Saturday, July 26, 2014

No other tent but the sky

Walter Crane's 1907 frontispiece to
Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879)

Here is Robert Louis Stevenson, settling down with his donkey for a night in the Valley of the Mimente.
A hollow underneath the oak was my bed. Before I had fed Modestine and arranged my sack, three stars were already brightly shining, and the others were beginning dimly to appear. I slipped down to the river, which looked very black among its rocks, to fill my can; and dined with a good appetite in the dark, for I scrupled to light a lantern while so near a house. The moon, which I had seen, a pallid crescent, all afternoon, faintly illuminated the summit of the hills, but not a ray fell into the bottom of the glen where I was lying. The oak rose before me like a pillar of darkness; and overhead the heartsome stars were set in the face of the night. No one knows the stars who has not slept, as the French happily put it, à la belle étoile.  [...]
All night a strong wind blew up the valley, and the acorns fell pattering over me from the oak. Yet, on this first night of October, the air was as mild as May, and I slept with the fur thrown back.
I was much disturbed by the barking of a dog, an animal that I fear more than any wolf. [...]  I was wakened next morning (Wednesday, October 2nd) by the same dog - for I knew his bark - making a charge down the bank, and then, seeing me sit up, retreating again with great alacrity. The stars were not yet quite extinguished. The heaven was of that enchanting mild grey-blue of the early morn. A still clear light began to fall, and the trees on the hillside were outlined sharply against the sky. The wind had veered more to the north, and no longer reached me in the glen; but as I was going on with my preparations, it drove a white cloud very swiftly over the hill-top; and looking up, I was surprised to see the cloud dyed with gold. In these high regions of the air the sun was already shining as at noon. If only the clouds travelled high enough, we should see the same thing all night long. For it is always daylight in the fields of space.
The young Richard Holmes, following the route described by Stevenson, spent the night at this spot in 1964.  'I made a little fire among the rocks by the river, and slept in the doorway of an isolated barn.  My diary notes "a solitary star below the door-lintel, a little rain, and an occasional blink of lightning over the oak trees"' (Footsteps,1985).  In an earlier post here I referred to the notion of the literary pilgrimage and Richard Holmes' practise of 'footstepping' his biographical subjects.  I also quoted another description of a night à la belle étoile from his travels on the trail of Stevenson: 'I slept out that night under an outcrop of pines, facing east on a slight incline, with the light of the Costaros far way to my left. ... Only once, waking, I drank two ice-cold mouthfuls of water from my can and, leaning back, saw the Milky Way astonishingly bright through the pine tops, and felt something indescribable - like falling upwards into someone's arms.'

Nowadays the path taken by Stevenson and Modestine can be followed on the chemin de Robert Louis Stevenson (GR70).  As one travel site says, 'Stevenson often slept out under trees in a prototype sleeping bag. You enjoy wholesome food in welcoming, en-suite accommodation as you trek across southern Auvergne and northern Languedoc with just your light backpack'.  A quick Google will take you to self-published travel accounts and shorter posts from tourists who have done this long distance walk (of course if I ever do it, you will be reading about it here).  Books too will continue to appear: as Nicholas Shakespeare wrote in The Telegraph, 'if you had visited the Cévennes in September 1994, you might have encountered a demented, rain-sodden Edinburgh schoolteacher whacking along a donkey and shouting out "lumps of poetry" about the effects of travel.  Christopher Rush was on a quest to recover himself after losing his wife to cancer a year before ...To Travel Hopefully breaks a 10-year silence to describe how Rush returned to "authorial normality" by following in the footsteps of his hero Robert Louis Stevenson.' 

And so the landscape is continually over-written by travellers carrying copies of the accounts of previous travellers.  But Stevenson himself was walking with a copy of Peyrat's history of the Protestant Camisard Revolt of 1702-05 (an episode with some parallels to the resistance of the Scottish Covenanters).  On that night of October 1st, 1878, gazing at the night sky from the 'hollow underneath the oak' , he could imagine two of the romantically-named historical figures from the Camisard wars looking up at the same sight.  'These same far-away worlds, sprinkled like tapers or shaken together like a diamond dust upon the sky, had looked not otherwise to Roland or Cavalier, when, in the words of the latter, they had ‘no other tent but the sky, and no other bed than my mother earth.’' The same is true today for all those who walk GR70 in the hope of getting closer to Stevenson, or the fresher, but now half-a-century-old footsteps of the young Richard Holmes: the stars at least remain unchanging.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Dawn over the Gulf

