Saturday, June 29, 2013

In the foggy forest

Amy Cutler emerged recently from the groves of Academe where she is completing a PhD to organise ‘Time, the deer, is in the wood of Hallaig’, an exhibition on the theme of 'forests, history, and social and environmental memory'.  I have written a piece about it for EarthLines Review but wasn't able to describe there everything that had been brought together for this show (a full list with photographs is now available in an online catalogue).  What I want to do here though is highlight the work of one artist I omitted from my review, Katsutoshi Yuasa.  His image of a deer in the woods displayed prominently at the back of the old belfry (see above) looks like an illustration of the Sorley Maclean poem 'Hallaig' from which the exhibition took its name, although it is actually called See you in the Foggy Forest.  The fogginess of the image is not simply the result of enlarging an old photograph or repeated photocopying (a process W. G. Sebald apparently used to arrive at some of his mysterious embedded images).  Yuasa's method is to monochromise photographs on a computer, carve them onto wooden panels using traditional chokokutou knives and then hand print them onto paper.

  Katsutoshi YuasaSee you in the Foggy Forest, 2010

Writing about Yuasa on her blog, Amy says that 'the amount of visual feedback in Katsutoshi Yuasa’s woodcuts reminds me of some research I’m doing now on memory and ideas of oral transmission and lexical feedback in the forest: ‘All of the problems and possibilities of oral thought and transmission are present in the forest’ (Martyn Hudson).'  Yuasa's titles 'persistently follow themes of noise, communication, and illegibility, with print titles including Listen, nature is full of songs and truth, The world without words, Made in the conversation, Slow screaming and Quotations from nature (while his first major solo exhibition in London was called Echoes from Nature).'  For me there are echoes of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, a film about the unreliability of memory that is set in a Japanese forest.  However, as I have not actually watched this film in twenty-five years, all I can say reliably now is that Yuasa's woodcuts are like the foggy memories I retain of Rashomon's woodland setting, details of its plot having long since been forgotten.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Across the Tappan Zee

'Sligo River Blues' has always been my favourite song on John Fahey's Blind Joe Death (1959), the album which defined a new genre: American primitivism.  Other rivers flowed through his subsequent work: 'Sunflower River Blues', 'On the Banks of the Owchita', 'Revelation on the Banks of the Pawtuxent' (all feature on the recent Four Men With Beards compilation, The Transcendental Waterfall: Guitar Excursions 1962-1967).  I'm not sure how important landscape was for Fahey but a sense of place is evident in a lot of the music he put out on Takoma Records.  His friend Robbie Basho, who made his Takoma debut in 1965, was, like the Beat writers, inspired to transplant aspects of Asian culture, including the ragas of Ravi Shankar.  Landscape obviously inspired songs like Song of the Snowy Ranges, Rocky Mountain Raga and Green River Suite, although I must admit I do find his singing a bit hard going.  After Robbie Basho's untimely death in 1986 (following a freak chiropractor accident) his mantle was assumed by the East German guitarist Steffan Basho-Junghans.  This passing on of the name might seem less of an affectation if you bear in mind that the original Bashō only assumed this haigō (haiku name) in 1680 after disciples planted for him a bashō (banana tree).  The video clip below is an interview with Steffan Basho-Junghans in which he talks about the importance of nature and mountain landscapes for his music and painting. 

One of the most prominent figures in the revival of American primitivism over the last decade has been Glenn Jones, whose new record My Garden State I've been listening to this week.  It was written on extended trips to look after his mother in northern New Jersey, where he grew up.  The album begins and ends with 'field recordings of insect chorus and chimes, evoking baking hot days in the burgeoning fields of a market farm' (Nick Southgate in The Wire).  The tune Jones plays with Laura Baird in the clip below is named after the Tappan Zee bridge that spans the Hudson River.  Other tracks are based on specific experiences, as Grayson Currin explains in Pitchfork: ''The Vernal Pool', for instance, is an improvisation Jones played shortly after Baird showed him the farm habitat of spadefoot toads, which use the “spades” of their feet to dig into their subterranean lairs for a season’s rest. When it rains in the spring, they dig their way out and become “explosive breeders.” Jones saw the toads in the fall, when they still lurked underground. This piece starts with listless hibernation, his slow notes languishing inside their own decay. Across its five minutes, though, it builds into a bustle, with a thumbed bass line muscling its way through a raga-like flurry of sound. Even at its most vibrant and vivid, 'The Vernal Pool' reveals a constant vein of anxiety, as if to acknowledge at once the world’s forever-chained wonder and worry while celebrating it, too.'

