Sunday, December 28, 2014

The morning and I meet up again

After many leaden days in London there was a bright sun rising over the rooftops this morning.  It seemed a good moment to listen to Alice Oswald's dawn poem 'Tithonus' on the BBC iPlayer (still available for another four weeks).  This was a shortened version of the performance we went to see back in October at the Queen Elizabeth Hall:
'The world premiere of a specially commissioned new poem, read by the poet herself.
In Greek mythology, the Dawn fell in love with Tithonus and asked Zeus to make him immortal, but she forgot to ask that he should not grow old.  Unable to die, he grew older and older, until at last Dawn locked him in a room where, several thousand years later, he still sits babbling to himself.  This is an account of his babbling, written in real time, through a series of dawns from spring to midsummer 2014. It is a poem about survival.
The performance begins in darkness and lasts 46 minutes (the length of dawn in midsummer).'
Looking back on Twitter for my instant verdict then, I see I said "Alice Oswald performing her dawn poem Tithonus last night reminded me of Patti Smith (if she'd done Classics and lived in Devon)."  I was thinking about the similarities in the way they perform their poetry over music, holding you from the start and building to a point where language starts to overflow and key phrases turn into a refrain (I wrote here a few years ago about a Patti Smith performance like this, a tribute to W. G. Sebald).  At the same time I was conscious of the differences - Patti Smith's rock & roll romanticism and New York drawl contrasting with Alice Oswald's classical learning and precise diction.  The comparison feels less obvious with this new radio version, which had slightly less time for the impressive nykelharp accompaniment of Griselda Sanderson and cut the later part of the poem where poor babbling Tithonus repeats the same lines over and over.  However, listening to it rather than experiencing the performance focused my attention much more on the words of the poem itself.  Here are a few from 12 minutes in (I am transcribing from the broadcast so do not have the line breaks); a vision of the coming dawn: 
'...the wood still lost in its inmost unable.  And mist forms an orderly queue for the horizon.  Green ropes of wind.  White silks of field.  And buried under several feet of colour, the eyes can never quite see out, but it is glittering now in the gaps between things.  And a thistle begins to be properly named and certain of its spikes.  What a chandelier of dock flowers dangles from the ground inverted.  So the morning and I meet up again, but not on talking terms.'
Waking up this morning

Friday, December 26, 2014

Various sorts of landscapes with fine histories composed therein

Joannes and Lucas van Doetecum after Pieter Bruegel the Elder,
Magdalena Poenitens (Penitent Magdalene), ca. 1555–56
Engraving in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In sixteenth century Antwerp there was a shop selling prints with the lovely name, Aux Quatre Vents. It was set up by by Hieronymus Cock in 1548 and run with his wife, Volcxken Dierix, who continued the business for thirty years after Cock's death in 1570.  They were highly successful, as might be inferred from their motto, 'let the cock cook what the people (volcx) want'. The great Pieter Bruegel came to work for Cock at the start of his career, in the mid 1550s, and designed a series of twelve Large Landscapes based in part on what he had observed during his recent travels over the Alps and in Italy.  As the Met site notes, these engravings (actually executed by the brothers Joannes and Lucas van Doetecum), 'among the most widely circulated and celebrated of Bruegel's images, allowed a large audience to become acquainted with his strikingly naturalistic and broad-eyed conception of landscape.'  The British Museum has the only surviving drawing for these etchings (below) - its odd title may be a mistake in Latin for the more appealing sounding Solitudo Rustica ('Rustic Solitude').

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Solicitudo Rustica (Country Concerns), ca. 1555
Drawing in The British Museum - Wikimedia Commons
Hieronymus Cock, View of the Colosseum, 1551 
Engraving in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam - Wikimedia Commons

What could a customer of Aux Quatre Vents have purchased?  Cock himself designed a series of topographical engravings of Roman sites based on his own time there (1546-8) and they may have influenced Bruegel in paintings like The Tower of Babel (the walls of which are reminiscent of the Colosseum). Last year's exhibition on Hieronymus Cock in Leuven included (according to Jamie Edwards of the University of Birmingham) a monumental monograph on the Baths of Diocletian, 'the very first published architectural monograph of its kind, which is staggering for both its physical size and its visual richness.'  Cock also printed a series based on drawings by his older brother Matthys, Various sorts of landscapes with fine histories composed therein, from the Old and New Testaments, and several merry Poems, very convenient for painters and other connoisseurs of the arts (1558). Matthys was later included (with his brother) in the canon-forming collection of twenty-three portraits of 'celebrated painters of Lower Germany' by Dominicus Lampsonius, published by Volcxken Dierix in 1572.   The Latin poem underneath includes a pun on the word 'Cock': 'Tu quoque, Matthia, sic pingere rura sciebas, / Ut tibi vix dederint tempora nostra parem.' ('You too, Matthias, knew how to paint fields in such a way, that our age has scarcely produced your equal.')

Matthys Cock
This engraving is from the 1612 expanded version (69 portraits) by Hendrik Hondius I

Matthys Cock, Landscape with Castle above a Harbour, 1550
Drawing in the National Gallery of Art, Washington - Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most intriguing Aux Quatre Vents productions on a landscape theme appeared in 1559 and 1561.  Their artist is unknown and has come to be known as the Master of the Small Landscapes.  He is credited with turning painters away from the panoramic 'world landscapes' of Joachim Patinir (c. 1460-1524) to the kind of modest scenes familiar to us from seventeenth century Dutch art.  This influence spread through a 1612 set of engravings produced in Amsterdam by Claes Jansz. Visscher (it has been argued that they would have provided buyers with a nostalgic view of the Brabant countryside prior to the revolt of the Seventeen Provinces, territory that had recently been ceded to the Spanish).  But who was the original Master?  The Visscher prints were credited to Bruegel but various other contenders have been proposed.  Was it the relatively obscure Joos van Liere?  Or Cornelis Cort, who worked for Cock and was named as the prints' author in a 1601 re-issue?  Or Hieronymus Cock himself?  It is not impossible that one day scholarly detective work will reveal a hitherto unknown independent landscape artist...

