Sunday, December 30, 2012

Far in the wild His steps were driven

 William Dyce, Pegwell Bay, Kent - a Recollection of October 5th 1858 (1858-60)

The development of landscape art in the margins of Italian and Northern Renaissance religious paintings was assisted by the convention of depicting Biblical scenes in recognisably contemporary settings.  Fast forward four hundred years and landscape has long since become an independent genre, with the a capacity for views depicted with extreme naturalistic precision.  William Dyce's Pegwell Bay, for example, accurately delineates every strata in its chalk cliffs.  But in the same artist's Man of Sorrows (first exhibited alongside Pegwell Bay in 1860) the old idea of using a recognisable local landscape for religious art is resurrected.  The results is a curious hybrid of two types of Pre-Raphaelite Painting (both of which can be seen at the current Tate Britain exhibition): detailed studies of material nature, as advocated by Ruskin, and religious scenes inspired by the Italian primitives. 
William Dyce, Man of Sorrows, 1860

'Far in the wild His steps were driven', according to the quotation by John Keble that Dyce used to accompany the painting.  The 'wild' here is the Scottish Highlands.  But, as Kathleen Jamie has argued, that landscape is not really 'wild' - the lone figure of Christ would have found it less like a wilderness if the landlords had not evicted its inhabitants.  It is poignant to imagine that the Man of Sorrows (who, with his auburn hair, might almost be Scottish like William Dyce) is actually thinking here about the Highland Clearances, which only came to an end in the 1850s.  In the Bible, Christ spent forty days in the Judaean Desert, a place that remains largely empty of permanent habitation, despite the growth of Israeli Settlements in the West Bank.  Tempted by the Devil to assuage his hunger, Jesus refused to turn the stones around him to bread: 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God'.  This ambition to rise above material things, shared by us non-Christians, finds an outlet in the desire to explore and meditate upon desolate but beautiful landscapes, where the stones themselves provide a kind of spiritual sustenance.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The forest gloom got heavier and the forest-silence deeper

Earlier this year I read The Hobbit to my young sons and, coming to the book again as an adult, I was impressed by the way the landscape is so vividly described without holding up the action.  After escaping the goblins of the Misty Mountains, for example, the party set off again and the hungry Bilbo 'looked from side to side for something to eat; but the blackberries were still only in flower, and of course there were no nuts, not even hawthorn-berries.  He nibbled a bit of sorrel, and he drank from a small mountain-stream that crossed the path, and he ate three wild strawberries that he found on its bank, but it was not much good.'  They continued on until the path disappeared: 'the bushes, and the long grasses between the boulders, the patches of rabbit-cropped turf, and the thyme and the sage and the marjoram, and the yellow rockroses all vanished, and they found themselves at the top of a wide steep slope of fallen stones, the remains of a landslide.'  After escaping relatively unscathed from an avalanche of these stones, they limped onwards in deepening shadows, 'down the gentle slopes of a pine forest in a slanting path leading steadily southwards.  At times they were pushing through a sea of bracken with tall fronds rising above the hobbit's head, at times they were marching along quiet as quiet over a floor of pine-needles; and all the while the forest gloom got heavier and the forest-silence deeper.  There was no wind that evening to bring even a sea-sighing into the branches of the trees...'

On Saturday we went to see Peter Jackson's film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  In his review Philip French writes that 'the mountainous terrain, increasingly dark and menacing as the story progresses, at times resembles paintings by John Martin and Caspar David Friedrich, and is beautifully photographed by Jackson's regular cinematographer, Andrew Lesnie, who has that feeling for landscape that's such a feature of antipodean cinema.'  Unfortunately, as The Telegraph's Robbie Collin complains, Jackson's new 48 frames-per-second process may make the 'swoopy landscape shots look smoother' but it also gives the film 'a sickly sheen of fakeness: the props look embarrassingly proppy and the rubber noses look a great deal more rubbery than nosey.'  During the thunderstorm in the Misty Mountains, the dwarves hang desperately on to shiny fake rocks, surrounded by special effects reminiscent of Jason and the Argonauts.  Tolkien's description of the descent from these mountains that I quoted above ends in a moonlit clearing where the party are attacked by giant wolves and find temporary respite by climbing up the pine trees.  In the film these wolves are led by a pumped-up super-evil Orc who I don't recall appearing in the book and the dwarves all end up hanging from one tree, cracking under the strain and hanging implausibly over a precipice.  It is a bit sad to think that Peter Jackson's vision is now supplanting Tolkien's in my sons' imaginations.  However, the book's maps and illustrations still seem to intrigue them, and as I write this they are actually staging the attack of the wolves in a Lego forest scene of their own devising.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Landscapes surge into consciousness

(1) from Thomas Köner's Novaya Zemlya

This is my third annual survey of landscape music, following an initial list covering 2010 and another for 2011.  Last year I noticed that I was talking as much about record labels as artists: Ghost Box, Hundred Acre, Another Timbre, Gruenrekorder and, of course, Touch Music who this year celebrated their thirtieth birthday.  Touch have produced a compilation of new material with the slightly underwhelming title Thirty Years and Counting that includes people I've featured on this blog previously: Fennesz, Jana Winderen, Chris Watson...  Robert Macfarlane, author of The Old Ways, actually got the chance to collaborate with Chris Watson this year on a record called The Sea Road, based around sections of his book.  The Touch album I've been listening to a lot this year is Thomas Köner's Novaya Zemlya, although as The Liminal's review points out, it doesn't work very well as background music.  'Landscapes surge into consciousness on the back of deep, reverberating drones and cavernous low-end pulsations: ice and glaciers drift on the Bering strait, machines can be heard releasing their toxic radium under the islands’ rocks, and sheets of constrained white noise evoke the howling winds that whip and slam against this far-off no-man’s land.'

(2) From Jez riley French's instamatic: snowdonia

Earlier this week I asked Cheryl Tipp, curator of A World of Sound and reviewer for The Field Reporter, to recommend the best field recordings of 2012.  The Sea Road was one of her nominations, along with two releases on Gruenrekorder, Jhirni Jali by Peter Caeldries and Estonian Strings by Jez riley French.  You can hear sound samples by clicking on those links - 'Savera' for example, from Jhirni Jali was recorded at daybreak in a tiger reserve in the north of India ('savera' is the Hindi word for morning). The Jez riley French samples are completely different - contact microphone recordings of "transmitter cables, long chimney support cables, disused piano wires stretched across old farm utensils, rust covered fences – each one a surprise, a discovery and a joy to listen to."  In Estonia he found that "the molasses hued mirrored lakes offered up some fascinating hydrophone recordings ... whilst the sound of trees cracking together and grain barns rattling themselves from sleep in the occasionally strong winds provided some richly charged moments of deep listening."  In the absence of an embeddable clip I've included instead sounds from another Jez riley French release this year, instamatic: snowdonia.  It is the latest in a series of 'instamatic' recordings, completely unprocessed aural photographs that record particular soundmarks he encounters on his travels.

(3) From Olan Mill's Home

Journeys have inspired other forms of music this year, such as Road to Palios by Ryan Francesconi (who did the arrangements for Joanna Newsom's Have One on Me) and Australian violinist Mirabai Peart.  According to The Line of Best Fit, their album has its moments, but 'gentle seascapes and pleasant rural imagery just do not do justice to the musicianship of these two artists.' Alex Smalley is another artist composing what might be seen as the aural equivalent of travel writing.  His music has been likened to Richard Skelton's and his earlier releases as Olan Mill had the Skeltonesque titles Paths and PineThe new collection emerged from his travels in South America, from ‘Isla Del Sol’, the birthplace of the Incan sun god on Lake Titicaca, conveyed in soaring vocals and strings, to the darker sounds of ‘Camino De Las Yungas’, the world's most dangerous road.  He has called the album Home because that is where it was recorded - distant scenes and memories recollected in tranquility.

