Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Jardin Monceau

Among the distant ancestors of television, the eighteenth century rouleaux transparents of Louis Carrogis (known by the name of Carmontelle) have a particular interest for landscape historians.  As the handles of the box were turned, viewers were taken on a stroll through a succession of scenes with titles like The Four Seasons, Landscapes of France and The Banks of the Seine.  The clip embedded above shows a surviving example, Figures Walking in a Parkland, which featured in the Getty Museum's 2006 exhibition, Carmontelle's Transparency: An 18th-Century Motion Picture.  Carmontelle, a cobbler's son, was employed as tutor, engineer and master of entertainments by various French aristocrats - the Duc de Chevreuse, the Duc de Luynes, the Comte Pons de Saint-Maurice, and from 1763, Louis Philippe I, Duke of Orléans.  He wrote plays, designed sets and painted portraits of illustrious guests, including Rameau, d'Holbach, Sterne and the young Mozart.  In the 1770s Carmontelle was given the opportunity to create a real landscape, when he was commissioned to design the Jardin Monceau for the Duc de Chartres, Louis-Philippe's son.  The resulting garden was, according to Carmontelle, 'a land of illusions.'

Carmontelle, Carmontelle Giving the Keys of the Parc Monceau to the Duke of Chartres, c. 1790

The spectacle of the Jardin Monceau is conveyed by John Dixon Hunt in his book The Picturesque Garden in Europe.  'There was, according to Carmontelle's own commentary in Jardin Monceau près de Paris (1779), a specific itinerary through its 'quantity of curious things', and later commentators have plausibly attributed to his route a Masonic subtext.  Visitors entered by a Chinese gateway, next door to a gothic building that served as a chemical laboratory, and passed through greenhouses and coloured pavilions.  Upon pressing a button, a mirrored wall opened into a winter garden painted with trompe-l'œil trees, floored with red sand, filled with exotic plants, and containing at its far end a grotto in which summer parties were held while music was played in the chamber above.  Outside was a farm.  Then there were a series of exotic 'locations': a Temple of Mars, a winding river with an island of rocks and a Dutch mill, a dairy, two flower gardens, a Turkish tent poised, minaret-like, above an icehouse, a grove of tombs (still there today), and an Italian vineyard with a classical Bacchus at its centre, regularly laid out to contrast with an irregular wood that succeeded it.  The final stretches of the itinerary included a Naumachia or Roman water-theatre (still there), more Turkish and Chinese effects, a ruined castle, yet another water-mill, and an island on which sheep grazed.' 

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Pine Woods Notebook

After the defeat of the French army and the German occupation, Francis Ponge set out, travelling by foot and bicycle, to reach the Free Zone.  It was a month and a half before he reached a small village in the Haute-Loire and there, reunited with his family but with no access to books, he began writing in the only paper that was available to him.  Over the course of a month, this pocket notebook recorded his repeated attempts to express the essence of the landscape he now found himself in.  The pine woods, like this part of unoccupied France, were a shelter, 'where one can roam about at ease, without underbrush, without branches grazing the head, where one can stretch out on dry ground, not spongy, quite comfortably.  Each pine wood is like a natural sanatorium, also a music hall... a chamber, a vast cathedral for meditation (fortunately a cathedral without a pulpit) open to all winds, but through so many doors it's as though they were closed.  For winds hesitate before them.'
August 7th: The wood is like a room - 'A carpet prevails over it.  A few stray rocks supply furnishings' 
August 8th: The pine tree is mostly dead wood and 'flares up only at the very peak: something like a candle'
August 9th: The masts of the trees are 'crinkled, lichen-cloaked like an elderly Creole'
August 12th: Pine needles are like bristles, 'hard as the teeth of a comb.'
August 13th: 'These woods are of a type of structure that has a very high ceilinged ground floor and above that an extremely complicated framework of upper floors, ceiling and roof.'  
August 17th: Within the wood there is 'perfect dryness.  Assuring vibrations and musicality.  Something metallic.  The presence of insects.  Fragrance.'
August 20th: The pine is 'the elemental idea of a tree.  It is an I, a stalk, and the rest matters little.'

August 21st: The wood is like a hairdressing salon - 'aromatic brushery in an overheated atmosphere' and 'fragments of sky like shards of mirrors.'

August 22nd: It is a 'temple of caducity'

August 24th: 'Above all, it is a slow production of wood.'

As Ponge walked and wrote he assembled the elements for a poem with the tentative title 'Sunlight in the Pine Woods.'  But what he eventually published a decade later in La rage de l'expression (translated for Archipelago Books by Lee Fahnestock) was not this poem, or even the kind of short prose pieces that brought acclaim when Le parti pris des choses appeared in 1942, but the notebook entries themselves.  The observations quoted above are found among lists and dictionary definitions, rewritings, plans and half formed ideas ('would it be possible to disentangle a forest...?')  For Ponge poetry is always imperfect, but a reader of The Pine Woods Notebook can follow him into the trees and witness poetry in the making.

