Friday, March 28, 2008


When I was at university I tried to model mathematically the spacing of the prehistoric menhirs at Carnac in Brittany and started to become interested in stories about this ancient landscape. Regrettably at that point I had never come across Guillevic’s Carnac (1961), a book now available in the excellent Bloodaxe Contemporary French Poets series. Guillevic (he dropped his first name) is one of those poets who seems to fit his environment – rugged, tough, paired down to the essentials. He grew up in a traditional and highly religious Breton speaking community but never learned the language. Guillevic went on to work at a tax office and write deceptively simple French poems about Choses (things). Carnac was composed after he left work at the age of 52, and it represented a return to the landscape of his childhood. He said that in it "I found myself completely, I found my country again, the land, the sea, I relived what I had been before."

Carnac throws up some fundamental questions on the relationship between an artist and the landscape. On this site, I’ve written about artistic responses to views, spaces and places rather than specific objects: a crab, say, or a lichen covered rock, or an old boat. In a review of Carnac, James Sallis writes that ‘traditionally the poet comes to the landscape to divest himself of naming, of differentiation, of all that prevents him from speaking generally. Incorporating, suggesting, the landscape offers escape from particularity.’ Guillevic is able to talk of the sea, the sun and the sand without describing them - there are only a couple of points where he deliberately moves into details (a list of the smells of Carnac for example: warmed stone, saxifrage, tar, slurry, dried seaweed...) Furthermore, Sallis continues, the poet in a landscape, not only seeks ‘relief from naming, from knowing, he comes seeking also a paradoxical relief from self. In classic nature poetry, the landscape actually becomes an extension of self, body and world synonymous. But it is into the very gap between the two, into that divide, that Guillevic writes Carnac.’

When Guillevic looks at the sea, he wants to give it human attributes, ‘alternately maternal and monstrous’, as Stephen Romer puts it in his introduction to Carnac. But the poet recognizes that the sea is ultimately ‘the Absent, the Other, the Unknowable... Even worse: it is indifferent.’ No matter how we study a landscape or try to convey it in art, it remains fundamentally outside our comprehension. The sea provides a particularly compelling example of nature's alterity since it so easily resists interpretation and constantly changes. At one point in Carnac, Guillevic tracks the sea back to some salt marshes where he is able to ‘possess’ it, but only in the form of mounds of salt. Guillevic writes of both wanting to be the ocean and remain himself: he needs to preserve some distance in order to speak about his subject and avoid dissolving into formlessness (as in the Whistler sea painting I discussed here recently).

And what of Carnac’s megalithic stones? Although they are part of the same elemental landscape as the sea, the menhirs embody human activity and meaning (perhaps partly in any significance attaching to the stones’ placement that I once tried to investigate.) As Romer says, ‘they stand then, both in obeisance to, as well as in defiance against, the ocean, and as such reflect the poet’s own divided allegiances.’ Inevitably perhaps, Guillevic’s poems have themselves been compared to menhirs. For Denise Levertov, one of several eminent poets who have translated Guillevic into English, they are like ‘a gathering of sacred stones.'

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Man Ray 1914

I’ve talked before about some of the ways twentieth century artists turned away from landscape. It is telling, for example, that Marcel Duchamp chose a clichéd landscape image to transform into a readymade artwork, Pharmacy (1914), through the addition of a couple of dabs of paint and a signature. Walking round the superb ‘Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia’ exhibition at Tate Modern yesterday I read on the wall that Duchamp’s Glider, part of his Bachelor machine, is ‘activated by a waterfall (which Duchamp did not represent as he wanted to avoid the trap of becoming a landscape painter).’ The case of Man Ray is also interesting. The Tate curators say ‘Even before he met Duchamp or Picabia he was playing with the conventional elements of art works: Man Ray 1914 is both a landscape and the artist’s signature.’ This small painting looks at first glance like a cubist landscape, influenced by, say, Cézanne or Braque, but once you read the artist’s name it becomes hard to see it as anything other than a reduction of the modern artwork to its one essential component, the signature. There is a clear affinity with Duchamp's Pharmacy, which was made in the same year.

