Friday, November 30, 2007

To Place: Verne's Journey

In a 1995 interview with Claudia Spinelli, Roni Horn discusses her book To Place: Verne’s Journey (1995), with its photographs of the Icelandic landscape described by Jules Verne in Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864). She says she wanted to reveal Verne’s fictional narrative “as the reality it is. Up to that point I was working with an intuition about the paradox of fiction. In the book the opening shot is an aerial photograph of the glacier which covers the entrance to the center of the earth. I zoomed in on the ice and cut to ground-level. At ground level you see all of these extraordinary geologic events. Now these are all things that just happen as a part of the mundane in Iceland. Verne's fiction is not a fiction at all. What he described, the entrance, the journey and I estimate the center of the earth as well, actually exists. But he was never in Iceland. So for him it was pure fiction.”

Journey to the Centre of the Earth (like the science fiction that followed it) is a blend of realism and fantasy. Verne’s descriptions of the geology of Iceland create the conditions for suspension of belief as Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel begin their descent. In the OUP translation of Verne’s novel, they arrive in Iceland on page 47 and begin their descent into Snaefells on page 86, so almost a fifth of the book involves their journey through the ‘real’ landscape of lava flows and mountains. Eventually, when they reach the peak of Snaefells after an arduous climb, Axel looks down at the island spread out below him, with its deep valleys, endless glaciers and over to the west, the vast ocean. At the site of all this he ‘plunged into that high-blown ecstasy produced by lofty peaks’, his ‘dazzled eyes bathed in the clear irradiation of the sun’s rays...’ (trans. William Butcher)

In her survey of Roni Horn’s art in the Phaidon book I’ve talked about here before, Louise Neri quotes William Butcher’s introduction to Journey to the Centre of the Earth, where he describes Verne’s worldview in terms that fit Horn’s art practice: ‘An anthropomorphization of the Earth and a mechanization of the human, with the biological often acting as a go-between; an attempt at sensual “totalization” of the world; a constant scepticism; the undermining by juxtaposition, humour, and irony of any dogmatic view of existence; a metaphorization of everyday objects and ideas, which are often re-metaphorized or even de-metaphorized; a distinctive rhythm, made up of repetitions, silences, minor and major keys, counterpoint, and slow movements leading to explosive crescendos; and an innovative narrative technique, whether in the use of tense, person, point of view, voice or structure.’

Friday, November 23, 2007


I never got round to writing about the Antony Gormley show in London earlier this year. The body casts he positioned in Event Horizon on the buildings and streets around the gallery were, among other things, a form of landscape art: marking out a section of the city and drawing attention to a skyline that might otherwise go unregarded. In an earlier work, Another Place, installed on the sands of Crosby Bay, Gormley had similarly inserted his own body into the landscape, by creating its bronze trace and placing multiples over a wide area.

It might be interesting to compare these Gormley sculptures with the ephemeral body imprints made in the seventies by Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta. In her Siluetas series Mendieta 'inserted her naked figure (or its outline or contours) in a natural setting,' fusing 'aspects of Conceptual, process, performance, body, feminist, and land art.' There are currently photographs of these on line here, here, here and here (this last one to illustrate 'feminism and the sublime'.)

In London, Gormley's masculine sculptures were placed on the commanding heights, made of solid material and were... how can I put this... impressively well-endowed. Mendieta's Siluetas in contrast were overtly feminine. Indeed, as Michael Duncan notes , one critic Mira Schor, 'faults the bond that Mendieta sought to establish between her own body and that of "Mother Earth," seeing in it a kind of feminist essentialism. She claims that Mendieta's approach reveals "a problematic lack of ambivalence that seems a relic of the first years of feminist art."'

All discussions of the Siluetas acknowledge the important influence of Afro-Cuban Santeria myths, along with Mandieta's explanation that the works symbolised her own sense of uprootedness. Michael Duncan explains how 'they transcend any simple celebration of nature. The Siluetas evoke a variety of emotional states; there is the apocalyptic bleakness of a Silueta composed of burnt gunpowder and charred ash, the magical transience of another work that is seemingly blown together with tufts of hay, and the stolid sobriety of a form molded out of earth... An uncanny filmed performance of 1974, Yagul (Burial Pyramid), presents a Silueta formed from a mound of rocks in a Mexican landscape. Slowly the rocks begin to twitch, pulsing with seemingly primordial life; finally, Mendieta herself gradually shakes off her rocky sepulcher. Yet she remains prone, as if her new visibility is enough.'

