Friday, October 28, 2011

Landscape with Ascanius shooting the Stag of Sylvia

The Ashmolean Museum's exhibition Claude: The Enchanted Landscape, which I looked round yesterday, provides a good opportunity to compare the artist's drawings and sketches.  A preparatory sketch for Claude's last painting, Ascanius shooting the Stag of Sylvia, shows the foreground figures standing out from their background and Ascanius (the son of Aeneas) just left of centre.  Trees, portico and people are all on a more realistic, less monumental scale.  In the painting, as Martin Sonnabend and Jon Whiteley point out in the catalogue, 'everything has been suffused with an air of fantasy.  The hunters are impossibly elongated - Ascanius, in particular, is absurdly top-heavy - but even they are overwhelmed by the landscape, lit by a silvery sky, which arches over them and recedes far back into the blue, snow-capped hills.'

Claude Lorrain, Ascanius shooting the Stag of Sylvia, 1682

I was curious to compare the two figures of Ascanius directly and so had a play on Photoshop, as you can see below.  It would seem facile to say this shows Claude could have painted more naturalistic figures if he'd wanted to, but the point is worthwhile because contemporaries criticised this aspect of his painting and Claude himself reportedly joked that when he sold his landscapes he threw the figures in for nothing.  Of course the figures in Ascanius shooting the Stag of Sylvia can't be seen in isolation (or cut out from their setting); the painting's harmonius colours and soaring forms combine to convey a legendary time and place, dreamed from the poetry of Virgil.  Goethe summed up the nature of landscapes like this in 1829, when he said that Claude's paintings 'possess the highest truth, but no trace of reality.' 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Valley of the Ladies

"Do not hold back," I cried, "I beg you, by Zeus and by Eros himself!  It will give me all the more pleasure if your tale is indeed like fiction."
And with these words, I took him by the hand and led him to a neighbouring grove, where the plane trees grew thick and plentiful, and the water flowed by cool and clear, just as it comes from freshly melted snow.  I sat him down there on a low bench, and sat myself next to him.
"Well, it is time to hear your story," I said, "A setting such as this is delightful, and just right for erotic fiction."
- Achilles Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon, Book 1, 2nd century CE (trans. Tim Whitworth)
What is the best kind of landscape in which to listen to a story?  I suppose it may vary according to genre, as Achilles Tatius implies, but a grove like the one Clitophon is led to, a locus amoenus of comfort, privacy and natural beauty, would seem ideal.  Here landscape is a gentle backdrop, not a distraction or a subject for discourse itself. 

In Plato's Phaedrus Socrates is taken to a similar location, but makes a point of reminding Phaedrus as they walk there: 'I am a lover of knowledge, and the men who dwell in the city are my teachers, and not the trees or the country.'  He is nevertheless very pleased with the quiet location they find by the cooling water of the Ilissus, 'full of summer sounds and scents. Here is this lofty and spreading plane-tree, and the agnus castus high and clustering, in the fullest blossom and the greatest fragrance; and the stream which flows beneath the plane-tree is deliciously cold to the feet. Judging from the ornaments and images, this must be a spot sacred to Achelous and the Nymphs. How delightful is the breeze:--so very sweet; and there is a sound in the air shrill and summerlike which makes answer to the chorus of the cicadae. But the greatest charm of all is the grass, like a pillow gently sloping to the head. My dear Phaedrus, you have been an admirable guide.'

John William Waterhouse, A Tale from the Decameron, 1916

The history of literature is full of frame stories but the most famous to be set in a locus amoenus is surely The Decameron.  In fact Boccaccio's ten young Florentines find refuge from the plague in three such locations: two gardens, described on the first and third days, and then a garden-like landscape, The Valley of the Ladies, which they explore on the sixth.  Despite being outside the protecting walls of country villa, this valley has the essential element of seclusion - the only means of entry is a narrow path, beside which flows a clear stream.  The valley floor is so circular it seems to have been drawn with compasses, 'though it seemed the work of nature', and the valley's sides are terraced like a natural amphitheatre.  Vines and fruit trees grow on the south side, thick trees on the north.  The stream feeds a tiny lake so transparent that you can count the stones in it.  On discovering it the ladies are unable to resist a swim, the water concealing 'their chaste white bodies no better than a thin sheet of glass would conceal a pink rose.'  You can well imagine one of them echoing the words of Achilles Tatius, "a setting such as this is delightful, and just right for erotic fiction."  And it is on a grassy spot by this lake that they resume their storytelling the following day.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Two Years at Sea

