Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Black Place

'As soon as I saw it, that was my country.  I'd never seen anything like it before, but it fitted me exactly.  It's something that's in the air, it's just different.  The sky is different, the stars are different, the wind is different.'  Compare this to the passage I posted a week ago: Ingmar Bergman discovering Fårö ('this is your landscape, Bergman.  It corresponds to your internal imaginings of forms, proportions, colours, horizons, sounds, silences, lights and reflections.')  The artist this time is Georgia O'Keeffe and the place New Mexico.  She wrote about experiencing a physical connection: 'my skin feels close to the earth when I walk out into the red hills.'  It is tempting to contrast this bodily response with the more cerebral Bergman, but he included 'exertion, relaxation, breathing' in the attributes of his special landscape.  And of course the idea that O'Keeffe's art could be read reductively in terms of her own body has been comprehensively criticised in recent years.  The Guardian's preview of a retrospective here in London was headlined 'Flowers or vaginas? Georgia O’Keeffe Tate show to challenge sexual cliches.'

Alfred Stieglitz, Portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe, 1918
 Source: Wikimedia Commons

We had a good look round this exhibition at Tate Modern yesterday and got the sense of an artist engaged with New Mexico's indigenous inhabitants and culture as well as it's shapes and shadows, hard blue skies and extraordinary colours.  Olivia Laing wrote a great piece about O'Keeffe that describes her first experience of the place. 'Back in 1929 she had spent a summer in Taos with the painter Beck Strand. The pair were taken up by a community of powerfully independent women, among them Mabel Dodge Luhan, the formidable heiress and art patron, and the Hon Dorothy Brett, a stone-deaf Englishwoman who carried a knife in her boots.'  It sounds fun, although O'Keeffe arrived in Taos too late to encounter D. H. Lawrence.  She did paint The Lawrence Tree (1929) though, with a viewpoint right up its trunk and into the night sky.  In Tate Magazine artist Lucy Stein writes of this painting that 'the mental image that this summons of two of the titans of nature-worshipping modernism having cosmic and sexy thoughts beneath this ancient pine is as intoxicating as the picture itself.'

I will conclude here with a longer quote from Olivia Laing on the New Mexico period (I would agree with what she says here of the potential strengths and weaknesses of these paintings).  O'Keeffe's work is in copyright but you can see the painting referred to on The Guardian site
“As you come to it over a hill, it looks like a mile of elephants – grey hills all about the same size with almost white sand at their feet,” O’Keeffe wrote of the Black Place, a remote landscape that inspired her more than any other location. The paintings she made there tip geological form over the threshold of abstraction: the serried hills smashed into shards of grey and puce, bifurcated by yolk-coloured cracks or spills of oily black.
'Hills like elephants sounds an echo of Hemingway, and there is something of his habits of compression at work in O’Keeffe, a desire to erase everything extraneous, to convey emotion without confessing it directly. She painted very flat, making surfaces so smooth she once compared the sensation to roller-skating. The risk is blandness, but it can also produce – The Black Place, 1943, say – cleanly assembled structures that quiver with unvoiced feeling.'

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Stockholm Archipelago

This month we spent a week in and around Stockholm.  I took the photograph here from a boat, although we actually spent most of our time in the city rather than exploring the archipelago.  We saw summer houses along the shorelines and shiny white boats with healthy-looking active people on board, but sometimes it felt more like a vast park than the kind of landscape I'd imagined from Strindberg.  We probably needed to get further away, as the narrator says in this passage from Hjalmar Söderberg's brilliant novel Doctor Glas (1905).   In his view the Stockholm Archipelago is overrated...
'A mincemeat landscape, all chopped up.  Little islands, little waterways, little rocky knolls and wretched little trees.  A pale and poverty-stricken landscape, cold colours, mostly grey and blue, and yet not poor enough to have the grandeur of true desolation.  When I hear people praise the archipelago’s natural beauties I always suspect them of having quite other things in mind and on closer examination this suspicion is always confirmed.  One person thinks of the fresh air and fine bathing, another of his sailing boat, a third of the perch-fishing, yet for them all this falls under the rubric of natural beauty.  The other day I was talking to a young girl who was in love with the archipelago but, as our conversation proceeded, it transpired that in point of fact she was thinking of sunsets; possibly also of a student.  She forgot that the sun sets everywhere and that students are mobile.  I do not believe I am wholly insensitive to natural beauty, but for that I must go further afield, to Lake Vättern or Skåne, or else to the sea.  But I rarely have time, and within a radius of twenty or thirty miles of Stockholm I have never seen a landscape to compare with Stockholm itself – with Djurgården or Haga or the pavement overlooking the Stream, outside the Grand.'

