Friday, May 29, 2015

The vast and queachy soil

In this post I want to draw your attention to Complex Crosses, a book of close readings by my friend Edmund Hardy which 'spans the history of poetry by alighting on small fragments'.  I reproduce with permission one of these in its entirety below.
Michael Drayton / compounds of place / 1622
From fast and firmer earth, whereon the Muse of late,
Trod with a steady foot, now with a slower gait,
Through quicksands, beach, and ooze, the Washes she must wade,
Where Neptune every day doth powerfully invade
The vast and queachy soil, with hosts of wallowing waves

(Polyolbion, The Five and Twentieth Song, lines 11-15)

The muse trods in gradations from the “fast and firmer” chalky uplands of Lincolnshire into the ooze of “vast and queachy soil”: “with a steady foot” begins on the chalk (to the north and south of the fens) and Jurassic rocks to the west, then down into the levels “with a slower gait” as sedimentation has slowed the landscape with “quicksands, beach, and ooze”, an interdigitation of peat, clay, silt and chalky islands. “Neptune every day” fixes the eroding action of the sea within the long time-span needed to imagine the erosion of the one-time chalk escarpment as the sea breaks in, and sedimentation fills the basin – the long span of Neptune within “every day”. The resulting fens are both sea and land, compounded linguistically in “wallowing waves”, presaging the area’s own self description in the poem “I peremptory am, large Neptune’s liquid field” (line 151). The soil is onomatopoeically queachy, heard and felt as the steady foot of the topographic muse puts a foot in, and finds that foot sucked into the landscape.
- Edmund Hardy, Complex Crosses (2014)

Illustration from Polyolbion (1622) engraved by William Hole

While the topographic muse trod through quicksands, beach and ooze, the inhabitants of the Fens in Drayton's day got about on stilts.  Drayton mentions this in his poem and William Camden, writing a little earlier, drew particular attention to the practice.  In Brittania (Latin 1586, trans 1610) we read of the inhabitants of Cambridgeshire’s peat fens: ‘a kind of people according to the nature of the place where they dwell rude, uncivill, and envious to all others whom they call Upland-men: who stalking on high upon stilts apply their mindes, to grasing, fishing and fowling.’  Isaac Casaubon spent some weeks in 1611 in and around Ely where he ‘made acquaintance with the solitary bittern and the imitative dotterel, with turf-fires and with stilts, and with the stilt walkers who were able to run so quickly.  At Downham, he was surprised to see one man on stilts drive 400 cattle to pasture with the help of only one small boy.’*  It is tempting to draw a comparison with Drayton's poem, which is rarely stilted but does (as I've mentioned before) tend to stride rapidly over the landscape without really touching its surface.

Drayton died in 1631 and in the subsequent decade work began on the draining of the Fens.  It was a process described in a poem that has been attributed to Samuel Fortrey:
I sing Floods muzled, and the Ocean tam'd,
Luxurious Rivers govern'd, and reclam'd,
Waters with Banks confin'd, as in a Gaol,
Till kinder Sluces let them go on Bail;
Streams curb'd with Dammes like Bridles, taught t'obey,
And run as strait, as if they saw their way. 
It is not surprising to read in 'An Account of Several Observables in Lincolnshire, not taken notice of in Camden, or any other Author’, written at the end of the seventeenth century by Christopher Merret, that 'Stilts are now grown out of Fashion.’ 

H. C. Darby, The Draining of the Fens, 1940, which contains the two quotes in the last paragraph here too.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Earth, besmirched, is churned and shattered into chunks

