Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The open pit at Dannemora mine

We saw this tall clock a few weeks ago in Stockholm's Royal Palace.  It dates from the 1760s when ideal landscapes were painted onto all kinds of cabinets - there's no particular connection between the clock itself and the two views here.  Nearby though, in complete contrast, we saw something much more unusual: a mechanical landscape painting which actually incorporates a clock mechanism.  It wasn't possible to photograph without getting some confusing reflections but hopefully this gives you the idea.  It was made in Gothenburg in 1821 and signed 'J. G. Pettersson'.  Far from showing some dreamy Arcadian view, it depicts the Dannemora iron ore mine.

Sadly we didn't get to witness the movable elements of this painting in motion.  You can see one of these, the hoist used to bring up the ore, in the detail above.  This feature is also visible in a watercolour by Elias Martin (below), which was clearly the source for the painting.  Martin, Sweden's first prominent landscape painter, was best known for more Romantic landscapes.  Compare the two views and you will see that the clockmaker added a church as a new focal point, which gives the composition a slightly surreal quality. It contrasts with the black pit in the centre foreground, where we would normally wish to find a limpid pool or shady grove.  Perhaps it was put there to suggest the opposition of heaven and hell, or maybe it was there to strike a note of approval, blessing the labours of the miners and mine owners.  Dannemora mine was established in the Middle Ages and it is hard to imagine the countless hours of work that went into it, until eventually it was shut down in the early nineties.  Recently the mine was bought and reopened in a ceremony featuring King Carl XVI Gustaf but I see it has subsequently ceased operation again.
Elias Martin, The open pit at Dannemora, c. 1780-1800

This hybrid clock/painting made we imagine an alternative history for the cuckoo clock without the chalet or woodcutters or water wheels.   Each hour a bird would simply emerge from an attractive Black Forest scene to emit a melodious song.  A few examples of nineteenth century paintings with inbuilt clocks can be seen online, their faces placed where a sun or a flower might be.  You half expect them to start melting like the soft watches in DalĂ­'s The Persistence of Memory.  Clocks within paintings were popular in Austria and Germany but rarely had moving parts. You can view one on Youtube though, in which two hammers beat on an anvil when the hour is struck.  It's a bit hard to make out what the figures in the foreground are doing - is there some nudity involved or is that my imagination?  Again the setting here is industrial - it must have been hard to imagine a clockwork mechanism without thinking of the machines used to channel and reshape nature.  For centuries artists have found ways to convey the diurnal cycle or capture a fleeting instant, but painting, fundamentally, is not a time-based medium.  A clock measures out the hours, a landscape painting should be timeless.  

No comments: