Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The dew under the blossoms

"Not very festive" was the complaint I received when I attempted to read a few winter poems by Saigyō aloud to the family over Christmas.  Maybe it was the images of solitary life in lonely huts with all mountain trails cut off, or the bamboo bent under snow, frost-withered flowers, wind blowing over dead reeds...  I was trying to interest them in Burton Watson's beautiful translations, published twenty-five years ago by the Columbia University Press.  Saigyō (1118 - 1190) lived through tumultuous times at the end of the Heian dynasty and also through stylistic changes in court poetry which saw greater prominence given to nature description with a sabi aesthetic.  Watson says, in relation to the poem below, 'perhaps he and his fellow poets felt that the very drabness of such scenes, their dim half-light and autumnal sadness, more aptly reflected the age of social decline in which they lived than could any brighter and cheerier landscape.'
kokoro naki mi ni mo aware wa shirarekeri shigi tatsu sawa no aki no yūgure
Even a person free of passion
would be moved
to sadness:
autumn evening
in a marsh where snipe fly up.
[Quoted on Wikipedia - the translation is Burton Watson's.]

From the perspective of landscape writing what is most interesting about Saigyō are the poems that are almost pure description and those which record his extensive travels.  The journeys he made in northern Japan were an influence on Basho, as I've mentioned here before, and this ideal of life spent as a wandering Buddhist poet was later taken up by the Beat Movement.  Within half a century of Saigyō's death, local traditions had sprung up around places he apparently visited.  In her autobiography (c. 1313), Lady Nijō mentions being inspired at the age of nine by reading one of his poems, on a mountain stream and scattering cherry blossoms:
'I had envied Saigyō's life ever since, and although I could never endure a life of ascetic hardship, I wished that I could at least renounce this life and wander wherever my feet might lead me, learning to empathise with the dew under the blossoms and to express the resentment of scattering autumn leaves, and make out of this a records of my travels that might live on after my death.'    
This quotation is taken from Gustav Heldt's introduction to his translation of the Saigyo Monogatari (see Monumenta Nipponica, Winter 1997).  This work is a compilation of stories about the poet's life which emphasised his travels around Japan and there are various texts, the earliest dating back to the thirteenth century.  It includes the famous poem I quote above, on snipe rising from a marsh in autumn.  At that point Saigyō has just passed the plain of Togamigahara where 'from out of the drifts of mist covering the field, the wind carried the cries of a deer.'  Afterwards, 'since he had no particular destination in mind, he followed where the moonlight led him...'  At the end of the Saigyo Monogatari, the poet looks back on his life, fifty years spend wandering 'through the provinces, forsaking everything for the frugal life of a monk living in mountains and forests.'  He dies surrounded by cherry blossoms and makes his final journey to the Pure Land.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Emergent landscapes

Earlier this month we were at Tate Modern for Rob St John's participatory installation Emergent Landscapes. There were two elements to this: painting clay tiles with a solution containing lichen spores, and speaking into an old gramophone horn as a contribute to a collective Tate soundscape.  The tiles will form a cairn at Hooke Park, a woodland in Dorset owned by the Architectural Association, and the tape of sounds will be buried inside it.  Rob might not be the best person to give a mixtape to - I mentioned here last year a concert involving tapes that had been 'soaked in tubs of polluted Lea river water – duckweed, decaying leaves, oil slicks and all – for a month.'  We last encountered him en famille nearly three years ago at Ambika P3 when the kids had a go at wind drawing.  On this occasion they enjoyed painting with lichen (a mixture resembling watery pesto) and adding rude noises to the soundscape, which I can only hope time and the weather will transform into something more beautiful.

Image from Rob St John's Emergent Landscapes site

Painting actual shapes 'with lichen' felt rather odd, distantly related to topiary or making pictures out of bedding plants.  The beautiful abstract patterns it makes on stone (like the Temple of Apollo at Stourhead) are beyond our control.  The way lichen colonised those road signs, symbols of the way way we order and structure landscape, in Patrick Keiller's Robinson in Ruins, was a reminder that nothing can stand outside time.  As I mentioned here recently, Musō Soseki's fourteenth century garden Saihō-ji eventually became famous for its mosses after a period when it fell into disrepair.  Painting my tile, I wondered whether the lichen would ever really grow (particularly if it was placed somewhere in the middle of the cairn), and if the sculpture would remain in the landscape long enough to evolve into something new, and also whether people would still know what it was in decades to come.  I thought about sculpture parks filling up and future curators only retaining works by the most famous artists; perhaps though, as with cemeteries, it will be the mixture of the remembered and forgotten that our descendents will value.

The dates on graves can be used as convenient information for studying the proliferation of lichen species.  Lichen has also been used to try to date ancient petroglyphs.  Rob mentioned reading about some Australian rock art that now actually only exists as lichen, where the ancient organic pigment has slowly been colonised.  I liked this story because we normally think of cave paintings as threatened by mould and lichen, especially once exposed to visitors.  This came up during a gallery talk with literary geographer Amy Cutler, in which there was lots to say about time and landscape, relational aesthetics and the way this work is connected with the new architecture at Tate Modern.  They could have spent a long time on the fascinating topic of cairns.  Rob referred to the problem of 'ego cairns', built by visitors to national parks which can add to problems of erosion.  The cairn we were contributing to is not designed to blend naturally into the woods - the intention is to embed within it, in addition to the reel of tape, some red perspex tiles.  This was a reminder of the difficulties in deciding how low-impact environmental art needs to be and whether it has to acknowledge the artificial in order to seem authentic.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Downland Index

A Downland Index is 'a hundred successive slow runs on the chalk downs above Brighton, each written up in a hundred words.'  These hundred short texts are themselves collections of fragmentary moments - thoughts, fleeting impressions, overheard conversations - written up after runs made from the author's home over the course of a year.  I have mentioned Angus Carlyle here before in connection with the book he co-edited on sound art, In the Field (he has what sounds like possibly the best job in Britain - Professor of Sound and Landscape at the University of Arts in London).  The texts in A Downland Index do not read like soundwalks (or soundruns) and the word 'sound' doesn't actually appear in the book's detailed index (unlike 'smell').  Nor are these circuits through space like field recordings where a stationary microphone patiently captures sound over a period of time.  Nevertheless, over the course of the book you get a composite impression from snatches of sound: the snap of a branch, the rain on leaves and branches, yelping dogs, the electric pulsing of crickets, the grating of a car's gears, a crying child, the sounds of starlings on a radio mast.