I'm a bit amazed to see I have now written 3000 tweets, which looks a lot when put together as a long list.  The great epic of Old English, Beowulf, is 3000 lines long.  The same length sufficed for Parmenides to write On Nature (fifth century BCE), Bernard of Cluny to explore De Contemptu Mundi (1150) and Mayakovsky to sing the praises of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1924).  The manuscript shown above comprised 2997 hexameters and was the first significant poem in Lithuanian: Metai ('The Seasons'), composed by Kristijonas Donelaitis around 1765–1775.  It was first published posthumously in Königsberg in 1818, with a dedication to Wilhelm von Humboldt.  Seasonal poetry had by then been popular for some time in Europe - half a century earlier Prussians were reading Ewald Christian von Kleist's Der Frühling ('The Spring'), which had been inspired by James Thomson's The Seasons.  In an earlier post I mentioned another such poem, Počasy ('The Seasons') by Hendrij Zejler, the 'father' of modern Sorbian literature, and regretted that I didn't know whether it conveyed 'any particular sense of the Lusatian landscape.'  Fortunately there are some translations of Metai available online that provide an impression of how seasonal change was felt in the Lithuanian countryside.  Here are a few lines (translated by Demie Jonaitis) on the effect of autumn rain - the blubbering earth is one of many examples of anthropomorphism in the poem.
Earth, her every corner soggy, blubbers softly
For our wheels slash through her washed-out back.
Before, how smoothly two old horses dragged our load;
Now, with four good horses struggling, we bog down,
Wheel on axle, groaning, gags and, grinding, turns.
Earth, besmirched, is churned and shattered into chunks,
Fields in patches swim and splatter, drowning everywhere,
Rain, splish-splashing, washes down the backs of folks,
Bast shoes, stuffed in shabby boots, soak up the water,
While they stomp and knead foul mud like dough.
Ah, where are you now, you wondrous days of spring,
When we, re-opening the windows of the cottage,
Welcomed back your first warm flood of sunshine?

Record sleeve for a recording of Bronius Kutavičius's Metai oratorio.
  From the 'Kristijonas Donelaitis in art' page of a site (in English) dedicated to the poet.
The site also includes illustrations for Metai, including this autumn rain scene. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The questions of the sea

The Royal Academy's Richard Diebenkorn exhibition divides neatly into three rooms, the first covering his early abstract period in Albuquerque and Urbana, the second charting his move into figurative drawing and painting while living at Berkeley, the third focusing on his famous Ocean Park series (1967-88).  Diebenkorn had grown up in the San Francisco Bay area and moved in 1950 to Albuquerque to complete his MA at the University (Agnes Martin, the subject of a respective at Tate Modern opening next month, taught there a few years later).  The city is located on a high plateau of the Chihuahua desert and, as co-curator Sarah C. Bancroft writes, 'the dusty whites, tans, reds, ochres, oranges, yellows and pinks of his environment are seemingly baked onto many of his paintings'.  It was on flight from California to Albuquerque in 1951 that Diebenkorn was first struck by the view of landscape from the air. "I guess it was the combination of desert and agriculture that really turned me on,” he said, “because it has so many things I wanted in my paintings. Of course, the earth’s skin itself had ‘presence’ - I mean, it was all like a flat design - and everything was usually in the form of an irregular grid.”  Diebenkorn's paintings in the 1950s often remind me of the contemporary works of Peter Lanyon who also used an aerial perspective - it is sad to think that Lanyon might have had an equivalent of the Ocean Park series ahead of him if he had not died in a glider accident in 1964.

By the early sixties Diebenkorn was painting more recognisable landscapes like Cityscape #1, which you can see and read about in the RA's Exhibition in Focus PDF.  'The colours and atmosphere of these landscapes are clear, crystalline and bright.'  Too bright, some viewers have apparently felt, although as Bancroft says Diebenkorn himself was struck by the vividness of Northern California when he made a return visit in the 1980s: "God, that is the colour I used to use, when I lived up here!"  Whilst in Berkeley he was also painting interiors with views through windows, influenced to by Matisse, Bonnard and Hopper.  These, Steven A. Nash writes in the catalogue, 'provided a means to compare internal and external light, a way to project attention into the far distance, and a device for exploring the emotional contrasts of near and far, culture and nature, and a sense of confinement versus longing for release and freedom'.  Nash also makes a connection with Caspar David Friedrich's paintings of windows (which I've referred to here before), whose 'reigning mood is serenity tinged with melancholy'.   

