Friday, June 30, 2006

Dutch fields

Hollandse Velden (Dutch Fields), Hans Van Der Meer’s collection of photographs of Dutch football, includes several poignant landscapes. The photographs are discussed in David Winner’s engaging book about the ‘neurotic genius of Dutch football’, Brilliant Orange, in which he links the spatial awareness of Dutch teams to national creativity in land use and landscape. For example, with the birth of Total Football in the late sixties: ‘just as Cornelis Lely in the nineteenth century conceived and executed the idea of creating giant new polders and altering the physical dimensions of Holland by dyke-building and exploiting the new technology of steam, so Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff exploited the new breed of players to change the dimensions of the football field.’

In seeking connections between the spatial awareness of footballers and artists, Winner talks to Rudi Fuchs, then director of the Stedelijk Modern Art Museum in Amsterdam. Fuchs argues that the Dutch have a natural instinct for measuring distance and selecting details – something that can be seen in their landscape painting and football. He says “there is a Dutch way of seeing space, the landscape. Cruyff sees in that Dutch way and he is admired for his innate understanding of the geometry and order of the pitch.”

Of course this may seem rather far-fetched, particularly given the Dutch team’s recent exit from the World Cup in an ill-tempered game that demonstrated little Dutch artistry (in Brilliant Orange Rudi Fuchs likened Marco Van Basten to Jan Vermeer – but that was Van Basten as a player, not a coach). Nevertheless this kind of argument reminds me of the way Michael Baxandall, for example, has sought to explain the art of Piero della Francesco in relation to the relatively sophisticated understanding of volume among the people of fifteenth century Florence.

In his career as director of the Stedelijk Rudi Fuchs was known for making interesting juxtapositions (as this article explains), so was no doubt open to the idea of considering Cruyff alongside other Dutch artists. Fuchs is also, incidentally, the author of a book about Richard Long, an artist whose straight-line approach I am tempted to compare to some of England’s “route one” play when they seem too nervous to pass the ball around and use space creatively.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Thicket No. 1

Tate Modern’s re-hang includes their Roni Horn piece, Thicket No. 1 (1989-90), an aluminium slab which incorporates a line from Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace: ‘To see a landscape as it is when I’m not there’. What you first see is a minimalist object with some black bar-code markings on two sides. Inspection of these reveals the text on the sides of the slab, text which was there all along but not visible, like a landscape when you are not there. As Roni Horn has said in an interview with Jan Howard in 1994, “Thicket No. 1 gives the viewer an inkling of not being present. The contradiction lies in the instinctive weighing of that inkling against the reality, the certainty, of one’s physical presence in that same moment.”

Roni Horn also used this quotation in her book To Place – Book I: Bluff Life (1990) which featured drawings made at Dyrhólaey in Iceland. There she was trying “to be present and to be a part of a place without changing it” whilst knowing that “such a desire can only be thwarted”. It may be literally impossible, but somehow to see a landscape as it is when we are not there seems a valid motivation for landscape art in a world where our presence is increasingly felt everywhere.

[Incidentally, Thicket No. 1 was presented to Tate Modern by art collector Janet Wolfson de Botton, wife of the late Gilbert de Botton, the wealthy chairman of Global Asset Management, whose hobbies apparently included an attempt to ‘recreate the private library of the French philosopher Montaigne, tracking down and acquiring the books that were dispersed after his death in 1592’ (Paul Lewis in The New York Times, August 30, 2000, as mentioned here).]

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Landscape with Red Spots

The title of Tate Modern’s new exhibition Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction indicates the direction in which we are encouraged to read his paintings. For example, after seeing some colourful works depicting Murnau in the Bavarian Alps, we arrive at Landscape with Red Spots (1913), a more abstract work that retains elements of the landscape at Murnau but no longer explicitly refers to it. Stopping before the referent disappears altogether and looking back at Kandinsky’s early paintings we see landscapes infused with Russia’s folklore and Asiatic culture (a fashionable concern, but Kandinsky had actually studied the Komi people in his brief period as an anthropologist in 1889). In mood these earlier works recall turn of the century symbolist landscapes. However, to get a sense of how far Kandinsky had already travelled one might compare his Boat Trip (1910) with Nesterov’s Silence (1903) (one of the most memorable paintings in the National Gallery’s recent ‘Russian landscape in he age of Tolstoy’ exhibition). Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Nesterov (1862-1942) were almost exact contemporaries but took different paths.

