Sunday, November 27, 2011

Impressionism 2.0

"As my work was often compared to the French Impressionist movement, I decided to follow their traces in Normandy. Filming on the same spots where Monet or Corot used to paint, I will create a kind of Impressionism 2.0" - Jacques Perconte

Impressions: Voyage en Normandie is the latest in a series of digitally manipulated landscape films made by Jacques Perconte. The 'actual' view (at least as seen through the camera lens) gradually pixelates and transforms into something more strange.  The films enter a kind of 'Impressionist' phase where light patterns and subtle motion in nature are slowed and attended to.  But the moving images soon start to resemble Symbolism, Fauvism and eventually Abstract Expressionism - trees turned into jagged patches of colour like a Clyfford Still painting, the horizon flickering like a Barnett Newman zip line.  'We no longer see the image of the landscape, we see the landscape of the image' Perconte says. Violaine Boutet de Monvel has written of a moment in Après le feu, filmed from the back of a train, where a gap appears to open up under the tracks, transforming the real topography. Perconte is interested in this re-imagining of the familiar - as he followed in the footsteps of the Impressionists, he sensed that their landscape was still present, despite the constant movement of clouds and restless activity of the sea.  This process tends towards the dissolution of familiar landscape elements into a vision of pure colour.  In Perconte's notes on Impressions he quotes Rousseau, losing himself in a reverie and feeling objectes slip away so that he feels nothing but the whole: 'Alors tous les objets particuliers lui échappent; il ne voit et ne sent rien que dans le tout.'

The artist has posted numerous Vimeo clips, photographs, production notes and comments on his own site and his technart blog. I'll end here with a recent film I'll be thinking of on my next train journey: a view of nondescript fields under a grey sky which briefly disappears as the train enters a cutting, only to re-emerge partially smeared away, as if to reveal the software behind this fake landscape of tree forms and wind farms, then progressively changes until we are left with just a few remnants of distorted colour before the screen goes white. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Voyage Round the Coast of Great Britain

Three years ago the Folio Society published a new edition of William Daniell's A Voyage Round the Coast of Great Britain.  The original book came out in eight volumes between 1814 and 1825, contained 308 hand-coloured aquatints and sold for £60 ('one and a half times what a fisherman or sailor aboard a merchant ship could expect to earn in a year at the time').  A second hand copy of the Folio version (in the excellent Much Ado Books shop) cost me rather less than this.  It includes only 114 of the best aquatints and cuts out almost all of the rather dry commentary Daniell wrote, replacing it with extracts from the writings of contemporary travellers.  The original intention was for Richard Ayton, an aspiring writer and friend of the family, to accompany Daniell on his travels.  But the two of them parted acrimoniously after the first year, having got as far as southern Scotland (the Voyage commenced at Land's End). Daniell pressed on alone, returning to his coastal journey every summer, delayed only by famine in Scotland (1816) and economic crisis and fear of revolution in England (1819).  Ayton never did become a successful author and his short life came to a sad end the year Daniell finally completed his great project.  The cumulative achievement of the Voyage was recognised by the Royal Academy, who elected Daniell a full member in 1822 - as C. J. Shepherd notes in his introduction, 'the artist that he beat to secure his lifetime's ambition was John Constable'.

Among the texts assembled to accompany Daniell's aquatints in this edition, the most vivid impressions of the coastal landscape are provided by writers like Keats, Southey, Scott and Dorothy Wordsworth (whose travels in Scotland I have discussed here before).  But the book encompasses many other interesting voices - Joanna Schopenhauer at Lancaster, Jane Austen at Lyme, the 'exquisitely fashionable' Hermann von Pückler-Muskau in Brighton, James Johnson, author of 'An Essay on Indigestion; or Morbid Sensibility of the Stomach and Bowels', in Liverpool, a gentleman called Charles Cochrane who for some reason went to Margate disguised as an itinerant Spanish gypsy guitarist, the ornithologist Charles Fothergill who visited Flamborough Head 'resplendent in 'white and green hat; a Belcher neckcloth with my short collar appearing over it; a dark green jacket with silver buttons; [and] sky blue pantaloons'', composer Felix Mendelssohn, who sent home a few bars of music which would become the Hebridean Overture, and the 'excitable young Polish tutor and future revolutionary' Krystyn Lach-Szyrma, who was so overwhelmed by Fingal's Cave, a 'glorious cathedral made by nature's hand', that he threw himself into the sea.