(4) From The Magnetic North's Orkney Symphony

Other British musicians stayed closer to home this year to investigate their local landscapes: Sheffield's David Newman, for example, with Beneath Peaks.  According to the Hibernate label website, its sounds 'were harvested from hikes and camping trips around the region’s hills, meadows, streams and bracken edged pathways. In the opening track ‘Asleep Beneath Nests’ you can even hear David snoring at Fieldhead campsite as he lay asleep in a tent!'  The Magnetic North's Erland Cooper was also sleeping one day when he was visited in a dream and told to make a record about his home islands. The resulting songs on Orkney Symphony reflect the islands' geography and culture (including the poetry of Edwin Muir).  In reviewing it, Amy Liptrot observes that 'just as the accents of the island peoples reflect their surroundings - rolling cadences like soft hills - the landscape affects the sound and attitude of the music. Three times a day, Northlink ferry MV Hamnavoe arrives from Scrabster and, in opening track Stromness, a trombone emulates the sound of the ship's horn coming into harbour, a defining characteristic of the town. The first of three songs named after Orkney beaches, 'Bay of Skaill', has a spare arrangement like a deserted beach, with a solitary figure walking across in a melody. A single note sustains - as if carried in the wind, and the driving rhythm is the ocean relentlessly arriving on the shore.'

(5) From Barbara Monk Feldman's The Northern Shore

Barbara Monk Feldman's The Northern Shore is a half hour composition for violin, piano and percussion.  "At the Gaspé peninsula in Quebec where the St. Lawrence river widens into the sea, the opposite shore appears across the water as a mirage that is either enhanced or diminished by the intensity of the light on the water during the day. I kept the memory of this light in my mind during the composing of The Northern Shore … some aspect of the light and horizon might be intimated in the way differing registrations of the violin are sustained in relation to the percussion and piano."  It is pared with another landscape-related piece, In the Small Time of a Desert Flower.  The composer Lou Harrison apparently said to her on hearing this “The rhythm of the piece seems to come from the geography of a landscape — something I have never heard before!”  According to the Guardian, the record is 'all quite beautiful in a passive way' but Julian Cowley in The Wire described the compositions as 'luminously beautiful', engaging 'with the sculpting, generative action of time, reflecting in that process landscape stretched across the horizon or etched into a parched expanse.'

(6) From Barbara De Dominicis and Julia Kent's Parallel 41

Modern ruins continue to attract musicians and sound artists, not to mention writers: earlier this year I mentioned Robert Macfarlane's collaboration with bass player Arnie Somogyi, Untrue Island, written and performed among the decaying Cold War listening stations, watch towers and blast-chambers of Orford Ness.  I've also talked before here about Peter Cusack's Chernobyl recordings and these feature in a double CD released this year called Sounds from Dangerous Places.  The importance of finding the right resonant spaces in which to record comes over in an interview with Barbara De Dominicis, where she discusses her recent Parallel 41 project with cellist Julia Kent. "In the Trentino Alto Adige, Vanja Zappetti a stoic historian of the region took us to an old abandoned fort. Once we got there we found out they had recently started restoring it so we ended up recording in an abandoned tunnel on the outskirts of Bolzano where they held illegal raves. It was a beautiful location next to the mountains with a creek running nearby and we made ample use of the natural sounds, recording and processing them live."  Reading this reminded me of Tempo di Viaggio, the film that documented Tarkovsky's search for the locations he would use in Nostalghia.  The clip above is an extract from a film Davide Lonardi made to accompany the Parallel 41 album.

(7) From Darren Hayman's Lido

I featured James Brooks' Land Observations project here earlier this year (there are also a few words from me on his site, drawing parallels between his Roman Roads compositions and the walks of Richard Long).  Darren Hayman's Lido was a similar combination of art and instrumental music that came out around the same time, and perhaps there are thematic links too: outdoor urban swimming pools as Modernist descendants of the communal thermae and balneae of Roman cities.  The Kings Meadow lido in Reading has become as much of a ruin as the Baths of Caracalla, or the Appian Way.  Both these albums also happen to start their journey in Hackney, near where I'm writing these lines: Land Observations with 'Before the Kingsland Road' and Darren Hayman with 'London Fields'.  The earliest memories Hayman has of visiting a lido are in Brentwood (track 8): "such a hazy, distant, blurred image. It closed in 1976 so the oldest I could have been was five or something. I went back to the site to make sound recordings and there was a faint echo of the place in the stretch of grass that covered. I recorded, literally, the absence of it and buried it in the recording." Another of his projects this year, The Violence, was about the 1645 Essex witch trials, and it completed an Essex trilogy that began with Pram Town, on the creation of new towns like Harlow, and continued with Essex Arms

(8) From The Eccentronic Research Council's 1612 Underture

Hauntologists and psychogeographers will have be aware that 2012 was the four hundredth anniversary of another famous set of witch trials at Pendle in Lancashire (a place I mentioned here before in connection with a poem by Geraldine Monk).  This was the subject of an enjoyable collaboration between The Eccentronic Research Council and actress Maxine Peake, 1612 Underture.  There was a great short film to accompany this viewable on Youtube but it now seems to have been taken down, so I've made do with an audio clip above.  Another anniversary recording, Pendle 1612, was released recently by Lancashire's Folklore Tapes, co-curated by David Chatton-Barker and Rob St John.  In an interesting interview with The Liminal St John cites the influence of Patrick Keiller, particularly in 'the way he assembles such a constellation of – at times seemingly ephemeral – information, and traces a line made by walking through it all. To me, his work is encouragement to delve into the history of places and landscapes important to you, that through putting all this information that others have perhaps disregarded together, the most important thing is that you become connected to these places and landscapes in your own individual way.'

(9) From Simon Scott's The Sounds Below Sea Level

Pendle 1612 came 'in a screen printed heritage library buckram box which houses information and ephemera related to the trials: a map, photographs, an essay by the curators, and a dried nettle in glassvine envelope as well as a download code.' It is reminiscent of the approach taken by Richard Skelton and Autumn Richardson, whose writings I discussed a couple of weeks ago (I neglected to mention then that the texts collected in The Flowering Rock accompany a new sequence of music, Verse of Birds).  Clearly there is a demand for music as collectible objet de vertu - Olan Mill's Pine was available in a deluxe heavy vinyl edition 'wrapped in luxury soft tissue' and 'scented'.  But nettles and photographs are surely included with the hope of connecting the listener more directly to the landscape as it was experienced by the composer.  In an interview to discuss The Sounds Below Sea Level, an album based on field-recordings made at Holme Fen (the lowest place in Britain), Simon Scott explains that he was actually asked by his label boss to make a limited edition book to accompany the music.  After seeing Scott's photographs, "he also asked, do you have any notes, odd scraps of paper that you were putting together when you were writing your essay? I had! Most of it was at the bottom of my rucksack scrunched up. The book costs a lot of money to print, but if you’re interested in that side of things, then it’s a nice piece of art.”

