Friday, November 26, 2010


Adalbert Stifter's Rock Crystal, which I described in an earlier post, was originally part of a collection called Bunte Steine (Coloured Stones) (1853).  The other stories were Granite, Limestone, Tourmaline, Muscovite and Moonmilk - how great would it be to have an English translation of the full collection?  I'd imagine the theme of coloured stones would be as likely to draw readers in now as it did a hundred and fifty years ago.  You can at least find some of the individual stories translated elsewhere - Limestone, for example, is available in Penguin's much-less enticingly titled Brigitta and other Tales, translated by Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly.

Limestone is no more about limestone than Rock Crystal is about rock crystal - the story was originally titled 'The Poor Benefactor' - but of course being Stifter the rocky landscape in the story is a constant presence.  Watanabe-O'Kelly writes that landscape in Stifter functions 'variously as man's best teacher, as his moral amphitheatre but also as a symbol of his most insoluble problems and as an inimical and destructive force ...  The priest in Limestone learns to see and love the unpropitious karst which most people find hideous.  Here he finds his moral purpose, yet the karst, like himself, is hiding something, for all its flora and fauna are to be found only by attentive searching in little cracks in the stones.  At the same time this very landscape can erupt in a thunderstorm which both at the time and in its after-effects can bring death.'

Adalbert Stifter's stories seem to offer a gentle, enjoyable form of escapism and Watanabe-O'Kelly notes that 'the fatal combination of pine-trees and apple-cheeked country children ... convinced generations of readers that Stifter was a charming chronicler of the countryside and nothing more.'  But, as Thomas Mann wrote, 'it has only rarely been noticed that behind the quiet, inward exactitude of his descriptions of nature in particular there is a predilection for the excessive, the elemental and the catastrophic, the pathological.'  His stories have that combination of gentleness and oddness that I appreciate in later writers like Robert Walser.  The priest in Limestone, along with other Stifter characters like the rich eccentric who finds love in The Forest Path (1845), are descendants of Peter Schlemihl and similar figures in earlier Romantic Novellen: misfits who 'see better than those that fit in.'

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Precipices, mountains, wolves, torrents, rumblings

Salvator Rosa, Self-Portrait, c1647

The Salvator Rosa exhibition about to finish at Dulwich and transfer to the Kimbell seeks to show that Rosa is more than simply synonymous with the "precipices, mountains, wolves, torrents, rumblings" that Horace Walpole famously saw on his journey through the Alps in 1739.  The exhibition begins with a room of portraits, including one of the most arresting paintings in the National Gallery which I'd always taken to be a self-portrait (there is now some doubt).  It shows a brooding young philosopher with tousled hair and furrowed brow, holding a Latin inscription: "Keep silent, unless your speech is better than silence."  Nearby was the Met's Rosa self-portrait (not in doubt) where he bears a passing resemblance to Russell Brand.  Rosa was famous for his spontaneous wit and lively character 'with a skill in repartee and improvisation that enchanted and astonished his companions'.  In her biographical essay in the catalogue Helen Langdon describes him shining at conversation, poetry and theatrical performance, although he could take the humour too far on occasions - the reaction to a satirical comedy attacking the playwright Ottavio Castelli and Rome's greatest artist, Bernini, may have contributed to Rosa's decision to leave for Florence in 1640.  Three years later Rosa's performance on stage in Pisa was reported to have been so funny that the audience was 'in danger of bursting, or meeting some such similar mishap.'  Writing of his friend Rosa's performance in another role, Lorenzo Lippi, a poet-painter 'of vivacious and fiery spirit' who excelled as swordsman and dancer and shared with Rosa a passion for practical jokes, declared that 'whenever he moves or speaks / he dislocates the audience's jaws.' 

Away from the city, Rosa indulged in more cultivated pursuits at various Tuscan villas, 'reading "good books", enjoying festive meals with amusing friends, taking the air in the late evening, and then, after dinner, discussing topics that had arisen from their morning's reading' (Helen Langdon, paraphrasing Baldinucci).  A letter written to Ascanio della Penna quotes Guarini's praise of wild countryside in Pastor Fido (1590) and describes life at the Maffei villa where 'freed from worry, they read philosophy by the water and shade of the banks of the streams, and sometimes climb a mountain to satirize the follies of the world beneath.'  But Rosa also used his walks to find inspiration for paintings - at the Maffei villa at Monterufoli he could see rocks, ravines, cliffs, gorges and distant crags.  The poets of Florence praised Rosa's landscape paintings for the way they created a whole world, mixing pastoral beauty with more frightening prospects.  Paganino Gaudenzio said such works "sweetly transported souls and hearts" whilst Antonio Abati wrote that "who gazes at them, remains enchanted."

