Monday, December 28, 2009

A delightful style of decorating walls

For my last post of the decade I'm going to discuss some words of the writer who provided my nom de blog, 'Plinius'.  In his Natural History, Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder) mentions many artists, but the nearest he gets to discussing landscape art is in Book XXXV:  'Nor must I neglect Studius, a painter of the days of Augustus, who introduced a delightful style of decorating walls with representations of villas, harbours, landscape gardens, sacred groves, woods, hills, fishponds, straits, streams and shores, any scene in short that took the fancy.'  He then describes some of the people included in these scenes - often humorously depicted.  'He also brought in the fashion of painting seaside towns on the walls of open galleries, producing a delightful effect at a very small cost.'  But for Pliny such frescoes were not the business of great painters (the celebrated Apelles had no wall paintings in his house).  No artists 'enjoy a real glory unless they have painted easel pictures' (something for this year's Turner Prize winner, Richard Wright, to think about!)

This short text is all we know about Studius, but Roger Ling published an interesting article back in 1977, in the Journal of Roman Studies, that tried to infer more about the kind of paintings he could have been responsible for ('Studius and the Beginnings of Roman Landscape Painting').  Ling begins by discounting some landscape-related genres that don't seem to correspond to Pliny's description: (1) mythological landscape as in the famous 'Odyssey landscapes' of the Esquiline; (2) the beautiful, naturalistic garden painting in the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta; (3) architectural illustration, as in the bedroom of the villa at Boscoreale; or (4) details of rustic shrines like those in the Palatine's Room of the Masks. He then argues against the view that Studius focused on 'villa landscapes', in contrast to the more pastoral scenes which seem to be described in the brief reference Vitruvius makes to landscape painting: 'in corridors because of the length of the surface they created decorations with varieties of landscape, drawing images from specific characteristics of places; for they paint harbours, promontories, shores, rivers, springs, canals, shrines, groves, mountains, cattle, shepherds.'  By looking at the available physical evidence, Ling concludes that Studius must have painted landscapes that could fit both the descriptions of Vitruvius and Pliny, and that the latter discussed him specifically because he had brought 'to perfection' peopled architectural landscape wall-painting in the Augustan period.

Painted landscape from the Red Room, Villa of Agrippa Postumus, Boscotrecase

Ling discusses three sites which could contain the kind of landscape painting Studius was renowned for, and even suggests that they could be the work of Studius himself or his workshop.  These are
  • The Yellow Frieze in the House of Livia, Rome, which has architecture and figures corresponding to the kind of scene described by Pliny
  • Certain panels and vault decorations in the Farnesina house, in which Ling detects 'Studian echoes', e.g. 'whimsical figures like the woman leaning disconsolately against a wall'
  • Landscape panels in the Boscotrecase villa's Red Room, with another humorous detail: a shepherd talking to hs dog.    
His article concludes by attempting to characterise the landscape style of Studius.  The paintings were above all 'charming', blending everyday life with exotic settings.  They have a relatively realistic treatment of distance, without employing linear perspective, and the figures are quite small, although larger than they would be in real life.  The paintings deploy a range of colour effects but tend to have a restricted palette and the brushwork appears to be relatively quick and sketchy.  Of course a lot of this is deliberately speculative; and looking for the real Studius is perhaps as fruitless as searching for the real Homer or the real Odysseus...  But I'd be interested to know if any more recent scholarship has shed further light on Pliny's brief description of the mysterious Studius.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Anonymous backdrops for the drama of words

Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting at the Hayward is a good exhibition, but a depressing experience for any believer in the inspirational possibilites of landscape art.  Room 2 is entitled 'Words as Landscape' and here is what it says on the wall: 'Ruscha often speaks of his word paintings as 'landscapes', and describes their backgrounds as 'anonymous backdrops for the drama of words'.  Pointing out that he is not part of any landscape tradition, he says of The Back of Hollywood, where the word (in reverse) is literally an object in landscape: "my approach to this kind of vista came out of travelling on highways - hitchhiking and driving ... I see things as a moving panoramic landscape, maybe in the same way you might see a movie."'

The landscapes in The Back of Hollywood and similar works like A Particular Kind of Heaven (1983) are just a sky and a horizon, painted as empty cinematic clichés rather than images of the sublime. Ruscha's more recent 'Mountain' paintings were inspired by the old Paramount Pictures mountain and many of them are backdrops to text taken from a commercial or urban context - see for example the Tate's Pay Nothing Until April (2003).  The exhibition shows them near paintings that illustrate more directly the banality of the industrial landscape, like Blue Collar Tech-Chem (1992).  In paintings like Pay Nothing Until April, Ruscha shows us the distance between real life and the idea of the mountain.  He overlays The Mountain (1998) with just one word, 'The', as if to emphasise the landscape's role as mere signifier.  One reviewer has likened this enigmatic painting to Giorgione's La Tempesta; far-fetched, but Ruscha himself has said that he wants this work to 'toy with your mind'.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Probably too late now to ask for these for Christmas: the new limited edition LPs of Richard Skelton's Landings... The latest Wire magazine includes a review of the music by Keith Moliné from which I'd like to quote a paragraph (you'll see why): 'All Skelton's work, whether under the name of A Broken Consort, Carousell or Clouwbeck, is intimately connected to the landscape.  He treats the act of creation as a form of site-specific ritual in which the sense of place imprints itself on the work.  Indeed, Landings originally involved a reciprocal arrangement with the land, with Skelton secretly depositing individual CD-Rs back into locations in which the recording had taken place.  Unlike field recordists like Jez riley French, Skelton aims for a distillation of the emotional resonance of a particular locale mediated through instrumental work, rather than recontextualising location sounds as music itself.  His approach is closer to that of the Jewelled Antler Collective's Blithe Sons, whose recordings document the sonic characteristics of their chosen locations by sounding them with the music they improvise.  Skelton's dialogue with the landscape is at once more nebulous - it borders on a weirdly private kind of gestural performance art - and less esoteric; it's geared towards producing personal, emotionally resonant music rather than investigating sonic phenomena.'

The landscape Skelton explores in this work is that of the Pennines, centering on Anglezarke.  In an interview at The Line of Best Fit, Skelton says he "felt compelled to play music in this landscape – I’d get up at 5 or 6am, drive out to the moor and play guitar, violin or concertina in the ruins of old farmhouses, as the morning light began to blush over the moor. ...  I was initially quite dogmatic about making all my Landings recordings in the field. I felt that the connection between the landscape and the music was only valid if the recordings were made in situ. I somehow wanted the landscape to impress itself onto the recordings directly, and felt that simply adding a flavour of the environment (bird song, river sounds etc) to studio recordings would be a kind of trickery. But after a few years of recording in this way, I became increasingly dissatisfied with the results themselves. My memory of events often conflicted wildly with the recorded documents, and what’s more, many of them were marred by the intrusion of unwanted sounds, such as wind or traffic noise."
"I then began to observe how my writing about the landscape wasn’t contingent on proximity, and that, if anything, I could write more clearly when away from the place of inspiration. Increasingly, I began to visit the moor without instruments, simply to experience it. I began to realise that my music making had mediated my previous experiences of the landscape – that in some ways it was an intrusion, and that I needed to witness these places alone, devoid of the props of my art. Furthermore, I realised that I could still represent Anglezarke in my recordings – in miniature, by using the small stones, bark and other natural ephemera which I’d collected from my previous visits. These things could act as a synecdoche for the landscape, as well as physically colluding with my instruments, by being used as plectra, or as sound sources in their own right."
The accompanying book, described on Skelton's website, 'is a loose-fitting collection of writings that obliquely articulate ideas about memory, mark making, proximity and loss, a sense of place and the landscape (its voices, history and folklore). Along with diary entries, the book gathers together word lists, poetry and prose fragments from 2004 to 2008'  He includes a sample chapter - from which I've extracted a few lines below:
The shifting half-light briefly traces ghost tracks across the fields. I
look out towards Alance Bridge and the mouth of the Yarrow, retracing
its course back up the tree-lined channel towards Anglezarke
Moor. And somewhere far up there. Beyond sight. Old Rachel’s.

