Monday, August 13, 2012

The green chaos

'Always the green chaos rather than the printed map' - John Fowles 

The Tree, the sea, the Cobb

Last week in Lyme Regis I sought respite from the sweltering heat and hard labour of a sandcastle competition by escaping to The Sanctuary Bookshop, where I bought a copy of the original 1979 edition of John Fowles' The Tree with Frank Horvat's photographs.  Horvat is not known primarily as a landscape photographer and his first published books had the unpromising sounding titles, 'J'aime la Télévision' and 'J'aime la Strip-Tease'.  But in 1976, he writes, "I emerged from a long period of self-doubt, which had led me to question my very involvement in photography, both as a photo-journalist and as a fashion photographer. I spent part of that summer in my small property in Provence, pruning trees and putting on paper the few memories of my childhood that I could recollect. At some point, I realised that most of my memories were somehow connected with branches and leaves, and this gave me the idea of a photographic essay about trees."

The text John Fowles wrote after seeing Horvat's photographs also begins in childhood, with memories of the fruit trees crammed into his father's suburban garden.  But his father's expertise in cultivating specimens and Horvat's predilection for 'the single tree, the tree in itself' are at odds with Fowles' experience that truth lies 'beyond the canopy and exterior wall of leaves, and beyond the individual.'  Looking through the book you notice that when Horvat shows trees in combination they have a distinctive formal beauty - the intricate overlapping pattern of bare grey plane tree branches, a group of green poplars arranged like a still life.  But Fowles reminds us that real woodland is 'like the sea, sensorily far too various and immense for anything but surfaces or glimpses to be captured.'  He dismisses the paintings of Hobbema as merely 'townscapes composed with trees instead of houses.'  Art, of course, has 'no special obligation to be realistic and naturalistic' but its reluctance to see and portray the world's interconnectedness 'is symptomatic of a long and damaging doubt in man.'

Meindert Hobbema, Marshy Woodland, c1660

The book ends with the walk through Wistman's Wood that I've referred to here before.  There Fowles experiences the old urge to classify: 'the botanist in me notices a colony of woodrush, like a dark green wheat among the emerald clitter; then the delicate climbing Corydalis claviculata, with its maidenhair-fern leaves and greenish-white flowers.'  But he sits down among the silent trees and concludes that such a place cannot be described in language: 'it can be known and entered only by each, and in its now; not by you through me, by any you through any me; only by you through yourself, or me through myself.'  More than thirty years later the limits of language are still being discussed and The Tree remains, I think, well worth reading. Barry Lopez, in a recent interview about the book, praises Fowles' understanding of the way 'things are held together': 'When you really immerse yourself in the natural world, no matter how many bird guides or explanations you’ve got about what it is you’re seeing, you’re going to be overwhelmed. And the message is, step into it. Don’t try to define nature. It is not definable or controllable. One of life’s great ecstasies is to step into it.'

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Above the sea and sea-washed town

Claude Monet, Étretat, la porte d'Aval: fishing boats leaving the harbour, c1885

This post begins with Claude Monet at Étretat, a subject I've covered here before in 'The Cliffs at Etretat' and 'Agitated Sea at Etretat'.  Guy de Maupassant watched the artist in action there in 1885 and described what he was like to the readers of Paris periodical Gil Blas. 'At Étretat I often followed Monet about.  He was not so much a painter as a hunter.  He stalked on ahead, followed by his children and Madame Hoschedé, who carried his canvases, sometimes as many as five or six, representing the subject at different times of the day and with different effects.  He took them up and put them aside in turn, according to the changes in the sky.  Face to face with his subject, the painter lay in wait for the sun and shadows, capturing in a few brushstrokes the ray that fell or the cloud that passed.  I have seen him seize a glittering shadow of light on the white cliff and fix it in a flood of yellow tone which strangely rendered the surprising and fugitive effect of that elusive and dazzling brilliance.  On another occasion he took a downpour beating down on the sea into his hands, and dashed it on the canvas - and succeeded in really painting the rain as it seemed to the eye' (Bernard Denvir, The Encyclopedia of Impressionism).

 Claude Monet, Sunset at Étretat, 1883

Maupassant lived in Étretat as a child and in 1883 built himself a house there (where, the following year, he finished writing there that most enjoyable novel, Bel Ami).  Just before this return, Maupassant published a sketch in the Gaulois called 'The Englishman of Étretat'.  This described his youthful encounter with the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne at the house of 'a young Englishman of unknown origin' who was rumoured in the village to diet 'exclusively upon monkey (whether, sautéed, roasted, boiled or preserved; no matter)'.  Maupassant was invited to lunch by this eccentric individual after taking part in 'a rescue party formed for a friend of his, carried out to sea'.  The friend was Swinburne, and he proceeded to dazzle Maupassant: 'His words issued forth with a shimmering vitality, galvanised by an imagination both clear and quick, but also hypersensitive and fantastical ... The house where these two men resided was a pleasant, if peculiar abode. The walls were replete with astonishing and strange paintings, veritable expressions of insanity. For instance, if my memory serves me correctly, one watercolour depicted a pink seashell carrying afloat a human skull upon an endless sea, beneath a moon of human form. Here and there were scattered skeletal remains. Particularly of note was a flayed hand; its desiccated skin intact, blackened muscles exposed and ancient traces of blood upon the bright white bone...'