Ben Rivers' first feature film Two Years at Sea (2011) follows the solitary life of Jake Williams in his ramshackle house in the woods of Aberdeenshire.  It has a wonderful landscape sequence where Jake floats slowly across the frame on a home-made raft.  The film was shot using reclaimed 16mm Bolex cameras on Kodak Plus-X (which, if I remember rightly, was what Grant Gee used in Patience: After Sebald) and processed in the film-maker's own kitchen.  This film stock seems to add extra layers of fog to the low hills and fir trees.  Watching it on Friday, I was conscious at one point that I was seeing a view successively filtered through falling rain, a car windscreen, an old camera lens being shaken around as Jake drove up a track, and the grainy black and white film itself, hand-processed and then re-projected onto the cinema screen. The Q&A session after this London Film Festival screening revealed the extent to which the film constructs its own version of the real Jake.  Jake himself was there answering questions, dispelling some of the films' mysteries and revealing how far it was a collaboration: the raft idea, for example, had been a long-standing idea of Jake's but it was the presence of the camera that prompted him to construct it and paddle out onto that grey, misty lake.

Image from David Bordwell's site.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Jack Pine

Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven is another superb exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery, following others I've described on this blog: Salvator Rosa, Paul Nash, Adam Elsheimer.  Reviewers (like Brian Sewell) will inevitably have to provide some background information on the Group of Seven, whose work has not often been seen in the UK.  In Canada, as Ian A. C. Dejardin says in the catalogue, their work has been endlessly discussed 'to the point of exhaustion.  Yet their visual legacy remains supremely powerful: many Canadians, raised with reproductions of the Group of Seven's most famous paintings on their classroom walls, still see their own country through the Group's eyes ... Few of us in Europe could point more than vaguely on a map to any of the locations these artists depicted.  These are painted woods, trees, lakes and mountains only.  Nonetheless, non-Canadians should be aware: we are on holy ground.'  As I know some readers of this blog are Canadian (see comments on my last post...) I'd better admit that a lot of these paintings were completely new to me.  

Tom Thomson in Algonquin Provincial Park, 1914-16
Source (all images here): Wikimedia Commons 

At the start of the exhibition, there is a quotation from Fred Housser, who wrote the first book about the Group of Seven in 1926: "This task [of expressing the spirit of the Canadian landscape in paint] demands a new type of artist; one who divests himself of the velvet coat and flowing tie of his caste, puts on the outfit of the bushwacker and prospector; closes with his environment; paddles, portages and makes camp; sleeps in the out-of-doors under the stars; climbs mountains with his sketch box on his back."  The idea of an artist who 'closes with the environment' reminds me of recent British land artists who have walked in Algonquin Park and other landscapes explored by the Group of Seven.

When Tom Thomson died in 1917, his memorial described him as 'artist woodsman and guide'.  Photographs show him fishing and canoeing; one of these was the basis for Peter Doig's White Canoe (1992) (see also my earlier post on Doig's Figure in a Mountain Landscape paintings).  However, as Dejardin points out in the catalogue, Thomson was actually rather a snappy dresser when out and about in Toronto and he made a point of adding some expensive cobalt blue to the marine grey used in painting his canoe.  In 1919 the wealthiest of the group, Lawren Harris, had a boxcar fitted out as a travelling studio for a trip north on the Algoma Central Railway.  It sounds more comfortable than the floating studios of the Impressionists, but this didn't detain some of the artists: as A. Y. Jackson observed, sitting in the boxcar, 'the other chaps are all out sketching under umbrellas.  They are all trying to turn out four a day and can't stop if it rains.'

