Sunday, January 27, 2013

Stepping Stones

I've been reading the late Dennis O'Driscoll's Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney.  Among the interesting things I learnt was that Heaney's poem 'The Mud Vision', in which a strange religious apparition briefly visits modern secular Ireland, was partly inspired by Richard Long.  As Heaney explains in another interview, 'the actual mud-vision idea came from seeing a work by the English artist Richard Long, a big flower-face on a wall, made up entirely of muddy handprints. It began as a set of six or eight petals of mud and then moved out and out concentrically until it became this huge sullied rose window.'  Another strange image - a tree-clock made of tin cans - appears in the poem 'Fosterling', although this was not inspired by a piece of land art.  In Stepping Stones, Heaney recalls that it came from an old story about a Faustian pact: a band of tinkers built a fantastic clock in a tree and set it to the wrong time to fool the devil when he returned for the local people's souls.  Such marvels took Heaney many years to work into his poetry.  Growing up he inhabited a 'lowlands of the mind', a silted place where poetry was 'sluggish in the doldrums of what happens'. It took a long time 'for air to brighten, / Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.' 


I've embedded above a brief YouTube clip showing Dennis O'Driscoll interviewing Seamus Heaney and below I've set down a few observations on five landscape-related Heaney poems, with comments derived from Stepping Stones:

  • 'The Peninsula'   Heaney mentions in Stepping Stones that this poem (in his second collection, Door into the Dark) was written after a drive to the Ards peninsula in County Down. In it he writes about the way landscape can restore the ability to really see the world when it seems there is 'nothing more to say.'  Heaney imagines driving all day around the peninsula, a 'land without marks', until dusk arrives, when 'horizons drink down sea and hill.'  Then, heading home, details begin to emerge in memory - 'a glazed foreshore and silhouetted log' for example.  Such an experience makes it possible to 'uncode all landscapes / by this: things founded clean on their own shapes, / water and ground in their extremity.'
  • 'Bogland'  "I was putting my right leg into the trousers when I got the first line," says Heaney in Stepping Stones.  We have this pair of trousers to thank for some of Heaney's most famous poems.  "From the moment I wrote it, I felt promise in 'Bogland'  Without having any clear notion of where it would lead or even whether I would go back to the subject, I realised that new co-ordinates had been established."  This last poem in Door into the Dark would open the door to others in which the bog and its Iron Age victims serve partly as metaphor for events in Northern Ireland: 'Tollund Man' in Wintering Out and then the poems of North: 'Kinship', 'Punishment', 'Strange Fruit'... The drowned bodies are inseparable from their landscape: the Bog Queen preserved on the gravel bottom, 'between heathery levels / and glass-toothed stone'; the Grauballe Man, who 'lies / on a pillow of turf / and seems to weep / the black river of himself'.
  • 'Gifts of Rain'   In Stepping Stones Heaney is asked about a new interest in the semantic and phonetic in his fourth collection, Wintering Out, where poems take the sound of words as their subject.  I've described one of these, 'Anahorish', before, but there is also 'Toome' and 'Broagh', in which the rain beating on 'windy boortrees / and rhubarb-blades' ends suddenly like the word itself, with that gh that strangers find 'difficult to manage.' 'Gifts of Rain' describes a flooded landscape and the swollen river Moyola 'harping on / its gravel beds.'  This too is a phonetic place poem: 'The tawny guttural water / spells itself: Moyola / is its own score and consort, / bedding the locale in the utterance...'  
  • 'Höfn'   Heaney is periodically drawn into politics by O'Driscoll's questions and this poem, with its aerial view of a melting glacier in Iceland, is the pretext for a question on the environment (Heaney says he inclines more to lament than protest).  'Höfn' focuses on Heaney's primal fear of the glacier as it looked that day, an 'undead grey-gristed earth-pelt', so cold that it would 'deepfreeze the seep of adamantine tilth'.  Heaney is of course 'a man of the soil' and tells O'Driscoll that he has rarely felt as exposed as he did that day over the "stony grey scar of ice."
  • 'Postscript'   This is the last poem in The Spirit Level and is similar to 'The Peninsula', but much more specific: the drive is 'out west / into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore, / in September or October, when the wind / and the light are working off each other.'  The poet observes swans on the surface of a lake but is content to drive on rather than park and try to 'capture' the moment.  The 'known and strange things' will, he realises, pass by and through him like the wind, catching 'the heart off guard' and blowing it open. Asked about this poem in Stepping Stones, Heaney says that it came to him quickly, as he recollected a windy day on Galway Bay: "we drove on into this glorious exultation of air and sea and swans."  You can hear him read the poem in the clip below.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Even Over Eden

