Monday, December 28, 2009

A delightful style of decorating walls

For my last post of the decade I'm going to discuss some words of the writer who provided my nom de blog, 'Plinius'.  In his Natural History, Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder) mentions many artists, but the nearest he gets to discussing landscape art is in Book XXXV:  'Nor must I neglect Studius, a painter of the days of Augustus, who introduced a delightful style of decorating walls with representations of villas, harbours, landscape gardens, sacred groves, woods, hills, fishponds, straits, streams and shores, any scene in short that took the fancy.'  He then describes some of the people included in these scenes - often humorously depicted.  'He also brought in the fashion of painting seaside towns on the walls of open galleries, producing a delightful effect at a very small cost.'  But for Pliny such frescoes were not the business of great painters (the celebrated Apelles had no wall paintings in his house).  No artists 'enjoy a real glory unless they have painted easel pictures' (something for this year's Turner Prize winner, Richard Wright, to think about!)

This short text is all we know about Studius, but Roger Ling published an interesting article back in 1977, in the Journal of Roman Studies, that tried to infer more about the kind of paintings he could have been responsible for ('Studius and the Beginnings of Roman Landscape Painting').  Ling begins by discounting some landscape-related genres that don't seem to correspond to Pliny's description: (1) mythological landscape as in the famous 'Odyssey landscapes' of the Esquiline; (2) the beautiful, naturalistic garden painting in the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta; (3) architectural illustration, as in the bedroom of the villa at Boscoreale; or (4) details of rustic shrines like those in the Palatine's Room of the Masks. He then argues against the view that Studius focused on 'villa landscapes', in contrast to the more pastoral scenes which seem to be described in the brief reference Vitruvius makes to landscape painting: 'in corridors because of the length of the surface they created decorations with varieties of landscape, drawing images from specific characteristics of places; for they paint harbours, promontories, shores, rivers, springs, canals, shrines, groves, mountains, cattle, shepherds.'  By looking at the available physical evidence, Ling concludes that Studius must have painted landscapes that could fit both the descriptions of Vitruvius and Pliny, and that the latter discussed him specifically because he had brought 'to perfection' peopled architectural landscape wall-painting in the Augustan period.

Painted landscape from the Red Room, Villa of Agrippa Postumus, Boscotrecase

Ling discusses three sites which could contain the kind of landscape painting Studius was renowned for, and even suggests that they could be the work of Studius himself or his workshop.  These are
  • The Yellow Frieze in the House of Livia, Rome, which has architecture and figures corresponding to the kind of scene described by Pliny
  • Certain panels and vault decorations in the Farnesina house, in which Ling detects 'Studian echoes', e.g. 'whimsical figures like the woman leaning disconsolately against a wall'
  • Landscape panels in the Boscotrecase villa's Red Room, with another humorous detail: a shepherd talking to hs dog.    
His article concludes by attempting to characterise the landscape style of Studius.  The paintings were above all 'charming', blending everyday life with exotic settings.  They have a relatively realistic treatment of distance, without employing linear perspective, and the figures are quite small, although larger than they would be in real life.  The paintings deploy a range of colour effects but tend to have a restricted palette and the brushwork appears to be relatively quick and sketchy.  Of course a lot of this is deliberately speculative; and looking for the real Studius is perhaps as fruitless as searching for the real Homer or the real Odysseus...  But I'd be interested to know if any more recent scholarship has shed further light on Pliny's brief description of the mysterious Studius.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Anonymous backdrops for the drama of words

Ed Ruscha: Fifty Years of Painting at the Hayward is a good exhibition, but a depressing experience for any believer in the inspirational possibilites of landscape art.  Room 2 is entitled 'Words as Landscape' and here is what it says on the wall: 'Ruscha often speaks of his word paintings as 'landscapes', and describes their backgrounds as 'anonymous backdrops for the drama of words'.  Pointing out that he is not part of any landscape tradition, he says of The Back of Hollywood, where the word (in reverse) is literally an object in landscape: "my approach to this kind of vista came out of travelling on highways - hitchhiking and driving ... I see things as a moving panoramic landscape, maybe in the same way you might see a movie."'

