Saturday, November 28, 2009

Arkona glows in the gleam of the deep-sunken sun

Ludwig Gotthard Kosegarten

Ludwig Gotthard Kosegarten is not, I think it's safe to say, a well known name to the general reader in English.  His entry in the Oxford Companion to German Literature is relatively brief and mentions 'a derivative tragedy', and two rapidly written 'short sentimental epics' (Kosegarten said they took him five and six days respectively).  However, he was celebrated in his day as poet and pastor, and has been studied by Romantic scholars for his influence on aesthetics and the arts. He was, for example, one of the poets set to music by Franz Schubert ('The evening flowers, / Arkona glows / In the gleam of the deep-sunken sun' - Naxos recordong notes).  His links to Caspar David Friedrich are discussed in the Joseph Leo Koerner book I have been drawing from in the last couple of posts.  What particularly interested me in reading about Kosegarten there was the idea of his 'shore-sermons' (Uferpredigten).

'Staged outside in nature', Koerner explains, 'Christian worship utilizes only the landscape for its services, treating the various elements of nature loosely as symbols for the personages, instruments and doctrines of faith.  Typically, Kosegarten set his shore-sermon in Rügen, a large island in the Baltic off the coast of Pomerania, for in this bleak and ascetic landscape the poet found a natural reflection for his own self-consciously Northern piety.  In the third eclogue of Kosegarten's verse epic Jucunde (1803), for example, the heroine's father, a village pastor, preaches to his flock 'in the greening valley by the coast', accompanied only by the 'trumpets of the sea and the many-voiced pipe organ of the storm.'

Kosegarten was an early collector of Friedrich and asked him to paint an altarpiece for the 'shore-chapel' in Vitte.  Friedrich, like Kosegarten, was inspired by the landscape of Rügen, but also by the character and writings of the poet-pastor.  Heinrich von Kleist's discussion of Monk by the Sea, which I've mentioned here before, refers to its 'Kosegartenian effect'.  The monk figure could be taken as a representation of Kosegarten, as Albert Boime says in Art in an Age of Bonapartism 1800-1815, since the landscape resembles Arkona, the headland where Kosegarten preached outdoor services for the fishermen and their families.  Boime discusses the links between the painting and Kosegarten's poetry in some detail, quoting from Jucunde and Kosegarten's 'remarkable autobiographical poem' Arkona.

Kosegarten's invention of Rügen as a poetic landscape is described in a useful article, 'The Island of Rügen as Mythic Site of Germany', by Roswitha Schieb.  She goes on to say how Rügen cast its spell on other writers, like the twenty-nine-year-old Wilhelm von Humboldt, whose 'interest in Rügen initially focused on a search for charm and beauty rather than the sublime. ... However, in the northern part of the island he slowly began to develop a taste for its curious character: he climbed arduously over rolling beds of stone to the sea, sampled the water, remarking on how long its salty tang endured, and visited sacrificial sites and graves dating back to the pagan period.'  She quotes one of Humboldt's descriptions - "the solitary, undisturbed, blackish lake, the dense beeches with their thick foliage, the complete silence, which is only interrupted by the rustle of the thick layer of beech leaves under the feet of the wayfarer, and the mysterious meaning of the space enclosed by the embankment and the lake immerse the soul in a sacred and silent menace. It is hard to imagine another place imbued with such a character of sacredness and reverence."

Friday, November 27, 2009

Spirits in the clouds at sunset

In what conceivable way could Raphael's Sistine Madonna, in Dresden's Gemäldegalerie, be considered a landscape painting?  In 1802, Philipp Otto Runge wrote 'is it not strange that we can feel our whole life clearly and distinctly when we see dense, heavy clouds running past the moon, now their edges gilded by the moon, now the moon swallowed entirely by their forms?  It sees then to us as if we could write the story of our life in images such as these.  And is it not true that since Buonarotti and Raphael there have been no genuine history painters?  Even Raphael's picture in the gallery tends toward landscape - of course we must understand something totally different by the term landscape'.

Raphael, The Sistine Madonna, 1512-13

This quotation is in Joseph Leo Koerner's Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape, which I described in my previous post.  Koerner explains that 'for Runge, the Sistine Madonna stands at the end of the tradition of Christian history painting and at the start of a new saeculum of art called landscape.  Like Romanticism, landscape can be posited only as project, having not yet found its true practitioner.  In Raphael's canvas, Runge discerns a fragment from this future landscape art.' 