Back in 2006 I wrote about the Ocean Park paintings and their relationship to landscape.  Since then an essay by poet and former Ocean Park resident Peter Levitt has appeared called 'Richard Diebenkorn and the Poetics of Place'.  It can currently be read online as a PDF and I will end this post with a quotation from it that conveys the rapture these extraordinary paintings can provoke.  However, I think Laura Cumming is as usual very perceptive in her review, when she notes that up close they 'are stranger than expected, and this paradise is not without shadows – sometimes a grey pall, or a funereal black border edging into the frame.  In fact the Ocean Park series that has given so many people such pleasure arrives out of hesitation, correction, uncertainty, further attempts, frequent cancellations.  How can one tell?  Diebenkorn leaves the workings on show.  The veils of colour that settle on the painting like a misty haar lie over many trials and second thoughts.  The paintings look light, bright, uplifting, slim; but this only comes after long and patient thinking.'  Here then is Peter Levitt, who first visited Ocean Park in 1967 and marvelled 'at the unique and beautiful quality of the light, how from morning to night the sky’s variable shades of blue seemed to retain a moist translucence, as if the colour rose from the nearby sea to cool the heated summer air.'  
'The paintings call forth how it actually felt to live bathed in a wash of such colour and light, to feel the steady, calm, and gradual movement of time reflected in the environment as one lived one’s moments, days, months, and years in a small seaside town (now grown overlarge) whose primary quality was the interaction of this extraordinary light with everything and everyone it fell upon. ...  There is something that moves through me when I stand calmly before this work that doesn’t seem to have a beginning and, equally, may never end.  It may be the way Diebenkorn caught the light I’ve been discussing.  It may be how the shapes are so perfectly drawn and coloured that they call to mind the sound of the nearby ocean, where, as Pablo Neruda wrote, waves repeat the questions of the sea.  How can I know?  Should I even try to comprehend?  To stand in the company of these paintings—where the world I know is one a painter helped to create, and what lies beneath the paint is the common bond of what I call home —is enough.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The sound of water escaping from Mill dams

John Constable, Stratford Mill, c. 1820
Source: Wikimedia Commons (National Gallery)

Anglers often appear in the paintings of John Constable, who had gone fishing on the Stour in his youth.  In his 'micro-biography' Constable in Love (2009) Martin Gayford writes that 'angling was a perfect preparation for landscape-painting, which also involved sitting patiently in the countryside, trying to capture something.  By a river with a rod in his hand, an imaginative boy would absorb impressions - the reflections on water, the shadows beneath the willows, the smells, the sounds - while waiting for a bite.'  Constable wrote of a painting of a mill* by Jacob van Ruisdael, that he could 'all but see the ells [eels]' in its water. 'The most famous of all Constable's statements was sparked by the topic of fishing.  In 1821 the younger John Fisher wrote, mentioning that he had been up to his middle in a fine, deep New Forest river and as happy as a 'careless boy'.  He caught two pike and thought of John Constable.  In reply, Constable produced an amazing sequence of free sensory associations:'
"The sound of water escaping from Mill dams... Willows, Old rotten Banks, slimy posts, & brickwork. I love such things... As long as I do paint I shall never cease to paint such Places......"
In a similar vein, Constable exhibited the 'eye of a miller and relish of a connoisseur' in the way he praised another Ruisdael painting, Thatched-Roofed House with a Water Mill (Constable's father operated Dedham and Flatford mills).  The quotation of Constable's is also referred to by Andrew Motion in an article he wrote at the time of the RA's 2006 Ruisdael exhibition
'Constable's brother once said: "When I look at a mill painted by John, I see that it will go round, which is not always the case with those by other artists." It was a smart remark, and takes us to the heart of Constable's genius, where accuracy and authenticity generate a mighty emotional strength. This is what so pleased him about Ruisdael: we can hear it ... in his response to Thatched-Roofed House with a Water Mill. "It haunts my mind and clings to my heart," he told his friend Archdeacon Fisher, the very day he saw the painting, "and has stood between me & you while I am now talking to you. It is a watermill, not unlike Perne's Mill - a man & boy are cutting rushes in the running stream (in the 'tail water') - the whole so true clear & fresh - & as brisk as champagne - a shower has not long passed."'
Constable moves here from technical appreciation with specialised, poetic vocabulary ('tail water') to a simile that describes the painting's overall atmosphere in terms of a taste which, as Gayford says, 'brings with it a feeling: the exhilaration of sparkling wine.'

John Constable, Dedham Lock and Mill, 1820
Source: Wikimedia Commons (V&A)

* Gayford writes 'watermill' but Seymour Slive says that this refers to Evening Landscape: a Windmill by a Stream (Jacob Van Ruisdael: Windmills and Water Mills p12)

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Wave Movements

Billboard poster advertising Mountains and Waves, Highbury, April 2015

We were at the Barbican on Sunday for the last concert in a weekend of new music entitled 'Mountains and Waves'.  The first half was a premiere of Wave Movements by Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire and Bryce Dessner of The National (see the clip embedded below).  This was 'composed directly to the actual rhythms of waves' and began with rising and falling sounds reminiscent of breakers arriving and departing.  It was pleasant enough but after a while I started hoping for more of the drama and beauty you hear in the great sea compositions (Debussy, Sibelius, Britten), or to hear something more surprising than swelling violins and the rumble of kettle drums.  The ending was rather surprising - Maddy Pryor, once of Steeleye Span, came on and sang what sounded like a sea-themed folk song (her voice was half drowned by the surging strings).  Having read that the performance would feature Hiroshi Sugimoto's Seascapes I had expected something quieter and more minimal.  Hung in a gallery setting, his images radiate silence and mystery, their skies empty, their grey seas stilled by the camera.  Perhaps we try too hard to project music on natural processes.  It was almost easier to sense 'wave movements' in the second part of the concert, listening to So Percussion perform Steve Reich's Drumming (1971)I could imagine something sounding like this inspired by the uneven phasing of waves striking a rocky coastline.  Drumming was composed under the influence of West African polyrhythms and Reich later recalled the impact of studying percussion in Accra with the Ghana Dance Ensemble: 'I was overwhelmed by their music, like being in front of a tidal wave.'

Friday, May 08, 2015

The Virgin and Child in a Landscape

 Jan Provoost, The Virgin and Child in a Landscape (detail), early 16th century

I managed a few minutes in the National Gallery at lunchtime yesterday resting my eyes on this landscape by Jan Provoost.  Everything is softly lit, ducks drift slowly down the river and the few figures going about their business are barely visible, blending into the dark green of the grass and pale brown of the buildings.  I suppose the Virgin is sitting in a walled garden, although it looks rather overgrown (it is hard to maintain a small garden when you have a young child).  Jan Provoost (or Provost) is one of ten sixteenth century artists discussed in Max Jakob Friedländer's classic study, From Van Eyck to Bruegel, Early Netherlandish Painting, first published in 1916.  This selection, which includes Massys, Patenier and Bruegel, compares well with the book's fourteenth century line-up, ten as well if you count Hubert van Eyck along with his more celebrated younger brother Jan (the Jackie and Bobby Charlton of early Netherlandish painting).  If only some publisher would commission monographs on lesser players like Provoost... all of them would be interesting to study for their treatment of landscape.  Friedländer concluded that 'Provost loved landscapes planned like gardens (flower-pots, espaliers, flower beds); he avoided distant views and wide vistas.'  

Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of this painting is the copper-gold of the Virgin's dress and hair.  I came across this same golden-haired Virgin a few weeks ago in Genoa in another work by Provoost, an Annunciation.  It is an interior scene with only grey light visible through one high window, but as if to compensate for the lack of a view a small unframed landscape picture has been tacked to the wall.  This shows a Samuel Palmerish village in the countryside with a large tree on the left and a church spire visible against the sky.  In the context of the Bible story its presence feels strange, as if the Virgin had come upon an image of a place far away in space and time, a humble rural scene whose strangeness made it seem as precious as the other more ornate objects in her room.  Not long ago I wrote a post on the theme of landscape paintings within paintings, focusing on illustrations of wealthy collectors' displays and conversation pieces set in bourgeois interiors.  Provoost's painting is much earlier, from a time when the idea of independent landscape painting barely existed.  The tiny view in the Annunciation has writing underneath (too small to read) and looks like it might be a page from a book or calendar rather than a painting. Nevertheless I have added it to my Pinterest board on landscape paintings to be found within other paintings.