I suffuse this place with the sounds recorded at that ruin, near the
head of the river, many months ago.

Stones dislodged from a bitter and brittle dam.
A well of music and memory.
Alluvium and fragments of melody.
Stirring in the still water.
Finally flowing downstream.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Pavilion of Prince T'eng

Almost all you will learn about the poet Wang Bo (called Wang Po in the Wade-Giles system) from the brief stub on Wikipedia is that he was 'one of the Four Literary Eminences in Early Tang' whose 'forward way of thinking is reflected in the quote "friendships across the world make near neighbours of far horizons"' (an appropriate sentiment for a blog).  However, if this makes him sound like a saintly sage it is rather misleading, for Wang Po seems to have been a poet of the live-fast-die-young type.  According to Richard E. Strassburg (Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China), Wang was a child prodigy, recommended to the court as a teenager, entering service in 666 CE.  Expelled two years later for satirical writing, he was reinstated as an administrator in 672 but then sentenced to execution for the crime of killing a government slave.  Although pardoned, Wang was struck from the list of government officials and his father was demoted and exiled to a remote region that covers parts of modern north Vietnam.  Wang Po made the long journey to visit him but was drowned on the way: a promising poet, dead at the age of twenty-six.

On October 3rd 675, probably whilst on that journey to visit his father, Wang Po was invited to a feast at the Pavilion of the Prince of T'eng.  This Pavilion stood 105 feet high, facing the Kan River, and it was there that Wang wrote his famous Preface, introducing poems to be composed at the feast.  This naturally includes a description of the surrounding landscape, which begins: 'The swollen waters have subsided, and the cold lakes are clear.  The mist hangs thickly, so the mountains appear purple in the twilight; horses and carriages are neatly lined up along the high road while we visit the scenery of this imposing hill.'  Wang goes on to mention sandbanks with cranes, islets with wild ducks, mountains and planes, river and marshes.  'A pure breeze arose when lively flutes sounded; the white clouds were halted by the strains of a languid song.'

Wang summed up the occasion by saying that 'the four excellent conditions were present, and the two rarities came together.'  What were these?  According to Richard Strassberg's footnote, the four excellent conditions were a fine day, beautiful scenery, a delighted heart and a happy occasion, as described in an earlier poetic preface written by Hsieh Ling-yün ('Preface to Eight Poems Written in Imitation of the Poetry Gathering of the Crown Prince of Wei at Yeh').  The two rarities were: a worthy host and elegant guests.

Nevertheless, Wang Po's Preface ends on a melancholy note: 'Alas!  Scenic places do not endure; sumptuous feasts rarely occur twice.'  Wang's actual poem following the Preface describes the landscape around the Pavilion whilst evoking the passage of time: soaring clouds followed by rain, stars shifting in the sky, successive autumns passing and the river flowing ever onwards.   The Pavilion itself had been built in 653 and was constantly being restored, eventully becoming a shrine to Wang Po's prose.  According to Strassberg, it lasted 'for almost thirteen hundred years before its final destruction by a northern warlord in 1926'.  However, a new replica (below) has now been built in reinforced concrete and, according to Wikipedia, "mainly serves tourism purposes."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Starry Night

Much has been written this autumn about Van Gogh's letters, following publication of the vast new six-volume collected edition.  Among those queuing up to praise them have been Andrew Motion, Julian Bell and Richard Shone.  And rightly so I'm sure - for what it's worth, the considerably cheaper Penguin edition in our house remains the most moving, stimulating and beautiful set of letters I have ever read.

I have talked about the letters here before and quoted from one that described the landscape at Zweeloo.  You can see this letter on the new Van Gogh Letters site, with links to a facsimile and comprehensive notes. In the letter Van Gogh writes "I passed a little old church, just exactly, just exactly the church at Gréville in Millet’s little painting in the Luxembourg" and you can click on the link to see this painting. It's an amazing site and it would be great to see someone do the same kind of thing here for Turner or Palmer, or writers like Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Some of the sketches Van Gogh included in his letters were landscapes - see for example his letter to Emile Bernard of 19 June 1888 ("Herewith another landscape... I painted it at the height of the mistral.")  Earlier in this letter he says "To be honest with you, I have absolutely no objection to the countryside, since I grew up in it - I am still enchanted by snatches of the past, have a hankering after the eternal, of which the sower and the sheaf of corn are the symbols.  But when shall I ever get round to doing the starry sky, that picture which is always in my mind?" 

Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night, September 1888

However, with so many reviewers earnestly urging people to read the letters I'm tempted to recall an alternative take on them - 'If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists' by Woody Allen.  In these letters Vincent writes to Theo, for example, that 'my old friend Monet refuses to work on anything but very, very large mouths and Seurat, who is quite moody, has developed a method of cleaning one tooth at a time until he builds up what he calls a “full, fresh mouth.” It has an architectural solidity to it, but is it dental work?'

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Cerne Abbas Giant

In what ways can landscape archaeology be considered a form of landscape art?  Matthew Johnson's Ideas of Landscape (2007) traces the roots of the discipline (at least in its English version) to Romanticism and draws parallels between W.G. Hoskins (whose The Making of the English Landscape I've mentioned here before) and Wordsworth.  They were both solitary walkers, interested in the local (the genius loci) and the national, combining direct bodily experience with intuitive understanding, traveling in imagination into the past, gazing on the landscape from a social and physical distance and with a degree of expert knowledge, viewing the landscape aesthetically and translating it into text.

Johnson argues that landscape archaeologists working on prehistoric (rather than historic) sites have tended to operate more objectively and certainly in the US have been more open to theory.  One could perhaps draw parallels here with English and American land artists - Richard Long shares many of the Romantic characteristics listed above, in contrast to, say, Robert Smithson.   Johnson discusses some of the tools of landscape archaeology - maps, aerial photography and the hachured plan.  Ostensibly objective and empirical, they are 'complicit in a Romantic view of the world - each invites the observer to gaze down on the landscape like Wordsworth in the Lakes.'  Land artists have used photographs and maps extensively to document their earthworks but this book made me think there's some untapped potential in hachured plans...

In contrasting the attitudes of archaeologists to history and prehistory, Johnson discusses the Cerne Abbas Giant.  This mysterious work of art in the landscape has been taken to be prehistoric, since it could not be linked to Christian imagery and there were no historic documents relating to its creation.  But neither of these factors precludes a later date - 'Ronald Hutton (1999) has argued convincingly that it in fact sits longside a 17th century landscape of politics and conflict between king and Parliament.'  A third view has been put forward by Barbara Bender (an academic who, fifty years ago, was a college friend of my mother's.)  She suggests that the specific date of origin does not matter - 'the Giant has to be scoured and re-scoured every generation; it takes its place, and its historical importance, as part of a continuing tradition that links the past to the present.'

The Cerne Abbas Giant
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The trenchéd waters run from sky to sky

The latest New York Review has arrived and it includes a critical article on Jane Campion's film Bright Star by Christopher Ricks.  The problem with the film for Ricks is that it tries to illustrate Keats's poems - he sees this as ridiculous and as unnecessary as adding perfume or sound effects.  Keats's imagination and his words alone are able to create the most vivid imagery.  To assist his argument Ricks quotes some lines about Tennyson which I thought worth recording here (from William Allingham's diary):

"As to visualising," he said, "I often see the most magnificent landscapes."
"In dreams?"
"Yes, and on closing my eyes. To-day when I lay down I saw a line of huge wonderful cliffs rising out of a great sweep of forest — finer than anything in nature."
Other gifts he has, but T. is especially and pre-eminently a landscape-painter in words, a colourist, rich, full and subtle.

I'll end this post with some poetry by Tennyson; the lines below are praised in the final chapter of Francis Turner Palgrave's Landscape in Poetry from Homer to Tennyson: With Many Illustrative Examples (1897). Palgrave says of "the trenchéd waters run from sky to sky" that it illustrates Tennyson's ability to fix a scene, "characteristic of the Lincolnshire Marshland, in a few perfect words." So there's clearly no need here for any accompanying footage to help us visualise the landscape...
Whether the high field on the bushless pike,
Or even a sand-built ridge
Of heapéd hills that mound the sea,
Overblown with murmurs harsh,
Or even a lowly cottage whence we see
Stretch'd wide and wild the waste enormous marsh,
Where from the frequent bridge,
Like emblems of infinity,
The trenchéd waters run from sky to sky...

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Liverpool Cityscape

I've been in Liverpool this week and managed to squeeze in a trip to the Walker Art Gallery.  I think my favourite painting in their collection is Simone Martini's Christ Discovered in the Temple (reminiscent of the attitude my son assumes when he's done something wrong), but there are some great landscape paintings too.  In Poussin's Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion (1648), for example, with its contrast between the serene classical architecture and the wild rock formation towering above, you can almost hear the wind blowing menacingly through the trees.  Much wilder still is John Martin's The Last Man, a rendering of Thomas Campbell's apocalyptic poem, and there is a dramatic view of The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel (c. 1824) by Louis Daguerre, painter of dioramas, inventor of the daguerrotype.  However, for me the most striking landscape painting in the museum (and you really have to see it rather than peer at a jpeg) is this:

J.M.W. Turner, Landscape, c1845

Leaving the permanent collection, I came to an exhibition celebrating the John Moores Painting Prize.  In 2006 this was awarded to Martin Greenland for Before Vermeer's Clouds.  The painting uses the sky from Vermeer's A View of Delft and according to the artist's statement, it was originally to be titled 'A Vision of Heaven', designed to have 'the same appearance of stability and unhurried peace as Vermeer’s, and incorporate as many elements of the stable or perpetual as could be organised.'  It's quite a risky strategy, as the borrowed sky and 'perpetual' landscape elements could seem nothing more than dull pastiche.  You can see other examples of Greenland's imagined landscapes on his website.

Last year, during Liverpool's turn as European City of Culture, the artist Ben Johnson was in residence at the Walker completing his Liverpool Cityscape.  Seeing it up close this week, I thought it quite strange to be described as a "celebration" of Liverpool (as in the video clip below), because it shows an lifeless city, emptied of people and traffic.  The background is painted with the naturalistic realism you would expect in a panorama, but the foreground buildings resemble a computer generated architectural model with their dimensions oddly distorted.  Everything is pristine and well lit and the dominant colour is the dead beige of recent urban regeneration.  Still, according to the Liverpool Echo, 'Ben Johnson's painstaking and wondrous Liverpool cityscape – the distillation of team work referencing 3,000 photographs and occupying 24,000 man hours – is the definitive visual statement of our 2008 renaissance.'

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Arkona glows in the gleam of the deep-sunken sun

Ludwig Gotthard Kosegarten

Ludwig Gotthard Kosegarten is not, I think it's safe to say, a well known name to the general reader in English.  His entry in the Oxford Companion to German Literature is relatively brief and mentions 'a derivative tragedy', and two rapidly written 'short sentimental epics' (Kosegarten said they took him five and six days respectively).  However, he was celebrated in his day as poet and pastor, and has been studied by Romantic scholars for his influence on aesthetics and the arts. He was, for example, one of the poets set to music by Franz Schubert ('The evening flowers, / Arkona glows / In the gleam of the deep-sunken sun' - Naxos recordong notes).  His links to Caspar David Friedrich are discussed in the Joseph Leo Koerner book I have been drawing from in the last couple of posts.  What particularly interested me in reading about Kosegarten there was the idea of his 'shore-sermons' (Uferpredigten).

'Staged outside in nature', Koerner explains, 'Christian worship utilizes only the landscape for its services, treating the various elements of nature loosely as symbols for the personages, instruments and doctrines of faith.  Typically, Kosegarten set his shore-sermon in Rügen, a large island in the Baltic off the coast of Pomerania, for in this bleak and ascetic landscape the poet found a natural reflection for his own self-consciously Northern piety.  In the third eclogue of Kosegarten's verse epic Jucunde (1803), for example, the heroine's father, a village pastor, preaches to his flock 'in the greening valley by the coast', accompanied only by the 'trumpets of the sea and the many-voiced pipe organ of the storm.'

Kosegarten was an early collector of Friedrich and asked him to paint an altarpiece for the 'shore-chapel' in Vitte.  Friedrich, like Kosegarten, was inspired by the landscape of Rügen, but also by the character and writings of the poet-pastor.  Heinrich von Kleist's discussion of Monk by the Sea, which I've mentioned here before, refers to its 'Kosegartenian effect'.  The monk figure could be taken as a representation of Kosegarten, as Albert Boime says in Art in an Age of Bonapartism 1800-1815, since the landscape resembles Arkona, the headland where Kosegarten preached outdoor services for the fishermen and their families.  Boime discusses the links between the painting and Kosegarten's poetry in some detail, quoting from Jucunde and Kosegarten's 'remarkable autobiographical poem' Arkona.

Kosegarten's invention of Rügen as a poetic landscape is described in a useful article, 'The Island of Rügen as Mythic Site of Germany', by Roswitha Schieb.  She goes on to say how Rügen cast its spell on other writers, like the twenty-nine-year-old Wilhelm von Humboldt, whose 'interest in Rügen initially focused on a search for charm and beauty rather than the sublime. ... However, in the northern part of the island he slowly began to develop a taste for its curious character: he climbed arduously over rolling beds of stone to the sea, sampled the water, remarking on how long its salty tang endured, and visited sacrificial sites and graves dating back to the pagan period.'  She quotes one of Humboldt's descriptions - "the solitary, undisturbed, blackish lake, the dense beeches with their thick foliage, the complete silence, which is only interrupted by the rustle of the thick layer of beech leaves under the feet of the wayfarer, and the mysterious meaning of the space enclosed by the embankment and the lake immerse the soul in a sacred and silent menace. It is hard to imagine another place imbued with such a character of sacredness and reverence."