The landscapes in The Back of Hollywood and similar works like A Particular Kind of Heaven (1983) are just a sky and a horizon, painted as empty cinematic clichés rather than images of the sublime. Ruscha's more recent 'Mountain' paintings were inspired by the old Paramount Pictures mountain and many of them are backdrops to text taken from a commercial or urban context - see for example the Tate's Pay Nothing Until April (2003).  The exhibition shows them near paintings that illustrate more directly the banality of the industrial landscape, like Blue Collar Tech-Chem (1992).  In paintings like Pay Nothing Until April, Ruscha shows us the distance between real life and the idea of the mountain.  He overlays The Mountain (1998) with just one word, 'The', as if to emphasise the landscape's role as mere signifier.  One reviewer has likened this enigmatic painting to Giorgione's La Tempesta; far-fetched, but Ruscha himself has said that he wants this work to 'toy with your mind'.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Probably too late now to ask for these for Christmas: the new limited edition LPs of Richard Skelton's Landings... The latest Wire magazine includes a review of the music by Keith Moliné from which I'd like to quote a paragraph (you'll see why): 'All Skelton's work, whether under the name of A Broken Consort, Carousell or Clouwbeck, is intimately connected to the landscape.  He treats the act of creation as a form of site-specific ritual in which the sense of place imprints itself on the work.  Indeed, Landings originally involved a reciprocal arrangement with the land, with Skelton secretly depositing individual CD-Rs back into locations in which the recording had taken place.  Unlike field recordists like Jez riley French, Skelton aims for a distillation of the emotional resonance of a particular locale mediated through instrumental work, rather than recontextualising location sounds as music itself.  His approach is closer to that of the Jewelled Antler Collective's Blithe Sons, whose recordings document the sonic characteristics of their chosen locations by sounding them with the music they improvise.  Skelton's dialogue with the landscape is at once more nebulous - it borders on a weirdly private kind of gestural performance art - and less esoteric; it's geared towards producing personal, emotionally resonant music rather than investigating sonic phenomena.'

The landscape Skelton explores in this work is that of the Pennines, centering on Anglezarke.  In an interview at The Line of Best Fit, Skelton says he "felt compelled to play music in this landscape – I’d get up at 5 or 6am, drive out to the moor and play guitar, violin or concertina in the ruins of old farmhouses, as the morning light began to blush over the moor. ...  I was initially quite dogmatic about making all my Landings recordings in the field. I felt that the connection between the landscape and the music was only valid if the recordings were made in situ. I somehow wanted the landscape to impress itself onto the recordings directly, and felt that simply adding a flavour of the environment (bird song, river sounds etc) to studio recordings would be a kind of trickery. But after a few years of recording in this way, I became increasingly dissatisfied with the results themselves. My memory of events often conflicted wildly with the recorded documents, and what’s more, many of them were marred by the intrusion of unwanted sounds, such as wind or traffic noise."
"I then began to observe how my writing about the landscape wasn’t contingent on proximity, and that, if anything, I could write more clearly when away from the place of inspiration. Increasingly, I began to visit the moor without instruments, simply to experience it. I began to realise that my music making had mediated my previous experiences of the landscape – that in some ways it was an intrusion, and that I needed to witness these places alone, devoid of the props of my art. Furthermore, I realised that I could still represent Anglezarke in my recordings – in miniature, by using the small stones, bark and other natural ephemera which I’d collected from my previous visits. These things could act as a synecdoche for the landscape, as well as physically colluding with my instruments, by being used as plectra, or as sound sources in their own right."
The accompanying book, described on Skelton's website, 'is a loose-fitting collection of writings that obliquely articulate ideas about memory, mark making, proximity and loss, a sense of place and the landscape (its voices, history and folklore). Along with diary entries, the book gathers together word lists, poetry and prose fragments from 2004 to 2008'  He includes a sample chapter - from which I've extracted a few lines below:
The shifting half-light briefly traces ghost tracks across the fields. I
look out towards Alance Bridge and the mouth of the Yarrow, retracing
its course back up the tree-lined channel towards Anglezarke
Moor. And somewhere far up there. Beyond sight. Old Rachel’s.

I suffuse this place with the sounds recorded at that ruin, near the
head of the river, many months ago.

Stones dislodged from a bitter and brittle dam.
A well of music and memory.
Alluvium and fragments of melody.
Stirring in the still water.
Finally flowing downstream.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Pavilion of Prince T'eng

Almost all you will learn about the poet Wang Bo (called Wang Po in the Wade-Giles system) from the brief stub on Wikipedia is that he was 'one of the Four Literary Eminences in Early Tang' whose 'forward way of thinking is reflected in the quote "friendships across the world make near neighbours of far horizons"' (an appropriate sentiment for a blog).  However, if this makes him sound like a saintly sage it is rather misleading, for Wang Po seems to have been a poet of the live-fast-die-young type.  According to Richard E. Strassburg (Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China), Wang was a child prodigy, recommended to the court as a teenager, entering service in 666 CE.  Expelled two years later for satirical writing, he was reinstated as an administrator in 672 but then sentenced to execution for the crime of killing a government slave.  Although pardoned, Wang was struck from the list of government officials and his father was demoted and exiled to a remote region that covers parts of modern north Vietnam.  Wang Po made the long journey to visit him but was drowned on the way: a promising poet, dead at the age of twenty-six.

