Thursday, August 27, 2009

View on the Oise

The National Gallery's ‘Corot to Monet’ exhibition charts 'the development of open-air landscape painting up to the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874.'  It is an excuse to display the superb collection of oil sketches they hold from the Gere Collection (which I first saw there ten years ago in the exhibition 'A Brush With Nature').  They have also taken the opportunity to display some new research on Corot paintings; the NG website includes a lengthy Corot bibliography.  In addition to the familiar names in landscape painting they highlight less well known artists like Georges Michel and Paul Huet.  The rooms are full of wonderful paintings of course, but I have some sympathy with the view that a bit more could have been done to give the exhibition focus with a few loans from elsewhere.

Claude Monet, The Studio-Boat, 1874

'Corot to Monet' includes two artists who worked from studio boats: Monet himself, who obtained one in 1872, and Daubigny, whose boat Le Botin had given Monet the idea.  Daubigny's View on the Oise (1873), showing the river with no foreshore, was probably painted from his floating studio (the successor to Le Botin - Daubigny had two boats).  A year later, in 1874, Manet famously painted Monet in his studio boat.  It would be nice to imagine other landscape painters in floating studios, but the idea seems very much of its time.  Artists before and since have sought inspiration on boats, but the notion of painting directly on the water was a rather poetic manifestation of nineteenth century naturalism.  Nowadays the boat itself would be very much part of the art work (indeed, we the public would probably be invited aboard).  Nevertheless, even in the 1870s the fact that a work like View on the Oise was painted on the Oise by M. Daubigny would have been something to distinguish it from the other plein air landscapes being produced at the time.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


Tate Modern's decision to devote a big exhibition to Per Kirkeby has been questioned but I was pleased to see a good spread of his yesterday - there are several reasons why he's an interesting artist for this blog:
  • Kirkeby's paintings may be abstract and neoexpressionist but they refer to natural forms and real landscapes 
  • Like other recent artists (Robert Smithson most obviously), he is fascinated by geology, but in Kirkeby's case this is based on his early training as a geologist
  • He continues to seek inspiration in nature, particular Greenland - the Tate show includes watercolour sketches made there
  • He engages with art history and has produced numerous books and short critical studies on painters like Munch and Gauguin - Tate Modern has a beautiful display of these
  • His brick sculptures have been placed in landscapes across Europe - there are no photographs of these in the exhibition, but see below for some examples 
Adrian Searle's review of the exhibition talks about the way landscape influences Kirkeby's painting: 'the colours are blackened army greens, earthy browns and ochres, greys from skies that don't move for days; there are snatches of white, dead blues, reds. The landscape is both there and not there. When the painter turns to the canvas, the weather outside disappears; but like history it insists on being felt anyway, like rain at the window or wind in the chimney. In the Danish painter's work there are rocks and sodden patches, waterfalls, huts, wood-grain, all sorts of geological fissures, strata and lumps.'

And here's Robert Storr discussing this element of Kirkeby's art: 'If northern light is to be taken as the hallmark of Scandinavian art, then Kirkeby is among the handful of Scandinavian artists who, although he himself rarely paints landscape as such, have captured that light in all hours of the day (such as those sudden changes in weather that can turn a radiant sky into a dense wall of clouds and back again). Presently, there seems to be little enthusiasm among people with advanced taste or ideas for such naturalism, even when translated into abstract terms as Kirkeby does. This, and the fact that he didn’t use painting to undertake a re-examination of history’s horrors as Anselm Kiefer, Jörg Immendorff, Richter and his German contemporaries did – being Danish spared him the daylight nightmares they suffered – leaves him odd man out of the group of painters that claimed the stage at the beginning the 1980s. Perhaps a “greening” of art will change things and put him back in the mix thematically. In any event, he holds his own simply as a painter, and ultimately it is the freshness of his work in that medium upon which his reputation will primarily – and securely – rest.'

Kirkeby's practice is obviously contemporary in many respects but it sometimes reminded me of the abstract, expressionistic landscape art painted in America and St Ives in the fifties: works inspired by nature and the spirit of place, sometimes titled with a location (e.g. Killeberg, 1983), but providing no means to visualise specific landscapes.  There are hints of forms in the swirls and patches of colour making up works like Twilight (Skumring) (1983-4) but they are ambiguous and, as with Howard Hodgkin, you feel that these are not paintings that the viewer should try to decipher.  Still, titles matter and I prefer Killeberg and Twilight to Kirkeby's paintings in a similar style with grand historical titles like The Flight Into Egypt.  

