Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Ruins of Hohenbaden

Carl Philipp Fohr, The Ruins of Hohenbaden, (1814-15)

Today was the last day to see A Dialogue with Nature, an excellent little exhibition at The Courtauld which included works from New York's Morgan Library & Museum that I'd not seen before, like Carl Philipp Fohr's 'jewel-like watercolour', The Ruins of Hohenbaden (1814-15).  I was particularly fascinated to see German paintings and drawings like this alongside those by familiar British names (Cozens, Girtin, Turner etc.).  Three more examples: Caspar David Friedrich's The Jakobikirche in Greifswald as a Ruin (c. 1817), the kind of nineteenth century 'anticipatory ruin' highlighted in the Tate's current Ruin Lust exhibition; Theodor Rehbenitz's strange little Fantastic Landscape with Monk Crossing a Bridge (c. 1826-30), a throwback to the style of Dürer's woodcuts; and the composer Felix Mendelssohn's sketchbook for 1837-9 open to show that popular Romantic trope, the view from a window.  Although there were few surprised in these British and German artists' subject matter, the exhibition conveyed a wonderful sense of technical creativity in the means used to engage in 'a dialogue with nature'.  I left with a mental list of ways in which an innovative artist of the period might demonstrate a distinctive landscape vision...

  • Use stylised strokes...  I have written here before about the vocabulary of marks used by Chinese landscape painters and named after the natural phenomena they resembled, like tan wo ts’un – 'eddies of a whirlpool'. The Courtauld curator drew attention to the foliage in Johann Georg Wagner's Wooded landscape with stream and oxcart on road (1760s), depicted using 'whirls and coils in a lively, almost calligraphic manner', a device which 'imbues this tranquil scene with vitality and movement.'  Wagner didn't have a chance to develop his style, dying at the age of just twenty-two (the same age at which Carl Philipp Fohr was killed, after an accident swimming in the Tiber). 
  • Use a 'stump'...  This was how Thomas Gainsborough, in Wooded Upland Landscape with Cottage, Figures and Cows (c. 1785), created subtle shades of grey on the road leading into the picture, the walls and the trees beyond and the distant hills and clouds in the background.  By rubbing a tightly rolled stump of leather or paper over the surface he left areas of soft shadow that contrast satisfyingly with the grainy texture of the unsmoothed chalk elsewhere in the landscape. 
  • Add gouache and gum arabic...  Mainly self-taught, Samuel Palmer also used distinctive ways of applying ink and paint, like the stippled trees in The Haunted Stream (c. 1826).  But what's really striking about another experiment, Oak Tree and Beech, Lullingstone Park (1828), are the different materials used. The extraordinary fiery evening light in the depths of the trees is 'yellow watercolour over white gouache, to which he applied gum arabic, imparting shine, and occasional dots of red watercolour.'
  • Choose coloured paper... The exhibition included one of Constable's cloud studies in which, it appears, he had insufficient time to record all the gradations of colour.  Nearby is one of the 150 cloud studies made by his German contemporary Johann Georg Dillis, executed with white chalk on blue paper so that he could avoid the issue of colour and concentrate on pure form.  I would love to see a large selection of these all on display together.

  • Leave a hole...  The moon must present a particular challenge for landscape painters and Turner makes it look easy in the Courtauld's On Lake Lucerne, looking towards Fluelen (1841).  Hung next to this in the exhibition was Friedrich's Moonlit Landscape (1808) in which he made no attempt to paint the moon itself: instead a circular hole was left so that a blank piece of paper behind shines through. In fact this was originally designed to be illuminated by lamplight and viewed to the accompaniment of music.
  • Tuesday, April 22, 2014

    The Third Paradise

    Earlier this month at the Baths of Caracalla we saw this spiral arrangements of Roman stone - like a Richard Long sculpture re-imagined by Ian Hamilton Finlay.  It is in fact an installation by Michelangelo Pistoletto, one of the leading lights of sixties Arte Povera, who is still active and making work based on his concept of the 'Third Paradise', a fusion of nature (the first paradise) and culture (the second).  This is symbolised by a new form of infinity sign - the pattern used to lay out the stones at the Baths of Caracalla.  You can read various descriptions of the Third Paradise online and I suspect something tends to get lost in translation - this for example makes it sound frustratingly vague and over-ambitious:
    'The idea of the Third Paradise is to lead artifice—that is, science, technology, art, culture and political life—back to the Earth, while engaging in the reestablishment of common principles and ethical behaviour, for on these the actual success of the project depends. The Third Paradise is the passage to a new level of planetary civilization, essential to ensure the human race's survival. The Third Paradise is the new myth that leads everyone to take personal responsibility at this momentous juncture.'  
    The fragments of ruined buildings used in this piece obviously recall the fragility of culture but they felt to me more elegiac than hopeful.  Placed on this carefully mown lawn they increase the sense that this ruin is itself a carefully curated museum, rather than a place of mystery and poetry.  Resting in the sunshine and contemplating Pistoletto's work reminded me of the very different approaches and strengths of Richard Long and Ian Hamilton Finlay, the former avoiding any overt meaning in his stone circles, the latter investing his work with complex and often troubling iconography. 

