Saturday, August 30, 2008

Turf rich and fragrant with thyme and burnet

In The Literary Pilgrim in England, first published in 1917, Edward Thomas described the 'homes and haunts' of British writers. He covered a good range of poets and topographical writers: London and the Home Counties (Blake, Lamb, Keats), The Thames (Shelley, William Morris), The Downs and South Coast (Aubrey, Gilbert White, Cobbett, Jefferies, Hardy, Belloc), the West Country (Herrick, Coleridge, W.H. Hudson), The East Coast and Midlands (Cowper, Crabbe, Clare, Tennyson), the North (Wordsworth, Emily Bronte) and Scotland (Burns, Scott). Mostly obvious names, but not all. John Aubrey, for example, is perhaps not as immediately synonymous with a particular landscape as some of these writers, although his magnum opus was a book on Wiltshire antiquities.

Thomas begins his essay on Aubrey by praising the way he was able to isolate telling details: 'who but Aubrey would have noticed and entered in a book the spring after the fire of London "all the ruins were overgrown with an herb or two, but especially with a yellow flower, Ericolevis Neapolitana."' Aubrey seems to have been the first to notice the stones at Avebury which he first encountered in 1648 and later showed to Charles II. Thomas relates that the grey wethers, the 'grey stones scattered sheep like over the slopes' of the Marlborough Downs, were then much more numerous and looked to Aubrey like the scene "where the giants fought with huge stones against the gods, as is described by Hesiod in his Theogonia". On another visit to this country, Aubrey wrote, "our sport was very good and in a romantic country, for the prospects are noble and vast, the downs stocked with numerous flocks of sheep, the turf rich and fragrant with thyme and burnet... nor are the nut-brown shepherdesses without their graces." Sadly Aubrey never quite finished his book on antiquities but hoped that some "public-spirited young Wiltshire man" would polish and complete his "natural remarques."

Although brief lives and landscapes such as the account of John Aubrey make for an enjoyable read, they proved a bore to write. In a December 1913 letter Edward Thomas complained: 'Homes & Haunts I have got to Detest, & I believe I have been doing it intolerably ll through indifference & haste to be done with it.' He worked on it through the spring and summer of 1914, finally sending it off to the publishers at the beginning of August. By this time war was imminent and Thomas wondered whether the book would sell. He wrote, 'I am a little at a loose end after sending off Homes and Haunts yesterday. Who will want the thing now? I may as well write poetry.'

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Solar Mount

This is a diptych dial that I saw in Oxford recently: incorporating a compass and astronomical data, it was designed by Paul Reinmann's workshop in 1612 and it actually includes a miniature landscape view. Sundials are one of those indexical instruments that allow the environment, as it were, to communicate with us and therefore seem connected to recent art in the landscape, such as sound and kinetic sculpture, that reacts to the elements. The most spectacular example of a sundial as the basis for land art is probably Laurent Maget's 'Le Mont solaire' (2006). With the help of the French army he erected reflective aluminium plates on scaffolding bases around Mont Saint Michel to form Roman numerals, 'swept by the shadow of the 150 foot spire of the abbey atop the Mont, which thus became the pointer of a sundial, its shadow three quarters of a mile long.' On a more human scale, Ian Hamilton Finlay has made various sundials, including one at Little Sparta with the inscription 'poems written upon the breath / poems read between the hour lines'. Stephen Scobie has written about another: 'facing west, it also bears the full force of the Scottish weather—and, as the years have gone by, this sundial has weathered too. Moss grows on the wood; the carving of letters is worn and evened down. Marking the passage of time on a yearly as well as an hourly basis...'

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The royal park in Nineveh

The ancient kings of Assyria had an interest in collecting animals and plants stretching back at least as far as Tiglath-Pileser I (reigned 1115 - 1076 BCE), who extended the Assyrian empire to the shores of the Mediterranean and Black Sea. He wrote of ‘Cedars and Box I have carried off from the countries I conquered, trees that none of the kings my fore-fathers possessed: these trees I have taken and planted in my own country, in ... Assyria’ (Penelope Hobhouse, Plants in Garden History). Four hundred years later, Sargon II (722 – 705 BCE) laid out parks north of Nineveh, around Khorasabad, where he grew cedars, cypresses, junipers, dates, olives, almonds, apples, pears, quinces, figs, grapes, ebony, oak, terebinth, ash, tamarisk, oriental planes, willows and poplars. A bas relief (c. 715) shows this park to have had a man-made hill planted with a grove of trees, along with a small temple. It is one of the earliest depictions anywhere of a managed landscape.