For the Romantics, God was legible in nature and traditional religious imagery unnecessary - an approach that can be seen most clearly in the paintings of Friedrich. but when Runge was contemplating Raphael's painting, he thought that 'there has not yet been a landscape artist who gives his landscapes true meaning, who introduces into them allegories and intelligible, beautiful ideas.  Who does not see the spirits in the clouds at sunset?'

Friday, November 20, 2009

Hill and Ploughed Field near Dresden

The best landscape art book of 2009?  Possibly the new edition of Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape by Joseph Leo Koerner, first published in 1990.  Written in three parts, the first, 'Romanticizing the World', begins by addressing the reader directly as "you" and imagines an encounter with Friedrich's Trees and Bushes in the Snow (1828), and the last discusses Friedrich's motif of 'The Halted Traveller'.  (Recollection of these aspects of the book were behind my reference to Friedrich in Monday's post on The Hundred Thousand Places). In between these parts there is a fascinating discussion of Friedrich's Cross in the Mountains (1807-8): 'Art as Religion'.  The new edition closes with an Afterword reflecting on the difficulty in researching Friedrich's landscapes before and immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall: in order to reach Rügen, Koerner had to use photocopied pre-war maps.

I think it is a superb book which, among many other things, clearly demonstrates the radical nature of Friedrich's art.  Not that anyone should need this pointing out... consider for example his Hill and Ploughed Field near Dresden, below  Rather than paint the prospect of a sunlit city, Friedrich obscures the view with a hill.  As Koerner points out, 'Friedrich's foreground has the uncanny effect of inverting the whole geometry of landscape painting's vision... instead of plunging into depth our eye is always caught and doubles back to what lies close at hand, there to find the commonplace (earth, grass and trees) estranged and unfamiliar.'

Caspar David Friedrich, Hill and Ploughed Field near Dresden, c. 1824

A less beautiful but equally arresting example of what might be called the obstructed landscape is Friedrich's The Churchyard, where a wall and gate is positioned up against the picture plane, obscuring our view of the church beyond.  These paintings illustrate just one way in which Friedrich sought to eradicate the middle ground from his compositions.  In some of his most famous canvases the landscape lacks both middle ground and background, and we are left with nothing beyond the foreground except (as Julia Schopenhauer put it, writing in 1810) the 'unfathomable expanses'.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Churchyard, 1825-30

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Hundred Thousand Places

The Hundred Thousand Places was another purchase at the Small Publishers Fair.  It begins in the morning at the start of a walk, by the edge of the sea, in mist and uncertainty.  In this it reminds me of an earlier collection of Clark's poems, Distance and Proximity, published by Alec Finlay's Pocket Books, which starts with a sequence 'In Praise of Walking' ('Early one morning, any morning, we can set out, with the least possible baggage, and discover the world...') and then a second sequence 'On Looking at the Sea.'  In this new book, the walker (addressed as "you") journeys over the Scottish landscape, evoked in simple pared-down verses through the names of plants (asphodel, milkwort, crushed water-mint), the movement of wind and water, and the passing impressions of the land's contours and colours.  Eventually the walker returns to the sea, where 'a figure is seen standing at the tide's edge', like a solitary wanderer in a Friedrich painting, who may be the artist or may be oneself.

The Guardian's review by David Wheatley refers to James Joyce and William Wordsworth and concludes: 'The Hundred Thousand Places stands at a tentative and oblique angle to the more established modes of pastoral writing. There is a beautiful moment in George Oppen's "Psalm" when he exclaims of some deer, "That they are there!", and the fact of the natural world's being there at all supersedes the need for description. There is plenty of description in these poems, but they too converge on a place of revelation whose name is simply "there".'

Friday, November 13, 2009


Today I went to the Small Publishers Fair, an annual event which I based posts on last year and the year before. Among today's purchases was a Chris Drury book, Algonquin, on sale at Peter Foolen's stall. Peter publishes prints and books by some of this site's favourite landscape artists - Hamish Fulton, Thomas A. Clark, Roger Ackling.  He has his own blog - recent posts feature Richard Long's huge Riverlines for the entrance of Norman Foster's Hearst Tower, and Ian Hamilton Finlay's exhibition at the David Nolan Gallery (I like his statement in camouflage green: "Camouflage is the last form of classical landscape painting. It represents not this tree or that field but fields and trees").