 Tom Thomson, The Jack Pine, 1916

Tom Thomson's most famous paintings, The Jack Pine and The West Wind, are shown alongside their original sketches in the exhibition's first room.  Each is a majestic landscape visible behind the drooping form of a pine tree, its branches seemingly surrounded by a faint aura.  Pine trees seem to have inspired poets and artists all over the world so it seems surprising in retrospect that (according to Housser) the Canadian artistic establishment, unable to see beyond European and Hudson River landscape visions, considered their native Jack Pine trees unpaintable before Thomson came along.  There is a Pine Island in Georgian Bay (part of Lake Huron) and this exhibition includes two 1914 sketches of it by Thomson and a night scene by Jackson, where the trees stand over a pool of deep blue in which you can see the reflections of stars.
Six of the Group of Seven, plus their friend Barker Fairley, in 1920
From left to right: Frederick Varley, A. Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris,
Fairley, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, and J. E. H. MacDonald.

In 1925 a critic noted that the Group had been 'tree mad', but also, successively, 'lake-lunatic, river-ridden, birch-bedlamed, aspen addled, and rock-cracked.  This year they are mountain mad.'  The exhibition's room of mountain views includes Frederick Varley's Hodleresque The Cloud, Red Mountain (1927-8) and Lawren Harris's stylised, almost art deco Mt Lefroy (1930), although I preferred the more direct, less abstract approach of J. E. H. MacDonald, especially a view of a small turquoise lake in the gathering snow with the Japanese-sounding title, Mountain Solitude (Lake Oesa) (1932).  The final room collects more of Harris's Theosophically-inspired landscapes from the late twenties - radically simplified mountains and ice bergs under grey skies, sometimes parted with shafts of light, reflecting his search for those 'moments in the North when the outward aspect of nature becomes for a while full luminous to her informing spirit - and man, nature and spirit are one.'

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Cloud and light

Toshio Hosokawa's new opera Matsukaze, based on a Noh play by Zeami, has received a lot of praise this year.  The New York Times review explains that it begins with some field recordings: 'the tranquil sound of waves washing up on a beach, which he recorded off the coast near Tokyo in January. Two months later, when the cast assembled in Berlin to begin preparing for the opera’s premiere in Brussels, the waves had acquired an entirely different significance. “We heard those water and wind sounds, and we remembered at once the tsunami...”' 
Last month ECM issued a new set of Hosokawa recordings, Landscapes.  Despite the title this only includes one of his early 90s 'Landscape' chamber pieces (some of which are currently viewable on Youtube - see below).  It features a new expanded version of  'Landscape V' for shô and string orchestra; the other tracks are 'Sakura für Otto Tomek', 'Cloud and Light', and 'Ceremonial Dance'.  The Independent's Andy Gill pronounces the album 'exquisite' but The Guardian's Andrew Clements thinks it 'exquisite in a self-conscious way ... for a few minutes the effect is entrancing, but after that it begins to pall'.  In his liner notes Paul Griffiths says 'The interplay of shô and strings, and in particular their mutual imitation, is the driving force – or perhaps one should say ‘drifting force’, given that the music carries itself so lightly ...  its effect is of observing clouds in a largely peaceful sky, clouds that are mostly white but occasionally show shadows and briefly stir into more turbulent action.”

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Daphnis and Chloe

There is a delightful sense of freedom in the lives of Daphnis and Chloe, as the young goatherd and shepherdess grow to love each other in the woods and fields of Lesbos.  Daphnis (Δάφνις) is named after the laurel bush and Chloe (χλόη) means the fresh green grass of spring.  They herd their animals together, share their food and milk and wine; Chloe picks stems of asphodel to make little cages for grasshoppers, Daphnis binds together slender reeds and learns to play the pan pipes.  In the summer they listen to the singing of rivers, the wind in the pines and the sound of the cicadas.  Two places in particular are special to them: a statue of Pan underneath a pine tree and, nearby, a cave dedicated to the Nymphs, from which a spring rises whose stream nourishes a meadow of soft grass. There is some hard work - for Chloe the wearisome job of churning milk - but after it is done the lovers have time to bathe, pick fruit and lie together kissing under an oak tree. 