I'll quote here an example of one particular run: from 14 August (as a contrast to the cold winter's day on which I'm writing this).  There are no sounds here - the hundred-word constraint means that in many cases we have to imagine the soundscapes Angus runs through.  This text conveys time passing over the landscape, the gaze registering a detail and then shifting to a panoramic view, and the bodily pain of running over flints in the heat of summer.
The corn swayed from the two fields on either side, stalks shorter than they were twelve months ago and duller in a light that has closed over again after the brief brightness that pricked my neck with heat.  Running left for the first time from the gate weighed shut by a log suspended on frayed blue 12-ply farm twine, the spot-lit sea to the south, a plain checkered by field, hedge and settlements to the north.  The ridge rises tough and falls tougher, all my weight to the top of my knees, flints stabbing my soles, feeling my heart throb.
On one muddy November run Angus observes a deflated once-pink helium balloon in a sycamore tree, 'shaped like two halves of a lung'.  What surprised me most in reading these texts was the way the landscape sometimes resembles the litter-strewn edgelands painted by George Shaw, which I referred to here recently.  Having moved away from Brighton twenty-five years ago, I picture its borders as neatly planned post-war housing developments giving onto empty grass slopes and chalk tracks that lead you up onto the Downs.  This is not the impression you get from A Downland Index.  In an afterword Angus describes running past a debris of plastic bottles, frayed rope, pallets, hubcaps and cigarette butts which is 'densest at the city's margins'.  It still sounds strange to read Brighton referred to as a city (an official designation it received in 2001) - a reminder that the town I grew up in no longer really exists.  And perhaps the edge of the Downs was never as immaculate as it is in my imagination.  

When I was given a copy of A Downland Index by its publisher Colin Sackett, I was interested to see how this familiar landscape would come over, but unsure if I would like the central concept.  There is nothing more likely to deflate the mood of a Downland walk than having a runner suddenly pound past you.  I also find myself alienated by landscape writing predicated on some form of physical prowess (in Ecology Without Nature Timothy Morton has questioned the 'hale-and-hearty' ethics of environmental writing, some of which, he says, is increasingly 'keen to embrace other species, but not always so interested in exploring the environments of 'disabled' members of the human species.')  I needn't have worried though, because A Downland Index is full of self deprecation - the self doubt the tiredness, the ironic cheers received from passers by.  On one occasion a water bladder bursts and drenches his shorts and a schoolboy shouts "My god he's pissed himself!"  These were 'slow runs' in which speed and distance covered were not what mattered.  Running may prevent deep engagement with a particular place but it nevertheless allows for reflection on something glimpsed back along the path.  The resulting texts, like Imagist poems, focus on particular moments and leave the reader to imagine the rest.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Topographia Germaniae

We had a family DVD viewing this weekend: Karel Zeman's Bláznova kronika (A Jester's Tale), a 1964 Czech film about a peasant caught up in the Thirty Years War.  Philip French described it in The Guardian as an 'exquisite black-and-white anti-war comedy' and particularly admired the way 'live action and animation are integrated with wit and elegance into a magical, fantastical world where the winds of change, represented by an animated old soldier puffing away in the heavens, dictate the arbitrary course of history.'  The story itself has some of the charm of an old German novella, with an irrepressible and innocent hero Petr - seen in the images above near the end of the film with Lenka, the pretty country girl he meets on his travels. 

Matthäus Merian, Frankfurt am Main, 1646

The film's visual style was inspired by the 17th-century Swiss engraver Matthäus Merian.  In many scenes it is as if the characters have been able to step into the slightly surreal landscapes and interiors he illustrated.  These engravings are part way between maps and landscape drawings and their magical quality is a result of the way they strain after a kind of ideal realism, picturing the world laid out neatly from an imaginary bird's eye perspectives.  Merian's engravings eventually covered a large part of central Europe: the first volume of his Topographia Germaniae, on Switzerland, appeared in 1642 and the last, on Burgundy, was published twelve years later.  I have been imagining what it would be like to see all these views combined with black and white photography to create a seventeenth century version of Google Earth, in the style of Karel Zeman. And wondering too whether our own topographic art forms will be found as charming in four hundred years time.

Friday, December 09, 2016

A Gentle Collapsing

Last weekend we went to the Victoria Miro gallery to see After You Left, an exhibition of work by Alex Hartley.   The rooms contain images of modernist domestic architecture photographed around Los Angeles, ghostly and indistinct through misty layers of perspex, and also some large photographs of jungle scenery exhibited alongside what appear to be fragments of ruined buildings.  These connect with the centrepiece of the exhibition, A Gentle Collapsing II
'Resembling an International Style domestic building apparently abandoned to the elements, the major architectural intervention A Gentle Collapsing II transforms the gallery’s waterside garden into a scene of poetic dereliction and decay.  Built on the canal bank and into the water itself, the work encapsulates classic modernist tropes – the clean lines and horizontality of Bauhaus architecture as exported to the US by Mies van der Rohe in the 1930s and later exemplified by Philip Johnson and Richard Neutra, amongst others. Yet the structure and what it appears to portray – a home vacated without explanation, open to the elements, its white rendered walls peppered with black mould rising from the waterline – stands in stark contrast to images of domestic architecture and attendant aspirational lifestyles from the period.'
An installation of this kind is a landscape that you need to frame yourself by standing in the right place and focusing on one part of the visual field.  The photograph below doesn't really show the artwork; it's an image of my son standing on a walkway, with buildings in the background and a section of the installation visible in the middle distance.  This installation resembles painting, sculpture and set design without being any of these things.  In terms of the classification Rosalind Krauss introduced in her essay ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’, A Gentle Collapsing II could be in the group that is both landscape and architecture. 

When your gaze takes in the wider built environment around the gallery you are reminded of all the new constructions - future ruins - rising in the nearby streets (these are referred to in a recent article about the transformation of Old Street, 'The slow death of Silicon Roundabout').  For me, the installation's artificial ruin didn't necessarily imply a modernist house - it might equally well have been part of an abandoned airfield, hospital or prison camp.  The Ballardian atmosphere and London setting inevitably brought to mind The Drowned World.  Two days after our visit a water main burst in Islington, flooding the streets to the north of the gallery and causing a not-so-gentle collapsing of the public transport system.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Arcadian Landscape with Resting Shepherds and Animals

 Adriaen van de Velde, Arcadian Landscape with Resting Shepherds and Animals, 1664
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I feel in need of a little escapism at the moment, so I went down to Dulwich to look round the exhibition Adriaen van de Velde: Dutch Master of Landscape.  His drawings and paintings are so detailed that you feel you could disappear into them, although quite where you would then be I am not sure: a landscape that isn't quite Holland or Italy.  His pastoral scenes are bathed in warm Mediterranean sunlight but their animals, shepherdesses and herdsmen look as if they are enjoying unusually fine weather, surrounded by verdant trees under high Dutch skies.  The exhibition shows how carefully composed these landscapes were, with rough ideas sketched in the open air and detailed preparatory drawings done back in the studio.  However, Van de Velde also painted recognisable views, including several of the beach at Scheveningen.  I always think Scheveningen looks like quite an unprepossessing place in old paintings, but the sheer concentration of artists working nearby turned it into something more significant (culminating in 1881 in the Mesdag Panorama - see my earlier post on this). In the video clip embedded below the curator, Bart Cornelis, talks about these Scheveningen paintings in more detail, commenting in particular on their figures.