The Grand Hotel, Stockholm, in 1901.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The 'Stream' is Paul Britten Austin's translation of the Strøm, the waters of Saltsjön at the centre of Stockholm.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The rocks of Fårö

'My ties with Fårö have several origins.  The first was intuitive. This is your landscape, Bergman.  It corresponds to your internal imaginings of forms, proportions, colours, horizons, sounds, silences, lights and reflections.  Security is here.  Don't ask why. Explanations are clumsy rationalisations with hindsight. In, for instance, your profession you look for simplification, proportion, exertion, relaxation, breathing.  The Fårö landscape gives you a wealth of all that.'
- Ingmar Bergman in his autobiography The Magic Lantern (1987, trans. Joan Tate)
View from the Bergmancenter on Fårö

This notion of finding ones ideal landscape is an interesting one and prompts me to wonder what my own might be.  Bergman spent much of his life in theatres and the island of Fårö, with its rocks and trees and open skies, seems at first to be a very different kind of space.  But as he says here, it suited his outlook on directing as well as the deeper need for a retreat which we often see in creative artists.  Bergman was only persuaded to visit Fårö in the first place when Svensk Filmindustri requested that he consider an alternative to Orkney as a setting for Through a Glass Darkly (1961).  He made three more films there, along with two documentaries about life on the island and the TV series Scenes From a Marriage (1973), which led to an upsurge in the Swedish divorce rate and was apparently an inspiration for Dallas.
It might be thought that Bergman filmed more often on Fårö than he actually did because rocky coastal settings are so associated with his work.  In a post I wrote just after he died I referred to the chess game on the beach in The Seventh Seal, but this was made four years before he had set foot on the island.  I was only able to quote a description of Fårö then; now I have been myself and walked, for example, the windswept shore at Langhammars, with its strange rock formations, that Bergman used for the final scene in Shame (1968).  In this the couple – Liv Ullman and Max Von Sidow - wait for a boat which they hope will take them and other refugees away from their war-torn country.  The film ends with them adrift in a grey featureless sea.

One of the limestone stacks ('rauks') at Langhammars

Perhaps another reason we associate Bergman so strongly with Fårö is the continuing fascination with Persona, which is I think, after The Seventh Seal, his most famous and iconic film (both are parodied in Woody Allen’s Love and Death).  Fårö's Bergmancenter currently has an exhibition marking its fiftieth anniversary.  Among the exhibits are Liv Ullman’s camera, Bibi Andersson’s shades and some atmospheric behind-the-scenes colour photographs of a film that is hard to imagine in anything other than beautifully-lit black and white.  Sadly it is not possible to visit the actual house used in Persona, situated on the rocky eastern shore of Fårö, where the troubled actress played by Liv Ullman withdraws from the world.  This no longer survives.

Liv Ullman on the rocks of Fårö in Persona (1966)

Friday, August 12, 2016

Voices from the Land

I don't think I've ever embedded a Ted Talk before.  This one covers some of the key points Bernie Krause makes in his recent book The Great Animal Orchestra.  The book's title comes from an insight that came to him after several years of field recording: different species have evolved to fit within their own acoustic bandwidth, so that the natural soundscape is structured like orchestral music. Krause distinguishes the biophony, sounds of living organisms, from the geophony, those natural sounds that spring from the wind, water and earth.  The geophony is the music of the underlying landscape.  In his chapter 'Voices from the Land' Krause recalls a revelatory experience of geophonic sound, back in 1971 when he was still recording with Paul Beaver (their album In a Wild Sanctuary, a pioneering fusion of synthesised music and field recording, had been released the previous year).  One frosty October day Krause was taken by a Nez Percé elder to the edge of a stream feeding Lake Wallowa in northeastern Oregon.
'After about half an hour, the wind began to funnel down from the high southern pass, gaining force with each passing moment.  A Venturi effect caused the gusts passing upstream through the narrow gorge to compress into a vigorous breeze that swept past our crouched bodies, the combined temperature and windchill now making us decidedly uncomfortable.  Then it happened.  Sounds that seemed to come from a giant pipe organ suddenly engulfed us.  The effect wasn't a chord exactly, but rather a combination of tones, sighs, and midrange groans that played off each other, sometimes setting strange beats into resonance as they nearly matched one another in pitch.  At the same time they created complex harmonic overtones, augmented by reverberations coming off the lake and the surrounding mountains.  At those moments the tone clusters, becoming quite loud, grew strangely dissonant and overwhelmed every other sensation.'
What was the source of this strange soundscape?  Krause relates that he was led to the river bank and shown a cluster of reeds, broken over time by the action of the elements into different lengths.  Those reeds with open holes at the top were played by the wind like flutes.  The Nez Percé elder took out a knife and made himself a flute our of a reed, explaining that this sound was the origin of the music of his people.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Circle of Light