On October 3rd 675, probably whilst on that journey to visit his father, Wang Po was invited to a feast at the Pavilion of the Prince of T'eng.  This Pavilion stood 105 feet high, facing the Kan River, and it was there that Wang wrote his famous Preface, introducing poems to be composed at the feast.  This naturally includes a description of the surrounding landscape, which begins: 'The swollen waters have subsided, and the cold lakes are clear.  The mist hangs thickly, so the mountains appear purple in the twilight; horses and carriages are neatly lined up along the high road while we visit the scenery of this imposing hill.'  Wang goes on to mention sandbanks with cranes, islets with wild ducks, mountains and planes, river and marshes.  'A pure breeze arose when lively flutes sounded; the white clouds were halted by the strains of a languid song.'

Wang summed up the occasion by saying that 'the four excellent conditions were present, and the two rarities came together.'  What were these?  According to Richard Strassberg's footnote, the four excellent conditions were a fine day, beautiful scenery, a delighted heart and a happy occasion, as described in an earlier poetic preface written by Hsieh Ling-yün ('Preface to Eight Poems Written in Imitation of the Poetry Gathering of the Crown Prince of Wei at Yeh').  The two rarities were: a worthy host and elegant guests.

Nevertheless, Wang Po's Preface ends on a melancholy note: 'Alas!  Scenic places do not endure; sumptuous feasts rarely occur twice.'  Wang's actual poem following the Preface describes the landscape around the Pavilion whilst evoking the passage of time: soaring clouds followed by rain, stars shifting in the sky, successive autumns passing and the river flowing ever onwards.   The Pavilion itself had been built in 653 and was constantly being restored, eventully becoming a shrine to Wang Po's prose.  According to Strassberg, it lasted 'for almost thirteen hundred years before its final destruction by a northern warlord in 1926'.  However, a new replica (below) has now been built in reinforced concrete and, according to Wikipedia, "mainly serves tourism purposes."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Starry Night

Much has been written this autumn about Van Gogh's letters, following publication of the vast new six-volume collected edition.  Among those queuing up to praise them have been Andrew Motion, Julian Bell and Richard Shone.  And rightly so I'm sure - for what it's worth, the considerably cheaper Penguin edition in our house remains the most moving, stimulating and beautiful set of letters I have ever read.

I have talked about the letters here before and quoted from one that described the landscape at Zweeloo.  You can see this letter on the new Van Gogh Letters site, with links to a facsimile and comprehensive notes. In the letter Van Gogh writes "I passed a little old church, just exactly, just exactly the church at Gréville in Millet’s little painting in the Luxembourg" and you can click on the link to see this painting. It's an amazing site and it would be great to see someone do the same kind of thing here for Turner or Palmer, or writers like Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Some of the sketches Van Gogh included in his letters were landscapes - see for example his letter to Emile Bernard of 19 June 1888 ("Herewith another landscape... I painted it at the height of the mistral.")  Earlier in this letter he says "To be honest with you, I have absolutely no objection to the countryside, since I grew up in it - I am still enchanted by snatches of the past, have a hankering after the eternal, of which the sower and the sheaf of corn are the symbols.  But when shall I ever get round to doing the starry sky, that picture which is always in my mind?" 

Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night, September 1888

However, with so many reviewers earnestly urging people to read the letters I'm tempted to recall an alternative take on them - 'If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists' by Woody Allen.  In these letters Vincent writes to Theo, for example, that 'my old friend Monet refuses to work on anything but very, very large mouths and Seurat, who is quite moody, has developed a method of cleaning one tooth at a time until he builds up what he calls a “full, fresh mouth.” It has an architectural solidity to it, but is it dental work?'

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Cerne Abbas Giant

In what ways can landscape archaeology be considered a form of landscape art?  Matthew Johnson's Ideas of Landscape (2007) traces the roots of the discipline (at least in its English version) to Romanticism and draws parallels between W.G. Hoskins (whose The Making of the English Landscape I've mentioned here before) and Wordsworth.  They were both solitary walkers, interested in the local (the genius loci) and the national, combining direct bodily experience with intuitive understanding, traveling in imagination into the past, gazing on the landscape from a social and physical distance and with a degree of expert knowledge, viewing the landscape aesthetically and translating it into text.

Johnson argues that landscape archaeologists working on prehistoric (rather than historic) sites have tended to operate more objectively and certainly in the US have been more open to theory.  One could perhaps draw parallels here with English and American land artists - Richard Long shares many of the Romantic characteristics listed above, in contrast to, say, Robert Smithson.   Johnson discusses some of the tools of landscape archaeology - maps, aerial photography and the hachured plan.  Ostensibly objective and empirical, they are 'complicit in a Romantic view of the world - each invites the observer to gaze down on the landscape like Wordsworth in the Lakes.'  Land artists have used photographs and maps extensively to document their earthworks but this book made me think there's some untapped potential in hachured plans...