Friday, April 19, 2013


 Still from Ka Mountain by OpenEndedGroup

In 1972 Robert Wilson and his avant-garde theatre group the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds staged a seven-day non-stop performance across an entire mountain landscape in Iran, called KA MOUNTAIN AND GUARDenia TERRACE: a story about a family and some people changing.  Maria Shevtsova describes it in her book on Robert Wilson as 'a site-specific fantasia, a ritual and a pilgrimage across the seven hills of the arid rocky terrain of the Haft Tan Mountain.' It 'involved an old man's journey up one of these hills while a host of unconnected events occurred simultaneously on all seven.  Every day a different Byrd played the old man as if to suggest, by the change of actor, the idea of he seven stages through which human life supposedly passes.  The old man paused at various stations identified by cut-outs of such symbols of Western civilisation as Noah's Ark, the Acropolis and the New York skyline.  These served as relay points for the performers and were where the spectator-participants could stop and rest, if they had not dropped out already.  (Indeed, few managed to last the week.)'  A dinosaur stood at the summit and the performance ended with the face of a giant ape going up in flames.  But 'the mountain itself with its searing heat during the day and intense cold at night could be said to be the prime actor in this epic whose greatest significance probably lay in the personal inner journeys undergone by its makers.'

 Still from Ka Mountain by OpenEndedGroup

In an animated film made recently by the OpenEndedGroup, Robert Wilson describes his design for KA MOUNTAIN AND GUARDenia TERRACE.  The image above shows a sketch of the setting for the 'Overture' to the performance: an oasis-like Sufi garden with a view up to the mountain.  This was where, as Osia Trilling, wrote in The Drama Review (June 1973), 'the audience was able to get a foretaste of some of what was to follow later.  Here they caught their first glimpse of the livestock Wilson had collected, some of them in uncomfortably small cages, including a bear, a lion, various horses, donkeys, poultry, deer, goats and an elephant.'  If this sounds a bit dodgy from the perspective of 2013, consider Wilson's unrealised plan to blow up the top of the mountain at the end of the seven-day pilgrimage...  'At this, the Shiraz Festival authorities, who had proved unusually accommodating until then, drew the line.'  How playful this proposal was is not clear: Trilling tried to elicit information from him in an amusingly unhelpful interview ("What is the meaning of Ka in your title?" - "I dunno.")  In the end Wilson was content to set an emblematic Chinese pagoda on fire - its cut-out form can be seen on the left next to the burning ape in the photograph below.  Basil Langton recalled the scene in, 'Journey to Ka Mountain': the landscape on this last night became 'a fiery torch that burned all night over the sleeping town of Shiraz - by accident or design, a symbol of "mountain theology" and the fire-worship of ancient Persia.'

Basil Langton's photograph of the burning ape on Ka Mountain
See The Drama Review, Vol 17, No. 2, June 1973

Paul Kaiser of OpenEndedGroup has alerted me to 'a huge new work we're making about a cross-section through the broken city of Detroit', which sounds like it will appeal to readers of this blog.  Their site includes earlier artworks and some fascinating writings, including something on the background to their film Ka Mountain.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A lion near Hymettos

One misty September morning in 1999 on the island of Naxos, my girlfriend and I set off in a taxi to find the kouros of Melanes.  As we drove along empty roads shaded with olive trees and past hillside farms and whitewashed churches our driver told us the story of how he had abandoned a career in the law, unable to bring himself to "tell lies".  He dropped us off near the site of the kouros - a recumbent statue 6 metres long, resting where it had been abandoned in the 6th century BC, probably because its leg had been broken.  Moved by the sight of this ancient, weathered youth, we wanted to see a second, less well-preserved kouros that apparently lay somewhere nearby.  An old lady in the neighbouring orchard spoke no English, but fortunately a passing German hiker spoke some Greek and he asked her how to find it.  We would have to climb over the rocks of the ancient quarry: "you have to be like a sheep".  And so started up a rough track before heading off across the hillside, picking our way between thistles and thorns and crumbling dry-stone walls.  There was still a low mist obscuring the distant peaks and everything was quiet.  At last we saw it, lying prone and heavily eroded among the marble boulders.  The photograph I took (below) hardly conveys the experience of that moment, when the deep past seemed seemed both present and impossibly remote.

