Friday, February 27, 2009

View of Delft

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, 1660-61

Last week I saw the most beautiful painting in the world, according to Proust. Vermeer's View of Delft is in the Mauritshuis, opposite the Girl with the Pearl Earring, the 'Dutch Mona Lisa', which was surrounded by onlookers like the Mona Lisa itself. The View of Delft also seemed popular but nobody looked sufficiently moved to expire in the manner of Proust's character, the writer Bergotte:
'The circumstances of his death were as follows. A fairly mild attack of uraemia had led to his being ordered to rest. But, an art critic having written somewhere that in Vermeer's View of Delft (lent by the Gallery at The Hague for an exhibition of Dutch painting), a picture which he adored and imagined that he knew by heart, a little patch of yellow wall (which he could not remember) was so well painted that it was, if one looked at it by itself, like some priceless specimen of Chinese art, of a beauty that was sufficient in itself, Bergotte ate a few potatoes, left the house, and went to the exhibition. At the first few steps he had to climb, he was overcome by an attack of dizziness. He walked past several pictures and was struck by the aridity and pointlessness of such an artificial kind of art, which was greatly inferior to the sunshine of a windswept Venetian palazzo, or of an ordinary house by the sea. At last he came to the Vermeer which he remembered as more striking, more different from anything else he knew, but in which, thanks to the critic's article, he noticed for the first time some small figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and, finally, the precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall. His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious patch of wall. "That's how I ought to have written," he said. "My last books are too dry, I ought to have gone over them with a few layers of colour, made my language precious in itself, like this little patch of yellow wall." Meanwhile he was not unconscious of the gravity of his condition. In a celestial pair of scales there appeared to him, weighing down one of the pans, his own life, while the other contained the little patch of wall so beautifully painted in yellow. He felt that he had rashly sacrificed the former for the latter. "All the same," he said to himself, "I shouldn't like to be the headline news of this exhibition for the evening papers." He repeated to himself: "Little patch of yellow wall, with a sloping roof, little patch of yellow wall." Meanwhile he sank down on to a circular settee whereupon he suddenly ceased to think that his life was in jeopardy and, reverting to his natural optimism, told himself: "It's nothing, merely a touch of indigestion from those potatoes, which were undercooked." A fresh attack struck him down; he rolled from the settee to the floor, as visitors and attendants came hurrying to his assistance. He was dead.' (from The Captive)

Where is the patch of yellow? It seems to me to be this section of roof. With apologies for another longish quotation, here's a discussion of the issue by Tom Lubbock.
'There are several possibilities in the cluster of buildings at the right end of the far shore. The most obvious is the glimpse of yellow roof (not wall) to the left of the turreted building. The next is the strip of bright wall (not especially yellow) to the right of the turreted building. When he wrote, Proust was probably working from memory – or a black- and-white reproduction.

But let's assume it's the oblong of roof. There's a question you can ask about any famous detail. Does it work by itself, or does it only work in the context of the whole picture? If you extracted the detail, would it be a strong picture in its own right, or would it be hard to see what the fuss was about?
The passage suggests that the little patch all by itself, the sheer precious substance of its painting, so dense and luminous, is what transfixes Bergotte. But the picture suggests otherwise. It's only within the whole view that this patch – suddenly brighter and purer than you'd expect, and with its yellow animated by the adjacent reds and blues (Vermeer always a great one for the primaries) – blazes out. It's not a self-sufficient and extractable gem. It's an integrated effect, a climactic note. 
In other words, Bergotte dies under an illusion. His illusion is normal enough. With any climactic note, we tend to feel that it can be isolated and extracted – that its power and preciousness lie somehow within itself, rather than depending on that to which it is a climax.

But this is why it's such a good image of the man's fading consciousness and will to live. Bergotte wants to see this detail as a separately precious thing, something he can isolate and grasp in his hand. Yet he can't – any more than can hold on to this last precious moment of his life.'
Postscript 2019

Proust's treatment of Vermeer in his novel is discussed in a review of 'Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry' be Joseph Leo Koerner in the New York Review of Books.
'On a May morning in 1921 Marcel Proust ventured from his bed, where he spent most of his time, to see an exhibition of Dutch painters at the Jeu de Paume. ... So famous were Proust’s reflections on Vermeer that the 1921 exhibition included The View of Delft just so the ailing novelist could behold his favorite painting one last time.  ... A photograph survives of Proust’s excursion. The last taken of the writer before he died, it shows him standing erect and elegant outside the Jeu de Paume. Before leaving his bed he confided that he didn’t want to ruin the exhibition by dying in the galleries.' 