The Master of the Small Landscapes, Landscape with farms and a herdsman, 1559-61
Engraving in the Rijksmuseum - Wikimedia Commons

The Master of the Small Landscapes, Village view, late 1550s
Drawing in the Stichting Museum Boymans - Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Factory chimneys across the River Eden

When we visited Aix-en-Provence and Mont Sainte-Victoire, a couple of years before France adopted the Euro, it was mildly gratifying to be able to pay for things using Paul Cézanne banknotes.  At that time the 50 Franc notes honoured another of my heroes, Antoine de Saint-ExupéryThe 20 Franc Debussy notes featured landscapes on both sides: a stormy sea representing La Mer, and scenery for Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), originally painted by Lucien Jusseaume and Eugène Ronsin.  I suppose the Euro notes that replaced these might be seen as having a tangential landscape association, but the bridges on them are really generic symbols rather than specific landmarks (unlike the original designs which included the Rialto Bridge in Venice and the Pont de Neuilly in Paris).  Bridges are popular currency motifs - outside the Eurozone Denmark uses them and here in Britian we can spend five different Bank of Scotland notes, ranging from the 14th century Brig O'Doon (£5) to the Kessock Bridge, completed in 1982 (£100).

Another landscape painter honoured on a banknote is Edvard Munch - he appears with his painting, The Sun on Norway's 1000-kroner note.  There has been a lot of praise this year for the new Norwegian note designs ('the world's coolest currency' according to Slate).  The original Snøhetta Design idea was to pair black and white coastal photographs with pixelated colour versions.  The Norges Bank has kept the pixels but gone for more traditional images on the obverse.  Personally I am even more envious of the new Norwegian passports, designed by Neue, which the Guardian described as 'beautifully simplified depictions of Norway’s natural landscapes drawn with fine lines in pastel shades ... When shone under UV light, the landscapes within the pages transform to show the northern lights in the night sky, a magical touch that adds a deeper sense of intrigue to the already striking document.'

Of course there are many examples of landscapes on banknotes, from the dramatic mountains of Guilin on China's 20 yuan, to the Ulster Bank's vignette's of the Mourne Mountains, Giant's Causeway and Queen Elizabeth Bridge (another one...)  There was a time when individual banks in England as well as other parts of the British Isles issued their own notes. The British Museum site explains how these became increasingly sophisticated in the nineteenth century with the use of steel engraving:
'Printers such as Perkins and Heath in London and W.H.Lizars in Edinburgh exploited this potential to produce exquisite banknote designs combining dazzling machine-engraved patterns – a trademark of Perkins’ firm – with delicate hand-engraved figures and rural scenes that reflected a growing taste for romantic landscape, evident in the popularity of topographical prints, watercolours and poetry. A wonderful note of the Carlisle City and District Banking Company carries a panoramic view of the city with its castle, cathedral, houses and factory chimneys across the River Eden; people stroll in fields in the foreground, while on the far bank cattle are wading and a line of washing is hanging out to dry.' 
This kind of local pride expressed through banknotes seems remote in the era of e-commerce and bitcoins.  Will physical money last any longer than passports or stamps?  I have written here before about landscapes on stamps, which represented the beauty and productive potential of far flung imperial territories.   It would be interesting to compare the iconography of banknotes, which represent financial geography, with stamps that link territories together.  Clearly a lot of thought goes into what they show as well as the ways in which they resist counterfeiters.  The Bank of Canada museum, for example, quotes an internal memo from 1954: 'the traditional ornamentation of bank notes reflects a ‘Victorian’ taste in design….derived from times associated with an immature, colonial status.'  Instead,
'officials at the Bank wanted the notes to feature images of Canadian landscapes that showed little or no evidence of human activity. They chose the final 8 images from over 3,000 photographs supplied from the collections of railways, archives and news agencies. From the Maritimes, through Eastern Canada, the Prairies, the Rockies and the North, what resulted was an extended portrait of The Great Lone Land vision of Canada. This vision was already out-dated, but served as the natural starting point for an evolving manifestation of official identity that would be played out on all future bank notes.'
Bank of Canada 1954 note showing Okanagan Lake in British Columbia, 
engraved by William Ford of the American Bank Note Company

Earlier this year the Huffington Post reported on calls to have a woman on Canadian notes for the first time - their suggestions include Margaret Atwood, Emily Carr (the subject of a retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery that I'll probably be writing about here soon) and, er, Shania Twain ("Canadian country and pop music star, famous for hits such as 'Man! I Feel Like a Woman.'")  Over here there was controversy recently at the announcement that a man (Churchill) would replace a woman, Elizabeth Fry, on the £5 note, until the Bank of England said it was planning to balance things out with Jane Austen on the next £10.  I'll end here on an Icelandic note with another landscape painter, Johannes Sveinsson Kjarval, depicted on the 2000 Kronur.  Björk, who will surely feature on the Icelandic currency herself before too long, named an instrumental after him on the album she recorded as an eleven-year-old in 1977.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Become Ocean

This time last year I wrote a lengthy (for this blog) survey of landscape and music in 2013 (following similar but shorter posts in 2010, 2011, 2012).  Here due to pressure of time I will revert to something much less ambitious and highlight just four releases, beginning with the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Become Ocean, by John Luther Adams.  I wrote a post about Adams here in 2010 and last year I mentioned a recording of his composition Inuksuit.  The Pulitzer jury described Become Ocean as 'a haunting orchestral work that suggests a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels.'  In a New Yorker review of its première, Alex Ross explained that it has the structure of a palindrome.  'One mystery of Become Ocean is how different the material often sounds during the second half of the palindrome. The section after the first climax is thick with minor chords, particularly in the brass. Somehow, as these chords loom again during the buildup to the final climax, they take on a heavier, more sorrowful air. There is a sense of unwinding, of subsiding, of dissolution. I thought of Matthew Arnold’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” and also of the line that the earth goddess Erda utters in the Ring: “Everything that is, ends.”'

J.M.W. Turner has been hard to avoid in 2014.  I've not yet got myself to a cinema to see Mr Turner but did write here recently about the Late Turner exhibition and the Turner-inspired colour experiments of Olafur Eliasson.  In last year's music round-up I mentioned Burkhard Stangl's Unfinished. For William Turner, painter and this year I can refer you to Robert Curgenven's album Sirène, which includes a track referencing the famous story of Turner strapped to the mast in a snow storm (an episode recreated in Mike Leigh's film).  Rob St. John thinks a 'comparison might be made between Turner and Curgenven in the way that their work evokes – in texture, tone and colour – abstractions of the natural world: in this case the power and unpredictability of the sea.'  The track itself sounds foggy and eerie to me rather than tempestuous and chaotic - a long drone based on recordings of the pipe organs of Cornwall's coastal churches.  In the clip below you can hear some of the opening piece from Sirène, although the footage was shot not in Cornwall but at Lake Mungo in New South Wales, making a connection with Curgenven's new LP recorded in remote parts of Australia, They Tore the Earth and, Like a Scar, It Swallowed Them

Michael Pisaro is another American composer I did a post on here four years ago and his new work Continuum Unbound (3 CDs  in a box, with an essay) is reviewed in the latest Wire Magazine. Kingsnake Grey is a field recording of sundown in the Congaree National Park, providing a temporal interpretation of a landscape.  Congaree Nomads by contrast moves across the land from Cedar Creek to the Congaree River.  It is made up of 24 three-minute field recordings but these are overlaid with 'instrumental fogs' - bowed percussion instruments that can  be quite hard on the ear.   Anabasis is 'a composition in 72 parts for five musicians, loosely based on four kinds of materials: Sand, Wind, Tone and Wave'.  It begins quietly with what might be the rustle of something moving through undergrowth, but soon gathers strength until it starts to sound like an oncoming 'weather bomb' (a phrase we heard repeatedly on the news this week).  Overall the segments making up this piece are quite abstract, with no direct relationship to the landscape of the Congaree National Park.  You can read a detailed review on Brian Olewnick's Just Outside blog.

The new end-of-year Wire Magazine also reviews a Wist Rec compilation of music inspired by Richard Mabey's classic The Unofficial Countryside.  Seven tracks span a range of approaches: Ruhe combine birdsong, electronics and piano, Ian Hawgood includes samples of human voice, Sub Loam (who featured in my 2011 survey) evoke hedges, ditches and weeds with a sound that Sukhdev Sandhu describes in his review as a kind of 'junkyard improv, a dream collaboration between The Clangers and Pierre Schaeffer'.  The Unofficial Countryside comes as a collectable package, with 'Pierre-Emmanuel Tendero's moody photographs, all encased in a wooden box that reproduces, in hand-burned fashion, the pylons on the cover of the book's most recent edition'.  As Sandhu points out, this might seem 'at odds with a book dedicated to landscapes that are messy, sprawling and fertile', although I suppose it is consistent with the idea that such spaces are as valuable in their own way as wild landscapes.

It is increasingly clear each year that any survey of 'landscape' music is also a survey of its accompanying essays, photographs, videos, artwork, hand crafted packaging, maps, instructions and found objects.  Whether the notion of ambient 'soundtracks' to books will take off with mainstream publishers I am not sure, but some of them are starting to offer music as part of the package (a 10" record is planned to accompany Melissa Harrison's second novel In Hawthorn Time, due out next year).  Psychogeography in particular seems to lend itself to the notion of a soundtrack - Gareth Rees put together a mix for his book Marshland: Dreams & Nightmares on the Edge of London, aiming to convey 'that blend of industrial and pastoral noise, the late night raves, the raucous birds, the unrelenting drone of the city and the eternal lapping of the dirty river.'  I will end here by recommending another mix Gareth has curated, the Unofficial Britain Soundtrack 2014.  It opens with the sound of  Howlround's Torridon Gate, an album entirely based around the wrenching metallic sounds of suburban garden gate... It would be quite hard to imagine anything more different to John Luther Adams' Become Ocean.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Wall of Treasures

Frans Francken II, Preziosenwand (Wall of Treasures), 1636


A whole book could be devoted to the history of landscape paintings within paintings (not a potential best seller perhaps, but I'd read it).  The art collection genre might be a place to begin - rooms crowded with paintings, not just on the walls but propped up on the floor and furniture.  The rocky mountain scene above is one of six different landscapes in the Wall of Treasures, first painted around 1610 by Frans Francken who 'may be considered the father of the genre' (Vlieghe, Flemish Art and Architecture 1585-1700).  Within a few decades, artists like Gonzales Coques and Gaspar Jacob van Opstal were doing art collection scenes whose miniature works of art were painted in by the actual artists who had created the full scale originals.  Thus the depiction of a collection was itself a collection of art works.  It makes you wonder whether any artists thought of including the gallery painting itself, anticipating its own arrival into the collection, to create a mise en abyme in which  landscape paintings would be repeated on a smaller and smaller scale ad infinitum. 

Gonzales Coques, Picture Gallery, 1671


What you are looking at here is the reproduction of a photograph of a painting of a painting of a landscape. And that last term might be broken down still further, since at this date a painting of a landscape was not really a painting of a landscape, but an imaginary construct based on observation of actual places and scenes from other paintings.  Just to the right of Francken's Wall of Treasures a 'real' tree can be glimpsed through a window, in what at first looks like a separate room until you realise it is presumably the reflection in a mirror, so that even within the world of the painting we are again only seeing the image of nature.  Galleries often have no windows, for practical reasons of course but aesthetic ones too - actual views might distract us from those the artists have projected onto rectangles of canvas.  Willem van Haecht's The Picture Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest (1628) depicts a high ceilinged room full of art and a group of connoisseurs intent on studying it, but you feel that one or two will eventually tire of this close study and wander over to the tall window visible on one side to gaze out instead on the distant green parkland.  