Friday, November 27, 2009

Spirits in the clouds at sunset

In what conceivable way could Raphael's Sistine Madonna, in Dresden's Gemäldegalerie, be considered a landscape painting?  In 1802, Philipp Otto Runge wrote 'is it not strange that we can feel our whole life clearly and distinctly when we see dense, heavy clouds running past the moon, now their edges gilded by the moon, now the moon swallowed entirely by their forms?  It sees then to us as if we could write the story of our life in images such as these.  And is it not true that since Buonarotti and Raphael there have been no genuine history painters?  Even Raphael's picture in the gallery tends toward landscape - of course we must understand something totally different by the term landscape'.

Raphael, The Sistine Madonna, 1512-13

This quotation is in Joseph Leo Koerner's Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape, which I described in my previous post.  Koerner explains that 'for Runge, the Sistine Madonna stands at the end of the tradition of Christian history painting and at the start of a new saeculum of art called landscape.  Like Romanticism, landscape can be posited only as project, having not yet found its true practitioner.  In Raphael's canvas, Runge discerns a fragment from this future landscape art.' 

For the Romantics, God was legible in nature and traditional religious imagery unnecessary - an approach that can be seen most clearly in the paintings of Friedrich. but when Runge was contemplating Raphael's painting, he thought that 'there has not yet been a landscape artist who gives his landscapes true meaning, who introduces into them allegories and intelligible, beautiful ideas.  Who does not see the spirits in the clouds at sunset?'

Friday, November 20, 2009

Hill and Ploughed Field near Dresden

The best landscape art book of 2009?  Possibly the new edition of Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape by Joseph Leo Koerner, first published in 1990.  Written in three parts, the first, 'Romanticizing the World', begins by addressing the reader directly as "you" and imagines an encounter with Friedrich's Trees and Bushes in the Snow (1828), and the last discusses Friedrich's motif of 'The Halted Traveller'.  (Recollection of these aspects of the book were behind my reference to Friedrich in Monday's post on The Hundred Thousand Places). In between these parts there is a fascinating discussion of Friedrich's Cross in the Mountains (1807-8): 'Art as Religion'.  The new edition closes with an Afterword reflecting on the difficulty in researching Friedrich's landscapes before and immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall: in order to reach Rügen, Koerner had to use photocopied pre-war maps.

I think it is a superb book which, among many other things, clearly demonstrates the radical nature of Friedrich's art.  Not that anyone should need this pointing out... consider for example his Hill and Ploughed Field near Dresden, below  Rather than paint the prospect of a sunlit city, Friedrich obscures the view with a hill.  As Koerner points out, 'Friedrich's foreground has the uncanny effect of inverting the whole geometry of landscape painting's vision... instead of plunging into depth our eye is always caught and doubles back to what lies close at hand, there to find the commonplace (earth, grass and trees) estranged and unfamiliar.'

Caspar David Friedrich, Hill and Ploughed Field near Dresden, c. 1824

A less beautiful but equally arresting example of what might be called the obstructed landscape is Friedrich's The Churchyard, where a wall and gate is positioned up against the picture plane, obscuring our view of the church beyond.  These paintings illustrate just one way in which Friedrich sought to eradicate the middle ground from his compositions.  In some of his most famous canvases the landscape lacks both middle ground and background, and we are left with nothing beyond the foreground except (as Julia Schopenhauer put it, writing in 1810) the 'unfathomable expanses'.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Churchyard, 1825-30

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Hundred Thousand Places

The Hundred Thousand Places was another purchase at the Small Publishers Fair.  It begins in the morning at the start of a walk, by the edge of the sea, in mist and uncertainty.  In this it reminds me of an earlier collection of Clark's poems, Distance and Proximity, published by Alec Finlay's Pocket Books, which starts with a sequence 'In Praise of Walking' ('Early one morning, any morning, we can set out, with the least possible baggage, and discover the world...') and then a second sequence 'On Looking at the Sea.'  In this new book, the walker (addressed as "you") journeys over the Scottish landscape, evoked in simple pared-down verses through the names of plants (asphodel, milkwort, crushed water-mint), the movement of wind and water, and the passing impressions of the land's contours and colours.  Eventually the walker returns to the sea, where 'a figure is seen standing at the tide's edge', like a solitary wanderer in a Friedrich painting, who may be the artist or may be oneself.

The Guardian's review by David Wheatley refers to James Joyce and William Wordsworth and concludes: 'The Hundred Thousand Places stands at a tentative and oblique angle to the more established modes of pastoral writing. There is a beautiful moment in George Oppen's "Psalm" when he exclaims of some deer, "That they are there!", and the fact of the natural world's being there at all supersedes the need for description. There is plenty of description in these poems, but they too converge on a place of revelation whose name is simply "there".'

Friday, November 13, 2009


Today I went to the Small Publishers Fair, an annual event which I based posts on last year and the year before. Among today's purchases was a Chris Drury book, Algonquin, on sale at Peter Foolen's stall. Peter publishes prints and books by some of this site's favourite landscape artists - Hamish Fulton, Thomas A. Clark, Roger Ackling.  He has his own blog - recent posts feature Richard Long's huge Riverlines for the entrance of Norman Foster's Hearst Tower, and Ian Hamilton Finlay's exhibition at the David Nolan Gallery (I like his statement in camouflage green: "Camouflage is the last form of classical landscape painting. It represents not this tree or that field but fields and trees").

 Chris Drury, Algonquin, 2008

The Chris Drury book, jointly designed by Peter Foolen, is described on (and can be ordered from) the artist's website.  Based on a canoeing trip in Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario, it was inspired by the Algonquin language 'which had its beginnings as bite marks on bark.’  'I experimented to find out how you could make bite marks on Birch bark and found that if you fold the bark, bite it and then unfold, you create a line, which must have formed the basis of a cuneiform writing. For each of the seven days I collected one piece of Birch bark and kept a diary of things seen, heard, experienced and sensed. The result is this small publication.'

The natural 'writing' on these pieces of bark might look asemic in isolation (I'm thinking of the many interesting examples of asemic writing collected on The New Post-Literate site), but each one seems to take on meaning from its accompanying text, which could be taken for translations.  So, for example, the 'liquid wave patterns' seen from the canoe on 18th August are echoed in four wave-like marks in the bark.  The shape of the bark itself also reflects the pattern of the text - a long strip follows a similarly shaped column of short descriptive words for 17th August - and the 'silver grey' first light of August 16th is repeated in the colouring of the bark itself.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Moods of the Sea

Slavko Vorkapich's contribution to cinema has been described by Philip Kemp in a Film Reference article: 'to today's audiences, brought up on high-speed editing and slick narrative elisions, the pace of classic 1930s Hollywood cinema can sometimes seem ponderous. Events are too explained, too pacedout—except when, about mid-way through certain films, the action abruptly slips into a montage sequence like a sedately-flowing stream suddenly diving into a narrow canyon. Adagio turns to presto: whole pages of dull exposition are eliminated as, in a cascade of images often lasting less than a minute, months or years hurtle past, thousands of miles are traversed by road or rail, the fortunes of the hero (or of whole empires) rise or fall. The inventor and master of this telescoping technique was Slavko Vorkapich, cinema's first-ever montage editor.'  After the war, Vorkapich's montage sequences were less in demand and he became an academic at the University of Southern California, before returning for a while to Yugosalvia.

