Thursday, December 28, 2017

Primeval world

Josef Kuwasseg, The Period of the Muschelkalk, c. 1850

This remarkable vision of a prehistoric shoreline was painted by an Austrian landscape painter, Josef Kuwasseg (1799-1859).  The paleobotonist Franz Xaver Unger who commissioned a series of lithographs from him said that such paintings had "that mysterious charm which belongs to the contemplation of the distant past, and to the memory of our dreams."  This painting is reproduced in a sumptuously illustrated (and pricey) new book that I was given for Christmas, Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past.  It traces the ways artists have portrayed scenes from the distant past over the last two centuries, incorporating stylistic elements from Romanticism, Impressionism, Fauvism and Art Nouveau.  The author, New York art critic Zoë Lescaze, also reads into these old pictures of dinosaurs, flying reptiles and neanderthals the politics of paleontology (ongoing battles between rival scientists) and our wider anxieties about war and apocalypse. 

Josef Kuwasseg, Primeval world, c. 1850

I have referred briefly here before to paleoart, in describing an exhibition of John Martin's paintings at Tate Britain.  Martin imagined plesiosaurs attacking an ichthyosaur as if they were engaged in fierce naval combat.  But, 'if Martin's vision of prehistory is a nightmare, Kuwasseg's is a subtle and mysterious dream.  Water appears in every painting, not as a seething arena for reptilian combat, but in flowing rivers, mangrove deltas, jungle waterfalls, and luminous green lagoons.'  It is easy enough to find examples of Joseph Kuwasseg's 'real' landscape painting online, like the one I have included below, a view of the Leopoldsteinersee, a mountain lake in Styria.  Zoë Lescaze writes that in his more conventional landscape art,
'Kuwasseg frequently includes illuminated corridors - rivers, paths, or gaps in the trees - framed by darker houses, rocks, or foliage.  He incorporates these same visual tunnels in his prehistoric vistas, leading the viewers into carboniferous swamps as though they were inviting stretches of the Austrian countryside.'

Josef Kuwasseg, Leopoldsteinersee, no date
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Another landscape painter featured in Paleoart is Heinrich Harder (1858-1935), who designed the remarkable mosaics for the aquarium at Berlin Zoo which were destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943 and then painstakingly restored in 1982.  Examples of his paintings of the German countryside on various auction websites give no indication of the Jugendstil influence in his mosaic designs, with their Hokusai waves and Hodler skies.  The painting of sea lilies below is from a set of collectible cards, 'Animals of the Prehistoric World' (it is atypical as most show examples of megafauna wandering through ancient landscapes).  Several paleoartists have worked on such cards - Harder's were made for a chocolate manufacturer.  When I was growing up we used to get PG Tips tea for the cards, so one of the sources of my own knowledge on dinosaurs was their series Prehistoric Animals (1972). 

Heinrich Harder, Sea Lilies, c. 1920
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Recalling now my childhood fascination with dinosaurs, I would say it was stimulated by a range of sources, from films like The Land That Time Forgot to trips to see the skeletons at the Natural History Museum and Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins' wonderful old sculptures in Crystal Palace Park (see below).  When it came to paleoart though, my main inspiration was Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Reptiles (1960), illustrated by Rudolph Zallinger, an artist best known for The Age of Reptiles, a fresco for the Peabody Museum's Great Hall.  There are scanned images from this book at the blog Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs (I try not to include in copyright stuff here).  By the 1960s Zallinger was working on a new fresco for the Peabody, completed the year I was born, called The Age of the Mammals.  'In this sixty-foot mural,' Zoë Lescaze writes, 'the pumpkin-orange earth crackles against a brilliant blue sky. Trees run the autumnal gamut with red, green and golden foliage.  The animals, pounce, stalk, scavenge, forage, and flee.'
Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, Iguanadons at Crystal Palace, 1854
My own photograph from a visit in 2008

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Landscape of the Megaliths

Lucas de Heere, Stonehenge, c. 1572
Images: Wikimedia Commons

In British Art: Ancient Landscapes, a catalogue published last year for an exhibition at The Salisbury Museum, Sam Smiles describes the history of artistic engagement with Britain's ancient stone circles and chalk figures.  It goes roughly as follows:
  • In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, illustrations to accompany the writings of early antiquarians like William Stukeley.  The first known painting was by a Flemish artist, Lucas de Heere.
  • From the mid eighteenth century, topographical engravings and watercolours by artists like Thomas Hearne and Samual Prout.
  • Romantic era paintings of Celtic bards and druids, along with the stone circles in William Blake's vision of Albion.
    William Blake, Milton: a Poem, c. 1811
    "All things begin & end in Albion's ancient Druid rocky shore: But now the Starry Heavens are fled from the mighty limbs of Albion."  