Jan Vermeer, The Guitar Player, 1672

Willem Pieterszoon Buytewech's The Merry Company, 1622-4

Of course landscape paintings were collected on a more modest scale throughout Europe and are a natural component of interior scenes by artists like Pieter de Hooch, Dirck Hals, Gillis van Tilborch and David Teniers.  They can be found in some famous Vermeers: The Glass of Wine, The Love Letter and The Concert, where there is both a landscape painting on the wall and a landscape painting on the inside cover of the harpsichord.  One that is especially familiar to me from visits to Kenwood House at Hampstead Heath is The Guitar Player (above) - a simple view of a tree that could be a snapshot of the heath that surrounds the house.  The tree's foliage resembles the girl's hair, a kind of compositional echo you often find in these paintings.  Another example (above) is the lacy clouds and plume-like trees in Willem Pieterszoon Buytewech's The Merry Company.  And here is Amy Powell's description of another Merry Company, painted by Pieter Codde (c. 1633):
'Lit from the upper left and painted mostly in white, grey, and sandy flesh tones, the musicians lean and look in various different directions, the men’s hats ending in sharp little points. Lit from the upper left and painted in the same sandy colours, the decaying vegetation in the landscape likewise leans in various different directions and ends in sharp little points, as if the landscape painting had somehow magically adapted itself to the attitudes of its viewers. Thin on iconography (a brewing storm at most), the landscape would have little to recommend itself as a moralising allegory if not for its funny way of resembling the merry company of musicians, who are of course happily oblivious to their inevitable disappearance.'
In this Oxford Art Journal article, Powell notes that paintings in Dutch interiors are often dark or indistinct, subordinate to the surrounding furniture.  She draws a modern parallel with Alan McCollum's Surrogate Paintings (blank images hung in groups) and his Perpetual Photos - blurry blow ups of paintings glimpsed in black and white TV movies. To these I would add the Polish artist Rafał Bujnowski's Framed painting (Whistler), 2002-3, which is a version of the painting hanging beside Whistler's mother repainted 'life size' so that it looks like a radically abstract landscape.  (Of course I'm conscious in writing this that I am only actually seeing it reproduced here on my screen, at a scale smaller than Whistler's).  In an earlier post here I mentioned Gerhard Richter's Details, extreme close-ups of paint that 'appear like fictitious landscapes.'  If you were to enlarge a landscape painting-within-a-painting sufficiently you would reach a scale where a new view seems to emerge in the patterns of its pigments.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler, Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1871


Friday, November 28, 2014

Views from the Internet

Last week I went to a discussion on landscape and photography at Tate Modern.  This wasn't linked to their new exhibition Conflict, Time, Photography but to one at Somerset House I referred to here last year, 'Landmark: the Fields of Photography'.  The event was to promote a book of the show, edited by William Ewing, who chaired the panel of five artists: Thomas Struth, Massimo Vitali, Lauren Marsolier, Penelope Umbrico and Mishka Henner.  This represented a kind of spectrum, from Struth and Vitali who still compose and takes photographs to Umbrico and Henner who construct images from sources found on the internet.  Marsolier might be seen as somewhere in the middle, using her camera to capture fragments of landscape which she then digitally montages into scenes that convey a sense of feeling "disorientated and disconnected".  These oneiric visions with their blank windows and pale skies, "absolutely still with no breath of air" as Ewing observed, seem to fuse the reality of California with the abstract spaces of the internet.

Penelope Umbrico said she sees the Web itself as her landscape.  In Views from the Internet she collected landscapes glimpsed through windows found on home decor sites. 'Used as peripheral devices to elicit desire for the objects (and lifestyles) sold on these websites, the views are an invitation: they invite retreat and escape - into utterly flat space that is nowhere.' She has also made a series called Honeymoon Suites by scanning the candy coloured horizons and skies in holiday brochures to create distilled digital abstractions of happiness. 'While the horizon is intended to signify perfect love and escape, it equally points to the unattainability of both.'  The vast archive of holiday photographs on Flickr is the source for her installation Suns (from Sunsets), which I saw at the Landmark exhibition.  A a sense of the digital sublime is conveyed by retitling the work each time she exhibits it according to the number of sunsets available on Flickr at that date: in 2006 this was 541,795, on the day of the talk last week it stood at 22,177,914.  Apparently people have taken to photographing themselves in front of her wall of sunsets as if they were posing in front of a real sun.   

The two quotes in the paragraph above are from this book

I found Mishka Henner particularly interesting, although his dry humour seemed to bypass some in the audience (he sounded like Simon Armitage would if he read BLDGBLOG).  He argued that the problem with digital culture is not that there are too many images, but that we have not yet found ways to navigate through them.  He talked about the world of GoogleEarth and online photography as a kind of landscape of infinite detail.  He has been able to construct striking aerial views of oil fields that would have been impossible to photograph directly, exposing the way pipelines have grown like root systems through river valleys, farmland and urban centres.  Thomas Struth took issue with this kind of work, suggesting that it has immediate political impact but no aesthetic value.  Henner didn't argue the point, although it seemed pretty obvious that his images of US feedlots, for example, composed from satellite imagery, have a horrible beauty. Struth has himself chosen political subjects - Ramala, Chinese industrialisation - and his early work in Germany documenting urban architecture always seems to ask the basic question of why we have designed our living environment to look like this.

Although Struth is a major figure I find it quite hard to think of anything particularly interesting to say about him (I went to his retrospective at the Whitechapel in 2011 but didn't write about it on this blog).  His large-scale photographs of people in museums are similar to the beach scenes that  Massimo Vitali has been photographing for the last twenty years.  At first sight such photographs have more in common with the panoramic crowd scenes painted by artists like William Powell Frith than the panoramic unpeopled views we associate with 'landscape photography'.  However, in Vitali's case, what is beyond the foreground seems important: the people sporting around in the water in his 1995 photographs at Viareggio are overlooked by watch towers and cranes, whilst in another image of Rosignano from the same year, the sunbathers are oblivious to the cooling towers of a power station behind them.  There is pathos in the way these apparently unprepossessing strips of coast attract so many people, despite the proximity of factories, viaducts and graffiti.  "Being a tourist," Vitali told the Tate audience, "is one of the worst experiences you can have."

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Watermeadows at Salisbury

John Constable,  Landscape with goatherd and goats, 1823
Source for all images: Wikimedia Commons

The V&A's Constable: The Making of Master exhibition provides a fascinating survey of the way Constable was influenced by other artists throughout his career.  He admired the early Gainsborough and it is easy to see why: the Landscape with Pool (1745-6) which Constable would have seen in Ipswich is absolutely exquisite.  Rubens was another stimulus: Constable's Moonlit Landscape with Hadleigh Castle uses effects he took from Rubens' Landscape by Moonlight.  I was fascinated by another Rubens in the show, Summer, with its sunlit plain and turquoise distances (Mrs Plinius dismissed it as "garish").  Also on display are direct copies of seventeenth century masters - the 'facsimile' of a Claude painting (above), and the version (below) of a Ruisdael winter scene owned by Sir Robert Peel, who insisted that Constable include a small dog to distinguish it from the original (I wonder which version is worth more now?)  This added dog inevitably reminded me of the cruise missiles inserted by Peter Kennard into his 1980 version of Constable's The Haywain, a work now owned by the Tate.

John Constable, A winter landscape with figures on a path,
a footbridge and windmills beyond, 1832
  Inscribed on the stretcher 'Copied from the Original Picture by Ruisdael in the possession of Sir Robt Peel Bt by me John Constable RA at Hampstead Sep. 1832 P.S. color (...) Dog added (...) only (...) Size of the Original (...) and Showed this pictures to Dear John Dunthrone Octr 30 1832 (...) this was the last time I (...)' and further inscribed 'Poor J Dunthorne died on Friday (all Saints) the 2d of November. 1832-at 4 o clock in the afternoon Aged 34 years.'

Constable was also interested in the methods and advice of earlier artists.  The exhibition juxtaposes Twenty Studies of Skies after Alexander Cozens (1823) with a copy of Cozens' own examples.  Constable drew these at Coleorton Hall, home of the great collector Sir George Beaumont, where (as I read on the NGA site) Constable 'also studied Cozens’s list of twenty-seven types of ‘Circumstance’ in nature, consisting of accidents (wind, rain, storm etc.), seasons (spring, autumn etc.) and characters (time of day such as ‘rising-sun’, ‘setting-sun’, and ‘close of day’'.  There is something both seductive and reductive about the idea that landscape can be classified in this way, like the tags used to label internet images.  Constable also took heed of Leonardo's advice on a means of achieving accurate perspective whilst out sketching directly from nature, a method demonstrated in this exhibition with a drawing for Watermeadows at Salisbury.
'Take a glass as large as your paper, fasten it well between your eye and the object you mean to draw, and fixing your head in a frame (in such a manner as not to be able to move it) at the distance of two feet from the glass; shut one eye, and draw with a pencil accurately upon the glass all that you see through it. After that, trace upon paper what you have drawn on the glass, which tracing you may paint at pleasure, observing the aerial perspective.' - Leonardo da Vinci - A Treatise on Painting
John Constable, Watermeadows at Salisbury, 1820 or 1829

The most interesting room in this excellent exhibition is the least colourful, devoted to Constable's collection of prints.  As the curators explain, over his career Constable amassed '59 oil paintings by ‘Old and Modern Masters’ and over 5000 prints, 250 drawings, 37 books of prints and 39 framed prints and drawings.'  This enthusiasm reminds me of Van Gogh, whose letters vividly convey his pleasure in acquiring prints (and also photographic reproductions, an option not yet available to Constable).  The small selection of Constable's collection displayed at the V&A amounts to a history of Western landscape art in its diverse forms: Dürer, Titian, Claude, Rubens, Rembrandt, Rosa, Waterloo.  It was only a few years ago that I too would need to have owned a reproduction of one of these images to study it here in the comfort of my home.  Now they are available to me instantly wherever my phone can get a signal.

Google Image Search: Rembrandt's The Three Trees (1643),
an etching owned by Constable.


Earlier this week, at the LRB bookshop event mentioned in my last post, I met Chris from pastoral punk duo Way Through, who told me that they had been in Constable Country this summer for a Field Broadcast project called Scene on a Navigable River.  As part of this they reworked the track 'Dedham Vale' which appeared on their 2013 album Clapper Is Still.  Field Broadcast is 'a live digital broadcasting platform led by artists Rebecca Birch and Rob Smith. After downloading a special Field Broadcast app, the software waits quietly until the artist’s work is ready for transmission, when a live video stream opens unannounced on the recipient’s computer, tablet or mobile phone desktop.'  I am now imagining what would have happened if Way Through's dissonant music had suddenly activated while I was in an important meeting - I suppose this element of surprise is a way of countering the sheer availability of art online.  Two hundred years ago there was only Constable, leaving his room full of prints to walk out into the landscape his paintings were in the process of 'creating' for us.  He could reproduce an old painting but in working from nature he held up a small screen of glass the size of a modern tablet device and tried to trace what he could see.  'When I sit down to make a sketch from nature,' he wrote, 'the first thing I try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture.' 

John Constable, Dedham Vale, 1802 

Friday, November 21, 2014

A stand of trembling reeds

In The Small Heart of Things (2013) Julian Hoffman writes about the Prespa Lakes, where the borders of Greece, Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia come together in the middle of a stretch of water.  History and politics divide this landscape but artificial frontiers 'make no allowance for the mobile lives of people and animals, for shifting water currents, for the ways of wind and wing.'  In one of the interconnected essays that make up the book he writes of finding bear tracks on the damp sand at the edge of the lake.  'Walking in the bears' steps tightened the weave of the Prespa basin, threaded the lakes and three countries together, transforming the term transboundary into something more than just a human designation.'  He follows them in his imagination through the marsh grass and down from the high mountains, past migrating butterflies and apple trees seeded by storms, over a land bridge once used by refugees and through a quiet wood of oaks and junipers where white ribbons on the trees mark the paths of migrant labourers making their way at night across the border. Finally, 'passing the wide-open eye of a long blind bunker, the bears move off into darkness.'

