Saturday, February 22, 2014

What soever delightfull view the Eye takes pleasure in

Paul Bril, Self-Portrait, c1595-1600
Source for images: Wikimedia Commons

Edward Norgate's Miniatura; or The Art of Limning, composed probably in the late 1620s and revised two years before his death in 1650, contains an interesting early account of landscape painting.  Landscape, he writes, is 'an Art soe new in England, and soe Lately come a shore, as all the Language within our fower Seas cannot find it a Name, but a borrowed one, and that from a people that are not great Lenders but upon good Securitie, the Dutch'.  And in addition to giving us the word 'landscape', the Dutch (Flemish) provided the best examples of this new kind of art: 'viz. Paulo Brill, a very rare Master in that Art, Liveing in Trinita del Monte in Rome and his Contemporary, Adam Elshamer, termed by the Italians Diavolo per gli cose piccole [a devil for little things], Momper, Bruegel, Coningslo, and last but not least Sir Peter Rubens, a Gentleman of great parts and abilities (over and above his Pencill) and knighted by the best of Kings or Men.'

 Peter Paul Rubens, Landscape, c. 1635-40

Rubens was actually knighted twice, by both Philip IV of Spain and Charles I of England, but we can safely assume Norgate was referring to the latter since he was the King's adviser on art.  He started out as a calligrapher and limner and may have worked in the studio of Nicholas Hilliard.  Subsequently, as the editors of Art in Theory explain, 'he was to earn his living as a cultured civil servant' and became a herald at the College of Arms.  His knowledge of Flemish landscape painting would have come partly from visits to the Low Countries on behalf of the King and the Earl of Arundel, who were each building up great art collections.  Norgate defined 'landscape' as 'nothing but a picture of Gli belle Vedute, or beautifull prospect of Feilds, Cities, Rivers, Castles, Mountaines, Trees or what soever delightfull view the Eye takes pleasure in.'  The examples he gives suggest a taste for what later writers would see as aspects of the Sublime: inaccessible mountains, precipices and 'Torrents about the Alpes that with a roaring noise make hast to breake their necks from those fearfull Rocks into the Sea'.  In earlier times such scenes had been used only to set off the figures in history painting or in 'filling up the empty Corners'.  But this new art, though 'a Noveltie', was 'yet a good one, that to the Inventors and Professors hath brought honour and profit.' 

 Joos de Momper, Rocky Landscape, c 1610-30

I will conclude here with the story Norgate says he heard abroad about the creation of the very first independent landscape painting:
'A Gentleman of Antwerpe being a great Liefhebber [Lover of Art] returning from a long Journey he had made about the Countrey of Liege and Forrest of Ardenna, comes to visit his old friend, an ingenious painter of that Citie, whose House and Company he useually frequented. The Painter he finds at his Easill - at worke - which he very dilligently intends, while his newcome friend, walking by, recountes the adventures of his long Journey, and with all what Cities he saw, what beautiful prospects he beheld in a Country of a strange Scitiation, full of Alpine Rocks, old Castle, and extrordinary buildings &c. With which relation (growing long) the prompt and ready Painter was soe delighted as, unregarded by his walking friend, he layes by his worke, and on a new Table begins to paint what the other spake, describing his description in a more legible and lasting Character then the others words. In short, by that time the Gentleman had ended his long Discourse, the Painter had brought his worke to that perfecton, as the Gentleman at parting, by chance casting his eye that way, was astonisht with wonder, to see those places and that Countrey soe lively exprest by the Painter as if hee had seene with his eyes or bene his Companion in the Journey.'
Adam Elsheimer, Landscape with Wayfarer, unknown date

Friday, February 14, 2014

Cities express the human will

'And how can it be,' asked Georges Bataille, 'that a landscape, formed of interrelated appearances without any meaning, can, according to the position of the eye, in one place be empty and without charm, and in another be a breach opened upon a dazzling world?'  Patterns in nature - laws of affinity and contrast - are enough to distract us from the void.  Even cities, 'the expression of the human will, show the opposition of the noble world of rich stone monuments and the abject and wild world of the slums.'  When we see such contrasts of light and shadow it is impossible to imagine the world as empty. 'But the screen on which light and shadow are happily composed dissipates and is decomposed sometimes as quickly as a dream-image. Then apathy, apathy without a heart and without disgust takes hold of the space occupied by the will to live — hard and cold apathy which reduces fountains, summits and beautiful landscapes to what they are.'  In this state of realisation, a man 'looks at the world of illusions with slow anger. He shuts himself into an oppressive silence, and as he places his naked foot on the humid earth, feeling himself sinking into nature and being annihilated by it, it is with anguished joy.'