  • Also at this time, dramatically composed paintings of Stonehenge with Sublime, stormy skies by the great figures in British landscape art: Girtin, Turner, Constable.
  • Then relatively few Victorian paintings, but a revival of interest among the Neo-Romantics - Paul Nash, John Piper, Henry Moore - who drew on Surrealism, Primitivism and abstract art, but also took an interest in the findings of twentieth century archaeology.
  • In the inter-war years, sights like Stonehenge, The Long Man of Wilmington were celebrated in Shell posters and their strong, simple forms made them ideal subjects for prints and watercolours by contemporary artists like Eric Ravilious.
  • After the war attention turned to urban subjects but there was a revivial of interest in the late sixties and new forms of engaging with the monuments: the walks of Richard Long, Derek Jarman's film, Journey to Avebury.  
  • Finally, the present day, and it is surprising that the exhibition couldn't find more recent artworks shaped by psychogeography, hauntology and modern antiquarianism.  The story currently ends with Jeremy Deller, whose bouncy Stonehenge I featured here back in 2012.

    John Constable, Stonehenge, 1835

Postscript 27/12/17

After putting a link to this post on Twitter, the excellent @BL_prints alerted me to a Sam Smiles piece on their blog, which tells the story above up to the early nineteenth century.  Here's a brief extract for you, his final two paragraphs, with an image from the BL website
The aesthetic presentation of prehistoric structures was most successful when their massiveness and monumentality was heightened by the artist’s approach. The topographer John Britton recruited very capable artists to illustrate his numerous publications: the title page of the third volume of his survey The Beauties of Wiltshire (1825) includes an engraving of 1812, based on a drawing by John Sell Cotman. The subject is the cromlech on Marlborough Downs known as the Devil’s Den and the impact of the image relies on close focus, a low horizon and a stormy sky.
This tendency to exaggerate the sublimity associated with these monuments, concentrating on their enigmatic, even weird presence in the landscape, ran the risk of removing them from topography completely. The key instance of this approach is probably JMW Turner’s watercolour of Stonehenge, engraved in 1829 for Charles Heath’s Picturesque Views in England and Wales (1827–38). Turner had visited the site at least twice, in 1799 and 1811, and had studied it carefully. His watercolour, however, sacrifices detail for theatrical effect as Stonehenge becomes the setting for a spectacular thunderstorm, with sheep killed by lightning, their shepherd struck down and his dog howling at the sky. Here, then, topography’s ideal of the accurate record surrenders almost completely to the artistic impulse.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

A winding river and a bridge

Jan Van Eyck, The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (detail - full picture below), c. 1435-7
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this year I discussed a miniature in Christopher de Hamel's Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts.  Here I want to share a quote from his earlier book, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts (1986, revised 1994).  Its subject, way a landscape is transmitted and through successive works of art, is one I have touched on before in connection with Albrecht Dürer.  The way repetition introduces change is something that has fascinated modern artists, from Warhol's screen prints to Basinski's Disintegration Loops, although in this case the alterations are more deliberate.  The quote is quite long but it it conveys what is so appealing about de Hamel's writing, both highly accessible and rigorously scholarly.  (Incidentally, my parents saw him deliver a talk earlier this month, where he described his discovery of what may be the actual book Thomas Becket was carrying when he was assassinated.)  Here, de Hamel is discussing a Paris-based illuminator called the Bedford Master, named for two books he made for the Duke of Bedford, Henry V's brother and regent of France following the victory at Agincourt.  But the story (probably) begins with one of the greatest fifteenth century paintings, Jan van Eyck's The Madonna and Chancellor Rolin, now in the Louvre.

'In the background, seen over the rampart and battlements of a castle, is a marvellous distant view of a winding river and a bridge with people hurrying across and (if one peers closely) a castle on an island and little rowing boats and a landings stage.  It was painted about 1435-7.  The view is now famous as one of the earliest examples of landscape painting.  The Bedford Master must have admired it too, perhaps in Rolin's house where the original was probably kept until it was bequeathed to the church at Autun.  The same landscape was copied almost exactly, even to the little boats and the bends in the river, into the backgrounds of several miniatures from the circle of the Bedford Master such as the former Marquess of Bute MS. 93, fol. 105r, and the mid-fifteenth century Hours of Jean Dunois in the British Library (Yates Thompson MS 3, fol. 162r).  It was adapted slightly for Bedford miniatures such as Malibu, J. Paul Getty Museum, MS. Ludwig IX.6, fol. 100r, where the fortified bridge has contracted into part of a castle.  Nicolas Rolin has been transmogrified into David in penance.  In this case, one can assume that Jan Van Eyck had invented the design, unless, of course, he was consciously copying a Bedford Master Book of Hours and was depicting Rolin as penitent.  The scene gets gradually transformed in other manuscripts into the usual view from the palace of King David in the miniature to illustrate the Penitential Psalms in northern France and then in Flanders.  The battlements stay on but the river becomes a lake and then a courtyard (still with little people hurrying to and fro) in the Ghent/Bruges Books of Hours of the sixteenth century.  The Bedford Master's sketch of a detail in a portrait that interested him was transformed remarkably, over a hundred years, as one illuminator after another duplicated and adapted the original pattern.'
The circle of the Bedford Master, Idleness in the Penitential Psalms, mid 15th century

I have found online one of the examples quoted above, the British Library MS, but cannot find images of the others (they are in private collections).  I will end here instead with another painting, less closely copied but still clearly inspired by Van Eyck.  This is Rogier van Der Weyden's wonderful Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, painted just a few years later in around 1440.  The original is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and would be one of the first things I'd head for if I ever get to go there (I can't write this without thinking of Jonathan Richman's song 'Girlfriend'...)  But there are three other versions of it, in Bruges, Munich and St Petersburg.  The figures looking out over the landscape, it's been suggested, refer to the paragone debate, drawing our attention to the ability of painting to convey a vista like this, in a way that sculpture, the art of three dimensions, cannot.  It is as if they are admiring the artistry of Van der Weyden in creating the world they themselves inhabit.  In Van Eyck's painting, the figure looking over the parapet on the right may be the artist himself - the man in the National Gallery's possible-self-portrait is wearing a similar red turban.  In the British Library MS. there is only one man gazing onto the landscape; the second is riding along on a donkey, the personification of idleness with his head in his hand.  But both are wearing versions of Van Eyck's red turban.  

Rogier van Der Weyden, Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, c. 1440
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Streams, falling from the heights

'Cliffs stand on both sides like parallel walls.  Here it is so narrow, so very narrow, writes one traveller, that one not only sees but actually feels the narrowness, it seems.  A patch of blue sky appears like a ribbon above one's head.  Streams, falling from the heights of the mountains in thin spurts of spray, reminded me of The Abduction of Ganymede, that strange painting by Rembrandt.  Moreover, the pass is illuminated entirely in his taste.  In some places the Terek is eroding the very feet of the cliffs, and rocks are piled high on the road, like a dam.  Not far from the post a small bridge has been boldly thrown across the river.  Standing on it is like being on a mill.  The whole bridge shakes, while the Terek roars, producing a sound like wheels driving a millstone.'
- Alexander Pushkin, A Journey to Azrum at the Time of the 1829 Campaign, trans. Ronald Wilks
This description of Sublime scenery can be found in the Penguin edition of Tales of Belkin and Other Prose Writings, a book I recall really enjoying when it came out in 1998.  I always seem to be drawn to Russian literature as winter closes in (this month I've been reading Vladimir Nabokov and Svetlana Alexievich); the freezing wind yesterday felt like it had come straight off the Siberian steppes.  John Bayley wrote in his introduction that A Journey to Azrum, a valuable fragment of Pushkin's autobiographical writing, had hitherto been 'impossible to find in translation.'  In five short chapters, Pushkin describes his journey south with the Russian army, who were fighting Turkey at the time.  He was not officially allowed to travel beyond Tiflis but ignored this, much to the annoyance of the Tsar.