Circle of Light is a fascinating new vinyl release on Trunk Records - the soundtrack to a film made in 1972 by Anthony Roland.  A hauntological mixture of electronics and field recordings, it was composed by Delia Derbyshire (in collaboration with Elsa Stansfield) and, at 32 minutes, is the longest surviving piece of her music.  The film itself can be seen online for a small fee as part of the The Roland Collection, where it is filed under the heading 'Landscape into Art' (other subjects include Turner, Friedrich, Corot and the mountain painter I wrote about here last month, Giovanni Segantini).  I have embedded above a short preview which he has made available free of charge.  So much for the filmmaker and composer, but what of the relatively obscure subject of this film, 'The Art of Pamela Bone'?  Jonny Trunk provides some background information on his website:
'The origins of the film can be traced back to 1952 when Pamela Bone, a student at Guildford School Of Art, bought her first camera for £6. This was the start of a long symbiotic journey with photography, Bone developing peculiar techniques, adapting cameras and always trying to somehow replicate the visions she had in her mind’s eye.  ... In 1959, and having had work featured in Vogue, Queen and House And Garden, she was invited to stay with a student friend in Calcutta. It was her escape.  The trip enabled Bone to travel and photograph extensively in exotic locations across India, including Sikkim and Kashmir. On returning home, she began working on a conceptual slide show of her travels and transparencies, one that began to slowly morph over the next seven years into a show of slides influenced by travel, the seasons, children, still life studies and landscapes. The working title of the show was Circle Of Light. ...
'Things took an unexpected turn in 1969 when she was introduced to Anthony Roland ...  Roland was quite overwhelmed by the images in many ways and suggested he made a film with them. Together they began work on Circle Of Light.  Bone had also written poetry and wanted this narrated over the film. But Roland knew that the images needed something a little more abstract. So for a soundtrack Roland commissioned Delia Derbyshire (moonlighting from the Radiophonic Workshop). ... Circle Of Light premiered at the Academy Cinema in Oxford Street on 28th March 1972, and three months later was selected to represent Great Britain in the Art Film class at the very well respected Cork International Festival. It won first prize. ...  There have been very occasional sightings of the film over the last few decades, but it has come into focus more recently because of the unreleased music and the dramatic rise in interest for all things Delia.'
Detail from the cover of Seven Doors by Pamela Bone

Pamela Bone gave up photography in 1992, soon after a retrospective exhibition at West Dean College (the former home of Surrealist patron Edward James).  However, in 2009 she published in a very limited edition a book about her work, Seven Doors: Finding Freedom of Expression Through Photography.  In this, she looks back on Circle of Light and recalls her first experience of the soundtrack: 'how well I remember being startled by the crash of a wave with the shell picture, and the hoot of an owl echoing through the Devon woods.'  The most interesting parts of the book explain how she created her transparencies, operating rather like an electronic composer by overlaying elements to build up an atmosphere.  Pale Balloon for example, started as a photograph of a child's balloon tied to a dead tree, to which she added clouds and sea texture.  Then ‘to give interest to the blurred colour of the foreground reeds, I added the pattern of sea foam that I had taken using lithographic film.  Binding together these four layers of film, the pale balloon had become the moon in my imagination.’

I will end here with Pamela Bone's memories of Dartmoor, where she searched for flowing water that could be captured and used later, almost like a painter applying a wash to a watercolour.
‘High on the moors one day, I followed a track leading to these woodlands.  I could hear falling water far below, and I scrambled down over the granite clitter to the upper reaches of the East Dart river.  Sitting on a boulder beside a little waterfall, I watched the bubbles whirl away beneath the water.  As the water flowed beside me, so the landscapes of Van Gogh flowed through my mind; could this be the answer to my pictures.  Between 1967 and 1972 I wandered each springtime beside those lonely reaches of the Dart, photographing again and again the ever changing patterns of sunlight through pools of still and swirling water alike, for I could not tell what the results might be, sometimes beautiful, sometimes useless for my purpose.  The idea worked by combining a water texture transparency with the transparency of the subject I had in mind, allowing their colours to mingle and flow.’