An interesting article by Edward Leffingwell sets Man Ray 1914 in context. Man Ray had been producing landscapes in New Jersey in 1913: ‘two landscapes from that first winter are distinguished by a tentative, exploratory use of unprimed canvas serving to represent bare fields... With the change of seasons, Man Ray began to produce vibrant landscapes in watercolor and oil that again bring to mind the precedent of Cezanne... The oils Ridgefield Landscape and the more abstracted Ridgefield (both 1913) incorporate receding bands of rolling hills extending to the ridge beyond. The first is largely pastoral, with a repoussoir motif of trees and two farm houses in the foreground and a freight train in the middle distance; the other establishes elongated factory sheds in the foreground and repeats that form in the bands of hills and fields beyond.’ Man Ray subsequently ‘produced a series of watercolors and oils of the Ramapo Hills, in which abstracted arrangements of trees and hills become increasingly Cubistic and also increasingly expressive. In the decorative Elderflowers (1914), relatively large at 30 inches square, he produces an allover field, abstracting the white, saucerlike clusters of blossoms on a dense, crosshatched thicket of leaves. Reduced and compressed to the status of an icon, Man Ray 1914 consists entirely of the date and artist's name, piled up like palisades across the surface of the diminutive oil.’

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Spiral Jetty under threat

I feel a bit bad for not writing before now about the threat to Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty. As the New York Times put it, 'a Canadian company’s plan to begin oil-drilling from a pair of barges near Rozel Point, on the edge of the lake... is not much different from drilling through the heart of Smithson’s earth sculpture.' DIA Foundation Director Jeffrey Weiss has said 'The expansive natural setting is integral to Smithson's artwork, providing an essential frame for experiencing the Spiral Jetty. Any incursion on the open landscape, including the proposed drilling, would significantly compromise this important work of art.'

The public comment period for the drilling application ended on February 13, so I guess we're now just waiting for the verdict. Living in a country where public sculpture is all the rage it seems improbable that the State of Utah would let this happen, but who knows? I was wondering where the best place is to keep up to date on this story. The DIA foundation site for Spiral Jetty says they'll post news. There's also a French site which is posting regular reports.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Postscript September 2015:  Utah officials received over 3,000 emails relating to the drilling and on August 7 2008 state officials rejected it. Of course the threat of future drilling remains and then there are the ongoing debates about maintaining the site and what the artists' intentions would have been.  Here are the opening paragraphs from a piece in the Art Newspaper yesterday.
The Great Salt Lake in Utah, home to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, is facing the most severe drought in its history. Water levels are “inches” fr om the historic low set in 1963, says Bonnie Baxter, the director of the Great Salt Lake Institute. As a result, the pink salt-encrusted basalt rocks of Spiral Jetty are perhaps the most exposed they have ever has been—the 1,500ft-long work was constructed in 1970 during a drought and subsequently submerged for more than three decades before re-emerging in 2004.

However, the consensus among the three organisations that look after the work (the Dia Art Foundation in New York, the Great Salt Lake Institute and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts) is that there is no need to take direct action to protect the work. “The current thinking by most is that Robert Smithson would have loved to see the environmental changes that occur around his artwork, so there is no real talk of intervention,” Baxter says. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Landscape Architecture of the Great Painters of Italy


Gilbert Meason was the first writer to use the term ‘landscape architecture’, in the title of his book The Landscape Architecture of the Great Painters of Italy (1828). It says here he ‘died without the faintest idea that his concept of 'landscape architecture' was destined for a worldwide future. Few copies of the book were printed but one of them fell into the hands of John Claudius Loudon, the most prolific garden author of any age. Loudon took up the term and passed it to Andrew Jackson Downing, who passed it to Frederick Law Olmsted...’ And the rest is history.