Sargon II’s son Sennacherib (reigned 705 – 681 BCE) built his own palace and gardens at Nineveh from around 700. The relief below is a detail from the South-West Palace showing the capture of prisoners at Lachish, a city in the rebel kingdom of Judah. The prisoners are being marched through a rocky landscape of vines, fig trees and possibly olives. Another relief from the palace shows giant reeds (up to 25 feet high) which were introduced from the marshlands of the Tigris and Euphrates to the landscaped parks of the empire’s northern cities where they provided cover for game as well as building material and fuel. Hobhouse quotes Sennacherib’s description of the irrigation system: ‘to dam up the flow of water I made a pond and planted reeds in it... at the command of the gods, the gardens with their vines, fruit, sirdu wood and spices waxed prodigiously. The cypresses, palms and all other trees grew magnificently and budded richly’ (The History of Gardening).

Prisoners from Lachish, Nineveh, South-West Palace

Sennacherib was murdered in 681 and succeeded by Esarhaddon (680-69 BCE), who planned another great garden based on the vegetation of the Amanus mountains near the Black Sea. His successor Ashurbanipal (668-27 BCE) is renowned for creating the great library at Nineveh. The British Museum has a series of reliefs showing scenes from a lion hunt, including the one I photographed here which shows Assyrians rushing up a wooded knoll crowned by a building. Penelope Hobhouse describes another delightful scene in a relief dated 645: King Ashurbanipal and his Queen sit in the royal park in Nineveh dining under an arbour of grape vines. ‘In a neighbouring part of the garden the decapitated head of the conquered king of the Elamites hangs from a tree’ (Plants in Garden History). 

Royal Lion Hunt, Nineveh, North Palace

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Dover cliff

This posting concerns King Lear, ‘which it is surely impossible for anybody who cares about poetry to write on without some expression of awe’ (Frank Kermode, Shakespeare’s Language). There is an awesome description in Act IV of the view from the top of a cliff, when Edgar tells his blinded father, Gloucester
‘Come on, sir; here's the place: stand still. How fearful
And dizzy 'tis, to cast one's eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles: half way down
Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head:
The fishermen, that walk upon the beach,
Appear like mice; and yond tall anchoring bark,
Diminish'd to her cock; her cock, a buoy
Almost too small for sight: the murmuring surge,
That on the unnumber'd idle pebbles chafes,
Cannot be heard so high. I'll look no more;
Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong.’
This description is a reminder that landscapes appear relatively rarely in plays – there is not normally a reason for a character to describe what lies before them. But here, Gloucester has been blinded and cannot see the danger ahead of him. Edgar says “Give me your hand; you are now within a foot / Of the extreme verge: for all beneath the moon / Would I not leap upright.”
Reading the play to myself, I pictured the distant fishermen like the peasants in Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icraus, unaware of the drama being enacted in their midst. In his essay ‘Perspectives: Dover Cliff and the Conditions of Representation’, Jonathan Goldberg likens Edgar’s description to a Renaissance painting, with Gloucester asked to imagine distant objects progressively smaller, reducing them to near invisibility. Goldberg thinks Shakespeare was influenced by ideas of perspective which were being incorporated at this time into English stage design by Inigo Jones.
Watching the play you can’t stop to admire the view – the action continues and Gloucester falls, although not to his death. I went to see King Lear performed at The Globe theatre last week, a place which doesn’t give any real scope for landscape stage sets or other illusionistic devices to help the audience visualise the scene. Trystan Gravelle (Edgar) and Joseph Mydell (Gloucester) stood at the edge of the stage and delivered their lines surrounded on three sides by groundlings with upturned faces just feet away. It was hard to imagine a precipitous cliff and the distant pebbles below.
Nevertheless, this whole scene is curious as it’s not clear how much of what Edgar describes is really there. He tricks his father into believing he has fallen down the cliff and survived, telling him:
‘Hadst thou been aught but gossamer, feathers, air,
So many fathom down precipitating,
Thou’dst shiver’d like an egg; but thou dost breathe,
Hast heavy substance, bleed’st not, speak’st, art sound.
Ten masts at each make not the altitude
Which thou hast perpendicularly fell:
Thy life’s a miracle.’
Earlier, as they approach the cliff, Gloucester cannot picture their location and his ‘view’ actually resembles the one we in the audience have – no slope, no sea:
Glo. Methinks the ground is even.
Edg. Horrible steep: Hark! do you hear the sea?
Glo. No, truly.
We, just as much a Gloucester, have to rely on the power of Edgar’s language to visualise what he could apparently see before him.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Landscape <--> Body <--> Dwelling