Adriaen van de Velde, The Beach at Scheveningen, 1658
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I have reported here several times on exhibitions whose curators make much of changing tastes, particularly the rediscovery of previously undervalued painters (for example Peder Balke or Francis Towne).  In the case of Van de Velde, the tone is more of surprise that these charming but hardly spectacular paintings were so highly valued in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Among collectors there was a particular desire for Van de Velde's rare 'coloured drawings', unusual sketches done painstakingly with the end of a brush in muted shades.  In 1833 the Teylers Museum paid a huge sum, 1730 guilders, for one of these, Landscape with livestock crossing a river.  As you can see below, there are parts of it like the foreground reeds that have the delicacy of a Chinese ink painting. It could be said that the smaller the works, the more impressive Van de Velde is -  a couple of larger paintings in the final room are not very appealing.  I was particularly taken with one small painting that is said to look surprisingly modern, Figures in a Deer Park, from the 1660s.  It is hard to convey just how beautiful these trees are - realistic and poetic at the same time - a little reminiscent of Corot.  Looking at it I found myself thinking how pleasant it would be to escape 2016 with its relentlessly bad news headlines and wander instead into this tranquil scene.
Adriaen van de Velde, Landscape with livestock crossing a river, 1666
Teylers Museum, Haarlem
Source: Art History News

Adriaen van de Velde, Figures in a Deer Park, c.1665
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Edward and Sally Speelman Collection
Source: Art Daily 

Friday, December 02, 2016

Straight Outta Compton

Here's an extract from Evelyn McDonnell's interview in the LA Review of Books with Paul Beatty, about the novel that has just won the Booker Prize
'The Sellout is set in an inner-city rural neighborhood called Dickens. Yes, that’s right, an inner-city rural hood. There are rodeos, ranches, and orchards amongst the donut shops, and shootouts. The narrator is a farmer who nurtures exotic fruits, along with killer weed. Call The Sellout a ghetto pastoral.
Or don’t.
“I try not to use that word at all,” Beatty says when asked if he cast The Sellout in the great literary tradition of the pastoral. “That was one of the hardest things about the book, trying to make that neighborhood feel real and a little bit fantastical at the same time; that was so hard to do.”
Beatty mixes the factual and the fanciful. The town name is made up (sly nods to the actual founder of Compton, Griffith Dickenson Compton, and to the father of social realist novels, Charles Dickens), and the setting may sound surreal, but in fact, Dickens is based on an actual Los Angeles area: Richland Farms, straight inside Compton. Yes, in the area made famous by Niggaz With Attitude and Kendrick Lamar — the town known worldwide as the home of gangs and gangsta rap — there are horses, goats, corn, and chickens. There really is a rodeo in Compton. Paul didn’t make that up.'
It is hard to read The Sellout without getting interested in where truth ends and fiction begins.  I found myself trying to get a clearer picture of Richland Farms via Google Earth - it's hard to detect any actual agriculture going on although maybe I just haven't looked down the right streets.  You don't need much space for the kind of city farms we have near where I'm writing this in London, at the equally bucolic sounding Holloway and Bethnal Green.  But it has to be said that even in the fictional version of Compton, it is only the novel's central character who maintains an actual working farm.  Whilst his neighbours have largely given up, he still rides a horse and has vegetable plots, fields that rotate from wheat to rice paddy, vines, cotton (symbolic, unpicked), unusually-shaped melons and satsumas so succulent 'they damn near peel themselves'.  At one point he recalls teenage years reading aloud from Kafka's Amerika with his girlfriend and there is something of that novel's surreal not-fully-urban version of an American city in the idea of Dickens.

A Google Earth view in the Richland Farms district of Compton

The Sellout may not be a pastoral but it is a book about place and the way districts change: the decline of Dickens from a prosperous independent city to a rundown district of LA is an echo of Compton, a once-desirable location where George and Barbara Bush lived in the late 1940s.  Critics have said that the novel resembles a set of comic routines and one of the best involves the idea of a kind of dating bureau for matching up 'sister cities' (the joke works less well with the British version 'twin towns').  Dickens is offered three possibilities: Juárez, the most violent city in the world, Kinshasa and Chernobyl.  But it is the disappearance of Dickens as a separate entity that hurts the novel's hero most, and his first protest against this is to paint and erect his own road sign.  Pleased with his handiwork, he feels 'like Michelangelo staring at the Sistine Chapel after four years of hard labor, like Banksy after spending six days searching the Internet for ideas to steal and three minutes of sidewalk vandalism to execute them.'  His increasingly outrageous local interventions as the novel progresses end with a trial on charges of reintroducing slavery and segregation.  Back at home, waiting for the verdict, he is watching the local weather on TV when he notices that it includes the word 'Dickens'.  He has literally managed to put his city back on the map.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Like a cloud of mist on the silent hill

The poetry of the Scottish bard Ossian is often described in terms of its admirers: Diderot, Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, Wordsworth, Walter Scott, Mendelssohn etc.  Few read it now though, partly perhaps because it was exposed as a fake, written by its translator 'from the Gaelic or Erse language', James Macpherson.  In these heroic narratives there is no time for landscape description but even a cursory read reveals a remarkably dense use of nature similes, which no doubt appealed to the Romantics.  Here are a few lines from the opening of Fingal, written in 1762 (its eponymous hero was the father of Ossian and king of north-west Scotland).  The Irish general Cuthullin, sitting 'by the tree of the rustling sound' at Tura, a castle on the coast of Ulster, is approached by his scout Moran, who has just seen Swaran, king of Lochlin. 
"I beheld their chief," says Moran, "tall as a glittering rock. His spear is a blasted pine. His shield the rising moon! He sat on the shore! like a cloud of mist on the silent hill! Many, chief of heroes! I said, many are our hands of war. Well art thou named, the mighty man; but many mighty men are seen from Tura's windy walls.

"He spoke, like a wave on a rock, 'Who in this land appears like me? Heroes stand not in my presence: they fall to earth from my hand. Who can meet Swaran in fight? Who but Fingal, king of Selma of storms? Once we wrestled on Malmor; our heels overturned the woods. Rocks fell from their place; rivulets, changing their course, fled murmuring from our side. Three days we renewed the strife; heroes stood at a distance and trembled. On the fourth, Fingal says, that the king of the ocean fell! but Swaran says he stood! Let dark Cuthullin yield to him, that is strong as the storms of his land!"

