Saturday, November 26, 2016

Like a cloud of mist on the silent hill

The poetry of the Scottish bard Ossian is often described in terms of its admirers: Diderot, Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, Wordsworth, Walter Scott, Mendelssohn etc.  Few read it now though, partly perhaps because it was exposed as a fake, written by its translator 'from the Gaelic or Erse language', James Macpherson.  In these heroic narratives there is no time for landscape description but even a cursory read reveals a remarkably dense use of nature similes, which no doubt appealed to the Romantics.  Here are a few lines from the opening of Fingal, written in 1762 (its eponymous hero was the father of Ossian and king of north-west Scotland).  The Irish general Cuthullin, sitting 'by the tree of the rustling sound' at Tura, a castle on the coast of Ulster, is approached by his scout Moran, who has just seen Swaran, king of Lochlin. 
"I beheld their chief," says Moran, "tall as a glittering rock. His spear is a blasted pine. His shield the rising moon! He sat on the shore! like a cloud of mist on the silent hill! Many, chief of heroes! I said, many are our hands of war. Well art thou named, the mighty man; but many mighty men are seen from Tura's windy walls.

"He spoke, like a wave on a rock, 'Who in this land appears like me? Heroes stand not in my presence: they fall to earth from my hand. Who can meet Swaran in fight? Who but Fingal, king of Selma of storms? Once we wrestled on Malmor; our heels overturned the woods. Rocks fell from their place; rivulets, changing their course, fled murmuring from our side. Three days we renewed the strife; heroes stood at a distance and trembled. On the fourth, Fingal says, that the king of the ocean fell! but Swaran says he stood! Let dark Cuthullin yield to him, that is strong as the storms of his land!"

If you gather together all the similes in Book 1 of Fingal they make a kind of nature poem:
like a cloud of mist on the silent hill
like a wave on a rock
like streams from the mountains
like mist that shades the hills of autumn
like the dark rolling of that wave on the coast
like reeds on the lake of Lego
like a roe from Malmor
like a hart from thy echoing hills
like a star, that shoots across the desert
like two white pillars in the halls of the great Fingal

like the bank of a mountain stream
like the thunder of heaven
like a whale of ocean
like the gathered flies of the eve
like the flame of death
like a wave near a rock
like a sun-streaked mist of the heath
like the sea round the boat of night
like a stream of smoke on a ridge of rocks
like wreaths of mist fly over the streamy vales
like the blast of winter
like my polished yew

like a flame
like a storm along the streamy vale
like the echoing main
like autumn's dark storms pouring from two echoing hills
like two deep streams from high rocks meeting, mixing roaring on the plain
like the circles of light, which gild the face of night
like two hinds of the desert
like the shrill spirit of a storm
like the beam of heaven
like two clouds
like lightning
like the sullen sound of Cromla before a storm
like snow
like the calm shower of spring
like the sun on our fields

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Autumn on Mount Oshio

Ōtagaki Rengetsu, Autumn Moon, 1870
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I've been very busy this week, but I just have time for a short post to recommend the website of The Rengetsu Foundation Project, which is dedicated to one of Japan's most fascinating cultural figures.  Ōtagaki Rengetsu's achievements were so various that she is hard to classify - in his primer How to Look at Japanese Art, Stephen Addiss decides to place her in his chapter on calligraphy, but she was equally famous for her waka poetry and ceramics (Rengetsu ware).  She was also skilled in painting, dance, sewing and the tea ceremony.  Not only that, but in her youth, before becoming a nun, she was a famous beauty proficient in the martial arts - sword, spear and sickle and chain - having been adopted as a child by a family known for training ninjas.  However, the Foundation site's biography explains that 'she was a pacifist, advocating mutual respect and gentle persuasion in resolving conflict.'  In her middle years she travelled widely and landscape is treated in many of her poems, brushed or carved onto pots and presented as calligraphy on tanzaku and shikishi paper.

The Rengetsu Foundation has 917 poems in a searchable database; I see that 133 of them, for example, contain the word 'mountain'.  I will quote just one of the translations below.  As I write this, I can hear the cold wind outside and it feels like we are nearing the end of autumn... 