In 1941 Vorkapich collaborated with John Hoffman, another montage editor, on a short non-narrative 'pictorial fantasy', Moods of the Sea.  You can see the whole film on Ubuweb and admire its smoothly flowing seascape footage, set to Felix Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture. They call it 'an early example of American avant-garde and independent film' - but it's not avant-garde in a 'shock of the new' way... It's really beautifully done, with waves crashing, seals gliding and gulls taking flight in time to the music. There's also the purely visual pleasure in seething black and white wave forms, dark horizons, mountainous clouds, stark shadows and bright light picking out bubbles on the foam.

Vorkapich and Hoffman made a similar film in 1947, Forest Murmers, shot in Angeles National Forest and scored to the interlude from Wagner’s Siegfried.  I don't think this is viewable anywhere online... but you can see a clip from the opera below.  Usually in this sequence Siegfried is shown sitting alone under a linden-tree, waiting for a dragon to appear, with the forest murmuring sounds in his ears.  The birds' songs attract his attention and he makes a pipe from a reed in a vane attempt to imitate them. 

Friday, November 06, 2009

At Dieppe: Green and Grey

There used to be several good secondhand bookshops in Brighton's Duke Street, and in one of them about twenty years ago I bought Geoffrey Grigson's Faber Book of Poetry and Places (1980).  It is, as you would expect with Grigson, an excellent survey of the British landscape in poetry, and includes many of the poems in his earlier anthology The Poet's Eye.   One thing I like about this selection is that Grigson can't resist including a selection of poems on France and Italy ("across the Channel, up to the present (but how will it be later?) our general emotions have flowed with most willingness and familiarity into France and Italy ... so I add a section for each country.")  There are only five English poems in the France section, two of which describe the Channel coast -Wordsworth's 'Evening on Calais Beach' ("Breathless with adoration; the broad sun / Is sinking down in its tranquillity") and Arthur Symons' sad vision of Dieppe:
At Dieppe: Green and Grey
to Walter Sickert

The grey-green stretch of sandy grass,
Indefinitely desolate;
A sea of lead, a sky of slate;
Already autumn in the air, alas!

One stark monotony of stone,
The long hotel, acutely white,
Against the after-sunset light
Withers grey-green, and takes the grass's tone.

Listless and endless it outlies,
And means, to you and me, no more
Than any pebble on the shore,
Or this indifferent moment as it dies.

The other three poems in English are Matthew Arnold's 'Scenes from Carnac', Roy Campbell's imagistic 'Fishing Boats in Martiques' and an extract from Alexander Hume's descriptive poem 'Of the Day Estivall' (1599) (called in the anthology 'Midsummer Day in France').  Hume's poem featured in Arthur Quiller-Couch's 1919 Oxford Book of English Verse as 'A Summer Day'.  But was it really about France?  Grigson has an interesting endnote - 'though he became a severe Puritan, Alexander Hume went to Paris as a young man to study law.  During his four years in France he must have visited, I would say on the evidence of this poem, the neighbourhood of Bourdeaux, and then have written this wine-country piece - perhaps about the country where the Dordogne flows into the Gironde - amazed by a Midsummer Day's heat so different from his Scotch summers.  Scotch commentators like to deny that he is picturing a French scene, but what about the salads with olive oil, the wine in caves, the peaches, and the honey plums, i.e. reines claudes or greengages, which reached the British Isles only in 1724?'

Which French poems of place does Grigson include alongside these English verses?  Here's a list:
  • A sonnet of Joachim du Bellay's evoking Liré (near the château of La Turmelière where he was born)
  • Various poems by du Bellay's friend Pierre de Ronsard set in Blois, Couture and Vendômois
  • The 'Stances' of Honorat de Racan (1618)  
  • André Chénier on the river Seine
  • The beginning of a long poem by Pierre Lebrun recording a return to Tancarville, where he grew up; Grigson's endnote says that 'petrol, not moss and leaves and the tidal Seine, is the modern smell of Tancarville, from the barges which go up and down under the great modern suspension bridge'
  • An extract from the Cuban poet José María de Heredia's Les trophées ('La Mer de Bretagne' section) on Brittany
  • Victor Hugo's 'Près d'Avranches' (1843) and a 'Lettre' from Champagne
  • Tristan Corbière's 'Au Vieux Roscoff
  • Part of 'Paris aux réverbères' by Alphonse Esquiros
  • Paris again in Verlaine's 'Nocturne Parisien'
  • Two poems by Paul Claudel - 'Châteaux de Loire' and 'The Cathedral and the Plain', the latter an extract from 'Présentation de la Beauce à Notre-Dame de Chartres' (but wasn't this actually written by Charles Péguy not Paul Claudel?)
  • And finally, Guillaume Apollinaire on 'Le Pont Mirabeau'
Grigson eschews translation and assumes we'll be able to read these poems in French, so I'll end likewise, with the André Chénier fragment.  Chénier is one of those fascinating literary figures from the Romantic period that you just can't seem to read in easily available modern translations (other examples include German contemporaries like Tieck and Novalis). They are crying out for Penguin Classic editions (after all, Penguin have published selections from writers like Kleist and Nerval).  Or Carcanet perhaps? Or New Directions...?
Des vallons de Bourgogne, ô toi, fille limpide,
Qui pares de raisins ton front pur et liquide,
Belle Seine, à pas lents de ton berceau sacré
Descends, tandis qu’assise en cet antre azuré,
D’un vers syracusain la Muse de Mantoue
Fait résonner ton onde où le cygne se joue.

Sunday, November 01, 2009


One of the ways we can view artists as having affected the physical landscape before the advent of land art is through their requirement for raw materials.  The marble quarries of Carrara and Pietrasanta, for example, were partly the creation of Michelangelo.  A less dramatic but still significant impact on local areas comes from the concentration of artists living and working there - whether it be Montmartre or Pont Aven.  And a combination of these influences can be found in villages or distrcits devoted to particular crafts.  Here is a paragraph from Brian Moeran's Folk Art Potters of Japan in which he describes the soundscape of Sarayama.

'Ever since Sarayama was founded, wooden crushers have been used to pound the clay with which generation after generation of potters have worked. The two streams running through the village have been stepped in a series of five-to-six foot dams the whole length of the valley, and water is drawn from these along channels to the crushers. Each crusher is made from a large pine-tree trunk between four and five metres in length, with one end hollowed out into a scoop. Into this the river water is director. The crusher is critically balanced on a cross-axle of wood, so that when the scoop is filled the weight of the water makes the crusher seesaw down toward the river bed. As the other end of the pine beam rises high into the air, the water flows out of the scoop and the crusher falls back with a thud onto a mound of clay piled under the far end. The noise that the crushers make cannot be expressed adequately in words. It is this sound that dominates everything that goes on in the valley, all day, all night, every day and every night, except for one respite of 24 hours from the New Year’s Eve. The potters can tell from the changes in the thudding rhythm of the day how much water is in the streams, whether their crushers are working, and if so, how efficiently. These pounding pine trunks… belong to a world of which people living in industrialised urban Japan can only dream.'

