Friday, March 28, 2014

When the brush moves, water flows from a spring

'Consider that when the brush moves, water flows from a spring, and when the brush stops, a mountain stands firm' -  Sun Guoting (648-703)
Sun Guoting, part of the Treatise on Calligraphy, 687
In Tim Ingold's book Lines: a Brief History he quotes two writers on the history of Chinese calligraphy (Yen and Billeter) who describe the importance that has been attached to emulating nature - not in its forms, but in its movements.  Sun Guoting, for example asked his readers to consider the difference between two strokes - the 'suspended needle' and the 'hanging-dewdrop' - and to draw inspiration from rolling thunder, toppling rocks, flying geese, animals in flight, dancing phoenixes, startled snakes, sheer cliffs, crumbling peaks, threatening clouds and cicadas wings.  An earlier Jin Dynasty text, Lady Wei's Chart of Brush Manoeuvres (quoted by Yen, but not by Ingold), suggests that 'an elongated horizontal line should convey the openness of an array of clouds stretching for a thousand miles' whilst a dot should 'contain the energy of a rock from a mountain peak.'  A sweeping stroke (na) should contain the 'orgiastic vigour of rolling waves, or crushing thunder and lightning.'

From Billeter's The Art of Chinese Writing Ingold gives five more examples:
  • A thirteenth-century master who compared the moment the brush makes contact with the paper to ‘the hare leaping and the hawk swooping down on its prey’
  • Another who in writing two particular characters tried to move his hand like a flying bird, and for two others imitated the 'somersaulting of rats at play'
  • The Sung Dynasty calligrapher Lei Chien-fu who 'described how he heard a waterfall, and imagined the water swirling, rushing and tumbling into the abyss. ‘I got up to write’, he recalled, ‘and all that I had imagined appeared beneath my brush''
  • Another Sung Dynasty calligrapher, Huang T’ing-chien (Huang Tingjian, 1045–1105), who only mastered a particular stroke after observing the way boatmen on the Yangtze River angled their oars 'as they entered the water, pulled through in the development of the stroke, and lifted them out at the end, and how they put their whole body into the work'.
  • And a treatise on painting from the same period describing the way Wang Hsi-chih (or Wang Xizhi, 321-79) drew inspiration from geese, whose necks undulate like the wrist of the calligrapher
 Qian Xuan, Painting of Wang Xizhi (and geese), thirteenth century.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Stones of Chamonix

John Ruskin, View from my Window at Mornex, c. 1862-1863
Images from Wikimedia Commons

If you're in Edinburgh this summer you'll be able to see the National Gallery of Scotland's exhibition John Ruskin: Artist and Observer, an in depth look at his often-underrated paintings and drawings.  Gary Wills, writing in the New York Review of Books, puts their relative neglect down to the fact that Ruskin 'rarely completed pictures of a conventional sort', focusing instead on details and fragment, painting the landscape as he saw it rather than conjuring up sublime scenes or sentimental vignettes.  Wills regrets that the exhibition does not do more to acknowledge Ruskin's political interests: 'there are many drawings of Gothic architecture in the show—yet no mention of his connection between Gothic and workmen. There are obsessive tracings of sky and clouds—yet his ecological concerns for a coal-darkened England are nowhere mentioned.'  Instead, Ruskin's mental health and famously anguished attitude to women are foregrounded.  'His sexual repression is expressed, we are told, in compensatory fixations on mountain clefts and caverns as vaginas. Well, sure enough, there are some split rocks here—how could Ruskin have drawn hundreds of mountain scenes and avoided them?'

John Ruskin, Rocks and Vegetation, Chamonix, c. 1854
John Ruskin, The Casa d'Oro Venice, 1845
Looking to see what other reviewers in Canada made of it, I came upon the Ottawa Magazine, whose 'Artful Blogger' finds Ruskin's private life far more intriguing than his art and concludes with a reference to his 'steamy landscapes' in which there is a hidden sexual element.  Much more useful is a review on The Victorian Web, that venerable website which is clearly still putting up valuable and interesting material.  And the short video tour with curator Christopher Newall that I've embedded below is well worth a watch.  In it he describes Ruskin's fascination with the individuality and craftsmanship of the Byzantine capitals used in building St Mark's, and horror at plans to reconstruct the facade of the basilica, which were fortunately thwarted.  He talks about Ruskin's intricate sketch of glacial rocks in Scotland and his passion for stones in both architecture and landscape (Ruskin said that had he not discovered the art of Tintoretto, he would have written a book called The Stones of Chamonix).  He also refers to Ruskin's bipolarity, but in a way that illuminates the painting - a vivid sketch of winter sunset on the Venetian lagoon conveys the delight Ruskin clearly felt at the time, but writing later in his diary, Ruskin regretted that he had felt the beauty of the place so intensely that he was now 'suffering the consequences'.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Ice Palace