Exhibition booklet showing a detail from
Adam Pynacker, Landscape with Sportsmen and Game, 1665

The Mall Galleries have a new exhibition, 'Memory & Imagination', that brings together contemporary art works with Dutch Italianate landscape paintings from the Dulwich Picture Gallery.  The term Dutch Italianate immediately makes you wonder what memories of their northern landscape Dutch artists brought with them to Rome, or what dreams of Italy permeated the work they painted back in Holland.  Eventually, as Brian Sewell writes in his introduction to the show, there developed a 'nowhere landscape to be found in neither north nor south, ideal and decorative, serene and perfect; in these, that which might be northern is warmed by a southern sun and that which might be southern cools in a northern dusk or dawn'.  Adam Pynacker's Landscape with Sportsmen and Game is an example of this fusion, with its silver birch trees and golden sunlight, although most people these days remember it for those extraordinary blue leaves in the foreground (an unintentionally surreal effect caused by chemical changes in the paint). 

When I was asked last year whether I had any suggestions for contemporary artists whose work might be justaposed with Dutch landscapes, I immediately thought of Martin Greenland, whose Before Vermeer's Clouds I mentioned here a few years ago.  I was therefore pleased to see his oil painting Even Over Eden (2004-11) hanging among the Cuyps, Wijnants and Wouwermans and to have a chat with him at the this week's private view.  He was explaining that his compositions are imaginary, painted in the studio, with no use of photographs, and yet at the same time deeply inspired by the Lake District where he walks and sketches.  Here is what he says on his blog about another of these recent pictures, National Park: 'I set off in this work to produce a winter painting which was ABOUT my home landscape rather than of it. I have begun to realise that what is seen in my paintings is what I KNOW, which is as a result of what I have seen. The mountains have hints at and are the essence of the south-west Cumbrian mountains but as usual I had to invent them and to delight in exploring the landscape through the paint, to explore in the paint and to be enlivened by the success of the invention.'

Further down the same wall you come upon John Stark's Aurora (Goddess of Dawn) (2007) which on inspection turns out to be a kind of Et in Arcadia Ego Faecem - the goddess is, as the Mall Gallery delicately puts it, 'emptying her bowels in an Italianate landscape.'  I'm not normally that keen on finding turds in landscape art and managed to write a whole post recently about Paul Noble's drawings without referring to that aspect of them that led The Sun to dub his work 'plop art' (admittedly this was like visiting a Chris Ofili show and not mentioning the elephant dung in the room).  Nevertheless, as Brian Sewell says, the Dutch artists in Rome did not avoid indelicate subject matter: some of them all but forgot the ancient monuments, using them 'as background and setting for their preferred human subjects whom Salvador Rosa dubbed the flea-ridden scum of society, those who shit, piss and pick their noses without embarrassment or shame'.  Defecation was apparently 'a recurring motif for the Dutch Italianates and several of the paintings in this exhibition include defecating dogs'. 

It would not have been surprised to spot such earthy details somewhere in Emily Allchurch's photographic collage Worldscape (after Patinir) (2008), with its wind farm, digger and protest signs visible among green hills and mountains.  I shouldn't think her work is Brian Sewell's cup of tea, but then he expresses little admiration for the original formula of the worldscape - 'everything a traveller has ever seen, piled Pelion on Ossa in immeasurable distances and perhaps framed by a proscenium arch, the viewer's eye compelled to leap from repoussoir to repoussoir across clear bands of brown and green and blue that have scant reference to reality.'  Tom Hunter's poetic Swan Song (2002) is composed almost as if he wants it to have no reference to reality.  In fact it is a photograph of a river near where I live.  I was just reading the gallery notes ('Hunter depicts the deprived inner-city borough of Hackney as a rural idyll') when Michael Portillo interrupted proceedings to make a speech and welcome the City accountants whose company is sponsoring the exhibition.  Returning to Memory and Imagination I became absorbed in the final contemporary work on display, Jeffrey Blondes'  time-lapse landscape film Length of Days (2011) (similar in conception to a film I mentioned here last year, Jem Finer's Still).  I stood for a while in front of this, but the changes were barely perceptible (the clip below is a speeded-up version).  It seemed to be frozen at an appropriately timeless moment, with an Italianate light glowing behind the wintry trees.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Dark mires where only priests should wade