Friday, October 30, 2009

Well Head and Mountains

A half term trip to York this week included a look round York City Art Gallery which houses the Milner-White Collection.  Eric Milner-White, Dean of York, was one of the great 20th century collector-clerics; his contemporary Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester, amassed another impressive collection now displayed at the Pallant House Gallery.  Among the Milner-White acquisitions on display is Bernard Leach's panel of tiles Well Head and Mountains (1929).  In A Potter's Work, Leach wrote of this that 'the design is imaginary but derived from things seen and felt in the mountains of Japan, although the various elements had, to me a long-term significance of a pictorial kind.'  Another account makes clear that this is a kind of personal oneiric vision, resembling others I've mentioned here before (like Kafka's Amerika), where the distorted and simplified landscape, imagined at a distance, has its own poetic truth.  Leach wrote in Beyond East and West, 'the peaks of the high Japan Alps became part of a dreamland which I often drew or even painted on pots.  That picture has remained with me all through life.' 

Bernard Leach, Well Head and Mountains, 1929

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Canaletto day

'And sometimes, in the Venetian spring, you awake to a Canaletto day, when the whole city is alive with sparkle and sunshine, and the sky is an ineffable baby-blue. An air of flags and freedom pervades Venice on such a morning, and all feels light, spacious, carefree, crystalline, as though the decorators of the city had mixed their paints in champagne, and the masons laced their mortar with lavender.'
- Jan Morris, Venice

Canaletto, Return of the Bucintoro to the Molo on Ascension Day, 1732

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Where the beauty of the landscape will give pleasure

While I've got Martin Warnke's book Political Landscape to hand (see previous post), here's an interesting quotation from the start of Chapter 4.

'"When founding a city, one should choose a location where the beauty of the landscape will give pleasure to the inhabitants", asserts St. Thomas Aquinas: 'For they are unlikely to leave a pleasant place, and it is equally unlikely that inhabitants will flock to a place devoid of all natural charm, for people cannot live for long wihout a certain measure of beauty.  The site should be extensive, with level fields and trees, and hills nearby to afford a pleasing prospect; the landscape should be fringed by woodlands, and everywhere there should be streams flowing through it.  However, because excessive amenity inclines man to immoderate pleasure, which is extremely harmful to the state, amenity must be enjoyed in moderation."

'The appreciation of the beauty of the landscape that Aquinas shows in this advice, proferred c. 1265 to princes intending to found cities, is immediately blocked by the fear that attractive surroundings might tempt the citizens to devote themselves to worldly pleasures.'

The quotation is from De Regimine principum (Book 2) and you can see it in context at Joseph Kenney's site.  Reading further there, Aquinas goes on to explain that 'pleasure is, by its very nature, greedy, and thus on a slight occasion one is precipitated into the seductions of shameful pleasures just as a little spark is sufficient to kindle dry wood; moreover, indulgence does not satisfy the appetite for the first sip only makes the thirst all the keener. Consequently, it is part of virtue’s task to lead men to refrain from pleasures.'  He concludes that it is 'harmful to a city to superabound in delightful things, whether it be on account of its situation or from whatever other cause. However, in human intercourse it is best to have a moderate share of pleasure as a spice of life, so to speak, wherein man’s mind may find some recreation.'

Monday, October 12, 2009


"Goddess with 100ft breasts to rival Angel of the North" was how The Times reported Charles Jencks' plans for Northumberlandia, a vast sculpture and park to be created from land owned by a mining company.  Jencks said, "when finished you will see the most incredible curvaceous woman lying there with her left leg over the right and her hair spread out.”  Melvyn Bragg said tactfully that "the idea of walking over a reclining woman may not appeal to everyone’s tastes."

As the Telegraph reported a few months ago, 'plans for the sculpture, which will be visible from the A1, were originally blocked by Northumberland County Council in 2006 after 2,500 people objected to the proposals.  But after a successful appeal to the Government by the Durham based The Banks Group, which runs the mine, the Goddess will now be able to go ahead.'  The article goes on to say that 'Northumberland County Council was unable to comment, but county councillor Wayne Daley told the BBC the Goddess was "ridiculous". "If we wanted something like this why didn't we just ask Jordan to open a theme park," he said.  "It really is ridiculous to think that something like a naked woman, who is only there as a result of all of the slag and the coal from the mine, is a good way of attracting people to Cramlington."

At the News Post Leader site I read:
'Q) In light of the north east's position near the top of UK league tables for teenage pregnancies and one-night stands, how can Banks justify sanctioning the land-sculpting of a naked pagan goddess, calling it Northumberlandia and claiming it as a "gateway to Northumberland"? (Morag Forsyth, Cramlington).
A) Speaking about the inspiration behind Northumberlandia, Charles Jencks said: "Northumberlandia does not relate to a particular goddess or religion, it is a landscape which incorporates references to the human body towards which we have a natural empathy. The landform can be enjoyed in parts and within many different contexts including the distant landscape, the causeways, lakes and willow islands, and viewing pavilions."'

You can see artist impressions of Northumberlandia at designboom. The conical terraced breasts of Jencks' proposal reminded me of the image of Germania below, one of Martin Warnke's examples of giant figures in his rich and fascinating book, Political Landscape.  In the presence of the all-powerful mother Germania, 'only adulation or death is admissable'.  Giants like Germania represent the state as an active figure, unleashing 'traumas associated with all-consuming power.'  But standing figures can be unstable, as we know from the Colossus of Rhodes, which collapsed after an earthquake.  Warnke quotes the scultpor Ludwig Schwanthaler, whose Bavaria (1837) is another giant personification of place, confidently asserting "no earthquake will cast this down... the Bavaria is the greatest statue ever cast."
One People - One Reich
Austrian propoganda poster, 1928

Warnke finds earlier examples of giants in art that took a more horizontal form - passive figures seen lying on their back.  For example, there is the body of a city depicted as a resting giant in the Bizarreries of G. B. Braccelli (1624).  Or Joos de Momper's Head-Landscape (before 1635) over which people are seen happily walking.  Or a profile of the coastline of Brazil, in the travel journal of J. B. Debret (1834), which is 'reminiscent of a dead Christ and so reinforces the impression of paralysed power'.  Northumberlandia resembles these images, and in a region once known for the power of its mining industry, this giant recumbert nude will be another example of a political landscape.

Friday, October 09, 2009

The landscape of the bland

Ni Zan, Landscape, 1372
National Museum of Taipei (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
'Trees on the riverbank, an expanse of water, some nebulous hills, a deserted shelter.  The artist, Ni Zan (fourteenth century), painted virtually the same landscape throughout his life.  He did this not, it seems, because of any particular attachment to these motifs but, on the contrary, to better express his inner detachment regarding all particular motifs and all possible motivations.  His is the monotonous, monochromatic landscape that encompasses all landscapes - where all landscapes blend together and assimilate each other.'

