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)


Roman said...

When is it OK to anthropomorphise the landscape?

My first thought is that it is legitimate to do so when it is part of significant cultural practices and myth, particularly amongst indigenous peoples. In many Australian aboriginal dreamtime legends, landscape features such as rock formations and mountains are not only formed by, but ‘are’ or ‘were’ ancestral figures, animals and so on. These are frequently depicted in artwork, such as the drawings in a childhood book I loved, ‘The Rainbow Serpent’ by the artist Dick Roughsey, a Lardil man from Mornington Island.

My second, related, thought, is that a particular landscape feature – the tree – has been anthropomorphised for centuries, and this practice has often been depicted in art. To deem such anthropomorphising as somehow illegitimate is to deny a cultural practice that has extraordinarily deep roots (sorry!) in the human psyche. There is a whole literature on trees as people and tree-spirits in western and other cultures. One of the best sources on this is the essays in ‘The Social Life of Trees: Athropological Perspectives on Tree Symbolism’ edited by Laura Rival (Berg, Oxford, 1998). In this collection I especially like Rodolfo Giambelli’s ‘The Coconut, the Body and the Human Being: Metaphors of Life and Growth in Nusa Penida and Bali’. In some countries there are ritual marriages between trees and people. Tolkein had his Ents. Carvings of the ‘green man’ can be found in cathedrals all over Europe. In twentieth century art obvious examples are Frida Kahlo’s portrait of the agronomist ‘Luther Burbank’ and Delvaux’s ‘Break of Day’.

A related matter is the drawings of the poisonous plant mandrake in medieval manuscripts. The roots of the plant are the shape of a human torso. People believed you went mad if you dug it up yourself so they instead tied a rope from a dog to the plant to pull it out. Mandrake was used for medicinal purposes, primarily as a painkiller. Many early illustrations of mandrake show the roots as a complete human figure with a head, eyes, limbs etc.


Plinius said...

Very interesting Roman. The way landscapes encapsulate legends and memories is something I'll return to no doubt. Just one example from Australia to illustrate your point: the rocks in the Wilton river at Yinbirriyunginy (in Arnhem Land) which are a manifestation of ancestral plains kangaroos who were frozen forever whilst relieving themselves in the river (see Howard Morphy's book on Aboriginal Art).