Mikhail Nesterov, Silence (1903)
(Kandinsky's painting are still in copyright)

Monday, June 26, 2006

Egdon Heath

“A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor…”

Thus begins Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native (1878). In his short 1895 preface to the novel, Hardy wrote “Under the general name of "Egdon Heath," which has been given to the sombre scene of the story, are united or typified heaths of various real names, to the number of at least a dozen; these being virtually one in character and aspect, though their original unity, or partial unity, is now somewhat disguised by intrusive strips and slices brought under the plough with varying degrees of success, or planted to woodland. It is pleasant to dream that some spot in the extensive tract whose southwestern quarter is here described, may be the heath of that traditionary King of Wessex—Lear.”

The fictional landscape of Egdon Heath can be experienced in a multitude of ways. There are Hardy’s own descriptions and the sketch map he made in 1878. Hardy’s friend, the photographer Herman Lea, provided a photograph of the fictional landscape as the frontispiece for the 1912 re-issue of The Return of the Native. There are more recent illustrations and media adaptations of the novel (Catherine Zeta-Jones once took the role of Eustacia Vye). One can visit the remains of the real landscape that inspired Hardy (being preserved in the Hardy’s Egdon Heath Project). Or one can turn to works inspired by the idea of Egdon Heath, most obviously Gustav Holst’s 1927 composition.

An Edwin Evans article from 1934 available on-line in the Musical Times archive speculated on why Egdon Heath had not yet then been sufficiently appreciated. “Its chromaticism verges on the atonal – there are many passages to which it is difficult to assign a definite tonality. Yet the effect is not vague in the musical sense. It is the emotion that sets the ear guessing. It is one more frequently expressed by painters. One is reminded of those landscapes which at the first glance present a flat, monochrome surface and come to life gradually as the eye probes into them.”

Of course there are many different recordings of Holst’s Egdon Heath, further multiplying the variations on Hardy’s landscape. The one constant is Holst’s score, the original manuscript version of which might be compared to Hardy’s original sketch map. However, in the article by Evans just quoted, he complains “I have little patience with those who profess inability to arrive at an opinion of a piece of music until they have studied the score. It is the ear, not the eye, that is the arbiter on matters of sound… Musically ‘Egdon Heath’ is not intricate, but its mood is elusive, remote, and an audience that has spent all the hours of the day in the turmoil of modern life is not attuned to it.”

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Many thousand views

I was recently given a reproduction of an ‘Endless Landscape’ ‘closely based on one published in Leipzig in the 1830s’. This is an example of a myriorama, a pack of cards depicting slices of landscape which can be rearranged to create different panoramic views. The word myriorama derives from Greek myrias, “ten thousand”, and refers to the different combinations possible with a relatively small number of cards. The myriorama was invented in 1802 by Jean-Pierre Brés (1760-1834) and developed in England by John H. Clark (1771-1863). Stephan Oettermann’s comprehensive book on the Panorama includes the advertisement for Clark’s myriorama that was published in the brochure for the Regent’s Park Diorama in 1825:
Picturesque Scenery / Just Published, The Myriorama; or, many Thousand Views, Designed by Mr. Clark. The Myriorama is a movable Picture, consisting of numerous Cards, on which Fragments of Landscapes, neatly coloured, and so ingeniously contrived that any two, or more, placed together, will form a pleasing View; or if the whole are put on a table at once, will admit the astonishing Number of 20,922,789,888,000 Variations: it is therefore certain, that if a person were occupied night and day, making one change every minute, he could not finish the task in less than 39,807,888 years, and 330 days. The cards are fitted up in an elegant box, price 15s.
The Myriorama (second Series) consisting entirely of Italian Scenery, Designed by Mr Clark. The Second Series is capable of even greater variation thn the First, as the number of cards is increased from 16 to 24. The changes or variations which may be produced by the 24 Cards, amount to the astounding and almost incredible number of 640,448,401,733,239,360,000. Price 1 L. 4s. in an Elegant Box.
There is a photograph of a myriorama at the Bill Dougas Centre site. The term myriorama later came to be used for moving panoramas – Poole’s Myriorama is mentioned in the ‘Penelope’ chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses. The concept of a myriorama could be adapted to contemporary art in various ways: one example on-line is this installation by the Australian artist Tony Clark.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Under a beech tree