Gustave Courbet, Cliffs at Étretat, 1870 

I first came across this story in Charles Sprawson's The Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero, a wonderful book published in 1992 which seems to have been rather overshadowed in recent years by Roger Deakin's Waterlog. Iris Murdoch's review of it sounded to me then charmingly eccentric: 'On hot days in the Oxford summer my husband and I usually manage to slip into the Thames...' Sprawson refers to Iris Murdoch as 'one of the last of the English river swimmers' and twenty years ago it would have been hard to believe that a whole movement would take off and there would be an Outdoor Swimming Society (whose founder was, according to my wife, impressively outdoorsy even when they were studying at Oxford).  Swinburne's passion for wild swimming began long before he went up to Baliol.  Growing up on the Isle of Wight he would float in the sea, 'lapped in the blue waters and the languid summer tides, as though in the Aegean of his Hellenic dream-world'.  Schooldays at Eton fostered a sado-masochistic association between flogging and swimming which surfaces in his later letters: Sprawson quotes one to Lord Houghton (who had already 'corrupted Swinburne by opening up to him his vast pornographic library'), regretting that the Marquis de Sade had not been aware of the punishment to be experienced in the waves of the North Sea.  Swinburne enjoyed some 'delicious bathes in the most dangerous seas in the world' off Guernsey, having travelled there to meet his hero Victor Hugo only to find that he had left three years before.  It was with some exciting passages from Hugo's novel Toilers of the Sea that Swinburne entertained the fishermen rowing him back to safety at Étretat.

Victor Hugo, The Octopus,
a creature that appears in his novel, Toilers of the Sea, 1866

The lunch Swinburne and his strange friend, George Powell, invited Maupassant to on that memorable day is the subject of an article by Julian Barnes in the excellent Public Domain Review. You can read there fuller details of the English couple's S&M activities with monkeys and servants, based on an account Maupassant gave to Edmond de Goncourt.  Swinburne himself, by contrast, 'memorialised his time on the Normandy coast in two ways. For the rest of his life he kept the “outsize garments” (outsize because he was so tiny) in which the rescuing fishermen had dressed him. And in his 1883 collection, A Century of Roundels, he published a poem called “Past Days”:
Above the sea and sea-washed town we dwelt,
We twain together, two brief summers, free
From heed of hours as light as clouds that melt
Above the sea.
The poem is partly a lament – for the dead Powell, and for passing time; also an idyll recreating “the days we had together” among “The Norman downs with bright grey waves for belt” and the “bright small seaward towns”. It is singularly lacking in references to monkey meat or Sadeian practices.'

Gustave Courbet, The Wave, c. 1869
In 1869, a year after he helped rescue Swinburne from the waves, and long before he was an established writer ,spending time with Monet and his family, Maupassant encountered another visitor to Étretat, Gustave Courbet, and watched him at work in his studio. "In a big empty room, a huge man, corpulent and grubby, was using a kitchen knife to smear gobs of white paint on a big bare canvas. Every so often, he'd go and put his face to the window and stare at the storm. The sea came so close that it seemed to assail the house, covering it in spray and noise. The salt water beat like hail against the window panes and streamed down the walls. On the chimney a bottle of cider next to a glass half full.  From time to time Courbet went and drank a few drops, then he came back to his work.  Now, that work became The Wave, and it created quite a stir in the world."  William Feaver refers to Maupassant's description in a review entitled 'Sea Power' and notes that 'being a romantic, Courbet took the wave personally. "In her fury," he told Victor Hugo, "she reminds me of a caged monster who can devour me. One feels carried away."'

Thursday, August 02, 2012

An inflatable Stonehenge

I'm not sure how big a bouncy castle has to be before it can be considered landscape architecture, but let's assume that Jeremy Deller's Sacrilege qualifies for a mention on this blog.  I've not seen it myself, but the rest of the family went to investigate yesterday as the inflatable Stonehenge is currently installed here in London, on Hampstead Heath.  Mrs Plinius has never actually been to the real Stonehenge so this was her first experience of it: "smaller than you'd think from a distance but very impressive close up and once you're there it's impossible not to bounce around."  Apparently there were a few guards on the look out for over-zealous jumping  - a small group of moshing hipsters received a whistled warning. It sounds to me like those guards in the Sistine Chapel that call for silence every few minutes.  Fortunately there is more space to move around and perform somersaults on Sacrilege than there is in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican.  My wife was pleased to see Jeremy Deller actually there, watching young and old enjoying his artwork, and she congratulated him on not suffering the same monumental error that befell Spinal Tap.

Jeremy Deller and Plinius the Younger

"No Human Sacrifice"

Sacrilege was built for Jeremy Deller by Paul Walkden of Inflatable World Leisure.  The archaeologist/journalist Mike Pitts, who helped build a Foamhenge in 2005 for Channel 4, has written about the project on his blog, Digging Deeper.  They 'replicated the shapes and detailing of the standing sarsens in Nylon PVC, with the textures and lichens painted on by hand. It was damp and overcast when they were there, so the stones’ colours are grey and dark.'  Unsurprisingly, this was very much what the weather was like yesterday and presumably for most days of its national tour.  Early this year there was some controversy over the resemblance between Sacrilege and a 2010 work by Jim Ricks, the Poulnabrone Bouncy Dolmen, a twice-scale replica of the megalithic portal tomb in the Burren; but it all got sorted out amicably.  Perhaps we need more of these structures, hyperreal bouncy simulacra at every prehistoric site, leaving the actual stones to become poetic, overgrown ruins again.  Jeremy Deller is obviously asking questions about the way we convert 'heritage' into interactive fun, but a similar process is going on in art galleries.  I think for his next trick Deller should create an inflatable Spiral Jetty to cheer up all the land art pilgrims turning up now to find a big empty lake and no trace of the submerged sculpture.