It seems quite possible that Kirkeby's brick sculptures will have a longer life than his paintings.  They seem well-suited to become ruins, although I think their uncanny quality derives now from the pristine perfection of their purposeless construction.  I've reproduced a few below but you can easily find others online.

Per Kirkeby, Backsteinskulptur, sculpture park KMM
Source: Wikimedia commons


Per Kirkeby, Backsteinskulptur, Gießen
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Per Kirkeby, Backsteinskulptur, Groningen

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Garden and Cosmos

The British Museum are currently showing Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur, an exhibition previously at the Smithsonian.  The paintings have been loaned by the Mehrangarh Museum Trust and I should think images are copyright, but you can see some online here. The exhibition begins with a striking painting of Markandaya's ashram and the Ocean of Milk, its two halves prefiguring the predominant themes of later rooms - one shows activity in a lush landscape and the other a peaceful floating figure in a semi-abstract vision of the sea.  This makes it sound a bit like the Western equivalent of splicing together a Douanier Rousseau jungle and a Whistler seascape, which would look horrible... Laura Cumming has written a good description which will give you the idea:

'On the left, two distraught pilgrims have arrived at an ashram in a sylvan landscape of sage, peach, sherbet and every shade of green where the trees quiver with strange fruit and long-haired ascetics dream in leafy bowers - the dream of their leader, cross-legged in the middle consoling the pilgrims, being so vast it takes up the whole of the panel on the right.  And what a vision it is: the universe before consciousness and matter, the infinite nothingness before time. This is not portrayed as a void, or even the obliterating darkness William Blake imagined. The anonymous Indian master, also working in the late 18th century, has painted instead an expanse of deep indigo blue roiled by electric silver whorls: not quite water, not quite air, but some quasi-element between the two. The effect on the eye is stimulating yet faintly hypnotic - you might even call it cosmic.'

Unsurprisingly there are no independent landscapes or garden views in the exhibition - nature is a backdrop to scenes of court life and mythology.  But I think the curators rightly stress the importance of flowers, trees and running water in these scenes painted for the rulers of an arid land - Jodhpur is on the edge of the Thar desert.  Here is a description from the exhibition wall texts that I noted down, describing a series of paintings of sacred sites from 1827: 'Lush groves with starburst leaves, silver rivers and coloured peaks pervade these monumental paintings.  Jodhpur artists emphasised the otherworldly intensity of these sacred landscapes through colour, surface seen [do they mean sheen?] and the hypnotic repetition of motifs.'  Outside the British Museum there is small 'Indian landscape', which provided little respite today from the fierce city sun.  Relief from the heat came inside, where we were able to enjoy the paintings of Bakhat Singh (1725-1751) in his fort-palace at Nagaur (its lush gardens surrounded by flowering forest), bathing with beautiful women or savouring a moonlit evening.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Landscapes of melancholy emptiness

Edward Lear, Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, Sunrise, 1859

I have mentioned Edward Lear briefly before - specifically the habit he developed of annotating his sketches.  In reading Robert Harbison recently I came upon an excellent description of Lear's landscape paintings with their 'droll notations'.  Lear's life was 

'spent mostly abroad simply because the English climate disagreed with him and he could find nothing to do at home.  So he became the sketcher and painter of exotic views, taking himself unhappily over big stretches of southern Europe and the middle East.  Much of his interest lies in his misplacement, a man who would be the truest homebody but for some flaw, who now converts preposterous places to clever mechanical tracery.  To someone familiar with his books of nonsense the landscapes are disappointingly uneccentric.  For an artist to confine himself to forms other than human is usually significant of something, and Lear provokes the suspicion that he is in these places because there are few Englishmen to meet or paint.  His earlier zoological and ornithological work is revealing because he invests every subject with personality, but the later, more refined landscapes leave out, as do all accounts of his life, the essential facts.  The most individual things about them are the droll notations in a springy script, which are painted out by the colors they describe; Lear erases the glimpse of himself he gives.  And the compositions are of such slender substance, the solidities of the picture often vacating to the back center, evading near-sighted eyes, echoing the flight from the self.  These landscapes of melancholy emptiness, faraway places seen from far away, are only a distinctive case of a Victorian genre - romantic topographical sketches of Near Eastern scenes.'

