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.

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