Sunday, March 28, 2010

Ben Lomond, View near Dumbarton

Portrait of Paul Sandby, Francis Cotes, 1761 

Upstairs at the Royal Academy, away from the throngs enjoying the Van Gogh exhibition, the Sackler Rooms are a haven of quiet - there's not much danger of having to peer over a crowd of heads there to see Paul Sandby's watercolours.  I hope they get reasonable numbers of people going because it is a fascinating exhibition if you are interested in the history of landscape art.  Sandby lived from 1731 to 1809 and his career covered the whole of the second half of the eighteenth century: in the 1750s he was working in London and publishing etchings on The Analysis of Deformity, a satire on Hogarth's The Analysis of Beauty (1753), and he was still alive to see the new generation of watercolourists at the start of the nineteenth century, outliving poor Thomas Girtin by seven years.  He is also a gift to art historians writing about the politics of landscape, as he started out in 1747 working for the Board of Ordnance on the Military Survey of North Britain, depicted army encampments in London parks in the wake of the Gordon Riots, and spent much of his career working on estate portraits for patrons like the Duke of Cumberland, the 3rd Earl of Bute and James Watman, a paper mill owner, whose premises can be seen below, naturalised within an idyllic rural setting.

A View of Vintners at Boxley Kent, 
with Mr Whatman's Turkey Paper Mills (detail), Paul Sandby, 1794
Source: Austenonly

The exhibition begins with Sandby's map making and you can see how he used pen-and-ink to describe the mountains of Scotland.  He also painted the activity of the surveying party and made some panoramic views of the landscape, such as Ben Lomond, View near Dumbarton (c1747).  One of the pleasures of an exhibition is seeing the physical objects themselves - the full map spread out and the view of Ben Lomond, consisting of several sheets pasted together, attached to a copy Thomas Pennant's Tour of Scotland (1772).  The reason why Sandby's sketch is now inside this book is that it has been 'grangerised'.  Grangerising was the practice of illustrating a book by clipping out and adding pictures taken from other published sources - named after James Granger (1723-1776), whose two volume Biographical History of England (1769) included blank pages for readers to add their own illustrations.

Nowadays it is possible to grangerise electronically - just find your favourite old text on Project Gutenberg and use a Google image search.  One could for example, produce a nice new edition of William Mason's  influential The English Garden: A Poem in Four Parts (1772-82) - Mason lived in Yorkshire and may have introduced Paul Sandby to the ruins of Roche Abbey, the subject of a particularly serene watercolour from c.1780.  Another of Sandby's paintings of antiquities, showing the ruins of Roslin Castle, Midlothian, is interesting because it depicts the amateur artist Lady Frances Scott sketching from nature using a portable camera obscura.  Sandby's interested in technique extended from optical devices to the processes of reproduction and one of his innovations was the introduction of aquatint print-making, which is especially good for lighting effects, as can be seen for example in Chepstow Castle in Monmouthshire, one of his XII Views in South Wales (1775).

Of the estates pictured in the exhibition, Windsor Great Park features most often and the castle can be seen from various angles and at different times of day, including a dramatic storm scene with a streak of lightning and terrified horse.  This was of course the great age of landscape gardening and in his estate portraits Sandby was illustrating the work of famous contemporary designers and architects.  Among those involved in the design of Nuneham, where Sandby painted views of the garden, were a trio who sound like they would have made a great jazz combo: Stiff Leadbitter (house), 'Athenian' Stuart (interiors) and 'Capability' Brown (grounds).  In addition, poet-gardener William Mason created the flower garden there in 1771 (Thomas Love Peacock would later write: 'O'er Nuneham Courtnay's flowery glades / Soft breezes wave their fragrant wings, / And still, amid the haunted shades, / The tragic harp of Mason rings'.)