Harbison says here that 'for an artist to confine himself to forms other than human is usually significant of something.'  His suspicion that Lear was running away from people echoes a concern sometimes expressed that landscape art is an escape from the body - see the earlier post I did on this in connection with D. H. Lawrence. The paragraph on Lear forms part of his discussion of 'Dreaming Rooms: Sanctums', those spaces of safety in which the mind is free to travel.  Exotic topographical landscapes like Lear's 'exemplify a special nineteenth-century indecision between the literal and the imaginary, functioning like an invented imagery, but located on a particular page of the atlas.'

These observations form part of Harbison's Eccentric Spaces (1977), a consciously eccentric book that begins in the garden, moves inside to the sanctum (see above), then out into the world of machines and cities before spending a good deal of space discussing literature - topographical and architectural fictions - and concluding with the increasingly abstract spaces of maps, museums and catalogues. The book's preface describes the difficulty Harbison had in publishing this interdisciplinary, digressive book.  You can see why editors might have worried about sentences like this: 'A map seems the type of the conceptual object, yet the interesting thing is the grotesquely token foot it keeps in the world of the physical, having the unreality without the far-fetched appropriateness of the edibles in Communion, being a picture to the degree that that sacrament is a meal.'  But the book has several illuminating passages for those interested in landscape: much of the gardens chapter of course, descriptions of Ruskin in Venice, an argument for the important role of landscape in Mrs Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho, and an appreciation of the detailed, almost cartographic paintings of Breugel in which significant and insignificant scenes are balanced and a spatial order replaces the moral.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Hebrides Overture

J. M. W. Turner, Staffa, Fingal's Cave, 1832 

Last night I watched the recent Charles Hazlewood documentary for the BBC on Felix Mendelssohn which included some discussion of the Hebrides Overture (completed in 1830).  There is an interview with biographer R. Larry Todd on the BBC's Mendelssohn site in which the composer's creation of the Hebrides Overture is discussed:

'From what I can tell, he was essentially a synaesthete, meaning that for him visual and musical imagery are interconnected. So when he goes to the Hebrides and he’s in Oban looking out at the coastline of Mull, it’s there he gets the idea for the opening of the Hebrides Overture and he writes a famous letter that sketches everything out in piano score. The fact that he puts it in a particular location means it’s clear that already in that composition there’s something about the particular combinations of colour that evolve and that what’s triggering it is the visual impression of looking out at the Isle of Mull. Well before he even got to Fingal’s Cave, he’s having the ideas for the Overture and it’s a visual impression that’s sparking the musical response. These things go hand in hand and particularly are tied in with the art of orchestration. That’s the romantic side of Mendelssohn.'

Sketch of a scene by Felix Mendelssohn 
found in his letter of August 1, 1829 to his sister Fanny

As you can see on the Birth of British Music site, Charles Hazlewood donned his woolly hat and headed north to Staffa (don't get me wrong - I like the hat - it could have been much worse).  The wind, waves and echoes of Fingal's Cave threatened to drown out Hazlewood as he stood there explaining the genesis of Mendelssohn's overture.  The programme included a clip of Andrew Motion comparing Mendelssohn to John Keats, who also visited Staffa in 1818 (Mendelssohn went in 1829).   Keats jotted down a poem, 'Staffa', in a letter to his brother Tom (rather dismissing it, saying "I am sorry I am so indolent as to write such stuff as this"). Here is part of the poem in which a spirit, Lycidas, describes the overwhelming power of the natural music to be heard at Fingal's Cave:

This was architectur'd thus
By the great Oceanus! -
Here his mighty waters play
Hollow organs all the day;
Here by turns his dolphins all,
Finny palmers great and small,
Come to pay devotion due -
Each a mouth of pearls must strew.
Many a mortal of these days,
Dares to pass our sacred ways,
Dares to touch audaciously
This Cathedral of the Sea!
I have been the pontiff-priest
Where the waters never rest,
Where a fledgy sea-bird choir
Soars for ever; holy fire
I have hid from mortal man;
Proteus is my Sacristan.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Devil's Arse

Undoubtedly one of the best books I've ever read on landscape is Marjorie Hope Nicolson's Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory (1959).  Here is a brief extract in which she cites Thomas Hobbes as an example of the tendency to denigrate mountain scenery, writing at a time when mountains were still viewed with distaste or fear.