Léon Samoilovitch Bakst, set design for Ravel's Daphnis et Chloë, 1912

As you read about the passing of the seasons and the growing love of Daphnis and Chloe, it is easy to forget that the landscape Longus is describing is actually made up of the estates of rich men, living away in the city, and that Daphnis and Chloe are actually slaves.  Daphnis works on 'a very splendid property: it had mountains abounding in game, plains fertile in wheat, gentle slopes with vineyards, pastures with flocks, and a long stretch of shore where the sea broke on the softest sand.'  The last part of the novel, Book 4, begins with the news that the Master is returning to look over his property, including a large pleasure ground, containing cypresses, laurels, pines, and plane trees, fruit trees (apple, pear, pomegranate), beds of roses, lilies and hyacinths, and wild flowers: violets, narcissi, pimpernels.  In a description which reads like a blueprint for eighteenth century landowners, Longus writes that 'from there, a wide prospect opened over the plain and the sea beyond, and it was possible to see the peasants minding their flocks and herds, and the ships scudding across the bay - that view was another of the delights afforded by the pleasure-ground' (trans. Ronald McCall).

In the end, it turns out (to no great surprise) that Daphnis and Chloe are not the children of peasants - both had been exposed at birth by their real parents, suckled by a goat and a sheep, discovered and then brought up in the countryside.  But after they marry they return to their rustic idyll and own sheep and goats in great number.  They name their children Philopoeman ('friend to shepherds') and Agele ('herd').  It is a happy ending but to a modern reader it seems a shame that they go on to 'beautify' the Nymphs' cave with pictures and 'let Pan have a temple for his home instead of the pine tree'.  Such artifice is of course in keeping with the pastoral genre and indeed the entire novel is a kind of ekphrasis: its preface explains that Daphnis and Chloe is a story the author saw one day while he was out hunting in Lesbos, depicted in a painting, hanging in a grove sacred to the Nymphs.

Titian, The Three Ages of Man, c1512
It has been suggested that this may show scenes from Daphnis and Chloe

There are other things I could say about landscape in relation to this book, but I'll confine myself to noting that there are three points in the story where aetiological myths are poetically retold to explain natural phenomena: the call of the wood pigeon, the origin of pan-pipes and the source of echoes. Chloe first experiences an echo while listening with Daphnis to the singing from a passing boat, down below them in a deeply curving bay.  Behind the level pasture where they stand there is a hollow coomb which receives the sounds and 'like a musical instrument' repeats them back again.  Chloe promises Daphnis ten kisses if he will tell her the origin of this phenomenon and so he begins his story, explaining that 'there are many kinds of nymphs - ash-tree nymphs, called Meliae, oak-tree nymphs, called Dryads, and nymphs of the marshes, called Heleioi. All are fair, all are makers of music.  Echo was born the daughter of one of these ... the Muses taught her to play the pan-pipes and the flute, to sing to the lyre and the cithara.'  She shunned mankind but Pan grew jelous and drove the shepherds and goatherds mad so that they tore her to pieces, still singing.  Earth gave these shreds of music shelter and now they are able to portray the sounds of people and animals, just as Echo once had done.  'When Daphnis ended his story, Chloe gave him not ten but ten-score kisses - for the echo had all but repeated what he said, as though to witness that he told no lie.'