Ubuweb has recently added to its archive four Charles Simonds films:
Here's how the Charles Simonds website describes his Dwellings series:
'Since 1970 Simonds has created Dwelling places for an imaginary civilization of “Little People” who are migrating through the streets of neighborhoods in cities throughout the world; New York, Paris, Shanghai, Berlin, London, Dublin, among others. Each Dwelling is a different time and place in the history of the lives of Little People ... A listing of the cities Simonds has worked in is located here.' 
In the film Dwellings, Simonds describes the fragility of his miniature clay landscapes, built in crevices and corners on the Lower East Side. The way members of the public came upon them and wonder about how they got there reminds me of the reaction I sometimes have to the latest appearance in London of Banksy or Space Invaders. But watching these films I inevitably find myself distracted from the artworks by glimpses of the real city, now long gone: the ruined buildings, the fleeting appearance of cars and people, the faded light.

Postscript: these have since been put on YouTube and so I have embedded two of them here.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Poems to the Sea

To Tate Modern for Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons. It’s difficult to be neutral about Cy Twombly, particularly given the extremes of praise and criticism he attracts. His most recent work doesn’t do much for me, but I’ve always liked Poems to the Sea (1959), one of the highlights (if memory serves) of the Serpentine Gallery’s Twombly show a few years ago. I see Tracey Emin is a fan of these too. Here is some commentary from reviewers of the Tate exhibition:  
Sue Hubbard: “In the spring of 1957, Twombly left America and set sail once again for Italy, leaving the citadel of modernist painting for a world steeped in ancient mythology and struggling with the aftermath of war. White and bleached, his paintings from this period are full of the effects of the harsh Mediterranean light. His Poems to the Sea series, executed in a single day in 1959, is crammed with classical and poetic references. "Whiteness," said Twombly of these spare, lyrical works that elide calligraphy, poetry and painting, "can be the classic state of the intellect, or a neo-Romantic area of remembrance." There is an austere purity to all this classical whiteness as his snaking pencil lines, erased by the smears of white paint, unravel into a syntax of approximate meaning.”
Laura Cumming: “Writing, drawing - they are never completely decoupled. Numbers and letters are like pictograms; lines rippling across a page appear purely abstract, except they resemble waves, and what do waves resemble, Twombly delicately implies, but lines of writing? Poems to the Sea is the title of this series, and what are Twombly's paintings but hand-drawn poems?”
Gordon Burn: “Nowhere is his genius for evocation - for suggesting the mood or feeling of a place or a moment - more apparent than in the set of 24 drawings he made in 1959 called Poems to the Sea. "The sea is white three-quarters of the time, just white - early morning," Twombly told [David] Sylvester. "The Mediterranean at least . . . is always just white, white, white. And then, even when the sun comes up, it becomes a lighter white."
Looking at Poems to the Sea again I found myself thinking about Twombly’s experience among artists in different media at Black Mountain College. They look as if Rauschenberg had partially erased and painted in white over some Cage-influenced Olson poems that had been applied to canvas by Motherwell... The Mediterranean sea in these poems has been written over repeatedly through the centuries (later Twombly paintings specifically reference sea legends like the story of Hero and Leander). In spite of their “whiteness”, Twombly’s Poems ot the Sea convey confusing traces of history and culture. In this they are very different to some of the other seas I’ve discussed here - Sugimoto’s empty vistas, say, or the powerful otherness of the waves in Guillevic’s poems.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Landscape in The Assumption of the Virgin

Misty hills which might almost be a photograph. Zoom out to include the details of trees and a building and the painting looks more like a late eighteenth century oil sketch, a picturesque view of Italy:

Zoom out further and the landscape includes a scattering of figures. Seeming less realistically painted, they stand looking down at the river in attitudes of calm, echoing the slim trees. The pale blue sky and gentle curve of the river give the scene a beautiful delicate atmosphere. The painting now seems older - it dates from the early sixteenth century.