Friday, February 20, 2009

Belle Isle, Windermere

The Round House, Belle Isle, Windermere
Source: Flickr

William Wordsworth described this building in a letter of 1844 as 'the first house that was built in the Lake District for the sake of the beauty of the country.' Belle Isle had already been identified as a Picturesque 'station' from which to view the surrounding landscape, e.g. by Arthur Young in his tour through the North of England in 1768, and the house itself was started in 1774 and completed in the 1780s. In a recent essay for The Georgian Group Journal, Peter Leach has discussed this 'house with a view' in relation to evolving tastes in landscape. Such a location would have been hard to imagine a generation or so earlier, nevertheless, the house seems poised midway between classical and Romantic tastes. Leach includes an engraving of the landscape around Belle Isle by John 'Warwick' Smith, in which the house resembles one of Claude's circular temples, and notes that the wilder, more Salvator Rosa parts of the Lake District were built on at a later period.

Some contemporaries saw buildings like Belle Isle as graceful additions to the landscape, enhancing the view for others as well as providing a viewpoint for their owners. Others disagreed - Leach quotes Richard Warner's condemnation of the 'miserable buildings' Joseph Pocklington erected on Pocklington's Island in 1778-80 which destroy 'the effects of those scenes of Nature... which the general voice have pronounced to be beautiful.' However, after 1800 houses in the Lake District tended to be more discreet, and about this time Picturesque theorists were emphasising the importance of the view of the house rather than simply the view from the house. Richard Payne Knight, in his Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste, sums this up nicely:

'In choosing the situation for a house ..., which is to be a principal feature in a place, more consideration ought to be had of the views towards it, than of those fromwards it: for, consistently with comfort, which ought to be the first object in every dwelling, it very rarely happens that a perfect composition of landscape scenery can be obtained from a door or window; nor does it appear to me particularly desirable that it should be; for few persons ever look for such compositions or pay much attention to them, while within doors. It is in walks or rides through parks, gardens, or pleasure grounds, that they are attended to and examined, and become subjects of conversation...'

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Judgment shall dwell in the wilderness

This is the first of three (probably) postings on art in The Hague, which I visited earlier this week. The Mauritshuis has two side panels from a triptych painted by Gerard David c1510-15 which at first sight appear to be sections of an early independent landscape painting. However, the animals that can be seen by the pond - an ass and an ox - may refer to verses in the Bible (Isaiah 32): 'Upon the land of my people shall come up thorns and briers; yea, upon all the houses of joy in the joyous city: Because the palaces shall be forsaken; the multitude of the city shall be left; the forts and towers shall be for dens for ever, a joy of wild asses, a pasture of flocks; Until the spirit be poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness be a fruitful field, and the fruitful field be counted for a forest. Then judgement shall dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness remain in the fruitful field... Blessed are ye that sow beside all waters, that send forth thither the feet of the ox and the ass.' On Feast Days the doors of the triptych would be opened to reveal the fulfilment of this prophecy. This interior can be seen at The Met: The Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard.

According to the Met website, Friedländer thought these landscapes originally included the figures of Adam and Eve; 'however, no trace of such figures is visible with the naked eye, and, as many authors have observed, there is hardly room for them in the landscape as it is.'

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Walden Pond

Radio 4's In Our Time did a programme recently on 'Thoreau and the American Idyll'. At one point (about 13 minutes from the end) they briefly discuss the way Thoreau was influenced by the Romantics, but focused much more on the details of nature and less on the overall landscape than writers like Wordsworth. This is certainly true, although you get a wonderful composite picture of Walden by reading the whole book. There is a moment in Chapter 9 when Thoreau seems on the verge of a wide-angle landscape description, but ends up focusing on the shifting colours of the water:

"The scenery of Walden is on a humble scale, and, though very beautiful, does not approach to grandeur, nor can it much concern one who has not long frequented it or lived by its shore; yet this pond is so remarkable for its depth and purity as to merit a particular description. It is a clear and deep green well, half a mile long and a mile and three quarters in circumference, and contains about sixty-one and a half acres; a perennial spring in the midst of pine and oak woods, without any visible inlet or outlet except by the clouds and evaporation. The surrounding hills rise abruptly from the water to the height of forty to eighty feet, though on the southeast and east they attain to about one hundred and one hundred and fifty feet respectively, within a quarter and a third of a mile. They are exclusively woodland. All our Concord waters have two colors at least; one when viewed at a distance, and another, more proper, close at hand. The first depends more on the light, and follows the sky. In clear weather, in summer, they appear blue at a little distance, especially if agitated, and at a great distance all appear alike. In stormy weather they are sometimes of a dark slate-color... Walden is blue at one time and green at another, even from the same point of view. Lying between the earth and the heavens, it partakes of the color of both. Viewed from a hilltop it reflects the color of the sky; but near at hand it is of a yellowish tint next the shore where you can see the sand, then a light green, which gradually deepens to a uniform dark green in the body of the pond."

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Winter light

Beautiful winter light yesterday burnishing St Pauls and giving a classical Claudian harmony to the the City and the river. At Tate Modern they were half way through Figuring Landscapes, a programme of British and Australian artist films conceived by Steven Ball and Catherine Elwes. The segment I saw was called Surroundings; here are a few comments on each of the films:

Nick Collins, Tidemills, UK, 2002, 10 min
Simply a selection of picturesque sunlit shots of the beach at Newhaven - golden light, distant figures, eroding harbour walls, rust coloured lichen, details of plants and washed up shoes. It reminded me of the kind of thing I video on holiday when I'm not pointing the camera at my children.

