Monday, August 29, 2011

Rain-saturated, churning, chanting thunder

The education in Latin shared by English gentlemen was obviously an influence on their landscape gardening.  As Tim Richardson puts it in The Arcadian Friends, 'from the schoolroom to the garden, Virgil set the scene, Horace set the tone, Cicero inspired the political iconography, Pliny extolled the creature comforts, and Ovid directed the sensual fantasy narrative.' Beyond this basic pantheon it is interesting to consider any other writers who touched on landscape themes or inspired future landscape thinking.  One example, less well-known today, was Persius (Aulus Persius Flaccus) who lived in Rome and died young (his dates were 34-62).  His Sixth Satire was translated by Dryden in the 1690s.  In it, a land-owner rejoices in his life free from the concerns of business and state: 'here I enjoy my private Thoughts' and do not care if crops fail or neighbouring farmers have 'a larger Crop than mine.' However, the poem is not concerned with farming or landscape specifically, its general theme is 'an admirable common-place of Moral Philosophy; Of the true Use of Riches'.

The erudite Joseph Addison had read more widely than these Latin writers and in a piece for The Spectator in 1712 showed off his knowledge of Greek: 'my compositions on gardening are altogether after the Pindarick manner, and run into the beautiful wildness of nature, without affecting the nicer elegancies of art.'  According to Richardson, 'Pindar's verse mingles an admiration of the grandeur of raw nature with an ability to complement its changefulness and variety through elegant expression.'  This makes him sound like an interesting wilderness poet, although as with Persius there is no direct writing on landscape in his Odes.  Addison was probably thinking more about the way Pindar wrote. Horace, for example, compared Pindar's writing to a wild landscape: 'a river bursts its banks and rushes down a mountain with uncontrollable momentum, rain-saturated, churning, chanting thunder – there you have Pindar's style...'

Pindar (Roman copy after a Greek original of the 5th century BCE)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

Jonathan Tyers, the owner of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, had his own private estate at Denbies in Surrey.  There he named an 8-acre woodland 'Il Penseroso' after Milton's poem - perhaps, as Tim Richardson says in his book The Arcadian Friends, Tyers 'viewed Vauxhall Gardens as its equivalent, the more jocund L'Allegro' and the melancholy woodland as 'a kind of penance for the jolly hedonism of Vauxhall.'  In this wooded part of the garden there was a hermitage called the Temple of Death which contained, in addition to a memorial to garden designer Lord Petre, a model of a white raven and a clock that chimed every minute, to remind visitors of the transience of life.  Black leather-bound copies of Edward Young's Night Thoughts and Robert Blair's The Grave were available for perusal on a table.  Beyond the hermitage was a gateway with posts made from upright coffins, 'its arch surmounted by a pair of human skulls (reputedly real - one belonging to a highwayman, the other a prostitute's)'.  This was the entrance to the Valley of the Shadow of Death.  Here the two artists Tyers had previously employed at Vauxhall were asked to decorate the interior of a temple.  Either side of an allegorical statue by Louis-Fran├žois Roubiliac were paintings by Francis Hayman: The Death of a Christian (peaceful and accompanied by an angel) and The Death of an Unbeliever (about to be speared by a leering skeleton).  Richardson concludes that 'any visitors who arrived thinking they might have an amusing time with the happy-go-lucky proprietor of Vauxhall Gardens were in for a disappointment.'

William Blake, illustration intended for the 1805
publication of Blair's poem 'The Grave'

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Back Bay Fens

Frederick Law Olmsted, Plan for the Back Bay Fens, 1887

Within the essays and conversation that make up Landscape Theory (see my previous post), there are many interesting comments that could serve as the basis for posts here, but I'll just pick one example for now.  In the course of the seminar Anne Whiston Spirn observed that we no longer perceive some works of landscape art as having been designed and constructed.  Frederick Law Olmsted's plan for the Back Bay Fens, for instance, was 'the first attempt, so far as I know, to construct a wetland.  Olmsted proposed the Fens as a combination of utility and beauty, a restoration of polluted tidal marsh flats to serve human needs.  The power of that restoration wasn't lost on people in Boston at the time, but within a generation people forgot that it was constructed.'  So, Spirn asked, 'how did Olmsted move from the pastoral, pictorial style he had used in Central Park, to the idea of reconstructing a marsh?  Well, Martin Johnson Heade had been painting coastal marshes north of Boston.  Perhaps his paintings influenced Olmsted.  Certainly they must have contributed to public acceptance of Olmsted's revolutionary proposal.'  

Martin Johnson Heade, Marsh with a Hunter, 1874

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Landscape Theory (2008), edited by Rachael Ziady DeLue and James Elkins, is Volume Six in the 'Art Seminar' series, which addresses current issues in writing about art through roundtable discussions and invited contributions.  It is a really rich and readable anthology of writing about landscape; the theory doesn't get too heavy despite the forbidding cover - an empty seminar table rather than a picturesque landscape.  Interestingly, one contributor to the book, Jill H. Casid, noticed the way that the general preface to the whole series, written by Elkins, is actually 'implicated in the discourse of landscape with its rehearsal of what we might call the metaphorics of theoryscaping.  Current writing on the visual arts is compared to a "trackless thicket" in order to assert that it is "not a wilderness."  Instead, visual graphs (that are given the look of geological formations [they are 3D area charts]) convert "theory in art history" into a "landscape of interpretive strategies" through which the series offers a well-blazed and navigable trail.'