'In 1636 the still unknown tutor of the youthful William Cavendish, later second Earl of Devonshire, set himself the task of celebrating the district in which his patron lived, and Thomas Hobbes - who considered himself at this time a man of letters rather than a philosopher - produced a poem, De Mirabilibus Pecci Carmen.  Hobbes was quite at home at Chatsworth.  He had also traveled abroad with his pupil.  He had experienced dangers of travel compared with which the Derbyshire Highlands were only child's play.  Certainly he could not really have felt the fear and distaste he expressed in his poem, but was obviously describing the scenery about Chatsworth as Latin tradition dictated.

Although the De Mirabilibus Pecci Carmen may offer some material to a reader interested in manifestations of semiscientific curiosity, the student of literature is likely to remember it rather because Hobbes, when he attempted to be a poet, left behind him one of the worst examples of "metaphysical" grotesquerie:

          Behind a ruin'd mountain does appear
          Swelling into two parts, which turgent are
          As when we bend our bodies to the ground,
          The buttocks amply sticking out are found.

Such was the mountain poetry of the philosopher who was to give new direction to aesthetics and literary criticism.'

Here is the title page from the 1678 edition, which included Hobbes' Latin and an English translation by 'a person of quality'.  Note the reference to 'the Devil's Arse'.

Source: British Library

Saturday, August 08, 2009


This is the last of my short series of posts about contemporary landscape drawing, based on Phaidon's Vitamin D survey.  Serse, in addition to being one of my wife's favourite operas, is the name of an Italian artist whose sea, forest and mountainscapes are all drawn by a process of erasure.  He works from photographs, covering a sheet of paper with base of graphite and then working on it with an eraser to reproduce the image.  Writing ten years ago in the New York Times, Grace Glueck concluded that 'at this point the artist's technical virtuosity is more impressive than his esthetic achievement.'  But in Vitamin D, Barbara MacAdam finds much to admire: 'the drawings end up having more depth and intensity than actual photographs.  The artist uses graphite not only to depict or imitate nature, but also to imitate a photograph.  In so doing he achieves a strange conceptual distance from his original source, which is often a color photo.' Whether or not copying photographs in this way can create a 'strange conceptual distance', it's true that some of his views have a strange feel to them, like Vertigini (Dizziness) (1999) which shows a mountain range with two separate vanishing points.

In her description of Serse's drawings, Barbara MacAdam draws links with quite a range of other artists - Hiroshi Sugimoto, Robert Longo, Robert Smithson, Jean Dubuffet and Edvard Munch. One could add to this list Caspar David Friedrich and Giorgio Morandi, mentioned in another short piece on Serse to accompany an exhibition at the Tim Van Laere gallery in Antwerp.  But Serse was a new name for me on reading Vitamin D and I can't see much about him online (at least not in English).  And if you google for images by Serse (or Serse Roma, to use his full name) you're actually most likely to hit upon these Freddo glasses which he has designed for Illy, with undulating waves of silver inspired by the sea at Trieste.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Mill on the Floss

In The Mill on the Floss (1860), George Eliot describes the landscape of childhood.  'Life did change for Tom and Maggie; and yet they were not wrong in believing that the thoughts and loves of these first years would always make part of their lives. We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it, - if it were not the earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers as we sat lisping to ourselves on the grass - the same hips and haws on the autumn hedgerows - the same redbreasts that we used to call 'God's birds' because they did no harm to the precious crops. What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known and loved because it is known?'

'The wood I walk in on this mild May day, with the young yellow-brown foliage of the oaks between me and the blue sky, the white star-flowers and the blue-eyed speedwell and the ground ivy at my feet - what grove of tropic palms, what strange ferns or splendid broad-petalled blossoms, could ever thrill such deep and delicate fibres within me as this home-scene? These familiar flowers, these well-remembered bird-notes, this sky with its fitful brightness, these furrowed and grassy fields, each with a sort of personality given to it by the capricious hedgerows - such things as these are the mother tongue of our imagination, the language that is laden with all the subtle inextricable associations the fleeting hours of our childhood left behind them. Our delight in the sunshine on the deep bladed grass today, might be no more than the faint perception of wearied souls, if it were not for the sunshine and the grass in the far-off years, which still live in us and transform our perception into love' (Chapter 5).