Gerardo Dottori, Self Portrait, (1928)
Comune di Perugia

This summer at the Estorick Collection you can see a thought-provoking exhibition of aerial landscapes in Gerardo Dottori: The Futurist View.  Dottori was born in 1884 and his early work encompassed Divisionism (Trees of the Wood (1906), where dabs of paint capture the effect of dappled light) and Symbolism (Triptych of the Trees - The Survivors (1909-10), with its dark forms set against an extraordinary swirling sky in green, grey and sulphurous yellow).  He first started painting in a Futurist style around 1912 but really came to prominence in the late twenties as a leading exponent of aeropittura, modernist painting inspired by the speed and motion of flight, celebrating the role of the pilot and depicting the landscape far below in new ways. 'To fly,' he wrote in 1931, 'means to open and to ventilate the imagination.'  At this time the aeroplane was increasingly identified with war and the kind of bombing visited on Guernica, but Dottori developed a spiritual vision in which there is no sign of this destructive power.  Instead the curvature of the earth is exaggerated and rooftops, wooded hills and deep blue lakes are stretched into idealised forms.

Gerardo Dottori, Ascending Forms (or Ascending Forces), 1930
Comune di Perugia

Dawn over the Gulf (1935), Umbrian Lake (1942), Lake-Dawn (1942), Umbrian Spring (1945)...  paintings like these formed a body of work which for all their abstract qualities were intended to celebrate a particular landscape.  In Dottori's 'Umbrian Manifesto of Aeropainting', he described himself as 'a passionate Umbrian who adores his land.'  According to Massimo Duranti, writing in the exhibition catalogue, Dottori's 'aspiration was to transform the terrestrial landscape into paradise by placing it outside time and space, and by elevating it towards the sky - the opposite approach to that of the Umbrian Renaissance painters, who had pulled the sky down to the ground.'  This paradise has no signs of modern life: actual people are invisible from so high up.  Place is reduced to space and then expanded so that we are no longer simply looking into a picture plane.  Dottori saw circles and gentle ascending curves in the Umbrian landscape that suggested the possibility of this all-embracing view.  'I compel viewers to place themselves with me in the centre of the aeropainting in order to dominate it and experience its totalitarian envelopment' ('e viverla nella sua rotondità totalitaria').  Art historians have taught us to see the elevated perspective as an expression of power and Dottori's language certainly sets alarm bells ringing.  Having recently read Lucy Hughes-Hallett's biography of D'Annunzio, The Pike, I found it hard to view this exhibition without wondering how far the paintings expressed strains of mystical idealism that were being exploited by the Fascists.

Gerardo Dottori, Lake-Dawn, (1942) 
Collezione Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Perugia

In the exhibition catalogue Massimo Duranti is keen to focus on the paintings rather than the wider politics of Futurism.  'One must briefly consider here the relationship between Dottori and Fascism, which has been analysed in great detail on many occasions,' he writes (this extensive analysis will not be familiar to many British readers I suspect).  He goes on to say that whilst Dottori 'painted a number of apologetic works for the regime', his adhesion to Fascism 'may be described as 'dispassionate' and not uncritical on occasion.'  Duranti complains that some critics still equate Fascism and Futurism ('expecially in the United States') and of course he is right that this would be too reductive, not least because any equation would need to factor in a third term: Flight.  'Flying and Fascism' is discussed at some length in Robert Wohl's wonderfully illustrated book, The Spectacle of Flight, where he quotes Mussolini: 'Flying must remain the privilege of an aristocracy; but everyone must want to fly, everyone must regard flying with longing'.  The Futurist obsession with flight begun before the First World War but became central to its painting poetry in the thirties (the exhibition includes a portrait of poet Franca Maria Corneli, author of L’aeropoema futurista dell’Umbria, 1943).  Dottori's continued to produce aerial landscapes after the war, less experimental as he grew older and less dependent on the idea of flight.  In paintings of Lake Trasimeno from a high vantage point he was returning to views he had first seen as a youth during excursions into the local mountains, long before he knew what it was like to pass over it in an aeroplane.