Virgil’s first Eclogue opens with the farmer Meiliboeus addressing Tityrus, who is reclining under a sheltering beech tree, playing his reed pipe. Meliboeus is envious of Tityrus, who has the leisure to sit in the shade and teach the woods to repeat his song ‘Fair Amaryllis’ and is amazed that Tityrus can be so relaxed when the countryside is full of troubles (the land confiscations following the Battle of Philippi). But Tityrus has recently been granted his freedom by Augustus and can afford to sing of love and celebrate the pastoral scene. Tityrus takes pity on Meliboeus and invites him to stay the night for a meal of apple, cheese and chestnuts.

Tityrus reappears in Paul Valéry’s ‘Dialogue of the Tree’ (1943), this time in conversation with the philosopher-poet Lucretius, author of On the Nature of the Universe. Valéry contrasts the desire of Tityrus to celebrate a simple unreflective idea of nature, with Lucretius’s search for a more profound underlying truth. Lucretius finds Tityrus gazing at the beech tree, drawn upward to the ‘leaf-woven air’ and inspired to give this beautiful moment a musical form. Tityrus only wants to know the tree in its ‘happy moments’ and fuse its fleeting nature and the voices of leaves, birds and animals into a single form. Lucretius by contrast seeks the Nature of Things and has a more profound understanding of the tree. He feels that Tityrus only loves his own song, not the true beech tree that is its source. Lucretius sees through fleeting appearance to the hard wood of a thirsty plant, gripping its rock and drawing sustenance from the earth. In meditating on the natural order, Lucretius goes so far as to liken himself to the tree it in its structured growth and natural rhythms. Tityrus sings of the tree, but for Lucretius the tree itself is a song. They feel the cool of evening approaching and part with Lucretius lost in radiant rapture.

Lucretius might be seen in this guise as reflecting some of the attitudes of modern post-pastoral poetry. And yet at the end of the dialogue there is something almost too serious and profound in his words, and the reader feels like leaving Lucretius under the tree to follow the modest shepherd Tityrus, as he goes to gather his flock.

Incidentally, the beech tree that Tityrus sits under in both dialogues was native to north Italy, where Virgil was born. It was not known in Greece and therefore it had no established poetic resonances when Virgil was writing: beech trees were mentioned by Catullus but do not appear in Greek poetry like Virgil’s model, the Idylls of Theocritus. It would seem that Virgil drew it from his own landscape experience. After the Eclogues the beech tree would often be associated with the artificial landscape of pastoral poetry. As in Valéry’s dialogue, the beech tree can seem real or poetic, depending on the poet.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Waking in the marram grass

The photograph here shows some silver marram grass we saw on the island of Bryher a couple of summers ago. It was swaying invitingly and reminded me of Thomas A. Clark’s short poem on falling asleep in marram grass, a poem that can be seen on his website. As the Scottish poetry library site’s page on him explains, Clark runs the Cairn gallery which has recently re-located to Pittenweem. I have not visited the new version, but the earlier gallery in Nailsworth was a special place with the feeling of a sanctuary: above an old post office, quiet, white rooms hung with minimalist art works and, here and there, small poetic inscriptions. We last went there in 2002 when there was an exhibition that made a connection between Novalis and Ian Hamilton Finlay’s book The Blue Sail. In the midst of Finlay’s poems this book includes Novalis’s statement on the importance of romanticising the everyday. The title of the anthology also recalls Novalis’s symbol of the blue flower.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Arctic wind

An earlier entry (Ice Lens) described the Cape Farewell project, which has now arrived at the Natural History Museum as The Ship: The Art of Climate Change. One of the artists in this exhibition, Gautier Deblonde, has made a series of landscape photographs of Svalbard (the archipelago that includes Spitsbergen). His website has a range of these images, some of which are quite striking, like this photograph of a flock of birds.