Rufin Sudkovsky, Darial Gorge, 1884
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Darial Gorge, which Pushkin describes in his book, is a key site in Russian Romanticism.  In Lermontov's poem 'Demon', the River Terek is compared to a roaring lioness, heard by all the mountains beasts and 'eagles in the azure heights.'  This valley, with its mists and menacing crags, is contrasted with the beautiful fertile plain where the Demon first lays eyes on the Georgian princess, Tamara.  Such contrasts were fundamental to Romantic appreciation of nature and had been theorised with reference to great art, so that travellers in search of the picturesque could relate what they saw to, for example, Salvator Rosa (the Sublime) or Claude Lorrain (the Beautiful).  This habit had became the subject of satire by the end of the eighteenth century and Pushkin was clearly aware of it when he refers to Rembrandt.  If you were unfamiliar with Rembrandt's The Abduction of Ganymede, you might think Pushkin was writing in all sincerity of a heroic landscape painting, one in which Zeus, the eagle, swoops on Ganymede from the azure heights, past cliffs and waterfalls.  Instead, well, one can only say that Pushkin, with typical light-heartedness, was taking the piss. 
Rembrandt, The Abduction of Ganymede, 1635
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Friday, December 01, 2017

Withert vines, auld trees, derknin crows

I bought this book at the recent Small Publishers Fair: a selection of classical Chinese verse translated into Scots, with English versions provided as well to help non-Scots speakers.  It was hard to resist this purchase once I had read on the back of it W. N. Herbert's description of the way China's great writers appear in Brian Holton's Scots.  'His roistering Li Bai comes with more than a hint of Burns, while his Qiao Ji seems as rooted in landscape as Hogg is in Holton's beloved Borders.  The oldest named Chinese poet, Qu Yuan, comes across here as one of the aureate makars, Dunbar or Douglas, crossed with something of the shaman.  But it is with the subtle master Du Fu that a deep authentic note of melancholy emerges.'  Here is the first stanza of one of those Qiao Ji poems 'rooted in landscape'.  It is on the theme of scholarly retreat - 'Contented in Idleness', or, in Holton's Scots, 'Fine in Idleset':

Awa in the hills, ablow the wuids
there's a theikit shed wi rashie windaes,
bieldit, lown an bonnie;
green bamboo, emerant pines -
it's fair a pictur.

Reading this book made me wonder whether there is Chinese poetry translated into Welsh, Gaelic, Cornish...  Holton writes that he is currently the only Chinese-Scots translator and would welcome some company.  However, on the St. Andrews University website I came across a cross-cultural translation project that also involved making Scots versions of old Chinese poems.  The participants came up with a version of 'Autumn Thoughts', the most famous short poem by Ma Zhiyuan (c. 1250–1321), a contemporary of Qiao Ji who lived in what is now Beijing.  I have included their translation and a video clip below. 

An auld sauch, an corbies in the mirk
that haps the burn, the brig, the loan,
traivelled by a shilpit cuddie, gaun
efter the sun that fa's intae the dark
further and further fae hame.

Ma Zhiyuan is a true poet of autumn - his best known play, 'Autumn in the Han Palace', expresses the emperor's sorrow through autumnal imagery.  His poem 'Autumn Thoughts' is a condensed landscape in nine parts - withered vines, old trees, twilight crows, a small bridge, flowing water, people's homes, an ancient road, the west wind and a gaunt horse.  These are followed by an image of the sun sinking, and of a broken-hearted figure on a distant horizon.  Brian Holton includes some of Ma Zhiyuan's autumn poetry in Staunin Ma Lane.  His version of 'Autumn Thoughts' has each element on a line by itself: 'withert vines / auld trees / derknin crows...'  Then the 'gloamin sun / gaun westlins doun' and the man stands alone. 'Hairt sair, hairt sair / she's hauf the warld awa.'