(10) From Azurazia's Lowering the Mediterranean

My final selection here is a Julian Cope recommendation.  Back in July (or July 2012CE, as the Arch-Drude has it) the Head Heritage site's Vinyl of the Month was Azurazia's Lowering the Mediterranean. Over 'four sides of environmental feedback, field recordings, social commentary and cultural tamperings' this album tells 'the tale of the failed attempt to bring water to the Sahara Desert via several ill-fated white elephant dam ideas. Like many such Third World projects, this dystopian nightmare has left vast machinery and partially-completed civil engineering projects strewn around the north African landscape, each emitting enough residual sound FX to permeate all four sides of vinyl with alternately mind-numbing, then mind-irrigating sounds. Messrs Chromium and Moulin have corralled these chaotic sound titans splendidly; bringing forth a Soviet-sized music concrète that will most assuredly strike a compelling chord with anyone who accidentally interfaces with the stuff.' Side D is explicitly Ballardian: 'Hunting shipwrecks along sublimed lakes - Invocation of my terminal beach brother.'  Lowering the Mediterranean is the fourth release from Grautag records who specialise in 'music for wasted tomorrows.'

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Abundant brooks wandering over the snow white sands

'Its plains are spacious, its hills are pleasantly situated, adapted for superior tillage, and its mountains are admirably calculated for the alternate pasturage of cattle, where flowers of various colours, trodden by the feet of man, give it the appearance of a lovely picture. It is decked, like a man's chosen bride, with divers jewels, with lucid fountains and abundant brooks wandering over the snow white sands; with transparent rivers, flowing in gentle murmurs, and offering a sweet pledge of slumber to those who recline upon their banks, whilst it is irrigated by abundant lakes, which pour forth cool torrents of refreshing water.' - Gildas, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, c 547
Gildas was the first writer of history in Britain and this rather lovely description of the country's landscape was taken up and adapted by later writers.  The rivers that offer 'a sweet pledge of slumber to those who recline upon their banks' are mentioned again six hundred years later in the first paragraph of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britannia.  But just a few pages on from this charming vision, we read of Brutus, the legendary Trojan who will found the race of Britons, 'twirling his battle-axe' and slaughtering the men of Aquitaine.  There he and his men 'burned the cities far and wide, heaping up fire upon fire.'  Still, when he does finally arrive in the 'best of islands', he settles down and establishes a new city on the Thames: Troia Nova, later known as London - where I'm sitting now writing this blog post.

The Saint Petersburg Bede manuscript

Another early chronicle, The Venerable Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (731) also opens with a description of Britain, longer but less poetic than that of Gildas (one of his sources, along with Orosius, Julius Solinus and Pliny the Elder).  After giving us its location and dimensions, he is soon, like an old fashioned geographer, listing its chief produce... 'Britain is rich in grain and trees, and is well adapted for feeding cattle and beasts of burden. It also produces vines in some places, and has plenty of land and water fowl of divers sorts; it is remarkable also for rivers abounding in fish, and plentiful springs. It has the greatest plenty of salmon and eels; seals are also frequently taken, and dolphins, as also whales; besides many sorts of shell-fish, such as mussels, in which are often found excellent pearls of all colours, red, purple, violet and green, but chiefly white. There is also a great abundance of snails, of which the scarlet dye is made, a most beautiful red, which never fades with the heat of the sun or exposure to rain, but the older it is, the more beautiful it becomes. It has both salt and hot springs, and from them flow rivers which furnish hot baths, proper for all ages and both sexes, in separate places, according to their requirements.'

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Field Notes

Autumn Richardson and Richard Skelton have kindly sent me a copy of Field Notes, a compilation of their place-poems. The first section reprints Typography of the Shore which explored connections between the experience of landscape and the making of a book.  Thus, on the ‘ragged shoreline’ of Tentsmuir in Scotland there are ‘spurred stems’ and ‘wind-kerned grasses’ – ‘ragged’ is unjustified type, a ‘spur’ is the serif-like ending to a letterform and ‘kern’ is the action of adjusting spaces between the letters.  The second chapbook in the series, Skin and Heather, used text from Richard’s book on Anglezarke, Landings: ‘climb the small stile / gather the small stream’, ‘moors like scar tissue / skin and heather’. The third, Induviae, was a set of Autumn poems which took its name from the withered leaves which cling to the stem of some plants.  The fourth, Into the Bare Moorland, was written from Ireland about the West Pennine Moors and the final section of the book, The Flowering Rock, is a new collection of poems describing the landscape of the Burren: madder and thrift, eyebright and hart's tongue living in the seams between the shattered rocks; beneath them, arterial passages where the 'wailing notes / of water and wind' create 'hollow songs / of hollow hills.'  A sixth sequence, not included in the Field Notes compilation, is Wolf Notes, which I described in a post here last year.  The Field Notes series is intended to grow into ‘a poetic map of seemingly disparate locations – a distillation of what is unique to each, whilst also charting the underlying connections that may exist between them.’  

The language of landscape is a common preoccupation in these texts, and in the authors' other Corbel Stone Press publications.  The name *AR that they used for Wolf Notes stands not just for Autumn and Richard, but is also 'an archaic place-name element found in river names. It is thought to stem from the Celtic language spoken by ancient Britons, known as Brythonic. The asterisk indicates that it is a hypothetical, reconstructed form, as there is no surviving documentary evidence. It is thought to mean ‘starting up, springing up, setting in motion.’  Landings (reprinted in a new edition earlier this year) includes thirty pages of Lancashire dialect terms.  Among my favourites are: Borrans - rough, craggy places, to which foxes run for safety; Carrwater - red peaty water; Dag - dew on the grass; Fub - long withered grass on old pastures or meadows; Hare-gate - an opening in a hedge, sufficient for the passage of hares; Hippings - stepping-stones in a brook; Leawks - tufts of barren dry grass; Rindle - a small stream; and Stanner - a ridge of stones formed by the sea.  Their newest work, Limnology is 'a sequence of word-lists, text rivers and myth-poems that explore the rich corpus of water words found in English, the dialect of Cumberland, Icelandic, Anglo-Saxon, Gaelic, Irish, Manx, Welsh and Proto-Celtic.'  You can hear an extract from the accompanying CD below, river music 'that has gradually accrued volume and pace over the past six years, swelling to nearly 30 minutes of vivid, and sometimes violent, intensity'.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Wall is a Path


We will soon learn whether Paul Noble has won this year's Turner Prize.  The landscapes he has been drawing for the last two decades depict Nobson Newtown, a place that emerged into the artist's imagination one day when he was playing with an old program for creating graphic fonts.  The computer alphabet 'was presented as a “keymap” on the screen, providing the eureka moment of the Nobson project — he saw the letters as buildings in a landscape. “The fact that it was called a map and that I was making these letter shapes that were blocky and architectural meant that I leapt into this pictorial, geographical space,” he says. “So I made an actual map, and everything that is on that little map is what I am now working through.”'  Noble goes on to explain in the same interview that the town is partly inspired by Whitley Bay, where he grew up. For example, a drawing called Nob Job Club features a "poached-egg like building" that resembles the town's Spanish City funfair (below). But Nobson is not simply a distorted version of Whitley Bay; indeed it seems unconsciously to have developed with echoes of another city Noble had not yet seen...

