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.] 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Before the Kingsland Road

Walking down the Kingsland Road last night towards the quadrivium that is Dalston Junction, I was following the route of the old Roman Road that ran north from Londinium to Eboracum via Lindum Colonia. I had come to hear Land Observations, the new project by James Brooks: a sequence of meditative guitar instrumentals collected as Roman Roads IV-XI.  This was part of an event called 'Out of Place' that also included Jo Thomas performing Nature of Habit and the pastoral punk duo Way Through whose songs 'walk the streets of market towns, wait forever at bus stops and lose themselves in edgelands.'  The Land Observations set opened with 'Before the Kingsland Road', which Ben Graham in an excellent review for The Quietus describes as 'motorik at a walking pace, a thrumming bass line anchoring single note specks of radiant guitar that pick out the sights as we go by; forward in motion, backward in time, the past superimposed on the present'.  Each journey - 'Via Flaminia', 'Appian Way', 'Aurelian Way' - begins with a signature loop that runs on through the track whilst fragile tunes emerge and disappear like fragments of Roman architecture.  'It's as much about walking as anything else,' Brooks says in an interview about the project, and as I walked home through the night I thought of the confusion of roads under my feet and the long, straight Roman ideal - in Alice Oswald's phrase, 'a road's road to ride in a dream'. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Sonata of the Sun

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Sparks II, 1906

Perhaps the most fitting posthumous tribute to a landscape artist is to name a landmark after them, although I imagine few would wish this to happen.  The Lithuanian composer and painter Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis has been honoured in this way with a plateau in Franz Josef Land, a peak in the Pamir Mountains, and an asteroid that orbits the sun every four years.  Of these, the asteroid may actually be the most appropriate memorial for a Symbolist who depicted moods rather than specific places and reached towards a cosmic vision in series of paintings like Sonata of the Stars and The Creation of the World.  Stars seem to drift in front of misty landscapes in Sparks I-III, small works on paper that can currently be seen in Edinburgh in the exhibition 'Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910'.  The catalogue essay by Richard Thomson quotes a letter Čiurlionis wrote in 1908 to his fiancée: 'I would like to compose a symphony of the murmur of the waves, of the mysterious whisper of a hundred-year forest, of the blinking of the stars, of our songs and of my endless yearning.  I would like to climb to the highest peaks - unattainable to mortals, and to make a wreath of the most beautiful stars to Zose - my wife.' 

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Fuga, 1908

By the time Čiurlionis wrote that letter he had already composed two symphonic poems, The Forest (1901) and The Sea (1907), and was starting work on a new composition, The Creation of the World, based on the paintings he had completed in 1905.  In these years he was moving freely between music and art, fusing the two in synesthetic paintings like the Sonata of the Stars, one of a series that began in 1907 with Sonata of the Sun, with its four parts: 'Allegro', 'Andante', 'Scherzo' and 'Finale'.  In such hybrid works, variation in sound is suggested by the intensity of colour, changes in tempo by the rhythm of lines and shapes.  The treeline on the horizon in Fuga ('Fugue') now looks like the waves of a Soundcloud, recording the underlying harmonies of nature.  Čiurlionis experienced the landscape musically: he wrote of the Carpathians that 'the mountains, though not high, are very melodious.'  But sadly there was little time left to compose himself: in 1910, suffering from exhaustion, he was admitted to the Czerwony Dwór sanatorium.  Although his health began slowly to improve, Čiurlionis caught a cold one day while out walking, contracted pneumonia and died at the age of thirty-five.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Light lay over the northland like a shawl

On the Shetland island of Unst
Before our summer holiday in the Shetland Islands I tried to do some background reading in Shetland's poetry, using the new anthology edited by Kevin MacNeil, These Islands, We Sing.  It includes over twenty poets who have written about Shetland, from Hugh MacDiarmid, who lived at Sudheim ("Sodom") on the island of Whalsay in the thirties, to contemporary writers like Jen Hadfield, winner of the 2008 T. S. Eliot prize.  The poet whose words greet the visitor on the walls of Sumburgh Airport and the Shetland Museum is T. A. Robertson (1909-73), who wrote as Vagaland, the old Norse name for the islands.  There are only two of his poems in the anthology: 'Water-lilies' and 'Kwarna farna?' which means 'Where are you going?' in Norn, the language spoken in the islands until the eighteenth century.  You can read and hear the latter on the Shetland fir Wirds site: it begins with the poet looking out to the shimmer on the sea and listening to the sound of sunken rocks off the coast near Sandness, but it ends reflecting on rural depopulation - 'noo da laand is bare'. 

