Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Ruin on the Road

 Francis Towne, A Ruin on the Road to the Ponte Nomentana, 1780
Yesterday I visited the British Museum for Light, time, legacy: Francis Towne’s watercolours of Rome.  The exhibition is curated by Richard Stephens, whose Catalogue Raisonné will soon be appearing online.  This is based on the PhD. Richard was still completing when he commented on a post I wrote here ten years ago referring to Francis Towne.  Back then I was sharing a favourite passage from the diaries of Thomas Jones, another painter rediscovered in the twentieth century.  Jones had taken Towne sketching in the countryside near Naples.  There they encountered 'three ugly-looking fellows dressed in the fantastic garb of the Sbirri di Campagna, with long knives, cutting up a dead jackAss… Towne started back as if struck by an electric Shock… "I'll go no further" says he, with a most solemn face, adding with a forced smile, that however he might admire Scenes in a Picture - he did not relish them in Nature.' 

Francis Towne, Temple of Minerva at Sunset, 1781

While he stayed in Rome, Towne also left the environs of the city to paint the surrounding countryside.  However, as Jonathan Jones points out in his  review of the exhibition, by 1780 the city itself had become a picturesque landscape.
'Towne’s Rome is not a modern living city: it’s a woodland dotted with half-collapsed temples, a meandering countryside populated by a few peasants, antiquaries and market traders, dwarfed by the melancholy remains of a greater past.  While Towne was wandering the seven hills of Rome, the historian Edward Gibbon was six years into writing The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Their visions of Rome are remarkably similar. Gibbon’s masterpiece is an awed attempt to understand how something as vast and powerful as the Roman empire could vanish. Towne’s watercolours ask that same question: what has happened in these sleepy valleys and woods? Temples and palaces that once ruled a huge part of the world are now the decaying picturesque decorations of a pastoral landscape where time seems to have slowed down like the meandering Tiber.'

Paul Oppé's article, 'Francis Towne, Landscape painter'  

Francis Towne, Arricia, 1781
Images from the exhibition's downloadable guide

The exhibition refers at several points to the revival of interest in Towne's work following his rediscovery and promotion by the collector Paul Oppé.  'Modernist taste of the 1920s and 1930s embraced the flat planes and spare, angular design of drawings like Arricia and Towne was feted as a pioneer.'  It made me wonder how future generations will look back on the more recent excitement over landscape paintings by Balke and Strindberg (which I discussed here).  I confess I usually find myself agreeing with modernist taste and for me the high points of this exhibition are the works they found most admirable.  Hard too not to envy Oppé, then a young civil servant at the ministry of education, who bought a bunch of uncatalogued watercolours in 1907 for 25 shillings that included several works by Towne, including A Study on the Spot at Tivoli.  The closest I'll ever get to owning a sketch of Tivoli is to paint one myself...  Having tried this on a couple of holidays, wrestling with the strong light contrasts and struggling to unify details of pine branches, Roman brickwork and distant ruins, I'm in awe at the way Towne achieved his elegant compositions.  As Laura Cummings writes in another Guardian review: 'he puts together a version of the great outdoors of exceptional lucidity – the world contained in limber lines, its colours pearly with light and marked by the ever-shifting atmosphere.'

Sketching on the Spot, Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli, 2014

Friday, January 29, 2016

Where the River Goes

A while back on Caught by the River Rob St John reviewed Allan Burns' anthology Where the River Goes: The Nature Tradition in English Language Haiku (2013).  He found that 'the most enjoyable bits of this fascinating but slightly frustrating book are the haiku themselves' and criticised the contrast between the introduction's bleak view of the environment with what is conveyed in the subsequent poems.  Nevertheless, Burns' introduction does contain an interesting historical survey of the field, beginning in the sixties when nature-oriented poems were at the heart of the growing American haiku movement.  From this early period he includes the work of James W. Hackett, O Mabson Southard and Nick Virgilio, whose highly concise ‘lily’ and ‘bass’ proved particularly influential.  In the late sixties and early seventies nature haiku written by poets like John Wills and Robert Spiess became more specific  - ‘instead of generalized fish and butterflies, they wrote with field-guide precision of muskellunge and mourning cloaks’.