If you gather together all the similes in Book 1 of Fingal they make a kind of nature poem:
like a cloud of mist on the silent hill
like a wave on a rock
like streams from the mountains
like mist that shades the hills of autumn
like the dark rolling of that wave on the coast
like reeds on the lake of Lego
like a roe from Malmor
like a hart from thy echoing hills
like a star, that shoots across the desert
like two white pillars in the halls of the great Fingal

like the bank of a mountain stream
like the thunder of heaven
like a whale of ocean
like the gathered flies of the eve
like the flame of death
like a wave near a rock
like a sun-streaked mist of the heath
like the sea round the boat of night
like a stream of smoke on a ridge of rocks
like wreaths of mist fly over the streamy vales
like the blast of winter
like my polished yew

like a flame
like a storm along the streamy vale
like the echoing main
like autumn's dark storms pouring from two echoing hills
like two deep streams from high rocks meeting, mixing roaring on the plain
like the circles of light, which gild the face of night
like two hinds of the desert
like the shrill spirit of a storm
like the beam of heaven
like two clouds
like lightning
like the sullen sound of Cromla before a storm
like snow
like the calm shower of spring
like the sun on our fields

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Autumn on Mount Oshio

Ōtagaki Rengetsu, Autumn Moon, 1870
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I've been very busy this week, but I just have time for a short post to recommend the website of The Rengetsu Foundation Project, which is dedicated to one of Japan's most fascinating cultural figures.  Ōtagaki Rengetsu's achievements were so various that she is hard to classify - in his primer How to Look at Japanese Art, Stephen Addiss decides to place her in his chapter on calligraphy, but she was equally famous for her waka poetry and ceramics (Rengetsu ware).  She was also skilled in painting, dance, sewing and the tea ceremony.  Not only that, but in her youth, before becoming a nun, she was a famous beauty proficient in the martial arts - sword, spear and sickle and chain - having been adopted as a child by a family known for training ninjas.  However, the Foundation site's biography explains that 'she was a pacifist, advocating mutual respect and gentle persuasion in resolving conflict.'  In her middle years she travelled widely and landscape is treated in many of her poems, brushed or carved onto pots and presented as calligraphy on tanzaku and shikishi paper.

The Rengetsu Foundation has 917 poems in a searchable database; I see that 133 of them, for example, contain the word 'mountain'.  I will quote just one of the translations below.  As I write this, I can hear the cold wind outside and it feels like we are nearing the end of autumn... 

Piercing my body
   the sad departure of autumn
      on Mount Oshio...
   where red leaves fall—
      the withering wind.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Landscape is Staring at Us

Regrettably I don't normally have time to read the London Review of Books although the 6th October issue was a good one - Kathleen Jamie on Orkney and reviews of a new book on Frederick Law Olmsted and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing's The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.  The LRB often has reports on current art exhibitions but I was intrigued to see in this issue a review of something I can safely assume few of us will get to see, the fourth Land Art Mongolia biennial.  The whole article by Lewis Biggs is available to read for non-subscribers.  He describes getting to the venue, a former Soviet youth camp by a small lake near the volcano of Altan Ovoo, and seeing 'the 18 artworks were spread across the landscape in various stages of production or dissolution.'  One of the things that interests me about this is the art world forces that have led to such an event, forty-eight years after the first Earth Works exhibition in New York. 
'Both the traditional and realist genres are taught at the art school that’s now a part of Ulaanbaatar university, so why be a land artist? Perhaps because anything perceived purely as a ‘craft tradition’ in galleries and markets beyond Mongolia will have a more limited reception than works in an international idiom. In the 1980s artists outside the G7 countries understood that they were less visible if they didn’t speak or write in English, but at the end of that decade, the big Paris show Magiciens de la terre led the art institutions of wealthier countries to accept that the ‘contemporary’ idioms of land and performance art (though rarely painting or sculpture) were continuous with ancient forms in other cultures. A Buddhist stupa on a mountain top or a Peruvian desert drawing could now be considered a form of land art, and a shamanic trance – as Joseph Beuys recognised early in his career – a kind of performance art.'
The video clip I've embedded above is by one of the non-Mongolian artists at the biennial, Lisa Batacchi, performing a ritual offering of milk.  The clip below is a piece on a previous biennial and includes Japanese performance artist Megumi Shimizu painting black ink onto a rock with her hair.  This reminded me of Ink Wang, who I mentioned here a couple of weeks ago, the Tang dynasty artist who, it is said, dipped his top knot into ink in order to paint strange, expressive landscapes.  In this footage it looks like she is creating a simplified version of the rock by accentuating its shadows, although a bit disappointingly she ends by adding an eye - the piece is called 'The Landscape is Staring at Us'.  International artists participating in an event like this must find themselves in a potentially uncomfortable position and political engagement may be the easiest way of avoiding any concerns about cultural appropriation.  Italian artist Beatrice Catanzaro, interviewed below, made her piece after researching an illegal gold mine with local activists.  Mongolian artist Dajvadorj Sereeter, on the other hand, makes land art by installing tracings of ancient rock carvings.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

The source of the Sorgue

 Philippe-Jacques van Brée, Laura and Petrarch at Fountaine-de-Vaucluse, 1816
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1337, a year after his ascent of Mont Ventoux, Petrarch travelled to Rome. On his return to Avignon he found that the city's decadence still disgusted him.  In his 'Letter to Posterity' he says that 'seeking some means of escape, I fortunately discovered a delightful valley, narrow and secluded, called Vaucluse, about fifteen miles from Avignon, where the Sorgue, the prince of streams, has its source.  Captured by the charms of the place, I transferred myself and my books there' (trans. Mark Musa).  Elsewhere he wrote a wonderful description of his home at Fountaine-de-Vaucluse.  The translation of this passage below is in The Wind and the Source by Allen S. Weiss.  
'Here I have acquired two small gardens perfectly suited to my skills and taste. To attempt a description for you would be too long. In short, I believe that no similar spot exists in all the world, and, to confess my unmanly fickleness, I regret only that it is not in Italy. I customarily call it my transalpine Helicon. The one garden is very shady, suitable only for study and sacred to our Apollo. It overhangs the source of the Sorgue, and beyond it lies nothing but ravines and cliffs, remote and accessible only to wild beasts or birds. The other garden, near the house, appears more cultivated, and it is a delight to Bacchus. This one, astonishing as it may seem, is in the midst of the very beautiful and swift-running river. Nearby, divided from it by a very small bridge on the further side of the house, hangs a curved vault of native rock that now provides shelter against the summer heat. It is a place that inspires studies, and I suspect is not too dissimilar to the little hall where Cicero used to declaim his orations, except that he did not have a Sorgue flowing alongside. Under this vault, therefore, I spend my afternoons, and my mornings on the hillsides; the evenings I spend in the meadows or in my less cultivated garden at the source where my efforts have conquered nature and cleared a spot under the high cliff in the midst of the waters, narrow indeed but very inspiring, in which even a sluggish mind can rise to the noblest thoughts.'
As Weiss points out, this description suggests a perfect balance between the Apollonian and Dionysian temperaments which Nietzsche would make famous in his writings on aesthetics. Petrarch was influenced by both Christian and Pagan traditions, by Saint Augustine and Cicero.  In a letter to Cardinal Colonna, he described his creation of a garden as a war with the Nymphs, who try to chase away his Muses, but when he thinks of erecting an altar it is to Mary, rather than to the gods of rivers and springs.  It sounds like a delightful retreat, where Petrarch could concentrate on his writing 'amidst the sound of birds and nymphs, and accompanied by few servants but many books.'  It was also a base from which Petrarch could wander the countryside, 'roving over the meadows and mountains and fountains, living in the woods and in the countryside, fleeing human footsteps, following the birds, loving the shadows, enjoying the mossy caves and the blooming meadows...' 

