Saturday, July 31, 2010

Where flowers drop and waters flow

Shen Fu's memoir, Six Records of a Floating Life (1809), describes his life as an undistinguished civil servant and art enthusiast, with an account of some of the famous landscapes seen on his travels.  The book's popularity has rested on the poignant account Shen Fu gives of his marriage to Yün, with their shared interests and misfortunes from the age of thirteen, when their marriage was arranged, to Yün's death at the age of forty.  Here is an incident from a section on 'The Pleasures of Leisure' in which the two of them make a a miniature landscape in a rectangular pot:

'The mountain was on the left, with another small mound on the right.  Along the mountain we made horizontal patterns, similar to those on the mountain paintings by Yün-lin.  The cliffs were irregular, like those along a river bank.  We filled an empty corner of the pot with river mud and planted duckweed, white with many petals.  On top of the stones we planted morning glories, which are usually called cloud pines.  It took us several days to complete.  By the deep autumn the morning glories had grown all over the mountain, covering it like wisteria hanging from a rock face, and when their flowers bloomed they were a deep red.  The white duckweed also bloomed, and letting one's spirit wander among the red and white was like a visit to Peng Island.  We put the pot under the eaves and discussed it in detail: here we would build a pavilion on the water, there a thatched arbour; here we should inscribe a stone with the characters 'Where flowers drop and waters flow'.  We could live here, we could fish there, from this other place we could gaze off into the distance.  We were as excited about it as if we were actually going to move those imaginary hills and vales.  But one night some miserable cats fighting over something to eat fell from the eaves, smashing the pot in an instant.' (Trans. Leonard Pratt and Chiang Su-hui)

Ni Zan (also known as Yün-lin),  
Woods and Valleys of Mount Yu, 1372

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The lush blue landscape

Last year Denis Dutton, editor of that useful website Arts and Letters Daily, published The Art Instinct, a book that applies evolutionary thinking to aesthetics.  Of particular interest for this blog is his opening chapter, 'Landscape and Longing', which begins with a discussion of Komar and Melamid's America's Most Wanted, a project I briefly discussed here before (one of the comments made on that post was a recommendation to read The Art Instinct).  Dutton takes Komar and Melamid's survey seriously and argues that 'the lush blue landscape type that the Russian artists discovered is found across the world because it is an innate preference.'  To do this he draws on some of the psychology of landscape literature that has grown up in the wake of Jay Appleton's book The Experience of Landscape:
  • Gordon H. Orians and Judith H. Heerwagen in 'Evolved Responses to Landscapes' (1992) suggest human beings would take pleasure in 'savanna landscapes', featuring open spaces with low grass and groupings of trees, with evidence of water, diverse vegetation, animal and bird life, and a view to the horizon.  Our taste in trees depends on how climbable they are: the authors posit a cross-cultural preference for dense canopies that fork near the ground. 
  • Stephen and Rachel Kaplan (e.g. Cognition and Envionment, 1982) have looked at the degree of complexity people like in landscapes and found a tendency to prefer terrain that both 'provides orientation and invites exploration.'  Legibility is enhanced with a clear focal point, whilst rivers or paths leading out of a picture give a pleasurable sense of mystery. 
  • Jay Appleton's original 'prospect and refuge' idea suggested that humans prefer to view a prospect from a place of refuge, ideally with an overhang (e.g. trees or roof) and protection from behind.  
  • Steve Sailor's 2005 article, 'From Bauhaus to Golf Course' describes this earlier literature and makes the link to Komar and Melamid's America's Most Wanted.  Sailor says that 'Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, author of the landmark 1975 book Sociobiology, once told me, "I believe that the reason that people find well-landscaped golf courses 'beautiful' is that they look like savannas, down to the scattered trees, copses, and lakes, and most especially if they have vistas of the sea."'   
  • J.D. Balling and J.H. Falk ('Development of Visual Preference for Natural Environments', 1982) showed photographs of landscapes to six different age groups and found a preference among the youngest: eight year olds preferred savannas to forests and deserts.  Similar results have apparently been found by Erich Synek and Karl Grammer (no precise reference for this research is given by Dutton).  They believe that increasing outdoor experience develops children's sophistication in response to landscapes.
  • Finally, moving from age to gender, Dutton cites Elizabeth Lyons ('Demographic Correlates of Landscape Preference', 1983) who has found that women have a greater liking for vegetation in landscapes than men, with an evolutionary predisposition towards areas providing refuge and fruit, as opposed to prospects providing opportunities for exploration and hunting. 