Sofia Dahlgren, Winter Light, UK, 2005, 4 min
Last time I visited the denstist they had one of those digital moving photographs of a waterfall. This was rather similar: a silent image of slightly swaying pine trees in winter sun with a rather queasy artificial feel (I could almost imagine Moriko Mori floating out of the woods...)

David Mackenzie, Where the Crow Flies Backwards, Australia, 2006, 6:50 min
According to the notes, 'a dark dream of a sombre landscape provides the setting for the eponymous bird to ply back and forth between tree and modern communication tower.' An impressive combination of sound and imagery, this reminded me of the sort of brooding black and white footage they used to play at Godspeed You! Black Emperor gigs.

Steven Ball, The Ground, The Sky and the Island, UK, 2008, 7:45 min
My two companions and I were unanimous in liking this film the least. After the silence and natural sounds of the previous three, the artist's portentuous voice-over in this film felt particularly obtrusive. Photographs of an Australian salt lake come in and out of focus and are followed by shaky footage taken at other sites. The explanatory notes are not much help: 'the work addresses the problem of attempting to produce landscapes and the uncertainty of representation.'

John Conomos, Lake George (after Mark Rothko), Australia, 2008, 7 min extract
A slow pan around Lake George, the image smeared and blurred like a Gerhard Richter painting (I wasn't so sure about the Rothko reference), accompanied by the kind of soundscape you would expect from this - semi-abstract electronica based on what sounded like field recordings.

Mike Marshall, Days Like These, UK, 2003, 5 min
I remember enjoying this film of a garden sprinkler at the Tate Triennial a few years ago - the scenes of water spraying over a sunlit garden poised somewhere between innocent playfulness and faintly sinister Lynchian quietness. Here Days Like These seemed rather quirky and amusing after watching the slow meditation on Lake George.

Jo Millett, Surroundings: Trees, UK, 2007, 3 min
A short film focusing on foliage, dense and swaying slightly, like the trees in an old painting by, say, Giorgione or Gainsborough. Made as part of an artist's residency at Knaresborough castle, the film was easier to like than Winter Light, but nevertheless felt rather insubstantial, like a short segment from a longer film (Straub's Le Genou d'Artémide perhaps).

Sandra Landolt, Push, Australia, 2007, 4:30 extract
In which someone tries to push a light aircraft out of the frame... Not at first sight a 'landscape film' except that the out-of-focus outback dominates the picture throughout, vast and impersonal behind the struggling human figure.

Shaun Gladwell, Approach to Mundi Mundi, Australia, 2007, 8: 37 min
I was in the minority, liking this one - maybe it depends on how seriously you take the anonymous biker filmed riding through the empty landscape, his arms outstretched as if to take possession of it. There are two versions and the dawn ride I thought rather beautiful - although my friend thought it about as moving as watching someone playing a video game.

Scott Morrison, Ocean Echoes, Australia, 2007, 9 min
An odd title for a piece filmed entirely down in the grass - rapidly cut repeat images of stalks swaying in the wind to a hectic soundtrack which seems to combine wind, insect noises and, later, in a calmer section, birdsong. The notes give a political context: 'as we head for global food shortages, this glistening field of ripening crops takes on the ominous character of a frantic warning.' Difficult to watch but I suspect this one will live in the memory longer than most of the others.

Friday, February 06, 2009

View of a ruined arch

Kew Gardens: The Pagoda and Bridge by Richard Wilson, 1762

A brief addendum to my last posting - here is Richard Wilson's idealised image of the Pagoda at Kew. He painted other landscapes in the vicinity, including a View of Syon House. In reviewing an exhibition of works from Sir Brinsley Ford's art collection, Charles Fitzroy writes: "one of Sir Brinsley's favourite anecdotes was how Lord Clark used to begin his lecture on the Grand Tour by showing a Wilson view of a ruined arch, describing it as showing the grounds of the Villa Borghese. It was actually a depiction of Kew gardens. The Olympian Lord Clark may not have appreciated the joke, but Sir Brinsley was vastly amused by his mistake, which demonstrated the extent to which an Italianate light permeates Wilson's best work."

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The tower of Kew

Inspired by a recent post on BLDBLOG I have been playing around with Wordle, putting in various landscape texts to see what they look like. Here for example, is a word cloud for Sir William Chambers' Dissertation on Oriental Gardening (1772):

Wordle: Oriental Gardening

A few weeks ago we visited Kew Gardens and I had my first experience of the new treetop walk. It was a cold, misty day and I took this photograph of Sir William Chambers' pagoda - a high view it would have been impossible to see before without climbing up one of the trees. Horace Walpole watched it being constructed in 1761 and wrote 'we begin to perceive the tower of Kew from Montpelier Road; in a fortnight you will be able to see it in Yorkshire.'