Sunday, February 26, 2012

Mountainous Valley with Fenced Fields

Werner Herzog has been invited to exhibit at the Whitney Biennial this year and, as you can see from the short interview above, he will be mounting an installation devoted to a landscape painter whom 'nobody knows': Hercules Segers.  In 1678 Samuel van Hoogstraten, writing forty years or so after the death of Segers, characterised him as an artist unrecognised by his contemporaries. 'According to him Segers's despair over his failure to achieve success drove him to drink and he died after falling downstairs while drunk' (Seymour Slive, Dutch Painting, 1600-1800).  But Segers did achieve some degree of fame in his day - one of his works was offered to the King of Denmark for example - and Rembrandt owned eight of his paintings.  There is an etching by Rembrandt of the Flight into Egypt (c1653) which he made by scraping away the figures of Tobias and the Angel and keeping the poetic landscape in a plate Segers had made (Segers himself had copied an engraving by Hendrick Goudt which was in turn based on an original painting by Adam Elsheimer...)  Nevertheless, according to Slive, few Dutch painters who came after Segers 'explored the haunting world he discovered, and only Rembrandt and Jacob van Ruisdael evoke moods similar to his.'

Rembrandt, Flight into Egypt, c1635
Etching reworked on Segers' plate

Paintings by Hercules Segers (note that his name is often spelt Seghers) are rare.  Only about a dozen were known and one imaginary landscape thought by some to be by him was destroyed in a fire five years ago.  His prints are more numerous and include intriguing studies of a skull and a pile of books.  Characteristic features of his landscape etchings, according to Slive, are 'lonely, lunar-like rocks and decayed pine trees.  His vigorous and somewhat grainy line is well suited to suggest weather-worn surfaces of rocks and ruins.  A crumbling edifice which reminds viewers of the transitory nature of their life and accomplishments was one of his favourite motifs.'   According to Hoogstraten, Segers 'printed paintings' and this is evident, for example, in the landscape below, where Segers pulled the sheet of paper through the printing press with a piece of cloth to giving it the feel of a painting on canvas.  He would create a set of radically different impressions from the same plate using different inks and unusual effects, cropping his prints like a modern photographer. Werner Herzog's installation, Hearsay of the Soul, will feature twenty of these etchings, projected to the accompaniment of music by Ernst Reijseger (who composed the soundtrack for Cave of Forgotten Dreams).

Hercules Segers, Mountainous Valley with Fenced Fields, c1620-30

Friday, February 24, 2012

Place: Taking the Waters

Reeds at Snape, Sunday morning

As promised last time, here are a few thoughts prompted by a weekend of reflections on water.  First onto the stage at Snape Maltings was Robert Macfarlane, who recalled how reading Roger Deakin's Waterlog had opened up a whole new aspect of the landscape for him, as well as raising wider questions about how to live.  The talk began with a recording of Deakin swimming in his moat and describing his frog's eye view of the water.  Macfarlane recalled his visits to Walnut Tree Farm, seeing Deakin relaxing in an old bath full of water that had been warmed over the course of day by the simple action of sunlight on a hose.  We liked the idea of Deakin raking out a maze from the autumn leaves for Macfarlane's young daughter to play in.  I'm afraid Mrs Plinius got the giggles when the unflattering pair of Speedos Deakin was wearing in one photograph were referred to by Macfarlane as 'a banana hammock.'  Deakin's achievement was to to combine a sense of rootedness with a wide ranging curiosity about the world; for Macfarlane he seemed to have resolved the tension between settling and moving which has troubled other nature writers like Edward Thomas.  He was, Macfarlane said, like a compass, with its base planted in Suffolk and the other point tracing a long sequence of journeys across the watery landscape.

The sea at Aldeburgh, Sunday morning
Jules Pretty was on next, describing his walks round the The Luminous Coast of East Anglia.  In this liminal zone, where the position of the coast shifts and changes during the course of the day, he encountered a two mile collective art work in the form of sea wall covered in graffiti, an old tip gradually eroding to reveal the detritus of Victorian London and fishermen's cottages on the North Norfolk coast whose windows all point inland away from the sea.  One ten day walk left him with the vision from one eye faded like an old photograph.  'I felt I was carrying an imprint of the sun holding position somewhere slightly behind my right eye. I had headed east, north, occasionally west inland and east again, and so the light was almost always ahead or off to starboard. It left me with an imbalance, and a sense that the whole world was luminous on one side. As dark clouds raced over the water it turned slate grey and menacing. But when the sun came out again, the water became a shimmering mix of silver and mercury, and I was lit from below as well as above.'

Ken Worpole, Saturday afternoon

Ken Worpole's talk, '350 Miles - the Essex Coast', drew on the short book of that title he wrote with photographer Jason Orton (a collaboration he characterised as a form of parallel play), and on his essay 'East of Eden' for the anthology Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and its Meanings.  The whole PLACE event was partly a continuation of this earlier Re-Enchantment Project (last year, we were in the same hall listening to talks on landscape and W. G. Sebald, including Robert Macfarlane on the wild places of Essex).  In an earlier post I mentioned one of Orton's photographs of a solid brick church with 'an uncanny correspondence between some of these austere church buildings, with their minimal window apertures, and the fortified military buildings in and around the coast.'  In his talk on Saturday, Worpole dwelled on the way the coast has been a key symbolic site for religious belief, from 'Dover Beach' to Don Cupitt's The Sea of Faith.  He showed an interesting photograph of a religious congregation meeting on the beach at Southend, which reminded me of the shore sermons of Gotthard Ludwig Kosegarten and their link to Caspar David Friedrich's painting of a Monk by the Sea.

David Rothenberg playing with Beluga whales

The rest of the afternoon was devoted to the sea itself: David Rothenberg played along to field recordings of waves and whales, Jay Griffiths read from the sea section of Wild, and Olivia Chaney performed some sea-related songs.  We also saw The Forgotten Space, a long film ('agit-prop', not art, according to co-director Noel Burch, who introduced it) about the effects of globalisation on the sea and the people who live and work in the vicinity of the great ports at Los Angeles, Rotterdam and Hong Kong. Watching an interview with an Indonesian sailor in his cabin, I wondered how Gary Snyder (who worked as a seaman in the fifties) would write about these vast container ships.  The 'seafarers' at a sailor's retreat in Hong Kong, built by British Christians in the days of empire, were all croupiers on the local casino ships, moored permanently offshore. There is striking footage of a Piranesi-like tower in Hong Kong, with container lorries circling endlessly upwards through the petrol fumes (ventilation would have been too expensive to install), and scenes of Rotterdam's robot trucks moving the containers around in an unfathomable sequence, with one human operative sitting alone in his tower.  The film explores the consequences of Rotterdam's expansion, from the construction of a freight-only train line through the crowded landscape of the Netherlands, to the alienation of port workers, like the man (not very old) who recalls wistfully how differently it had been when he first started working on his parents' barge.  Meanwhile, Antwerp is being developed as a rival to Rotterdam and we are shown the dilapidated village of Doel, set for demolition, the dike that protected it from the sea no defence against the tide of global capital.

From the industrial sublime to the faintly ridiculous: Saturday evening saw a work-in-progress presentation of Swandown, in which Andrew Kötting and Iain Sinclair 'pursue a suitably English voyage into the heart of place and politics' by 'taking a swan pedalo from Hastings beach to Hackney’s Olympic site via the South Coast, the inland waterways of Kent and the Thames estuary'.  There was a lot of joking around on stage but Iain Sinclair was allowed to be a bit highbrow in introducing the film extracts and duly made a connection between them and those recurring Modernist myths of the Odyssey and the Wasteland.  He talked about a recording of Basil Bunting, reading from Pound's Cantos, which he had lost and then been reunited with.  I thought of the post on Bunting and Pound I wrote here only a few weeks ago; Sinclair's method of making these cultural connections across a landscape or on a journey sometimes feels like a form of hyperlinking.

 Swandown snippets

It is hard to tell what the finished film will be like but there should be some amusing moments: a pedalo encounter with a UKBA motor launch, for instance, and the moment when a real swan attacks their fake one, knocking its head off.  My wife has always found Iain Sinclair "too blokeish" for her taste and didn't think much of a scene in which our heroes peddle their pedalo impassively past a drowned Ophelia, her white dress spreading on the waters like the wings of a swan.  The soundtrack to Swandown promises to be good though - put together by Jem Finer, whose time-lapse film of an ancient beech wood, Still, was installed in an upstairs room for the day.  As the extracts from Swandown were screened, he sat behind his laptop controlling various sound effects, accompanied by photographer Anonymous Bosch, whilst Sinclair, Kötting and singer Kirsten Norrie did their thing on stage.  The other member of the team, Kristin O'Donnell (Ophelia), walked on and lay down silently among the plastic swans.

Reeds at Snape, Sunday morning

PLACE: Taking the Waters resumed on Sunday, the eighteenth anniversary of Derek Jarman's death, with a showing of The Garden (1990) - a film I last saw many years ago at the ICA in London (with a rather different audience).  I can think of river films that might have flowed more readily together with the day's talks - William Raban's Thames Film for example - but it was nonetheless nice to see again Jarman's tinted, sped-up and slowed-down images of the beach and skies at Dungeness.  I had forgotten scenes like the Zéro de conduite style pillow-fight, re-staged on an iron-framed bed in which Jarman seems to be dreaming his own film.  The floating white feathers were a Sinclairesque connection to Swandown and my mind wandered on from this to Jean Vigo's other great film, L'Atalante, set on a working barge long before the coming of the containers.

Derek Jarman's The Garden extract
Swans and barges would appear again in the final three talks of the day.  Manu Luksch presented footage from her recent Kayak Libre project, in which she set up a water taxi service on London's canal system and recorded the thoughts of her passengers. One day she saw the body of swan floating by and found then that stories of dead swans kept coming up.  Simon Read showed a painting of the barge that he had brought over from Holland in 1980, at a time when the Dutch government was trying to clear the canals of unnecessary traffic.  He paints large maps of the shifting shorelands and sketches the potential impact of flood water and estuarine development in a style reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci.  Finally, the day's last journey was in another barge: down river to the mouth of the Thames.  Estuary is a film by James Price with texts read by Rachel Lichtenstein, originally shown at a similar arts festival in Southend last year, Shorelines.  These landscape-themed events seem to be becoming increasingly popular, and the hope is that PLACE will become an annual event.

Estuary, filmed by James Price

I think the best way to end this post is with Joseph Conrad's The Mirror of the Sea and a description of the Thames that was mentioned in Ken Worpole's talk and used at the start of Estuary.
'In the widening of the shores sinking low in the gray, smoky distances the greatness of the sea receives the mercantile fleet of good ships that London sends out upon the turn of every tide. They follow each other, going very close by the Essex shore. Such as the beads of a rosary told by business-like shipowners for the greater profit of the world they slip one by one into the open: while in the offing the inward-bound ships come up singly and in bunches from under the sea horizon closing the mouth of the river between Orfordness and North Foreland. They all converge upon the Nore, the warm speck of red upon the tones of drab and gray, with the distant shores running together towards the west, low and flat, like the sides of an enormous canal. The sea-reach of the Thames is straight, and, once Sheerness is left behind, its banks seem very uninhabited, except for the cluster of houses which is Southend, or here and there a lonely wooden jetty where petroleum ships discharge their dangerous cargoes, and the oil-storage tanks, low and round with slightly-domed roofs, peep over the edge of the fore-shore, as it were a village of Central African huts imitated in iron.  Bordered by the black and shining mud-flats, the level marsh extends for miles.  Away in the far background the land rises, closing the view with a continuous wooded slope, forming in the distance an interminable rampart overgrown with bushes.'