Frederick Edwin Church, The Heart of the Andes, 1859

This painting is reproduced in The Art Instinct.
Dutton says of it: 'the worldwide attraction of such landscapes even today is very likely an evolved trait'

Well, inspired by this line of research I tested my own six year old son with some art postcards.  He wasn't terrifically excited by any of them and certainly showed little interest in my example of a 'lush blue landscape' - his favourite was a forbidding vista of ice and mountains by Caspar Wolf.  Not to be put off, I then decided to search for atavistic environmental preferences in my wife, only to be disappointed when she picked out Friedrich's nearly featureless and abstract Monk by the Sea.  However, she then went on to say that she also liked a Cezanne and a Klimt because they had beautiful trees.  And asked about the lush blue landscape (by Claude) she said "yes I guess that's got trees too but, I don't know, there's something too big and spacious about that landscape..."

The Art Instinct has provoked a lot of debate and commentary (for example on the website of the The International Cognition & Culture Institute).  Denis Dutton assures readers and reviewers that he is not being reductive and views art as much more than just a product of evolution.  He covers a lot of ground and writes engagingly, but a fuller discussion on landscape might have helped to dispel natural concerns that the arguments being made are insufficiently sophisticated.  A longer treatment could have explored in more detail the relationship between research into our attitudes to certain natural environments and the slow development and complex history of landscape art in different parts of the world.  The book could also have dealt with more of the literature on landscape preferences, which is referred to in one of the articles collected on Dutton's website, a review by Mara Miller (author of The Garden as an Art).

Miller writes that 'there is no mention of the recent work on palaeolithic art, like David Lewis-Williams’s The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (Thames and Hudson, 2004), or theory about the selective advantage conferred by Stone Age campsite selection.  More troublesome, Dutton does not mention, much less analyze (nor even cite in the bibliography), the deep body of work by new philosophers over the past fifteen years that is directly relevant to his topics and arguments.'  She goes on to list Emily Brady’s Aesthetics of the Natural Environment (University of Alabama Press, 2003), Malcolm Budd’s The Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature (Oxford University Press, 2002), The Aesthetics of Human Environments, edited by Arnold Berleant and Allen Carlson (Broadview Press, 2007); and the essays in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism's “Special Issue on Environmental Aesthetics” 56 (1998), 'with John Andrew Fisher’s “What the Hills Are Alive With: In Defense of the Sounds of Nature” (this last highly relevant, given Dutton’s relatively extensive discussion of sound and music).'  Some useful references there if you're interested in this topic.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Road North

When Basho and Sora set off in 1689 on the Narrow Road to the Deep North, they were traveling into the past, to re-visit landscapes with long held poetic associations.  As Haruo Shirane says in Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory and the Poetry of Basho, these places (utamakura) had traditionally served as 'cultural nodes in the poetic tradition', where travelers could hope to compose poems that would match the famous examples of their predecessors.  Shirakawa Barrier for example, features in a tenth century poem by Taira Kanemori and is then treated by Priest Noin in 1025, by Minamoto Yorimosa in 1170, and by later poets like Saigyo and Sogi (whose account of his journey to the Shirakawa Barrier in 1468 is a precursor of The Narrow Road to the Deep North).  Interestingly Basho seems to have been more easily inspired to compose haikai where an utamakura disappoints his expectations - at Shinobu Mottling Rock, for example, where he and Sora find the renowned rock lying face down, half buried in the grass.  And as he made his way north Basho established new haimakura, haikai places that do not appear in the work of earlier poets like Saigyo and Sogi.  As Basho's follower Kyoriku wrote, "travel is the flower of haikai. Haikai is the spirit of the traveler.  Everything that Saigyo and Sogi have overlooked is haikai.'