Friday, October 07, 2011

To go out and walk far in the forest

Badelunda, Sweden

I was glad to hear that Tomas Tranströmer has won the Nobel Prize and have been looking today through my copy of his New Collected Poems, translated by Robin Fulton.  Here is my guide to some of the imagery you'll find in his poetry.
  1. Snow.   In an earlier post I talked about a poem, 'From March 1979', in which Tranströmer goes to a snow-covered island and sees in the tracks of the deer 'language but no words.'  Language itself suffers in the still, cold February of another poem, 'Face to Face', where there is deep snow and 'footprints grew old out on the crust. / Under a tarpaulin language pined.'  But the onset of a snowfall can seem as joyful as music ('C Major') and when winter ends eventually, as in the poem 'Noon Thaw', the world has a new language: 'the vowels were blue sky and the consonants were black twigs and the speech was soft over the snow.'
  2. Stillness.   In that dead winter of 'Face to Face', 'living stood still' and 'the soul / chafed against the landscape.'  But eventually, one day, colours flared and 'everything turned around. / The earth and I sprang towards each other'. Elsewhere in Tranströmer there are moments of quiet contemplation, 'Weather Picture' for instance, where the October sea glistens coldly and all sounds are 'in slow flight'.  'Breathing Space July' contains three moments of stillness, lying under a tree, looking into the water, and sleeping.  And in 'Slow Music' he writes of a day down by the water, 'among large stones with peaceful backs', where 'you can stand in the sun with your eyes shut / and feel yourself being slowly blown forward.'
  3. Summer.   In a prose poem, 'The Blue House', Tranströmer stands in a dense forest under 'a night of radiant sun.'  'A ship's engine far away on the water expands the summer-night horizon.  Both joy and sorrow swell in the dew's magnifying glass.'  But those sunlit Swedish summers will eventually fade until the sounds of the forest flow 'into a single melancholy murmer' ('The Cuckoo'). In 'Lament' the writer notices the slow coming of night. 'The moths settle on the window pane: / small pale telegrams from the world.'
  4. Song.   In 'Song' Tranströmer recalls the legend of Väinämöinen, the eternal bard of the Kalevala, riding over the sea.  He also listens at nightfall to the abortive music of gulls on a dark skerry.  You can hear birdsong in many of his poems - 'Ringing', 'Morning Birds', 'Memories Look at Me', 'Early May Stanzas', 'The Nightingale in Badelunda'. The last of these describes a moment when time stopped as he listened to 'the raw resonant notes that whet the night sky's gleaming scythe.' 
  5. Stars.  'Orion hangs above the ground-frost...'; 'Silent constellations.  And the cold ocean.' Tranströmer poems often take place at night, although the stars may merely be glimpsed, up through the grating of winter.  In an early poem, 'Epilogue', he describes the evening star like an X-ray, developing a hidden landscape of houses, trees and fences.  And then a storm comes in and the stars seem to signal for help, 'lit and quenched by headlong clouds / that only when they shade the light betray / their presence.'
  6. Sleep.   In 'Tracks' a train stops in the middle of a plain - 'bright moonlight, few stars' - and far away there are the lights of a town.  It is like a dream that the sleeper will not remember. Sleep and dreams recur throughout Tranströmer's poetry and indeed the opening lines of the first poem in his first collection describe that moment of awakening when 'consciousness can grasp the world / as the hand grips a sun-warmed stone.'  'The Man who Awoke with Singing over the Roofs' evokes that same feeling, when the sleeper 'begins / groping for attention's instruments'. 
  7. Storms.  Sometimes the poet is woken by a storm.  In 'Autumnal Archipelago' he listens in the darkness to 'constellations stamping inside their stalls, high over the tree-tops'.  Similarly, 'A Winter Night' begins with this memorable image: 'the storm put its mouth to the house / and blows to produce a note.'  These experiences suggest a simile in 'Agitated Meditation': 'a storm drives the mill sails wildly round / in the night's darkness, grinding nothing. - You / are kept awake by the same laws...'
  8. Silence.   Other times the nights are quiet: in 'Nocturne', the trees keep 'silence in concord with each other.'  In 'Five Stanzas to Thoreau', Tranströmer talks of silence slowly spiralling from the earth to grow 'with its burgeoning crown to shade his sun-heated doorstep.'  Thus silence seems sought after at times - in 'Along the Radius' he sits by an ice-bound river on an upturned boat 'swallowing the drug of silence'.  But in 'April and Silence' Spring lies desolate and 'the only thing I want to say / glitters out of reach / like the silver / in a pawnbrokers.'
  9. Solitude.   In 'Alone', Tranströmer says 'I must be alone / Ten minutes in the morning / and ten minutes in the evening / without a programme.'  Earlier in this poem he is walking on the frozen fields of Östergötland and doesn't see a single person.  Other solitary artists appear in his poems - Thoreau 'disappearing deep in his inner greenness' and Grieg in his work-cottage, 'shut in with silence.'  In 'Solitary Swedish Houses' everything seems to stand alone and summer comes with 'flaxen-haired rain / or one solitary thunder-cloud / above a barking dog.'
  10. Sunlight.  Finally, the transformative effect of sunlight is evident in poems like 'Landscape with Suns', where the poet takes the memory of a glowing sun back to 'the half dead grey forest /  where we have to work and live.'  'Further In' describes an evening when he is driving through thick traffic.  A low red sun streaming in through his windscreen makes him feel transparent, so that 'writing becomes visible / inside me'.  Right then, he knows he must 'get far away / straight through the city and then / further until it is time to go out / and walk far in the forest.'

