Friday, May 17, 2013

Hills are all that is necessary, with a few trees for shade

Alfred Jarry on his bicycle
In his essay 'Of the Futility of the 'Theatrical' in the Theatre' (1896) Alfred Jarry offered 'a few words on natural decors, which exist without duplication if one tries to stage a play in the open air, on the slope of a hill, near a river, which is excellent for carrying the voice, especially when there is no awning, even though the sound may be  weakened.  Hills are all that is necessary, with a few trees for shade ... Three or four years ago Monsieur Lugné-Poë and some friends staged La Gardienne at Presles, on the edge of the Isle-Adam forest.  In these days of universal cycling it would not be absurd to make use of summer Sundays in the countryside to stage a few very short performances (say from two to five o'clock in the afternoon) of literature which is not too abstract.'

Photograph of Maurice Pottecher's Théâtre du Peuple at Bussang in 1895

Jarry seems more interested in the idea of making theatre accessible to people than he is in the artistic possibilities of staging drama in real landscapes.  As Arnold Aronson notes in The History and Theory of Environmental Scenography, an open-air Theatre of the People had in fact recently been established by Maurice Pottecher, with a stage backing onto a hillside.  Discussing a performance there in 1896 the editor of the Mercure de France expressed a wish that 'some audacious young director - M. Lugné-Poë, for example - would take the opportunity to present plays in the parks around Paris.'  However, that year M. Lugné-Poë was busy inciting a riot with the first performance of Jarry's Ubu Roi...

Aurélien-François Lugné-Poë was the director of the Théâtre de l'Œuvre, which had opened in 1893 with Maeterlink's Pelléas and Mélisande.  The following year he staged Henri de Régnier's La Gardienne, the play Jarry mentions in the context of outdoor theatre.  Régnier's words were recited from the orchestra pit whilst the actors moved silently on stage, partly hidden by a green gauze veil.  The backdrop was a Symbolist landscape of blue trees with a purple palace, painted by Édouard Vuillard.  According to the critic Jules Lemaître it was like 'a Puvis de Chavannes fresco imitated by the unsteady hand of a colour-blind baby.'  All this did not go down well with audiences, who were particularly baffled by the lack of synchronisation between speech and actions.  It is easy to imagine Régnier's poetry casting more of a spell under the trees of a real forest.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Arrière-pays

'I have often experienced a feeling of anxiety, at crossroads.  At such moments it seems to me that here, or close by, a couple of steps away on the path I didn't take and which is already receding – that just over there a more elevated kind of country would open up, where I might have gone to live and which I've already lost.'  This unattainable country is the subject of Yves Bonnefoy's beautiful aesthetic reverie, The Arrière-pays (1972), recently translated by Stephen Romer.  Certain landscapes seem almost to speak 'like a language, as if the absolute would declare itself, if we could only look and listen intently.' But it remains out of reach: 'it is as if from the forces of life, from the syntax of colours and forms, from dense or iridescent words that nature perennially repeats, there is a single articulation we cannot grasp.'   And yet 'there are certain works that can, for all that, give us a fair idea of the impossible potential.  The blue in Nicolas Poussin's Bacchanalia with Guitar Player has that stormy immediacy, that non-conceptual clear-sightedness for which our whole consciousness craves.' 

Last night in the school hall of the Lycée Français, introducing an event dedicated to The Arrière-pays, Stephen Romer said he often recollected that image of the blue in Poussin's sky.  When he entered the room of Claude landscapes in Oxford that I mentioned here a couple of years ago for example, the arrière-pays was suddenly present in their blue distances.  As I listened to this I peered at a reproduction of Poussin's painting, dimly projected onto a screen behind the speakers, but the blue was hard to discern.  If 'the absolute' failed to declare itself on this occasion, it was partly because there were so many distractions in the room - temporary seats rattling, bored students whispering to each other and an organiser who spent her time coming in and out and interrupting proceedings to tell the speakers how to use microphones.  Still, we had come to experience the aura of the great Yves Bonnefoy, now ninety years old, who seemed unfazed by his surroundings.  He talked vividly about the way his childhood imagination was stirred by the names on a radio dial, the memory of summers spent in the country near the River Lot and his first impressions in Italy of the real landscape he had gazed at in the paintings of the Quattrocento.

Just before the event came to an unexpected end, Bonnefoy was talking with Romer and Anthony Rudolf about an old photograph of an Armenian church that appears in one of the later essays appended to  this edition of The Arrière-pays.  They made a link with the poetic images Sebald used in his books - both have a mysterious, disconnected quality.  This is attributable in part to their grainy light which seems to fall like a "metaphysical snow", directing our thoughts away from the objects depicted and taking us back to early childhood, before our minds had started to impose a structure on the world.  They are mirages, seducing us into dreams that deny the reality of the world.  'I have suffered much, myself, from the lure of images,' Bonnefoy writes in this essay, and it was partly to counteract this that he took up the study of art history.  In Poussin he eventually found 'a painter who could guide me into a self-acceptance of our finite nature.'  As he writes at the end of The Arrière-pays, 'Poussin searches long for the key to the 'music of knowledge', to a return to the wellspring of the real by the power of number; but he is also the man who gathers a handful of earth and says Rome is that.'