A new sequence of hamaikura is now being established in Scotland by artist-poets Alec Finlay and Ken Cockburn, who are making their own journey inspired by Basho and Sora.  As their blog The Road North explains, they are creating a word-map 'as they travel through their homeland, guided by the Japanese poet Basho, whose Oku-no-Hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Deep North) is one of the masterpieces of travel literature. Ken and Alec left Edo (Edinburgh) on May 16, 2010 – the very same date that Basho and his companion Sora departed in 1689 – and when they return, on May 16, 2011, they will publish 53 collaborative audio and visual poems describing the landscapes they have seen and people they have met.'  So far they have reached seven of the stations on Basho's journey - Scotland's equivalent of the rock at Shinobu and Shirakawa Barrier lie ahead (see map).  Nor have they yet got to a version of Nikko where, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I once made my own literary pilgrimage to see a station on Basho's journey north.  A few days ago they were at their Cascade of Silver Threads (Shiraito-no-taki) - the Falls of Bruar - and there, like Japanese poets, they were conscious of their own poetic predecessors, in this case Robert Burns, who wrote about the Falls in 1787:

Here, foaming down the skelvy rocks,
In twisting strength I rin;
There, high my boiling torrent smokes,
Wild-roaring o'er a linn:
Enjoying each large spring and well,
As Nature gave them me,
I am, altho' I say't mysel',
Worth gaun a mile to see.

from 'The Humble Petition of Bruar Water'

Saturday, July 17, 2010

And all the peaks shone

The Present Order is the Disorder of the Future - Saint-Just
Sculpture at Ian Hamilton Finlay's Little Sparta
Source: Wikimedia Commons

On Thursday I went to the National Theatre to see a new version of Danton's Death, Georg Büchner's extraordinary first play - written when he was twenty-one, only two years before his early death from typhus in 1837. The writing is so vivid that you're swept along - I almost found myself cheering a terrifying speech by Saint-Just, and I thought of Ian Hamilton Finlay's interest in this Apollonian figure, whose life was cut short by the guillotine at the age of twenty-six. Anyone who admires the modernity and power of this play should also read Lenz, Büchner's account of the descent into madness of a young Sturm und Drang playwright.  Lenz begins in the Vosges: 'snow on the peaks and upper slopes, down into the valleys grey stone, green patches, rocks and pine trees.'  Here is an extract from the description of Lenz's journey over the mountains (found on the blog Dispatches from Zembla):

Only once or twice, when the storm forced the clouds down into the valleys and the mist rose from below, and voices echoed from the rocks, sometimes like distant thunder, sometimes in a mighty rush like wild songs in celebration of the earth; or when the clouds reared up like wildly whinnying horses and the sun's rays shone through, drawing their glittering sword across the snowy slopes, so that a blinding light sliced downwards from peak to valley; or when the stormwind blew the clouds down and away, tearing into them a pale blue lake of sky, until the wind abated and a humming sound like a lullaby or the ringing of the bells floated upwards from the gorges far below and from the tops of the fir trees, and a gentle red crept across the deep blue , and tiny clouds drifted past on silver wings, and all the peaks shone and glistened sharp and clear far across the landscape; at such moments he felt a tugging in his breast and he stood panting, his body leaned forward, eyes and mouth torn open; he felt as though he would have to suck up the storm and receive it within him. 

Lenz walks on, increasingly lonely and fearful as darkness descends, until he eventually finds himself in the village of Waldbach where he is helped by the pastor Obelin. The rest of the narrative describes his struggles to find mental peace in this place: "you know I can't bear it anywhere but here, in this countryside; if I couldn't get out on to a mountain occasionally and see the landscape all around, then come home and walk through the garden and look inside through the window - I'd go mad!"  Sadly the landscape cannot cure the mental disturbances that come with increasing frequency or the ultimate collapse where all Lenz can hear is the constant scream of silence.  He is taken back to Strasbourg by carriage, from which he sees another heightened landscape, with no end to his mental torment in sight.  This translation is from the really excellent John Reddick edition of Büchner's writings, published by Penguin:
Towards evening they reached the Rhine Valley.  They drew further and further away from the mountains that now rose into the red of evening like a deep-blue crystal wave upon whose floods of warmth the russet glow of evening played; across the plain at the foot of the mountains lay a gossamer of shimmering blue.  It grew dark as they came closer to Strasbourg; a full moon high in the sky, distant objects all dark and vague, only the hill close by in sharp relief; the earth was like a goblet of gold over which the golden waves of moonlight foamed and tumbled.  Lenz stared out, impassive, without a flicker of recognition or response, except for a turbid fear that grew as more and more things disappeared in the darkness.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The tame delineation of a given spot

Henry Fuseli, who became professor of painting at the Royal Academy in 1799, famously warned his pupils off 'that kind of landscape which is entirely occupied with the tame delineation of a given spot.'  Such views 'may delight the owner of the acres they enclose, the inhabitants of the spot, perhaps the antiquary or the traveller, but to every other eye they are little more than topography.  The landscape of Titian, of Mola, of Salvator, of the Poussins, Claude, Rubens, Elzheimer, Rembrandt and Wilson, spurns all relation with this kind of map-work.'  In the wake of artists like Constable this distinction should have seemed outmoded but, as John Barrell points out in an article inspired by the recent Paul Sandby exhibition, 'Topography v. Landscape', the contrast between mere topography and true landscape art became more important as the nineteenth century progressed.

