Friday, July 31, 2009

4 postcards from Venice

I heard designer Celia Birtwell on the radio the other day saying how her friend David Hockney often sends her drawings made on his iPhone.  This reminded me of Simon Faithfull, who has made a new kind of plein air landscape art using a personal digital assistant.  According to Mark Godfrey, writing in Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing, the results have 'a stuttering, awkward quality; childlike, but divorced from from childlike themes.  The lines appear either black against a white ground, or vice versa, meaning that no twilight tones can be registered.  There is little shading, and when this does appear, it is not as cross-hatching or rubbing, but as one of a limited number of preset "fill-in" options.  Faithfull also sometimes uses basic animating devices.  He replicates a rippling canal surface with moving horizontal dashes (in the series "4 postcards from Venice," 2003, completed during the Biennale).  These animations aren't particularly dramatic.  Rather, Faithfull seems to emphasize the inadequacy of a new medium to render basic perception or to deliver the spectacular.'  This new take on the Venetian landscape may not sound too promising, but you can judge for yourself by looking at the work in question on his website.

Here is another description of Simon Faithfull's methods, from Donna Da Salvo's essay for an exhibition of sketches made at Dreamland, an old amusement park in Margate:  'Produced quickly using a Palm Pilot and finger, each of Faithfull’s drawings is made from life, and constitutes a map of his walk through Dreamland. Like the modern day flaneur roaming the park, Faithfull captures the momentary pleasure of looking. Some drawings are complex compositions, including views of the undulating landscape of the grade II listed Scenic Railway, or the frenetic movement of a car as it speeds along the rails of the Wild-Mouse, or even a solitary person and a gull on their respective perches by the sea. In others, he offers glimpses of life – a half-empty soda-fountain glass left behind, or the incomplete outline of two figures hidden behind sunglasses. These images can be read as pages from a sketchbook, albeit one that uses software to endlessly reproduce and then reintroduce them back into the world. He has said of them, ‘They are distillations of moments filtered through my head, but not my memory.’'

And finally, here is what he had to say to Sarah Kent at Time Out about the Antarctic landscape, which he visited in 2004-5 on an Arts Council fellowship, traveling with the British Antarctic Survey. 'I was afraid I’d come back with images looking like photographs from the National Geographic, but it’s the opposite of scenic. Antarctica is a huge glacier, which is absolutely flat and cloud-covered, but the light is almost supernatural in strength; its intensity is more than your eyes can deal with. The sun doesn’t set and there’s a weird phenomenon called ‘ice blink’; the underside of the clouds glows white with light reflected off the ice, so there’s complete white-out, which is utterly disorientating. Because there’s no moisture, the air is crystal clear and you can see further than ever before. But because there’s no horizon line, you lose all sense of scale and, instead of a landscape unfolding towards the horizon, there’s literally nothing to see. As you walk you can hear your feet making footsteps, but you can’t see them because there’s no definition or contrast, so it feels claustrophobic – as if everything were folding back on itself. I’d gone all that way to see the wilderness, but there was absolutely nothing to see, except the stuff brought there by people!'

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Naught moves but clouds

Edward Thomas wrote all his poetry over a period of twenty-seven months, from November 1914 to January 1917.  Read in sequence they trace the progress of the seasons, often drawing on his memories of Kent, Hampshire, Somerset, Wales.  Sometimes they describe the landscape of the trenches, and sometimes they mingle past and present.  Here are extracts from different poems that refer to specific months, arranged as a kind of Edward Thomas calender:


The rock-like mud unfroze a little and rills / Ran and sparkled down each side of the road / Under the catkins wagging in the hedge

Black rocks with white gulls following the plough

... the sun on the celandines...


What did the thrushes know?  Rain, snow, sleet, hail, / had kept them quiet as the primroses.
 ad kept the
After a night of frost, before / The March sun brightened and the South-west blew, / Jackdaws began to shout and float and soar / Already, and one was racing straight and high / Alone, shouting like a black warrior / Challenges and menaces to the wider sky.


The April mist, the chill, the calm...

When mist has been forgiven / And the sun has stolen out, / Peered, and resolved to shine at seven / On dabbled lengthening grasses, / Thick primroses and early leaves uneven, / When earth’s breath, warm and humid, far surpasses / The richest oven’s...