There is an article about the Cape Farewell trip on the Open Democracy site. It includes a sound recording made by Max Eastley of the Arctic wind: “moderated through Aeolian flutes (simple tubes strapped to the rigging of the schooner Noorderlicht)”. At the Natural History Museum, Eastley has installed a kinetic sculpture which taps out sounds on ice-like blocks of glass.

It will be interesting to see the afterlife of the exhibition in these artists’ work. Was this a stimulating holiday from their normal subjects, allowing Gary Hume to paint a polar bear and Antony Gormley to cast himself in ice, for example, or will the Cape Farewell artists continue to draw attention to global warming and the plight of the Arctic?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The gardens at Stoke Edith

William Sheldon set up a tapestry workshop in his manor house at Barcheston in 1570 with the aim of starting a local industry to rival the tapestry makers of Flanders. The Sheldon tapestry workshop produced maps of English counties: this detail of the map of Warwickshire shows the Sheldon house at Weston (above the windmill). The V&A has a fragment showing what is now South West London. They are charming to look at (Horace Walpole thought so when he bought them in 1781), although landscape elements are admittedly fairly limited. Whilst none of the other Sheldon workshop tapestries in the V&A depict pure landscapes, they are all rich in natural detail, like the verdure in a tapestry of Paris giving the golden apple, and the rural settings of a tapestry showing a huntsman and a valance with country scenes.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Another type of landscape-related tapestry at the V&A is the Stoke Edith embroidery (above), showing the formal gardens of a house in Herefordshire. There is a wonderfully gushing description of it here.

The V&A currently have a textile artist in residence, Sue Lawty, who draws inspiration from landscape and natural materials, e.g. Terra (2004). She has recently begun making stone drawings – collages of stone suspended on the wall which resemble tapestries, one of which is currently on display. You can follow her progress on her blog.

Update May 2015
Looking back at this post I see most of the V&A links no longer work, leaving it a bit threadbare.  So I'll add in here something on another of the Sheldon maps I read recently, intrigued by the headline 'Map of Worcestershire from 1590s describes mysterious event in the hills near ‘The Worldesend’.
'A 400-year-old tapestry map that depicts a mysterious event that happened among the villages, streams and windmills of Elizabethan Worcestershire is to go on public display for the first time in centuries at Oxford’s Bodleian library.  Exactly what happened, somewhere north of Kynaston and south of Edgbaston, in the 1590s remains a mystery, but the tapestry’s woven text is emphatic: the hilly landscape, near a village ominously named as “The Worldesend”, “was dryven downe by the removyng of the ground”.  “Earthquake? Landslide? Quarrying? We just don’t know,” says Nick Millea, map librarian at the Bodleian. “It’s one of the many things in this map I’d love to follow up one day.” ... The mysterious “dryven downe” land is unlikely to be invention. Given that it was made when few people had ever seen even a paper map – Millea says that Sheldon would certainly have had to explain to most visitors what a map was and how to read it – the glowing landscape is remarkably accurate. ... One of its many delights is the text: one section says, of a county still famous for its orchards: “hear goodly orchards planted are in fruite which doo abounde. Thine eye wolde make thin hart rejoyce to see so pleasant grounde.”'

Friday, June 16, 2006

Bird’s Eye View of Western Tuscany

It can seem that in sixteenth century Italy, artists and cartographers worked on a continuum between maps and landscape paintings. Leonardo da Vinci’s Landscape (Arno Valley) 1473 has a high vantage point and some of the landscape features in it start to take on the characteristics of a map’s aerial perspective. As Malcolm Andrews has pointed out (Landscape in Western Art), the Birds-eye View of Western Tuscany of c. 1502 is half-way between a map and a landscape drawing, whilst Birds-eye View of Southern Tuscany – Val di Chiana c.1502 (below) can be more clearly categorised as a map. Both of these views were drawn during Leonardo’s time working for Cesare Borgia.

