Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Oder's exit into the Baltic in C sharp major, pianissimo

In Howard's End (1910) E.M. Forster exemplifies some pretentious conversation which a hundred years earlier might have included reflections on the Picturesque. Instead, a landscape is seen through the prism of music:
"People at Stettin drop things into boats out of overhanging warehouses. At least, our cousins do, but aren't particularly rich. The town isn't interesting, except for a clock that rolls its eyes, and the view of the Oder, which truly is something special. Oh, Mrs. Wilcox, you would love the Oder! The river, or rather rivers--there seem to be dozens of them--are intense blue, and the plain they run through an intensest green."

"Indeed! That sounds like a most beautiful view, Miss Schlegel."

"So I say, but Helen, who will muddle things, says no, it's like music. The course of the Oder is to be like music. It's obliged to remind her of a symphonic poem. The part by the landing-stage is in B minor, if I remember rightly, but lower down things get extremely mixed. There is a slodgy theme in several keys at once, meaning mud-banks, and another for the navigable canal, and the exit into the Baltic is in C sharp major, pianissimo."

"What do the overhanging warehouses make of that?" asked the man, laughing.

"They make a great deal of it," replied Margaret, unexpectedly rushing off on a new track. "I think it's affectation to compare the Oder to music, and so do you, but the overhanging warehouses of Stettin take beauty seriously, which we don't, and the average Englishman doesn't, and despises all who do. Now don't say 'Germans have no taste,' or I shall scream. They haven't. But--but--such a tremendous but! --they take poetry seriously. They do take poetry seriously.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Maiden Castle

The photograph I have behind the title of this blog was taken at Maiden Castle in Dorset. The path through the grass reminded me of Richard Long but the green slopes of the castle itself are also reminiscent of recent land art. In an article in the January edition of the BBC's Garden's Illustrated, Ambra Edwards places Maiden Castle at the start of her chronology of landforms:
  • The ancient earth sculptures - ziggurats, pyramids, barrows, henges, tumuli and forts
  • The re-shaping of the land for Renaissance gardens, like Donato Bramante's terraces and ramp for the Belvedere Court of the Vatican
  • Charles Bridgman's military-inspired ramparts, bastions and other landforms - most evident today in the amphitheatre at Claremont
  • Following Capability Brown, a decline of the artificial landform in favour of more natural landscapes, before some signs of revival in mid-twentieth century garden design, like Fletcher Steele's famous Blue Steps at Naumkeag in Massachusetts
  • The earthworks of the late sixties - Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson et al
  • Recent gardens influenced by land art, like Charles Jencks and Maggie Keswick's Garden of Cosmic Speculation
The article ends by describing the work of Kim Wilkie, who has designed an inverse pyramid for Broughton Park to match the existing mount: 'The earthwork will be named after Orpheus to celebrate its descending form and as a place for music and contemplation... An inverted grass pyramid will descend 7 metres below the level of the restored terraces. Walking around the landscape, the new design will be invisible, but drawing near to the mount, a gentle grass path will spiral down to a square pool of still water deep underground. The water will reflect the sky, a little like an inverted James Turrell occulus.'

This description shows how landforms tend to be conceived in terms of movement - walking around them, climbing up or into them - and as sites from which to contemplate the surrounding environment. As objects themselves they are often best seen from a distance; I have mentioned here before the way that some of the early earthworks were conceived as art viewable from the air. The abstract form of Maiden Castle is often shown through aerial photography, as in the Dorset Shell Guide compiled by Paul Nash, or more recently in Julian Cope's The Modern Antiquarian (although the Modern Antiquarian website has many other photographs of the castle, along with field reports and folklore).

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Black Sea

'Black Sea'
, released this autumn, was the first new Fennesz album since 'Venice' (2004). As can be seen here, it has a typically beautiful Touch Records landscape photograph on the cover, but like its predecessor you wouldn't really be justified in calling this a kind of 'landscape' music. For me, 'Venice' was more like the Venice of Howard Hodgkin's paintings than the Venice of, say, Caneletto - an art of vague memories and moods. 'Black Sea' is praised in the latest Wire but also described as 'business as usual' for Fennesz and I see that it doesn't make it into their top electronica releases of 2008. However, another recent Touch record, Lawrence English's 'Kiri No Oto', does make that list. The Touch website explains the title: loosely translated it means 'the 'sound of fog' or 'sound of mist'. In many ways it's a collection that meditates on the sense of displacement and distortion that occurs in environments which undergo extreme mists, snowstorms and sea sprays. In the same way that visual objects loose their perspective, form and shape in these environments, the sound components that make up Kiri No Oto are not quite as they first might appear.'