    In 2010 Pistoletto created the Third Paradise symbol on a larger scale, planting 160 olive trees in woodland near Assisi.  A photograph to accompany an interview shows him actually ploughing the soil himself.  Asked about how people should experience the work, he said: 'when spectators come to the large clearing that accommodates the Third Paradise (dominated by the Rocca Maggiore di Assisi) having walked through the woods along the Tescio (stream), they start out on a ritual course leading to awareness of a new relationship between humans and nature that we must all help create.'  Again I find myself somewhat sceptical, and reminded of a post I did here last year on the ethics of land art.  Wouldn't visitors prefer to wander through unspoiled, unmanaged woodlands finding their own inspiration?  In fact, inevitably, no such 'first paradise' exists, as the Saint Francis Woodlands website explains.
    'In 2011, the San Francesco Woodland was opened to the public and walking paths allow visitors to experience the beauty of Assisi's forest, [which was] neglected for centuries.  Its restoration is not aimed at purely environmental conservation, but an attempt to reconstruct for visitors the area's traditional rural landscape in the context of the Franciscan and Benedictine religious orders. To this end, the woodland's 1.5 and 2 kilometer-long walking paths are color-coded--with corresponding explanatory notes, an audioguide, and mobile app--into three thematic routes: the landscape route, illustrating the history of the rural landscape in Italy; the historical route, which recounts the area's historic architecture; and the spiritual route, with reflections on the relationship between nature and mankind.'

    Wednesday, April 16, 2014

    Ruin lust

    The Colosseum seen from the ruins on the Palatine Hill

    In my last post I said we were about to head off for Rome and now I am back with a camera full of images of ruins.  Just before we left, I had a look round the Ruin Lust exhibition at Tate Britain, which begins in the eighteenth century with Piranesi and the Picturesque landscape painters and ends with more recent studies of war-torn buildings and urban decay.  Of course we did not travel to Italy to look for modern ruins, although sometimes they were unavoidable (the bus ride to Tivoli took us through Rome's edgelands and I imagined Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley excitedly hopping off there to explore the building sites, waste ground and low rise sprawl, rather than staying on to see the gardens of the Villa d'Este.)  Instead, as you can see from these photographs, our itinerary of Roman sites was a well-trodden one, catering as it did for young boys interested in Asterix and Horrible Histories as well as parents inspired by art and classical literature.

    A wall at the Baths of Caracalla

    The image used to promote Ruin Lust is Azeville (2006), Jane and Louise Wilson's imposing black and white photograph of a massive Nazi coastal defence structure that has weathered into something that resembles a basalt cliff overhanging a dark cave.  The ruins of Rome have long since taken on the characteristics of landscape.  Looking up from the Forum we saw successive walls of crumbling brick forming steep slopes and crevices.  At the Baths of Caracalla, isolated fragments of wall stood out against the blue April sky like the peaks of the Dolomites.  At Ostia Antica we wandered away from the main path to explore fields of overgrown stone that were once rooms - home now to small lizards and carpeted with grass and daisies.  The ruins are to some extent subterranean landscapes too, with underground passages that are not always accessible (the guide at the Catacombs tells you that its name meant 'near the caves', referring to the abandoned quarry that the tombs were built into).  Even after years of archaeology, parts of the ruins still remain buried and uncovered.

    Arches and tree on the Palatine Hill

    Standing beneath the towering walls of the Baths of Caracalla it was easy to imagine, like the author of the 'The Ruin' - the Anglo-Saxon poem that describes the crumbling remains of Roman Bath - that these were 'buildings raised by giants.'  But when I sat down to sketch them it was apparent that even the tallest structures are themselves dwarfed by pines and poplars, and that the marble colonnades are no taller than olive trees.  The old walls tended to recede into the background as I focused instead on the spring blossom (another potent symbol of transience).  The bricks themselves have an abstract beauty and there is a fascination in the way stone is configured at different scales, from tiny tessarae to great blocks of marble. But the more they sink into the landscape, the more they operate as setting rather than subject, a neutral background of cool grey and warm terracotta.  The ruins' arches and columns also provide natural frames: in Claude's paintings they stand in the foreground to one side in partial shadow, so that the eye travels on into the distant blue landscape suffused with golden evening light.  

    Old stone and spring blossom at the Baths of Caracalla

    Stone fragment on the Palatine Hill

    All connoisseurs of ruins appreciate the multifarious ways in which plants overgrow them.  Sometimes I was struck by the juxtaposition of living flowers with their petrified form on old stonework.  The city has so many Corinthian capitals it is a surprise to come upon a bank of real acanthus leaves stirred by the wind.  The flowers, trees and birds we saw can be encountered in fading wall paintings, and in the extraordinary garden room of Livia (which I have written about here before) they create an immersive space seemingly more perfect than nature itself.  But frescoes and carvings, like my photographs, are silent, and cannot convey what for us was an overriding impression of the ruins of Rome: the ever changing accompaniment of birdsong. That and the scent of herbs, some growing naturally, some planted, like the rosemary bordering the rectangular pond in the Pecile at Hadrian's Villa.