This interesting description of the Ni Zan painting shown here is by François Jullien and comes from his book In Praise of Blandness: Proceeding from Chinese Thought and Aesthetics.  'Bland' is translator Paula M. Varsaro's rendering of the French word 'fadeur', which in turn is Jullien's approximation to the Chinese term dan.  Varsaro notes that readers familiar with Chinese literature will recognise in the book the Song dynasty ideal of pingdan (the 'plain and bland'), but will 'see their understanding recast in  broader and more significant framework, as Jullien demonstrates the philosophical udnerpinnings of the label'.  It is impossible to summarise Julien's book briefly, but the following sentences from his fourth chapter may give you a flavour...
'While flavor establishes opposition and separation, the bland links the various aspects of the real, opening each to the other, putting all of them in comunication.  The bland renders perceptible their shared character and, through this, their primordial nature.  Blandness is  the color of the whole, as it appears to the eyes who look farthest into the distance; it makes us experience the world and existence itself beyond the narrow confines of the individual's point of view - in their true dimension.'

The first great poet of the bland was the subject of my previous post, Tao Yuanming (apologies for my perennial inconsistency in the Chinese translation conventions but I tend to go with whichever writer I'm currently quoting, so here it's the Pinyin system).  In the Tang dynasty, the 'canonical' bland poets were Wang Wei, Wei Yingwu and Liu Zongyuan.  Poetic blandness involves a balancing of the senses, with nothing overwhelming our attention.  Language resembles what happens when, 'in the Azure Fields beneath the warmth of the sun, a hidden piece of jade emanates a vapor: one can contemplate it, but one cannot fix it precisely with one's gaze.'

At the end of the book Jullien returns to Ni Zan, reproducing another of his 'bland' landscapes and, by way of complete contrast, the painting by Wang Meng shown below.  In the latter, 'topography reveals itself convulsively before our eyes like some mountainous mass in the process of solidifying.  Matter is at work everywhere: twists and folds push at each other; everything pierces through and retracts.  The space is saturated; the turmoil of the scene has reached an extreme.'  Despite the vast difference in their attitude to landscape, the two artists were friends and Ni Zan praised the vitality of Wang Meng's style.  During the upheavals at the end of the Mongolian occuption, Wang Meng remained involved in politics and died in prison. Ni Zan, artist of the 'bland', gave up his estates and freed himself from worldly concerns.

Wang Meng, Lin-wu Grotto at Chu-ch'u, 1378
National Museum of Taipei (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Monday, October 05, 2009

The Peach Blossom Spring

Having described the poetry of Hsieh Ling-yün last time, I now feel the need to refer to his contemporary T'ao Yüan-ming (also known as T'ao Ch'ien or Tao Qian), who is traditionally seen as the founder of 'fields-and-gardens' poetry.  According to David Hinton, both poets 'embody the cosmology that essentially is the Chinese wilderness, and as rivers-and-mountains is the broader context within which fields-and-gardens operates, it seems more accurate to speak of both modes together as a single rivers-and-mountains tradition.' (see his introduction to Mountain Home: The Wilderness poetry of Ancient China).

Portrait of Tao Qian by Chen Hongshou

In The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry (1984) Burton Watson devotes a whole chapter to T'ao (whereas Hsieh only gets three poems).  Watson writes that the poetry of T'ao is ambiguous - 'exclamations upon the beauties of nature and the freedom and peace of rustic life, set uneasily alongside confessions of loneliness, frustration, and fear, particularly of death.  He sought solace in his zither, his books, and above all in wine, about half of his poems mentioning his fondness for "the thing in the cup," though in one of the poems he wrote depicting his own funeral, he declares that he was never able to get enough of it.'

T'ao Yüan-ming is probably most famous for the 'Peach Blossom Spring', a story told first in a preface and then as a short poem.  It concerns a fisherman who lost his way in a valley stream and came upon a forest of blossoming peach trees.  At the end of the forest was a hill with a spring, and an opening through which the fisherman squeezed, coming out onto a broad plane with houses, rich fields, pretty ponds, mulberry and bamboo.  Everyone he saw seemed happy and when they noticed the fisherman in their midst they invited him for a meal.  The villagers explained that people had first come to this secluded place during the troubled times of the Ch'in dynasty and had been cut off from the world since then.  The fisherman stayed several days before taking his leave, whereupon the villagers asked him not to tell the people outside about them.  However after making his way home, the fisherman did tell the local governor about the Peach Blossom Spring, who sent men to find it only to have them return unsuccessful.  Nobody since then has been able to find it.

Among later poets inspired by this tale was Wang Wei, who wrote his 'Song of the Peach Tree Spring' at the age of 19.  He tells the same story as T'ao, but ends with the fisherman mistakenly thinking he will be able to find the place again (from G. W. Robinson's translation):
He was sure of his way there
                             could never go wrong

How should he know that peaks and valleys
                             can so soon change?

When the time came he simply remembered
                             having gone deep into the hills

But how many green streams
                             lead into cloud-high woods -

When spring comes, everywhere
                             there are peach blossom streams

No one can tell which may be
                             the spring of paradise.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

On a Tower Beside the Lake

Hsieh Ling-yün (Xie Lingyun) lived from 385 to 433 and initiated the shan-shui ("rivers-and-mountains") tradition in Chinese poetry. An intellectual in government service, he was exiled in 422 to Yung-chia on the southeast coast where he recovered his strength and grew to love the wild scenery. Here's part of 'On a Tower Beside the Lake', translated by David Hinton:

Too simple-minded to perfect Integrity
and too feeble to plow fields in seclusion,

I followed a salary here to the sea's edge
and lay watching forests bare and empty.

That sickbed kept me blind to the seasons,
but opening the house up, I'm suddenly

looking out, listening to surf on the beach
and gazing up into high mountain peaks.

From 423, Hsieh lived at Shih-ning 'in a comfortable mountain-side house, which included an enormous library and vast landscape gardens, and a smaller retreat atop Stone-Gate Mountain that could be reached only after a long hike from the main house'. There he tried to find peace:

My thoughts wander Star River distances.
A single shadow alone with forgetfulness,

I swim in a lake down beneath cliff-walls
or gaze up at gibbons haunting treetops,

listen as evening winds buffet mornings
and watch dawn sunlight flare at sunset.

Slant light igniting cliffs never lasts long,
and echoes vanish easily in forest depths:

letting go of sorrow returns us to wisdom,
seeing the inner pattern ends attachment.

Hsieh lived in the mountains until 431, meditating, walking, talking with friends.  He would head off for days at a time, wearing special hiking shoes of his own invention, a knapsack and peasant's hat.  He wrote his best poems there, describing both the landscape as seen and the emptiness of nonbeing from which it emerges, an approach that has influenced both poets and painters down the years.  But Hsieh remained an enemy of the emperor, who banished him again to Nan-hai. 'There, beyond the southern fringes of Chinese civilisation, his intransigence apparently continued until he was finally executed in 433'.

Some sample translations by David Hinton from The Mountain Poems of Hsieh Ling-yün can be found on his website.  And you can read more about Hsieh at The Hermitary, a useful web resource on hermits and solitude which includes articles on some of the Chinese nature poets along with Saigyo, Basho, Thoreau and several other writers of interest from a landscape perspective.

Friday, October 02, 2009

The ride to Stone Court

Margaret Drabble has published a new edition of her 1979 book, 'A Writer's Britain'.  Like other books I've discussed here - Edward Thomas's The Literary Pilgrim in England and the Phaidon Companion to Art and Artists in the British Isles - it offers a chance to view the whole country through the lens of culture and the lives of writers.  And as The Metro's three star review says, 'A Writer’s Britain will get you walking'!

