Friday, March 25, 2016

Topological loss

The building work I mentioned a fortnight ago is well underway, covering everything in layers of dirt from crumbling Victorian bricks so that any neglected surfaces begin to look like Man Ray's Dust Breeding (1920).  Meanwhile I have been reading this week about the first study of London's air quality which puts a figure on the number who die prematurely from the long run effects of nitrogen dioxide and dangerous fine particulates.  Such airborne pollutants have been used by the Italian artist Luca Vitone for a new kind of plein air landscape art, canvases that capture the grey substance of the city that we all have to breathe.  He has also made similar works from the kind of dust I am surrounded by now: Rooms (1914) comprised four watercolours made from dust collected in the German Federal Court, Bundesbank, Bundestag and Berlin's Pergamonmuseum.  You can see an example of a dust piece accompanying an article on Vitone in Frieze from a couple of years ago.  In this overview of Vitone's art Barbara Casavecchia discusses other works that deal with a sense of placelessness:
'In 1988, at the age of 24, Luca Vitone began working on ‘Carte Atopiche’ (Atopic Maps), a series of 1:25,000 scaled maps from which he removed all topographic indications. [...] ‘All my works reference a condition to which we are subject, which I call “topological loss”,’ Vitone explained in an interview with the critic Emanuela De Cecco in 1992.2 So deep-rooted were his feelings that he had the geographical coordinates of his place of birth, the Galliera hospital in Genoa (Lat. N. 44°24’07’’ Long. E. 8°56’31’’), tattooed on his arm, while his website constantly updates his position with a tracking system. Travelling widely and regularly exhibiting internationally, Vitone (who is now based in Berlin) compensates for his placelessness through constant scrutiny of his relationship to the contemporary Italian landscape, which he transforms into minimalist installations, soundscapes and, more recently, monochromes and videos.'  
The article concludes with a description of Vitone's recent work in which visitors to the Venice Biennale were confronted with a scent that the artist had developed 'in collaboration with the master perfumer Maria Candida Gentile by mixing three rhubarb essences.'  This was no perfume though, it was designed to evoke the smell of asbestos. For Vitone there was a particular association with asbestos-related deaths in Piedmont.  (When we first moved in here we were told by the man who dismantled an old structure in the garden that he thought it contained a small amount of asbestos. In mentioning this I should point out that our garden is pretty small and a significant portion of it constitutes an inconvenient ivy-clad mound that we understand to be a concreted-in World War Two air raid shelter nobody has had the energy or money to have removed.  Still, I suspect this visible remnant of the past is something of an antidote to feelings of placelessness and topological loss). 

After Venice, Vitone and Gentile created a new olfactory sculpture for an exhibition in Berlin, Imperium (2014), 'composed of different fragrances, which together evoke the “smell of power”' (something I think I may have sniffed before). Olfactory landscape art may well be a growing trend.  One of the best known artists working with smell, Sissel Tolaas (who recently featured in The Guardian) is also based in Berlin and made an installation charting the smells of its districts back in 2004.  The city is also home to a Smell Lab dedicated to olfactory experiments.  The results from one of its field trips are not hugely impressive ('Piece of Textile Left for an Hour Underneath a Rug at a Späti on Kottbusser Damm' - 'Smells like Nothing'), but I guess this kind of smellscape research is still in its infancy.  It is not yet possible to embed smell clips into these blog posts so I have added a short video about Luca Vitone above.  Now, on a fine evening here in Stoke Newington, I think I can smell the spring at last, overlaid with a whiff of brick dust and a hint of ancient soot from the old kitchen fireplace we have just uncovered.

Fragment of old wallpaper, Stoke Newington, date unknown

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Tarn

Lars Hertervig, Borgøya Island, 1867

Yesterday I watched the first of Andrew Graham-Dixon's new three-part series on Scandinavian art.  He has begun it in Norway, crunching through the snow in a parka and discussing some artists I've featured here before: Munch, Dahl, Balke.  In one hour he couldn't include everyone (no Kitty Kielland) but I was interested in the story of Lars Hertervig (1830-1902), whose traumatic move from a poor farm on the west coast of Norway to the city of Düsseldorf, where his sponsors sent him to study at the Arts Academy, was likened by Graham-Dixon to the shock of Norway's transition from rural backwater to modern state.  One day, Hertervig, who had fallen in love with the beautiful daughter of his landlady in Düsseldorf, was told that a rendezvous had been arranged with her.  But when he arrived to meet her he found no one there but a bunch of bullying, mocking students.  This practical joke contributed to a depression which led him to return to Norway, where he was placed in the asylum at Gaustad.  After eighteen months, 'incurably insane', Hertervig went home to his family.  There he began to paint again.  Two examples of this new style were discussed in the programme: the first (above) shows a crag emerging from boiling clouds above a mirror of water; the second (below) is stranger still, a vision of what might almost be a prehistoric landscape.