     Hadrian's Villa near Tivoli: the rectangular pond

    Having mentioned the birdsong, I must be honest and admit that the soundscape of the ruins in Rome is as much about car horns and emergency sirens, tour parties, maintenance workers, and some very noisy grass cutting.  The Forum, which I remembered fondly from previous visits, is hellishly crowded by the middle of the day - I found myself thinking of John Piper's chaotic and unappealing depiction of it that features in Ruin Lust (a 'vile painting' according to Brian Sewell). 'If stones could talk,' the tourist sites say, but at the Forum you would be hard pressed to hear what they were trying to say.  This encouragement to imagine the voices of the past made me wonder whether anyone has tried writing a Dart-style poem, drawing on the thoughts of those who inhabit the ruins today: the conservators deciding which areas to restore, the labourers building their scaffolding, the guides with their well-worn stories, the bored looking young women (with, you imagine, PhDs in ancient history) who take your money at the entrance, the recent immigrants selling jewellery just outside the main gate and the mounted policemen who come to intimidate them away.

    Exploring Ostia Antica

    We found a lot of the ruins out of bounds to visitors (I was particularly disappointed not to see the view from Hadrian's belvedere, the Roccabruna).  No explanations were given but it is obvious that a lot of work is going on to secure the sites for the ever increasing demands of mass tourism.  The problems of conserving Pompeii are well documented and at Ostia one of the finest floor mosaics was covered with a tarpaulin for protection.  Tourists cannot be left to do what they like, or behave like the peasants shown hanging out their washing amid the remains of Hadrian's Villa in a c1765 painting by Richard Wilson included in Ruin Lust.  It is a pity, because one of the joys of ruins is tracing your own path in and out of buildings, entering bedrooms and temples and swimming pools in a way that would be impossible in real life.  I have referred here before to Christopher Woodward's view that there is now too much emphasis on archaeology and not enough on the poetry of ruins.  Metal fences at the Baths of Caracalla prevent you from sitting on the stones where Shelley wrote 'Prometheus Unbound'.

    Fenced off: the Baths of Caracalla

    There is ample evidence in Ruin Lust of the attraction of aerial perspectives - from what Laura Cumming's review calls Piranesi's 'devastating vision of the Colosseum as it might be seen from the air, dangerously broken and overgrown, tiny figures tangled in the weeds and wreckage of this dead civilisation', to Joseph Gandy's imagining of The Bank of England as a ruinWe actually passed by both these edifices on our journey home.  Our flight took us over the Alps and across what was once just a small part of the Roman Empire.  As we descended towards Gatwick, the outline of London emerged in the distance with the Shard clearly identifiable, rising unfeasibly high over the city, lit by the rays of the low sun.  I thought then of W G Sebald's words in the Ruin Lust exhibition: 'somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.' 

    Friday, April 04, 2014

    The Garden of Music

    'I love gardens.  They do not reject people.  There one can walk freely, pause to view the entire garden, or gaze at a single tree.  Plants, rocks, and sand show changes, constant changes.' -  Tōru Takemitsu, 'The Garden of Music' (1975)
    We're off to Rome next week and I was remembering our last visit there and a trip to the water gardens of the Villa D'Este, which got me thinking about Liszt's Les jeux d'eaux à la Villa d'Este and then other music inspired by gardens, like John Cage's Ryoanji and Tōru Takemitsu's In an Autumn Garden.  In a 1984 lecture Takemitsu spoke of wanting the orchestra itself to resemble a landscape garden, where 'things sparkle in the sunlight, become somber when it is cloudy, change colour in rain, and change form in the wind' (see Confronting Silence: Selected Writings trans. Yoshiko Kakudo and Glenn Glasow).  He describes experimenting with the organisation of instruments as if they were features in a garden: in Dorian Horizon for example, the oboe is played at the front of the stage while the shō can be heard from some way behind, so that they create a sense of space and distance.

    When Takemitsu came to compose Arc for Piano and Orchestra in 1963 he divided the orchestra into four groups ranging from the most fluid, mobile sounds to the most enduring and stable, corresponding to (1) grass and flowers, (2) trees, (3) rocks and (4) sand and earth.  Takemitsu drew two diagrams to illustrate the concept (which you can see reproduced in an online essay), one showing the organisation of these landscape elements, the other showing how the solo piano, which takes the role of the walker in the garden, moves through them.  The pace of the walker (the tempo of the piano) is up to the performer.  However, the content of the garden is planned - 'there are no chance elements as in a shakkei garden, which includes outside features [i.e. borrowed scenery - distant views from outside the garden itself].'  Nevertheless, he concludes, 'some of my works may resemble the shakkei in that natural sounds may be heard with the composed music.' *  This suggests an interesting way of thinking about the use of field recording in modern composition - as akin to the shakkei concept in Japanese gardens. 

    *  David Toop quotes this in his book Haunted Weather (2004) and goes on to reflect ruefully on his own Japanese-influenced garden's borrowed scenery - 'a slab of brutalist red brick - sheltered housing that once featured in a television series called Neighbours from Hell.'