Sandby also painted the natural features of estates, including their old trees, which could symbolise a family's long ownership of the land.  He was thus one of the first British artists to paint individual species like oak and beech trees, but these too can be seen in wider political terms, as Linda Colley noted last year in an article about the exhibition when it was on show in Scotland. 'Morning, an extraordinary painting of a massive, venerable beech tree set firm in a Shropshire landscape, is, for instance, a powerfully loyalist testament. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1794, five years after the fall of the Bastille and in the midst of war, the painting would have been understood as an allusion to contemporary conservative celebrations of an ancient, organic British constitution as against the recent republican outgrowths of revolutionary France.'

Morning, Paul Sandby, 1794
(Is this the right image?  I think so but my memory is hazy and I'm writing this without access to the catalogue...)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Passievaart, a huge marsh

I finally made it to the Royal Academy's Van Gogh exhibition last weekend - I think it is the first exhibition devoted just to Van Gogh that I've ever been to.  I hadn't anticipated quite how overwhelmingly impressive some of it would be, given the familiarity of the work - it's well worth queuing and braving the crowds to see, if you haven't done so already.  There are about 35 letters, 65 paintings and 30 drawings and I was hooked from the first sketch, which dates from June 1881.  Looking up the relevant letter to Theo on the amazing Van Gogh Museum website, I see he wrote: "I must tell you that Rappard [an artist] was here for 12 days or so, and has now left.  Naturally he sends you his regards.  We went on a fair number of excursions together, several times to the heath at Seppe, among other places, and the so-called Passievaart, a huge marsh."  Although the emphasis in this first room of the exhibition is on Van Gogh's efforts to teach himself drawing, A Marsh seemed to me an impressive enough achievement in itself, combining experiments in mark making with a composition that conveys the misty poetry of the landscape.

Vincent van Gogh, A Marsh, 1881
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

In his review of the exhibition Adrian Searle traces a connection with landscape in the materials van Gogh used. 'Often the artist drew with a pen that he cut himself from the reeds that grew at the margins of Dutch waterways and roadside ditches in Province. He noted that the reeds in the south were better for drawing. For finer work, he also picked up feathers for the quills he cut to make nibs.  It's more than coincidental that reeds and birds also appear in Van Gogh's drawings. I wonder if he ever used river water to dilute his inks, and for the somewhat less successful watercolours that he made. Even the charcoal he used in his early drawings have a connection to the earth itself. Those pollarded willows that appear in his work time and again also provide the charcoal that he used.  Such connectedness would have suited his pantheist view of the world.'

Sunday, March 21, 2010

On a Journey, Lodging Beneath the Blossoms

A few posts back I discussed The Maximus Poems of Charles Olson which explore the landscape and history of Gloucester, Massachusetts.  An English reader unfamiliar with the geography of these poems cannot help being struck by the references to familiar place names in unfamiliar settings: starting with Gloucester itself, an ancient landlocked city here but a coastal port in New England.  I wonder how many of these English towns and cities reborn in a new landscape simply referred back to the homes of the colonists without much though to the sites' physical similarities.  Massachusetts has a Dover located in its county of Norfolk, a Lincoln in Middlesex, a Northampton in Hampshire and Olson's Gloucester in Essex.

I was thinking about this after reading a passage in Burton Watson's translation of The Tales of the Heike, which describes the exile of three conspirators to the remote island of Kikai-ga-shimam off the southern coast of Satsuma.  Two of them, Naritsune and Yasuyori had been devotees of the Kumano Shrine and to make their exile bearable they went looking round the island to find a landscape that resembled the Kumano area.  'They found a wonderful spot of woodland and water, festooned here and there with tree leaves the colour of crimson brocade or embroidery; of splendid cloud-topped peaks, seeming as though draped in various shades of blue green gauze; with the mountain scenery, the stands of trees far surpassed anything found elsewhere.  Gazing south one could see a vast expanse of ocean, its waves deeply shrouded in clouds and mist, while to the north, from the soaring mountain crags, a hundred-foot waterfall came cascading down.  The awesome thundering of its waters and the pine winds imparting an aura of holiness made it seem like the waterfall of Nachi, the seat of one of the Kumano deities.  They decided to call this place the mountain shrine of Nachi.'