Rosa continued to seek out what would later be thought of as Romantic landscapes and in 1662 was in the Appenines, where he wrote a letter praising the rugged countryside and remarking on the desolate hermitages visible from the road.  The exhibition at Dulwich has three of Rosa's hermit paintings, where the small figures are seen dwarfed by inhospitable surroundings and, in contrast to Renaissance paintings of saints in the wilderness, there are no glimpses of distant fields and cities. The church at the time was seeking to make links with early Christianity and the hermit motif was pursued by other artists in addition to Salvator Rosa (Philippe de Champaigne, for example).  Roman aristocrats like the Chigi, Altieri and Colonna had hermitages built in their private palaces  - Cardinal Flavio Chigi was so enthusiastic he had three - and they all bought paintings from Salvator Rosa.  

Stories about about the lives of the saints were popularised in Paolo Bozzi's novel Tebaide Sacra, which described penitent monks in rugged Rosa landscapes.  Other writers were talking about the wildness of nature more directly, like Carlo de' Dottori, whose L'Appenino includes "a horrid scene" on a steep mountain path, looking down on a dark misty valley and a sheer drop over the precipice.  Helen Langdon also quotes Daniello Bartoli's L'Uomo al punto di Morte, which evokes the sort of elemental landscape seen in Rosa's late works, like Tobias and the Angel (below), where the figures seem menaced by the powers of nature.  After walking through woods, valleys and fields, Bartoli's man comes to 'a forest, bare and solitary; a desert and wilderness more than a countryside; an earth that is dead and desolate, with mountain crags and rocky alps opposite' and torrents of water cascading off them "con piacere di orrore a vederli" - provoking a feeling of pleasurable horror.

Salvator Rosa, Landscape with Tobias and the Angel, c1670

Friday, November 19, 2010

Green and brown landscapes in conversation

Apart from citing a few writers like Jonathan Bate, I haven't written much here about ecocriticism.  However, much interesting writing on landscape is now done within this academic discipline, so I thought I'd do a post here that provides a bit of background.  In The Future of Environmental Criticism (2005) Laurence Buell traces the history of ecocriticism in overlapping phases:
  • Precursors  - It is possible to look back to early books on literature and the environment, e.g. in the US Norman Foerster's Nature in American Literature (1923) or even Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature (1836).  But two influential texts that stand out as having influenced later writing in Britain and American respectively were Raymond Williams' the Country and the City (1973) and Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in American Culture (1964).
    • Influences - Of the many intellectual influences on ecocriticism, Buell cites three in particular.  The first is Darwin, whose work displaced the privileged position for homo sapiens.  The second is Aldo Leopold, whose 'land ethic' gives rights to non-human life and asked the reader to 'think like a mountain.'  And the third is 'modern continental thought' - specifically Arne Naess, inventor of deep ecology, Heidegger, and phenomenologists Merleau-Ponty and Bachelard.
      •  First Wave Ecocriticism - Ecocriticism proper is seen as originating in work that were influenced directly by the ecology movement, starting in the USA with Joseph Meeker's The Comedy of Survival (1972) which set out the idea that comedy adapts us to the natural world whereas tragedy estranges us from it.  In Britain Jonathan Bate's Romantic Ecology (1991) challenged the view that Wordsworth's nature poetry was simply a refuge from politics and society.  First wave ecocriticism sought an alliance with environmental science, partly as a corrective to cultural relativism, although at the same time other strands (particularly within ecofeminism) were suspicious of scientism.  Early ecocriticism focused mainly on nature writing and was clearly aligned with efforts to conserve the earth and expose pollution. The representative anthology is Glotfelty and Fromm's The Ecocriticism Reader (1996).
      • Second Wave Ecocriticism - There is no clear distinction, but towards the end of the last century ecocriticism broadened its scope, spreading to all forms of text with an environmental interest.  In terms of contemporary writers, interest was extended beyond the likes of Gary Snyder, A.R. Ammons, Barry Lopez and Terry Tempest Williams to writers like Linda Hogan, Chickasaw author of novels dealing in tribal and environmental issues like Mean Spirit (1990), Solar Storms (1995) and Power (1998).  The distinction between natural and built environments is now seen as less clear cut.  Buell writes that between his first book on The Environmental Imagination (1995) and his second Writing for an Endangered World (2001) he moved to the view that 'a mature environmental aesthetics - or ethics, or politics - must take into account the interpenetration of metropolis and outback, of anthropocentric as well as biocentric concerns.'  An anthology that mixes this newer approach with direct political analysis is The Environental Justice Reader (2002).  However, Buell is careful to stress that all strands of ecocriticism are still active and environmental justice concerns have not, for example, replaced criticism inspired by deep ecology.
      Buell's book is by no means the only recent discussion of ecocriticism and you need go no further than the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) website for a whole stack of PDFs examining the field and discussing its evolution - the most recent, at time of writing, is Loretta Johnson's 'Greening the Library: The Fundamentals and Future of Ecocriticism'.  The one book on the subject I would most recommend is Greg Gerrard's excellent Ecocriticism (2004).  In the concluding chapter he cites Laurence Buell's Writing for an Endangered World among examples of contemporary 'hybridized reading practices' and welcomes its inclusion of urban writers like Dickens and Dreiser alongside the likes of Robinson Jeffers and Wendell Berry.  As Buell himself writes, the aim of this was to 'reckon more fully with the interdependence between urban and outback landscapes' and put “‘green’ and ‘brown’ landscapes, the landscapes of exurbia and industrialization, in conversation with one another.”