The Ankerwycke Yew, Berkshire
Said to be the site of Henry VIII's first liaisons with Anne Boleyn
Amongst the praise heaped on Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall it was not surprising to see it described as 'a dark mirror held up to our own world'.  Reading its sequel, Bring Up The Bodies, I found myself thinking less of any political parallels than of the ageless issues of truth and lies, suspicions, rumours and the limits of what we are ready to believe of people.  I'm not sure why they are calling the current police inquiries into sexual abuse Operation Yewtree - it calls up historical associations with lutes and longbows, poison and burial.  Thomas Cromwell's investigations into accusations of treason, adultery and incest were not given a name.  He makes use of information about Anne Boleyn received from her ladies-in-waiting, but is unsure how far to trust what they relate, or what they say about the king himself.  It is likely, he thinks, 'that in conversations between themselves they trespass in places where a man would never trust his footing.  The king's body is borderless, fluent, like his realm: it is an island building itself or eroding itself, its substance washed out into the waters salt and fresh; it has shores of polder, its marshy tracts, its reclaimed margins; it has tidal waters, emissions and effusions, quags that slough in and out of the conversations of Englishwomen, and dark mires where only priests should wade, rush lights in their hands.'

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park

Ansel Adams, The Tetons and the Snake River (1942)
Source: Wikimedia Commons
This image was included on the Voyager Spacecraft Golden Record. 

Old photograph albums are littered with images of mountains, lakes and rivers that were of momentary fascination to the photographer on their travels, but are ignored now in comparison to the accompanying snaps of family members.  Perhaps it's not surprising therefore that Geoff Dyer's Borgesian history of photography, The Ongoing Moment, largely excludes landscape views.  He only finds one thing to write about Ansel Adams, 'the most popular and arguably the most influential photographer in American history', according to the website for the Adams exhibition currently on in London.  It is a passing reference to an atypical non-landscape photograph, 'unexceptional in every way', that Adams took of the model Charis Wilson.  Ansel Adams is certainly not a photographer you go to for human interest.  Alastair Sooke of the Telegraph doesn't warm to him: 'Adams’s photographs have an enamelled over-intensity that can feel inhuman. In his pictures, Adams presents an alternative to reality. With consummate skill, he isolates and composes a scene so that it resembles a snapshot of perfection. Yet it also remains distant and unattainable.  Even a familiar image such as Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, California, about 1937 has an extraterrestrial quality: all that wintry vapour could be clouds of nebular gas coalescing into a faraway planet at the beginning of the universe. On such a cosmic scale, humans are irrelevant. Adams’s vision is at best detached, at worst cold and misanthropic.'

One of the advantages of seeing the exhibition with children this week was that I felt I had permission to enjoy these images as an 'alternative to reality' (on another of the miserable wet days we have been experiencing here in London).  I didn't feel I had to keep reminding myself that these mountains and rivers are not the timeless wilderness his photographs might lead you to suppose.  Nor was I in danger of being seduced into planning a holiday to 'the great landscapes of the Golden State' (the exhibition is sponsored by Visit California).  Instead I became absorbed in the shadows, patterns and visual echoes that Adams brought out of monumental vistas and detailed studies of surf and foam, seaweed and barnacles, icicles and snow.  Adams was one of the photographers who led the move away from Pictorialism (soft-focus images intended to look like paintings) but his images are all highly composed.  One interesting early print shows the influence of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints: a mosaic of flat planes showing sky, rocks and slope of trees and Marion Lake. (You can see this photograph at Artblart - an interesting blog brought to my attention just this week by its author Marcus Bunyon).  Alastair Sooke sees something of 'a deadening effect' in this formalism, given that Adams's wanted the images to provide an 'equivalent' to the emotions he felt out in the landscape.  Nevertheless, these photographs would be 'unexceptional in every way' if their musical configurations of form and light and shade wasn't deeply satisfying at some level.  And on that note here, is a clip of the late Dave Brubeck, talking about Ansel Adams' notion that 'photographers are in a sense composers, and the negatives are their scores'.