The Waterfall of Nachi

And so they continue, labeling one of the peaks Shingū and another Hongū, and naming various other spots after subsidiary shrines in the Kumano area.  Then each day the two exiles 'would carry out their "pilgrimage to Kumano", praying for a return to the capital.'  The prayers work - they are pardoned and leave the island (although their companion, Shunkan, who would not take part in their religious activities, is left behind and dies there).  The Kumano shrine area is now a World Heritage Site, but the location of Kikai-ga-shimam is not clear, so it's hard to know how much poetic license was taken in this re-imagining of a religious landscape.  Three islands boast graves of Shunkan: two called Iōjima, in Kagoshima and Nagasaki, one called Kikai in Kagoshima.  I should add that the actions of Naritsune and Yasuyori in establishing a version of the Kumano site for themselves can be seen in the context of the process of propagation called bunrei which has led to the establishment of over 3000 Kumano shrines throughout Japan.

The Tales of the Heike exists as a text in various versions; the one translated by Burton Watson is the famous Kakuichi text, set down by a biwa hōshi (lute playing minstrel-priest) called Kakuichi in 1371. It describes the defeat of the Heike (also called the Taira Clan) by the Minamoto (or Genji) during the Genpei wars of 1180-85.  Many subsequent stories, plays and films have been based on it, including my favourite Kenji Mizoguchi film, Tales of the Taira Clan (1955).  Although it focuses on power struggles and has some great battle scenes, The Tales of the Heike includes many quieter episodes, like the visit of the retired emperor GoShirakawa to the retreat of Kenreimon'in, daughter of the Taira ruler Kiyomori but now reduced to living in a remote Buddhist retreat.   GoShirakawa looks at the little hall, the Cloister of Tranquil Light, with its garden overflowing with flowers, and composes a poem: 'Cherries on the bank have strewn the pond with petals - / wave-borne blossoms now are in their glory.'

It is not surprising that some of the warlike historical characters in The Tales of the Heike composed poetry.  At this same time the king of England, Richard the Lion Heart, was writing songs and poems (the legend of his rescue by the minstrel Blondel could easily be re-imagined as an episode from the Japanese epic).  One episode in The Tales relates the story of deputy commander in chief Taira Tadanori risking his life by traveling to the capital to try to convince the poet Fujiwara Shunzei, then engaged in compiling the poetry anthology Senzaishū, to include one of his poems. This was politically difficult for Shunzei, but he did publish one of Tadanori's poems anonymously.  I think it captures the longing for nature's timeless beauty in this warlike period - Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite translated it in their Penguin Book of Japanese Verse thus: 'The capital at Shiga / Shiga of the rippling waves, / Lies now in ruins: / The mountain cherries / Stay as before.'  Tadanori died in 1184, fighting in the Battle of Ichi-no-tani.  After he had been killed one final poem was found lodged in his quiver, entitled 'On a Journey, Lodging Beneath the Blossoms'.

Friday, March 19, 2010

In a Treeless Place, Only Snow

Alex Ross has featured John Luther Adams more than once in his excellent blog, most recently giving notice that the composer's 'wide-open Alaskan soundscapes are about to descend on the urban jungles of New York and Chicago. On Sunday night, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble plays “In a Treeless Place, Only Snow” and “The Farthest Place.”'  The video below is a short documentary made for The New Yorker about Inuksuit (2009) 'a work for percussion ensemble that is designed to be played outdoors. The title refers to a type of stone marker that the Inuit and other native peoples use to orient themselves in Arctic spaces. The arrangement of rhythmic layers in the score mimics the shape of these lonely sentinels, which sometimes resemble the monolithic shapes of Stonehenge'.

