Friday, August 28, 2015

The Green Ray

'In America they call it the green flash. When the sun sets, in a very clear horizon, with no land mass for many hundreds of miles, and no moisture or atmospheric pressure, you have a good chance of seeing it. The slowest ray is the blue ray, which comes across as green when the sun sets in perfect atmospheric conditions. It’s the last ray as the sun recedes with the curvature of the earth.' - Tacita Dean, Bomb Magazine, 2006

Still from one of several videos of the phenomenon that have been 
uploaded to YouTube, this one by Noel Barlau

The quote above comes from a conversation with Jeffrey Eugenides, who briefly refers to the green ray in his novel Middlesex...  “They say you can’t take a picture of a green ray, but I got one. I always keep a camera in the cab in case I come across some mind-blowing shit like that. And one time I saw this green ray and I grabbed my camera and I got it.”  In the interview Eugenides asks Tacita Dean about the elusiveness of the phenomenon in her film The Green Ray.  "I think you said that you got the green ray in the film, but it never appears in any single frame. But you can see it momentarily when the film is running. Is that right?"  "Yes. The film is 24 frames a second but you can’t isolate a single frame that has it.  He goes on to ask her whether everybody sees the green ray when they see the film.  "No. That’s what’s nice about it, because otherwise the film would just be about a phenomenon. But in the end it’s more about perception and faith, I think."

From Tacita Dean's video, The Green Ray (2001)

I first heard of the green ray when Eric Rohmer's beautiful film was released in 1986.  Delphine, alone on her summer holiday and nervous of any new intimacy after a split with her boyfriend, overhears a group discussing a novel by Jules Verne, The Green Ray (1882).  One of them says that "when you see the green ray you can read your own feelings and others too."  Later she sees a beach cafe named Le Rayon Vert and at the end of the film, when she finally meets an appealing young man (they both like Dostoyevsky), she asks him to sit with her and watch the sunset over the sea.  What follows is, according to Gilbert Adair in his book about the first century of cinema, Flickers, 'the tiniest and most moving special effect in the history of cinema.'  Tacita Dean was less impressed: "it’s very heavy-handed; it’s like this huge, green thing. I mean, the real green ray makes your heart miss a beat, because you look, you look, you look. And then you see it so suddenly, and it’s gone. Somehow rapidity is part of its beauty."

From Eric Rohmer's film, The Green Ray (1986)

I have not read Verne's novel and it is hard to find any reviews that wholeheartedly recommend it - see for example the description on with hidden noise: 'as fiction it is sorely disappointing'.  In Jules Verne, Geography and Nineteenth Century Scotland, Ian B. Thompson describes it as the slightest of his three Scottish novels; however, it is informed by Verne's 'passion for sea travel and is meticulous in the nautical, meteorological and geographical detail of the journey.'  At the climax of the story the two lovers, having repeatedly failed to glimpse a green ray, miss seeing it because they only have eyes for each other.  Verne was clearly fascinated by the idea - in an impressive Annotated bibliography of mirages, green flashes, atmospheric refraction, etc., Andrew T. Young refers to an earlier mention of the green ray in Verne's novel Les Indes Noires (1877).  This is the earliest fictional reference in the bibliography, but the phenomenon was noted by other nineteenth century writers, like J. A. Froud, whose account of a voyage to South Africa describes a sunset on 'the sea calm as Torbay in stillest summer ... The disk, as it touched the horizon, was deep crimson. As the last edge of the rim disappeared there came a flash, lasting for a second, of dazzling green - the creation I suppose of my own eyes.'

I will end here with another art form, music.  Gavin Bryars has described witnessing the green ray in Southern California, but his 1991 composition refers back to the setting for Verne's novel.  'This part of Western Scotland is also the place where certain piping traditions originated. Male pipers practised in one cave on the seashore, females in another ( the "piper's cave" and the "pigeon's cave"). As they played their laments at twilight a triangulation, similar to that in the Verne story (male-ray-female) may well have occurred without the knowledge of the innocent participants, hence the sequence of simultaneous laments in the coda.'   The clip below is the first half of The Green Ray - I can't find anything to embed that includes the coda, with its laments for saxophone, cor anglais, French horn, and solo violin.  You can buy or hear the whole piece elsewhere of course, but perhaps it is appropriate to the theme that this should be left here to the imagination.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The landscape has an antique stillness

For the past week I have been immersed in the Catalan landscape described by Josep Pla in his remarkable book, The Gray Notebook.  The NYRB Classics site explains how it was written:
'In 1918, when Pla was in Barcelona studying law, the Spanish flu broke out, the university shut down, and he went home to his parents in coastal Palafrugell. Aspiring to be a writer, not a lawyer, he resolved to hone his style by keeping a journal. In it he wrote about his family, local characters, visits to cafés; the quips, quarrels, ambitions, and amours of his friends; writers he liked and writers he didn’t; and the long contemplative walks he would take in the countryside under magnificent skies. Returning to Barcelona to complete his studies, Pla kept up his diary, scrutinizing life in the big city with the same unflagging zest and humor. Pla, one of the great Catalan writers, held on to this youthful journal for close to fifty years, reworking and adding to it, until he finally published The Gray Notebook as both the first volume and the capstone of his collected works.' 
 Palafrugell, dawn, 21 August 2015

If you're interested in an overview there is a New York Times review; here I will of course focus on Pla's descriptions of landscape, illustrated with a couple of photographs I took.  To give you a flavour (it would be tedious to quote too much out of context), here he is on the afternoon of 7 May 1918, walking to his family's farm, admiring 'the white Pyrenees against an immense sky' and 'a swath of pink mist the colour of seashells, the mist off the sea in the gulf of Roses ...  The rain has refreshed the green of the pine groves and the fields of alfalfa.  Everything is bronzed and gleaming.  The wheat is about to shift from green to the white, golden foam of ripeness.  The small hills undulating on both sides of the landscape - parallel to the sea - are gently luminous, alive and graceful, like a sleeping, breathing nude.'

On a subsequent walk these hills are 'as firm as the breasts of an adolescent girl from these parts' - Pla was a bookish youth, too shy to form a relationship with a woman.  His friend and walking companion Joan B. Coromina advances the theory that ones interest in women 'is shaped by the suitability of the landscape in which she moves.  There are women for many landscapes, some women are right for only one, and some women for none at all.  When the fit is right, infatuation is guaranteed, automatic, inevitable.'  Later that year 'the vines are turning gold, the pinewoods wear a thick layer of dark green and the olive trees an airy silver-gray.  The stubble in the fields takes on a granulated, reddish tone.  The whole landscape could fit nicely between a pot of honey and a bottle of rum.'  However, Pla doesn't see much 'Dionysian sensuality' in all this - it is no place for 'garlands, cornucopias, and a warm Venus with a dainty head and huge buttocks strolling through a meadow surrounded by trees wreathed in mist.  Autumn here is rather serene, linear, and never harsh but somewhat languorous, inducing a vague, bitter melancholy.' 

 Pine trees, dawn, 21 August 2015

The Gray Notebook is over six hundred pages long and includes, in addition to descriptions of the countryside around Palafrugell, memorable passages on Girona in the rain and Barcelona, 'turtledove grey', laid out below him from the mountain of Montjuïc.  Re-reading some of these now I can see that they are often tinged with sadness, where for example a walk through waves of pine trees, an 'unbroken verdant sea', ends with a depressing encounter with a poor country priest (Coromina complains it "has spoiled the landscape and our stroll.  It seems incredible that such pretty countryside can contain so much wretchedness.")  I will end here though with an idyllic vision more in keeping with my holiday memories, from one of the stories Pla tells about local characters, in this case an easygoing shepherd.
'If it's hot, he lies under the soft, caressing rustle of the tall pines.  From the shade he watches the white, lathering, languid sea.  The horizon is blue and cool.  A seagull glides by flapping its wings.  The landscape has an antique stillness, at once benign and paternal.  If someone shouts, the wind carries the cry gently away.  Time passes, like a trickle of olive oil.'