Leonardo da Vinci, Birds-eye View of Southern Tuscany
– Val di Chiana c.1502

Later in the century, Cristoforo Sorte (1510-95) performed a similar role for the Venetian government, producing beautiful charts like the Map of the Territory of Verona and Vicenza. A cartographer, engineer and architect, Sorte was also the author of the treatise on painting, Osservazioni nella pittura (1580), which includes comments on the art of landscape. The range of Sorte’s interests suggests that the poetic pastoral landscapes of Venetian art might have a connection with the practical concerns of Venetian land reclamation and chorography. However, Denis Cosgrove’s essay ‘The geometry of landscape’ suggests a deeper layer uniting these interests, since the mathematics involved in landscaping and the atmosphere of a painting were both seen as expressing the universal harmony of nature. Although Sorte did not explicitly write a hermetic theory of landscape painting, his treatise is, according to Cosgrove, infused with the sort of symbolism found in esoteric writing, and focuses particularly in dawn and dusk and the cycle of the seasons. Sorte advised painters to convey the variety of the seasons, from spring with its ‘diverse shades of green’, to summer when ‘the earth burns in the heat, as if its vital spirit were exhausted’, autumn, when ‘leaves turn russet’ and winter, with its mists, rain, frost and snow: an ‘earth shorn of all beauty’.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

View of Toledo

El Greco’s View and Plan of Toledo (c1610-14) is interesting because it encompasses both a map and a landscape. The landscape of the city is accurate and reflects the details on the map held up by the young man. However, as the painted view does not have the burden of carrying all the topographical information it can also give an artistic impression of the city, spread out over the rocky slopes under a dramatic sky. And yet this view remains constrained by the real layout of Toledo. El Greco’s own vision of the city might be better seen in the Met’s View of Toledo (c 1597-99) where the artist alters the position of buildings (moving the cathedral to the left of the Alcázar palace) and the dark, writhing forms create an extraordinary expressionist landscape. 

 Images: Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

A stone in Woncumb

The desire to uncover and celebrate the English landscape that inspired so much poetry, music and painting in the first half of the twentieth century, also led to a flowering of academic studies. A fiftieth anniversary edition of W. G. Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape was published last year, and in his introduction Keith Thomas places the book in the context of a post-War boom in scholarly landscape studies: Jacquetta Hawkes’ A Land (1951), Pevsner’s architectural guides, launched the same year, H. C. Darby’s Domesday Geography of England (1952), O. G .S. Crawford’s Archaeology in the Field (1953) and Maurice Beresford’s Lost Villages of England (1954). Hoskins’ work began as five radio talks in 1954 which were turned into a book the following year.

One of the charms of Hoskins’ book is the way he encourages the reader to get out and discover the history of the landscape for themselves. For example, ‘armed with a copy of a Saxon charter’ and a map, anyone can uncover an Anglo-Saxon estate boundary. He describes his own search for these boundaries in Devon and Somerset, scrambling over hedges, leaping across streams and walking ‘along high airy ridges’. He also describes a discovery of Mr G. M. Young on the edge of Wiltshire’s Vale of Pewsey where a charter of 825 records the granting of land by King Egbert to the church of St Peter and St Paul. The charter says that the boundary ran up to a stone in Woncumb with a distinctive hole in it. When Mr Young looked for this boundary he found the very stone, exactly where the Saxon surveyors had recorded it. 

Here are two of my favourite passages from the book, first on the pleasures of maps:
'There are certain sheets of the 1-inch Ordnance Survey maps which one can sit down and read like a book for an hour on end, with growing pleasure and imaginative excitement. One dwells upon the infinite variety of the place-names (and yet there is a characteristic flavour for each region of England), the delicate nerve-like complexity of roads and lanes, the siting of the villages and hamlets, the romantic moated farmsteads in deep country, the churches standing alone in the fields, the patterns made by the contours or by the way the parish boundaries fit into one another. One dissects such a map mentally, piece by piece, and in doing so learns a good deal of local history, whether or not one knows the country itself.'
And here, his knowledge of place names allows him to imagine how the landscape appeared before the English settlement:
'Inland, especially in the far west and north, there still remained millions of acres of stony moorland haunted only by the animal creation, where the eagle and the raven circled undisturbed. The villages of Earnwood in Shropshire and Yarnscombe in Devon commemorate former ‘eagles’ wood’ and ‘eagles’ valley’; while far up in the West Riding of Yorkshire the limestone crags above Littondale provided eyries for these noble birds, and in due course the Old English village of Arncliffe took its name from the ‘eagles’ cliff.'