Touch records are designed by Jon Wozencroft. In a 2000 interview he explained his fascination with landscape photography: 'It’s a response to the tyranny of the close-up of the human face, for one thing. So it’s also a response to a sexual question. Next, it’s based around a feeling I have about sacred images. It’s the way that, as a subject, “natural” landscapes can invoke wonder and respect, which hopefully feeds back into human behavior. There has to be a way that images can teach, but all the didactic methods have failed in the face of mass media, so my concern is to find a language that is the opposite of meta-this, techno-that, and try to get to elemental concerns in a softer way. These landscapes are atmosphere recordings, and they are forensic. When I really started making photographs, at the beginning of the 1990s, I started by photographing material that I’d shot on video off the TV screen. I worked a lot on what could be done with abstraction, and as soon as the PC made it so easy to output abstraction, I decided it was time to make the subject central. And it seemed to me that photography could take the opportunity that Photoshop offered to sleigh off its skin. Maybe documentary photography, and a painterly approach to the medium, could be combined with a choice of subjects that were non-representations. It is the camera, it is the moment, but alongside a series of other processes parallel to the mechanical aspect that make it unique to the viewer, and the only manipulating factor is the light. Questions for the eyes, based on beauty. Saturated beauty.'

Here are a couple more landscape images from the Touch Records catalogue. The first one, above, is a collaborative work which features Fennesz and others. I can't resist repeating an unattributed quotation on the website about this: 'Fennesz's set "...evokes the rolling centuries in all their pain and beauty, leaving us at once becalmed and energised, but never oppressed under the weight of time.' Who writes like this?! The second, 'Surface Runoff' by Jana Winderen, is a pair of soundscapes recorded using hydrophones in various rivers, ranging from the Ping and Mae Taeng north of Chiang Mai, Thailand, to the Ouse in England.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Good Government in the Countryside

The latest New York Review has an article about Siena by Ingrid Rowland which begins with a description of its landscape.
'Unlike its near neighbour and inveterate rival Florence, the city is shaped by the land, from the curves of the three hills on which it sits to the strange volcanic pinnacles and underground springs that mark its territory. The most profound mystery enveloping Siena, then, is the very mystery of our human relation to nature. No countryside seems more harmonious, and more natural, than the rounded slopes that roll outward from the city's shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, and yet the very gentleness of those slopes gives away the fact that this is one of the most worked-over landscapes in the world.
Long familiarity has brought human and natural rhythms into so complete a balance that sometimes the trees truly do seem, like the trees of the Psalms, to clap their hands in exultation. Yet among these forests of exultant trees there are stretches of terrain where bare chalk crags rear up as sere as a hermit's roost. A band of local monks built one of their most beautiful monasteries in the midst of one craggy Sienese chalk bed and called it the Mount of Olives, Monte Oliveto Maggiore. The grapes fortunate enough to grow in the region's chalky soil produce red wines of rare quality, including Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (all created by methods going back to the Etruscans). The same terrain hosts underground deposits of alum, natural gas, and alabaster, as well as artesian springs gushing forth hot and cold, the remnants of ancient volcanoes...'

When some years ago we stayed for a few days in Siena, I was impressed by its streets and squares and buildings, but what really seemed unique was the way the edges of the city melted into the surrounding hills and valleys - a landscape that looked unchanged since the Middle Ages. The view I photographed above, for example, looked to me hardly any different from Ambrogio Lorenzetti's depiction of life in the countryside in the Palazzo Pubblico frescoes of Good and Bad Government. And, as Ingrid Rowland says, it seemed both harmonious and thoroughly 'worked over'.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Good Government in the Countryside (detail) c1338-40

There is an interesting discussion of Lorenzetti's painting in Malcolm Andrews' Landscape and Western Art. He recalls that Kenneth Clark placed Lorenzetti at the start of the Western landscape tradition (perhaps unsurprising when you see how 'accurate' the buildings, hills and valleys he painted appear). But the countryside in Lorenzetti is, according to Andrews, 'represented not in order to celebrate a rural idyll, with its implied denigration of urban life, nor as a precocious virtuoso exercise in naturalistic landscape painting'. Instead it is a political landscape: the subject of the work is good government and Lorenzetti promotes the idea that the city and countryside can be strongly linked in a prosperous two-way exchange. This can clearly be read into the activities of the nobles and peasants, but it can also be seen in the use of scale: figures and architecture 'diminish in spatial recession not from the spectator's point of view, but from the point of view of the city itself.' And Lorenzetti even ignored the natural light source (on the right) to make it radiate out from the city of Siena.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Drifting Snow