In the seventies such subject matter became less central within English-language haiku writing, but something of a revival was sparked by the work of Charles B. Dickson, a retired journalist who produced a significant body of work before his death in 1991.  Among this newer generation Wally Swist and Bruce Ross (compiler of The Haiku Moment) have been particularly devoted to nature-oriented haiku.  Poets of the mid-to late-nineties represent a third generation, often publishing via the internet. Burns highlights the work of Carolyn Hall (editor of a journal that focused on nature poetry, Acorn), John Martone (whose work resembles the minimalist poetry of Creeley and Corman) and the British poet John Barlow, whose Snapshot Press published this book.  I am embedding below a science animation produced in 2012 by Rob St. John that includes haiku by John Barlow which suggests how this writing is now being combined in new ways with sounds and images.

In his introduction Burns says that he has included mainly ‘type one’ haiku that refer exclusively to nature; type two haiku relate to both people and nature whilst type three are exclusively human-oriented.  This typology was devised by George Swede in 1992 and he estimated that the split between these approaches in English language haiku was about 20:60:20. Burns calculates that by 2013 pure nature haiku had become rarer, so that the split was more like 13:67:20. ‘Undeniably, haiku in recent years has witnessed a kind of anthropocentric creep that mirrors an accelerating alienation of humans from the natural world.’  He contrasts this with classical haiku: apparently about 90% of Fukuda Chiyo-ni's were on nature and many of Basho’s have no direct sign of humanity, although of course they can always be read metaphorically in terms of human thought and emotions.  I'd be interested to know how many 'type one' nature haiku suggest a whole landscape, by implying distance (birds on a lake, mountain mist) or uniting near and far (pool, moon).  Perhaps they all do and it is just a question of how far we are willing to imagine what is left unsaid.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Chiyo-ni standing beside a well, mid 1840s

Friday, January 22, 2016

Rocks at Mouthier

Gustave Courbet, The Painter's Studio, 1855

I have been reading the new anthology of John Berger's art writing, PortraitsIt is arranged in approximate chronological order from the Chauvet cave paintings to some recent sculptures by a young Palestinian artist. Where Berger has written more than once about an artist, the pieces are spliced together and you have to look to the end of the book to see when the component parts were written.  Although there are risks of repetition in this (e.g. reading twice a story about Monet painting his wife on her death bed) it actually works rather well.  On Gustave Courbet, for example, there is a 1953 essay defending his critical reputation and concluding that socialism was expressed in his work 'by its quality of uninhibited Fraternity'.  This is followed by something written twenty-five years later, by which time a new generation of art historians had written major studies reassessing Courbet's art.  I will quote from this second piece, 'Courbet and the Jura', below.

Five hundred pages long, Portraits is a rich source of ideas and insights on a wide range of artists, all written in Berger's marvellous, clear prose.  One small gripe though: for a book about art, it has surprisingly poor black and white images.  I couldn't help comparing them with the beautiful small colour reproductions in Robert Walser's Looking at Pictures, another set of essays published last year (a book I highly recommend).  This was a deliberate choice: Berger says in the Preface that 'glossy colour reproductions in the consumerist world of today tend to reduce what they show to items in a luxury brochure for millionaires' (which may be true, but one would have more sympathy with this if Verso weren't charging £25 for the book).  In the case of Courbet though, no reproductions in book or web page or smart phone would be able to do justice to a monumental painting like A Burial at Ornans, which is nearly 8m wide and covers a whole wall in the Musée d'Orsay.

Gustave Courbet, A Burial At Ornans, 1849-50

Berger is fascinating on the geographical origins of Courbet's art. In 'Courbet and the Jura' he writes that 'the region in which a painter passes his childhood and adolescence often plays an important part in the constitution of his vision. The Thames developed Turner.  The cliffs around Le Havre were formative in the case of Monet. Corbet grew up in – and throughout his life painted and often returned to – the valley of the Loue on the western side of the Jura mountains.'  The heavy rainfall in this region sinks into the karst landscape's underground channels and gushes out powerfully as the river Loue.  'On the horizontal strata of limestone there are often marl deposits which allow grass or trees to grow on top of the rock. One sees this formation – a very green landscape, divided near the sky by a horizontal bar of grey rock – in many of Courbet's paintings, including A Burial at Ornans.' But this environment offered more than just background scenery, according to Berger it influenced the forms Courbet's paintings took.