As John-Paul Stonard explains in the Gagosian Gallery catalogue Welcome to Nobson, Noble spent some time in Ramallah in 2007.  'The striking resemblances to Nobson that he found there were, in his own words, uncanny.  One might describe the bright, even light of Palestine in relation to the still mood evoked by the silvery graphite finish of the Nobson drawings.  The stony expanses that the drawings so often feature, as in the remarkable A Wall is a Path (2011), appear more like the dusty, rocky wastes of the Negev desert than like pebbles on the coast of Northumberland.  The architecture of Ramallah, too, provided a point of reference.  Nobson is constructed from simple, cubic masses of what might be poured concrete, which in ruins crumbles to reveal rusting bent iron bones.  The large drawing Nobson Central (1998-99) shows an urban area of simple adobe-like structures in ruin, as if caught in the aftershock of an earthquake.  (In fact, as Noble explains in Introduction to Nobson Newtown, this central area was constructed as a ruin, as if to save the bother of those who would inevitably try to destroy it.) When David Bomberg visited Palestine in the 1920s, he produced works that mirror the  distinctive aesthetic of his earlier Vorticist period, in particular the simple architectural forms.  Noble found similar confirmation for his visionary world in Palestine.  Art history is full of such prophecies of style, where the world begins to take on the forms of its own representation.'

Friday, November 16, 2012

Ice welding land to sea

'Millenial bergs from the glaciers, morbid, silent except for waves breaking on their flanks, the deceiving sound of shoreline where there was no shore.  Foghorns, smothered gun reports on the coast.  Ice welding land to sea.  Frost smoke.  Clouds mottled by reflections of water holes in the plains of ice.  The glare of ice erasing dimension, distance, subjecting senses to mirage and illusion.  A rare place.'
This is Newfoundland, described in  Annie Proulx 's novel The Shipping News.  The book was partly inspired by The Ashley Book of Knots (1944), an eleven-year project by artist-writer-sailor Clifford Warren Ashley who dies shortly after completing it.  Chapter 29, for example, begins by quoting Ashley's description of the bite, 'a curve or arc in a rope no narrower than a semicircle.  This corresponds to the topographical meaning of the word, a bight being an indentation in a coast so wide that it may be sailed out of, on one tack, in any wind.'  In 'Big Skies, Empty Places', a New Yorker piece on her influences, Proulx talks about the 'specialised phrases and names that have come out of human work and travel through the landscapes.'  She has collected dictionaries of logging and maritime terms but regrets that they are 'nearly always sanitized', when they should be 'rich in graphic sexual imagery.'  Another very different influence is Robert Smithson: 'the map he makes out of a heap of broken glass, or his vanishing points that do not vanish, or his mirrors 'displaced' in the landscape.  He once photographed rocks in situ, then removed the rocks and photographed the holes in the ground - absent presence.'  She likens the role of women in rural communities to an absent presence, which is why they are rarely the main protagonists in her fiction.  And she says that when she writes, 'I try to make landscapes rise from the page, to appear in the camera lens of the reader's mind.  The reader is also an absent presence, but one that's leaning a sharp and influential elbow on my shoulder.'

Friday, November 09, 2012

Rive Oriental du Nil

'He would like to travel, if he could, stretched out on a sofa and not stirring, watching landscapes, ruins and cities pass before him like the screen of a panorama, mechanically unwinding.'  
Thus, thirty years later, Maxime du Camp recalled the attitude of his travelling companion, Gustave Flaubert, on their journey down the Nile to Thebes. 'This journey, which he had so cherished as a dream and whose realization had seemed to him impossible, did not satisfy him.' However, as Alain de Botton pointed out in The Art of Travel, Flaubert's youthful attraction to Egypt had not been misconceived, 'he simply replaced an absurdly idealised image with a more realistic but nevertheless still profoundly admiring one, he exchanged a youthful crush for a knowledgeable love.'  Writing to his mother, Flaubert said that his experience of Egypt had in fact extended far beyond the narrow idea he had held of it.  'I have found, clearly, delineated, everything that was hazy in my mind.'  This clear delineation can be seen in Flaubert's travel notes, which include the kind of luminous realistic details he would seek to write into Madame Bovary.  And in addition, Flaubert and du Camp had promised the Institut de France photographs of monuments and casts of inscriptions obtained by applying wet paper (a tedious process Flaubert often complained about in his travel notes). The image below seems to capture a sense of the country coming into focus.  

Maxime du Camp, Rive Oriental du Nil, Nubie, 1849-50
Source: Lee Gallery

[A footnote in Francis Steegmuller's wonderful compilation of letters and journals, Flaubert in Egypt, suggests that Maxime De Camp's reference to a panorama in the quotation above may reflect the fact that they encountered in Egypt the renowned panorama painter, Colonel Jean-Charles Langlois (1789-1870).  Langlois is a fascinating figure - a former student of Horace Vernet and an officer under Napoleon, whose rotunda in Paris opened with a panorama of the Naval Battle of Navarino featuring imitation terrain, gas lighting to simulate fire and ventilation to convey the breeze off the sea.  In 1839 a new grander rotunda was built and panoramas like The Burning of Moscow were a huge success, although profits were declining by the time du Camp and Flaubert met Langlois on the Nile.  Langlois used his Egyptian drawings for Battle of the Pyramids (1853) but two years later the rotunda was taken over and Langlois returned to active military service in the Crimea.  The connection between art and war continued even after his death: in 1944, during the Battle for Caen, half the paintings that had been housed in a special Langlois museum were destroyed.]

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Tongues in trees

I was at the Barbican yesterday for Calixto Bieito's Forests, a World Shakespeare Festival production composed from fragments of Shakespeare's woodland and heath scenes.  'The play takes audiences from As You Like It’s forest of Arden through the moving trees of Macbeth’s Birnam Wood, ending in the bare wilderness of King Lear’s cliffs of Dover: a vivid theatrical journey from the calmness of paradise to the uncertainties of purgatory and finally into the flames of hell.'  In a Guardian interview Bieito says "I became fascinated with how often Shakespeare's characters go into the forest. In Shakespeare, the forest can be many things: a place of self-discovery, a place of magic, a place of darkness. I tried to shape this work as if it were a symphonic poem. You don't have to understand the whole plot. What matters is the strength of the images and the music of the text." It is a great concept and made me wonder about sampling and sequencing landscape moments from other writers, not for  descriptions of nature, but to see what kinds of action is staged in these settings.  In Forests we have cross-dressing, seduction, assault, madness and suicide.  It doesn't all work, as Kate Kellaway's review points out, though, as she says, 'Shakespeare proves tolerant to reinvention, his words pliant as willow.'

Friday, November 02, 2012

Autumn colours on the Qiao and Hua mountains

Last year I wrote about one of James Elkins' Art Seminar Series, Landscape Theory, and I'm turning now to one of his other recent books, Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History (2010)I say recent, but the first version of the book was actually completed twenty years ago and he has had a great deal of trouble getting this controversial text accepted for publication.  Hong Kong University Press have issued it with a foreword by Jennifer Purtle which partially deals with the potential objections of skeptical readers affronted at the idea of a non-Chinese reading art theorist asserting that the history of Chinese landscape painting can only be written about in ways that have been developed by Western art historians.  She says Elkins' book is 'brilliant, except for the places where it is dead wrong' (regrettably she leaves the reader none the wiser as to what these places are).  It would be fascinating to read an in depth Art Seminar-style dialogue based on this book (although there is already one called  Is Art History Global?).  I'm not going to address his argument about the inherently Western form of art history here, but will focus instead on the book's other main theme: cross-cultural comparisons.