Thrush, blackbird, all that sing in May...

The sedgewarblers that hung so light / On willow twigs, sang longer than any lark, / Quick, shrill or grating, a song to match the heat / Of the strong sun, nor less the water’s cool / Gushing through narrows, swirling in the pool.

The cherry trees bend over and are shedding / On the old road where all that passed are dead...


What I saw / Was Adlestrop – only the name / And willows, willow-herb, and grass, / And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry, /No whit less still and lonely fair / Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

The green roads that end in the forest / Are strewn with white goose feathers this June...

... in the little thickets where a sleeper / For ever might lie lost, the nettle-creeper / And garden warbler sang unceasingly; / While over them shrill shrieked in his fierce glee / The swift with wings and tail as sharp and narrow / As if the bow had flown off with the arrow.


Naught moves but clouds, and in the glassy lake / Their doubles and the shadow of my boat.


... September hides herself / In bracken and blackberry, harebell and dwarf gorse.


The green elm with one great bough of gold / Lets leaves into the grass slip, one by one


November has begun / Yet never shone the sun as fair as now / While the sweet last-left damsons from the bough / With spangles of the morning’s storm drop down / Because the starling shakes it, whistling what / Once swallows sang.

... of all the months when earth is greener / Not one has clean skies that are cleaner.   Clean and clear and sweet and cold...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

From the Mountains to the Lagoon

The first chapter of Peter Humfrey's 2007 monograph on Titian is called 'From the Mountains to the Lagoon'.  Titian was born in Pieve di Cadore, a small town in the Dolomites, and later 'acquired property there and invested in his family's timber business, which carried logs from the mountains and valleys of Cadore to the boatyards of Venice by way of the River Piave and the Adriatic Sea.  Titian's enduring affection for his homeland seems to be reflected in the jagged peaks, precipitous rocks, rushing torrents and dense forest that he added to the existing repertory of Venetian painting.'


Titian, background to Giovanni Bellini's Feast of the Gods, 1529

Humfrey's first example is actually a Giovanni Bellini painting, Feast of the Gods (1514), which had been the first commission for Alfonso d'Este's camerino in Ferrara.  Once Titian started producing paintings like Bacchus and Ariadne for Alfonso, Bellini's painting would have looked a bit old hat, so Titian was asked to re-work the landscape.  Another work that seems to draw on Titian's memories of the Dolomites is the mountainous background to the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple (1534-8).  And a third example given by Peter Humfrey is the 'savage, fitfully illuminated landscape' of St Jerome in Penitence, painted just before Titian's death in 1575 (a far cry from the generalised Arcadian landscapes he had painted under the influence of Giorgione seventy years earlier).

Titian, background to Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, 1534-8

The influence of Titian's birthplace is not discussed in A. Richard Turner's classic survey, The Vision of Landscape in Renaissance Italy.  Instead he shows the great range of landscapes Titian was able to paint, beginning his account by quoting Count Francesco Algarotti's view, expressed in 1756, that 'Titian, nature's greatest confidant, is among landscapists the Homer.'  For Algorotti, 'perhaps the most beautiful landscape ever painted is that of the Peter Martyr, where for the variety of trunks, of leaves, of the various bearings of the limbs one can discern the difference between one tree and another; where the land is so well partitioned and rolls on with such natural grace; where a botanist would go to gather plants.'


Titian, engraving after The Death of St Peter Martyr, 1530

Looking back to Kenneth Clark's Landscape into Art, I find the following: 'anyone who has visited Cadore will recognize that the impressions of Titian's native place remained with him all his life.  The rocky hills with their thick clusters of trees, the rushing streams and blue mountain distances are seized upon with Titian's sensual power, and crowded into the small background of a portrait.  Very occasionally they are given more space, and we recognise the origin of all Carracciesque landscape.  The great hunting landscapes by the Carracci in the Louvre are no more than freer and more crowded versions of the Venus of the Pardo which hangs opposite them; and from the lost St Peter Martyr, the most copied picture in the world, there flowed a series of landscape compositions which furnished the seventeenth century.  Titian's appetite for nature gives to his landscapes a magnificent fullness.  His trees, in particular, have a weight of leaf and roundness of trunk never surpassed, and it is not surprising that Poussin and Rubens, Constable and Turner all looked on him as a source of inspiration.'