In The Guardian Margaret Drabble lists her Top Ten Literary Landscapes. There is an unsurprising emphasis on Romantic poets (four mentions for Wordsworth) and sublime locations: Goredale Scar, Stonehenge. The one that was new to me (never having read Arnold Bennett) is Burslem, and it sounds like an interesting place to visit. 'The Potteries still have some of the picturesque pot banks Arnold Bennett made famous in his Five Towns novels. It's a weird post-industrial landscape now, with a haunting poetic dereliction. The draper's shop from The Old Wives Tale is still there on the street corner in Burslem, and was for sale last time I saw it (in June this year).'

There is an interview with Margaret Drabble on Woman's Hour in which she says that British authors write a lot about landscape in preference to sex (compare, for example, Wordsworth to Romantic poets on the continent...)  She also feels that Wordsworth is fundamental to the link between landscape and memories of childhood.  Gillian Clarke is on the programme too and says that before she writes any poetry she looks out at the surrounding landscape from a room with two walls made of glass (as I type this I can see the terraced houses opposite, and the next terrace beyond, and the chimneys of the one beyond that...)  She regrets that Drabble included no poetry by Dafydd ap Gwilym or more scenes of the Welsh valleys.  The clip starts with a reading from George Eliot's Middlemarch, a landscape with which I'll conclude this post:

'The ride to Stone Court, which Fred and Rosamond took the next morning, lay through a pretty bit of midland landscape, almost all meadows and pastures, with hedgerows still allowed to grow in bushy beauty and to spread out coral fruit for the birds. Little details gave each field a particular physiognomy, dear to the eyes that have looked on them from childhood: the pool in the corner where the grasses were dank and trees leaned whisperingly; the great oak shadowing a bare place in mid-pasture; the high bank where the ash-trees grew; the sudden slope of the old marl-pit making a red background for the burdock; the huddled roofs and ricks of the homestead without a traceable way of approach; the gray gate and fences against the depths of the bordering wood; and the stray hovel, its old, old thatch full of mossy hills and valleys with wondrous modulations of light and shadow such as we travel far to see in later life, and see larger, but not more beautiful. These are the things that make the gamut of joy in landscape to midland-bred souls -- the things they toddled among, or perhaps learned by heart standing between their father's knees while he drove leisurely.'

Monday, September 28, 2009

Paper City

I was at the Royal Academy today for the Anish Kapoor exhibition which has received quite a lot of media coverage.  The kind of mirrored sculptures that I talked about here before in reference to landscape are inside the gallery where they focus attention very much on the viewer.  The exception to this is Tall Tree and the Eye, sited outside, which provides multiple images of the RA courtyard.  Among the other works on display is Yellow (1991), one of Kapoor's monochrome optical illusions designed to evoke the Sublime: 'overwhelming in scale, this vast landscape of yellow hovers between apparition and surface.'

In addition to this exhibition, the RA currently has a nice little show called Paper City: Urban Utopias which 'showcases a selection of extraordinary drawings, collages and photomontages that have been produced for Blueprint as part of their back-page ‘Paper City’ commissions over the past three years.'  They're the kind of images familiar to readers of Pruned and BLDGBLOG.  Visitors can take copies home; the AJ describes the decision to give out printed images as a 'U-turn for the YouTube generation'... 

Shown below are some that I picked up: cityscapes by Marc Atkins, Emily Allchurch, Peter Cook with Gavin Rowbotham, Paul Williams, Duggan Morris, Javier Mariscol and James Wines.  I particularly liked James Wines' image of post-global warming structures rising from the submerged towers of an old city.  Wines is the creative director of SITE and his writing on environmental architecture argues for sustainable buildings that also harmonise with the surrounding landscape.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The South Country

Another good source for free access soundscape recordings: the British Library Sound Archive.  They have various atmospheric recordings of the English countryside and some specific soundscapes from East Poland, Hungary, and locations further afield, like 'An Afternoon at Mayam Lake'.

But in addition to soundscapes the archive also has recordings taken from a series of old Linguaphone 78s called 'English Landscape Through Poets' Eyes'.  This was 'compiled by Stephen Usherwood, MA, Oxford, July 1958'.  Here are the poems and links:

And finally, 'Lines from 'The South Country' by Hilaire Belloc - from which the following three verses are taken:

The men that live in North England
I saw them for a day;
Their hearts are set upon the waste fells,
Their skies are fast and grey;
From their castle-walls a man may see
The mountains far away.

The men that live in West England
They see the Severn strong,
A-rolling on rough water brown
Light aspen leaves along.
They have the secret of the rocks
And the oldest kind of song.

But the men that live in the South Country
Are the kindest and most wise,
They get their laughter from the loud surf,
And the faith in their happy eyes
Comes surely from our sister the Spring
When over the sea she flies;
The violets suddenly bloom at her feet,
She blesses us with surprise.

Source: British Library

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Iron wind

My previous post described Peter Cusack's recordings of the sounds of nature at Chernobyl.  Jacob Kirkegaard's Four Rooms project, in contrast, sought to capture the atmosphere of the site's abandoned spaces: 'The sound of each room was evoked by sonic time layering: In each room, he recorded 10 minutes of it and then played the recording back into the room, while at the same time recording it again. This process was repeated up to ten times. As the layers got denser, each room slowly began to unfold a drone with various overtones.'

In J.G. Ballard's story 'The Sound Sweep', extraneous ultrasonic noise can be swept up, leaving only the most  beautiful vibrations of earlier sounds, like those emanating from the fragments of a thirteenth century church pediment.  Kirkegaard's amplification of the hidden sounds in resonant spaces like Chernobyl seems predicated on the idea that they hold a sonic memory of past events.  He has recently been working at Belchite, a village destroyed by Franco in the Spanish Civil War, making a book and CD in collaboration with Lydia Lunch. (I note in passing that Lydia Lunch is one of many post-punk musicians involved in one way or another with environmental sound art - Chris Watson and Jem Finer, for example, have been discussed here previously).

The Wire magazine had a feature on Kirkegaard earlier this year and their website includes 'images from Nagaras, a series of eight photographs shot on an expedition into the deserts of Oman in December 2008. The work explores a sonic phenomenon which only occurs in a few deserts around the world: The Singing Sands. The photographs aim to capture momentary visual fragments of the millions of sand grains which, in joint movement, emit such "marvelous" sounds. The seemingly chaotic patterns generated on the desert dunes during the sands' sonic emissions offer a visualization of sound in the making, through movement in matter.'

Here are some other examples on Kirkegaard's website that use recordings made out in the landscape:
  • Tide (2006) - '16-channel sound installation located at the tidal sea shore of the Danish west coast, Vadehavet. The sounds are processed water sounds recorded in the area'.
  • Iron Wind (2006) - 'recordings of iron fences stretching along the Cologne Rhine river in Germany. The movement of water, wind and passing ships make the iron fences vibrate and thereby to emit subtle tones. Attaching highly sensitive contact microphones (accelerometers) on the iron Jacob Kirkegaard recorded the hundreds of meters of fences throughout a period of four years. Unfolding the resonating body of the fences is the immense force of the Rhine river acoustically brought to life.'
  • Sphere (2007) - 'a collection of VLF (very low frequency) recordings of the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). It was captured during travels in Iceland in the year of 2004. Kirkegaard used electromagnetic antennas in order to pick up the electric and magnetic oscillations of the solar winds.'