Elkins' book begins by problematizing the way early writers on Chinese landscape painting in the West drew comparisons, e.g. between Friedrich's Two Men in Contemplation of the Moon (upside down in the book cover above) and Ma Yuan's Sage Contemplating the Moon.  Jennifer Purtle emphasises these difficulties with reference to contemporary artist Zhang Hongtu's Shan Sui series, where Chinese landscapes are re-painted in the style of Western artists.  If you look at Shitao-Van Gogh (1998) without familiarity with the Shitao composition you will only see a kind of Van Gogh painting. (Incidentally, Zhang Hongtu has more recently been re-painting Chinese landscapes as damaged environments in his pollution series. "Where those masters saw raging waters, I see dry riverbeds. Where they painted clean water, now I am painting the polluted water".)  Elkins is less interested in specific comparisons than in tracing the 'development' of  Chinese landscape painting and mapping it onto Western periods, in part to reveal hidden assumptions in the way art history is constructed.  I've summarised this briefly below because I think it's interesting, but should emphasise that Elkins is aware of how open to criticism this is: 'at one moment it looks as if Chinese art after a certain point is definitely like modernism; and at the next moment it is transparently obvious that such a judgement is projection of Western understanding.'

Zhao Mengfu, Autumn colours on the Qiao and Hua mountains, 1295

The Renaissance: Elkins compares the new art historical consciousness of Italian Renaissance artists with that of early Yuan Dynasty landscape painters, both of whom were working with only limited direct knowledge of their famous classical predecessors. Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) crystallised past styles in an analogous way to Alberti, Brunelleschi and Masaccio.  As I explained in an earlier post, Zhao's scroll, The Mind Landscape of Xie Youyu, was based on a much earlier painting, a historical gesture equivalent to the revival of Roman architecture.

Mannerism: Moving forward to the Four Great Masters of the Yuan, Elkins identifies elements of what 'the twentieth century recognised as mannerism, meaning, in this context, a historical moment that has become conscious and disdainful of recent perfection.'  I have previously contrasted here the 'bland' landscapes of Ni Zan (1301-74), with the 'saturated' spaces of Wang Meng (1308-85).  Ni Zan's 'concept of monotonous restatement' might be seen as a form of mannerism and Wang's 'crowding of tumultuous forms is another mannerist trait.'

Classicism: By the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Chinese landscape painters like Shen Zhou (1427-1509) and Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) were working at a distance from both the motif itself and antique models of landscape painting, a kind of 'engaged detachment' that Elkins identifies with Poussin.  But as time went on there were more and more schools of art and historical styles, prompting 'a moment of extreme radicalism and unexpectedly strong judgement...'

Modernism: The landscapes of Dong Qichang (1555-1636) employ distortions and abstractions that might be compared to Cubism.  In his early work Picasso worked through a huge range styles before focusing on Cézanne and Rousseau, and Dong similarly left behind the influence of earlier artists like Ni Zan and Wang Meng before fixing on two: Wang Wei (the great Tang dynasty artist-poet) and Huang Gongwang (oldest of the Four Great Masters, whose role Elkins likens to Cézanne).   

Dong Qichang, Wanluan Thatched Hall, 1597

Postmodernism: Many Western historians of Chinese art have treated the landscape painters of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) in a more cursory way than their predecessors.  Schools of art became increasingly short lived and individualists and 'eccentrics' proliferate - artists like Gao Qipei (1660-1734) who painted with his fingernails.  Elkins likens their extreme and narrow strategies to those of Western postmodern artists - Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Wolfgang Laib.  To the extent that Chinese landscape painting ceased to develop radically after the seventeenth century, it may be seen as a precursor of what postmodernism will become, a period 'that arrives when the sequence of historical periods has played itself out.' 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Deep South

‘I look for it always, the thick, vespertine gloaming that douses the day’s heat. When it comes, the landscape grows soft and vague, as if inadequately summoned by some shiftless deity, casually neglectful of details. Making a photograph in these conditions is a challenge, even for modern blue-sensitive film, and the resulting image often appears to have been breathed onto the negative, a moist refulgence within deepening shadows.’
Sally Mann, Deep South (2005)
Looking through the black and white images in Deep South you see this Southern light, creating a halo round ivy coloured tree trunks, illuminating the mist over a river, or saturating the view of a wooded slope so that the landscape is barely visible at all.  One photograph shows the gateway to what looks like some abandoned antebellum house, trees blurred by light or wind, by the camera’s focal length, by imperfections in the old glass negative she has used, or in some mysterious way by the action of time itself.  She writes that Southerners, like Proust, ‘know love emerges from loss and becomes memory, and that memory informs and enriches art.’ This aesthetic transformation was harder to make however when she travelled further into the Deep South.  'It was impossible for me to drive the vine-hung back roads of Mississippi and not think of the invisible sediment of misery deposited at every turn.’ One image simply shows a nondescript bank of grass and a flat expanse of river. This was taken ‘one serenely mote-floating, balmy, yellowish October afternoon' at the spot from which the fourteen-year old Emmett Till was thrown into the Tallahatchie River.’

Whilst some of the photographs in this book may seem overly nostalgic or Picturesque, others taken on the Civil War battle fields make use of the antique printing processes in interesting ways.  They look 'authentic', although they differ from the old photographs familiar, for example, from Ken Burns' series The Civil War, in being empty of people.  Dark skies appear almost molten, an expressionist effect resulting from the liquid nature of her wet-plate negatives.  A sombre image of a grey landscape crossed by a wooden fence like a low barricade seems to have two huge dark suns.  Another, in which a black tree looms over a field, is pockmarked in a way that resembles shrapnel damage.  Many are blurred, like the vision of wounded soldiers.  Walking these fields, Mann found that ‘physical traces of the struggle remain. I have a lead minié ball, flattened and deformed, that was picked up at Fredericksburg. The sinuous earthworks still weave through the fields, so well preserved that they appear serviceable for the next civil war. In this peculiar place of stilled time, the spirits seemed to drift up in the fog rising from the fields.’

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Dew-Drenched Furze

On my morning walks to the Underground this week I have passed front gardens strewn with delicate dewy cobwebs, as you can see from the photograph above.  I realise there is a beer bottle in this particular bush too, but this, after all, is London, not a remote forest glade (as the great Charles Reznikoff once said, 'this smoky winter morning - / do not despise the green jewel shining among the twigs / because it is a traffic light.')  It must have been on some such autumn morning that John Everett Millais set out to paint Dew-Drenched Furze (1881), a work recently acquired by the Tate.  Millais got his title from In Memoriam, where Tennyson wrote ‘Calm and deep peace on this high wold, / And on the dews that drench the furze, / And all the silvery gossamers / That twinkle into green and gold...’  According to his son, Millais aimed 'to capture the morning sun streaming through a clearing of gorse illuminated by droplets of dew, a subject ‘probably never painted before’, and one that as he begun he feared ‘might be unpaintable.’'  This son, the ornithological artist J.G. Millais, added a cock pheasant in the right foreground of the painting, but this was subsequently removed (no doubt as distracting as a stray beer bottle).  The result is a beautiful and surprisingly abstract landscape painting, which draws the eye over sunlit spider's webs and feathery gorse towards a veil of distant golden mist. 

John Everett Millais, Dew-Drenched Furze, 1881

Friday, October 19, 2012


To the ICA last night for the London Film Festival Screening of Pat Collins' film Silence.  Like the film I saw at last year's festival, Ben Rivers' Two Years at Sea, it is slow cinema, situated somewhere between documentary and drama.  'The film follows a softly spoken sound recordist, played by co-writer Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde, who wields a mic on a stand rather like a pilgrim would a staff as he treks through bleak and beautiful Irish locations as part of a vague professional assignment to record spaces "away from man-made sound."' As Frances Morgan goes on to say in her article in November's Sight & Sound, 'the idealisation of remoteness, of depopulated or liminal spaces, and of the man (it's rarely a woman) wandering or living among them' has surfaced recently in the work of many writers and film-makers: Sebald, Sinclair, Keiller, Ben Rivers and Robert Macfarlane. But Silence sets up 'a tension between the need for solitude and the responsibility to hear, speak, bear witness to human history.  Ruined houses glimpsed across a bay may seem picturesque, but a fisherman's story of mass economic migration is a corrective to romanticising their decay.  Eoghan describes childhood evenings spent following his father's often dangerous fishing trips via CB radio, an evocative image of sound and its attendant technology connecting humans across the wilderness of the sea.'