Among all the many qualities that distinguish Titian, how wonderful to think that he painted a 'roundness of trunk never surpassed'...

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Overlook

Another short post on a contemporary artist drawing imaginary landscapes: Frank Magnotta.  According to Dominic Molon in Vitamin D, Magnotta's drawings reflect 'the staggeringly constant turnover of the contemporary American landscape in the past fifty years, resulting from the heightened cycles of real estate development and relentless urban gentrification' leading to 'a national sense of perpetual unsettledness'.  Many of these feature architectural fantasies set against an empty background, like Post (2007), which can be seen accompanying an interview in Fecal Face magazine, where Magnotta says 'in the U.S. I'm not sure that we really build monuments any more, but in a way popular culture is the great ephemeral American monument. I'm interested in giving form to that.'

Sometimes he'll draw in a surreal landscape background, as in the recent Grand Optimist. In The Overlook (2004) buildings are entierly absent.  This drawing 'features a vast snowy landscape with such phrases as as HERITAGE HILLS, CRYSTAL LAKE, and GOLDEN ROSE placed at various points within the image.  Divorced from the assumed villaages that the phrases herald, the names become empty signifiers, meaningless ascriptions of perceived exclusivity and privelege that speak more to our desire for the trappings of wealth and prestige than the actual ability of language or objects to provide such bounty' (Dominic Molon).

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Thames Film

I spent a happy evening with a friend yesterday eating Il Bacio pizzas and watching the BFI's DVD compilation of William Raban films.  It includes his 66 minute long documentary Thames Film (1986), which flows from the city of London to the mouth of the river and ends with the incredible science fiction landscape of the Thames estuary seaforts.  The film was partly inspired by T.S. Eliot and includes lines from Four Quartets read by the poet.  The inclusion of poetry like this is familiar from other landscape and city documentaries - Terence Davies' Of Time and the City (2008) is just one recent example.  More striking, I think, is Raban's clever use of Breughel's painting The Triumph of Death which the camera pans over (in a manner reminiscent of Tarkovsky in Solaris) at several points in the film, revealing a series of links between the river's dark past and Breughel's apocalyptic vision.

Pieter Breughel the Elder, The Triumph of Death, c1562

Peter Ackroyd (inevitably) is an admirer of Thames Film and you can read his essay at the Luxonline site for William Raban.  He says, for example, that it is 'in many respects it is a visionary film. There are moments of light and colour that lift the spirit with exaltation. There are giant shapes and structures that fill the mind with awe. There are passages of mist and turbulence that recall the primaeval Thames of swamps and marshes. The multifold images of the river run through this film like the currents and tides of the water itself. It is a film, in every sense, of great fluency. The sounds, as well as the images, of the river are of great importance. There is a continual clangour, a loud lament, with the sound of machinery fighting against the lap of the water and the cry of the seagulls.'

Thames estuary seaforts, from Thames Film

William Raban has been making landscape films since Sky (1970) and River Yar (1971-72 a collaboration with Chris Welsby).  He says 'the first films I made were extensions to my work as a painter. The paintings involved taking impressions from natural surfaces like waves and tree bark. For the 'Tree Print' series canvas was left installed on tree trunks for long periods to weather and discolour. The films made at this time had a similar naturalistic approach towards documenting changes, and were mostly static views of landscapes where various 'time-lapse' systems were used to make slow movements like the rise and drop of tide levels and development of cloud patterns clearly perceptible.'

In the wake of these early experimental works, he has, in addition to Thames Film, made a sequence of films that have charted the changing face of London and its river:
  • Thames Barrier (1977) - a synchronised three-screen time-lapse film of the river during the building of the Thames Barrier
  • Sundial (1992) - the tower of Canary Wharf filmed as a giant gnomon to mark the passing of a day
  • A13 (1994) - a Vertov-influenced commentary-free sequence showing the construction of Limehouse Road Link and its effects on the local landscape
  • Beating the Bridges (1998) - another river film in which thirty Thames bridges provide 'a range of acoustic space that is featured on the soundtrack by the ambient reverb and a live percussion score'
  • MM (2002) - like A13, another quietly polemical film about the changing cityscape, this time focusing on the creation of the Millenium Dome