Jan Provoost, Annunciation, first decade of the sixteenth century

Sunday, May 03, 2015

The Road to San Giovanni

In Liguria recently I took on our walks my much-read copy of Italo Calvino's Our Ancestors, which contains his short novel The Baron in the Trees.  In the book's introduction Calvino says that its tales 'breathe the air of the Mediterranean which I had breathed throughout my life ... So the Ligurian landscape, where trees have almost disappeared today, in the Baron is transformed into a kind of apotheosis of vegetation.'  He imagined a world of abundant fruit trees and olive groves of 'silvery grey, a cloud anchored halfway up the hillsides.'  Above these were the oaks, and then the pines and  the chestnuts.  'The woods climbed the mountain, and you could not see their bounds.'  Choosing to live out his life in these trees, the Baron would come to know a world of 'narrow curved bridges in the emptiness, of knots or peel or scores roughening the trunks, of lights varying their green according to the veils of thicker or scarcer leaves, trembling at the first quiver of the air on the shoots or moving like sails with the bend of the tree in the wind.'  

These steep wooded hills sloping down to the sea were important to Calvino from the outset, as he explained in a 1964 preface to his first novel, The Path to the Spiders' Nest (1946).  They had not really featured in literature before, except in the poems of Eugenio Montale (the subject of an earlier post on this blog).  Like the other neo-realists, Calvino was striving for authenticity, working with his own 'lexis and landscape', although his was a version of Liguria that omitted the tourist coastline centred on San Remo.
'I began with the alleyways of the Old Town, went up along the hillside streams, avoiding the geometric fields of carnations: I preferred the terraced strips planted with vines and olives surrounded by crumbling, dry-stone walls.  I advanced along the mule-tracks rising above the fallow fields up to where the pinewoods began , then the chestnut trees: that was how I moved from the sea - always seen from above, like a thin strip between two green curtains - up to the winding valleys of the Ligurian Pre-Alps'
Seen from the aeroplane: Calvino's Liguria

All the walks we made began by the shore and took us, like Calvino's descriptions, up through the trees towards the mountains.  In his autobiographical sketch, 'The Road to San Giovanni', Calvino recalls another of these climbs, from the family home to the experimental farm his father ran in the hills above San Remo.  The carnation fields Calvino would avoid mentioning in his novel a few years later were bypassed by his father too, 'as if, despite working professionally in the floriculture business himself, he felt secretly remorseful about it. ...  What he wanted to achieve was a relationship with nature, one of struggle and dominion: to get his hands on nature, to change it, to mould it, while still feeling it alive and whole beneath.'  His son, reluctantly accompanying him on these walks, 'could recognize not a single plant or bird'.  Living in the midst of nature, he wanted to be elsewhere.  'My father is talking about the way olive trees blossom.  I'm not listening.  I look at the sea and think I'll be down on the beach in an hour.'  It was later, in writing, that he would come to explore this landscape and it was through literature that he sought a different kind of connection to nature, where 'everything would become true and tangible and possessible and perfect, everything in a world that was already lost.'

Friday, May 01, 2015

Everywhere they tossed grass and flowers

Jan Wildens, May - Walk in the Avenue, c. 1615

On this first day of the month here is a delightful May painting that I saw a few weeks ago at The Palazzo Rosso in Genoa.  The Italian title of the painting uses the word 'la passeggiata', with its connotations of the customary evening stroll, "a socially sanctioned opportunity for flirting and courting" (Giovanna Delnegro, The Passeggiata).  In the midground a couple is walking very close together, in the foreground a young gentleman appears to be asking a young lady to dance, while another pair converse over a book.  A woman on the left may be concentrating on her dogs but the central figure with his back to us and his leg at a jaunty angle looks as if he might skip over to join her.  Everything is suffused in a silvery-pink light.  The water is a mirror reflecting the pale sky and soft green foliage.  The boat's passengers are no doubt returning to a pleasant evening in the country house half-hidden by the trees.

