Friday, February 29, 2008

At Maple Bridge

Source: Abebooks

I was heartened on the Underground the other day to see a Gary Snyder poem in the carriage among the adverts: 'On Maple Bridge' (1984) paired with his translation of 'Maple Bridge Night Mooring' (c.765) by Chang Chi. Back in 765, the temple bell could be heard by Chang Chi in his boat; Gary Snyder noted that its sound had now travelled far across the sea. I think it was possible to hear it faintly down in the Victoria Line amid the crush of morning commuters.

I was even more pleased to spot on YouTube recently some great footage of a Gary Snyder reading. Here are the links: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

This is the 300th post on Some Landscapes, and I think it's sometimes a little hard to see coherent patterns and themes emerging here. I've been looking again at Gary Snyder: Dimensions of a Life, a festschrift published back in 1991 by the Sierra Club. It includes an essay by Peter Coyote describing a cross-referenced library card index system Snyder has evolved, to organise his quotes, thoughts and ideas. There is, of course, a big step between this simple academic kind of organisation and the ability to organise one's perceptions of the world. Coyote writes that Snyder does this and then goes a step further again, by actually 'identifying with the patterns he perceives... he might, for instance, feel that the back of his head opens onto the Sierra mountain range, and that that range is his spine.' It's natural to identify Snyder with the Sierra landscape. Flicking back to a poem in the same book, 'September Ridge' by Will Peterson, there's a quote from Snyder, writing in Japan more than fifty years ago, that 'the best wandering mountains in the world may be the high sierra - no bugs, no rain, no people, clear cool sunshine & hundreds of square miles of alpine terrain...'

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Artist on the Seashore at Palavas

Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea, 1809
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Robert Rosenblum’s book Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: From Friedrich to Rothko traces a lineage from Monk by the Sea (1809) to Green on Blue (1956) by way of ‘Romantic’ paintings by Blake, Runge, Van Gogh, Munch, Kandinsky, Ernst, Mondrian... Rosenblum’s thesis was first elaborated in a set of lectures delivered in 1972. It is interesting to think of some of the ‘Northern’ artists from the last fifty years that a revised version of the book written today might include. Andreas Gursky perhaps? Olafur Eliasson? Peter Doig? A look through the index to this site suggests quite a few other possible names.

And what of the other kind of non-Northern, non-Romantic artist? Rosenblum provides a couple of interesting contrasts with the aesthetic of Monk by the Sea. Gustave Courbet’s The Artist on the Seashore at Palavas (1854) combines the same basic elements as Friedrich’s painting. ‘Yet far from suggesting silent absorption into some spiritual beyond, the figure appears strangely earthy and self-assertive. It is no surprise to read Courbet’s comments on this self-portrait: “Oh sea! your voice is tremendous, but it will never succeed in drowning out the voice of fame as it shouts my name to the whole world!”’ Great stuff! For more on Courbet’s ego, see the article by John Golding in a recent New York Review of Books (the same issue has an article about blogs: “Blog writing is id writing—grandiose, dreamy, private, free-associative, infantile, sexy, petty, dirty” - hmm... I’m not sure how many of these adjectives I recognise. But it makes me think Courbet would have written an entertaining blog.)

‘Eleven years later,’ Rosenblum continues, ‘in 1865, Whistler, by then thoroughly steeped in the art pour l’art ambience of Paris, also painted a picture of Courbet, who now stands on the beach at Trouville, once more turned to the unbroken stretch of sand and sea. This time, Courbet’s swollen ego has vanished in favour of a ghost of a figure, hardly discernible as anyone at all. Yet if the presence of this lone figure as the only human element on a deserted beach can evoke some whisper of mood, the painting nevertheless imposes itself primarily as an exquisite tour de force of muted tonalities arranged in horizontal tiers.’ Whistler originally called the painting Harmony in Blue and Silver, thus emphasising its abstract qualities over any sense of sublime mystery. And so both Courbet and Whistler, working in France, represent for Rosenblum a different way of painting landscapes to the Northern Romantic tradition.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Harmony in blue and silver: Trouville (1865)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In contemporary art it is no doubt possible, though perhaps not easy, to find similar comparisons. How about Francis Alÿs versus Richard Long for example? Any others? It’s appealing to think that the ‘Northern Romantic tradition’ might still be possible to trace, partly because the whole idea seems so old-fashioned, partly because it is so easy to imagine that today’s global art world would make even such broad generalisations seem, in reality, quite implausible.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Klausen Pass

According to Fiona Bradley, when Andreas Gursky 'photographed the scene that became Klausen Pass (1984), he did not notice the people scattered at the base of the mountain. Looking at the photograph later, he identified the people as the reason for the success of the image: dispersed throughout the field of vision, the people direct and animate it' (Andreas Gursky: Images 1995). This account seems rather unlikely even for an amateur photographer - who photographs a landscape without instinctively noting where other people are and how it will affect the image? In other works from the early eighties, Andreas Gursky was finding interesting groups of people to photograph, like Sunday Walkers, Dusseldorf (1984)... the scatter of figures on the sunny mountainside in Klausen Pass seem too interesting to have been overlooked in the work's composition.

