Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A hot gust of wind blows across the colourless sea...

'The night had brought little relief from the heat, and at dawn a hot gust of wind blows across the colourless sea. The KNIGHT, Antonius Block, lies prostrate on some spruce branches spread over the fine sand....' So begins The Seventh Seal...

In his little BFI Film Classics book about the film Melvyn Bragg says how the opening of the film resembles a play. But in a theatre we would not see the landscape, and it is the setting of this scene that seems to me crucial. The screenplay describes the knight opening his eyes after a morning prayer: he 'stares directly into the morning sun which wallows up from the misty sea like some bloated, dying fish. The sky is grey and immobile, a dome of lead. A cloud hangs mute over the western horizon. High up, barely visible, a seagull floats on motionless wings. Its cry is weird and restless.' It is at this point that the knight turns round and sees Death.

Rugged coasts and islands are perhaps the most archetypal Bergman landscape. In addition to his use of Hovs Hallar in Skåne for The Seventh Seal, I think primarily of the way he used the Stockholm Archipelago in Summer with Monika and his repeated use of the island of Fårö, which first appeared in Through a Glass Darkly. Fårö is, according to, Geoffrey Macnab, a "a remote, windswept place with a landscape that appears flat and barren. There are countless pine trees, fields with ancient stone walls, a succession of sand and shingle beaches, and more sheep than humans." It was on Fårö that Bergman lived until the sad news of his death was announced yesterday.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

A Nocturnal Reverie

The verse anthology I’m clutching here, English Scottish and Welsh Landscape, edited by John Betjeman and Geoffrey Taylor, with lithographs by John Piper, was published, like Geoffrey Grigson’s The Poet’s Eye during the Second World War. It is a strange book, the product of a unique moment and a particular sensibility. What is so strange about it? Well the whole book begins with an apology rather than a preface in which the editors explain why they seem to have deliberately omitted the most exciting English nature poetry in favour of modest verse written about particular places.
‘You must visualize the earlier part of the book at any rate, as a series of views of this island rendered by oil, water-colour or engraving. Cunningham’s conventional landscapes have been well described by Mr. Grigson in The Romantics as ‘like a cast oil on a dining-room wall in an eighteenth-century mansion – the kind that goes with the house because it is too big for the auctioneer to sell’. The wooden passage from Dodsley is like an inn signboard : Bampfylde is a Morland : Goldsmith is some not very good picture, but so famous that it could not be omitted : Crabbe has the freshness of a Cotman water-colour : many of the lesser-known writers round the turn of the [19th] century are like the copper-engravings or Bewick cuts which, no doubt, adorned some of their works...’
So rather than stick to poems that retain a ‘freshness’, like Crabbe’s, the editors have deliberately chosen a ‘not very good’ Oliver Goldsmith (an extract from ‘The Deserted Village’), a ‘wooden passage’ from Robert Dodsley, and so on. The reason for this approach becomes clear when they describe as ‘the reason for the book’ the chance to include ‘quiet Georgian rectors, village schoolmasters, peers in their libraries looking across the park, Victorian drunks and reformers and escapists’. ‘They were recording landscape from the distant view to the cascade in a wet cart rut, with a love and observation men are just beginning again to appreciate. Theirs may be ‘pedestrian’ verse, but it is written by pedestrians or, at the fastest, travellers on a cob, for pedestrians.’ Even without this explanation, it is clear from a glance at the index of authors that there are a disproportionate number of Reverends: Rev. Henry Alford, Rev. William Barnes, Rev. Robert Blair, Rev. William Lisle Bowles, Rev. Moses Browne etc. And of course George Crabbe was among their number: he was the Rector of Trowbridge.
I was looking for a brief example to include here, but a lot of this poetry is not available on the web (although it was out of copyright when the book was published back in 1944). However, here are a few lines from the book’s opening poem, dating from the start of the eighteenth century. It describes a night scene in Wiltshire viewed (or imagined?!) by Anne Finch, Countess of Winchelsea, in her poem ‘A Nocturnal Reverie’:
...Whilst Salisb'ry stands the Test of every Light,
In perfect Charms, and perfect Virtue bright:
When Odours, which declin'd repelling Day,
Thro' temp'rate Air uninterrupted stray;
When darken'd Groves their softest Shadows wear,
And falling Waters we distinctly hear;
When thro' the Gloom more venerable shows
Some ancient Fabrick, awful in Repose,
While Sunburnt Hills their swarthy Looks conceal,
And swelling Haycocks thicken up the Vale...
‘A Nocturnal Reverie’ is printed next to a John Piper sketch of Pistyll Cain in North Wales – his illustrations are not linked to specific poems: the one below shows the Approach to Gordale Scar.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Landscapes at Kalumpiwarra, Yalmanta and Ngulalintji