Apparently, few copies of Meason’s book were produced in 1828 and I don’t think it’s been reprinted. However, the British Library has a copy of the original which you can flick through in their rare books room. Its frontispiece, the first of many lithographs in the book by H W Burgess, is based on a Dominichino painting. The book then opens with a quotation from Reynolds' Discourses which urges architects to aim for ‘variety and intricacy’, an approach consistent with Meason’s picturesque ideal. The text that follows discusses various types of building, in chapters on: The Rise of Domestic Architecture, Defensive Architecture, Roman Villas, Masonry of Roman Architecture, Architecture of the Middle Ages, Domestic Architecture of England, Architecture of the Italian Painters, Tuscan Architecture and Gothic Architecture. At the back are the illustrations accompanied with brief descriptions - Burgess’s depictions of buildings that appear in the drawings and paintings of artists such as Raphael, Leonardo, Andrea Mantegna, Sermonita, Claude, Palma Vecchio, Guercino and Lavinia Fontana.

Meason explains that ‘in selecting examples of landscape architecture from the pictures of Italy, we have avoided those in the foreground or in street architecture, as well as those, (such as in Claude,) which had so much Grecian or Roman ruins attached to them as gave the air of composition architecture of the artist.’ So, interestingly, he was tending to choose buildings that were quite incidental to the main theme of the painting. Meason found that these tended to display a mixture of architectural styles, partly based on real buildings sketched by the artists. He quotes Richard Payne Knight: ‘the best style of architecture for irregular and picturesque houses, which can now be adopted, is that mixed style which characterizes the buildings of Claude and the Poussins…’ Here are three examples of Meason’s landscape architecture (sadly without the lithographs).
Plate 1: This is taken from Titian and shows a castle with prominent round towers. Meason says ‘Titian seldom introduced buildings of consequence in his landscapes, and to such as are given, sheds and low mean buildings are joined. This building is in a landscape of a mountainous country. It is difficult to assign any period for its construction, or for what purpose part of the building was destined.’
Plate 15: This is a tower on a rocky promontory by ‘Nicolo Poussin’. ‘This picturesque building is only a small part of that magnificent pile in the fine picture of the infant Moses exposed. The scenery and site are by our artist, for the original had none of note near the extensive buildings. It is to the architecture of this picture that Sir Uvedale Price refers [Meason’s footnote: See Essays on the Picturesque vol ii p316]. The whole is evidently a composition; and in the central tower Poussin had for his model the castle of St. Angelo in Rome.’
Plate 54: Here Meason looked back as far as Giotto for his material, but the drawing takes some poetic license – it is a dark and rather Romantic sketch of a castle-like building. ‘We give another specimen of a building of this father of the art of painting, copied from a fresco in the Campo Santo. We have here a very early example of the Tuscan window: Outward steps lead to the door from the platform; and the large windows, and of course the principal rooms, are placed high in the building. These are indications of the necessity at the period of defensible country dwellings.’
Gilbert Meason wanted to see the landscape architecture of Italian painting recreated in the British countryside. ‘In selecting specimens out of many in our possession to illustrate this work, we have in view such as may be useful to architects in the composition of irregular mansions. These may be arranged under single towers, buildings of small size but simple in their form, and large edifices, picturesque in the disposition of their parts, and those parts of such breadth as to impress, in general, grandeur on the whole composition… Such edifices spread over the country would contribute most essentially to the beauty of British landscape.’

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Russet Lawns, and Fallows Gray

Thomas Cole, L'Allegro (Italian Sunset), 1845

John Milton's poem describing 'the happy man', L'Allegro (1631), inspired various artists: Turner, Blake and Cole (above) for example. Here are some lines in which Milton himself paints a Lantskip (
in the final line, a cynosure is, according to the OED, 'something that attracts attention by its brilliancy or beauty; a centre of attraction, interest, or admiration').
Streit mine eye hath caught new pleasures
Whilst the Lantskip round it measures,
Russet Lawns, and Fallows Gray,
Where the nibling flocks do stray,
Mountains on whose barren brest
The labouring clouds do often rest:
Meadows trim with Daisies pide,
Shallow Brooks, and Rivers wide.
Towers, and Battlements it sees
Boosom'd high in tufted Trees,
Wher perhaps som beauty lies,
The Cynosure of neighbouring eyes.
In 1740 Handel premiered a composition based on Milton: L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. Its libretto by Charles Jennens interweaved L'Allegro with Milton's companion poem Il Penseroso ('The contemplative man') and, in the third movement, resolved their differing moods with a poem of Jennens' own, Il Moderato. Here is part of the libretto which starts with text from Il Penseroso and ends with the lines in L'Allegro just before those quoted above, describing a pleasant scene of unfeasibly cheerful pastoral characters:

16. Air

Il Penseroso (soprano):

Oft on a plat of rising ground,
I hear the far-off curfew sound,
Over some wide-water'd shore,
Swinging slow, with sullen roar;
Or if the air will not permit,
Some still removed place will fit,
Where glowing embers through the room
Teach light to counterfeit a gloom.

17. Air

Il Penseroso (soprano or tenor):

Far from all resort of mirth,
Save the cricket on the hearth,
Or the bellman's drowsy charm,
To bless the doors from nightly harm.

18. Recitative

L'Allegro (tenor):

If I give thee honour due,
Mirth, admit me of thy crew!

19. Air

L'Allegro (tenor or soprano):

Let me wander, not unseen
By hedge-row elms, on hillocks green.
There the ploughman, near at hand,
Whistles over the furrow'd land,
And the milkmaid singeth blithe,
And the mower whets his scythe,
And every shepherd tells his tale
Under the hawthorn in the dale.

Donald Teeters has written some interesting and amusing reflections on Handel's composition, Milton's poems and English plumbing: 'As anyone who has ever spent a winter in London will know, the English seem always to be surprised — offended really — that winter arrives. Their houses, even now, rely on bizarrely inadequate heating devices; the plumbing lines, often attached to the exterior of a house, are expected not to freeze, but usually do. The advertisements for L'Allegro's first performance stressed that "Care is taken to have the House secur'd against the Cold, constant Fires being order'd to be kept in the House 'till the Time of Performance."' It doesn't get this cold in London anymore but after a weekend of such miserable weather it would certainly be nice to welcome back Milton's 'frolick Wind that breathes the Spring, Zephir with Aurora playing...'

Saturday, March 08, 2008


I first saw Walter Ruttmann's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) at the ICA in the early nineties. They didn't have a soundtrack so we sat and watched it in silence, just listening to each other coughing or shifting position occasionally. I thought it was great, and still prefer it to Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Dziga Vertov's famous experimental film, another 'city symphony', mostly set in Odessa. Both of these were predated by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler's six minute New York film Manhatta, made in 1920. Like Ruttmann's film of Berlin, Manhatta spans a day in the life of a city, from footage of Staten Island ferry commuters to the final scene of sun setting over the Hudson River. You can see the film at the Met website [Postscript: I am now able to embed it from Youtube.]

Other examples of city symphonies? Regen (Rain) a poetic ten minute film from 1929 directed by Joris Ivens, for which Hans Eisler later composed a soundtrack in 1941, 'Fourteen Ways to Describe Rain'. Ivens' earlier film The Bridge (1927) is similar, showing on a drawbridge in Rotterdam. Both can be seen at Ubuweb. In France there was Rien que les heures (1926), Alberto Cavalcanti's film about Paris, and Jean Vigo's A Propos de Nice (1929). Keith Beattie writes that the 'subtitle of Ruttmann's film was applied to numerous films within which practices of visual kinaesthesia constructed a 'symphony' based on the diurnal cycle of life in the modern metropolis, while simultaneously infusing avant-gardist perspectives with a historically and politically cognizant form of social criticism.' At a simple level, as Scott MacDonald has noted, the city symphonies were the flipside of contemporary documentaries like Nanook of the North which brought the exotic to cinema audiences: these films instead exoticised the familiar life of the city.

These films are obviously rich in poetic cityscapes and Charles Sheeler actually used the footage he and Strand created as inspiration for paintings. Robert Hughes in American Visions writes that 'one shot in Manhatta looked down at a train on the Church Street elevated railway sliding into view; Church Street El, 1920, takes this image, colors it and cleans it up, abstracts it, but leaves it essentially recognizable.'

Charles Sheeler, Church Street El, 1920