It is true, however, that in Klausen Pass the individuality of the adults and children standing and walking through the image can be ignored - as part of the composition they are an irregular sequence of coloured forms leading the eye up a path to the mountain. They provide some scale like the small foreground figures in traditional picturesque painting. And yet because the photographic medium means we are looking at real people, rather than, say, anonymous pastoral shepherds, they remain intriguing. Why is that woman walking off the path? Who is that bare-chested man waiting for? Which of these people know each other and which are strangers?

In later works by Andreas Gursky, individual people may be absent, but the traces of human activity - rows of windows, cars, containers - continue to provoke questions about what we are looking at. In general his landscapes are given structure and pattern by groups of figures and the accumulation of human artifacts. This gives them their distinctive formal beauty whilst simultaneously drawing attention to some of the ways in which we now work, travel and spend our leisure time.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

A morbid melancholy

"The works of Caspar David Friedrich, hitherto almost totally unknown in this country, will be a revelation for the British Art public..." When was this written? 1822? 1872? 1922? It is actually on the back of the Tate Gallery's 1972 Friedrich exhibition catalogue, "the only full-scale publication on Friedrich in English". Well there must have been a lot of books on Friedrich since then, but this catalogue would have set a high standard, with its excellent long essay by William Vaughan and catalogue entries by Helmut Borsch-Supan. Near the end of the catalogue there are an interesting set of 'Reminiscences of Friedrich and his Art', translated by Vaughan with George and Elizabeth Katkov. Here's an extract from one of these, by a younger contemporary, the Dresden landscape painter Adrian Ludwig Richter. His criticism of Friedrich may resonate for those who think Friedrich's art can sometimes feel a little forced:
'... it seems to me that Friedrich's method of conception leads in a false direction, that could be highly epidemic in our time; the majority of his pictures exhale that morbid melancholy, that feverishness that grips every sensitive observer so forcefully, but which always produces a disconsolate feeling - this is not the seriousness, not the character, nor the spirit and importance of nature, this has been imposed onto it. Friedrich chains us to an abstract idea, making use of the forms of nature in a purely allegorical manner, as signs and hieroglyphs - they are made to mean that and that. In nature however, every thing expresses itself; her spirit, her language lies in every shape and colour. A beautiful scene in nature, it is true, also awakes only one feeling (not a thought), but this is so all-embracing, so grand, powerful and intense, that every allegory seems in comparison dried out and shrivelled up. The liberation of the spirit, the feeling of freedom in a broad, beautiful, enlivening space, this is principally what nature can affect us with so beneficially...' (Diary entry, 30 January 1824)

Abbey in an Oak Forest, Caspar David Friedrich, 1809-10
Source: CGFA

Friday, February 15, 2008

A Bull in a Storm on a Moor

It was exactly five years ago today that millions of us marched through London to protest about the impending war on Iraq. One of my abiding memories is the extraordinarily slow progress we made, such was the weight of numbers. As we inched down Piccadilly I remember looking up at some figures carved on a building and realising suddenly I was seeing a sculpture of Thomas Girtin, one of my favourite landscape watercolourists. The building was designed for the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colour (now located at the Mall Galleries) and along with Girtin it has busts of Sandby, Cozens, Girtin, Turner, Cox, De Wint, Barret and Hunt.

There is a description of the building at British History Online: 'Nos. 190–195 Piccadilly were rebuilt between 1881 and 1883 for the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, which had been founded in 1831 as the New Society of Painters in Water Colours... The new galleries with shops and a public hall beneath were built from the designs of E. R. Robson... The galleries of the Royal Institute were damaged by enemy action in 1940, and were reopened on 1 July 1948. Three bays of the ground-floor façade have now been extensively altered by Pan American Airways, and the remainder of the lower parts of the building, with Nos. 36–40 Jermyn Street, is occupied by shops, restaurants and offices. The building in its present state is no more than a sad relic of Robson's original design, its ground and second storeys, and indeed its whole proportions, having been ruthlessly sacrificed to commercial interests. A photograph of 1896 in the possession of the National Buildings Record shows a three-storeyed stone façade arranged in two stages, the two-storeyed upper stage being twice the height of the lower and almost completely devoid of windows, expressing the exhibition galleries within. The ground storey was divided into nine bays by pilasters supporting a simple but well-proportioned entablature, and in the middle and outer bays were three splendid Baroque doorways, each having a swan-neck pediment enclosed within a broken segmental pediment...'

The Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colour, photographed in 2008

It seemed inappropriate to be protesting against the possibility of war and thinking about the gentile art of watercolour. However, I remembered that Paul Sandby, who stands at the beginning of the British tradition of watercolour painting, actually worked for the army: making maps to help avert another Jacobite rebellion. And subsequent watercolourists were not always in the business of creating serene classical idylls. Here, for example, is a painting by another of the watercolourists honoured by the Royal Institute building, David Cox. The V&A site says of it "he often depicted scenes of rain and strong winds. In this watercolour Cox attacks the sheet with his brush to achieve an aggressive and threatening effect." The threat and uncertainty felt very real five years ago; the storm came hasn't blown over yet.

The Challenge: A Bull in a Storm on a Moor by David Cox
Souce: V&A

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Freed from the old perspective

In The Spectacle of Flight: Aviation and the Western Imagination, 1920-1950, Robert Wohl describes how writers experiencing flight for the first time started to see landscape differently - both in terms of viewpoint and speed. Paul Morand, for example, in Flèche d’orient (1932) noticed the absence of familiar sites: ‘the blue bottoms of leaves, the stratified facades of mountains, the colonnade formed by a forest, the dark pockets of valleys, and human beings...’ Instead the, world looked ‘like a painting that has been freed from the old perspective and yesterday’s colours.’

The analogy with abstract painting occurred to other writers. Ernest Hemingway flew from Paris to Strasbourg in 1922 and saw below ‘brown squares, yellow squares, and big flat blotches of green where there was a forest. I began to understand cubist painting.’ Gertrude Stein looked down at the American landscape and saw “all the lines of cubism made at a time when not a painter had ever gone up in an airplane. I saw three on the earth the mingling lines of Picasso, coming and going, developing and destroying themselves. I saw the simple solutions of Braque, I saw the wondering lines of Masson...’ Stein concluded that ‘as the twentieth century is a century which sees the earth as none has ever seen it, the earth has a splendour that it never has had...’

Friday, February 08, 2008

The Description of Cooke-ham

I was recently flicking through Kenneth Baker's anthology The Faber Book of Landscape Poetry (2000), which, as you would expect from the editor of The Faber Book of Conservatism, is a solidly conservative selection. It's not exactly Earth Shattering, even if it does acknowledge that ‘Man has a lot to answer for when it comes to spoiling the environment.’ He certainly does! Baker provides an example in the Introduction of the way politicians like himself can promote policies to help the environment: ‘as a result of positive government intervention and tax incentives more trees are planted each year than are felled.’ He has a whole section on trees, which includes an extract from an interesting early landscape poem, 'The Description of Cooke-ham' by Aemelia Lanyer. Here are a few lines:
Now let me come vnto that stately Tree,
Wherein such goodly Prospects you did see;
That Oake that did in height his fellowes passe,
As much as lofty trees, low growing grasse:
Much like a comely Cedar streight and tall,
Whose beauteous stature farre exceeded all...

A biographical note by Kari Boyd McBride explains that ''The Description of Cooke-ham' must have been written between February 25, 1609 (when Anne Clifford married and took the name "Dorset," by which she is called in the poem), and October 2, 1610 (when the poem was entered in the Stationers' Register).... [It] is the first country house poem to be published in English (predating Ben Jonson's "To Penshurst" [1616]). Drawing on classical generic features, Lanyer figures the virtue of the "Lady" of the poem, Margaret, Countess of Cumberland, in the homage accorded her by the estate's flora and fauna.' "Dorset", Anne Clifford, was Margaret's daughter.

Here is another extract in which Lanyer describes the effect of Lady Margaret's departure:

But your occasions call'd you so away,
That nothing there had power to make you stay:
Yet did I see a noble gratefull minde,
Requiting each according to their kind,
Forgetting not to turne and take your leaue
Of these sad creatures, powrelesse to receiue
Your fauour, when with griefe you did depart,
Placing their former pleasures in your heart;
Giuing great charge to noble Memory,
There to preserue their loue continually:
But specially the loue of that faire tree,
That first and last you did vouchsafe to see:
In which it pleas'd you oft to take the ayre,
With noble Dorset, then a virgin faire:
Where many a learned Booke was read and skand
To this faire tree, taking me by the hand,
You did repeat the pleasures which had past,
Seeming to grieue they could no longer last.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

North Country Sketches

Publisher and poet Jonathan Williams has often written about music. There is A Celestial Centennial Reverie for Charles Edward Ives, for example, which draws on Emerson and Thoreau ('the poet's flute / is heard / out over / the pond'). There are his epitaphs for composers like Ives, Elgar, Poulenc, Satie, Charlie Parker... some of these connect music to landscape, e.g. Jean Sibelius: 'the drone of overtones in / a rye field by / a river'. And in 1978 came The Delian Seasons, a sound poem inspired by Frederick Delius's North Country Sketches (1913-14).