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A View of the Untersberg

In an earlier post I considered two examples of visual poetry in which words are placed on the page to convey the impression of a landscape: Guillaume Apollinaire's 'Paysage' (1918) and Guillermo de Torre's 'Paisaje Plastico' (1919).  These Modernist experiments are one source for the many kinds of visual poetry that have emerged since the 1950s, but another much older tradition is the shaped poem, whose most famous English exponent was George Herbert ('Easter Wings').  Montaigne was not a fan of this kind of thing - poems in 'the shapes of eggs, globes, wings, and hatchets' feature in his essay 'On Vain Subtleties'.  But the fact that 'shaped poems have usually been considered clever, fussy tricks at best' did not deter the American poet John Hollander from publishing a whole collection of them, Types of Shape (1969, expanded 1991).  To produce poems that would be more than just momentarily amusing, Hollander aimed to translate his objects into striking typographical silhouettes whilst ensuring that the poem would work as a poem even if the shape were destroyed and the lines printed all flush to the leftThe example below (and I hope my photo is sufficiently grainy to avoid copyright issues) is called 'A view of the Untersberg'. 

The poem's subtitle provides a more precise location and places it in the sub-genre of window view poems: 'Elev. 6,000 ft., SW of Salzburg, as seen through a window in Schloß Leopoldskron.'  I can't help recalling that the one time I went to Salzburg it rained all week and the view from the window would have been adequately represented by Apollinaire's visual poem 'Il Pleut'.  Hollander was obviously luckier with the weather and he provides an accurate description of the mountain's shape (see for example, the image here).  It is possible to imagine a far larger visual poem that would imitate not just the outline but also the structure of the mountain, with spaces for its patches of snow, or an even more ambitious poem in which every path and tree would be discernible...   'A View of the Untersberg' starts at the summit (with a reference to the etymology of 'Untersberg'): 'I / stand / high on what / was once Odins / mound of power...'  And it ends with the poet back down on the plain 'at the bottom of the day', haunted by mountain ghosts and feeling 'changed by having been on that unreal height'.  

Next on Some Landscapes: reflections on PLACE: Taking the Waters, a landscape-themed event this weekend which is due to feature Noel Burch, Jay Griffiths, Robert Macfarlane, Olivia Chaney, Jules Pretty, David Rothenberg, Ken Worpole, Jem Finer, Andrew Kötting, Iain Sinclair, Ben Eastop, Rachel Lichtenstein, Manu Luksch and Simon Read.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Earth-life painting

Carl Gustav Carus (1789-1869) published his Nine Letters on Landscape Painting in 1830, prefaced by a letter from Goethe suggesting that they 'will delight both artists and amateurs by opening their eyes to the manifold associative harmonies within nature.'  They are probably best known today for their emphasis on the importance of science and the study of nature, although this is only apparent in the later letters, the first five being closer in spirit to Caspar David Friedrich, whom Carus knew and admired.  Carus apparently started work on the letters in 1815 and sent the early ones to Goethe in 1822 - they took so long to compose because he was busy in these years publishing scientific research and working as a doctor and medical professor, as well as doing some landscape painting on the side.  Their addressee was 'Ernst', named in remembrance of the three year old son Carus lost to scarlet fever in 1816.  In his preface to the first edition Carus wrote that 'amid earnest endeavours and onerous duties of many kinds, art has been a true friend and silent comforter.'

Carus coined a new term for the kind of art he wanted to see: 'earth-life painting' (Erdlebenbild).  Like many subsequent artists, he found the word 'landscape' too restrictive - 'trivial and inadequate'.  Carus urged artists to study the 'physiognomy' of landscape and 'learn to speak the language of nature.'  What was really needed to help them was a book that would 'present earth life to the reader in all of its many aspects' and indeed Carus himself eventually wrote such a book (Twelve Letters on Earth-life, 1841).  Carus obviously found it hard when writing his Nine Letters on Landscape Painting to point to examples of artists who were engaged in a version of earth-life painting.  Instead he turned to literature: Goethe's poetry, Humboldt's Views of Nature, and a book on mushrooms by 'the excellent Nees von Esenbeck.  Read what he says on autumnal vegetation, and you will find that pure knowledge of nature, artistically formed, turns of its own accord into the noblest poetry.'