Zoom out again and the landscape is revealed as a backdrop. The painting is The Assumption of the Virgin by Milanese painter, Bergognone (active 1481–1522). The cloud is part of the figure of the Virgin and drifts free of the distant view, the brown rocks in the foreground separate the religious drama from the peaceful scene beyond.

And here is the full painting,a large vertical altarpiece, in which the landscape is completely dominated by the figures. I've not come across Bergognone in any writing on landscape art. The fact that Italian Renaissance landscape painting takes place in the interstices of Biblical and mythological stories make it quite easy to overlook even the places or imaginary views painted by those artists who do receive their due in histories of landscape art - Bellini, Leonardo, Titian... But peer into the depths of the less famous works in public museums (like the Met, where I photographed this painting), and you can be transported to some surprising places.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Landscape 154

I’ve been looking back at some early editions of Modern Painters - this posting is essentially a continuation of my earlier one describing the way Peter Fuller promoted landscape painting in the late eighties through this magazine. In a spring 1990 editorial, Fuller praised the new Tate Gallery re-hang which gave prominence to British painters like Stanley Spencer. But he was predictably disappointed that an ‘exemplary’ room dedicated to The School of London was followed by the ‘numbing, post-modern anaesthesia’ of Carl Andre, Joseph Beuys ‘and that frightfully boring woman, Agnes Martin.’ If only Fuller could have hung the final room instead with recent landscape paintings it would be possible to ‘prove that landscape painting in the 1970s and 1980s was at least comparable to that of the 1930s and 1940s.’ He doesn’t discuss this in detail but the article is illustrated with a couple of examples: Keith Grant’s Ice-Fjord, Evening, Jacobshavn (1989) and David Leverett’s Thumb Suite.
Here is a list of some of the (then) contemporary landscape painters covered by Modern Painters in its first five years or so and who might have featured in Peter Fuller’s room: Ray Atkins, David Blackburn, Maurice Cockrill, Peter Doig, Vanessa Gardiner, Ardyn Halter, Derek Hirst, Derek Hyatt, Merlin James, Alex Katz, Peter Prendergast, Len Tabner, William Tillyer, David Tress and John Virtue. Some of them have fared better than others. Anthony O’Hear wrote a review article ‘Towards a New Landscape’ in Modern Painters (Autumn 1993) which picked out Virtue and Wendy Connelly as promising younger contemporaries. A search on Wendy Connelly doesn’t turn up much, but John Virtue continues to have a high profile (his most recent London exhibition was earlier this year). An encomium by Simon Schama in 2005 strikes a slightly Fuller-ish tone: “Virtue's paintings have been made as if much of contemporary art, or rather the fashion of contemporary installation art, had never happened, or at best is a facile distraction from more solidly enduring things.”
There is some footage of John Virtue at the Artists on Film site and quite a few pieces on-line about the London paintings he made whilst at the National Gallery. However, a 1993 Modern Painters Adam Nicholson article interviewed him while he was still living and working in the village of South Tawton, Devon. The village is dominated by a church (for Virtue, ‘a giant stake with which the forms of the landscape are pinned in place’) and it is the church tower which recurs in his ongoing sequence of monochrome landscapes at that time: e.g. Landscape 154 (1993), Landscape 184 (1993) and Landscape 192 (1992-3). The Landscape sequence began in 1978 when, influenced by the drawings and etchings of Rembrandt, Samuel Palmer, Van Gogh and Seurat, Virtue abandoned colour and began drawing the Lancashire countryside. His 1980s works were relatively intricate, assembling fragments of landscape in grids. In 1991 he started painting more expansively on canvas, using shellac-thickened ink and not minding much if the work in progress incorporated some actual rain or soil. This evolution to a less detailed style feels like a familiar trajectory (evident for example in recent Tate exhibitions of Howard Hodgkin and Peter Doig). The Modern Painters article ends by stating what Virtue thinks his paintings are not: topographical, nostalgic, literary. He wants to convey a visceral, visionary, visual response to landscape.