At the excellent Art Cornwall Site you can read the full translation by Patrick ffrench of Bataille's text, Le paysage (1938), along with a useful explanatory note.  In this piece, he writes, Bataille is suggesting that 'our projections of beauty or horror onto the landscape, which constitute what we think of as ‘landscape’, are necessary illusions, without which man confronts a world without meaning, which rejects him, as long as he does not consider himself part of it and destined to return to it. But this identification with the earth is also disallowed him, since his consciousness of the world forever separates him from it.'  And yet Bataille concludes that there is 'a joy in being subsumed by nature, which looks forward to the moment when the thin crust of human industry will be submerged under the rising oceans of the planet ... It is from the hypothesis of such a strange perspective that the fragile constructions man has erected on the surface of the earth can be looked upon now, with ‘slow anger’.' 

Joseph Gandy, The Bank of England as a ruin, 1830

The images we are seeing on the news of towns sinking under flood water certainly underline the fragility of our constructions.  Here in London the long rains have left us largely unaffected, but the constant ebb and flow of people and the ever-changing cityscape make it feel like a 'world of illusions', built on shifting power relations and unseen channels of commerce rather than solid ground.  There is a poem by Allen Fisher called 'After Georges Bataille's 'Landscape'' in his book 'Becoming' (part of the Place sequence which he worked on throughout the 1970s).  It begins with a version of the words I quote above - 'Cities express the human will' - and describes London's transformation into the Bank of the World, its pursuit of money and the extraction of profit ('it pays / to cyanide gold').  All this activity leaves us with a greater loss, of 'love, / work and knowledge / in the light without shade.'  Whilst Bataille ends his text with a man feeling himself sinking into nature, Fisher's poem closes with the image of 'a concrete that separates city from land / laid by men unaware they will soon not breathe.'

Friday, February 07, 2014

Sea of Ink

Bada Shanren, Fish and rocks, 1696

In Meer der Tusche (2005), Swiss writer Richard Weihe tells in 51 short chapters the life story of the great seventeenth century Chinese painter Bada Shanren.  Sea of Ink, an English translation by James Bulloch, is available from Peirene Press, a recently established 'boutique publishing house' that runs literary salons in north London.  In the Peirene Experience clip below you can see Weihe talking about one particular incident in the childhood of Zhu Da (Bada Shanren, 'man on the mountain of the eight compass points', was one of the many names he assumed in later life).  Zhu's father, also an artist, 'made him step barefoot into a bowl full of ink and then walk along the length of a roll of paper.  To begin with, Zhu's footprints were wet and black; with each step they became lighter until they were barely visible any more.'  This reminded me of the Bada Shanren scroll I mentioned here last year, and naturally too of Richard Long.  Next to Zhu's footprints his father wrote these words: 'A small segment of the long path of my son Zhu Da.  And further down: A path comes into existence by being walked on.'

Sea of Ink is punctuated with vivid descriptions of the artist creating his work, the paintings emerging as a short sequence of inspired brushstrokes.  We read about the composition of Fish and Rocks (above) for example, whilst Bada Shanren is living alone on the shore of a lake.  It is a work that the Met website describes as 'profoundly unsettling. Were it not for seven tiny fish that swim beneath the two rock forms, transforming the blank paper into a body of water, the image would be unrecognisable. Six of the fish are shown in profile, but the seventh appears as if seen from above, leaving the viewer disoriented; the absence of a horizon line adds to the unsettling effect.'  In Sea of Ink, Bada hangs this finished work from his ceiling beams and watches as a gust of wind catches it, so that the fish seem to be floating in the air.

A few years later Bada was returning in the rain to his fisherman's hut when he senses his life fading away.  Wiehle imagines him looking at the view that will become Landscape with hut (1699): 'Was it the trees dripping in the mist which made the world appear like that, or was it the tears in his eyes?  No sooner was he back in his abode than he took a large piece of paper and wiped it with the wet sleeve of his robe.  He hurriedly poured water into the rubbing stone and prepared the ink...'  First, he described his hut in seven vertical and diagonal strokes.  Then he took a new brush with cropped bristles and transformed the damp paper into a landscape of half seen hills.  The small solitary house had the appearance of having turned its back to the world.  'Fine streams of ink ran down the mountain; indeed the entire mountain seemed to flow away as if it were nothing more than a large wound of the world.'