Piercing my body
   the sad departure of autumn
      on Mount Oshio...
   where red leaves fall—
      the withering wind.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Landscape is Staring at Us

Regrettably I don't normally have time to read the London Review of Books although the 6th October issue was a good one - Kathleen Jamie on Orkney and reviews of a new book on Frederick Law Olmsted and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing's The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.  The LRB often has reports on current art exhibitions but I was intrigued to see in this issue a review of something I can safely assume few of us will get to see, the fourth Land Art Mongolia biennial.  The whole article by Lewis Biggs is available to read for non-subscribers.  He describes getting to the venue, a former Soviet youth camp by a small lake near the volcano of Altan Ovoo, and seeing 'the 18 artworks were spread across the landscape in various stages of production or dissolution.'  One of the things that interests me about this is the art world forces that have led to such an event, forty-eight years after the first Earth Works exhibition in New York. 
'Both the traditional and realist genres are taught at the art school that’s now a part of Ulaanbaatar university, so why be a land artist? Perhaps because anything perceived purely as a ‘craft tradition’ in galleries and markets beyond Mongolia will have a more limited reception than works in an international idiom. In the 1980s artists outside the G7 countries understood that they were less visible if they didn’t speak or write in English, but at the end of that decade, the big Paris show Magiciens de la terre led the art institutions of wealthier countries to accept that the ‘contemporary’ idioms of land and performance art (though rarely painting or sculpture) were continuous with ancient forms in other cultures. A Buddhist stupa on a mountain top or a Peruvian desert drawing could now be considered a form of land art, and a shamanic trance – as Joseph Beuys recognised early in his career – a kind of performance art.'
The video clip I've embedded above is by one of the non-Mongolian artists at the biennial, Lisa Batacchi, performing a ritual offering of milk.  The clip below is a piece on a previous biennial and includes Japanese performance artist Megumi Shimizu painting black ink onto a rock with her hair.  This reminded me of Ink Wang, who I mentioned here a couple of weeks ago, the Tang dynasty artist who, it is said, dipped his top knot into ink in order to paint strange, expressive landscapes.  In this footage it looks like she is creating a simplified version of the rock by accentuating its shadows, although a bit disappointingly she ends by adding an eye - the piece is called 'The Landscape is Staring at Us'.  International artists participating in an event like this must find themselves in a potentially uncomfortable position and political engagement may be the easiest way of avoiding any concerns about cultural appropriation.  Italian artist Beatrice Catanzaro, interviewed below, made her piece after researching an illegal gold mine with local activists.  Mongolian artist Dajvadorj Sereeter, on the other hand, makes land art by installing tracings of ancient rock carvings.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

The source of the Sorgue

 Philippe-Jacques van Brée, Laura and Petrarch at Fountaine-de-Vaucluse, 1816
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1337, a year after his ascent of Mont Ventoux, Petrarch travelled to Rome. On his return to Avignon he found that the city's decadence still disgusted him.  In his 'Letter to Posterity' he says that 'seeking some means of escape, I fortunately discovered a delightful valley, narrow and secluded, called Vaucluse, about fifteen miles from Avignon, where the Sorgue, the prince of streams, has its source.  Captured by the charms of the place, I transferred myself and my books there' (trans. Mark Musa).  Elsewhere he wrote a wonderful description of his home at Fountaine-de-Vaucluse.  The translation of this passage below is in The Wind and the Source by Allen S. Weiss.  
'Here I have acquired two small gardens perfectly suited to my skills and taste. To attempt a description for you would be too long. In short, I believe that no similar spot exists in all the world, and, to confess my unmanly fickleness, I regret only that it is not in Italy. I customarily call it my transalpine Helicon. The one garden is very shady, suitable only for study and sacred to our Apollo. It overhangs the source of the Sorgue, and beyond it lies nothing but ravines and cliffs, remote and accessible only to wild beasts or birds. The other garden, near the house, appears more cultivated, and it is a delight to Bacchus. This one, astonishing as it may seem, is in the midst of the very beautiful and swift-running river. Nearby, divided from it by a very small bridge on the further side of the house, hangs a curved vault of native rock that now provides shelter against the summer heat. It is a place that inspires studies, and I suspect is not too dissimilar to the little hall where Cicero used to declaim his orations, except that he did not have a Sorgue flowing alongside. Under this vault, therefore, I spend my afternoons, and my mornings on the hillsides; the evenings I spend in the meadows or in my less cultivated garden at the source where my efforts have conquered nature and cleared a spot under the high cliff in the midst of the waters, narrow indeed but very inspiring, in which even a sluggish mind can rise to the noblest thoughts.'
As Weiss points out, this description suggests a perfect balance between the Apollonian and Dionysian temperaments which Nietzsche would make famous in his writings on aesthetics. Petrarch was influenced by both Christian and Pagan traditions, by Saint Augustine and Cicero.  In a letter to Cardinal Colonna, he described his creation of a garden as a war with the Nymphs, who try to chase away his Muses, but when he thinks of erecting an altar it is to Mary, rather than to the gods of rivers and springs.  It sounds like a delightful retreat, where Petrarch could concentrate on his writing 'amidst the sound of birds and nymphs, and accompanied by few servants but many books.'  It was also a base from which Petrarch could wander the countryside, 'roving over the meadows and mountains and fountains, living in the woods and in the countryside, fleeing human footsteps, following the birds, loving the shadows, enjoying the mossy caves and the blooming meadows...'