 Chris Drury, Algonquin, 2008

The Chris Drury book, jointly designed by Peter Foolen, is described on (and can be ordered from) the artist's website.  Based on a canoeing trip in Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario, it was inspired by the Algonquin language 'which had its beginnings as bite marks on bark.’  'I experimented to find out how you could make bite marks on Birch bark and found that if you fold the bark, bite it and then unfold, you create a line, which must have formed the basis of a cuneiform writing. For each of the seven days I collected one piece of Birch bark and kept a diary of things seen, heard, experienced and sensed. The result is this small publication.'

The natural 'writing' on these pieces of bark might look asemic in isolation (I'm thinking of the many interesting examples of asemic writing collected on The New Post-Literate site), but each one seems to take on meaning from its accompanying text, which could be taken for translations.  So, for example, the 'liquid wave patterns' seen from the canoe on 18th August are echoed in four wave-like marks in the bark.  The shape of the bark itself also reflects the pattern of the text - a long strip follows a similarly shaped column of short descriptive words for 17th August - and the 'silver grey' first light of August 16th is repeated in the colouring of the bark itself.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Moods of the Sea

Slavko Vorkapich's contribution to cinema has been described by Philip Kemp in a Film Reference article: 'to today's audiences, brought up on high-speed editing and slick narrative elisions, the pace of classic 1930s Hollywood cinema can sometimes seem ponderous. Events are too explained, too pacedout—except when, about mid-way through certain films, the action abruptly slips into a montage sequence like a sedately-flowing stream suddenly diving into a narrow canyon. Adagio turns to presto: whole pages of dull exposition are eliminated as, in a cascade of images often lasting less than a minute, months or years hurtle past, thousands of miles are traversed by road or rail, the fortunes of the hero (or of whole empires) rise or fall. The inventor and master of this telescoping technique was Slavko Vorkapich, cinema's first-ever montage editor.'  After the war, Vorkapich's montage sequences were less in demand and he became an academic at the University of Southern California, before returning for a while to Yugosalvia.

In 1941 Vorkapich collaborated with John Hoffman, another montage editor, on a short non-narrative 'pictorial fantasy', Moods of the Sea.  You can see the whole film on Ubuweb and admire its smoothly flowing seascape footage, set to Felix Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture. They call it 'an early example of American avant-garde and independent film' - but it's not avant-garde in a 'shock of the new' way... It's really beautifully done, with waves crashing, seals gliding and gulls taking flight in time to the music. There's also the purely visual pleasure in seething black and white wave forms, dark horizons, mountainous clouds, stark shadows and bright light picking out bubbles on the foam.

Vorkapich and Hoffman made a similar film in 1947, Forest Murmers, shot in Angeles National Forest and scored to the interlude from Wagner’s Siegfried.  I don't think this is viewable anywhere online... but you can see a clip from the opera below.  Usually in this sequence Siegfried is shown sitting alone under a linden-tree, waiting for a dragon to appear, with the forest murmuring sounds in his ears.  The birds' songs attract his attention and he makes a pipe from a reed in a vane attempt to imitate them. 

Friday, November 06, 2009

At Dieppe: Green and Grey

There used to be several good secondhand bookshops in Brighton's Duke Street, and in one of them about twenty years ago I bought Geoffrey Grigson's Faber Book of Poetry and Places (1980).  It is, as you would expect with Grigson, an excellent survey of the British landscape in poetry, and includes many of the poems in his earlier anthology The Poet's Eye.   One thing I like about this selection is that Grigson can't resist including a selection of poems on France and Italy ("across the Channel, up to the present (but how will it be later?) our general emotions have flowed with most willingness and familiarity into France and Italy ... so I add a section for each country.")  There are only five English poems in the France section, two of which describe the Channel coast -Wordsworth's 'Evening on Calais Beach' ("Breathless with adoration; the broad sun / Is sinking down in its tranquillity") and Arthur Symons' sad vision of Dieppe:
At Dieppe: Green and Grey
to Walter Sickert

The grey-green stretch of sandy grass,
Indefinitely desolate;
A sea of lead, a sky of slate;
Already autumn in the air, alas!

One stark monotony of stone,
The long hotel, acutely white,
Against the after-sunset light
Withers grey-green, and takes the grass's tone.

Listless and endless it outlies,
And means, to you and me, no more
Than any pebble on the shore,
Or this indifferent moment as it dies.