Friday, October 28, 2016

Mountains, rocks, clouds and rivers would emerge

Ten years ago, in an early post here, I mentioned the mysterious Ink Wang and other ‘late T’ang eccentrics’, distant prototypes of the New York Action painters. I recently came upon a 1998 academic article that goes into more detail on the stories surrounding these artists: '"The Image Made by Chance" in China and the West: Ink Wang Meets Jackson Pollock's Mother' by Charles Lachman.  Leaving aside Jackson Pollock's mother, here's what we know of three of these T'ang dynasty artists.
  • Ink Wang (fl. 785-805) is mentioned in two early Chinese art histories.  Chu Ching-hsuan , writing in around 840, described his approach as follows.  'When Wang was ready to paint a scroll, he would begin drinking, and after he became drunk he would splash ink on the silk, laughing and singing all the while. He would kick at it, or smear it with his hand, sweeping and scrubbing with his brush, here with pale ink there with dark, and from the configurations thus achieved, mountains, rocks, clouds and rivers would emerge.'  The other historian to mention him is Chang Yenyüan (Zhang Yanyuan) in 847, who claimed that Wang would soak his topknot in ink and butt his head against the scroll.
  • Lachman goes on to describe a kindred spirit, "a certain Mr. Ku", active in the late eighth century.  'When he was ready to paint, he would first lay out numerous pieces of silk on the floor; then he would grind the ink and prepare various colours, and put them into containers. After he became a bit tipsy from wine, he would then run around the silk several dozen times, finally taking the ink and spilling it all over. Next he would sprinkle on the colours. The places where they spilled he would cover with a large cloth; then he would have someone sit on it, while he himself grasped it by one corner and pulled it all around. After he was finished, he would then add the finishing touches with a brush.'  Quite what emerged from this process - landscapes or other subject matter - his source does not say.
  • Finally there was the Mountain Man of Fan-yang, a hermit who pioneered a form of water painting.  'It required a ten-foot-square pit dug about one foot deep, with its floor and walls plastered over with clay and then filled with water. The painter then prepared ink and pigments which he freely brushed on the surface of the water, creating a chaotic swirl of colours. After several days, when the water had seeped out of the pit, he put strips of fine silk on the floor of it, and made a rubbing that, when removed, showed aged pines, bizarre rocks, people, animals, houses, and trees.'
The use of chance procedures in Chinese landscape art does not seem to have persisted, although there are a few later anecdotes from the Song DynastyOne concerning landscape painting involves Kuo Chung-shu (Guo Zhongshu c. 910-77).  The surviving painting that I've included below, with its carefully drawn details and clear delineation of space, clearly wasn't done under the influence.  However, Kuo is reported once to have got drunk and splashed ink about on a piece of silk, submerged it in a rushing stream and then turned the puddles and smudges of ink into a marvelous landscape painting.

Kuo Chung-shu, Travelling on the River in Snow, latter half of 10th century

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Ten Views from a Thatched Hut

Lu Hong, View 1 of Ten Views from a Thatched Hut (copy of 8th century original)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When we look at Chinese landscape paintings, we are seduced not just by their rivers and mountains, but by the idealised life of landscape contemplation they often portray.  The image above is one example, attributed to the Tang dynasty painter Lu Hong.  According to Wu Hung (in Yang Xin et al's Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting) this work, Ten Views from a Thatched Hut, may be 'the first work in Chinese art history that we could call a scholarly painting, in a style that would dominate Chinese painting after the Song, for its main features are all related to the self-identity of the scholar-artist.'  Wu identifies four characteristics that it shares with later work of this kind:
  1. The landscape is neither imaginary or a famous beauty spot, it is the country estate of the painter himself.
  2. The artist himself appears in most of the scenes, 'listening to the sound of a stream, standing on top of a small hill, conversing with a fellow hermit inside a cave, or cultivating longevity techniques inside his thatched hut.'
  3. This is not an illustration of someone else's writings - Lu Hong was the author of text and painting, the words identifying the site portrayed and describing the artist's response to it.
  4. As a monochrome painting, the text could be appreciated in its own right as calligraphy.
Lu Hong lived in the early eighth century and is usually bracketed in histories of Chinese art with his contemporary Wang Wei.  Wang was a Buddhist, Lu a Daoist.  It was the Emperor Minghuang who gifted Lu Hong his thatched hut on Mount Song, after Lu had declined the official post of Censor Counsellor.  Lu lived there in scholarly retreat, an ideal I have touched on here in many posts over the last ten years - a dream of poets drawn to nature and solitude in Tang Dynasty China, Augustan Rome, Heian Dynasty Japan, Eighteenth Century Europe and post-War California.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

It will hold the spring sunlight

Musō Soseki (1275-1351) designed two of the great landscape gardens in Kyoto, both now UNESCO World Heritage Sites, neither of which I managed to get to on my all-too-brief visit to the city nearly twenty years ago.  Saihō-ji had fallen into disrepair when Musō was brought in to create a paradise garden.  It was when the garden fell into disrepair again in the nineteenth century that the moss began to grow which has become its most famous feature.   Musō cannot have anticipated this development, although acceptance of inevitable change is one of the essences of landscape design.  The temple of Tenryū-ji, was built by the shogun Ashikaga Takauji in memory of the emperor whom he had deposed.  Musō wrote a sequence of poems about the landscape garden he helped create there, 'Ten Scenes in the Dragon of Heaven Temple.'  Some of these scenes have survived the centuries, like the lake Sōgen-chi where moonlight still strikes the waters in the dead of night; others have gone, like Dragon-Gate House where Musō observed the most transient of images, two passing puffs of cloud.

A Nanbokucho-period artist, Musō Soseki, c. 1334-1392

I have been reading Musō's poetry in the translations W. S. Merwin made in collaboration with Sōiku Shigematsu. Rather than use quatrains, their versions of Musō split each line in three, giving twelve line verses that slow the reader and suggest the chanting style in which they would have sounded in the original Chinese.  Whilst it's not possible to quote a whole poem, here are some of those lines-broken-in-three, taken from different poems: nine landscapes fragments.

from 'Jewel Field'                         from 'Pine Shade'                           from 'Snow Garden'
All the soil now                            The green haze                               Flowers with six petals
   is beginning                                   so deep and dense                          have covered the whole ground
      to shed light                                   it keeps out the light                         and frozen everywhere

from 'Gem Mountain'                   from 'Spring Cliff'                             from 'It'
The rain beats upon it                  Even the withered trees                  The cold cloud full of rain
   the wind cuts it                             on the dark cliff                                passes above
      it only shines brighter                   are blossoming                                 the hollow of the mountain

from 'Gem Creek'                         from 'House of Spring'                   from 'East Peak'
Without ruffling its surface           Hundreds of open flowers              It will hold the spring sunlight
   look carefully                                all come from                                 year after year
      into the depths                               the one branch                                after year