Two of the essays in the book can be read in the journal Terrain - one centred on the work of the Society for the Protection of Prespa, another on time spent recording the movement of birds for an environmental assessment on the region's karst plateau.  These online versions are illustrated with photographs but the book relies solely on its vivid descriptions of landscape and nature.  Reading it I sometimes felt as if I had entered a Poussin painting... enigmatic ruins, trees stirring in the wind, light penetrating storm clouds, a shepherd playing a flute, a snake choking a heron.  The book is full of chance encounters with animals and birds - dolphins cresting the surface of the sea, kestrels sheering across the grasslands, snipe exploding out of a marsh, a fire salamander, a caterpillar, an old collection of micro-moths, 'delicate as filaments, ephemeral as dust.'  Such moments, he suggests, arise from a receptivity to experience: 'everything beckons us to perceive it'. This line, from one of Rilke's poems, is 'an invitation to openness, encouraging us to let in the wild and unpredictable, the ordinary and overlooked, the fleeting and unexplained.'  It is possible to find more mystery in 'a few moments spent in a stand of trembling reeds than a lifetime passed in an unperceived world.' 

Last year Julian delivered a presentation on the Hoo Peninsula at the Shorelines Festival that I didn't get to see but have heard a lot about (Diana Hale called it 'mesmerising' on her blog).  It sounds like he had a kind of Hendrix-at-Monterey impact - Gareth Evans described this entrance into the New Nature Writing scene as so electrifying that Robert Macfarlane, next on the bill, had an almost impossible job following it.  Gareth was talking at the LRB Bookshop this week, introducing Julian as part of a panel there to discuss 'Place Writing Now'.  They were joined by Ken Worpole's, whose New English Landscape I featured here last year, and Philip Marsden, whose recently published Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place I've not yet read.  It was a fascinating discussion ranging across language and representation, regeneration and displacement, ritual and memory.  Julian's short talk, prepared specifically for this event, felt perfectly pitched.  I'll be looking out for news of future gigs, although this current four-stop tour will soon be over and he'll be heading back home to the Prespa Lakes.  You can follow him there on his blog, Notes from Near and Far.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Mountain with boat

We made our annual visit to the Small Publishers Fair this afternoon, where there were various new publications with a landscape theme: from Shearsman, the book version of Alec Finlay & Ken Cockburn's The Road North; from Corbel Stone Press, Mark Peter Wright's Tasked to Hear; from Peter Foolen, herman de vries - an edition in two parts.  I was talking to Peter about his son's new boat tattoo and he was explaining that it is based on a design by sailor/artist Graham Rich.  Peter gave me the bookmark below, showing a similar boat scratched onto a broken end of wood.  Its jagged edge resembles a mountain landscape, like the ones Hamish Fulton ('HF') photographs or draws in outline to represent his walks.  Seen upside down, this vessel draws attention to the way the bottom of the sea is an inverted mountain range.  The course of a boat is like the path of a walk.

The paintings Graham Rich makes do not need to describe a place directly because they are made from fragments that have a synecdochal relationship to the rivers and estuaries through which he and his wife sail.  Indeed these pieces of wood can have a kind of "magical" resemblance to the wider landscape, as he explains in the YouTube clip below.  "Very often the material that we find will reflect the place where we found it ... We were in the mouth of the River Otter and we found a piece of wood and I held it up and it was the shape of the mouth of the River Otter."  These remnants of old boats, detached from their original use and immersed in the water for an unknown period, have soaked in something essential about the environment.  And their traces of paintwork, faded by the elements, can even guide the artist to a better understanding of the landscape.  "I've actually discovered the light on the upper reaches of the estuary," he says, "from having found the light on pieces of wood."

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Dancing in Water

I have been listening recently to music by Somei Satoh, particularly Sun - Moon (1994), three pieces for shakuhachi and koto.  His best known composition is probably 'Birds in Warped Time II' for piano and violin (see clip above), but I am intrigued by a more experimental piece, 'Echoes', created back in 1981 for the Mist, Sound and Light festival of Kawaji (it can be found on Volume 18 of the series Obscure Tape Music of Japan)Here is how Satoh describes it:
'The venue was located at the Kawaji hot spring’s Ojika river valley, which was 50 meters wide and 200 meters long with an area of 7,000 square meters.  Eight large loudspeakers were set up on hills surrounding the stream, with music played through an octuple channel-tape system.  The combined length of cables connected with the loudspeakers exceeded one kilometers.  The audience was amidst dense artificial mists spreading upward from the bottom of the valley, laser light beams projected on the hill surface, and tape music that played in extremely low tone at full blast, echoing in the valley.  'Echoes' consists of the sonic ingredients of the three types of percussion instruments used in 'Emerald tablet' as well as my own voice.'

Satoh also engaged with nature in another more recent work, River, composed for the Kronos Quartet to accompany a dance piece by Eiko and Koma.  It was staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with the dancers emerging from shallow water bordered by two low banks.  The dance had previously been performed outdoors - in the Delaware River in 1995 and subsequently in various bodies of water.  A reviewer at that first performance wrote as much about the landscape as the dancers: 'Muted light shone through the water.  Across the river, the shoreline and trees glowed at times in a faint haze of light.'  That evening the performance ended in a sudden downpour: 'pocking the river, the rain made a river of the sky above.'  Reading this reminded me of a post I wrote here on Ben Greet's outdoor Shakespeare theatre, which toured America a century earlier - on one occasion the heavens opened during a performance of The Tempest.  I have embedded below two clips of Eiko and Koma: Dancing in Water: The Making of River, preparations for a performance in the landscape, and River: Proscenium Version, in which you can hear Satoh's score.

Friday, October 31, 2014

When the soft wind turns bitter

The Natureingang, 'nature opening', is found in many forms of Medieval poetry: the Latin verse of the clerici vagantes and Goliards, the songs of the Troubadours and Minnesingers, lyric poetry in French, English, Irish.  Spring would be the setting for songs of love and pastoral dialogues, whilst the end of summer and the onset of winter would signify loss and mourning.  Such poetry can therefore be grouped according to mood, like books of haiku arranged according to their season word (kigo).  The sleevenotes to one recording of songs by the early thirteenth century German poet Neidhart explain that he tended to classify them 'into “summer” and “winter” songs, according to which season he employed in the Natureingang (nature introduction) that opens nearly every song. Here he establishes an emotional backdrop for the lyrics: “Winter” symbolizes a melancholic atmosphere and is well suited to introducing topics that strongly refer to classical Minnesang, while descriptions of the approaching summertime are generally used for lighter subjects, often containing dance descriptions.'  You can hear one of these, 'Welcome the Sweet Summer Weather', in the clip embedded above.  The lines below begin another, sadder song:
Everything that all summer long was full of joy
turns to sadness with this winter-long, arduous time.
The birds have everywhere fallen silent with their singing.
Flowers and grass are utterly withered.
Look, how much cold frost covers the forest canopy.
The heath lies pale for good reason...
It occurred to me that it might be possible to string together nature openings to form a seasonal cycle, beginning now, in autumn, at a turning point in the year.  Here, for example, are lines are from some troubadour poems:

When the soft wind turns bitter
And the leaf falls from its branch                              

For I see the oaks reft of their leaves,
While nightingale, thrush, woodpecker and jay
Shiver with cold, and from the chill retreat               
[Peire d'Alvernhe]

When the ice and cold and snow retreat
And warmth creeps back into the land                      
[Guiraut de Bornelh]

Such sweetness spreads through these new days
[Guillem de Peitus] 

When tender grass and leaves appear
While buds along the branches throng                      
[Bernart de Ventadorn]

Now high and low, where leaves renew,
Come buds on bough and spalliard pleach               
[Arnaut Daniel]

In April when I see all through
Mead and garden new flowers blow                         
[Peire Bremon lo Tort]

When the days grow long and warm with May,
How sweet the birds' song sounds afar                      
[Jaufre Rudel]

(Translations from Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours, ed. Robert Kehew)

The Natureingang was not only used in lyric and love poems.  As K. H. Jackson points out (in a book I quoted earlier this month), it also served to set the scene for longer poems like the Canterbury Tales and Vision of Piers Plowman.  I will end here therefore with Chaucer's opening lines; as we head towards winter, they offer a sweet reminder of spring... 
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages...

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Jewelled Garden

Before him there were trees of precious stones,
And he went straight to look at them.
The tree bears carnelian as its fruit,
Laden with clusters (of jewels), dazzling to behold,
It bears lapis lazuli as foliage,
Bearing fruit, a delight to look upon.

[25 lines are missing here, describing the garden in detail.]

... cedar
... agate
... of the sea ... lapis lazuli,
Like thorns and briars ... carnelian,
Rubies, hematite, ...
Like... emeralds (?)
... of the sea,
- The Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet IX, trans. Maureen Gallery Kovacs

This is the earliest known literary depiction of a garden.  Time wore away the clay tablet on which it was written so that we no longer have a view of the whole, just these imagistic fragments, a few imperishable precious stones separated by ellipses.  The jewelled plants in the Epic of Gilgamesh remind me of the crystal flowers in J. G. Ballard's story 'The Garden of Time' which, while they last, are able to keep at bay the progress of time.  There is an analogy with the nature of a garden too, as Donald Dunham pointed out in his essay, 'Architecture without Nature': 'just as evidence of an untended garden's existence slips gracefully back into the earth, so too elemental nature has eroded the ancient tablet's legibility.'

The Gilgamesh tablets were found in the buried Library of Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian king who I described here in an earlier post, dining in the garden at Nineveh whilst a tree nearby hung not with jewels, but with 'the decapitated head of the conquered king of the Elamites.'  When Nineveh was sacked and burned, the library's contents were fired and thus, ironically, made more durable.  Over the years, as Egypt's papyrus libraries crumbled away or went up in flames, the clay tablets preserving the Gilgamesh Epic lay unknown under a mound near Mosul.  Heat had transformed a story originally written on wet clay with with a blunt reed into a part of the landscape, awaiting rediscovery.

This process came to mind when I read last week about a 100-foot Gillian Clarke poem written in clay onto the landscape of North Wales.  The BBC reported that
'a giant mural of a poem on a rock face in Snowdonia for an outdoor theatrical production has been likened to graffiti after attempts to remove it failed.  Rain was supposed to wash the writing off the slab near Gladstone Rock but there are worries it has been baked on due to the warm September weather.  National Theatre Wales has apologised and said it will rectify the problem. ... A spokesperson explained that Clarke's poem had been written on "bare rock with a non harmful clay-based product designed to wash away in the rain".  The spokesperson added: "However, the unseasonably dry weather in September has meant that her powerful words have remained visible longer than expected. With autumn now upon us nature can take its course and continue to wash away the poem."'

The Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet XI

I wonder whether any traces of this poem will remain after the autumn rains, or if all efforts will be made to eradicate its words completely.  The Gilgamesh fragment shown above comes after the garden episode and describes a great deluge when the gods caused humankind to be almost entirely washed away.  In the nineteenth century, at a time when Biblical history was under intense scrutiny, the 'powerful words' of this ancient text were capable of provoking extreme excitement.  According to the British Museum site, 'this Assyrian version of the Old Testament flood story was identified in 1872 by George Smith, an assistant in The British Museum. On reading the text he ... jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself.''

Friday, October 17, 2014

Sweeney's Bothy

Sweeney's Bothy

One of Alec Finlay recent projects, Sweeney's Bothy, was built last year on the Isle of Eigg as part of The Bothy Project.  'The bothy belongs within a new contemporary movement – identified by Finlay as ‘hutopian’ – in which artists create huts and viewing platforms in the Scottish wilderness, proposing them as ecological, technological, architectural, and social models.'  Some interesting artists and writers have already stayed there, as you can see from the Bothy blog: Kathleen Jamie, Hannah Devereux, Oran Wishart.
'The bothy is based on Finlay’s design, inspired by the 7th Century Gaelic King Sweeney (Shuibhne). Cursed, Sweeney fled into a wilderness, surviving for a decade among the trees and birds, living on sorrel, berries, sloes and acorns, and enduring ‘the pain of his bed there on the top of a tall ivy-grown hawthorn in the glen, every twist that he would turn sending showers of hawy thorns into his flesh’ (Flann O’Brien, At Swim, Two Birds). Sweeney’s poetry from that period describes the austere beauty of the remote glen where he lived naked, communed with animals, and existed beyond convention. The myth of Sweeney conceals remnants of shamanic animism within pre-Christian culture. Like Han Shan, Basho, and Thoreau, Sweeney is a visionary hermit rejecting ‘feather beds and painted rooms,’ engaging with nature, the irrational, overturning accepted knowledge.'