Gerardo Dottori, Virginal Umbria, 1949
Collezione Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Perugia
Images used here courtesy of Estorick Collection 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

New Western Landscapes

Rebecca Solnit published two essays on contemporary American landscape photography in Creative Camera magazine, in 1993 and 1998, and they were reprinted together in her collection As Eve Said to the Serpent.  Both begin with some historical context: 'American landscape photography is grounded in both the scenery and ideology of the immigrant's West.'  The photographers who worked for the U.S. Geological Survey were only the first to concentrate on landforms rather than nature.  Carleton Watkins portrayed Yosemite as a virgin wilderness outside time, but his work was partly financed by photographs of the nearby gold mines.  Ansel Adams is also defined by these images of pure, unpeopled landscapes - an aesthetic that 'has dwindled into calendar pictures and coffee-table books'.  Meanwhile, landscape may have featured sometimes in the work of the great twentieth century documentary photographers like Robert Frank and William Eggleston, but their subject was always essentially social commentary.  It was only in the seventies that landscape once again became an important theme in American photography, following the seminal New Topographics exhibition curated by William Jenkins in 1975.  I have listed below the photographers Solnit discusses from the subsequent twenty years with brief comments pertaining to their work in that period.  Perhaps someone could ask her to write an essay* covering the next two decades... 
  • Robert Adams - the major survivor from the New Topographics group whose 'pessimism about culture's impact on nature has evolved into a broader melancholy.'  
  • Mark Klett - part of the Rephotographic Project that returned to document the sites originally photographed for the U.S. Geological Survey; his images are not 'elegies for a raped landscape', instead they show how the West can be Sublime even with modern additions like a TV antenna.
  • Robert Dawson - a documentary photographer whose work describes 'the ecological and social complexity of the California landscape'.  There is a Design Observer article by Mark Klett on the Water in the West project that Dawson founded with Ellen Manchester.
  • Peter Goin - a Water in the West photographer whose 'Nuclear Landscapes is an anthology of deadpan images of nuclear-war production sites.'  Solnit has some reservations about this - the 'captivity' of such work within the art world may undermine its educational value.
  • Richard Misrach - a photographer greatly admired by Solnit and whose work features in another of her essays, 'Scapeland', his 'lush documents of political catastrophe point out that politics has invaded the landscape.'
  • Linda Connor - focusing on 'manifestations of the spiritual on the land', she is, like Misrach, a photogapher with whom Solnit has collaborated (an encounter with Connor's work in 1986 'opened the door' to a new understanding of landscape and representation).
  • Meridel Rubenstein - her Critical Mass project on Los Alamos, the birthplace of the atom bomb, is deeply Solnitesque (is there such a word yet?) and features in another excellent Solnit essay, 'Lisa Meitner's Walking Shoes.' 
  • Masumi Hayashi - her images of the Japanese internment camps comprising mosaics of narrow-angle snapshots 'seem to address the reconstructedness of memory, the fractures of truth'.
  • Zig Rising Buffalo Jackson - his photographs of signs on the borders of Indian reservations expose the arbitrariness of any boundaries, 'testimony that the story is invisible and the sign has only begun to tell you where you are.'
  • Anthony Hernandez - like Misrach, he produces 'gorgeous images of the bleakest parts of American culture' but the focus for Hernandez is on the poor and disenfranchised, as in his series Landscapes for the Homeless   
  • Cynthia Rettig - her photographs of family vacations at an artificial lake near the Hoover Dam, where shooting and gun play was all part of the fun, recall the original conquest of the West: 'people repeating a history they cannot remember at a vast lake that is itself the result of manipulating the landscape.'