Among Australian Aboriginal artists, the work of Rover Thomas (1926-98) particularly appeals to me, perhaps because there are some superficial similarities with Mark Rothko, as noted here. However, in an article on Thomas, Wally Caruana remarks on their differences: ‘if Rothko's paintings mirror the human form, then Thomas' are firmly embedded in the landscape.’

Postage stamp from 1993: Kalumpiwarra-Ngulalintji by Rover Thomas

Rover Thomas’s Landscapes at Kalumpiwarra, Yalmanta and Ngulalintji (1984), in the National Gallery at Canberra, commemorates an old woman killed by a car accident at Turkey Creek airstrip. It shows, according to Howard Morphy in his book Aboriginal Art, a place on the woman’s spirit journey with identifiable locations: Blackfellow Creek, the rock at Ngarkalin, grass at Yalmanta, a wooded area, Ashburton Hill, Bow River. ‘Although Thomas’s landscapes echo some contemporary Euro-American paintings in style, they come directly out of the art of the Kimberleys... the underlying theme is the spiritual value of the land and the connections between places.’

I couldn’t see Landscapes at Kalumpiwarra, Yalmanta and Ngulalintji on-line but here are some links to other Rover Thomas paintings: Yari Country (1989), Cyclone Tracy (1991), Paruku (Lake Gregory) (1991), Kankamkankami, (1998). And there’s a Rover Thomas painting, All that big rain coming from top side, on Les Murray’s site accompanying Murray’s poem ‘Two Rains’. This work was bought by the Australian National Gallery in 2001 with the record sum for an indigenous Australian painting: $778,750.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Above the frenzied sea

Some years ago we visited the Cinque Terra, a group of five villages on the Ligurian coast of Italy. One day we did the coast walk between them, starting at Riomaggiore and ending at Monterosso (see photo below). I remember the curves of the landscape, the glittering sea, the wind blowing in the pine trees... but I also remember a harsher side to the place: the crumbling, dusty path, a relentless sun overhead and dense brambles hiding the view. Soon afterwards I read Eugenio Montale’s first book Ossi di Seppia (Cuttlefish Bones) and found all these elements in poems set in the Liguria of his childhood and youth. In 1900 Montale’s family had built a villa at Fegina, near Monterosso. As Jonathan Galassi says in his notes to Collected Poems 1920-1954, ‘here Montale will spend long summer holidays until he is nearly thirty, and absorb the elemental landscape – hallucinatory sun, agitated sea, barren cliffs and shoals – that is the primary material of his first poetry.’ The Ossi di Seppia poems were first published in 1925, when Montale was 29.

The path to Monterosso

To get a sense of the Ligurian landscape in Ossi di Seppia you need to read the poems. What I’ve attempted to do below is give a flavour by extracting some phrases from Galassi’s translations, starting with the orchard of ‘In limine’ and ending with the flight of swifts in ‘Riviere’.