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Khyber Pass in Hull

'There are few sights in England that can quite equal the absurd charm of the imitation Khyber Pass in Hull's East Park.  This slice of South East Asia in the East Riding sits just a short stroll away from an animal house that is home to alpacas from Peru and a lake where oversized swan pedalo boats bob about.  Seeing it now is to feel, not unlike Lewis Carroll's Alice, that you have fallen into a dreamland where normality has been temporarily suspended.' - Travis Elborough, A Walk in the Park: The Life and Times of a People's Institution, 2016
I have never visited this park (or indeed Hull, next year's City of Culture), although I am familiar with Victoria Park in Hackney, where Travis was based during the writing of his new book.  In the chapter covering the Victorian period he describes how the landscape of Empire influenced the design of our urban green spaces.  After the Crimean war, captured Russian guns began to appear: in Bath, Salford, Bradford, Blackburn, Halifax, Sunderland, Derby and Glasgow (where, during the Second World War, the gun in Kelvingrove Park was melted back down and turned into munitions).  A realistic model of Sebastopol was constructed in Surrey Zoological Gardens, a private park, which charged visitors to come and see a troupe of invalided troops reenacting the battle.  Meanwhile bandstands were designed in emulation of the kiosks of India and the Ottoman Empire. There is still one of these in Victoria Park and it is still used, although we now tend to prefer our music amplified from a big stage (the last time I went to a concert there, in 2015, it was to hear Patti Smith doing the whole of Horses).

Hull's East Park opened in 1887, with a ceremony on the day of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. As Travis describes it, the event seems not quite to have lived up to the occasion.
'In London, an Indian cavalry, headed up by the Maharao of Kutch in a diamond- and ruby-encrusted turban, and the no less resplendent Maharajar of Holkar, escorted Victoria to a special Service of Thanksgiving in Westminster Abbey.  Up in Hull, the park-opening was preceded by a somewhat more disorganised parade.  Led by the Knights of the Golden Horn and featuring Albert Loud Lodge of the United Order of Druids and a horse-drawn float carrying basket-weaving members of the local institute for the blind, it was branded the 'Jubilee Jumble' by a local newshound in the Hull Daily Mail, who deemed it a disgrace to the town and the Queen.'
East Park, Hull, 1914
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Back to Nature

There are just a couple more weeks to see George Shaw: My Back to Nature at the National Gallery.  The title comes from Shaw's observation that he has his back to nature most of the time, something that's true for myself as well: this blog is written with its back to nature, looking instead at what artists have made out of the landscape.  Underlying the paintings Shaw has conceived in response to the National Gallery collection is a nice idea, that what we don't see in the Bacchanalian revelries and triumphs of Pan, painted by artists like Poussin, is their aftermath... when the woods are quiet again and the floor is littered with bottles and discarded clothes.  In real life such remnants may be the only signs of life we encounter in the woods.  In a video to accompany the exhibition Shaw remembers finding a page from Penthouse once, only to be told by his father that he ought to be focusing his attention on the foxgloves. 

Years now after rising to prominence with scenes of the edgelands round Tile Hill, his childhood home, Shaw is still using the same humble Humbrol enamel paints.  Humbrol has nostalgic associations for many of us, although Shaw says he was never really an Airfix enthusiast - he was too busy doing art.  My own son wouldn't recognise the smell of a tin of Humbrol but I can see him one day painting sylvan landscapes in the Citadel paints he uses for Warhammer - Dryad Bark, Elysian Green, Ratskin Flesh, Troll Slayer Orange...  George Shaw's handling of Humbrol is praised by Laura Cumming in her review of the exhibition.  'Occasionally, the gallery lighting catches the glint of the Humbrol paint and the picture suddenly looks like an object as much as an image. ... Though he has remained faithful to this tough and lowly medium, despite the lure of the oil paint all around him, he takes it in new directions, achieving  the blue of a Titian sky or a Madonna’s cloak, turning a Tile Hill tarpaulin into something like silk.  The thinness is still there; these surfaces are hard-won. But the images have become deeper, more elegiac and literary.'

When I first looked round this small exhibition in May I found the contrast with the beautiful old paintings on display nearby a bit hard to take, but I now feel Jonathan Jones is right when he says 'it is not that Shaw has poisoned a once-pure landscape tradition: rather his paintings modernise the erotic myths that artists have always imagined in the woods.'  Jones thinks that 'an artist pissing against a tree is exactly what the National Gallery needs – and a painter who can hack it in the National Gallery is just what British art needs.'  To end this post I was tempted to embed Magazine's song 'Back to Nature', which Shaw mentions in the catalogue, but instead here is the artist again, poking around in some woods this time.  He points out an old tarpaulin, tin cans, packet of condoms etc., and finds a tangle of branches that would be an ideal refuge for kids, if kids still venture into such woods.  He admits he finds a painting of a tree much more exciting than a tree, "but I might change as I get older.  Maybe I just need to spend less time with paintings and more time with trees."

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

The fog has pathways

I was thinking, walking home this evening, that the season of mists is upon us again here in London.  Then, later, I found myself reading about a proposal for a fleet of sculptures in Santa Monica bay that would harvest fog and turn it into water. Regatta H2O, by Christopher Sjoberg and Ryo Saito, has just won first prize in the biannual Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI) contest. According to the Smithsonian website, the 'sails are made of mesh, which is veined with troughs to collect fog and transport it to the masts, where it can be piped to storage containers on the shore. When there’s not enough moisture in the air to generate fog, the sails retract for an unobstructed view. The energy needed to operate the pumping and steering mechanisms is wind-generated. At night, extra energy lights up rings that serve as navigational safety markers.'

The photographs of this artwork suggest that the sails would not actually disperse the blanket of water vapour covering the bay.  It would, after all, be a shame to lose our fogs or demystify our mists.  I'm reminded of something Etel Adnan said in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrest (Etel Adnan in all her Dimensions, 2014), how she regretted that London no longer has its great fogs.  Adnan, whose art and poetry I wrote about earlier this year, has been inspired by the fogs of San Franciso.  ‘I love fog.  The arrival of fog is the coming of a new living being, the entering in the world of an extraordinary event.’  Fogs would come in from the ocean every afternoon around five o’clock. ‘It is not something static, it arrives like a horizontal cascade.  This fog has pathways.  It is stopped by the mountain, and by hills in the East, but it pours and even forms a huge curtain that isolates San Francisco by its surroundings.’  She has even tried to film the fog. In Journey to Mount Tamalpais she says ‘I made a movie, once, of fog, fog, fog.  They said “It’s a study in greys, an abstract movie, a joke!”  It’s none of these things.  It is the fog.’