For an earlier profile piece Ross went to meet Adams, taking in a visit to the Museum of the North, where there is an installation (see clip below) called The Place Where You Go to Listen, a 'kind of infinite musical work that is controlled by natural events occurring in real time'. This is inspired by a place on the coast of the Arctic Ocean called Naalagiagvik where, 'according to legend, a spiritually attuned Inupiaq woman went to hear the voices of birds, whales, and unseen things around her. In keeping with that magical idea, the mechanism of “The Place” translates raw data into music: information from seismological, meteorological, and geomagnetic stations in various parts of Alaska is fed into a computer and transformed into an intricate, vibrantly colored field of electronic sound.'

Reading the profile I was particularly interested in how Adams hears the landscape.  Ross writes: 'I noticed that Adams was listening closely to this seemingly featureless expanse, and kept pulling information from it: the fluttering of a flock of snow buntings, the low whistle of wind through a stand of gaunt spruce, the sinister whine of a pair of snowmobiles. He also noted the curiously musical noises that our feet were making. Tapping the crust of snow atop the ice, under which the wind had carved little tunnels, he compared the sounds to those of xylophones or marimbas.'  At another point, 'Adams recalled the Yukon River trip that led him to write “Strange and Sacred Noise” and other tone poems of natural chaos. “When the ice breakup comes, it makes incredible sounds,” he said. “It’s symphonic. There’s candle ice, which is crystals hanging down like chandeliers. They chime together in the wind. Or whirlpools open up along the shore or out in the middle of the river, and water goes swirling through them. Or sizzle ice, which makes a sound like the effervescent popping you hear when you pour water over ice cubes.'

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Double Tide

In recent editions of Sight and Sound Jonathan Romney has written about the trend for Slow Cinema - 'a cinema that downplays event in favour of mood, evocativeness and an intensified sense of temporality'.  Nick James, in his editorial for the April 2010 issue, sounds a cautionary note.  'Watching a film like the Berlin Golden Bear-winner Honey - a beautifully crafted work that, for me, suffers from dwelling too much on the visual and aural qualities of its landscape and milieu - there are times, as you watch someone trudge up yet another woodland path, when you feel an implicit threat: admit you're bored and you're a philistine.  Such films are passive-aggressive in that they demand great swathes of our previous time to achieve quite fleeting and slender aesthetic and political effects...'  Nevertheless, later in this same issue, Jonathan Romney, reporting from the Berlin Film Festival, praises two 'minimalist explorations of landscape', Alexej Popogrebski's How I Ended This Summer and Sharon Lockhart's Double Tide.

Popogrebski's film, made over three months on location at an Arctic weather station is not Slow Cinema - it is more of an 'adventure in outward-bound film-making in the Flaherty-Herzog tradition'.  But Double Tide is as slow as it gets, consisting as it does of two fifty-minute takes from a fixed camera, framing a view of misty mudflats on the Maine coast.  Romney writes that this 'is as close to a picture of nothing as a representational film can get: by comparison, Kiarostami's Five is pure Jerry Bruckheimer.' During the course of the film a single figure is seen gathering clams while the mist thickens and clears.  This arduous, repetitive work made Romney uncomfortable, although a reviewer for LA Weekly writes: 'it’s awful, backbreaking work, but through the lens of Sharon Lockhart’s camera, it’s also magnificent.' This puts me in mind of those old landscape paintings with picturesque labourers, and makes me wonder whether it would be as easy to overlook their exertions if one were compelled to watch them patiently working for a hundred minutes...