Friday, June 21, 2013

Recording Britain

"I need not tell you what terrible distress the war is causing among artists", Sir Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery, wrote to an official at the Ministry of Labour in October 1939.  "The situation is so serious that I have been wondering if it would not be desirable for the Government to take some action."  The result was Recording Britain , a project that eventually comprised more than 1500 paintings and drawings, some commissioned from leading lights of the Royal Watercolour Society others by new artists who were paid a small fee for each painting accepted.  As the V&A who own the collection explain, 'Recording Britain was intended to boost national morale by celebrating the country’s natural beauty and architectural heritage, but it was also a memorial to the war effort itself. The earliest pictures show the landscapes of southern England which were under immediate threat from bomb damage and invasion; in due course the remit was expanded to include those landscapes, buildings and ways of life that were vulnerable to the destructive forces of ‘progress’ – urban expansion, housing developments, road-building and so on.'

Why isn't the art of Recording Britain better known?  As Gill Saunders writes in her introduction to the V&A's book Recording Britain, received opinion was that the venture was 'characterized by monotonous mediocrity'.  When she first looked at the collection in the early 1980s the pictures seemed 'muddy or washed-out, second rate, and in their brittle yellowing card mounts, they gave off an air of neglect.'  The only catalogue was 'a shabby typescript on cheap paper bound in the ubiquitous dark blue of Her Majesty's Stationary Office.'  The emphasis on 'recording' meant that more experimental landscape painting was out and although Clark favoured the neo-Romantic artists and secured the involvement of John Piper, the rest of the committee had conservative tastes.  Nevertheless, Gill Saunders writes of finding among the dross some 'thrilling revelations': paintings by Piper, Kenneth Rowntree, Stanley Badmin, Barbara Jones, Enid Marx, Michael Rothenstein, Phylis Dimond, Charles Knight and William Russell Flint (whose rather abstract watercolours a Times reviewer of the first Recording Britain exhibition felt 'perhaps come nearer to landscape than to true topography.')  You can view these on the V&A site.

Another problem with Recording Britain, as Charles Hind explains in his essay 'Recording Britain: Architecture', is that it left large parts of the country unrecorded. In particular, it was 'woefully inadequate in terms of buildings and landscapes that were destroyed or damaged in the war ... Virtually none of the towns and cities targeted by the Luftwaffe during the Baedecker Raids was considered worthy of inclusion, and those that were got only the scantiest coverage ... German radio announced on 4 May [1942]: 'Exeter was a jewel.  We have destroyed it.'  Pevsner recorded that the German bombers 'found Exeter primarily a medieval city, they left it primarily a Georgian and early Victorian city.'  Recording Britain is of little help here in providing images of the lost urban fabric.'  In contrast, 63 paintings were made in the Kingston-Petersham-Richmond-Kew area but these areas have never been under threat, remaining 'in demand for those wealthy enough to want rural amenities within a short car drive of London, and all survive.'  Although Recording Britain provided 'a swansong to the great tradition of English topographical watercolours, the task of recording the vanishing architectural heritage of England belonged to photographers rather than painters.'

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The winter sun shines in

                                                                mikan hagu
                                                                tsuma-saki ki nari

                                                                Through the glass door
                                                                the winter sun shines in -
- 1899

One of the most poignant books I know, Burton Watson's anthology of poems by Masaoka Shiki begins with haiku written in the summer of 1891 and ends with Shiki's death from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-four, just eleven years later.  He first showed signs of the illness in 1889 and his family and friends were convinced he would die when he suffered a severe hemorrhage on returning from the Sino-Japanese War, where despite his ill health Shiki had volunteered to work as a war correspondent.  From that time he was mainly confined to bed and could only concentrate on writing when the morphine he needed to relieve the pain took effect.  In December 1899 one of his disciples arranged to have glass installed in the sliding doors of Shiki's room, so that he could see out into the garden (glass was still rare in Japan).  His later haiku focus on what he could experience from his bed: apples on a table, sparrows among the pines, a winter moon seen above bare trees, the sound of scissors clipping roses. He writes of reaching the summit of Mount Fuji, but only in a dream. In his youth Shiki enjoyed baseball and took walking trips through different parts of Japan, but confined to the house, landscape is something he could only imagine by fusing memories and sense impressions: 'Summer grass - / in the distance / people playing baseball.'  Here is one of his last haiku:

                                                                  kubi agete
                                                                  ori-ori miru ya
                                                                  niwa no hagi

                                                                  Now and then
                                                                  lifting my head to look -
                                                                  bushclover in the garden

- 1902

Friday, June 14, 2013

Romney Marsh

In October 1899 a new journal appeared in Germany called Die Insel, 'The Island' and carried four poems by an interesting new writer, Robert Walser (I discussed Walser's poetry here last year).  The magazine only lasted two years but gave rise to a publishing company, Insel-Verlag.  In 1912 they launched a series of distinctively designed short books with Rilke's The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke.  Over time this Island Library series evolved and diversified, introducing marble paper covers, for example, in 1927 (above).  It was these books that inspired the King Penguins which were published over a twenty year period from 1939, eventually comprising 76 volumes.  The first one was on the subject of British birds and many of them focused on aspects of nature or art: roses, shells, mosses, moths, fungi (one volume on the edible kind, another on the poisonous), Egyptian paintings, Greek terracotta, Dürer woodcuts, the medieval carvings of Exeter cathedral and so on.  A few were rather quirky topographical studies: A Prospect of Wales (1948) with text by Gwyn Jones and illustrations by Kenneth Rowntree, The Isle of Wight by Barbara Jones (1950 - one illustration depicted a topiary boat), and Romney Marsh (1950), illustrated and described by John Piper.