Williams explains in a note to The Delian Seasons that ‘North Country Sketches is Delius’s only composition evoked by the Pennine Dales of the West Riding of Yorkshire, the landscape of his growing up... Following Delius’s passion for wordless choruses, I have restricted my words (except for three in ‘The March of Spring’) to place names found on four Ordnance Survey maps… Nouns are made to work harder than merely be places. The way they are sounded and placed in the poems owes ‘something’ to incessant listening to North Country Sketches.’ To give you a limited idea of the result, the first one, ‘Autumn: the wind soughs in the trees’ starts as follows 'whins end / whins end / arrant lattera carlin / whins end...'

I suppose this doesn't make a great deal of sense... you really need to see the original poem in its visual arrangement and read the entire thing. I have noticed that Williams has tended to suffer a bit from having his poems republished away from the original settings. For example, Blues & Roots, Rue and Bluets: A Garland from the Appalachians, in its original 1971 edition, had photographs by Nicholas Dean on almost every page and some of Williams' found poems were literally photographs of road signs etc. A 1985 reprint dropped the images and, I think, lost a lot of the impact.

Incidentally, did you know that Frederick Delius has a MySpace site? And that he numbers Beethoven and Schubert among his friends? He doesn't seem to be posting a blog though...

Friday, February 01, 2008

The South Downs

It is interesting to consider how far you can get from a direct representation of a landscape and still provide a space that can elicit some kind of idea or memory of that place. There are various distancing effects like abstraction or surrealism that can be used in any of the arts. There is obviously the degree to which any representation is personal or universal, precise and objective or rather generalised. And of course there is the art form itself: in terms of representational detail one might expect, ceteris paribus, photography > painting > poetry > music.

I was listening to a musical evocation of landscape yesterday and thinking how difficult it was to associate it with my idea of the place (particularly, to be honest, as I was listening to an iPod amid the traffic of St Paul's Road, Islington). The piece was Gavin Bryars' 'The South Downs' and its dominant sound is a mournful cello. It seemed to me to evoke a colder, more rugged place than the soft green hills of Sussex. I actually had in mind 'The North Shore', a similar composition that precedes 'The South Downs' on Bryars' album A Man in a Room, Gambling, and I was thinking that 'The South Downs' sounded, for me, like the sea. Then I remembered reading that Bryars actually based it on the view from Birling Gap, where the sea is very present as you stand on the edge of the South Downs, looking down at the waves, hearing the wind and feeling the space around you. So I felt more of a connection, even though the music still feels too mournful and poignant for me: perhaps I've only been there on beautiful days...

The sea near Birling Gap - photographed by me in 2003

There is a good description of 'The South Downs' on this site in which various adjectives suggest possible correspondences between the music and the place:

"The piece is somewhat episodic in form, its 15-minute duration being separated by pauses and fermatas into a string of short scenes. These begin quite lucidly, with arpeggiated figures in the viola and simple tones in the piano. With each successive tableau, however, the viola's music becomes more urgent and dynamic, while the piano becomes more involved. Eventually, the instruments trade places: the viola indulges in long, relaxed tones and trills while the piano takes up the softly undulating arpeggios and broken chords. This slowing of motion in the cello corresponds to its descent into its lower ranges, alternately sliding further and further down to subterranean pedal tones and taking lyrical melodic ascents on the upper strings; the piano, in the meantime, maintains its humble task of pulsing away on rich minor mode harmonies. Bryars' chord progressions sometimes take unexpected turns, but his focused consistency of sonority and texture make them an almost secondary aspect of the piece. Still, one of the most dramatic moments in the piece occurs about ten minutes in when, as the piano sets the somber mood, the violin undertakes an unexpectedly poignant tremolando melody on double stops. The gesture and chords are so lush as to suggest irony in any other context, but in this piece Bryars has set the scene so convincingly as to leave little doubt about his expressive sincerity."

The last sentence is interesting and is a reminder of the difficulty artists have today in dealing with the genuinely moving feelings we still have in a place as picturesque as Birling Gap. Interestingly the description here refers to 'successive tableau', as if Bryars is reproducing a series of photographs. Which suggests another distancing effect: the representation of a representation, something I've mentioned here in relation to Gerhard Richter and (a reminder that this has always been a possibility) in connection with Domenichino's frescoes for the Villa Aldobrandini.