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