Jan Wildens (1586 - 1653) painted the other eleven months too, possibly while he was living in Italy.  They seem poised half way between north and south - there is a stepped gable visible in the painting above, but an Italian city in the painting for February.  The museum in Genoa has another painting, a collaboration with Cornelis de Wael, that has exactly the same compositional form as the May painting.  A comparison of the two is almost uncanny: there again music is being played to a group of people sitting in what appears to be the same avenue of trees, but around them the landscape has changed.  Nature is tamed into a formal garden and the avenue ends not in distant trees but at a baroque building.  The central standing figure seems a little bored as he looks over at his companions.  Put together they would resemble those 'before and after' landscapes Humphry Repton deployed to show clients how he would improve an estate.  

Simon Bening, Labours of the Months: May, from a Flemish Book of Hours, 
first half of the 16th century

Wildens' twelve compositions are a late example of a tradition that stretches back to medieval book illumination, stained glass and sculptural cycles for churches.  Although these 'Labours of the Months' generally show agricultural labour, May is the month for hawking, music and courtly love.  In the Da Costa Hours, illustrated by Simon Bening a century before Wilden's painting, a similar boat with four passengers glides towards a moated grange to the strains of recorder and lute.  This boat can also be seen in a Flemish Book of hours (above) and again, in a version by the workshop of Bening, heading under a bridge (it looks like it will be a bit of a squeeze).  There is an excellent Flickr site dedicated to the Labours of the Months where it is possible to look for other earlier echoes of the Jan Wildens paintings (the May boat for example can be seen here and here).  

I have referred here before to Les très riches heures du Duc de Berry, whose May scene shows noblemen and ladies processing at the edge of a forest.  In Michel Pastoureau's recent cultural history of the colour green he discusses the fact that three of the women  are wearing 'the pretty vert gai (light and bright) mentioned in wardrobe inventories and chronicles.'  All sixteen figures in this miniature are wearing the mai in the form of necklaces, crowns, leaves, branches.  This tradition  'consisted of attaching to oneself an element of greenery. ...  To be pris sans verd, that is, not to display on oneself a single element of this colour, neither plant nor textile, led to becoming the object of mockery and harassment.'  In Simon Bening's May the figures in the boat all carry sprigs of foliage.  On the first of May it was traditional for a young lover to plant a single branch in front of his lover's home, 'a linden branch constituted a declaration of love; a rose branch celebrated the young woman's beauty; an elder branch on the other hand discretely denounced her more or less fickle nature.'

 The Limbourg Brothers, May - Les très riches heures du Duc de Berry, c. 1412-16

Jan Wildens' painting really needs to be seen full size, although the small photograph I have included here emphasises the fact that landscape is his true subject.  The figures I have mentioned look insignificant in comparison to the trees' abundant crowns of fresh leaves.  Similar trees are central to Bening's miniature, and in front of them the riders and man on foot all hold leafy sprigs.  The boat party are sitting among sprays that turn their vessel into a floating version of the wooded countryside.  The transformation of the landscape in Spring was celebrated in the ancient practice of decorating houses with leaves and branches on this day in May.  I will conclude here with a passage Pastoureau quotes from the thirteenth century Guillaume de Dole, attributed to the Norman trouvère Jean Renart. 
'At nightfall the inhabitants of the town went to the woods to do their gathering ... In the morning when the day was very bright and when all was decorated with flowers, gladiola and green leafy branches, they brought in their May tree, carried it upstairs and displayed it before the windows, thus embellishing all the balconies.  Onto the floors, onto the cobblestones, everywhere, they tossed grass and flowers to celebrate the solemnity and the joy of this day.'