Johan Christian Dahl, Norwegian Mountain Landscape, 1819

It was only in 1833 that Carus finally identified an earth-life painter, a young artist whose work exceeded the best landscapes of Ruisdael... George Heinrich Crola.  (No, me neither... Apparently Crola was a protegé of Friedrich and Johan Christian Dahl, who moved to Munich and became a specialist in trees and woodland subjects).  It is perhaps surprising that Carus had not already described Dahl himself (with his evident interest in geology) as an earth-life painter, as Oskar Bätschmann points out in his introduction to the Getty reprint of Nine Letters. Carus continued to paint himself, although his work continued to show the strong influence of Friedrich, as can be seen below in the imaginary memorial to Goethe, who died in 1832.  Bätschmann calls this a 'mystical "earth-life painting" in which the music of the spheres, the harmony of the cosmos, presides over the harmonious complementarity of geological and minerological interests.'

Carl Gustav Carus, Goethe Memorial, 1832

I'll end this post with a painting in words, one of several 'Fragments from a Painter's Journal' that Carus appended to his last Letter as examples of 'the way in which a moment in nature may be instantly apprehended as a finished picture.' The view was 'taken' at 5 o'clock in Dresden's Großer Garten one day in February 1823 and it is a scene very reminiscent of the conditions outside today, with cold winter light and patches of frozen snow:
The sun had gone down; against the dull yellow sunset sky, a wide band of gray snow cloud, uniform in tone, extended down to the horizon; in the bluish sky above, scattered cumulus clouds still caught the light of the departed sun.  The distant view was shrouded in brownish, greenish, and finally violet tones.  Streaks of snow, lighter than the gray cloud but darker than the light sky, punctuated the dark surface of the ground.
In the foreground, on the edge of the moat, two massive, ancient willows stretched out their gaunt branches, nearly black; around their trunks the snow had thawed and then refrozen, so that, close to the strong dark tone of the tree trunks, a sparkling light reflected the bright sky; it was lighter than anything else in the foreground, for even the jagged ice on the frozen pool could be seen only by subdued light.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Song of the Flame-Red Lobster

On a recent edition of The Freakier Zone, Professor Justin Spear introduced Radio 6 listeners to an 'armful of groovy soundtracks with a swinging psychedelic slant'.  One of these was made to accompany a 1966 Swedish arthouse film called Oj Oj Oj eller sången om den eldröda hummern ('Well well well, or the Song of the Flame-Red Lobster') directed by Torbjörn Axelman.  As you can see from the clip above, this involved the creation of a vast abstract painting on a frozen lake by a man in a suit running around and firing paint bombs.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Alps on Alps arise!

Ferdinand Hodler, Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau above a sea of fog, 1908
A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir'd at first Sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless Youth we tempt the Heights of Arts,
While from the bounded Level of our Mind,
Short Views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But more advanc'd, behold with strange Surprize
New, distant Scenes of endless Science rise!
So pleas'd at first, the towring Alps we try,
Mount o'er the Vales, and seem to tread the Sky;
Th' Eternal Snows appear already past,
And the first Clouds and Mountains seem the last:
But those attain'd, we tremble to survey
The growing Labours of the lengthen'd Way,
Th' increasing Prospect tires our wandering Eyes,
Hills peep o'er Hills, and Alps on Alps arise!
These days I find it easy to appreciate the sentiments in this extended landscape metaphor from Pope's 'An Essay on Criticism' (1709).  Among those Heights of Arts that I tackled in fearless Youth, one of the most daunting was Ezra Pound's Cantos. Basil Bunting once compared them to the Alps in a memorable short poem, which you can hear Bunting reading at the Poetry Archive.  Trying to penetrate the Cantos, Bunting says, is like trying to make sense of the mountains: 'who knows what the ice will have scraped on the rock it is smoothing?'  Pound himself, in a section of the ABC of Reading entitled 'COMPASS, SEXTANT, OR LAND MARKS', advises the reader to 'brace himself' for a list of the great writers - 'the minimum that a man would have to read if he hoped to know what a given new book was worth' - and uses another Alpine metaphor to describe a knowledge of the classics of literature: 'a man who has climbed the Matterhorn may prefer Derbyshire to Switzerland but he won't think the Peak is the highest mountain in Europe.'

John Ruskin, The Matterhorn, 1849