 Lars Hertervig, The Tarn, 1865

Here is what Andrew Graham-Dixon had to say in front of The Tarn:  
"Looks at these clouds.  There's nothing else like this in all of nineteenth century landscape painting. It's almost as if the landscape itself has gone mad, been provoked into these paroxysms of movement and gesture.  It's almost as if you are looking into the mirror of a troubled mind. The landscape itself has a tremendously primitive, ancient feel about it.  To me it's almost as if Hertervig is attempting to summon up or capture that sense of the landscape that's always been there in the Norwegian soul, whether in the soul of the Vikings or the Christians who followed.  And together with that there's a kind of fear present in it all.  A fear perhaps that just as this landscape might almost be on the point of reverting back to some primordial waste, that there is no meaning, there is no purpose, there is no pattern to the natural world.  The world simply is there."

Friday, March 18, 2016

The lake of Como

Francesco Gonin, View of Lake Como, 1840 
(illustration for chapter 1 of Alessandro Manzoni's I Promessi Sposi)
   'That branch of the lake of Como, which extends towards the south, is enclosed by two unbroken chains of mountains, which, as they advance and recede, diversify its shores with numerous bays and inlets.  Suddenly the lake contracts itself, and takes the course and form of a river, between a promontory on the right, and a wide open shore on the opposite side. The bridge which there joins the two banks seems to render this transformation more sensible to the eye, and marks the point where the lake ends, and the Adda again begins—soon to resume the name of the lake, where the banks receding afresh, allow the water to extend and spread itself in new gulfs and bays.
   The open country, bordering the lake, formed of the alluvial deposits of three great torrents, reclines upon the roots of two contiguous mountains...'
- Alessandro Manzoni, The Betrothed, 1827
Thus Manzoni begins his celebrated novel in the manor of a rather dry geography lesson.  According to Umberto Eco, almost all Italians hate the book 'because they were forced to read it at school.'  They also wonder why he spends so long describing the features of Lake Como before getting on with the story.  'Manzoni proceed as if he were filming from a helicopter slowly landing (or as if he were reproducing the way God looks down from the heavens to single out a human individual on the Earth's surface).'  With the third sentence the description moves from geography to topography.  Then, once it has attained a human scale, the landscape begins to be described as it would be experienced by someone walking over it.  And from there Manzoni passes from topography to history before finally alighting on an individual, Don Abbondio, who is making his way along a lane on the 7th day of November, 1628.  

On this blog I have described something similar before: Joseph Conrad's Nostromo, in which the long scene-setting prepares the reader for a book whose story will encompass more than just the activities of its characters.  In The Betrothed, Eco says, 'we are being told not just the story of some poor little human beings but the History of Divine Providence.'  That opening in which Manzoni assumes 'the viewpoint of god, the great Geographer' also tells us something about Don Abbondio.  This is 'not just an exercise in literary self-indulgence; it's a way of preparing the reader straightaway to a read a book whose main protagonist is someone who looks at the way of the world from on high.'  In the portrait I have reproduced here Manzoni is shown in front of Lake Como.  He looks neither towards us or over his surroundings but upwards, to a point somewhere above the world.

Giuseppe Molteni, Alessandro Manzoni, 1835

The Umberto Eco quotations above are from Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures he delivered in 1993.  This post is prompted in part by the sad news of Eco's death last month, which has been marked by many tributes and obituaries, from The New York Times to BLDGBLOG.  The last of his Walks concludes with the story of a visit he had recently made to a planetarium.  There the curator arranged the display so that it showed what the stars would have looked like on the night of 5-6 January 1932, the first night of Umberto Eco's life.
'Perhaps others have had a similar experience.  But you will forgive me if during those fifteen minutes I had the impression that I was the only man, since the dawn of time, who had ever had the privilege of being reunited with his own beginning. ... Perhaps I had found the story that we all look for in the pages of books and on the screens of movie theaters: it was the story in which the stars and I were protagonists. ... That was a fictional wood I wish I had never had to leave.' 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun

Nicholas Poussin, Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun, 1658

I write this surrounded by piles of books with a couple of pictures propped against them.  This would be pleasant except that they've all been brought upstairs to be out of the way of some imminent building work.  Sadly there's too much I've got to do here in the house to spend time writing anything very thoughtful about landscape and art.  So here instead I will just give you a couple of beautifully written passages from an essay by William Hazlitt, 'On a Landscape of Nicholas Poussin.'
'Orion, the subject of this landscape, was the classical Nimrod; and is called by Homer, 'a hunter of shadows, himself a shade.' [...] Mists rise around him, and veil the sides of the green forests; earth is dank and fresh with dews, the 'gray dawn and the Pleiades before him dance,' and in the distance are seen the blue hills and sullen ocean. Nothing was ever more finely conceived or done. It breathes the spirit of the morning; its moisture, its repose, its obscurity, waiting the miracle of light to kindle it into smiles; the whole is, like the principal figure in it, 'a forerunner of the dawn.' The same atmosphere tinges and imbues every object, the same dull light 'shadowy sets off' the face of nature: one feeling of vastness, of strangeness, and of primeval forms pervades the painter's canvas, and we are thrown back upon the first integrity of things. [...] To give us nature, such as we see it, is well and deserving of praise; to give us nature, such as we have never seen, but have often wished to see it, is better, and deserving of higher praise. He who can show the world in its first naked glory, with the hues of fancy spread over it, or in its high and palmy state, with the gravity of history stamped on the proud monuments of vanished empire,--who, by his 'so potent art,' can recall time past, transport us to distant places, and join the regions of imagination (a new conquest) to those of reality,--who shows us not only what Nature is, but what she has been, and is capable of,--he who does this, and does it with simplicity, with truth, and grandeur, is lord of Nature and her powers; and his mind is universal, and his art the master-art!'
Poussin's Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun is now owned by the Met but when Hazlitt saw it, the painting was 'one of a series from the old masters, which have for some years back embrowned the walls of the British Gallery, and enriched the public eye.'  His essay praises what were the world's first regular temporary exhibitions of Old Master paintings.  Pictures, he concludes, 'are scattered like stray gifts through the world; and while they remain, earth has yet a little gilding left, not quite rubbed off, dishonoured, and defaced.'  I don't think Hazlitt would have thought much of the Alexander Calder lithograph I'm about to pack away in an old sheet for a few months.  But he would have agreed that to take pleasure from art it is unnecessary to have pictures hanging on the walls around you.
'Pictures are a set of chosen images, a stream of pleasant thoughts passing through the mind. It is a luxury to have the walls of our rooms hung round with them, and no less so to have such a gallery in the mind, to con over the relies of ancient art bound up 'within the book and volume of the brain, unmixed (if it were possible) with baser matter!' A life passed among pictures, in the study and the love of art, is a happy noiseless dream: or rather, it is to dream and to be awake at the same time; for it has all 'the sober certainty of waking bliss,' with the romantic voluptuousness of a visionary and abstracted being.' 

Friday, March 04, 2016

Song of the Forests

I have often written here about music inspired by landscape, but the Song of the Forests is an oratorio dedicated to the reshaping of landscape.  It was by written by Dmitri Shostakovich in the summer of 1949 to celebrate the forestation of the Russian steppes.  A year earlier he had been denounced for formalism.  Living in fear, he took to waiting on the landing by the lift each night for the anticipated arrest, as Julian Barnes describes in his new novel The Noise of Time.  While Shostakovich composed serious work 'for the desk drawer', the Song of the Forests was written to help secure his rehabilitation.  It was a setting of what Barnes calls 'an enormous, windy text by Dolmatovsky' that referred to Stalin as The Great Gardener.  'Under Stalin, the oratorio insisted, even apple trees grew more courageously, fighting off the frosts just as the Red Army had fought off the Nazis.  The work's thunderous banality had ensured its immediate success.'

This was not the only collaboration between Shostakovich and the poet Yevgeniy Dolmatovsky.  In 1951 they wrote 'The Motherland Hears, The Motherland Knows' which Yuri Gagarin whistled on his descent to earth ten years later, making it the first song performed in space.  An article on Dolmatovsky in a journal dedicated to Shostakovich mentions more of his work, including songs that were popular during the war.  In his memoirs Krushchev said he'd been inspired by 'The Song of the Dnieper' which describes the river filling with the blood of the Fascists (you can hear renditions by the Red Army Choir on Youtube).  Shostakovich and Dolmatovsky continued working together and met for the last time just before the death of Shostakovich in 1975.  Apparently Shostakovich said to him "You know, The Song of the Forests was really about protecting the environment - a subject the whole world is talking about now.  We hit the nail on the head!"'  Forty years later we are still talking about it, but as Hannah Ellis-Peterson wrote last year, the contemporary relevance of the Song of the Forests may have more to do with politics than the environment.