I thought it might be interesting here to try to summarise briefly the seminar discussion (70 pages in the book!) and in doing so add links to some relevant earlier posts on this blog.  The event took place in June 2006 at the Burren College of Art in Ireland and brought together art history, geography and landscape architecture academics (plus an independent scholar - Rebecca Solnit).  James Elkins opened the discussion by remarking that in the years since the original publication of Denis Cosgrove's influential Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape (1984), it has become increasingly possible to move beyond the idea of landscape-as-ideology. There was general agreement to this, including from Cosgrove himself, who nonetheless recalled that his book had been a reaction against two then-prevalent ways of thinking about landscape: as the romantic, aesthetic response to nature or as more scientific, geographical analysis. Elkins introduced a third notion, landscape as a work of physical production, leading to discussion of the etymology of 'landscape' - the OED defines it in relation to art but another root is the Old English 'landscipe', which concerns the shaping of a place.  A fourth version of landscape, the representation of space and time ('landscope') provoked discussion of the priviledged position of the observer in art history and those 'timeless' landscapes without figures, like Ansel Adams' photographs of Yosemite.

The problems of separation - either by framing a view or more generally from the unbridgable distance between observer and those actively shaping the landscape - led to the first mention of phenomenology as a way of thinking more about our experience of landscape. Jessica Dubow talked about the recent turn to phenomenology in cultural geography, which has moved beyond the study of images (or images-as-texts) to a more direct encounter where the subject is inside the landscape. There was some further discussion of ideology and whether it is helpful to think of 'landscapes' in the postmodern global cultural economy (Arjun Appadurai's notions of 'finance-scapes', 'techno-scapes' and so on).  But the last words of the morning session were Denis Cosgrove's, concluding that a focus on virtual spaces 'raises issues in relation to the materiality of landscape that phenomenology emphasizes.'

The conversation recommenced with discussion of the extent to which landscape became less central to twentieth century art.  David Hays referred to a different trend in landscape architecture, where art has become less influential: ecological concerns now dominate and 'art' is seen as almost a dirty word (although there are exceptions -  Anne Whiston Spirn mentioned Martha Schwartz's Splice Garden). The discussion then turned to maps, panoramas and their military origins and from map-making to the distinction between cartography, the conceptual visualisation of the landscape, and chorography, a more sensory, descriptive approach.  But in the midst of this I was struck by Denis Cosgrove's comment that 'mapping removes us a little from the suffocating embrace of ecology when thinking about the natural world and places and our relations to them.'  Trenchant stuff - just as well no ecocritics had been invited!  The absence of any ecological discussion in this seminar was interesting to me (since this blog has always focused on forms of landscape art, rather than environmental art) but disappointing too, given the natural expectation that there would be cutting edge theoretical thinking in this area.

At this point in the seminar James Elkins intervened to change the subject and ask whether it is possible to imagine landscapes outside of their representation in art.  The subsequent discussion touched on the way tourists see Yosemite through the lens of Muybridge and Adams, partly because the park's infrastructure leads them to specific viewpoints. These photographs are social acts - people rarely take a view without posing in front of it - but such views are still based (for Elkins) on the late-Romantic Western tradition of painting and photography. This view has been put forward in Joseph Leo Koerner's writings on Friedrich and indeed one participant, Michael Newman, suggested that Friedrich's hyperreal style clearly pre-figures our contemporary digital landscapes. I was surprised there wasn't more exploration at this point of different perspectives, although participants did mention the Silent Traveller books, written in England by Chiang Yee, and the landscape architect Nicholas Brown, who 'walks somewhat in the spirit of Richard Long.'  But time was obviously running short and after a few more questions from the audience Elkins closed the seminar, inviting participants to head out for a hike 'in what we persist in pretending is the actual landscape'.
The Burren landscape

Friday, August 05, 2011

Landscape from Finnmark

This week I popped into the National Gallery to see an interesting new exhibition: 'Forests, Rocks, Torrents: Norwegian and Swiss Landscapes from the Lunde Collection'.  These two countries were in many ways very different in the nineteenth century - Switzerland prosperous, independent and rapidly industrialising, Norway poor, dominated by Denmark and Sweden and dependent on exporting its natural resources.  Swiss artists tended to stay in Switzerland whereas the Norwegians tended to travel. The importance of getting away from the familiar is illustrated in the case of Peder Balke (1804-87) who studied art in Christiania and Stockholm and began his career painting conventional landscapes.  In 1832, as Christopher Riopelle and Sarah Herring write in the catalogue, he travelled by ship to the North Cape, 'a rugged and largely inaccessible area of the country.  There he found bleak and original motifs which allowed him to define his highly individual painting style.  He continued to explore these motifs in increasingly austere images throughout his career.'  The exhibition includes Landscape from Finnmark (about 1860), an icy view across snow-covered rocks to distant grey mountains, dominated by a single tree, leaning at an angle as if battered by the elements.  The painting reproduced below is another of Balke's Finnmark scenes.

Peder Balke, From Hammerfest, 1851

On entering the exhibition, the first thing you see is a large map on the wall, reproduced from an 1873 Baedecker on Switzerland, with pins showing locations of the paintings: The Wetterhorn, Lake Lucerne, the Valley of Lauterbrunnen and so on.  There are also pin maps of Norway, based on Thomas B. Wilson's 'Handy Guide' to the country of 1888.  These reminded me of another thing I've been doing this week: working on the Some Landscapes Timeline and Map.  I am still compiling this so the screenshots below represent work in progress.  The map shows a selection of places connected to my blog posts - I shall now be able to add a little Google pin on Finnmark.  The timeline, similarly, is no more than another way of viewing the blog, but I suppose you could see it as a rather eccentric history of landscape and culture.  So far it stretches from Sargon II's park at Ninevah (715 BCE) to Hamish Fulton's Everest ascent (2009).   Some of the dates relate to paintings or publications but many involve encounters with landscape: Wang Po at the Pavilion of the Prince of T'eng, Dorothy Wordsworth in Scotland, Olivier Messiaen in Utah, and here, Peder Balke in Finnmark.