Romney Marsh begins by quoting four ‘Earlier Views’: an 1879 address by the Bishop of Dover to the Kent Archaeological  Society, an extract from George Clinch’s Memorials of Old Kent (1907), another from Basil Champneys' A Quiet Corner of England (1875) and this, from an autobiographical article written by Paul Nash c. 1940:
‘I have stayed at Romney Marsh and have watched the eastern sky darken across the dyked flats to Dymchurch and the Channel towards the French coast as the sun sat at my back, and have noticed the strange unity of sea, sky and earth that grows unnoticed at this time and place.’
There is nothing quite as poetic as this in Piper's book, but there are occasional reminders that the author is a painter (‘water lies in light-coloured snatches and loops that reflect a winter sky'...) Mainly however he combines visual description with factual information: 'in winter the reeds still blow in the dykes, showing a pale-yellow flank of close stalks with feathery crowns of grey or purple-black fronds, and there are pea-stacks, built on a tripod of sticks for aeration, as well as the many dyke-side potato and swede clamps.’  The main text is followed by some 'Notes on the Churches of the Marsh and the Cliff' (St Mary Marsh church is said to resemble 'a rural Norfolk church as drawn by Cotman.')  But all this is a prelude to the book's sixteen colour prints, showing a sequence of churches and landscapes (I say 'colour', but they are almost all done in an austerity palette of grey, browns and camouflage green).  You can see a few of them along with Piper's preparatory sketches in the video I have embedded below.  At one point its narrator, admiring the interior of Old Romney church, which Piper painted and described, is apparently caught by surprise when Sir Donald Sinden suddenly appears from behind a curtain, with a copy of the King Penguin in his pocket.  "You've got one of these haven't you?" he says. "I have indeed, wonderful!" she replies.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

A cowscape without cows

In The Guardian last week Blake Morrison wrote an appreciation of Sons and Lovers, marking the hundredth anniversary of its publication.  My failure over the years to derive much pleasure from Sons and Lovers and Lawrence's other novels had until recently put me off reading Out of Sheer Rage, Geoff Dyer's account of his failure to write a book about D. H. Lawrence.  This was a mistake though, because apart from being very amusing, Out of Sheer Rage includes two memorable and contrasting descriptions of the English landscape.  One is by Lawrence himself, in a letter to his hostess at Garsington Manor, Ottoline Morrell - a piece of writing described by Dyer as 'a synthesis in prose of Blake, Constable and Turner'.  Its structure reminded me slightly of the accumulative imagery I described here recently in relation to Francis Ponge: 'each paragraph pulses into life from the seed of the preceding one; each version enters more deeply into the experience.'  I won't quote the whole text (which can be read in Herbert Read's anthology The English Vision) but two paragraphs should give you an idea:
    the wet lawn drizzled with brown sodden leaves; the feathery heap of the ilex tree; the garden-seat all wet and reminiscent:
     between the ilex tree and the bare, purplish elms, a gleaming segment of all England, the dark plough-land and wan grass, and the blue, hazy heap of the distance, under the accomplished morning.
Sadly such accomplished mornings are rarely encountered and here is Dyer, bad tempered (as so often in this book) after a dispiriting pilgrimage to Lawrence's birthplace at Eastwood, looking for the ruins of Haggs farm that featured in Sons and Lovers.
I couldn't find this farm but I stopped the car and looked across the fields, taking in that grazing English countryside I have never cared for: mud, tractor marks, hedgerows, scrubby land, brambles.  A scene which generated its own weather, which dragged the sky down to its own level.  A cowscape without cows.  A BSE landscape.  Farm weather: everything damp and giving off a dank sense that it had never dried out, would never dry out except in recollection, except in memory ... The puddles by the roadside offered no reflection: the water was too old for that, was no longer sensitive to light.  There was no wind: it was so still you wondered how the trees dispensed with their leaves.  Did these trees ever have leaves, or did they just grow like that?  Every now and then there was a break of birds from one bare tree to the next.  The sky was moving towards rain.  I felt cramped, hemmed-in, as if I were still indoors: a desolate, wall-less version of the indoors where the sky was a low, damp ceiling that leaked.  It was not just the rain.  The sea was seeping up through the foundations, coming through the earth.