the wind inside the orchard ... among the lemon trees ... whispering of friendly branches ... the fragrance of lemons ... the golden horns of sunlight ... the copper horizon ... the livid sea ... swallowed by the haze ... the rock that shimmers with salt ... old-silver shimmer on the walls ... the bitter scent of the sea ... fired reflections ... the plain of the sea ... a blistering garden wall ... among the thorns and brambles ... throb of sea scales ... cicadas’ wavering screaks ... the shade of that green thicket ... wavering mother-of-pearl haze ... the stillness of the country ... my field parched by the salt sea wind ... the sunflower crazed with light ... the statue in the drowsiness of noon ... the trees give up no shade ... walking in dry, glassy air ... butterflies danced fleetingly ... among thin reeds and brush ... the well’s pulley creaks ... the owl darts ... wet smoke hangs heavy on roofs ... the arc of the sky ... slanting shadows of cluster pines ... the sight of the sea ... foam raining back on the rocks ... the sun bakes ... mosquitoes cloud the air ... cork and seaweed and starfish ... the dry cliffs ... the rocks that edged the road ... shaking tufts of thirsty cane ... briny gusts ... rivers of rainwater ... the sea’s lashing ... the wind’s erratic gales ... air so blue it goes dark ... the sun in darkened courtyards ... a throbbing sea hatched with furrows ... tangled seaweed and drifting tree trunks ... scarlet houses built of ancient brick ... the thin hair of tamarisks ... vines and pine groves ... the bald, hunched backs of hillocks ... steep embankments ... bramble thickets ... a wisp of breeze ... the house by the sea ... shivering tamarisks ... false calm over carved waters ... sirocco gale that burns ... the sky alive with pale lights ... the choppy sea talks in the rocks ... a few seabirds are flying ... clouds pressed between the branches ... among the silver blades of tender leaves ... a patch of sky burns overhead ... the rumble of a train ... the solemn cicadas ... the dusty streets ... tops of elders shiver ... the sea that shudders ... the windy gorge ... the branches of dwarf pines ... a lead stormcloud high above the riptide ... a salty, roiling maelstrom ... thunder rolls with a struck-metal clang ... the apprehensive sky starts spattering ... among the stones ... the sun hides in the clouds ... hazy afternoon ... the gentle breakers ... copper water riffled by a breeze ... the swarm of bats that sunset scatters ... a fisherman lets down his line ... tranquil afternoon ... the excess of light stuns ... edges go abstract ... tendrils of the low vines ... an eddy of deepening blue ... assiduous, slow waves ... sluggish mists ... the sigh of the breaker ... someone hangs out nets ... a curve of flayed horizon ... the whistle of the tugboat ... the offshore wind’s hot eddies ... a cormorant’s wing beats up above ... the rivermouth, waterless, but alive with rocks and lime ... a roadway of dried mud ... a dense fog ... glancing light ... a few blades of agave ... above the frenzied sea ... a pair of pale camellias ... shuddering olive trees and staring sunflowers ... the cuttlefish bone ... a stone smoothed by the sea ... the arcs of shifting branches ... rocks brown in the foam ... arrows of roving swifts.

The 'copper horizon', Riomaggiore

Monday, July 16, 2007


The latest Frieze, a ‘summer ecology special’, is a hefty 265 pages, so I was glad to see the editorial reflecting on the carbon footprint of magazine production. In a review of the Sharjah Biennial (‘Still Life: Art, Ecology, and the Politics of Change’), Christy Lange writes that ‘a number of works only superficially grazed the subject of the fate of our environment (confusing it instead with the genre of landscape or the literal act of recycling).’ With this in mind, as we’re concerned here with the ‘genre of landscape’, I’m not going to discuss the interesting work of environmental artists like Tue Greenfort, who feature in this special edition of Frieze, but I’d recommend looking at the Frieze website, now expanded to include more content, thus ‘saving more trees’. It includes a survey of the field by Max Andrews, author of LAND, ART: A Cultural Ecology Handbook.

