venetian writer Pietro Bembo’s Gli Asolani that could not be read into the paintings of Giorgione, but he didn’t imply that the artist was actually illustrating anything in Bembo’s book. All that can be said is that Giorgione’s creations - mythological figures in landscape settings and Arcadian figures like the Shepherd with a Flute – share some of the same atmosphere as the pastorals written by Boiardo, Mantuan, Sannazaro et al.

However, one artist at this time did paint Giorgionesque pastoral landscapes based directly on a work of contemporary literature. He was Andrea Previtali, and his Scenes from an Eclogue of Tebaldeo (circa 1505) are now in the National Gallery, London (two of them are shown above). The poem is the popular second eclogue of the Ferrarese poet, Antonio Tebaldeo (1502), in which Damon laments his lost love and then takes his own life. These pictures may have been painted for the cover of a musical instrument, thus uniting poetry, art and music.