Sunday, October 02, 2016

The Rakkóx cliffs

Félix Vallotton, illustration for Paul Scheerbart's Rakkóx the Billionaire, 1901

In this picture Kasimir Stummel, a young man employed in the Rakkóxian Department of Invention, is suggesting a grand project to Rakkóx, the eccentric multi-billionaire who is obsessed with spending his money on ever more grandiose schemes.  "When one wants to build on a grand scale," Stummel says, "it is prudent to make use of existing natural features, so that in the end it appears that one has created nature as well."  But what he asks is something far more ambitious - "you could transform not merely pieces of rock, but rather an entire cliff from top to bottom into a work of architectural art?  That truly would be a great thing, and would encourage coming generations over the course of the next millennium to convert the entirety of the Earth's surface into a great work of architectural art."

Later in the story the two men stand looking out over the moonlit ocean and Stummel provides further details of this concept.  In recent years artists like Michael Heizer may have carved huge structures out of the landscape but what Stummel describes is a means of sculpting the landscape into new forms of habitation.  
'There are a number of mountains that can easily be brought into a rectangular architectural form, and gleaming, complexly curved architectural compositions can be created, as well.  The halls that will be created within the Rakkóx cliffs will be of unprecedented dimensions, modern dimensions.  The new machines work so reliably that cave-ins need not be feared.  Furthermore, our mathematicians work almost too carefully.  I will cut off the entire top of the Cliffs of Kasimir so there can be a skylight in every hall.  I imagine the halls being almost completely filled with apartments - back porches, porticoes, and balconies of any expanse desired may be included.  The granite halls will appear immense.  Two hundred metres high - smooth as glass!  And the lighting will be torchlight.  In the lower levels there will be huge rooms for taking the waters - with fountains, cascades, ponds and gondolas.  Compared to these palace mountains the great cathedrals are not worthy of attention, wouldn't you agree?'
- trans. W. C. Bamberger for the Wakefield Press edition.
Paul Scheerbart photographed by Wilhelm Fechner, 1897
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Paul Scheerbart's visionary science fiction and writings on architecture have been attracting increasing attention.  New translations into English have begun to appear - see for example the review of Lesabéndio: An Asteroid Novel at Hyperallergic (Alfred Kubin's original illustrations can be seen at 50 Watts).  If you are not familiar with Scheerbart, I recommend profiles of his work at Writers No One Reads or the NYRB Blog.  The University of Chicago Press have now published an introductory anthology, Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!!: A Paul Scheerbart Reader (see 'Dreams from a Glass House', a Paris Review interview with Josiah McElheny, who co-edited it).  Writing about this book for Apollo, Owen Hatherley, notes that Scheerbart's manifesto on 'Glass Architecture was rediscovered in the English-speaking world by Reyner Banham in his 1960 book, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, which presents Scheerbart, with Marinetti and Malevich, as one of the inadvertent fathers of the modern movement in architecture and design.' An Architect piece on Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!! describes Scheerbart as a precursor of Archigram, the Japanese Metabolists and Rem Koolhaas. 

Kina Balu from Pinokok Valley, lithograph, 1862
Source: Wikimedia Commons 

Scheerbart's fictional version of the contemporary starchitect is Edgar Krug, the hero of his last novel The Gray Cloth, published in 1914, the same year as his manifesto on Glass Architecture.  As Krug flies round the world in his airship, responding to new commissions for glass architecture, some of his designs approach the ambition of Rakkóxian cliffs.  At one point he describes having to dissuade a client from converting Mount Kinabalu in Borneo into a pyramid, arguing that its mountain form should be retained but that it could be 'made habitable' with restaurants, terraces and baths.  Coming to see how work has progressed, Herr Krug arrives at night, seeing the mountain summit illuminated by the spotlights of airships and aeroplanes already there.  He and his companions admire the lever-trains which transport people rapidly up the mountain, using five-hundred-meter-long lever-arms.  They enjoy a lantern festival and visit a large glass hall with shells embedded in its walls.  On the night before they leave, they look out on the ocean from the mountain-top restaurant.  'The moon was not to be seen.  Meteors moved along parabolic lines across the starry skies.  On the horizon Venus was radiant.'

Bruno Taut, Glass House, 1914
 Source: Wikimedia Commons 

Scheerbart considered his collaboration with Bruno Taut on the Glass House at the Cologne Werkbund Exhibition to be 'the greatest event in my life.'  After Scheerbart's death in 1915, Taut formed a circle of German expressionist architects, The Crystal Chain, and wrote his own book in which a mountain landscape is transformed, Alpine Architecture (1919).  Composed in the last years of the war, it opposed utilitarian and materialistic culture with an ideal city of glass, built on the mountain tops and reflected in their lakes. These ideas were a manifestation of the vision Scheerbart had set out in his manifesto on Glass Architecture:
'If we want our culture to rise to a higher level, we are obliged, for better or for worse, to change our architecture. And this only becomes possible if we take away the closed character from the rooms in which we live. We can only do that by introducing glass architecture, which lets in the light of the sun, the moon, and the stars, not merely through a few windows, but through every possible wall, which will be made entirely of glass—of coloured glass.'

Bruno Taut, Alpine Architecture, seen from the Monte Generoso, 1919

Sunday, September 25, 2016


I only recently got round to reading Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies and can highly recommend it to readers of this blog.  A book like this will cover some familiar ground – Gawain’s winter journey, Lear goading the storm, Turner’s light, Constable’s clouds, Dickens’ fog – but it is written so well that you never feel like you’re just being told things you already know.  On the Wordsworths, to choose just one example, she points out that their appreciation of weather turned on ‘very specific moments of transformation – when the sun suddenly strikes through cloud, for example, or when a figure is glimpsed through fog.’  She quotes Dorothy noting ‘her favourite birch tree coming to life: “it was yielding to the gusty wind with all its tender twigs, the sun upon it and it glanced in the wind like a flying sunshine show […] It was like a spirit of water.” The earth-rooted tree takes flight in air, dissolves into a water spirit and, and glitters in the sun.’

The whole history of English literature seems to be contained in the book but it cannot of course be completely comprehensive.  There is no George Eliot for instance - just as I was finishing Weatherland, Mrs Plinius was rereading Middlemarch and reminded me that the love between Will and Dorothea finally surfaces during a thunderstorm.  This though is an example of ‘significant weather’, a novelist’s device deplored by Julian Barnes who, I learnt from Weatherland, originally intended his novel Metroland to be called No Weather, since he was determined to avoid using it as a symbol of anything.  The book's scope is restricted to England and there are moments when Alexandra Harris comes across as very English herself (as she did in Romantic Moderns - see my post on 'The bracing glory of our clouds').  She refers, for example, to Milton’s Paradise, where the seasons are fixed and bountiful and ‘Eve lays out a spread for the visiting archangel Raphael’, observing that Eve may have been ‘the only picnicker in history to remain completely free from concerns about the weather.’  Hard to imagine, say, a Californian academic writing this!