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Concerning scenes

William Shenstone's house The Leasowes in 1765

Ian Hamilton Finlay started writing his Detatched Sentences on Gardening after Stephen Bann lent him an edition of William Shenstone's 'Unconnected Thoughts on Gardening' (1764).  Shenstone's book is reprinted on line.  Here is an extract:
Concerning scenes, the more uncommon they appear, the better, provided they form a picture, and include nothing that pretends to be of nature’s production, and is not. The shape of ground, the site of trees, and the fall of water, nature’s province. Whatever thwarts her is treason.

On the other hand, buildings and the works of art, need have no other reference to nature than that they afford the ευσεμνον [beautiful] with which the human mind is delighted.

Art should never be allowed to set a foot in the province of nature, otherwise than clandestinely and by night. Whenever she is allowed to appear here, and men begin to compromise the difference: night, gothicism, confusion and absolute chaos are come again.

To see one’s urns, obelisks, and waterfalls laid open; the nakedness of our beloved mistresses, the naiads, and the dryads, exposed by that ruffian winter to universal observation; is a severity scarcely to be supported by the help of blazing hearths, cheerful companions, and a bottle of the most grateful burgundy.

The works of a person that builds, begin immediately to decay; while those of him who plants begin directly to improve. In this, planting promises a more lasting pleasure, than building; which, were it to remain in equal perfection, would at best begin to moulder and want repairs in imagination. Now trees have a circumstance that suits our taste, and that is annual variety. It is inconvenient indeed, if they cause our love of life to take root and flourish with them; whereas the very sameness of our structures will, without the help of dilapidation, serve to wean us from our attachment to them.

It is a custom in some countries to condemn the characters of those (after death) that have neither planted a tree, nor begat a child.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake

A few months ago I did a search on Scholars for paintings with titles starting ‘Landscape with…’ I was curious to see some of the subjects that gave artists as excuse to paint landscapes. There were landscapes ‘with’ each of the following:
Animals, Aqueduct, Artist Drawing, Baptism of Christ, Baptism of Christ and St. John the Baptist Preaching, Birds, Board Fence, Boat, Bowlers, Bridge, Bridge and Castle, Buildings, Castle, Castle and Inn, Castle on Lake Shore, Cephalus and Procris, Chateau (Le Chateau au Crepescule), Christ Carrying Cross, Christ on the Road to Emmaus, City and River, City on the Sea, Classical Ruins, Clay Pipe, Cow Drinking, Cows, Cows and Duck Hunters, Dead Tree, Deer Hunt, Domestic Animals and Children, Figures, Figures and Rainbow, Finding of Moses, Fishermen, Fishing Boats, Flight into Egypt, Footbridge, Ford, Gallows, Good Samaritan, Green Corn, Grove of Trees, Gushing River, Gypsies, Hermit (St. Fulgentius), Hunters, Inn, Inn and Skittles, Ironworks, Loaded Boats, Man and Trees, Mill, Peasants, Pythagoras, Rest on Flight into Egypt, Rising Moon, River, Road to Emmaus, Robbers, Ruins, Ruins of Monastery, Satyr, Saw Mill, Scenes from Life of St. John the Baptist and Christ, Shepherds, Shepherds and Countryfolk, Shipwreck, Square Tower, St. Anthony the Hermit, St. Christopher, St. Francis, St. Jerome Penitent, St. Paul the Hermit, Stormy Sea, Thamar and Juda, the Fall of Icarus, Tower, Trees (Rocks and Trees), Trees and Village, Two Trees, Viaduct, Mont Saint-Victoire, Village, Village by the River, Washerwomen, Waterfall, Wild Horses, Windmill, Woman Washing Her Legs, and Women in the Foreground.

There is an interesting essay in the posthumous Louis Marin collection, Sublime Poussin (trans. Catherine Porter), called ‘Description of an Image’ which talks about the ways titles like these operate. Marin notes that ‘Landscapes with a subject’ are a subgenre of landscape painting and as the list above indicates, the subject can itself come from different genres. Marin discusses Nicolas Poussin’s Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (c1648), where the subject may be a myth, story or contemporary event: the title is not explicit. If it were called Landscape with Cadmus and the Snake, as it has been in the past, it would take its place more firmly in the genre of mythological paintings.

Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake, c1648

The trees, sky, lake and pathway which take up most of this picture can be expressed in just one word ‘Landscape’, but the human subject needs more words to pin it down. Marin notes that this may reflect the opposition between ‘timeless’ static landscape which can be shown pictorially, and sequential narrative which is easier to relate in words. But it is more complex than this. The landscape is like the setting for a drama, and Marin distinguishes between decor, the backdrop which has no link to the human action, and stage which is the situation for the story: actors tread the stage but do not interact with the decor. In Poussin’s painting, the stream at the bottom is tied in to the action: this is where the man lies killed by the snake, perhaps after going to draw water. However, the sky, the trees and the mountains in the distance are more like decor, a (welcome) distraction from the events unfolding at the front of the stage.

Friday, November 09, 2007

A picturesque view of Llyn Padarn

Here is one of Thomas Rowlandson’s aquatints from The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque (1809) showing the hapless cleric tumbling into the water while attempting to sketch a Gothic landscape:

A heap of stones the Doctor found,
Which loosely lay upon the ground,
To form a seat, where he might trace
The antique beauty of the place:
But while his eye observ’d the line
That was to limit the design,
The stones gave way, and sad to tell,
down from the bank he headlong fell.
This first tour, written by William Combe and published in Rudolph Ackermann's Poetical Magazine (great title!) also included scenes of Dr Syntax sketching a 'sepulchral ground', a rustic group of animals, and a lake (he inevitably ends up getting wet). However, most of it as an opportunity for picaresque adventures rather than picturesque satire - the basic framework of a tour in the manner of William Gilpin provides plentiful opportunity for bathos and comic misadventures.

Rowlandson's Dr Syntax was not his only satire on the art of landscape. In his book The Search for the Picturesque Malcolm Andrews reproduces his earlier painting An Artist Travelling in Wales, in which the 'wretched, determined artist' is weighed down by a large sketch book, a tripod easel, a palette, a water-flask and a palette knife. 'Such is his dedication to the Picturesque that the rest of his luggage for sustaining himself on the tour is proportionately insignificant.'

Rowlandson knew what he was painting because he had himself gone out in search of picturesque landscapes. The National Library of Wales has a selection of Rowlandson's sketches here. they say 'Perhaps the finest composition in the series is the large watercolour of Dolbadarn where Rowlandson contrasts the genteel tourists embarked upon Picturesque discoveries on Llyn Padarn with the peasants who, to a man, can only gaze across at the visitors in wonder.' There is perhaps a subtle element of satire in this contrast.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Emperor Ming-huang's Journey to Shu

The five traditional colours in China are white, black, red, yellow and blue-green. These correspond to metal, water, fire, earth and wood. The blue-green colour, qīng (), is discussed in a footnote to John Minford's translation of the Pu Songling story 'The Snake Charmer'. Minford says that qīng is defined in dictionaries as "the colour of nature, a dark neutral tint, green, bluish-green, greenish-blue, blue, grey, black etc... when used of bamboo, hemp, peas, plums, moss, grass, olives, dragons, flies and tea, it is green; of the sky, the collar, orchids and porcelain, it is blue; of oxen and foxes, horses, cloth and hair, it is black." The word qīng is used to describe the moss in Wang Wei's poem 'Deer Park.'

The painter Li Zhaodao (Li Chao-tao) was a contemporary of Wang Wei in early eighth century China. He was one of the originators of the qinglu (blue and green) style of landscape painting, which the JAANUS site describes as 'heavily colored with mineral pigments, especially blue azurite *gunjou 群青 and green malachite *rokushou 緑青' and 'which pays much attention to realistic detail rather than seeking to create an atmospheric impression.' Perhaps the most famous Tang dynasty blue and green landscape is The Emperor Ming-huang's Journey to Shu, a copy of a composition sometimes attributed to Li Zhaodao.

The Emperor Ming-huang's Journey to Shu (copy) attributed to Li Zhaodao
Source: Wikimedia Commons