Monday, June 12, 2006

The village of Zweeloo

There is an excellent Webexhibits site containing English translations of the letters of Vincent Van Gogh. The site allows you to search for words; I tried putting in Daubigny, the Barbizon landscape painter whom Van Gogh often mentions, and the site yields 58 results and a timeline showing each of these letters. The first is from 23 July 1873, when Van Gogh was in London and writing to his brother about English art: “Among the old painters, Constable was a landscape painter who lived about thirty years ago; he is splendid - his work reminds me of Diaz and Daubigny.” The last letter to talk about Daubigny is Van Gogh’s final letter, written from Auvers-Sur-Oise a few days before his death, exactly seventeen years after the letter from London: “Perhaps you will take a look at this sketch of Daubigny's garden - it is one of my most carefully thought-out canvases. I am adding a sketch of some old thatched roofs and the sketches of two size 30 canvases representing vast fields of wheat after the rain.”
Van Gogh wrote some beautiful descriptions of landscape. A favourite of mine is the letter of 2 November 1883 from Drenthe, describing a visit to Zweeloo which started before dawn. As the first light appeared “everything, the few cottages we passed - surrounded by wispy poplars whose yellow leaves one could hear falling - a stumpy old tower in a little churchyard with an earth bank and a beech hedge, the flat scenery of heath or cornfields, everything was exactly like the most beautiful Corots. A stillness, a mystery, a peace as only he has painted it...”
“The ride into the village was so beautiful. Enormous mossy roofs of houses, stables, covered sheepfolds, barns. The very broad-fronted houses here are set among oak trees of a superb bronze. Tones in the moss of gold-green, in the ground of reddish or bluish or yellowish dark lilac-greys, tones of inexpressible purity in the green of the little cornfields, tones of black in the wet tree trunks, standing out against the golden rain of swirling, teeming autumn leaves, which hang in loose clumps - as if they had been blown there, loose and with the light filtering through them - from the poplars, the birches, the limes and the apple trees. The sky smooth and bright, shining, not white but a barely detectable lilac, white vibrant with red, blue and yellow, reflecting everything and felt everywhere above one, hazy and merging with the thin mist below, fusing everything in a gamut of delicate greys.”
As the description continues, Van Gogh’s enthusiasm for this humble landscape becomes genuinely moving. “Journeying through these parts for hour after hour, one feels that there really is nothing but that infinite earth, that mould of corn or heather, that infinite sky. Horses and men seem as small as fleas. One is unaware of anything else, however large it may be in itself; one knows only that there is earth and sky.”

Quotations are from Webexhibits, which gives permission to use the letters under Creative Commons.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Deer Park

The most famous landscape poems of Wang Wei (699-761) are contained in the Wang River Sequence, or as David Hinton’s recent translation calls it, the WheelRim River Sequence. One of these poems, ‘Deer Park’ poem briefly evokes the solitude of the mountains, with no sound but ‘hints of drifting voice, and in the wooded slopes, a beautiful detail – light falling on moss. It is the subject of an engaging book by Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz, Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese Poem Is Translated, containing versions by Burton Watson, Gary Snyder and Kenneth Rexroth among others. There are interesting ‘Further Comments’, in which Paz discusses his own version of ‘Deer Park’, and a postscript with a translation by an American professor that Weinberg describes as ‘Gerard Manley Hopkins on LSD’. In the subsequent twenty years there have of course been more translations, including Hinton’s and a version by Vikram Seth. These are discussed in an interesting article at