'How simple this novel is. How subtle. How strong. How unlike any other. It is unique. It is unforgettable. It is extraordinary.'  It would be hard to imagine higher praise than Doris Lessing's, writing thirty years after the publication in 1963 of Tarjei Vesaas' The Ice Palace (Is-Slottet).  I think it is a remarkable book and Lessing's review gives a clear account of why it is so memorable and moving.  The Norwegian winter landscape is integral to the plot, which Lessing partly summarises as follows: 'One little girl, the orphan Unn, has a secret, something terrible - we never know what it is - which she promises to tell her new friend Siss; but instead, the very day after the promise, she is impelled to explore the caves of a frozen waterfall, further and deeper into the shining heart of the ice ... There she dies. The whole community searches for her, and some even clamber over the surface of the frozen fall, but it is only her friend Siss who catches a glimpse of her, like an apparition inside the ice palace, looking out through the ice wall. In the spring the frozen river melts, and all is swept away in the floods, the secret too.'


The Ice Palace was recently turned into a ballet with music by Terje Isungset, whose ice music I described here in an earlier post.  A film adaptation was made in 1987, which someone has loaded in sections onto YouTube - the clip above shows Unn walking into the frozen waterfall.  I'll close here with a brief quotation from this moment in the novel, translated in 1966 by Elizabeth Rokkan.  'There was a ravine with steep sides; the sun would perhaps reach into it later, but now it was an ice-cold shadow.  Unn looked down into an enchanted world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes, soft curves and confused tracery.  All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually.  Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms.  Everything shone.  The sun had not yet come, but it shone ice-blue and green of itself, and deathly cold.'

Saturday, March 15, 2014


We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here.
On the final page of Finnegans Wake, the River Liffey enters the ocean.  But the book is circular and its last words, spoken by Anna Livia Plurabelle, the personification of the river - 'A way a lone a last a loved a long the' - point back to its opening - 'riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.'  I was listening to these words at the National Theatre last night in riverrun, a solo performance in which the Irish actor Olwen Fouéré embodies the voice of the river.  Based on the trailer (see above) I imagined this could involve riverine footage and field recordings, but there was just Fouéré and a microphone, carefully lit, with ambient sound designed to immerse you in the experience rather than signify flowing water directly.  Her extraordinary performance has received good write-ups (e.g. in the Telegraph and the Independent), although reviewers have been honest about the inaccessibility of the text - none has claimed to be able to follow exactly what they heard.

'A river is not a woman / ...  Any more than / A woman is a river', wrote Eavan Boland in 'Anna Liffey', a poem published in a collection twenty years ago.  'Anna Liffey' is the name the river has sometimes gone by, an anglicisation of Abhainn na Life.  'It rises in rush and ling heather and / Black peat and bracken and strengthens / To claim the city it narrated. / Swans. Steep falls. Small towns. / The smudged air and bridges of Dublin.'  One of these bridges is now called Anna Livia and the city has also recently acquired a James Joyce Bridge, facing the house where his story 'The Dead' was set.  In a park by the Liffey you can see a sculpture depicting Anna Livia Plurabelle.  She was originally sited on O'Connell Street with water flowing around her long limbs and became known as The Floozy in the Jacuzzi.  However, her presence was insufficient to turn the tide of economic decline and as part of a new plan to regenerate the street she was replaced by a millennium monument, The Spire of Dublin (aka The Stiletto in the Ghetto).  But as the city continues to change around it, the Liffey flows on, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, always back to the ocean.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Like a crystal flood

The story of Acis and Galatea is rooted in the landscape of Sicily.  When the sea-nymph sees her lover killed by a great rock, thrown by the jealous Cyclops Polyphemus, she transforms his blood into the river Acis. Polyphemus tries to lure Galatea away from the sea with descriptions of life on the island.  'Here there are bays, and here slender cypresses, / Here is sombre ivy, and here the vine's sweet fruit / Here there is ice-cold water which dense-wooded Etna / Sends from its snows - a drink fit for the gods.'  These lines are given him by Theocritus in Idyll 11 (trans Anthony Verity), whilst in Virgil's ninth Eclogue the Cyclops tells her 'Coloured spring is here.  The river banks are spangled / with flowers of many hues.  Above my grotto a silvery / Poplar sways, and vines cast a shifting lace of shadow.' (trans. C. Day Lewis).