Cover by David Eccles,
after William Daniell's In Fingal's Cave, Staffa

In his Preface to A Voyage Round the Coast of Great Britain, Robert Macfarlane writes that seeing Daniell's aquatints leads us to imagine Britain only by its outline.  'The interior falls away, and all that is left is the frame.  And what a frame it is!  Some 7,500 miles of coastline, forming a continuum from storm-crashed headlands to beach-front amusements, from salt-marsh to heathland, from 400-million-year-old gneiss to endlessly recast mudflats.'  With this in mind it is clearly impossible to pick out a typical view - the two shown below I liked for the non-naturalistic regularity of their rock formations and the precisely distributed seabirds and grazing sheep.  Yet despite their variety all of Daniell's aquatints have the same harmonious, muted palette of slate blue, grey green and pale browns.  He may, as Macfarlane says, portray all kinds of meteorological conditions - 'a doldrummish sea day in Ilfracombe, sails drooping in the heat, gives way to a Force 7 off Holyhead' - but the weather somehow always looks British.    

 Near view of one of the Shiant Isles

Needles Cliff and Needles, Isle of White

William Daniell's journeys coincided with the rise of picturesque tourism and bathing resorts, the Napoleonic Wars, the Highland Clearances and the rapid development of industry and infrastructure.  Robert Southey, for example, toured the Highlands with Thomas Telford, whom he nicknamed Pontifex Maximus, the great bridge builder. In one of this book's extracts from Southey's Journal of a Tour in Scotland in 1819, the conversion of the Marquess of Stafford's estate's into extensive sheep-farms is criticised: 'a quiet, thoughtful, contented, religious people' forcefully transplanted from the glens to the sea coast.  At the other end of Britain, Dover had recently been scarred by vast new fortifications to keep out the French, a fact that William Cobbett found perplexing - 'what the devil should they come to this hill for, then?'  He concluded bitterly that 'more brick and stone have been buried in this hill than would go to build a neat new cottage for every labouring man in the counties of Kent and of Sussex!' Shakespeare's Cliff (which I have written about here before) was also visited by artist Benjamin Robert Hayden who stood looking at it, 'almost lost in the embruno tint of twilight'.  There he imagined 'a Colossal Statue of Britannia' built on top of it, 'surveying France with a lofty air.'

I could go on, but I'll end this post at Lulworth Cove, where Daniell painted the rocky outcrop of Stair Hole with its striking recumbent folds.  The book includes an extract from the recollections of the Irish playwright John O'Keeffe who spent a summer at Lulworth with his children.  As soon as he arrived, O'Keeffe set off with his son, called Tottenham, to explore the Cove itself and the craggy rocks above.  At the end of the day 'we returned to our abode with appetites sea-sharpened, and sat down to a roast loin of lamb, delicate boiled chickens, tongue, green-peas, young potatoes, a gooseberry pie, thick cream, good strong home-brewed ale and a glass of tolerable port-wine.'  Next morning they were off again, climbing Hanbury Hill where O'Keeffe recorded two of the local landscape terms - patches of land called 'knaps, larger or smaller, each divided from the other by a grassy rising, termed a launchet.'  Tired from the climb, he and Tottenham sat down to look at the view - 'before us, the great expanse; above, the blue serene; around, the melody of birds; scarce a breath from the still bosom of the deep, and the vertical sun shedding his glories on the scene.  Neither the scream of sea-gulls, crows, and puffins, could prevent me falling into a slumber, and, in a sort of sweet demi-dream, I could hear the rushing pinions of birds that must have flown by very near me, and felt the rabbits that I fancied ran over me.'

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The kill of New York is a brook in New England


I came across Derek Watkins' excellent map, showing the distribution across America of different toponyms for 'river', on the Spatial Analysis blog (where James Cheshire has added his own UK version).  It reminded me that I have been meaning for some time to do a post here about Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney and compiled by a team of writers between 2002 and 2006.  Robert Macfarlane described this book in a wonderful essay published last year ('A Counter-Desecration Phrasebook'): 'Its ambition was to retrieve, define and organise nearly 1,000 terms and words for specific spects of landscape.  Its ethical presumption was that having a language for natural places is vital for two reasons: because it allows us to speak clearly about such places, and because it allows us to fall into the kind of intimacy with such places which might also go by the name of love or enchantment, and out of which might arise care and good sense.'