All this critical interest in ‘Deer Park’ seems to be detaching it from its original sequence and the landscape of Wang Wei’s estate. It is not so much that the poem itself has peculiar resonance, like a song that invites endless cover versions or a painting that is continually referenced. It is more that the process of translations have turned the poem into a challenge, like a mountain peak which must be scaled, while the translators hear the attempts of earlier poets like the ‘hints of drifting voice’ in Deer Park.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Landscape with Apollo killing the Cyclops

Domenichino and assistants, Apollo Killing the Cyclops, c. 1616-18

There are eight frescoes designed by Domenichino (1581-1641) in the National Gallery, all showing scenes from mythology set in classical landscapes. They originally decorated a garden pavilion at the Villa Aldobrandini in Frascati, built in 1615 as the rural retreat of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini. They fall into the Roman and Renaissance tradition of landscape frescoes: realistic depictions of idealised versions of the real countryside surrounding the villa. However, these frescoes have an interesting further layer of complexity: they are actually trompe l’oeil depictions of tapestries, as can be seen clearly in Apollo killing the Cyclops, where the tapestry is lifted up at one corner and the bars of a window can be seen behind the leg of the cardinal’s dwarf. So in Aldobrandini’s garden pavilion, the real landscape was behind a wall, behind a fake window, behind a fake tapestry and behind a landscape that never really existed.

 Apollo and Neptune advising Laomedon on the Building of Troy

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Poplars on the Epte

Claude Monet, Poplars on the Banks of the Epte, 1891

In 1891 Claude Monet painted Poplars on the Epte, Poplars along the River Epte, Autumn and several other views of the same landscape, working outside at specific times of day. He claimed he could only work on each painting for seven minutes at the most, ‘until the sunlight left a certain leaf’. These snapshots of a fixed view in different lighting conditions came to mind recently when I was looking at the images of a webcam on a hotel in Cornwall, which takes hourly photographs of Mawgan Porth Beach. But these webcam images are machine landscapes with no artistic personality, just the disembodied viewpoint of a hotel building. They do not claim to be more than a simple means of checking the local weather. The importance of the viewpoint might be seen in a comparison with another camera set up to film the sea, in Tacita Dean’s Disappearance at Sea II (1997). The views may be similar (and very different from a painted seascape) but in Tacita Dean’s film the role of the artist is clear in the choice of a resonant location for the camera, mounted in the position of the lighthouse bulb, gradually swivelling and gazing out to sea.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Moselle

Has every river had its poet? The poet of the Moselle is Decimus Magnus Ausonius (c. 310-395), born at Burdigala (Bordeaux), who celebrated the river and its surrounding countryside in his Mosella. Ausonius was a poet who liked lists and the Mosella includes a description of the river’s fish: chub, trout, salmon, perch, pike... However, as this article on the Mosella fish catalogue by Vincent Huninck suggests, Ausonius is unlikely to have observed these fish directly, drawing instead upon “a marginal, almost forgotten tradition in ancient didactic poetry, the subgenre of 'poetry on good food' of which the Greek Archestratus was the founder.”


This original post was rather short so I am adding here a few extracts from a Loeb English translation avilable online by Hugh G. Evelyn White M.A., sometime scholar of Wadham College, Oxford.  Here, Ausonius wonders what the river thinks of itself...
'Thyself how often dost thou marvel at the windings of thine own stream, and think its natural speed moves almost too slowly! Thou with no mud-grown sedge fringest thy banks, nor with foul ooze o'er-spread'st thy marge; dry is the treading down to thy water's edge.'
Here he describes the transparency of the water.
'Thou through thy smooth surface showest all the treasures of thy crystal depths a river keeping naught concealed: and as the calm air lies clear and open to our gaze, and the stilled winds do not forbid the sight to travel through the void, so, if our gaze penetrates thy gulfs, we behold things whelmed far below, and the recesses of thy secret depth lie open, whenas thy flood moves softly and thy waters limpid-gliding reveal in azure light shapes scattered here and there: how the furrowed sand is rippled by the light current, how the bowed water-grasses quiver in thy green bed: down beneath their native streams the tossing plants endure the water's buffeting, pebbles gleam and are hid, and gravel picks out patches of green moss.'
And here is a river landscape, where the water reflects the trees (Hesperus is the evening star).
'Yon is a sight that may be freely enjoyed : when the azure river mirrors the shady hill, the waters of the stream seem to bear leaves and the flood to be all o'ergrown with shoots of vines. What a hue is on the waters when Hesperus has driven forward the lagging shadows and o'erspreads Moselle with the green of the reflected height! Whole hills float on the shivering ripples: here quivers the far-off tendril of the vine, here in the glassy flood swells the full cluster.'