Nicolas Poussin, Moses Saved from the Waters, 1647

Monday, May 06, 2013

Mountain Rhythm and Mountain Plateau

When I mentioned Xu Bing in a post here three years ago I referred to installations I could not see, in New York and Sydney, so it was a pleasure on Saturday to enter the portico of the Ashmolean for an exhibition devoted to his art.  Ideally the Tate would put on a full retrospective, including his celebrated Book from the Sky (1991), but the Ashmolean's Landscape/Landscript was fine from the perspective of this blog, tracing as it did the artist's engagement with landscape and language.  This story, from student sketches to four lithographs completed last autumn, The Suzhou Landscripts, is outlined briefly in the notes below.
Xu Bing was born in 1955 to parents who both worked at Peking University, but during the Cultural Revolution his mother was demoted and his father paraded through the streets and jailed.  School was suspended and so Xu Bing taught himself calligraphy and engraving.  In 1974 he was sent to a mountain village north of the Great Wall to do agricultural labour, as part of an 'educated youth' detachment.  The exhibition includes a winter view of farm buildings drawn on wrapping paper in which the white children's crayon used to depict snow shows signs of having frozen in the cold and then melted.       
In 1977 the Central Academy of Fine Arts reopened and Xu Bing was among its first intake.  His training included trips to work alongside rural labourers and industrial workers - the exhibition has a drawing of a timber yard in northeast China whose stacks of logs foreshadow Xu Bing's later compositions based on notions of repetition.  His sketching became simpler and more abstract as he left behind the influence of academic art (the Ashmolean has a case of nineteenth century French drawings to show how this shaped first Soviet and then Chinese socialist realism).  Now employed as a teacher at the Academy, Xu Bing's developed his own vocabulary of 'shaping lines' for increasingly experimental woodblock prints.    
Two of the most interesting landscapes in the exhibition, Mountain Rhythm and Mountain Plateau were made in July 1986 near the hydroelectric power station on the Yellow River at Longyang Gorge.  As the catalogue says, 'the process was unusual.  Xu Bing took with him to Qinghai copper plates that had been waxed in Beijing.  In the open air he scratched through the wax to create the image, using a needle from the travelling printmaking kit he customarily used for his peripatetic teaching.  He added the acid in the evening on his return to the workers' housing where he was staying and the images were printed on his return to Beijing.'      
In 1987 he started his Repetitions series, which you can see on Xu Bing's website'for these works, he made an impression of each state - beginning with a solid black print from an uncarved block and ending with a blank white ''print'' representing the block after the raised surface had been completely carved away.'  The example in the exhibition resembles blocks of newsprint in an unknown script and shows the Ziluidi system of agriculture in which each family was allowed to retain one plot for their own use.   
The exhibition skips over the next ten years, when Xu Bing was establishing his international reputation after moving to the US in 1990.  The idea for the Landscripts came to him in 1999 whilst sketching in the Himalayas.  'I sat on a mountain and, facing a real mountain, I wrote 'mountain' (you might also say I painted a mountain, as for Chinese people to write mountain and to paint a mountain are the same thing).  Where there was river water I wrote the character for 'water'.  The clouds shifted, the mountain colours changed, the wind blew and the grasses moved ... At this point I could set aside completely the historical theories of style and brushstroke and allow myself to be entirely in the feeling of that moment.'   
For me the best kind of Landscript is composed purely of text, and there is a beautiful example in this exhibition from 2002, executed in ink on Nepalese paper with the characters for rock, rain, pine and so on.  In the four new Suzhou Landscripts Chinese characters are less conspicuous, incorporated within the brush strokes of traditional landscapes (versions of paintings by Liu Jue, Zhai Da Kun, Zheng Yuan Xun and Wang Shi Min).  The forms of ancient pictographs are also overlayed in red and the landscapes are surrounded with inscriptions in Xu Bing's Square Word Calligraphy (which turns English words into the shapes of Chinese characters).
The final room in the exhibition has works from Xu Bing's 2005 contribution to UNESCO's Human/Nature project and a 2010 adaptation of The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (1679), which is discussed in a short MFA Boston video.   The latter illustrates Xu Bing's belief that 'a core characteristic of Chinese painting is its semiotic nature': the manual is a dictionary of signs (some of which I have mentioned here before) and an artist need only memorise them, like a language, in order to piece together a world.