Recording silence in the Burren

At the brief question and answer session after last night's screening, Pat Collins talked about the film's use of music and improvised dialogue.  In editing the film he wanted to be free to include sounds and imagery that felt right, without being tied to a clear narrative structure. At one point, for example, he cuts to an unnamed poet walking through the mist, reflecting that "the mind turns upon silence" (it is one minute into the trailer embedded above). Elsewhere we hear the voice of cartographer and landscape writer Tim Robinson, the subject of a documentary Collins made last year. In the trailer for that earlier film embedded below you can hear hear Robinson talking about sound and silence. “Sometimes from my doorstep on a still night I become aware that the silence is set in a velvet background like the jewel in a display case. A hushing that, when attended to, becomes ineluctable. It is compounded of the crash of breakers along distant strands variously delayed, attenuated, echoed and re-echoed...”

Near the start of Silence, there is a scene in a hotel where the barman tries to engage Eoghan in conversation, telling him about a deserted Scottish island where starlings still mimic the mechanical sounds of the lawnmowers once used by its inhabitants. Is this story the sort of thing he is looking for?  Eoghan replies quietly that what he has come to Ireland to find is silence.  The possibility that an anecdote about birdsong might be of more interest than the sounds themselves is a sign perhaps of how much has been written and said about soundscapes in recent years.  It seems only a matter of time before the boom in sound art is accompanied by new narratives centring on the figure of the field recordist, fictional versions of Chris Watson perhaps, who worked on Silence and told its director the Scottish island story. Will these resemble earlier characterisations of landscape painters in nineteenth century literature?  Rose Tremain's story 'Wildtrack' was written in 1986, when the purpose of crouching over a tape recorder in a Suffolk field was to record a soundtrack for use in radio rather than make an art installation or an album for Touch. Her protagonist, like Eoghan in Silence, returns to the places of his childhood and the story becomes more about memory than landscape.  Perhaps this focus is inevitable given the way that recordings preserve and bring back lost time.  Pat Collins has referred to David Toop's idea that sound is ‘a haunting’and his film ends with Eoghan exploring an abandoned house while faint sounds of conversation can be heard: they may be old tapes he made as a child, or ghostly presences, or both.

Friday, October 12, 2012

By the Open Sea

A strange work of land art avant la lettre is created in August Strindberg's extraordinary novel By the Open Sea (1889).  Although summer has arrived on the island of Österskär, 'drift-ice was still coming from the north, where an unusually severe winter on the coast had resulted in the formation of bottom-ice, which, drifting south, had so chilled the water that the lower layers of air were denser than those above.  Consequently, refraction had distorted the contours of the skerries and, during the last few days, had produced the most magnificent mirages.' The scientific explanations voiced by Strindberg's doomed anti-hero, the government fisheries inspector Axel Borg, fail to dispel the supernatural ideas of the suspicious islanders.  Maria, the young woman towards whom Borg is attracted (she is staying on the island for the summer for reasons of health), likens the distorted shape of the pink-gneiss skerries to the cliffs of Normandy.  Borg decides he needs to appear to the islanders as some kind of magician simply to gain a hearing. 'He therefore asked the credulous if they would believe that they were seeing a reflection of Italy if they saw an Italian landscape, and when the answer was yes, he determined to combine the useful with the entertaining.  By making a few minor alterations he would produced the promised southern landscape for Miss Maria's birthday, so that when the next mirage occurred this, seen through the colossal magnifying glass provided by the varying density of the layers of air would appear on the horizon greatly magnified.'

Borg rows out to the skerry and begins work by stripping away lichen, leaving a few dark lines so that the rock resembles stratified sedimentary rock.  On the crest of the ridge he fells a few pine trees, isolating the best one so that it will be silhouetted against the sky.  He thins out its crown and trains some of its branches upwards with zinc wire to achieve the look of an Italian stone pine.  A juniper tree is converted into a cypress using an axe and darkened in colour using lamp-black dissolved in water.  At first he had felt rather disgusted with himself for indulging in this activity but as he works he comes to feel 'like a Titan storming creation, correcting its originator's blunders, twisting the earth's axis so that the south turned a few degrees northwards.'  He goes to work with a crowbar, trying to remove slabs of eurite to reveal the marble underneath, eventually resorting to the use of dynamite.  Having thus uncovered what would serve as the facade of a palace, he paints on windows and the outline of a rusticated socle.  He adds a pergola festooned with vines (three poles and some plaited runners of bearberry) and finishes his work by touching the area up with hydrochloric acid diluted with an equal part of water.  'Thus he obtained a gleaming shade of white among the green grass.  This produced an effect of bellis, or galanthus, so characteristic of the Roman Campagna in its 'second spring', which occurs in October after the end of the grape harvest.'

But that evening is a troubling one: Maria is ill, or appears to be, and Borg, with another kind of magic trick, goes through the motions of curing her.  Tired and confused he walks out into the night, where he is eventually rejoined by Maria.  They talk about their future together but fall silent on reaching a cairn erected in memory of the people drowned in a shipwreck.  Borg already feels a yearning for the time of their initial enchantment, 'the intoxication that blinded, that changed grey to rosy red, that built pedestals, that painted golden rims on cracked porcelain.'  Next morning they are talking over coffee when they become aware that a crowd has gathered looking uneasily out to sea.  Stepping outside they realise immediately that it is not the miraculous mirage Borg had planned.  'They saw swimming on the surface of the sea, in the middle of a clear sunny morning, a colossal moon, deathly white, rising over a churchyard of black cypresses.  The inspector, who had not calculated what the effect would be from this viewpoint, and who did not grasp the hang of the matter swiftly enough, turned deathly pale himself from shock.'  His intended marble palace, partly obscured by the pine tree and projecting rock and with windows painted on too faintly, resembled the face of the moon.  'He had never expected an otherwise law-abiding nature to produce such a monstrous phenomenon.'

   August Strindberg, Double Picture, 1892

Quotes here are from the 1984 translation by Mary Sandbach, which some publisher like New York Review Books really ought to reissue (Penguin Classics used to have an edition of By the Open Sea but it is no longer in print). 