Saturday, August 08, 2015

The Seven Wonders of the Peak

I've been reading A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain by Daniel Defoe (3 vols, 1724-6), written whilst he was living at 'a very handsome house' just up the road from me here in Stoke Newington.  It is a very handsome edition,* published by Yale University Press in 1991 and illustrated with 319 contemporary engravings and watercolours, which set me back me just £4.95 in the little second hand bookshop a few yards from the Daniel Defoe Pub.   There is much I might say about it here but I want to focus on Defoe's travels in the Peak District at the beginning of Volume 3, because it reveals much about his no-nonsense attitude to landscape.  The earlier volumes covering London and the South and are full of descriptions of farming, commerce and trade, thriving market towns and expanding cities.  In Derbyshire he remains more fascinated with human activity and industry than the beauties of the scenery - coal and lead mining and the operation of a throwster's mill (for silk throwing), whose owner nearly came to grief once showing some friends his impressive water wheel.  And when his narrative eventually gets to the spectacular natural phenomena of The Peak, he goes out of his way to downplay them.

The first 'Wonder of the Peak' he dismisses is the baths at Buxton - 'nothing at all; nor is it any thing but what is frequent in such mountainous countries as this is, in many parts of the world.'  Next, at Poole's Hole, he observes that 'the wit that has been spent upon this vault or cave in the earth, had been well enough to raise the expectation of strangers, and bring fools a great way to creep into it.'  Earlier writers had gone over the top in their praise: 'Dr. Leigh spends some time in admiring the spangled roof. Cotton and Hobbes are most ridiculously and outrageously witty upon it. Dr. Leigh calls it fret work, organ, and choir work.'  But 'were any part of the roof or arch of this vault to be seen by a clear light, there would be no more beauty on it than on the back of a chimney; for, in short, the stone is coarse, slimy, with the constant wet, dirty and dull.'  A famous spring is 'a poor thing indeed to make a wonder of'; nor is The Devil's Arse all it has been cracked up to be (I referred to this cave here before in connection with Thomas Hobbes' book in praise of The Seven Wonders).  As for Mam Tor, 'the sum of the whole wonder is this, That there is a very high hill, nay, I will add (that I may make the most of the story, and that it may appear as much like a wonder as I can) an exceeding high hill. But this in a country which is all over hills, cannot be much of a wonder, because also there are several higher hills in the Peak than that, only not just there.'

Page from The Genuine Poetical Works of Charles Cotton (1741, written 1681)

But Defoe doesn't leave the Peak District without praising two of its sights, 'one a wonder of nature, the other of art.'  The extraordinary and mysterious Elden Hole is a 'frightful chasme' whose 'opening goes directly down perpendicular into the earth, and perhaps to the center. ... What Nature meant in leaving this window open into the infernal world, if the place lies that way, we cannot tell: But it must be said, there is something of horror upon the very imagination, when one does but look into it.'  And then, by contrast, there is the Duke of Devonshire's house at Chatsworth, whose beautiful new garden required some serious landscaping.  'To make a clear vista or prospect beyond into the flat country, towards Hardwick, another seat of the same owner, the duke, to whom what others thought impossible, was not only made practicable, but easy, removed, and perfectly carried away a great mountain that stood in the way, and which interrupted the prospect.'  The result is a house and garden that delight the traveller as a haven of civilisation in a wild place (an emotion I've always associated with Tolkien's Rivendell). 
'Nothing can be more surprising of its kind, than for a stranger coming from the north, suppose from Sheffield in Yorkshire, for that is the first town of note, and wandering or labouring to pass this difficult desert country, and seeing no end of it, and almost discouraged and beaten out with the fatigue of it, (just such was our case) on a sudden the guide brings him to this precipice, where he looks down from a frightful heighth, and a comfortless, barren, and, as he thought, endless moor, into the most delightful valley, with the most pleasant garden, and most beautiful palace in the world: If contraries illustrate, and the place can admit of any illustration, it must needs add to the splendor of the situation, and to the beauty of the building, and I must say (with which I will close my short observation) if there is any wonder in Chatsworth, it is, that any man who had a genius suitable to so magnificent a design, who could lay out the plan for such a house, and had a fund to support the charge, would build it in such a place where the mountains insult the clouds, intercept the sun, and would threaten, were earthquakes frequent here, to bury the very towns, much more the house, in their ruins.'
 J. Kip after L. Knyff, Birdseye View of Chatsworth House, c. 1707