And the theme is picked up again at the end of Chapter 14: 'There is no sense of ease like the ease we felt in those scenes where we were born, where objects became dear to us before we had known the labour of choice, and where the outer world seemed only an extension of our own personality: we accepted and loved it as we accepted our own sense of existence and our own limbs. ...  One's delight in an elderberry bush overhanging the confused leafage of a hedgerow bank as a more gladdening sight than the finest cistus or fuchsia spreading itself on the softest undulating turf, is an entirely unjustifiable preference to a landscape gardener, or to any of those severely regulated minds who are free from the weakness of any attachment that does not rest on a demonstrable superiority of qualities. And there is no better reason for preferring this elderberry bush than that it stirs an early memory - that it is no novelty in my life speaking to me merely through my present sensibilities to form and colour, but the long companion of my existence that wove itself into my joys when joys were vivid.'

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Wind Vane

We know that naturalism is a style like any other - Gombrich's Art and Illusion goes to some lengths demonstrating this in the case of Constable's apparently simple, realistic painting of Wivenhoe Park.  For photographers and film makers the landscape imprints itself more directly, but they still decide where to point the camera.  Chris Welsby's 1972 film Wind Vane, however, partly dispenses with this artistic control by allowing the wind to decide the frame at any given moment, using a kind of sail device.  The photo below shows how this was done, suggesting that to get close to a landscape-generated landscape film requires quite an elaborate artistic set-up.

Chris Welsby with cameras for Wind Vane, 1972

The film is described on Chris Welsby's excellent website. 'The location for this film is the western end of Hampstead Heath in London. Two cameras mounted on tripods with wind vane attachments were positioned about 50 feet apart along an axis of 45 degrees to the direction of the wind. Both cameras were free to pan through 360 degrees in the horizontal plane. There are three continuous 100 foot takes for each screen. The movements of the two cameras, which were filming simultaneously, were controlled by the wind strength and direction. The sound was recorded synchronously with the picture track and consists mainly of wind noise. Each screen has its own soundtrack when projected.'

For me the most interesting thing about this film is the way the two cameras register the passing wind - both move in response to it but one follows slightly later than the other, giving a sense of the wind's movement across the Heath.  In an article called 'Blowin' in the Wind', Fred Camper describes another film in which the wind is integral to the filming process: Tree (1974): 'Welsby tied his camera to a tree branch during a strong wind; he'd planned an 11-minute film, but the camera malfunctioned and the usable portion was 4 minutes. The wobbles of the frame as the branch moves dominate the movements of grass and branches within the frame: the viewer becomes profoundly aware of how much the act of framing conveys dominance and control though here the agent is the wind.'


The BFI have released a DVD of Chris Welsby's films in the same series as the William Raban collection I described last month.  It includes his collaboration with Raban, River Yar (1972), Drift 'a study of winter light falling on the surface of water, metal and cloud', and (for me the most effective film) Sky Light - 'an idyllic river flows through a forest, flashes of light and colour threaten to erase the image, bursts of short wave radio and static invade the tranquillity of the natural sound.' The films should be viewed on bigger screens than our little TV, but I think the DVD is well worth watching to get a sense of Welsby's progress from early films like Wind Vane to recent installations like Lost Lake.  (I can't speak for the DVD's 20 page booklet which sounds good but was missing in the copy I borrowed from our local video shop.)

To conclude, here is how Chris Welsby views his work as a landscape artist, quoted from the introduction to his website: 'unlike the landscape painters and photographers of the nineteenth century, I have avoided the objective view point implicit in panoramic vistas or depictions of homogeneous pictorial space. I have instead concentrated on 'close up' detail and the more transient aspects of the landscape, using the flickering, luminous characteristics of the film and video mediums, and their respective technologies, to suggest both the beauty and fragility of the natural world. The process of re-presenting the landscape in either the single screen works or the installations is not seen to be separate from nature or in any way objective, but is viewed instead, as part of a more symbiotic model in which technology and nature are both viewed as inter-related parts of a larger gestalt.'