So what does Home Ground have to say about these river terms?  For the first one, BRANCH, the reader is referred to FORK and the entry, written by Bill McKibben, describes some of the geographical variation evident in Derek Watkins' map.  Easterners are likely to call forks branches, tributory is used elsewhere, 'and those in west Texas would call smaller forks prongs.'  His example of a 'prong' is the North Prong of the Little Red River Fork in Briscoe County Texas.  RUN, according to Kim Barnes, always denotes movement and 'can refer to any small stream, brook, creek, rivulet, channel, overflow, or swiftly flowing watercourse.'  Early Virginian settlers, naming the landscape, came to think in terms of a hierarchy by size: rivers > creeks > runs.  BROOK needs no explanation, but KILL?  It is the Dutch word for brook and appears in the name of landforms of the Hudson and Deleware Valleys, most famously the Catskill Mountains.  The term is not seen in the lower Hudson Valley, probably because, as Jan DeBlieu explains in Home Ground, the Dutch colony was subsumed into the surrounding English speaking culture after the capture of New Netherland in 1644.

Often the authors of Home Ground include illustrative quotations from American literature, like the 'dark stream shooting along its dismal channel' in Melville's Typee.  Gretel Ehrlich's entry on STREAM describes it as a dynamic force that 'receives, and thus reflects, the abuses that have taken place on the land.'  The next few terms, BAYOU, SWAMP and SLOUGH, sound aything but dynamic.  'The bayous are spaces of open water, sluggish or stagnant' and a slough 'is a narrow stretch of sluggish water in a river channel'. The city of Chicago is built on filled sloughs. The word bayou is derived from the Choctaw word for a small stream, bayuk.  Okefenokee Swamp gets its name from a Creek Indian word meaning 'Land of the Trembling Earth'.  A Harry Crews quote explains why: 'most islands in the swamp - some of them holding hundreds of huge trees growing so thick that their roots are matted and woven as closely as a blanket - actually float on the water; and when a black bear crashes across one of them, the whole thing trembles.'

With the word WASH we move into the American Southwest : Carrizo Wash in Arizona, Hunter's Wash in New Mexico. These are areas of land over which 'subtle contours allow water to flow, or "wash", from elevated to lower zones.'  ARROYO can be used to describe the same general feature, or, more specifically, a steep-walled, flat-bottomed creek.  Either way it is ephemeral, 'carrying water only briefly during such events as spring runoff or the summer monsoons.'  Two more Spanish terms complete the map: RIO and CAÑADA, 'a wetland rich with river reeds'.  The words RIVER and CREEK are also included but, are so common that they have been coloured grey.  Here in Britain, a creek is a saltwater inlet or the estuary of a stream.  In the entry for 'creek' in Home Ground, novelist Charles Frazier explains that the term spread to mean any flow smaller than a river.  'In a few places, though, a distinction was retained.  M. Schele DeVere, in his 1872 Americanisms: The English of the New World, put it succinctly: "The kill of New York is a brook in New England, a run in Virginia and alas! a crick or creek, almost everywhere else."'

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Walter Benjamin's Grave

'The cemetery faces a small bay directly looking over the Mediterranean; it is carved in stone in terraces; the coffins are also pushed into such stone walls.  It is by far one of the most fantastic and most beautiful spots I have ever seen in my life.'
- Hannah Arendt, letter to Gershom Scholem, 21 October 1940

Michael Taussig's essay, 'Walter Benjamin's Grave: A Profane Illumination', describes the cemetery of Portbou, the small town on the border of France and Spain where Benjamin died in 1940.  Carrying his possessions in a heavy black briefcase, Benjamin was led there over the mountains by a young woman, Lisa Fittko.  'It was the first time she had made the trip.  Benjamin was her first refugee ... She got lost.  They backtracked.  Then they found their way to the summit: "The spectacular scene appeared so unexpectedly that for a moment I thought I was seeing a mirage ... the Vermillion Coast, an autumnal landscape with innumerable hues of reds and yellow-gold.  I gasped for breath - I had never seen such beauty before."' But the the Franco government had cancelled all transit visas and on the night of September 25th Walter Benjamin, fearing repatriation, took an overdose of morphine tablets.  Hannah Arendt, then still in the South of France, came to look for his grave soon afterwards. Lisa Fittko and her husband Hans continued the dangerous work of escorting refugees across the border.  Hans took to wearing a Basque cap and sandals to blend in with the locals.  Sometime he would sit for hours on a cliff projection looking out to sea.