Monday, June 05, 2006

Eight Views of the Hsiao and Hsiang Rivers

Muqi Fachang, A fishing village at sunset, c. 1250
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the eleventh century Sung Ti painted Eight Views of the Hsiao and Hsiang Rivers. His example inspired many subsequent Chinese painters to depict the same views (one example is given above):
  1. Clear-weather mists above a mountain market-village
  2. A fishing village at sunset
  3. A sailboat returning to a distant inlet
  4. The confluence of the Hsiao and Hsiang rivers in the rain
  5. A temple bell in the evening mist
  6. The autumn moon over Tung-t’ing Lake
  7. Geese descending to a sandbar
  8. Snow falling on a river at dusk.
As Hiroyuki Suzuki has pointed out in his essay ‘The Garden of Shisendo’, in Japan a similar set of eight views was eventually established which closely parallels the original of Sung Ti - The Eight Views of Omi:
  1. The town of Awazu on a clear and windy day
  2. The village of Seta at sunset
  3. A sailboat returning off the shore of Yabashi
  4. Karasaki in the night rain
  5. The evening bell at Mii temple near Biwa
  6. The autumn moon over Ishiyama temple near Lake Biwa
  7. Geese landing near Katada
  8. Snow falling at dusk from Mount Hira, overlooking Lake Biwa.
Japanese artists took to the idea of ‘Eight Views’ and established similar lists for other landscapes at Kyoto, Nara, Fukagawa and elsewhere. And, as Suzuki notes, ‘during the Edo period it was fashionable to select eight views inside the gardens of feudal lords. For instance, there were eight views in the Rikugien garden at Komogome and of the Yuin’en garden in Ichigaya, both in Edo’. In the twentieth century official lists of the best eight views were still being drawn up, and Dazai Osamu referred to the tradition in the title of his novel Eight Views in Tokyo.
Neither of the lists of eight views here relate purely to location. The descent of geese and the falling snow relate to specific moments in time. Temporary effects of weather, season or time of day bring out the poetic qualities of the landscapes.

Note that in modern pinyin, Sung Ti is Song Di, and the rivers are Xiao and Xiang. An example of an early Chinese painting in the tradition is the scene of a returning sailboat by Mu Xi in Kyoto National Museum. There is a Korean version of the Xiao and Xiang scenes by Kim Tuk-sin in the National Museum of Asian Art-Guimet. In Japan, Ando Hiroshige made three versions of the Eight Views of Omi, which can be seen at the Woodblock Prints of Ando Hiroshige site.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Fata Morgana

There was a trend in the sixties and seventies for directors (Godard, Tarkovsky, Marker) to use real locations in science fiction films to emphasise, in J.G. Ballard’s words, that earth is the alien planet. However, it was Werner Herzog who took this approach furthest in Fata Morgana (1971), jettisoning the science fiction plot altogether and retaining only a sequence of images that convey a strange world seen for the first time: strange cities and abandoned structures, deserts like the surface of other planets, mysterious landforms. In one sequence shot in Algeria, tower like structures are visible in the haze of the horizon, arranged like the soft forms in a Giorgio Morandi painting. In another, the desert rolls past in sharply defined abstract curves, like the dunescapes of Edward Weston. These landscapes were all real locations, unfamiliar to Western cinema goers. But stranger still were the mirages that Herzog filmed in the desert: floating lakes, blurred rocks and mysterious moving vehicles, none of which were there. Here, in his search for new images, Herzog went beyond the idea of locating rarely seen locations and found landscapes that only existed as atmospheric phenomena.