* NB: Rebecca Solnit is so prolific that she may have written a new survey on landscape photography somewhere, but if so I can't see it on the list of essays on her website...  Another place to keep up with her writing is the fuck yeah Rebecca Solnit tumblr. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014


I have just finished the Jim Crace novel Harvest: 'Sometime in the pre-industrial period, an isolated and self-sufficient English village finds its common fields stolen for enclosure as collective agriculture yields to remotely-owned pasturage: "the sheaf is giving way to sheep."'  This summary of the story's background is from a review in the Independent, which praises Crace for his descriptive powers: 'No writer can match him for pin-sharp specificity in his rapt close-ups of rural life ... yet the village's unanchored quality matters hugely – even though the visiting map-maker "Mr Quill" seeks to sketch and shape it into a place ripe for reason, and for business.  Where are we, and when? Details of clothes, crops and rituals leave a centuries-wide window. But for all its timeless, folk-tale qualities, this village has a solid location. From Tudors to Victorians, land enclosure in England enacted, county-by-county and field-by-field, the "tragedy of the commons", as private interests claimed control of resources once responsibly shared by all.  In England's case, the sheep ate up the men – Thomas More's words in Utopia (1516). So Harvest takes place nowhere, and everywhere.'

In the clip above you can see Crace read a passage in which the book's narrator, Walter, tries to create a garden and finda that the land needs to be worked: 'it does not wish us to stand back and comment on its comeliness or devise a song for it.  It has no time to listen to our song'.  There are many such moments that would interest readers of this blog. One of my favourite moments in the book is a description of the making of maps.  Walter is helping out by preparing and stretching vellum and is fascinated by the sketches that the man the villagers call Mr Quill has 'ennobled' with colour, 'just shapes and lines and colouring' with no lettering added as yet.  In the absence of language, they remind Walter of the natural patterns in nature.
'I've seen equally compound patterns, no less ineffable than these, when I've peeled back bark on dying trees, or torn away the papering on birches. I've seen them sketched by lichens on a standing stone, or designed by mosses in a quag, or lurking on the under-wing of butterflies.  I've found these ordinary abstracts in the least expected places hereabouts: I have only to lift a stone, or turn some fallen timber in the wood, or reverse a leaf.  The structures and the ornaments revealed are made purposeful simply by being found.'
Harvest had a lot of publicity last year because it was up for the Booker Prize.  In an interview in The Guardian Crace described the day his ideas all came together.  It began with a moment of inspiration at the Watford Gap (recognising the extent to which the English landscape is 'drenched in narrative'), continued with a visit to Tate Britain, where there was an early eighteenth century depiction of enclosure, and ended on the train home with a story in the paper about South American soya barons turning people off the land.  I would love to know what the 'watercolour' was that Crace saw in London - presumably it was the inspiration for Mr Quill's sketches.  The clip below shows an old map at one point but what Crace refers to sounds more impressive - it prompted him to wonder how it was possible to gain such a vantage point 'at a time when no one could get higher than a treetop or a steeple'.  Perhaps it was a painting I am now no longer able to recall that Patrick Keiller included in his Robinson Institute exhibition at Tate Britain (reported on here in March 2012 - Harvest apparently took just six months to write and appeared in February last year).  You can let me know in the comments if you know - as it is, I'm torn between thinking it is probably something obvious and the feeling that, like the village in Harvest, it may not be real at all.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Chinese Landscape - Tattoo

Looking at players in the World Cup this month I have wondered whether those reports last year that we have reached 'peak beard' can be right, and, if they are, whether we nonetheless still have some way to go before reaching 'peak tattoo'.  Sadly I have not spotted any landscape tattoo designs so far on the footballers' arms and torsos (although a quick Google tells me that a couple of years ago VfB Stuttgart's Julian Schieber got inked with a view of his home village of Weissach).  In contemporary art, Huang Yan has specialised in this kind of thing, although his work, beginning with Chinese Landscape - Tattoo (1999) is actually a form of body painting.  Here's how the Met describes that series: 'Huang covers his torso and arms with traditional landscape scenes, presenting his “reincarnation” of literati-style painting. The composition, modelled in ink and colors on a white ground by Huang’s wife, the artist Zhang Tiemei, follows the natural form of Huang’s body. In the photos, the artist’s face is cropped away and Huang’s anonymous torso becomes an emblem of the Chinese everyman who cannot be separated from his cultural heritage, which, like his racial identity, is as indelible as a tattoo.'