          Monday, November 15, 2010

          Wistman's Wood


          To the Small Publishers Fair at Conway Hall on Saturday, where I bought a copy of Englands Helicon (1600) from the Shearsman stall - more on this in a future post.  I found I was talking about my recent trip to Scotland with various people, including Peter Foolen, who was recommending to me the work of Scottish artists and writers like Alistair Peebles, Robert Alan Jamieson and Alexander Hamilton.  I learned that Hamish Fulton had been in earlier and had left behind with Colin Sackett a copy of his new book, The Uncarved Block, a beautifully produced volume from Lars Müller Publishers.  It is about the Everest expedition last year where Fulton went where no land artist has gone before and became the oldest British person to reach the summit (unfortunately Sir Ranulph Fiennes took away this record just two days later).  It is odd to think of a trip like this, with Hamish Fulton one of the group being led to the summit, as one of his art works; we are conditioned to thinking of Fulton's walks as solitary ventures, like paintings, or, more recently, collaborations where others take part but Fulton is still the artist-creator.  The book must therefore be more than usually important as a record of the experience and his take on the culture of Everest expeditions - I'd have liked more time to take a proper look at it.

          It was interesting to compare opinions with Colin (below) on the English landscape, recent nature writing and cultural geographers.  He told me his next project is a book about Wistman's Wood, a haunted spot associated with druids and said to harbour 'writhing adders who spawn their young amidst the moss and leaf strewn tree roots'.  Back in 1797 the Reverend J. Swete wrote that 'silence seemed to have taken up her abode in this sequestered wood - and to a superstitious mind some impression would have occurred approaching to dread, or sacred horror.'  More recently John Fowles wrote about this remnant of the primeval forest in his book The Tree: 'it is the silence, the waitingness of the place, that is so haunting; a quality all woods will have on occasion, but which is overwhelming here — a drama, but of a time span humanity cannot conceive'.