In October 1805, Edward Dodwell came across another giant statue in the Greek landscape.  This colossal marble lion, its legs broken, lay undisturbed in the mountains of Hymettos.  But it must have been too desirable to be left there for travellers to come upon, and was eventually removed to a museum in Athens before ending up by the chapel of Agios Nikolaus at Kantza.  I have looked this place up online and all I can find is one tiny photograph of the lion, caged behind white railings.  I wonder how many people ever go to see it there?  The painting Doswell made can be seen in the British Museum's 'In Search of Classical Greece: Travel Drawings of Edward Dodwell and Simone Pomardi 1805–1806'.  The centrepiece of this exhibition is a panorama of Athens, seen from the Hill of the Muses, near the Monument to Philopappos (where, incidentally, Giovanni Battista Lusieri was also sketching that year, as I mentioned in a previous post).  Athens then was little more than a village at the base of the Acropolis; in 1999 we found a polluted urban sprawl and taxi drivers unwilling to stop for us.  It is easy to imagine urbanisation overtaking the 'lone and level sands' round the broken statue of Shelley's Ozymandius, his great shattered head with its 'wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command' long since gone, removed and lost to view in some unvisited suburb.

Edward Dodwell, Lion near Hymettos, looking north towards Mount Pentele, 1805

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The island of Cytherea

The strange and beautiful Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, published by Aldus Manutius in Venice in December 1499 and written by the monk Francesco Colonna (if we are to believe an acrostic formed by the first letters of each chapter), narrates the dream journey of Poliphilo and his quest to gain the love of Polia.  As Joscelyn Godwin writes in the introduction to his translation - the first complete one in English, completed to mark the book's 500th anniversary - Poliphilo's name indicates that he is a lover of many things, including architecture, gardens and sculpture.  'He has a passion for rich, colourful fabrics, especially when they are worn by nymphs; he revels in music, pageantry, ritual, and any other spectacle that induces a heightened state of consciousness.  ... When Poliphilo stands agape before the stupendous buildings of Antiquity, he seems to enjoy the same state of arousal as when he voyages to Cytherea in the company of Cupid, Polia and six exquisitely seductive sailor-nymphs.  At every opportunity he indulges in enumeration of detail that one might call fetishistic when he applies it to clothing or footwear, but which is no less obsessive when the object is an elaborate fountain or an emblematic obelisk.  This polymorphous eroticism is what gives the Hypnerotomachia its intensity and its atmosphere, saturated with the desire to gaze, to taste, and to consume.'

The dream begins at dawn with Poliphilo wandering, lost, on a broad silent plain, after a sleepless night lamenting his unrequited love.  In these early pages of the book, the landscapes he encounters are natural but empty of people - it is only once he has emerged from a maze of dark tunnels into a pleasant country of fruitful fields that he meets five nymphs who bathe him and take him to their Queen.  In this locus amoenus there is a sense of perfection and exquisite artifice in everything, including two remarkable gardens - one made of glass, the other of silk.  When he is eventually ready to be taken to the island of Cytherea (a journey that might be compared to that taken in Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Domain of Arnheim' which I described recently) he finds a shore 'washed by friendly tides and pebbled with strewn gemstones that shone in various forms and colours.  There was also abundant evidence of the fragrant coitus of monstrous whales, brought up by the fruitful tides.'  This is 'no place for mountains or deserts; all unevenness had been eliminated'  It is a perfect circle, three miles round, with an outer ring containing twenty groves of trees and inner rings featuring a succession of meadows, knot gardens, emblem gardens and finally an arena containing the fountain of Venus.  The book's ekphrastic descriptions and line drawings of topiary, statuary and buildings had a wide influnce on the design and planting of formal gardens in subsequent years, from the canals and colonnades of Versailles to the Villa d'Este's fountain of the sleeping nymph.

Although the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili imagines a pristine classical world, it contains within it a few poignant reminders of the ruins and fragments that were all that remained of the temples and monuments of antiquity.  Waiting for the arrival of Lord Cupid's 'speedy hexireme' and their embarkation for Cytherea, Polia and Poliphilo contemplate an ancient building, built upon the 'wave-resounding shore of the ebbing sea.  What remained of it was a great ruin of walls and enclosures, structures of white marble, and nearby a broken and sea-dashed mole of the nearby harbour.  In the fissures thereof I saw growing the salt-loving littoral cock's-crest, in some places ox-eye, much saltwort and the fragrant sea-wormwood, and on the sandbanks iringo, purslane, sea-colewort and other well-known simples, characias and myrtites.'  They sit on the grass talking, but gradually Poliphilo starts to feel a pleasurable heat as he gazes at her tightly fitting shoes - 'fine instruments for disturbing one's life and for the excessive torment of a heart aflame' -  and then at her 'dazzling bosom and delicious breast, where two rounded apples stood forth, resisting their clothing and striving obstinately against it.'  It is Polia who rescues the situation by suggesting that he go off and explore the ruins: "take your pleasure in looking at these, and examine the noble fragments that remain, which are worthy of our admiration.  And I will wait for you, contentedly sitting in this place, watching for the arrival of our Lord, who shall take us to his mother's holy and desirable realm." 