Over the last fifteen years Huang has produced numerous variations on this theme.  What happens when a landscape is painted onto a face?  In Four Seasons (2005) the model is expressionless under each seasonal view, although in two of them his eyes are open, making it much harder to regard his face as merely a blank canvass.  In Pine Landscape Dyptich (2007), a nude woman takes the leaves and branches painted on her body into the boughs of a real pine tree.  Dismantle Landscape (2005) begins with a photograph of another tree-covered model, posed against a landscape backdrop painted in more of a 'Western style'; as the camera zooms out we see her standing on what looks like the floor of a building site and in the last image she is surrounded by construction workers.  You can see others in the YouTube clip I have embedded above.  Huang has also made sculptural work in this vein: a ceramic landscape skull, busts of Mao decorated with traditional motifs (including a Landscape with Figures and a Boat, 2004), and Pork Landscape 1 (2001), which is, as the title indicates, a piece of pork - the fat redolent of swirling mist and the meat a backdrop for blue hills and a tree covered in pink blossom.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

A Prospect of Wales

Last year I asked here 'why isn't the art of Recording Britain better known?'  Well Sheffield's Millenium Gallery is currently hosting a touring exhibition devoted to Recording Britain, with some of the original paintings from the 1940s set alongside earlier topographical watercolours and recent landscape art by people like Richard Long, Keith Arnatt and Ingrid Pollard.  A display case has books from the period, including A Prospect of Wales (1948), one of the old King Penguins (like John Piper's book on Romney Marsh which I described in  another post last summer). This book has illustrations by Kenneth Rowntree, whose contributions to the Prospect of Britain project were often quite unusual, e.g. The Smoke Room, Ashopton Inn, Derbyshire (1940) - a rather unprepossessing interior with dartboard, wall calendar and a fish mounted in a case. The accompanying essay is by Gwyn Jones, who founded The Welsh Review, wrote novels and translated Icelandic sagas.  Seeing this in the exhibition, and having just booked a week's holiday in Wales this summer, I thought I would get hold of a copy.

The title, A Prospect of Wales, sounds paradoxical - how is it possible to see the whole country?  To some extent Gwyn Jones' essay represents a kind of landscape writing I've mentioned here previously, the imaginary prospect which begins with the local and then spreads out far beyond the limits of sight.  Jacquetta Hawkes does this in A Land, which was published three years later than a A Prospect of Wales; as I wrote in an earlier post here, 'the book ends with 'A Prospect of Britain', from the city streets round her home in Primrose Hill to the different landscapes of Britain described in the order they were created: the chalk Downs, the Cotswold's, the West Riding, the Lake District.'  Another example: Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928), whose hero/ine is able to climb a hill so high 'that nineteen English counties could be seen beneath; and on clear days thirty or perhaps forty, if the weather was very fine.'  And another, which I have not mentioned here before because it takes the reader completely beyond 'some landscapes': Olaf Stapledon's vision of the cosmos in Starmaker (1937), a book that begins with a view of suburbs and the sea's level darkness, and the opening sentence: 'One night when I had tasted bitterness I went out on to the hill.'  A Prospect of Wales begins, by contrast, 'I have just come down from the hill fronting my house in mid-Cardiganshire', but a few pages later he is asking us to ascend again to a point where 'we may survey with swinging glance the western counties of Wales.'

In my photograph above, the book is open at two of Kenneth Rowntree's illustrations of Pembrokeshire, which is where we will be heading next month.  'This is a coast,' Jones writes, 'soaked in colour and radiant with light.'  He quotes Graham Sutherland's essay 'A Welsh Sketchbook', which had appeared in Horizon in 1942: 'The quality of light here is magical and transforming - as indeed it is in all this country.  Watching from the gloom as the sun's rays strike the further bank, one has the sensation of the after tranquillity of an explosion of light; or as if one had looked into the sun and had suddenly turned away.'  I will no doubt have more to say about Sutherland and his Pembrokeshire paintings after we've explored this landscape. I'll conclude here with four lines of Welsh poetry quoted at the end of A Prospect of Wales which encapsulate what Jones sees as the real essence of the country, to be found 'not in the famed vistas ... but in some corner of a field, a pool under a rock, in a bare sheep-walk or a cottage folded in a gulley.'  The poem is by Hedd Wyn and Jones translates these lines as follows: 'Only the purple moon at the edge of the bare mountain, and the sound of the old river Prysor singing in the valley.'
Dim ond lleuad borffor
Ar fin y mynydd llwm,
A sŵn hen afon Prysor
Yn canu yn y cwm