A couple of interesting landscape-related things on this site worth drawing particular attention to:

  • There is a review of Alan Berger’s new book, Drosscape. In this book ‘Berger classifies drosscape sites into landscapes of dwelling (LODs – voids of land in housing developments), landscapes of transition (LOTs – temporary storage facilities), landscapes of infrastructure (LINs – transportation rights of way), landscapes of obsolescence (LOOs – junkyards and landfills), landscapes of exchange (LEXs – abandoned malls) and landscapes of contamination (LOCOs – military bases and other brown fields).’ There are various other reviews on-line, e.g. at Terrain.org.
  • A review of a new Mike Marshall exhibition mentions an interesting new work. ‘In Spoil (2007) Marshall retouched a black and white image of a mountain of debris in a way that both restored original colour to the monochrome image and mimicked, in deliberately debased form, a landscape painting of the Sublime. It’s Caspar David Friedrich crossed with Peter Fischli & David Weiss: by turns meditating on the transcendent qualities of art’s capacity to represent nature, expressing shyness towards art as representation and a love, instead, for the beauties of the commonplace. There are things that are consistently wonderful – flowers, the sun breaking through clouds, the roll of thunder – yet which lose all their power in mediation. Marshall considers how to tackle this problem.’

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Coalbrookdale by Night

The last posting got me thinking about the idea of the industrial sublime, and the painting below which is often used to illustrate it. The Royal Academy has a Loutherbourg etching of the Ironworks, Coalbrook Dale which is much less menacing, and, going further back to 1777, there is a painting, Morning View of Coalbrook Dale by William Williams, where the industrial smoke is just a baleful presence in the distance... But with Coalbrookdale by Night the delightful horror of the new industry is evident in a fiery drama, set, according to this article, at a place called Bedlam Furnaces.

Philip James de Loutherbourg, Coalbrookdale by Night, 1801
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In his book Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe describes the way the industrial revolution changed the nature of the sublime. ‘The limitlessness once found in nature gives way, in technology, to a limitlessness produced out of an idea which is not interested in being an idea of nature, but one which replaces the idea of nature.’ The Coalbrookdale furnace is a new force in the world, but for ‘the industrial subject’ this kind of sight will henceforth be ‘part of the landscape. The landscape potentially now has in it forces comparable in power with nature, but products of reason rather than forces that just are...’

Monday, July 09, 2007

St Louis zinc smelting establishments

I can't resist including another piece from The Poet's Eye. Geoffrey Grigson includes the whole of Walt Whitman's 'Plate Glass Notes', a diary entry for November 1879, published in November Boughs. In the extract I've reproduced here, Whitman returns from the plate glass works where he had seen 'vast, rude halls, with immense play of shifting shade, and slow-moving currents of smoke and steam, and shafts of light, sometimes sun, striking in from above with effects that would have fill’d Michel Angelo with rapture'. These sights prepare him for another sublime scene when he arrives at St Louis: the zinc smelting establishments...
'Coming back to St. Louis this evening, at sundown, and for over an hour afterward, we follow’d the Mississippi, close by its western bank, giving me an ampler view of the river, and with effects a little different from any yet. In the eastern sky hung the planet Mars, just up, and of a very clear and vivid yellow. It was a soothing and pensive hour—the spread of the river off there in the half-light—the glints of the down-bound steamboats plodding along—and that yellow orb (apparently twice as large and significant as usual) above the Illinois shore. (All along, these nights, nothing can exceed the calm, fierce, golden, glistening domination of Mars over all the stars in the sky.)

As we came nearer St. Louis, the night having well set in, I saw some (to me) novel effects in the zinc smelting establishments, the tall chimneys belching flames at the top, while inside through the openings at the facades of the great tanks burst forth (in regular position) hundreds of fierce tufts of a peculiar blue (or green) flame, of a purity and intensity, like electric lights—illuminating not only the great buildings themselves, but far and near outside, like hues of the aurora borealis, only more vivid...'