          Friday, November 12, 2010

          Grosvenor Square

          We arrived for our holiday in St Ives this summer a few weeks too late for the Dexter Dalwood exhibition.  I was therefore glad when he was nominated for this year's Turner Prize because some of the paintings are now on show again at Tate Britain, including The Death of David Kelly (2009) which he describes in the video above.  Dalwood's paintings of culturally significant places include landscapes like  Gorbachev's Winter Retreat (2000), Bay of Pigs (2004) and Grosvenor Square (2002).  This is how the Saatchi Gallery describes the 'comic Armageddon' of Grosvenor Square, home of the American embassy: 'The sculpture of a dead president stands in ominous glory, a lone caped panto-villain master-minding the elements of world power. Dexter Dalwood pictures this landmark circa 1969: the upside-down trees are taken from a Georg Baselitz painting from this period. Painted during the Iraq war, Dalwood envisions the park as a place of protest, citing the anti-Vietnam demonstrations that took place there. In this epic work Dexter Dalwood captures the enormity of historical resonance: the leaf-strewn grass is weighted with pastoral calmness, giving a grounded continuity of order to the lingering aura of violence.'

          Giovanni Bellini, The Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr, c. 1507

          The Courtauld's Art and Architecture site has an interesting interview with Dalwood in which he describes the genesis of another landscape, The Trial of Milosevic (2004). "I think it was seeing the Bellini in the National Gallery, and thinking that I had never done a painting with a European wood in it... I started thinking about woods and landscapes, and it made me a think of a Robert Gober installation I saw years ago where the walls are all wall papered to look like a kind of Arcadia. I also started thinking about Anselm Kiefer and those paintings of Germanic woods, and then of course from Kiefer back to Caspar David Friedrich. And then I started thinking about what kind of subject I could place in these words, and that brought me back to Milosevic... By using the Bellini I’m saying that the European arcadia, the forest becomes a symbol not of beauty and continuing regrowth and life but as a dystopian location, a witness to human cruelty."

          Finally, if it's not too outrageous a leap from Giovanni Bellini and the Courtauld, here is a reminder that long before painting pictures about Slobodan Milosevic, Dexter Dalwood was teenage bassist in Bristol's first punk band, The Cortinas, whose debut single in June 1977 was 'Fascist Dictator'.

          Sunday, November 07, 2010

          The Water Table

          On Monday last week I went to see Philip Gross reading from The Water Table and interviewed by Simon Armitage, one of the judges who awarded this book the 2009 T. S. Eliot Prize.  They both noted that water has been a dominant element in recent recipients of this award - in 2007 it went to Sean O'Brien's The Drowned Book, which has been described as 'a municipal reworking of Alice Oswald's Dart', another T. S. Eliot Prize winner in 2002. The Water Table is inspired by the Severn Estuary, a place of 'stillness and energy' known on one shore as the Bristol Channel and on the other as Môr Hafren (the Severn Sea).  Poems like 'Sluice Angel', 'Bridge Passages' and 'Severn Song' describe the rivers shifting channels, the continual flux of water and mud, the forty-foot tide of 'liquid solid as rock' the gulls converging out to sea.  Ten poems called 'Betweenland' look at the water in different ways - as a mouth debouching our secrets, as an ear amplifying distance, as a mind constantly changing and, at sunset, a place for 'the draining down of daylight, westwards and out of the world.'  

          Gross has said that a poem is "a piece of extraordinary attention" and last week he talked of the importance of looking for a long time at something until it yields a poem.  This reminded me of Merleau-Ponty's description of Cézanne, studying his motif, which I mentioned here before in connection with Charles Tomlinson (a poet Philip Gross sometimes resembles).  I thought it would sound too pretentious at a poetry reading to ask Philip Gross about phenomenology or Merleau-Ponty, so I cannot say whether there is a direct connection.  Perhaps a general one though - in the New York Review recently the poet Durs Grünbein was quoted as saying that artists are "an army of phenomenologists working on expanding the confines of our shared imaginaries."  When I read Philip Gross's meditations on the action of water (like his poem 'Pour') I thought of those short phenomenological prose poems in which Francis Ponge conveyed the 'voices of things' (writing that led him to be described by Italo Calvino as 'the Lucretius of our time').  In C. K. Williams' translation, one of Ponge's poems begins: 'The rain I watch fall in the courtyard comes down at quite varying tempos. In the centre it's a fine discontinuous curtain (or net), an implacable but relatively slow downfall of fairly light drops, a lethargic, everlasting precipitation, a concentrated fragment of the atmosphere. Near the left and right walls, heavier, individual drops fall more noisily. Here they seem the size of a grain of wheat, there of a pea, elsewhere almost of a marble...'  And so it goes on, until the description reaches a natural conclusion, the sun comes out and 'all soon vanishes...'

          Towards the end of the evening Simon Armitage asked in jest if Gross did "requests" and, if so, whether he would read the poem 'Globe', in which a whole world is reflected in the sphere of a newel post.  Gross politely declined to take him up on this, but if we had been encouraged to call out for our favourites in some raucous display of appreciation I would have shouted "Designs for the Water Garden!"  It describes a set of imaginary gardens that would appeal I think to Gardenhistorygirl and readers of BLDGBLOG and Pruned. The first features a set of glass stepping stones that allow one to walk on water 'when a low mist frosts the lake'.  The second is a 'rain-gazebo' in which rain is deliberately allowed to fall through a ceiling well and into a floor grille, 'passing through, a slim visitor'.  The third involves a salmon treadwheel, the fourth a mist maze, the fifth a 'slow gusher' of eels, pouring across the lawn.  The sixth, a 'flood-feature', requires us to contemplate the aftermath of a 'the water-beast dragging its bulk through the garden' and the seventh, most magical of all, imagines a 'water-glass lens through which you can see only water' revealing ourselves to be 'lattices of mostly water, flowing side by side.'

          Saturday, November 06, 2010

          The grey sea turns in its sleep

          To the South Bank Centre last night for the launch of a new anthology of prose and poetry about landscape and place - the second manifestation of The Re-Enchantment project.  I am also planning to be at their next event in January, the premiere of Grant Gee's film Patience (After Sebald), inspired by The Rings of Saturn.  The first Re-Enchantment project, England Revisited, has just come to an end - the return of Simon English to each of the sites he marked with a St. George's flag when making his All England Sculpture in 1971.  Back then he 'mapped and graphically marked out the word ENGLAND physically, precisely and equally down the length of a Bartholomew’s ordnance survey map of the country, dividing the word into 75 component points, thus converting the place into the word' (see above). The new work reflects the changes time has brought to these locations and there is a website where you can select a point and compare the landscape in 1971 and 2010.  There are also videoclips of the artist - I've included an example below.

          Anyway, back to last night and the anthology: Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and its Meanings. The launch featured three poets: Elisabeth Bletsoe, Robin Robertson and Kathleen Jamie.  Elisabeth Bletsoe went first, prefacing her own work with a poem on the Sussex Downs by a key influence, Brighton poet Lee Harwood.  She then moved on to her 'Here Hare Here' (which initially set me thinking about Withnail and I) and some bird poetry inspired by The Sherborne Missal.  Her poem for the Re-Enchantment collection fuses the topography of Dorset and the story of St Wite, also known as St Candida, traditionally held to have been a Saxon woman killed by the Vikings, whose medieval shrine can still be seen at Whitchurch Canonicorum.

          "I'm Robin Robertson and I'm from Aberdeen" announced the evening's second poet, and he proceeded to read 'Aberdeen', a poem that begins and ends with the lines: 'The grey sea turns in its sleep / disturbing seagulls from the green rock.'  His contribution to the anthology, 'Tillydrone Motte', is also set in Aberdeen, describing the highest point of Seaton Park - a mound he played on as a child, when it was thought to be the remains of an old castle.  Now the poet is older, no longer able to climb the trees or ford the river, and the motte has been found to be a Bronze Age burial cairn.  Robertson is a mesmerising performer, as you may be able to see from the clip I've embedded below, and everyone seemed engrossed as he read out his poems. 

          The evening concluded with Kathleen Jamie's, 'On Rona', a prose account of a trip she made to an island 'far over the horizon, out in the north Atlantic', forty miles from the coast of Scotland - 'one last green hill rising from the waves.'  Like the landscapes in her book Findings, this was a location freshly observed with close attention and warm humour.  Her encounters with birds - the rare Leach's petrels with their secret nests dotted over the island - echoed some of the evening's earlier readings.  She closed the event with a Norman MacCaig poem, read partly in tribute to a writer whose centenary is this month.  There is a lot more to say about these poets and I will try to write more about them in future posts.  Indeed there is rich landscape material throughout the Re-Enchantment book - essays by Ken Worpole, Richard Mabey and Robert Macfarlane for example, along with a piece by Iain Sinclair on one of our local parks which concludes with an encounter with Stoke Newington's own Chinese landscape poet, Yang Lian.