Dani Karavan, Walter Benjamin Memorial at Portbou, 1994

The beauty of this place, which so struck Hannah Arendt and Lisa Fittko, seems at variance with its  history of displacement and disappearance.  Michael Taussig first visited Portbou in 1987 and found the whole town a sad monument to Benjamin's death - 'cold, nasty, and enigmatic.'  But now, on returning fifteen years later, he comes upon the new monument to Walter Benjamin, designed by Dani Karavan, an artist from Tel Aviv.  An iron triangle forms a doorway leading to steps that take you down the slope of the hill towards the sea.  At the bottom there is a thick pane of glass inscribed with Benjamin's words: 'It is more arduous to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned.  Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless.'  The words could be taken to refer as much to the victims of Franco as to the Nazis.  Looking back up the stairs, the doorway frames a rectangle of blue sky, echoing the view of the breaking waves below.

Later, inside the cemetery itself, Taussig is struck by a virtually identical set of steps, leading from the graves to the chapel.  He recalls Benjamin's surrealist conception of the 'profane illumination', where something provides a new kind of experience whilst retaining the trace of the kind of religious illumination it has surpassed. In the cemetery at Portbou there are niches bearing the names of the dead and a common grave, the fosa común, in which Benjamin's remains may actually lie.  The monument, by contrast, is a profane illumination, which 'gathers its strength through the open expression of namelessness as empty space, sea and sky.  It truly is an emphatic statement on the weighting of the world by its nameless dead.'  Standing on the headland Taussig feels the full force of the transmontaña wind.  'Can we imagine a state, a religion, or a community bound to remembrance which would have thye courage or craziness to call a wind a monument?'  Walter Benjamin once wrote that the best way to light a cigarette is with a flintstone and fuse.  'The wind blows the matches out, but the harder the wind blows, the more the fuse glows.'

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Ice Music

Terje Isungset, the Norwegian percussionist renowned for his ice horns, is here in Britain again.  We went to see him last night at LSO St. Lukes in a concert that began with the solo percussion piece called Tribute to Nature.  This was played on his special drum kit, featuring sheepbells strung up with rope, a ride cymbal on a weathered stick, bundles of clave-like arctic birch sticks and pieces of granite. It started quietly with the tapping of sticks and the scraping of stones, grew louder and more expressive with horns and Jew's harp, and ended with a long sigh of breath. He then left the stage to be replaced by the LSO's Wind Ensemble, who performed Carl Nielsen's Wind Quintet (1922).  A film collaboration between Isungset and Phil Slocombe, 'The Idea of North', was supposed to be played at the interval but never materialised - instead we waited expectantly for the appearance of the ice instruments.  Eventually they emerged - two white blocks carried onto stands and adjusted by a sculptor-roadie, wrapped up in a parka and woolly hat.  The ice had been driven here from Norway; the first clip below shows Terje Isungset carving his instruments directly from the frozen landscape.

Ice Music, the second part of last night's concert, featured Isungset's regular singing partner Lena Nymark (you can see them on stage together towards the end of the second clip above).  She is evidently pregnant, prompting my wife to speculate on the benign influence this music was having on the unborn child.  Isungset began by crunching and tapping one of the ice blocks before moving on to an ice xylophone which he played with ice sticks and bare hands (as he says in the clip below, ice has a surprisingly warm sound when tapped with the finger).  The ice horns only came out for a short time - but since they melt whilst being played this was not too surprising.  At the end of the concert I went up to the stage and held a shard of ice lying on the floor, wondering if this had come from the 600 year old Jostedalsbreen glacier.  Terje Isungset has said that the instruments he makes are eventually returned 'back to nature where they belong.'