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Sandy Flora

As you can see, I have borrowed a copy of The Poet's Eye (1944), Geoffrey Grigson's anthology which I mentioned a few weeks ago. Of course it is John Craxton's lithographs that strike the reader immediately, ranging from small black and white images of shells, stones and trees to full page landscapes in colour, like the illustration below. But the writings themselves are also fascinating, bringing together 'visionary' poems and prose and covering 'generalised vision, descriptive vision cut from its application, vision conceived simply for its own sake, and vision of the intense kind...’ It is full of surprising choices, from its opening version of Rabelais’ ‘Inscription Above the Entrance to the Abbey of Theleme’ by Sir Thomas Urquhart, to the short extract from Moby Dick which closes the book. In between there are many landscape poems and descriptions. The writers who feature most often are William Barnes, John Clare, George Crabbe, R.W. Dixon, John Dryden, Coventry Patmore and Walt Whitman. It is an eclectic and very individual selection, although clearly in sympathy with the period’s Neo-Romantic sensibilities: poems and prose by both William Blake and Samuel Palmer are included.

Of course it’s quite impossible to convey the pleasures of such an anthology with just one example, but I’ll try anyway. At one point there is a little cluster of George Crabbe ‘visions’, starting with part of his poem, ‘The Ancient Mansion’. Then, after an extract from William Barnes, Grigson moves to some more of Crabbe’s verse, a description of ‘Sandy Flora’ taken from ‘The Village’ (1783) which I’ve reproduced below. And then he moves immediately to a third piece, prose this time, headed ‘Seaside Fen’ and apparently a footnote to ‘The Lover’s Journey’ (from Crabbe’s Tales). There are various other Crabbe selections dotted through the book (I like, for example, ‘Moonlight and Jelly-Fish or Sea Nettles’, which describes them: ‘Soft brilliant, tender, through the Wave they glow, / And make the Moon-beam brighter where they flow...’) Grigson says in the introduction that ‘all the truest and deepest poets, if they do not always remain there, go, at least, through a stage of vision in the very straightforwardness of the word: they have good eyes.’ George Crabbe, it is safe to say, never lost his ‘good eyes’.

Lo! where the heath, with withering brake grown o'er,
Lends the light turf that warms the neighbouring poor;
From thence a length of burning sand appears,
Where the thin harvest waves its wither'd ears;
Rank weeds, that every art and care defy,
Reign o'er the land, and rob the blighted rye.
There thistles stretch their prickly arms afar,
And to the ragged infant threaten war;
There poppies nodding, mock the hope of toil,
There the blue bugloss paints the sterile soil;
Hardy and high, above the slender sheaf,
The slimy mallow waves her silky leaf;
O'er the young shoot the charlock throws a shade,
And clasping tares cling round the sickly blade.
With mingled tints the rocky coasts abound,
And a sad splendour vainly shines around.

Friday, July 06, 2007

San José Canyon: A Quality of Dancing

I stumbled upon a little online exhibition of Thomas Joshua Cooper photographs at the Ingleby Gallery site: ‘rock, water, tree’. It covers ‘the places and subjects that have been most present in his work for the past 30 years.’ Elsewhere, in an interview with David Bellingham, Cooper talks of his early approach, choosing sites like the San José Canyon in accordance with “ongoing concerns which included how both physical and emotional aspects of place, that were highly interiorised in their physical surround and emotionally charged in the gestural conditions of their object matter (grass, rocks, leafless-branches, etc.), helped me to recognise and then picture the 'symbolic field' that was and still is important to me.” In the photographs, he was “consciously removing the traditional elements that allow for a recognition of place” so as to “intensify what is now an abstracted 'symbolic field' for visual reference and location.”

In general terms it could be said that Cooper’s photographs forestall a rapid perception of landscape so as to embroil the viewer in more complex processes of thought and feeling. In his 1992 essay, ‘Poetry and the Space Beyond’, Thomas A. Clark discusses the way a Thomas Joshua Cooper photograph operates in three stages. First we admire its scale and intensity, the 'deep blacks and velvety whites' of its surface. Secondly we penetrate to the place itself - not some famous site, just an assemblage of trees, foliage, water. Finally the viewer starts to feel the spirit of the place, which ‘will always be alien, unhuman, beyond our preconceptions.’ In this way Clark looks at the photograph ‘San José Canyon: A Quality of Dancing’ and sees not just morning light on a hillside, but an evocation of first light and first things, ‘a world cleansed of history’.