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

Barrell points in his article to the influence of a series of essays by William Pyne, 'The Rise and Progress of Watercolour Painting in England' (1823-4), which traced the shift from 'tinted drawing' (of which Sandby was the chief exponent) to the modern school of watercolour painting.  For Pyne, topographical images were views of ancient sites that would appeal to the antiquarian, as opposed to landscapes - rural scenes where specific buildings were secondary.  Clearly modern artists like Girtin and Turner painted both kinds of view, but later writers tended to associate their approach with the word 'landscape', whilst 'topography' became synonymous with the earlier, less sophisticated style.  In the nineteenth century the British Museum's collection of landscapes was split between those deemed art - filed in the Prints and Drawings collection - and a large group labeled 'topography' which was kept with maps in the library.

What did Paul Sandby's contemporaries understand by the word 'topographical' in relation to art?  John Barrell has been searching the online 18th century databases, checking the years between 1751 and 1800.  'I have had, in three separate searches over a fortnight, a total of between 2000 and 3000 hits for 'topographical'.  Sad I know, but that's what life is like for the semi-retired.'  Sad?  It sounds delightful fun, although I'm surprised there aren't students queuing up to help him.  Anyway, after stripping out repetitions, Barrell  reports that his pile of references was reduced down to 33: 'most of the time the adjective was used more or less as Pyne used it, in connection with images of old buildings of antiquarian interest.'  This suggests a much narrower sense of the word than we would expect given the range of scenes depicted by Paul Sandby and other 'topographical' artists.  As Barrell points out and the exhibition made clear, Sandby's landscape paintings are 'topographical' in the broader sense that we find in topographical writing - capable of conveying different aspects of a site's history, economy, architecture and natural features.  As such they may delight the cultural geographer (as Fuseli might now put it) but should also impress any interested contemporary viewer with what Stephen Daniels describes as 'the scope and intensity of 18th-century topographical art'.

Friday, July 09, 2010

A place crowned by a single oak tree

Marcus Gheeraerts the younger, Queen Elizabeth I, c1592
Source: Wikimedia Commons 

The reader of Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928) soon realises that its hero/heroine is no ordinary person - here is the novel's fifth paragraph:

'So, after a long silence, 'I am alone', he breathed at last, opening his lips for the first time in this record. He had walked very quickly uphill through ferns and hawthorn bushes, startling deer and wild birds, to a place crowned by a single oak tree. It was very high, so high indeed that nineteen English counties could be seen beneath; and on clear days thirty or perhaps forty, if the weather was very fine. Sometimes one could see the English Channel, wave reiterating upon wave. Rivers could be seen and pleasure boats gliding on them; and galleons setting out to sea; and armadas with puffs of smoke from which came the dull thud of cannon firing; and forts on the coast; and castles among the meadows; and here a watch tower; and there a fortress; and again some vast mansion like that of Orlando's father, massed like a town in the valley circled by walls. To the east there were the spires of London and the smoke of the city; and perhaps on the very sky line, when the wind was in the right quarter, the craggy top and serrated edges of Snowdon herself showed mountainous among the clouds. For a moment Orlando stood counting, gazing, recognizing. That was his father's house; that his uncle's. His aunt owned those three great turrets among the trees there. The heath was theirs and the forest; the pheasant and the deer, the fox, the badger, and the butterfly.'

It is a fantastic view in every sense, compressing history and geography so that Snowdon, the Spanish Armada, and the city of London can all be picked out in the distance. Like Queen Elizabeth I standing on the map of England in 'The Ditchley Portrait' (above), Orlando is able to survey the whole country from beneath the oak tree. Here is an extreme version of the aristocratic prospects found in poetry and painting - Orlando gazing and counting, taking visual possession of the landscape ("the heath was theirs and the forest...") The gaze comes eventually to focus in on a butterfly, an early hint of Orlando's persistent love for the natural world (later in the book it is said that 'the English disease, a love of Nature, was inborn in her'). The symbol of the oak tree runs through the novel in the form of a poem, which Orlando works on for centuries as she observes the changes in literary fashion from Shakespeare's time to Virginia Woolf's present day.  At the end of the book, Orlando thinks of burying a copy of 'The Oak Tree' but decides against it, as 'no luck ever attends these symbolical celebrations'. 