Still from Sharon Lockhart's Double Tide

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Lunar Landscape

Chesley Bonestell was born in 1888, studied architecture in San Francisco and was involved in the design for the Golden Gate Bridge.  He went on to provide matte paintings for movies like Citizen Kane and Only Angels Have Wings before turning to astronomical painting in the early 1940s.  He collaborated with Willy Ley on The Conquest of Space (1949), worked on science fiction films with George Pal and created a huge mural of the lunar landscape for the Boston Museum of Science.  This is now in the Smithsonian and you can see it at their website.  As they explain, 'just as 19th–century artists created huge paintings to help Americans envision the scenic wonders of the West, A Lunar Landscape helped viewers imagine what it would be like to stand on another world. And just as those painters had taken artistic license to enhance the western landscape’s grandeur, Bonestell presented a dramatically lit moonscape with sharp peaks, jagged canyons, and precipitous crater walls.  Photos taken by the first lunar probes showed a very different place. They revealed a gentler, far less dramatic world than Bonestell had envisioned. Recognizing that the mural could no longer be considered accurate, museum officials removed it from display in 1970.'  Which is how it ended up at the Smithsonian.

There is a detailed account of Bonestell's career by Ron Miller which discusses the question of why he over-dramatised the lunar landscape and explains some of his methods, including a technique of spherical perspective to show planetary surfaces from high altitudes, and the use of plasticine models, photographed using a pin hole camera to achieve maximum depth of field and then mounted on board to be painted using oil glazes. The Visual Index of Science Fiction Cover Art, VISCO, has in its archive images that Bonestell painted from 1947.  The first of these (above) is not actually a landscape but is so striking that I can't resist including it here.  A few more, showing the landscapes of other worlds, are given below.  Apparently Bonestell himself disliked science fiction and "never read the stuff" but his art works continued to appear on the covers of Astounding and Fantasy and Science Fiction until the late seventies. 

Tuesday, March 09, 2010


The art works in the Museum of Art and Design show that I mentioned last time involve the transformation of 'organic materials and objects that were once produced by or part of living organisms-insects, feathers, bones, silkworm cocoons, plant materials, and hair-to create intricately crafted and designed installations and sculptures'.  It looks like another landscape-related highlight will be an installation by Xu Bing, who 'will make a shadow version of a 24-foot Song Dynasty painting using only vegetable detritus, weeds, leaves, and roots'.  Xu Bing has also made a series of works called Landscripts which develop ideas I've discussed here before of the Chinese written character and the depiction of a landscape through patterned words. For example, a 2003 version in Sydney's New South Wales Museum was created 'on the large plate-glass windows of the museum lobby' where 'Xu wrote out an image of the landscape visible through them by using Chinese characters to represent the individual landscape elements: for example, a clump of trees was represented by a clump of the Chinese character for tree. When the viewer stood on a marked point on the floor the calligraphy and the objects seen through the window overlapped, resulting in a conflation of text and objects.'

Monday, March 01, 2010

Landscape on the face of Levi Van Veluw

As you can see, the latest edition of Crafts features a man with a landscape on his head.  This is Dutch artist Levi Van Veluw's Landscape I (2008), one of three works he has in the New York Museum of Art and Design's forthcoming exhibition Dead or AliveVan Veluw's website includes three others (corresponding to the other seasons) and describes the rationale for his Landscapes series: 'removing plots of grass, clusters of trees, babbling brooks from their intimate 2 dimensional formats and transposing them onto the 3 dimensional contours of his own face. Thus a fresh twist is given to the obsession inherent in the romantic landscape of recreating the world and simultaneously being part of it.'

Van Veluw covers his face in modeling scenery of the kind used for making train sets; no surprise then to see a small train makes its way through a landscape in this video clip.  It made me think that he could transform his head into a live metaphysical painting, with facial features standing in for the enigmatic objects in the foreground of a De Chirico like Ariadne (1913).  Now I think of it there are lots of far fetched possibilities for Landscape-Head series from the history of art - Monet's variations on the same view (something like Roni Horn's You are the Weather), a Salvator Rosa face contrasted to a Claude, Altdorfer's early independent landscapes recreated and re-connected to the figure.  Imposing landscapes on other people's heads would recall eighteenth century landscape parks or idealised views of colonised territory. Or perhaps something exploring landscape and desire, recalling the words of Deleuze and Guattari: "all faces envelop an unknown, unexplored landscape; all landscapes are populated by a loved or dreamed-of face."