Nicholas Poussin, Landscape with Polyphemus, 1648

Landscape imagery is used in a different way in Ovid's Metamorphoses, where Polyphemus climbs to the apex of a hill on a spur jutting out into the sea and sings in praise of Galatea, listing her qualities in terms of the beauties of nature.  She is

whiter than the snowy columbine
a sweeter flower than any in the meadows 
taller and more stately than alder
more radiant than crystal
friskier than a tender kid
smoother than shells polished by the sea
more welcome than sun in winter or summer shade
more choice than apples
lovelier to see than the tall plane trees
more sparkling than ice
sweeter than ripe grapes
softer than swansdown or creamy cheese
fairer than a watered garden

But also

wilder than an untamed heifer
harder than an ancient oak
more treacherous than the sea
tougher than willow-twigs or white vine branches
as immovable as the rocks
more turbulent than a river
vainer than the much-praised peacock
fiercer than fire
harsher than harrows
more truculent than a pregnant bear
deafer than the waters
crueler than a trodden snake

What Polyphemus most regrets however, is her ability to outrun him, for she is 'swifter than the deer, driven by loud barking, swifter even than the winds, and the passing breeze'.

Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Acis and Galatea, 1657

As you can see above, Claude and Poussin both based beautiful paintings on the myth, one a view looking out to sea, the other looking back into the island's rocky interior.  Acis and Galatea are small figures in the foreground and Polyphemus is barely distinguishable from the landscape.  In Poussin's painting his back merges into the rocks where he sits, turned away from the lovers, playing his flute.  In Claude's, the Cyclops is barely visible - you can just glimpse him (right) sadly watching from the wooded slope, his view of the lovers obscured by the sheet they have put up to afford them some privacy.  Of course not all artists put emphasis on the landscape and Poussin himself did a version with additional cherubs and embracing lovers in which Polyphemus looks on like the sad guy at a particularly riotous party.

It was at a hunting party that Jean-Baptiste Lully's opera Acis et Galatée saw its first performance in 1686.  Elaborate artificial sets of the kind he had previously specialised in were no longer an option now that he was out of favour with Louis XIV (who had become increasingly religious and less tolerant of Lully's openly homosexual lifestyle).  It is tempting to imagine this being successfully performed with very little scenery, perhaps even outside amid 'natural' scenery.  After Lully there are a few more steps in the operatic story before we get to Handel's Acis and Galatea.  There was an English version by John Eccles and P.A. Motteux in 1701, which depressingly included 'a subplot concerned with the quarrel of rustic couple Roger and Joan, introduced to “make the piece the more dramatical.”'  Then came Giovanni Bononcini's Polyfemo (1702) and an Italian version by the young Handel himself, Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (1708).  Ten years later Handel had moved to England and was employed by James Brydges, 9th Baron Chandos, the 'Apollo of the Arts', and it was for him that Acis and Galatea, was composed, with a libretto by John Gay (aided by two more poets, John Hughes and Alexander Pope).

Acis and Galatea was first performed on a summer's day at Cannons, the house Brydges was then still building at vast expense (and which would be razed to the ground in 1747 when the family fortune gave out).   Pleasingly this does seem to have taken place in the open air, although The Grove Book of Operas is a bit sniffy about this 'local tradition', remarking that the discovery of piping to supply an old fountain "might fancifully be invoked as support".  If true, the audience would have been within earshot of the water features designed by John Theophilus Deaguliers, another remarkable individual patronised by Brydges, who combined the roles of local priest and hydraulic engineer.  Perhaps the sound of water would have been a constant reminder of Galatea, the sea nymph loved by both Acis and Polyphemus. At the end of the opera, as you can hear in the clip embedded below, when Galatea transforms Acis into a river, she sings
Heart, the seat of soft delight,
Be thou now a fountain bright!
Purple be no more thy blood,
Glide thou like a crystal flood.
Rock, thy hollow womb disclose!
The bubbling fountain, lo! it flows;
Through the plains he joys to rove,
Murm'ring still his gentle love.