Sunday, October 02, 2011

At the Loch of the Green Corrie

Andrew Greig is a Scottish novelist, poet and mountaineering writer who I think I first read in Alec Finlay's anthology The Way to Cold Mountain (2001).  There he had a short prose piece called 'By the Loch of the Green Corrie' about a quest to find and fish in the loch that the poet Norman MacCaig (1910-96) had considered his favourite spot in the world.   The loch's location is revealed by an old friend of MacCaig and Grieg then heads off, accompanied by two friends (better fishermen than he) to try to find it.  'It's a gem all right.  Yes, green rough grass and screeds of grey scree.  Held in a bowl, secluded, quiet, its own world.  Quinag in the distance.  Nothing else.'  They fish all day but get no catches.  The mist comes in.  'Sounds of water, wind over grass, occasional shrill keek of a lone bird of prey.  The Loch of the Green Corrie began to sink into me.'  They stay for another day but still no luck. They pack up and leave.  'We're grubby, fish-free but feeling very alive, in touch, refreshed.  The homage is done, for this year.'

'The slope opposite rises like a breaking frozen wave of grey and green' 
Screen dump showing my own attempt to locate the Loch of the Green Corrie, whilst sitting here using Google Earth

A book-length homage, expanded from this original essay, appeared last year, the centenary of MacCaig's birth.  The account of the fishing trip is fuller and longer, with the addition of an extra day and digressions on poetry, geology, land-ownership and the right way to live.  I felt quite envious, never having myself camped out in the Highlands or experienced a Hemingwayesque fishing holiday (or even, come to think of it, met anyone who owns a fishing rod), but I did smile to myself when the trip ended with the three friends abandoning their tents to head off for some posh hotel food.  There they raise a glass to MacCaig, whose own poems and observations on the landscape are scattered through this book.  In 'Descent from the Green Corrie', for example, MacCaig describes the walk down 'on screes or boggy asphodel. / And the elation that for a moment fills you / Beside the misty cairn's that lesser thing, / A memory of it.'

The book ends with an account of Andrew Greig's return to the area in 2008, to interview some of Norman MacCaig's surviving friends and have one more go at catching the fish.  Again he spends hours there, until the far side of the corrie begins to lose colour and 'a pale spiral swirls and flattens, coming this way.  A rattling sound, then in a drenching blow the hail squall hits.'  So he leaves empty handed, but on his way home manages at last to catch a fish, in a loch of his own choosing.  And there the book ends, although Greig was back again last year, this time with Billy Connolly, fiddler Aly Bain and a BBC film crew.  A brief clip shows it to have been extremely bracing weather; after a massive overnight snowstorm Connolly is trying to put a fly on his rod and is heard to complain "Could Norman no'like Jamaica or something?"