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.'