The Millenium Dome, from MM

Friday, July 10, 2009

From Murano Grande

This is one of a few posts I'm going to do on contemporary drawn landscapes, based on Phaidon's excellent survey Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing. Emma Dexter's introduction to the book examines the open possibilities of drawing today - in contrast to photography this archaic form is now 'an under-regarded and under-theorized backwater.' The definition of drawing can be stretched from pictures made with pencil and paper to inscribed landscapes (she reproduces Richard Long's A Line Made by Walking where the earth is revealed 'as a surface or ground to be marked, etched, and scarred by the body as the instrument of drawing, taking the role of pencil or pen.') However, the artists I'll mention here have been concerned with drawing in the traditional sense, depicting imaginary landscapes in a medium that can convey formal precision, satirical bite or childlike innocence.

The first of these is Cuban artist Glexis Novoa, who now lives in Miami. Here is an extract from Rubén Gallo's discussion of his work. 'Rem Koolhaas once wrote that in the future, all cities will be generic, as bland and nondescript as airports. Many of Novoa's drawn landscapes, including From Murano Grande (2002) depict the generic city of the future: unspecific urban spaces that could be located in Europe or America, in India or Africa. The cityscapes seem ostensibly prosperous - the buildings are tall, the streets are clean - but are entirely devoid of life. There is not a single soul on the streets. The cemetery-like coldness of these environments is further intensified by the artist's choice of slabs of marble as support for his drawings. Novoa provokes our thoughts: Are these dehumanized cities what the future holds in store? Or are they already a reality in many parts of the world?'

Looking around for an image of this work on the web, I see it is possible to buy a From Murano Grande scarf. Here are three more Glexis Novoa landscapes from the artist's website:
You can also get a feel for his work from a few videos on Youtube, e.g. "Cuba, Fidel & Obama" (SITE, YF-23, Kim Il, Samotracia, ONL & palmera Antiimperialista).

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Landscape futures

Geoff Manaugh was in London today to launch the BLDGBLOG book, so I popped over to the Architectural Association this evening to hear him give an entertaining whistle-stop tour of its contents. It had been a day of strange weather with a massive downpour earlier, like something out of the book's 'Redesigning the Sky' chapter (aggressive cloud seeding during the Vietnam War). The book is fascinating and beautiful to look at, with a lot of on landscapes and soundscapes. Some of the people I've discussed here before crop up - Simon Norfolk, Christian Bök, W.G. Sebald, J. G. Ballard (of course). So here are Ten More Reasons to read the book (in addition to those given on the BLDGBLOG site) - examples of the book's 'architectural conjecture :: urban speculation :: landscape futures'.

The idea that...
  • the Mesolithic landscape of Doggerland, which lies under the North Sea, could be made to re-emerge behind massive ring cities in the form of hydrological projects, encircling the flooded landscape
  • John Milton anticipated the Manhattan Project in his description of the preparations for 'an insurrectionary terrorist invasion of Heaven' in Paradise Lost - a 'mineral activation of the Earth as a resource for high-tech weaponry'
  • the fountains of Rome could be turned into a sequence of liquid cinemas
  • a kind of Sir John Soane museum of historically important architectural fragments culd be established, exhibiting items like the window JFK was shot from, detached like a Gordon Matta-Clark building cut
  • a new set of sound mirrors should be built in the landscape to create specific sounds at specific times - 'a distant gully that moans every year in the second week of November'
  • bands should start doing cover versions of environmental sound recordings - Godspeed You! Black Emperor providing a perfect rendition of a Brian Eno recording of Bayswater Road
  • Rachel Whiteread should begin filling whole cave systems with plaster
  • with a version of the inflatable architecture designed by Swiss architecture firm Instant, you could inflate 'an entire borough that has never otherwise existed, sprawling across the marshy plains of east London. Call it Hackney 2, or Stoke Airington' (a reference to Stoke Newington, where I'm now sitting and writing this)
  • hurricanes could be averted by storing winds in an Aeolian Reef, inspired by the 'weather breeding isle' in Virgil's Aeneid: 'Here in a vast cavern King Aeolus /Rules the contending winds and moaning gales /As warden of their prison. Round the walls / They chafe and bluster underground. The din /Makes a great mountain murmer overhead...'
  • 'a distant heir of J. M. W. Turner returns sunburnt from the tropics to find London an archipelago of failed sea walls and waterlogged high-rises, the suburbs an intricate filigree of uninhabited canals, bonded warehousing forming atolls amidst sandbanks and deltas'

Saturday, July 04, 2009

So foul a sky clears not without a storm

'In the time of Spanish rule, and for many years afterwards, the town of Sulaco -the luxuriant beauty of the orange gardens bears witness to its antiquity-had never been commercially anything more important than a coasting port with a fairly large local trade in ox-hides and indigo.' This is the euphonious opening sentence to Joseph Conrad's Nostromo (its rhythm reminds me of the famous declaration at the start of The Adventures of Augie March “I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go about things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way.”)
Conrad spends the whole of the first chapter describing the landscape of Sulaco and the Golfo Placido: scene setting, yes, but also a sign that this novel's ambition includes the creation of a completely believable South American country in all its details. Here, for example, is Conrad's first mention of the Cordillera - mountains which have isolated Sulaco from the effects of Civil War until the turbulent events of the novel:

'On crossing the imaginary line drawn from Punta Mala to Azuera the ships from Europe bound to Sulaco lose at once the strong breezes of the ocean. They become the prey of capricious airs that play with them for thirty hours at a stretch sometimes. Before them the head of the calm gulf is filled on most days of the year by a great body of motionless and opaque clouds. On the rare clear mornings another shadow is cast upon the sweep of the gulf. The dawn breaks high behind the towering and serrated wall of the Cordillera, a clear-cut vision of dark peaks rearing their steep slopes on a lofty pedestal of forest rising from the very edge of the shore. Amongst them the white head of Higuerota rises majestically upon the blue. Bare clusters of enormous rocks sprinkle with tiny black dots the smooth dome of snow.'

The landscape in this first chapter will impact on the narrative and, literally in the case of the Cordellera, cast a shadow on Nostromo's characters. Conrad describes the political struggle for this territory, the transformation brought about by foreign capital and the coming of the railway, and the exploitation of its natural resources in the form of the increasingly productive silver mine. But like a Turner history painting it also registers the fleeting effects of sunlight and atmosphere: clouds are often described and the novel begins with a quotation from Shakespeare, "So foul a sky clears not without a storm."

At one key point in the novel, the landscape disappears altogether, as Decoud and Nostromo try to spirit away the mine's silver in a small boat in the misty silence of night: 'A great recrudescence of obscurity embraced the boat. The sea in the gulf was as black as the clouds above. Nostromo, after striking a couple of matches to get a glimpse of the boat-compass he had with him in the lighter, steered by the feel of the wind on his cheek. It was a new experience for Decoud, this mysteriousness of the great waters spread out strangely smooth, as if their restlessness had been crushed by the weight of that dense night...'

The novel actually contains a landscape painting - a vision of the country before the mine was developed, captured by the wife of the mine administrator, Charles Gould. 'The waterfall existed no longer. The tree-ferns that had luxuriated in its spray had died around the dried-up pool, and the high ravine was only a big trench half filled up with the refuse of excavations and tailings. The torrent, dammed up above, sent its water rushing along the open flumes of scooped tree trunks striding on trestle-legs to the turbines working the stamps on the lower plateau--the mesa grande of the San Tome mountain. Only the memory of the waterfall, with its amazing fernery, like a hanging garden above the rocks of the gorge, was preserved in Mrs. Gould's water-colour sketch; she had made it hastily one day from a cleared patch in the bushes, sitting in the shade of a roof of straw erected for her on three rough poles under Don Pepe's direction.'

It is like a description of Eden - a comparison made explicit when Mrs Gould looks at the landscape visible now only in this watercolour:

"Ah, if we had left it alone, Charley!"

"No," Charles Gould said, moodily; "it was impossible to leave it alone."

"Perhaps it was impossible," Mrs. Gould admitted, slowly. Her lips quivered a little, but she smiled with an air of dainty bravado. "We have disturbed a good many snakes in that Paradise, Charley, haven't we?"