View from Sweeney's Bothy with thorn bowl

Residents at Sweeney's Bothy can enjoy 'sorrel, berries, sloes and acorn' from bowls with a scratched thorn decoration, made by my wife.  The original poem Buile Shuibhne gives a vivid sense of the way Sweeney was able to live off the land.  I have written here before about the wonderful English version by Seamus Heaney, which was inspired by Kenneth Jackson's earlier translations.  Jackson's first book, Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry (1935), has recently been reprinted and it contains this marvellous description of natural foods in Irish poetry (the numbers refer to poems translated in the first part of the book).
'The variety of the plants and animals found in the countryside and eaten by the early Irish on the testimony of the poems is quite astonishing to a twentieth-century town-dweller, to whom "living on berries and nuts" seems such an improbable kind of existence.  No. V mentions apples, yew-berries, rowan-berries, sloes, whortleberries, crowberries, strawberries, haws, hazel-nuts, mast, acorns, pignuts, water-cress, herbs, wild marjoram, onions, leeks, eggs, honey, salmon, trout, water, milk and beer.  No. XVI speaks of deer, swine, mast, hazel-nuts, blaeberries, blackberries, sloes, trout.  No. XV has cress, brooklime, mast, trout, fish, wild swine, stags, fawns.  In no. XIX are blaeberries, blackberries, apples, sloes, strawberries, acorns, nuts, pig fat, porpoise steak, birds, venison, badger fat, fawns, salmon, fish.  No. XVII mentions blackberries, haws, hazel-nuts, bramble shoots, "smooth shoots", garlic, cress, meadhbhán, dilisk, birds, martens, woodcocks, otters, salmon, eels, fish.  Suibhne Geilt gives his "nightly sustenance" as blaeberries, apples, berries, blackberries, raspberries, haws, cress, watercress, brooklime, saxifrage, seaweed, herbs, sorrel, wood-sorrel, garlic, wild onions and acorns ... The diet is then one of flesh of animals and birds, fruit, berries, nuts, herbs, shoots, and waterplants, eggs, honey and fish, an impressive and intriguing menu.'

Earlier this year the Corbel Stone Press published Alec's Sweeney on Eigg which 'leaps off' from Seamus Heaney's version of  Buile Shuibhne.  It imagines the outcast Suibhne wandering as far as the island of Eigg.  Fleeing over crags and burns, sheltering among sheep, passing over moss and moorgrass, through birch and tares, blackthorn and brambles, he comes at last to a stop. 
I will sing
with peewits, cuckoos, & throstles
making the moor ring
from Druim na Croise.

I will hide Rum
with my hand
and stroke the fine down
on my arms.

Then, when the sunsets
drive me mad
with their beauty,
Suibhne will be gone.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Rhine (Melancholia)

Like the Turner exhibition I went to a couple of weeks ago, the Royal Academy's Anselm Kiefer retrospective is full of landscapes that are also history paintings.  The Morgenthau Series, for example, are ostensibly romantic depictions of nature, but the title is a reference to the wartime American plan to deindustrialise Germany.  The Guardian's Jonathan Jones was beguiled by them: 'we seem to fall into nature, to be immersed in it. Giant threads of light waft in the wind, dwarfing the spectator, who gets lost in the reverie of a rural hike right in the middle of London.'  He doesn't mention that one of these paintings has a rusty mantrap attached to it (a vagina dentata - the painting is named after Courbet’s ‘L’Origine du Monde’).  But it is true that these are less sombre than most of Kiefer's work, their extraordinary colours enhanced with gold leaf and lead that has been turned emerald green through a process of electrolysis.  Kiefer himself seems to have had some doubts about their beauty, as he told Jackie Wullschlager of the FT. “I so much like flowers and I painted so many flower pictures that I had a very bad conscience, because nature is not inviolate, nature is not just itself. So what to do with this beauty? I thought, ‘I will call it Morgenthau’." It sounds cynical but he was probably joking.  As with his close contemporaries from southern Germany, Werner Herzog and W. G. Sebald, there is often an undercurrent of dark humour in what he says.

I took the photographs above on the way in to the Royal Academy.  They show one of two installations in the courtyard dedicated to the Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov, who developed an esoteric theory on the cyclical nature of naval warfare (a few years ago Kiefer devoted a whole exhibition of sea paintings at the White Cube to Khlebnikov).  It would be impossible to do justice to everything I saw inside the exhibition - there is far too much to write about even if I just stick to landscape-related work: an early watercolour of a bleak winter landscape with a severed head in the sky dripping blood onto the snow, a huge wall-sized vitrine containing a painted forest with real roses and brambles (owned by the sister of Alain de Botton), a nightscape with real diamonds set into the paint that reminded me of what I wrote here only two days ago about mountains and stars...  I will quote instead two more critics, writing about artworks made nearly forty years apart, one in a case at the beginning of the exhibition, the other taking up the whole of its last room.
The Burning of the Rural District of Buchen IV (1975): Martin Gayford in RA Magazine explains that this 'documents an imagined conflagration and destruction of the area where he was then living and working. The later pages of the book are burnt, encrusted with charcoal, just as much of Germany itself had been during the war. But fire, while terrifying and annihilating, can also be healing, as Kiefer’s title hints. The German word he used for ‘burning’, ausbrennen, also means ‘cauterisation’. This is how the traditions of Friedrich and Schinkel looked and felt to Kiefer in the aftermath of the Third Reich: burnt out, haunted by overpowering, terrible events.'
The Rhine (1982-2013): Alastair Sooke in The Telegraph writes that 'the show ends on a high, with a beautiful installation called The Rhine, a collage of black-and-white woodcuts on canvas with acrylic and shellac compiled over more than two decades, between 1982 and 2013. The various gigantic canvases of this compelling artwork have been arranged as interlocking screens, so that the viewer enters a maze-like forest with the waters of the Rhine visible in the distance.  In between the tree trunks stand the touchstones of Kiefer’s imagination: wartime bunkers, a blaze of fire, the polyhedron from Durer’s famous print Melancholia. It is as if one of Kiefer’s lead books has come to life and is embracing us within its pages.'