In contrasting the attitudes of archaeologists to history and prehistory, Johnson discusses the Cerne Abbas Giant.  This mysterious work of art in the landscape has been taken to be prehistoric, since it could not be linked to Christian imagery and there were no historic documents relating to its creation.  But neither of these factors precludes a later date - 'Ronald Hutton (1999) has argued convincingly that it in fact sits longside a 17th century landscape of politics and conflict between king and Parliament.'  A third view has been put forward by Barbara Bender (an academic who, fifty years ago, was a college friend of my mother's.)  She suggests that the specific date of origin does not matter - 'the Giant has to be scoured and re-scoured every generation; it takes its place, and its historical importance, as part of a continuing tradition that links the past to the present.'

The Cerne Abbas Giant
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The trenchéd waters run from sky to sky

The latest New York Review has arrived and it includes a critical article on Jane Campion's film Bright Star by Christopher Ricks.  The problem with the film for Ricks is that it tries to illustrate Keats's poems - he sees this as ridiculous and as unnecessary as adding perfume or sound effects.  Keats's imagination and his words alone are able to create the most vivid imagery.  To assist his argument Ricks quotes some lines about Tennyson which I thought worth recording here (from William Allingham's diary):

"As to visualising," he said, "I often see the most magnificent landscapes."
"In dreams?"
"Yes, and on closing my eyes. To-day when I lay down I saw a line of huge wonderful cliffs rising out of a great sweep of forest — finer than anything in nature."
Other gifts he has, but T. is especially and pre-eminently a landscape-painter in words, a colourist, rich, full and subtle.

I'll end this post with some poetry by Tennyson; the lines below are praised in the final chapter of Francis Turner Palgrave's Landscape in Poetry from Homer to Tennyson: With Many Illustrative Examples (1897). Palgrave says of "the trenchéd waters run from sky to sky" that it illustrates Tennyson's ability to fix a scene, "characteristic of the Lincolnshire Marshland, in a few perfect words." So there's clearly no need here for any accompanying footage to help us visualise the landscape...
Whether the high field on the bushless pike,
Or even a sand-built ridge
Of heapéd hills that mound the sea,
Overblown with murmurs harsh,
Or even a lowly cottage whence we see
Stretch'd wide and wild the waste enormous marsh,
Where from the frequent bridge,
Like emblems of infinity,
The trenchéd waters run from sky to sky...

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Liverpool Cityscape

I've been in Liverpool this week and managed to squeeze in a trip to the Walker Art Gallery.  I think my favourite painting in their collection is Simone Martini's Christ Discovered in the Temple (reminiscent of the attitude my son assumes when he's done something wrong), but there are some great landscape paintings too.  In Poussin's Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion (1648), for example, with its contrast between the serene classical architecture and the wild rock formation towering above, you can almost hear the wind blowing menacingly through the trees.  Much wilder still is John Martin's The Last Man, a rendering of Thomas Campbell's apocalyptic poem, and there is a dramatic view of The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel (c. 1824) by Louis Daguerre, painter of dioramas, inventor of the daguerrotype.  However, for me the most striking landscape painting in the museum (and you really have to see it rather than peer at a jpeg) is this:

J.M.W. Turner, Landscape, c1845

Leaving the permanent collection, I came to an exhibition celebrating the John Moores Painting Prize.  In 2006 this was awarded to Martin Greenland for Before Vermeer's Clouds.  The painting uses the sky from Vermeer's A View of Delft and according to the artist's statement, it was originally to be titled 'A Vision of Heaven', designed to have 'the same appearance of stability and unhurried peace as Vermeer’s, and incorporate as many elements of the stable or perpetual as could be organised.'  It's quite a risky strategy, as the borrowed sky and 'perpetual' landscape elements could seem nothing more than dull pastiche.  You can see other examples of Greenland's imagined landscapes on his website.

Last year, during Liverpool's turn as European City of Culture, the artist Ben Johnson was in residence at the Walker completing his Liverpool Cityscape.  Seeing it up close this week, I thought it quite strange to be described as a "celebration" of Liverpool (as in the video clip below), because it shows an lifeless city, emptied of people and traffic.  The background is painted with the naturalistic realism you would expect in a panorama, but the foreground buildings resemble a computer generated architectural model with their dimensions oddly distorted.  Everything is pristine and well lit and the dominant colour is the dead beige of recent urban regeneration.  Still, according to the Liverpool Echo, 'Ben Johnson's painstaking and wondrous Liverpool cityscape – the distillation of team work referencing 3,000 photographs and occupying 24,000 man hours – is the definitive visual statement of our 2008 renaissance.'