Friday, October 05, 2012

A Shaded Path

Next month Tate Britain will feature a new display of its works by Ian Hamilton Finlay.  Meanwhile in Edinburgh there are still a few more weeks of 'Ian Hamilton Finlay: Twilight Remembers' at the Ingleby Gallery.  It is worth finding your way there (through the confusion of construction work in and around Edinburgh Waverley) if only to see Carrier Strike!, a short film in which a sea battle a fleet of irons and an ironing board aircraft carrier.  Climb the stairs and you encounter a line of bricks called A Shaded Path, each one stamped with the word 'Virgil' - a pastoral version of Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII. The room contains examples of Finlay's garden sculptures: Three Inscribed Stones bearing the names of Japanese war planes, a stile inspired by De Stijl, a pairs of benches Glade / Grove and a 'milestone' which says simply 'MAN / A PASSERBY'.  Downstairs there is a whole wall devoted to prints and postcards of Finlay's concrete and experimental poetry.  These poems can also be read, along with early verse and prose, later texts and 'detatched sentences', in Ian Hamilton Finlay: Selections, a new anthology edited by Alec Finlay.  I thought I would include here a few extracts from the Introduction that give a sense of Ian Hamilton Finlay's engagement with landscape over the years.

late 1940s: Finlay left Glasgow with his first wife for the Highlands, where they lived in a whitewashed cottage resembling his later home at Stonypath.  'Druim-na-Cille was "an extraordinary landscape of pines and mountains which I still owe many poems to," and "bittersweet, like a mixture of Heine and Trakl."  ... In these glens he had a dream of 'young men engaged in learned discourse', a vision that would eventually become the garden where the thought of Hegel, Schelling and Heidegger was actualised in herm, stile and wood-path.  ... The more one reflects on his biography the more clear it is that each new landscape of home became, in time, a created landscape, shaped by the memory of a lost idyll.'

mid 1950s: 'In a rite familiar to Scottish writers, Finlay found refuge on an island, Rousay, one of Orkney's smaller islands.  ... For all its wildness, Rousay has a platonic perfection, its constituent parts - loch, mill and farms; the single road, upon which he worked as a labourer; the rugged coast - were, "being on an island ... like a concrete poem, very particular, very realised."'

late 1960s: After some years in Edinburgh Finlay wrote to George Mackay Brown that he had found a new home with his partner Sue: "STONYPATH ('Of life' being understood in brackets, no doubt).  I am looking forward to the wildness very much." 'The area around the house was wild, except for an overgrown walled garden at the front, with lilac trees, currant bushes and an old ash - this last Finlay celebrated with a stone plaque 'MARE NOSTRUM' ('Our Sea'), after the Roman Mediterranean: "except on very calm days [...] the ash fills the garden with its sea-sound.  When people ask why so many poems refer to the sea, or comment that it is odd to find so many sea-references so far from the sea itself, I often point to the Ash Tree and say, That is our sea."'

1970s: The garden at Stonypath took shape. 'Year by year the composed landscape distinguished itself from the wild hillside and the broad waste of the moor.  Finlay extolled the 'slow excitement' of his new art.  His imaginative fancy conjured Stonypath as a belated episode in the English landscape garden tradition - those "quite extraordinary PURE SYMPHONIC creations', in which nature is poeticized, abstracted: pond as Pool, grass as Lawn, sundial gnomon dividing shadow into measure and order.'

1980s: By 1982 Finlay had renamed his garden 'Little Sparta' and transformed his gallery into a Garden Temple dedicated 'To Apollo: His Music, His Missiles, His Muses.' 'For Finlay, poetics now became secondary to the lightning flash of incitement, which found its apotheosis in Robespiere's protégé Saint-Just, a Spartan Rimbaud or Young Apollo, identified by his flute and blade. ... Balancing the insurrectionary mood are the poet's sober meditations, as the era of rebellion gradually gives way to an era of contemplation, and the garden itself matures to enclose the still shadows of a cypress grove.'

late 1990s: 'There unfolded a last long autumnal decade whose emblems were the wild flower and the fishing-boat, and whose ideal literary form was the proverb.  Sometimes Finlay expressed puzzlement that he had lost the energy for battles.  In truth his imagination had returned to the pastoral, in poems which recalled the early days at Stonypath, celebrating the moor, with its larks and bog-cotton, and the wild roses that grew by the burn.'

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Bay of Naples from Palazzo Sessa

Expanding Horizons: Giovanni Battista Lusieri and the Panoramic Landscape, the most exciting art exhibition this year, will shortly be coming to the end of its run at the Scottish National Gallery.  You can be forgiven for not knowing much about Lusieri: scholarly interest in him has been growing but as recently as 1996 he was not deemed important enough to include in the thirty-four volume Macmillan-Grove Dictionary of Art.  His posthumous obscurity would have seemed surprising in 1799, when the 7th Earl of Elgin wrote delightedly at having engaged the 'first painter in Italy' to accompany him to Constantinople'. Lady Elgin thought him superior to any artist working in London - 'high praise indeed', Aidan Weston-Lewis writes in the exhibition catalogue, 'for among the English artists Lord Elgin had approached unsuccessfully to join his embassy were J. M. W. Turner and Thomas Girtin, arguably the two landscape watercolourists held in highest esteem in Britain to this day.'  In Athens, Lusieri became increasingly embroiled in archaeology and the operation to remove sculptures from the Acropolis, only returning properly to painting as an old man in 1817.  Byron encountered him during this period, finding that Lusieri's 'works as far as they go are most beautiful; but they are almost all unfinished.' Lusieri died in 1821 and most of the paintings he had completed in Greece were lost when a ship bringing them back to Elgin was wrecked off the coast of Crete in 1828.