Gustave Courbet, The Stonebreakers, 1849

  • Darkness - in paintings like The Stonebreakers there is little visible sky.  'Due to its folds, the landscape is tall; the sky is a long way off.'  In the shadowy spaces of valleys and forests light is only partial and the painter develops the eye of a hunter.  In The Painter's Studio the only light seems to emanate from the woods in the painter's canvas.  Sometimes it is as if Courbet's scenes take place underwater, where light plays tricks with perspective.
  • Water - it frequently occurs in his art (I've written here more than once about Courbet's paintings of the sea) and even when absent, 'the foreground forms are frequently reminiscent of the currents and swirls of running water.'  His objects have the brilliance of pebbles seen in a clear river. Rocks at Mouthier, colour glistening on its surface, might be a reflection in a pond.  His palette knife was like 'a stream of light passing over the broken surface of leaves, rocks, grass...'
  • Rocks - they are 'the primary configuration of this landscape.  They bestow identity, allow focus.'  Rocks do not take on a particular form and in them the painter finds something arbitrary and lawless, but at the same time irreducibly real.  Courbet, the great realist painter, painted everything as if it were a rock face, without interiority, but in amazement because 'to see, where there are no laws, is to be constantly surprised'.

Gustave Courbet, Rocks at Mouthier, c. 1855
Images from Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The holy mount for the Festival of the Supreme Being

Pierre-Antoine Demachy, The Festival of the Supreme Being, 1794

On 8 June 1794 (20 Prairial Year II) an artificial landscape was erected in the centre of Paris.  This day had been chosen for the first Celebration of the Supreme Being, a new godhead devised by Robespierre, then at the zenith of power.  He had been elected President of the Convention four days earlier; less than two months later he would be guillotined without trial in the Place de la Révolution.  The landscape was designed by the great revolutionary artist Jacques-Louis David.  A plaster-and cardboard mountain topped with a liberty tree was built on the Champ de Mars.  That afternoon, as Simon Schama writes in Citizens, 'deputies of the Convention climbed to the summit and looked down to the twenty-four hundred deployed along the paths, slopes and terraces that had been cut into the mountain.  At a crucial moment, when the singing and blaring of martial brass had been silenced, Robespierre descended from the mountain like some Jacobinical Moses, parting the waves of tricolored patriots, and graciously received the burst of orchestrated applause that broke over his head.'  Jacques-Alexis Thuriot, a former president of the Convention, was heard saying, "Look at the bugger; it’s not enough for him to be master, he has to be God".

Thomas Naudet, Festival of the Supreme Being at the Champs-de-Mars, 1794
What kind of mountain would be adequate for the Supreme Being?  Not, it would seem from contemporary prints, a perfectly shaped one.  In his book Political Landscape, in a section that discusses the perennial desire of leaders to carve massive statues and faces into mountains, Martin Warnke remarks on this:
'The mount as a whole appears strangely rugged, as if its irregular shape had been copied from works by Mantegna; what we see is a kind of nature monument that could be construed as an enormous head, but the caverns, paths and platforms also serve to direct the movement of the crowd: the men march on the right, the women on the left; the young people march round the hill, and a special commissaire sees to it that there is no confusion.  Only optically does the landscape admit of irregularity and contingency.  It belongs to the type of fantastic landscape that once rose towards gold skies in the backgrounds of altarpieces, in the early days of landscape painting.  Yet the overall physiognomy of the rock still has some of the impressive force attributed to faces in mountains.'

Friday, January 08, 2016

The sound of wind in the pines

'The innkeeper had lent him an old Kyoto tea-kettle, skilfully inlaid in silver with flowers and birds, and from it came the sound of wind in the pines.  He could make out two pine breezes, as a matter of fact, a near one and a far one.  Just beyond the far breeze he heard faintly the tinkling of a bell.'
-Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country, 1947 (trans.  Edward G. Seidensticker)

