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.'