Giovanni Battista Lusieri, The Bay of Naples from Palazzo Sessa, 1790  
The Bay of Naples from Palazzo Sessa 
A few examples might convey why I found Expanding Horizons so fascinating, and the most obvious place to start is with this painting, described accurately in the catalogue as 'one of the most spectacular exhibitions of the art of watercolour ever created.'  It measures nearly nine feet across and took Lusieri nearly two years to complete (1789-90), working from a room at the residence of Sir William Hamilton.  This room, incidentally, was designed by Hamilton with large mirrors to reflect the bay so that, as Wilhelm Tischbein found, 'if you sat on the sofas installed around the room, you imagined you were out of doors, sitting on a rocky peak above sea and land.'  What I think really makes Lusieri's panoramic view so breathtaking is not the incredible detail of the foreground - figures, buildings, boats - but that view out to sea, where the distant water and sky fuse in a haze of brilliant Mediterranean light. 
View of Rome with St Peter's and the Vatican from the Lower Slopes of Monte Mario
When Thomas Jones first mentions Lusieri in his memoirs he describes him as a painter of 'tinted drawings' and although this seems an inadequate description of the luminous landscapes Lusieri produced, it does capture the way in which they took shape.  It is thus no surprise to find some exceptionally detailed drawings like this View of Rome, sketched in 1780.  A 'tour de force' according to the curators, in which 'the black chalk is handled with an astonishing range of mark and pressure', and where the real subject seems to be the way the light describes the shape of every stone, leaf and tree root with as much care as it illuminates the dome of St Peter's and walls of the Vatican.
Panoramic View of Rome from Piazza San Pietro in Montorio on the Janiculum
These three of the four surviving sheets from a 180 degree panorama of the city lead your eye from St Peters in soft golden sunshine over the rooftops to trees on the outskirts of the city which seem still to be emerging from the grey mist of early morning.  The paintings probably date from 1778-9, and there is an interesting question of precedence because Louis Le Masson painted a very similar panorama of Rome in 1779, commissioned by Louis XVI to decorate the interior of a luxurious dairy he was building for Marie-Antionette (complete with buckets made of Sèvres porcelain) at the Château de Rambouillet.
Vesuvius during the Eruption of 1794
In 1787 Lusieri had painted some moonlit views of the Bay of Naples in which the tranquillity of the scene is threatened by the distant orange glow from the volcano.  He was still in Naples for the eruption of 1794 which was, as Sir William Hamilton reported to the Royal Society, the most spectacular since 1631 and AD79 (when the original Plinius, Pliny the Elder lost his life).  It is possible that Lusieri, like Pliny, was out in a boat - the sketch and the watercolour have no foreground save a flat expanse of water.  The dark volcano is dwarfed by an inverted mountain of fiery clouds and smoke pours from the long river of lava, flowing all the way down to the sea.  In 1799, after the Bourbon court had fled Naples, Lusieri found himself in Sicily, appointed to oversee work on its antiquities, a brief foretaste of the work he was about to engage in with Elgin.  There he painted another volcano, a View of Taormina and the Coast Looking South towards Etna, a near-monochrome composition of grey washes which may record the effects of ash darkening everything except the waves breaking on the shore.
The Temple of Serapis, Pozzuoli  
This watercolour includes a figure sitting among the broken stones with his head in his hand, like Fuseli's The Artist Overcome by the Grandeur of Antique Remains, and probably similar to the way I was gazing at this painting, the tourist overcome by the grandeur of eighteenth century art.  What is particularly interesting about this subject is the way the temple has become an index of geological change.  'The corrosive action of salt water and lithodomes on the monumental shafts of cipollino marble, as a result of bradyseismic activity (the slow rising and falling of the earth's crust) in the area, can be clearly seen.'
    The Monument to Philopappos
    Although there are relatively few completed paintings from Lusieri's years in Greece, two versions exist of this, a study of the funerary monument to Emperor Trajan's consul in Athens.  One is a watercolour, completed in 1805 and the other, just as beautiful, an oil painting (one of only two that we know of by Lusieri). A contemporary, Edward Daniel Clarke, marvelled at Lusieri's ability to convey 'every grace and beauty of the sculpture, every fair and exquisite proportion, every trace of the injuries of time'.  But Lusieri pays as much attention to the stones at the base of the monument and the grassy slope on which it stands as he does to the frieze of marble figures and the broken statue of Philopappos.  
At the end of his life, Lusieri was visited in Athens by an Englishman, John Fuller, who remembered the artist, still 'labouring with the greatest exactness and diligence' at a panoramic view of the plain of Attica.  'Day after day did this indefatigable veteran pass on the hill of the Museum; and his meagre figure, his drawing apparatus, and the large umbrella over his head, are as much attached to the spot in the recollections of those who have visited Athens, as the monument of Philopappos itself.'  Lusieri's perfectionism was such that it seemed to Fuller few of his paintings would actually be finished.  When he raised this with the old man, Lusieri said (perhaps with a mischievous smile) 'that colouring was such a fascinating employment he feared if he once began it he should never again have the patience to return to the dry details of outline; and that therefore (though he acknowledged himself to be in his 74th year and with a portfolio crowded with sketches), he reserved it [colouring] as an amusement for his adanced age.  Two mornings afterwards he was found dead in the chair in which he had been left sitting the previous evening, his supper before him, like his drawings, unfinished.'

Friday, September 21, 2012

Plyushkin's garden

In May 1922 Vladimir Nabokov sat his finals at Cambridge and was relieved to find that one of the questions asked him to describe Plyushkin's garden in Gogol's Dead Souls.  As Brian Boyd says, this 'perfectly suited his preference for exact knowledge, precise visualisation, detailed recall.' (Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years).  It was a subject Nabokov would return to in the book on Gogol he published in 1944, which opens by describing his great predecessor as 'the strangest prose-poet Russia ever produced.'  Before Gogol, Russian writers described the natural world in conventional eighteenth century language: 'that the sky could be pale green at sunrise, or the snow a rich blue on a cloudless day, would have sounded like heretical nonsense to your so-called "classical" writer.'  Nabokov doubted 'whether any writer, certainly not in Russia, had ever noticed before, to give the most striking instance, the moving pattern of light and shade on the ground under trees or the tricks of colour played by sunlight with leaves.'  Gogol's description of Plyushkin's garden shocked Russian readers 'in much the same way as Manet did the bewhiskered philistines of his day.'

Gogol's own cover design for Dead Souls

Nabokov offers his own translation into English of Gogol's description, criticising the poor quality of earlier efforts: Isabel Hapgood (1885) 'heaps blunder upon blunder, turning the Russian "birch" into the non-endemic "beech," the "aspen" into an "ashtree," the "elder" into "lilac," the "dark bird" into a "blackbird"...'  The book has been translated more recently by Robert A. Maguire, who gets the trees right but does use the word blackbird rather than dark bird - does Nabokov mean it should be 'a dark bird'? It's probably not OK to reproduce the whole description here, but I'll quote an extract from the Maguire translation below.  In Dead Souls, the character Plyushkin is a miser whose estate has become overgrown, but in a way that would please Picturesque garden theorists.  Gogol's whole approach to writing has been likened by Susanne Fusso to this garden.  In her book Designing Dead Souls she quotes a friend of the writer who recalled Gogol saying, "if I were a painter, I would choose a special sort of landscape.  What trees and landscapes they paint today! Everything is clear and sorted out; the master has read through it, and the spectator follows him haltingly.  I would enchain tree with tree, entangle the branches, let light show through where no one expects it, that is the kind of landscape I should paint."  So, here is Gogol painting in words to describe Plyushkin's garden:
'...In places green, sun struck thickets parted to reveal a hollow between them, untouched by light and gaping like a dark maw, it was cast all in shadow, and its black depths afforded but the faintest glimpse of a coursing narrow path, the ruins of a railing, a tumbledown gazebo, a hollow, decayed trunk of a willow, and from behind the willow a gray thicket which thrust out a dense bristly of leaves and twigs, entangled and enmeshed, withered by the fearsome wild, and finally the young branch of a maple that had stretched from one side its green paw – leaves beneath one of which the sun had made its way. Lord knows how, and was turning it suddenly transparent and fiery, a wondrously shining thing in this thick darkness. Off to one side, at the very edge of the garden, several high-reaching aspen, taller than the others, raised enormous crows’ nest on their tremulous crowns. From some of these, branches, broken but not fully detached, hung down with their withered leaves. In a word, all was somehow desolate and splendid, as it is given to neither nature nor art to devise...'

Saturday, September 15, 2012

La femme dans le Paysage

In 1994 the Belgian painter Marie Desbarax became bewitched by a certain landscape near the city of Nivelles. A text inspired by the paintings she produced there over the course of a year, 'La femme dans le Paysage,' was written by  François Emmanuel for her exhibition, 'Variations sur un paysage.'  It can be found on the artist's website and was integrated into the writer's collection of thematically related stories, L'invitation au voyage (2003), a book translated last year into English by Justin Vicari for the Dalkey Archive Press.  'Woman in a Landscape' describes a woman captivated by an 'earthly lover'.  Everything she wants is in this landscape, 'everything she needs to nourish her eye, to quench her thirst, to feed her flesh...'  But this is not a lifelong attachment to an extraordinary place, like Nan Shepherd's love for the Cairngorms.  It is a brief, intense affair with somewhere that would not seem particularly special to other people, 'just an acre or two land by the road'.  Every detail, each sprig, chestnut bur and pebble is precious.  She sees musical scales in the alignment of the trees - 'I want the sound of the wind in the poplars on my paper, I want those rustlings, these murmurs.'  Imagining her there with her easel planted in the ground, Emmanuel is reminded of the Chinese artist who had the idea of painting fog and then disappeared inside it.  They never recovered his brushes, 'but he did leave behind a few sketches, a few canvases, proof that the whole story is true.'

[Footnote: Psychogeographers and Patrick Keiller admirers may enjoy another of the stories in Invitation to a Voyage, 'The Cartographer's Waltz', in which a man sent to map lichen species in Arras meets a mysterious soundscape researcher whilst exploring tunnels under the town.]