* A reviewer for the London Review of Books felt this edition 'breathes an odour of ‘England’s Heritage’' and questions the way it has been abridged.  Nowadays it is of course possible to read the original unabridged version online.

'Keeping his eye rather upon what he pointed at with his fingers than what he stept upon with his feet, he stepp'd awry and slipt into the river.  He was so very close to the sluice which let the water out upon the wheel, and which was then pulled up, that tho' help was just at hand, there was no taking hold of him, till by the force of the water he was carried through, and pushed just under the large wheel, which was then going round at a great rate. The body being thus forc'd in between two of the plashers of the wheel, stopt the motion for a little while, till the water pushing hard to force its way, the plasher beyond him gave way and broke; upon which the wheel went again, and, like Jonah's whale, spewed him out, not upon dry land, but into that part they call the apron, and so to the mill-tail, where he was taken up, and received no hurt at all.'

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Frozen waves

A photo posted by marcquinnart (@marcquinnart) on

I've written here before about the way Modernism distanced itself from landscape painting and how Oscar Wilde could only look upon a sunset as a 'second-rate Turner'.  Over a hundred years later it is interesting to see the lengths Marc Quinn has gone to in his new exhibition The Toxic Sublime to turn  a Caribbean sunrise into art now that, as he says, “you can’t do sublime any more.  You can’t make a painting of nature.”  Having transferred the original photograph to a set of canvases he sanded them down and stuck on strips of 'aeronautical grade aluminium tape'.  Then he spray-painted them in the lurid colours of urban graffiti through templates of plastic chord and other rubbish collected from a beach.  Next he took them into the street and rubbed into them impressions of drain covers (the familiar words 'Thames Water').  I thought for a moment of the Situationists' 'beach beneath the street' but Quinn is referencing the way water is taken and controlled in the city.  Finally they were bonded to aluminium sheets and subjected to creasing and denting so that they look like they have been retrieved from some kind of wreckage.  In the photograph accompanying the Telegraph review they actually look rather beautiful and, although I have some sympathy for the Alastair Smart's view that they 'represent an awful lot of work for awfully little reward', I think he goes too far in likening them to crumpled crisp packets.

This White Cube exhibition also includes four Frozen Wave sculptures which are much easier to like (even though their shiny stainless steel surfaces reminded me uncomfortably of Jeff Koons' Rabbit.)  These are based on eroded shells, copied and cast at different scales, including one that has a whole room to itself and looks from the side like a small sperm whale.  As the curators explain, 'in the moment before they disappear and become sand, all conch shells end up in a similar form – an arch that looks like a wave, as though an unwitting self-portrait by nature.'  And it is remarkable how wave-like they look, with their rough surfaces and glassy-smooth undersides.  At the same time, the largest (23 feet long) might be a fragment of landscape, a silver sea cave, with the shells' exposed layers blown up to resemble surf-polished rock strata.  There are also two sculptures made from 3D-printed conch shells that seemed less interesting and more obvious.  There was no way of putting one of these to the ear, but look inside and their mirrored surfaces are like jets of water, recalling the surging currents and breaking waves that pick them up and sculpt them.