Vagaland quote in the Shetland Museum

We did not make a point of visiting places mentioned in these poems, although we did drive one misty day through the uninhabited moorland to Sandness.  It is a place that will be familiar to anyone who has read Robert Alan Jamieson's Nort Atlantik Drift: Shetlandic poems with translations and introductions in English, accompanied by atmospheric black and white photographs.  Sadly his website which had downloads of the poems seems no longer to exist.  In contrast to poets like Vagaland, he writes with Scandinavian vowels, as can be seen in the first lines of 'Konstint Starn': 'Simmirdin kam doon aboot da Niep / an up abøn da krug a'Æshnis, / lyght læ owir da nortland læk a hap.' (Summer's dim came down about the cliffs, and up above the crouching body of Eshaness, light lay over the northland like a shawl).'

  The view from Eshaness

Looking out to sea from the Stevenson lighthouse at Eshaness we were barely able to stand up, the wind was so strong.  I thought then of the poem 'Flans Frae da Haaf' by Laurence Graham: flans are gusts of wind and da haaf is the deep sea beyond coastal waters. Writers in Shetlandic can draw on a rich vocabulary to describe landscape and the effects of weather, as Raman Mundair found on moving to the islands, where she composed 'Stories from the Shoormal': "Shoormal is a lovely word.  It's the meeting point of the sea and the shore." A British version of the Home Ground project to collect and celebrate the language of landscape will need to include many of these Norn words: voe (a sea inlet), ayre (a beach), mool (a headland), scord (a fissure in the skyline of a hill), noost (a hollow place where a boat can be drawn up) and gloup (a blowhole behind a cliff face, derived from Old Norse glup, throat).  It is perhaps surprising that Hugh MacDiarmid didn't make more use of the rich vocabulary on his doorstep, a fact Michael Schmidt has sought to explain (in his '40 Tea Chests' essay) with a nice landscape metaphor.  The Shetland Islands' dialect 'did not, as it were, plug into the larger world upon which he focused; rather like a sea pool, it cupped its flora and fauna beyond the tide of history.'

MacDiarmid does use 'the old Norn words' in one poem, 'On a Raised Beach', turning to them after trying to convey the essence of the stones on the beach in English: 'ratchel, striae, relationships of tesserae, / innumerable shades of grey, / innumerable shapes, / And beneath them all a stupendous unity.'  There is a memorable ecopoetic statement in this poem: 'we must reconcile ourselves to the stones, / Not the stones to us.'  And, as Louisa Gairn points out in 'MacDiarmid and Ecology', there is a Heideggerian distinction between the 'thing-for-us' and the 'thing-in-itself' when MacDiarmid writes 'there are plenty of ruined buildings in the world but no ruined stones.'  Mark Ryan Smith, another of the poets included in These Islands, We Sing, sees 'On a Raised Beach' as one of the most impressive poems of Shetland: not often considered as such, 'but you have to ask yourself if it could have been written about anywhere but the beach on Linga where MacDiarmid visited.'  The uninhabited island of Linga is described in an essay, 'Life in the Shetlands' that MacDiarmid published in 1934, and I'll end this post with a description of his first night there...

'There are no trees in the Shetlands, so it was impossible to find any sheltered spot on the surface of the island to lie in; and there is no bracken or long grass, so it was impossible to gather anything to make any sort of bed on my ledge of rock.  A little earlier on it should have been possible to read in the open until well after midnight; indeed there is practically no night.  But by this time the long night of the summer-time had given way to the opposite conditions where there is a very short day.  I had brought with me a volume of Rilke's poems and Theodora Bosanquet's little book on Paul Valéry; but I did not open either of them.  I was too busy; lying for the most part on that rocky ledge with the sound of the sea in my ears and the darkness of the cave (broken only by the yellow flashing of innumerable matches and the red glow of my lit pipe) grateful to my eyes, doing nothing - but what I intended to do, which was sufficiently engrossing to keep me from being lonely or conscious very much of either cold or hunger; for I am a poet myself, or think I am, which explains the whole thing.'