Friday, April 05, 2013

They played one evening in a grove of oak trees

 The Ben Greet Players in scenes from As You Like It
Photographs from The Craftsman, September 1907

In 1886 the English actor and impresario Ben Greet came up with the novel idea of forming a professional theatre company dedicated to performing plays at outdoor locations.  One of his actors later recalled that "the pieces most generally chosen were 'The Tempest,' 'The Dream,' 'Twelfth Night,' and 'As You Like It.'  Seasons lasting six weeks were sometimes given in the Botanic Gardens, Regent's Park, while on country tours, care was taken to have an option over a neighbouring playhouse in case of rain - which is not quite unknown In England!  In Llandudno (Wales) we played 'The Dream,' in a beautiful natural amphitheatre, known as 'The Happy Valley,' before 10,000 people, a memorably unique occasion."  Greet himself explained to an interviewer why they mainly stuck to Shakespeare comedies: "frock coats and grey trousers don’t seem to fit in with the green background of nature. Doublet and hose is the only wear that the public like, and I quite agree with them."

Ben Greet at an outdoor theatre on the shores of Lake Minnetonka

The company was based in America from 1902 to 1914 (when Greet returned to London to take over the Old Vic) and a Google search will reveal various references to their performances in old newspapers.  In June 1911 for example they were in Princeton: '"A Midsummer Night's Dream," which will be given to-night, is above all plays, adapted to outdoor production and has been produced with much favor at many colleges. The woodland effect will be easily achieved on the Princeton campus, and the performance should be both charming and instructive'.  In 1908 President Roosevelt invited Greet's Woodland Players to perform on the lawn of the White House - on this occasion they opted for a play based on Greek myth rather than a Shakespeare comedy.  However, it wasn't all plain sailing: 'Greet, ever mindful of the box-office, was convinced, during one Canadian alfresco matinee, that two latecomers had slipped into the back row without paying — they were discovered to be two bears.'

 'The poetic value of forest settings'

To what extent did the outdoor environment and surrounding landscape affect the way people experienced these plays?  Some anecdotes are given in a 1907 article in The Craftsman by Selene Ayer Armstrong, entitled 'Under the greenwood tree with Ben Greet and his merry woodland players: their happiness in the simple things of life a lesson in the joy of living.'  At a performance of The Tempest on the shore of Lake Michigan, 'the weather was fine until the play began, when one of those sudden storms frequent on the lake front was threatened.  Trees were swayed by the wind and a few gentle raindrops fell.  The sky grew black at the very moment in which Miranda, who grasped the possibilities of the situation, pleaded with her father to allay the storm. [...] On another occasion, when the company was presenting "Midsummer Night's Dream," Titania, looking up at an uncertain moon, spoke the line "The moon, methinks, looks with a watery eye," and a gentle rain began to fall.  The audience simply laughed heartily and raised its umbrellas for the moment, while the play continued uninterruptedly.'  The article concludes with the memories of an audience member who had seen A Midsummer Night's Dream in Rockford, Illinois:
"They played one evening in a grove of oak trees on the bank of the Rock River.  The river flowed behind them, and from somewhere in the trees soft music was heard.  It was in August, and in the distant background a wonderful harvest moon, all red, came up.  The actors, in their Greek costumes, seemed the most natural and beautiful part of the scene.  As a spectacle, I shall never forget it.  We all showed signs of tears, and I cared not whether a line were spoken, had I but been allowed to look."

Monday, April 01, 2013

Silt Road

Having mentioned Silt last week, I come now to Silt Road, a new book kindly sent me by Charles Rangeley-Wilson.  It is 'The Story of a Lost River', the River Wye: not the 'sylvan Wye' celebrated by Wordsworth, but a nine mile tributary of the Thames that used to flow through High Wycombe until it was built over as part of a road widening scheme.  The book has historical digressions on water meadows, chalk geology, the Swing Riots and the Hellfire Club, but there's a pervading sense of melancholy, as the author trudges through winter rain and sits alone in a public library, looking at old maps and trying to trace the history of the river's imprisonment.  At one particularly low ebb he dreams of a dead fish, prompting recollections of happier times fishing for trout in Tasmania. Angling has been the subject of Charles Rangeley-Wilson's two previous books, Somewhere Else and The Accidental Angler and it is no surprise to see that he will be appearing on the new Caught by the River stage at this year's Field Day festival.  The same event will also have Melissa Harrison reading from her novel Clay (she has just reviewed Silt Road in The FT), plus a session dedicated to field recording that features some of the people I mentioned here recently (along with DJ and fellow Stoke Newington resident, Jonny Trunk).  It's good to see Caught by the River going from strength to strength - having begun as a site dedicated to the riverine enthusiasms of the team behind Heavenly Records it has now become essential reading for anyone interested in British nature writing and field recording.