A quote that links my last two posts on wind in the trees and the snow in Japan. I first read this novel at university and scenes from it have stayed with me ever since, like the opening in which the protagonist travels north to the Snow Country, looking at the reflection of a woman superimposed on a snowy landscape in the mirror of his train compartment.  This quote comes towards the end and it is referred to by R. Murray Schafer in an essay on 'Music and the Soundscape' as an exemplification of the music of the Japanese kettle which Okakura describes in this passage from The Book of Tea.
'The host will not enter the room until all the guests have seated themselves and quiet reigns with nothing to break the silence save the note of the boiling water in the iron kettle.  The kettle sings well, for pieces of iron are so arranged in the bottom as to produce a peculiar melody in which one may hear the echoes of a cataract muffled by clouds, of a distant sea breaking among the rocks, a rainstorm sweeping through a bamboo forest, or of the soughing of pines on some faraway hill.'
- Kakuzo Okakura, The Book of Tea, 1906
That last sentence suggests a level of expertise on behalf of the tea master in adjusting the inside of a kettle like a prepared piano so as to evoke a particular feeling in nature.  No need of music or poetry to suggest these things when the process of making the tea creates its own soundscape.  I wonder if any modern sound artists have attempted to manipulate recordings of boiling water, or augmented them with field recordings to recreate these effects, or tried to pursue the original idea of simply using 'pieces of iron'?  I would love to know more about the landscape music of Japanese kettles; whilst the whisper of the boiling water is named Matsukaze after the sound of wind in the pines, the idea that different effects - sea, rain, a cataract - could be produced by manipulating the kettle is intriguing.  But perhaps there was some poetic licence in Okakura's account, written in English for an eager audience of Boston aesthetes (T. S. Eliot would later picture him in an art gallery, 'bowing among the Titians', as 'Hakagawa' in his poem 'Gerontian').

Sen Sōtan, grandson of the great Sen no Rikyū, wrote that the essence of the tea ceremony, Cha-no-yu, could be described as 'the sound of wind-blown pines in a painting.'  In his book Zen Landscapes Allen S. Weiss points out that the kettle-wind sonic trope could be reversed, as it is at the end of an account of Hideyoshi's great Cha-No-Yu at Kitano in 1587.  Hideyoshi was Japan's most powerful politician and Sen no Rikyū was among the tea-masters at Kitano (four years later Hideyoshi would order Rikyū to commit ritual suicide for reasons that remain mysterious). The account of the gathering at Kitano is told in A. L. Sadler's Cha-no-yu: The Japanese Tea Ceremony (a copy of which I bought many years ago in the book section of that much-missed emporium near Covent Garden, Neal Street East).
'Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Kwanpaku, was a dilettante who always liked to do things on a large scale.  He conceived the idea of assembling all the Tea masters in the country and collecting all the rare tea vessels for a huge Cha-no-yu. ... 
And so the meeting was held as arranged, and everywhere in the wide open space under the pines at Ukon-no-baba at Kitano tea-enclosures were made in a setting of plum trees and rocks and pools of water, and all the tea lovers flocked thither and did their utmost to see who could produce the most interesting and recherche effect.  The whole extent of the gathering was about a mile square.  Fortunately the day was a fine one, and Hideyoshi with all his nobles and retainers set out at daybreak to find some five hundred and fifty tea-masters assembled, while immense crowds of spectators appeared from all over the country, and the number of the fires that were lighted under the kettles seemed greater than that of the stars in the autumn heaven. ...
Very great was the joy and enthusiasm of the people, and the display would have continued for ten days as arranged, but unfortunately a rebellion broke out in Higo, and Hideyoshi had to break up the meeting after one day only, so that all the carefully prepared tea-booths were soon taken down and the glade resumed its wonted quiet.  And only the sound of the wind in the pines, which again resumed their sovereignty over the landscape, remained to recall the bubbling of a thousand kettles.'
 - A. L. Sadler, Cha-no-yu: The Japanese Tea Ceremony, 1933

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Plum blossom on snow

A friend in Japan normally posts photographs of deep snow around now, although not this year.  Interestingly, heavy snow does not appear in the classical literature of Japan.  This partly reflects the fact that the climate of Nara and Kyoto is relatively mild.  It was only later, with writers like Issa, who came from Shinano, north of the old capitals, that the experience of severe winters enters poetry.  Another reason, as Haruo Shirane explains in his book Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons, was that literature idealised nature, so that the unpleasant extremes of summer and winter were avoided in favour of spring and autumn imagery (it also gives a misleading impression of landscape, since writers of poetry rarely ventured beyond their gardens into farmland or wilderness).  The early Man'yōshūi anthology included 785 seasonal poems written in the first half of the eight century but only 67 of these concerned winter.  This pattern continued: winter poems are the least numerous of the four seasons' in each of the first six Imperial Waka Anthologies, beginning with the Kokinshū, compiled around 905 by four court poets led by Ki no Tsurayuki.