Abraham Hondius, The Frozen Thames, 1677
 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Weatherland takes inspiration at various points from Virginia Woolf's Orlando, a book I have referred to here before.  My favourite scenes in Orlando concern the icing over of the Thames, when birds suddenly freeze in the air and Orlando falls in love with a Muscovite princess.  Woolf herself had read an evocative account of the winter of 1608 in Thomas Dekker's The Great Frost: Cold Doings in London, which refers to a new 'pavement of glass' and fish trapped below a thick roof of ice.  Here, from Weatherland's chapter 'On Freezeland Street', are three more responses to those surreal transformations of the city, which only came to an end when the demolition of London Bridge made the river swifter, deeper and permanently liquid. 
  • Poetry: John Taylor, Thames boatman and self-styled water-poet, composed The Cold Tearme: Or the Frozen Age: Or the Metamorphosis of the River of Thames in 1621.  He compared the ice to a pastry crust and the freezing wind to a barber's razor, 'turning Thames streames, to hard congealed flakes, / And pearled water drops to Christall cakes.'  He describes visitors coming to the Frost Fair, 'Some for two Pots at Tables, Cards or Dice: / Some slipping in betwixt two cakes of Ice.'  Here he added a rueful note in the margin, 'Witnesse my selfe'.  
  • Painting: the view reproduced above is by one of the many artists who came over to England from the Low Countries in the seventeenth century.  'While Englishmen produced diagrammatic engravings of the Frost Fairs, labelling the attractions, Hondius produced an essay in atmosphere.  His expansive sky, worthy of the Netherlands, is flushed with the apricot pinks of a winter sunset.'  Alexandra Harris imagines the effect the frozen river would have had on his imagination.  At around the same time he painted a ship stuck in the pack ice of Greenland, Arctic Adventure.  'The Thames was a noisy, busy river, but in its frozen state it transported Hondius to the desolate edges of the world.'
  • Music: John Dryden may have been inspired by the Frost Fair of 1683-4 when he wrote the libretto for Purcell's King Arthur.  Together 'they wanted to freeze and melt the human voice, dramatising in the process the freezing and melting of the the heart.'  The evil Saxon magician Osmond strikes his wand on the ground and magically summons up 'a prospect of winter in frozen countries.'  Then the personification of Cold sings slowly in C minor, chosen as the coldest key, and is followed by a chorus of cold people, whose stuttering singing mimics the chattering of teeth.  The whole masque is conjured to demonstrate the warmth of love, but it is a deception played on Emmeline, who is betrothed to Arthur.  His plan is foiled though and at the end of the opera he is cast into a dungeon whilst Arthur and Emmeline are reunited.  

There are numerous versions of the 'Cold Song' online, some pretty strange.  I've chosen here a  concert version by Andreas Scholl; you can also see a video for this where the singer is dressed in a pale suit, looking lost near some tower blocks.  Incidentally, the Prelude to the Frost Scene was the basis for Michael Nyman's 'Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds' in The Draughtsman's Contract and was recently used again by the Pet Shop Boys in 'Love Is a Bourgeois Construct'.

Friday, September 23, 2016


Friedrich Georg Weitsch, Alexander von Humboldt, 1806
Images: Wikimedia Commons

Andrea Wulf has just won another prize for The Invention of Nature and I am not surprised as it is a really good read.  In addition to telling the life of Alexander von Humboldt, she has chapters on other great men who he influenced: Goethe, Jefferson, Bolívar, Darwin, Thoreau, Haeckel, Muir and America's first environmentalist, George Perkins Marsh.  Of course Humboldt was so protean and long-lived that she could have included far more people, at the risk of turning her own book into something the size of Humboldt's thirty-four volume Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent.  The one time I have referred to Humboldt's influence on this blog was in connection with Carl Gustav Carus and his notion of Earth-life painting - Carus doesn't make it into the book at all.  Here though are some of the artists, writers and composers she does mention, in connection with three of Humboldt's most widely read publications.
In 1808 Humboldt published Views of Nature in Germany and France, combining scientific facts with poetic landscape description.  Reading it, Goethe told him 'that I plunged with you into the wildest regions' and Chateaubriand said that 'you believe you are surfing the waves with him, losing yourself with him in the depths of the woods.'  Later it inspired Darwin, Thoreau and Emerson.  Jules Verne used passages verbatim in his Voyages Extraordinaires, particularly The Mighty Orinoco.  Captain Nemo owned the complete works of Alexander von Humboldt.
In 1814 Humboldt's account of his travels in South America, the Personal Narrative, appeared in England and started to influence writers like Wordsworth, who adapted a passage for his sonnet sequence on the River Duddon. Coleridge may already have read him in the original German; he had spent some time with Wilhelm, the 'brother of the great traveller', in Rome in 1805.  Byron had fun with the idea of Humboldt's cyanometer, a device for measuring the blueness of the sky which he had taken on his travels.  Here are the lines from Don Juan:
Humboldt, 'the first of travellers,' but not
The last, if late accounts be accurate,
 Invented, by some name I have forgot,
As well as the sublime discovery's date,
An airy instrument, with which he sought
To ascertain the atmospheric state,
 By measuring 'the intensity of blue:'
O, Lady Daphne! let me measure you!

Horace Bénédicte de Saussure, cyanometer, 1760
 Saussure (like Humboldt a scientist and mountaineer) originally devised the cyanometer

In 1845, after eleven years' work, Humboldt published Cosmos, a huge success with students, scientists, politicians and even royalty (Prince Albert ordered a copy).  Hector Berlioz declared him 'a 'dazzling writer; the book was so popular among musicians, Berlioz said, that he knew one who had 'read, re-read, pondered and understood' Cosmos during his breaks at opera performances when his colleagues played on.'  In America, Emerson got hold of one of the first copies, Poe was inspired by it to write his visionary last work Eureka, and Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass with a copy of Cosmos on his desk.
Frederic Edwin Church, The Heart of the Andes, 1859

On the day Humboldt died in May 1859, New Yorkers were queuing to see a painting he had inspired: The Heart of the Andes by Frederic Edwin Church.  Church had gone to South America and retraced Humboldt's route, returning to paint landscapes that united poetic feeling with scientific accuracy.  The New York Times described him as 'the artistic Humboldt of the new world.'  Church wanted his painting to travel to Berlin so that the old man could see again 'the scenery which delighted his eyes sixty years ago.'  When he heard the news of Humboldt's passing, Church said that it felt as if he had 'lost a friend.'

Alexander von Humboldt, Naturgemälde, 1807

The Invention of Nature begins on a high ridge of Chimborazo, the great extinct volcano that Humboldt climbed in 1802.  Nobody had ever been this high before, not even the early balloonists.  After descending to the Andean foothills, Humboldt began to sketch the first version of his famous Naturgemälde - an image of Chimborazo familiar to those of us professionally interested in infographics but more importantly, as Andrea Wulf emphasises, an encapsulation in one two-by three foot page of Humboldt's new vision of nature as a living whole.  She ends her book with a beautiful quote from his friend Goethe, who compared Humboldt to a 'fountain with many spouts from which streams flow refreshingly and infinitely, so that we only have to place vessels under them.'