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).'