The other three poems in English are Matthew Arnold's 'Scenes from Carnac', Roy Campbell's imagistic 'Fishing Boats in Martiques' and an extract from Alexander Hume's descriptive poem 'Of the Day Estivall' (1599) (called in the anthology 'Midsummer Day in France').  Hume's poem featured in Arthur Quiller-Couch's 1919 Oxford Book of English Verse as 'A Summer Day'.  But was it really about France?  Grigson has an interesting endnote - 'though he became a severe Puritan, Alexander Hume went to Paris as a young man to study law.  During his four years in France he must have visited, I would say on the evidence of this poem, the neighbourhood of Bourdeaux, and then have written this wine-country piece - perhaps about the country where the Dordogne flows into the Gironde - amazed by a Midsummer Day's heat so different from his Scotch summers.  Scotch commentators like to deny that he is picturing a French scene, but what about the salads with olive oil, the wine in caves, the peaches, and the honey plums, i.e. reines claudes or greengages, which reached the British Isles only in 1724?'

Which French poems of place does Grigson include alongside these English verses?  Here's a list:
  • A sonnet of Joachim du Bellay's evoking Liré (near the château of La Turmelière where he was born)
  • Various poems by du Bellay's friend Pierre de Ronsard set in Blois, Couture and Vendômois
  • The 'Stances' of Honorat de Racan (1618)  
  • André Chénier on the river Seine
  • The beginning of a long poem by Pierre Lebrun recording a return to Tancarville, where he grew up; Grigson's endnote says that 'petrol, not moss and leaves and the tidal Seine, is the modern smell of Tancarville, from the barges which go up and down under the great modern suspension bridge'
  • An extract from the Cuban poet José María de Heredia's Les trophées ('La Mer de Bretagne' section) on Brittany
  • Victor Hugo's 'Près d'Avranches' (1843) and a 'Lettre' from Champagne
  • Tristan Corbière's 'Au Vieux Roscoff
  • Part of 'Paris aux réverbères' by Alphonse Esquiros
  • Paris again in Verlaine's 'Nocturne Parisien'
  • Two poems by Paul Claudel - 'Châteaux de Loire' and 'The Cathedral and the Plain', the latter an extract from 'Présentation de la Beauce à Notre-Dame de Chartres' (but wasn't this actually written by Charles Péguy not Paul Claudel?)
  • And finally, Guillaume Apollinaire on 'Le Pont Mirabeau'
Grigson eschews translation and assumes we'll be able to read these poems in French, so I'll end likewise, with the André Chénier fragment.  Chénier is one of those fascinating literary figures from the Romantic period that you just can't seem to read in easily available modern translations (other examples include German contemporaries like Tieck and Novalis). They are crying out for Penguin Classic editions (after all, Penguin have published selections from writers like Kleist and Nerval).  Or Carcanet perhaps? Or New Directions...?
Des vallons de Bourgogne, ô toi, fille limpide,
Qui pares de raisins ton front pur et liquide,
Belle Seine, à pas lents de ton berceau sacré
Descends, tandis qu’assise en cet antre azuré,
D’un vers syracusain la Muse de Mantoue
Fait résonner ton onde où le cygne se joue.

Sunday, November 01, 2009


One of the ways we can view artists as having affected the physical landscape before the advent of land art is through their requirement for raw materials.  The marble quarries of Carrara and Pietrasanta, for example, were partly the creation of Michelangelo.  A less dramatic but still significant impact on local areas comes from the concentration of artists living and working there - whether it be Montmartre or Pont Aven.  And a combination of these influences can be found in villages or distrcits devoted to particular crafts.  Here is a paragraph from Brian Moeran's Folk Art Potters of Japan in which he describes the soundscape of Sarayama.

'Ever since Sarayama was founded, wooden crushers have been used to pound the clay with which generation after generation of potters have worked. The two streams running through the village have been stepped in a series of five-to-six foot dams the whole length of the valley, and water is drawn from these along channels to the crushers. Each crusher is made from a large pine-tree trunk between four and five metres in length, with one end hollowed out into a scoop. Into this the river water is director. The crusher is critically balanced on a cross-axle of wood, so that when the scoop is filled the weight of the water makes the crusher seesaw down toward the river bed. As the other end of the pine beam rises high into the air, the water flows out of the scoop and the crusher falls back with a thud onto a mound of clay piled under the far end. The noise that the crushers make cannot be expressed adequately in words. It is this sound that dominates everything that goes on in the valley, all day, all night, every day and every night, except for one respite of 24 hours from the New Year’s Eve. The potters can tell from the changes in the thudding rhythm of the day how much water is in the streams, whether their crushers are working, and if so, how efficiently. These pounding pine trunks… belong to a world of which people living in industrialised urban Japan can only dream.'