Drifting clouds
Dry weather
A Day in the Woods
September Night
Drifting Snow
Fire of Frost
Winter Morning
One Flower

This is a list (admittedly unrepresentative) of chapter titles from Independent People, the Halldor Laxness novel which I first read in the cold winter days of February 2003. What struck me then was the almost Japanese quality of these titles - not just in what they convey but in the way that Laxness chose them over more obviously descriptive ones (The Tale of Genji is does something similar). For example, 'Drifting Snow' could more simply have been called 'The Funeral', as that is what it is about. There is drifting snow, which makes the coffin hard to carry, and in which, after the body is lowered into the grave, three crofters with bare heads sing "As the one blossom." But it is typical of the writing that Laxness sums the scene up with an element of the Icelandic landscape, in this case suggesting the way that time will quickly erase the memory of the sheep farmer's wife.

Annie Dillard wrote in the New York Times: 'Iceland grips Mr. Laxness. Northern open lands beyond tree line, over which vast skies change, inspire scenes of metaphysical simplicity. The slowly changing lights at dawn and dusk suggest eternity, and midsummer nights invite dreams. Protestant rigor lies thin over pagan dread. On the other hand, the cruel soils of high latitudes require backbreaking labor. The injustice of hard-working poverty provokes writers to analyze or rage. Nature is both ruinous and fabulous, and people love both temporal justice and spiritual beauty. A redshank's cry over the wastes seems a human soul calling into immense silence. ''One hopes that one may be able to hear it after one's death also,'' Mr. Laxness writes, ''that one may wander about the marshes of a night, the night before Ascension Day after one's death, and listen to this incredible story; yes, this story and no other.'''

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Fountains, rivers and running brooks

I have quoted here before Robert Burton's description of the way a good prospect will ease melancholy, but for those without such a view, similar benefits are available from looking at landscape paintings. Leon Battista Alberti, in his Ten Books on Architecture (1452), provided this advice on interior decoration: 'our minds are cheered beyond measure by the sight of paintings depicting the delightful countryside, harbours, fishing, hunting, swimming, the games of shepherds - flowers and verdure...' (Book VII, Chapter 5).

This passage is quoted in E. H. Gombrich's seminal essay 'The Renaissance Theory of Art and the Rise of Landscape', along with a later one in which the psychological benefits of landscape are further stressed by Alberti: 'Those who suffer from fever are offered much relief by the sight of painted fountains, rivers and running brooks, a fact which anyone can put to the test; for if by chance he lies in bed one night unable to sleep, he need only turn his imagination on limpid waters and fountains which he had seen at one time or another, or perhaps some lake, and his dry feeling will disappear all at once and sleep will come upon him as the sweetest of slumbers...' Of course in emphasising the benefits of landscape without any specific subject matter, Alberti starts to point beyond mere illustration or decoration, towards the new independent genre of landscape painting.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Dessert in the form of a winter landscape

I've recently been reading to my son Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with its chocolate waterfall and minty grass, and so was tempted by a link on Arts & Letters Daily to look at the food landscapes of photographer Carl Warner. Apparently 'the images can take up to two or three days to build and photograph and then a couple of days retouching and fine-tuning them to blend together all the elements, such as parmesan cliffs with sweet potato boulders and cress and savoy cabbage foliage under a red cabbage sky.'

The subject of foodscapes puts me in mind of the Manifesto of Futurist Cooking (1930). Marinetti's section on sculpted meat highlights a recipe devised by Futurist painter Fillia for rissole of minced veal stuffed with eleven kinds of green vegetables provided 'a symbolic interpretation of all the varied landscapes of Italy'. Marinetti also refers to Enrico Prampolini's Equator + North Pole - 'an equatorial sea of poached egg yolks' surrounding 'a cone of firmly whipped egg white'.

Back in 1600, the marriage in Lyon of Marie de' Medici and Henry IV involved (according to Roy Strong in his book Feast) 'every kind of late mannerist fantasy. On the high table were two oak trees seemingly made of snow with white leaves and silver garlands. Beneath their branches a hunt was in progress.' At a certain moment, 'from beneath the floor arose a table bearing dessert in the form of a winter landscape.' The meal ended with a sugar garden full of birds, fruit and flowers. Such sugar sculptures form a whole subgenre of the foodscape - the engraving reproduced below shows a sugar collation from the wedding of Johann Wilhem, heir to the duke of J├╝lich-Cleve, in 1587.