Section of the earliest extant complete manuscript of the Kokinshū
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The winter book of the Kokinshū begins at the turn of the season with a sight synonymous with autumn: bright leaves at Tatsuta River.  There follows a set of snow poems evoking feelings of coldness and loneliness, and then four poems about plum blossom on snow.  The sequence ends with the year's end, snow having given way to blossom.  Autumn and spring had many more nature topics associated with them: in spring for example, in addition to lingering snow and plum blossoms, there were mist, bush warblers, returning wild geese, green willow, yellow kerria, new herbs, wisteria and, of course, cherry blossoms.  But, as Shirane explains, winter became more popular in the late Heian and Kamakura periods, where we find poems on waterfowl like the plover, mallard and mandarin duck, which was 'thought to sleep on water so cold that frost and ice formed on its feathers.'  The plover originally became associated with winter when it was mentioned in a poem by Ki no Tsurayuki, crying in the cold river wind as the poet searched for his love.  By the time of eighth Imperial Anthology, the Shin Kokinshū (1205), there were almost as many winter poems as spring poems and the light of the winter moon was being celebrated for its cold purity, in contrast with the world below.

Sesshū Tōyō, Landscape of Four Seasons: Winter, 15th century
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Winter topics, Shirane explains, 'constructed a monochrome landscape
 that shares much with Muromachi ink painting', 
an art form of which Sesshū was the greatest exponent.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

The Wind in the Willows

I have just finished reading aloud to my son The Wind in the Willows.  It was an unabridged edition, so we have been enjoying those chapters that are sometimes cut: 'Dulce Domum' on Mole's desire to see his old home, 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn', where they encounter the god Pan, and 'Wayfarers All', on the conflicting impulse to travel and to stay at home.  It was a pleasure to read the story without engaging too critically with the book's nostalgic conservatism, or puzzling over how these talking animals coexist with human car drivers and washer women.  I thought I would quote something from it here, but rather than choose a lyrical description of the river or the changing seasons I've picked an intriguing passage that I'd forgotten all about, concerning Badger's large underground home.  Here, in Grahame's pastoral dream of England, the idea of the city has been literally buried: civilisations decline but nature endures.

Mole has just recovered from his adventure in the snowy Wild Wood and now, after finishing one of the book's many fine luncheons, he is shown around by Badger... 
'Crossing the hall, they passed down one of the principal tunnels, and the wavering light of the lantern gave glimpses on either side of rooms both large and small, some mere cupboards, others nearly as broad and imposing as Toad's dining-hall. A narrow passage at right angles led them into another corridor, and here the same thing was repeated. The Mole was staggered at the size, the extent, the ramifications of it all; at the length of the dim passages, the solid vaultings of the crammed store-chambers, the masonry everywhere, the pillars, the arches, the pavements. "How on earth, Badger," he said at last, "did you ever find time and strength to do all this? It's astonishing!"
"It would be astonishing indeed," said the Badger simply, "if I had done it. But as a matter of fact I did none of it—only cleaned out the passages and chambers, as far as I had need of them. There's lots more of it, all round about. I see you don't understand, and I must explain it to you. Well, very long ago, on the spot where the Wild Wood waves now, before ever it had planted itself and grown up to what it now is, there was a city—a city of people, you know. Here, where we are standing, they lived, and walked, and talked, and slept, and carried on their business. Here they stabled their horses and feasted, from here they rode out to fight or drove out to trade. They were a powerful people, and rich, and great builders. They built to last, for they thought their city would last for ever."
"But what has become of them all?" asked the Mole.
"Who can tell?" said the Badger. "People come—they stay for a while, they flourish, they build—and they go. It is their way. But we remain. There were badgers here, I've been told, long before that same city ever came to be. And now there are badgers here again. We are an enduring lot, and we may move out for a time, but we wait, and are patient, and back we come. And so it will ever be."
"Well, and when they went at last, those people?" said the Mole.
"When they went," continued the Badger, "the strong winds and persistent rains took the matter in hand, patiently, ceaselessly, year after year. Perhaps we badgers too, in our small way, helped a little—who knows? It was all down, down, down, gradually—ruin and levelling and disappearance. Then it was all up, up, up, gradually, as seeds grew to saplings, and saplings to forest trees, and bramble and fern came creeping in to help. Leaf-mould rose and obliterated, streams in their winter freshets brought sand and soil to clog and to cover, and in course of time our home was ready for us again, and we moved in. Up above us, on the surface, the same thing happened. Animals arrived, liked the look of the place, took up their quarters, settled down, spread, and flourished. They didn't bother themselves about the past—they never do; they're too busy. The place was a bit humpy and hillocky, naturally, and full of holes; but that was rather an advantage. And they don't bother about the future, either—the future when perhaps the people will move in again—for a time—as may very well be..."'