'So she let her book lie unburied and dishevelled on the ground, and watched the vast view, varied like an ocean floor this evening with the sun lightening it and the shadows darkening it. There was a village with a church tower among elm trees; a grey domed manor house in a park; a spark of light burning on some glass-house; a farmyard with yellow corn stacks. The fields were marked with black tree clumps, and beyond the fields stretched long woodlands, and there was the gleam of a river, and then hills again. In the far distance Snowdon's crags broke white among the clouds; she saw the far Scottish hills and the wild tides that swirl about the Hebrides. She listened for the sound of gun-firing out at sea. No--only the wind blew. There was no war to-day. Drake had gone; Nelson had gone. 'And there', she thought, letting her eyes, which had been looking at these far distances, drop once more to the land beneath her, 'was my land once: that Castle between the downs was mine; and all that moor running almost to the sea was mine...' 

In an amusing preface to Orlando, Woolf thanks all her friends and various experts - including Arthur Waley for help with the non-existent Chinese element of the book.  She concludes: 'Finally, I would thank, had I not lost his name and address, a gentleman in America, who has generously and gratuitously corrected the punctuation, the botany, the entomology, the geography, and the chronology of previous works of mine and will, I hope, not spare his services on the present occasion.'  I will venture to say no more about Orlando lest I provoke similar corrections from the experts - I'm very conscious of my ignorance when it comes to Virginia Woolf and others will know a lot more about this book than me (not least Mrs Plinius, who is a Woolf aficionado).  However, I'll risk a few more words about the place where one might hope to find Orlando's oak tree: at Knole, the ancestral home of Vita Sackville-West.

As the National Trust Knole site explains, Orlando is dedicated to Vita Sackville-West 'and, in the words of Vita's son, Nigel Nicolson, it is 'the longest and most charming love letter in literature'. Vita is the eponymous hero/heroine (Orlando changes gender over the four centuries in which the novel is set) and Orlando's ancestral home is a house, like Knole, with a legendary 365 rooms. The pages are threaded through with similarly specific references to Knole and to its past and present incumbents. It ends with Orlando taking possession of the house whereas, in fact, Vita had been denied ownership of her beloved Knole because the house was passed through the male line.'  In her book Knole and the Sackvilles (1922), Vita Sackville-West wrote of the house that "it has the tone of England; it melts into the green of the garden turf, into the tawnier green of the park beyond, into the blue of the pale English sky."  The park surrounding the house has remained largely unchanged since the time of Elizabeth I, although it did lose 70% of its trees in The Great Storm of 1987.  We explored it and took the photograph below on a summer's day last year.

Knole Deer Park
Photographed by me in 2009

Sunday, July 04, 2010

A Farm Picture

In a post a few years ago I reprinted a short poem by Coleridge, written in 1828, of which Richard Holmes said 'this fragment of Dutch landscape is an almost perfect imagist poem'.  In an article in the New York Review (24 June), Christopher Benfey quotes Robert Hass, editor of a Walt Whitman collection, describing some of Whitman's poems as anticipating 'the imagist procedures of the young modernists who came a half century later.'  These very short poems, 'those "brilliant and surprising experiments" in which, in three or four lines, Whitman composes a snapshot view', include 'The Runner', 'A Paumonok Picture' and 'Cavalry Crossing a Ford'.  One of them is, in effect, a three line landscape painting, 'A Farm Picture' (1865):

THROUGH the ample open door of the peaceful country barn,
A sun-lit pasture field, with cattle and horses feeding;
And haze, and vista, and the far horizon, fading away

Benfey says that Whitman 'loved art galleries and one can imagine him trying, in such poems, to capture some of the effects of the painters of his time, such as the "haze and vista" of the landscape paintings of Martin Johnson Heade...'  Heade, one of those American artists subsequently described as luminists for their interest in light effects, began painting landscapes in the early 1860s and became best known for his salt marsh paintings.  He is also one of the four cultural figures examined in Christopher Benfey's recent book A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe & Martin Johnson Heade.

Martin Johnson Heade, Newburyport Meadows, c1872-8
Source: Artchive