After the concert - ice remnants

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Gausta Peak

I mentioned Peder Balke in connection with the National Gallery's 'Forests, Rocks, Torrents' exhibition but thought I would add another post because he is an interesting example of that not uncommon phenomenon, the rediscovered landscape artist. Christopher Riopelle says in the catalogue that Balke is only emerging now 'in international eyes as a master of Norwegian landscape, the subject of exhibitions, scholarly publications and bidding wars in auction rooms.'  The National Gallery recently bought a small seascape The Tempest -  the first Balke painting to enter a British public collection.  Riopelle compares Balke to August Strindberg, whose landscape painting (see my earlier post) has also only come to prominence in recent decades.  'Like Strindberg, Balke was blithely convinced his work sat squarely in the mainstream,' whilst for us the paintings look more like forerunners of expressionism.   From the 1860s Balke gave up trying to make his living as a painter and turned instead to real estate (a sad fate for a landscape painter, one might think).  When he died in 1884 his art was forgotten, but in his spare time Balke had continued to produce experimental landscape paintings, drawing on the memories of his travels, and 'small black and white improvisations' like The Tempest.

Peder Balke, Gausta Peak, 1877

Another Nordic artist I've discussed here before, Per Kirkeby, wrote a book about Peder Balke in 1996 which in turn inspired a joint exhibition two years ago.  I have not had the opportunity to read this book but the website for Norwegian artist Espen Dietrichson includes a description.
'Kirkeby writes that, by looking at artists such as Balke, Turner and Delacroix, we can discover an alternative historical realism. This depends on identifying a range of painters’ ‘dirty tricks’, such as how texture can be used to create calculated, dramatic effects, and how experimentation with new perspectives can change perception. Kirkeby maintains that the pervading art historical distinction between pure abstraction and less honourable effects has traumatised art in relation to its history. This is why he finds it so important to solve the enigma of Peder Balke and to thereby understand why the elevated and sublime can only be achieved through the ‘dirtiest of means’. For example, Balke’s outsider position as a small-town painter-decorator [i.e. his early background, before training as an artist] allowed him to eschew the codified illusionism of (Norwegian) national romanticism, and hence to make use of techniques that differed radically from those of his contemporaries – marbling, or the use of sponges or combs on wet paint – which would have seemed a profanation of academic dogmas.'

Friday, November 04, 2011

The waving moorland and the level beach

I have been listening to the audiobook of The Woman in White, read by Ian Holm (whose voice always takes me back to childhood memories of the Radio 4 adaptation of Lord of the Rings).  The novel begins with the narration of a drawing master, who is distracted from the landscape by the beauty of one of the young ladies he is supposed to be teaching. 'The most trifling of the questions that she put to me, on the subject of using her pencil and mixing her colours; the slightest alterations of expression in the lovely eyes that looked into mine with such an earnest desire to learn all that I could teach, and to discover all that I could show, attracted more of my attention than the finest view we passed through, or the grandest changes of light and shade, as they flowed into each other over the waving moorland and the level beach.'  There follows an interesting passage on Art and Nature which I thought I would quote here in full.  You could contrast the closing sentences with the way other writers have taken comfort in the thought that it is the landscape that will outlast humanity (see, for example, my earlier post on Robinson Jeffers).
'At any time, and under any circumstances of human interest, is it not strange to see how little real hold the objects of the natural world amid which we live can gain on our hearts and minds? We go to Nature for comfort in trouble, and sympathy in joy, only in books. Admiration of those beauties of the inanimate world, which modern poetry so largely and so eloquently describes, is not, even in the best of us, one of the original instincts of our nature. As children, we none of us possess it. No uninstructed man or woman possesses it. Those whose lives are most exclusively passed amid the ever-changing wonders of sea and land are also those who are most universally insensible to every aspect of Nature not directly associated with the human interest of their calling. Our capacity of appreciating the beauties of the earth we live on is, in truth, one of the civilised accomplishments which we all learn as an Art; and, more, that very capacity is rarely practised by any of us except when our minds are most indolent and most unoccupied. How much share have the attractions of Nature ever had in the pleasurable or painful interests and emotions of ourselves or our friends? What space do they ever occupy in the thousand little narratives of personal experience which pass every day by word of mouth from one of us to the other? All that our minds can compass, all that our hearts can learn, can be accomplished with equal certainty, equal profit, and equal satisfaction to ourselves, in the poorest as in the richest prospect that the face of the earth can show. There is surely a reason for this want of inborn sympathy between the creature and the creation around it, a reason which may perhaps be found in the widely-differing destinies of man and his earthly sphere. The grandest mountain prospect that the eye can range over is appointed to annihilation. The smallest human interest that the pure heart can feel is appointed to immortality.'
- Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White, 1860
William Collins, the father of Wilkie Collins, 
Children on a Mountain Top, before 1847