Friday, November 24, 2017

Shy Sculptures

Rachel Whiteread, Chicken Shed, 2017

This post can be read as a sequel to one I wrote nine years ago on Rachel Whiteread's move to making art for the landscape.  In 'Ebbsfleet Landmark' I described her proposal for a monumental sculpture, which would have taken the form of the cast of a house on a mountain of recycled rubble (the winning proposal by Mark Wallinger was never built).  In a postscript I referred to one of her 'Shy Sculptures', casts of sheds and similar structures, the latest of which has been installed in front of Tate Britain as part of their excellent retrospective exhibition.  Last week I went to a talk at the gallery which covered her entire career but touched briefly on these recent works.  She told us that she sees the 'Shy Sculptures' now as an ongoing lifelong project, already encompassing works in Norway, Norfolk and the California desert.  She made a direct comparison with Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty and Walter De Maria's Lightning Field, saying she'd like it if people tried to seek them out, travelling to remote locations like those cultural tourists who head for the American West to experience first-hand the foundational works of land art.

 Rachel Whiteread, Shack, 2016
Tate wall display - photography permitted

Whiteread has described sheds as beautiful things with their own poetry, “they are furniture for people to dream away their lives in.”  Sheds and cabins have fascinated contemporary artists, from Cornelia Parker to Tracey Emin, and they have a long cultural history.  I have often referred here to similar modest structures out in the landscape -  studios, retreats, hermitages. The 'Shy Sculptures' Whiteread made in California preserve the negative space of two 1950s cabins that were abandoned in the desert.  They took five years to make and were commissioned by Jerry Sohn, who is creating a collection of site-specific art that also includes works by Lawrence Weiner and Richard Long.  Whiteread described them in her talk as 'shotgun shacks' which (at least to a British listener, less used to the term) instantly brought to mind Talking Heads' song Once in a Lifetime.  David Byrne's lyrics, like Rachel Whiteread's sculptures, refer to transience and timelessness.

In interviews Whiteread has said she dislikes 'plop art', 'making things and just putting them in places for the sake of it.'  Her 'Shy Sculptures' have to be in the right locations.  It would be interesting to know more about how she thinks they affect the surrounding landscape.  Presumably they will be left to slowly weather into their locations, unlike House, which was bulldozed in 1994.  At the Tate, Whiteread talked again about the huge controversy surrounding House, as well as her bureaucratic struggles over the Vienna holocaust memorial (she is returning to the city this month for the first time since it was finally installed).  I now live in a property rather like House and wish it was still there to visit.  It prompted the best thing I've read by Iain Sinclair, his essay 'The House in the Park: A Psychogeographical Response'.  The villain of this piece, Lib Dem councillor Eric Flounders, reemerged briefly from obscurity ten years later in a Guardian story about the launch party for Cunard's QM2 (where Jimmy Savile 'was sporting an NHS swipe card in the name of Al Pacino alongside his gongs.').  I doubt that Flounders has any regrets.  Rachel Whiteread said she might consider doing another whole-house cast, but it would be pointless to try to recreate House.  Once in a lifetime...

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The stiff-feathered pines shed their darkness

Six years ago I wrote about The Peregrine (1967) and its elusive author, J. A. Baker.  I was prompted in part by the airing of a radio play about him, written by Helen MacDonald.  The book she subsequently published, H is for Hawk, contrasts T. H. White's The Goshawk (1951) with Baker's bleaker vision, his 'awful desire for death' disguised as an elegy for the peregrine.  I also referred to a new edition of Baker's complete works, edited by John Fanshawe, which included the diaries used as source material for The Peregrine.  Fanshawe has been chiefly responsible for assembling the Baker archive at Essex University and in Robert Macfarlane's recent book, Landmarks, he describes the experience of encountering this collection of notebooks, manuscripts, annotated maps and binoculars.  One more thing I mentioned in that earlier post, an album by Lawrence English, is described in an appreciation of Baker, written earlier this year by Robert Macfarlane to mark the fiftieth anniversary of The Peregrine.  Apparently, English sent a copy of The Peregrine to Werner Herzog, who was gripped by it:
'Herzog describes The Peregrine as inducing “ecstasy” in the radical sense of the word: not just entranced or frenzied, but literally beside oneself. There are moments, he notes, “where you can tell that [Baker] has completely entered into the existence of a falcon. And this is what I do when I make a film: I step outside of myself into an ekstasis; in Greek, to step outside of your own body.”  ... The puzzle to me, for years, was why Herzog had not yet filmed The Peregrine. In 2015, I wrote to ask if he was planning to do so. “If anyone can, it should be you,” I said. I sent him a photograph of my local peregrine perched on a church spire, part-gargoyle. Herzog replied within a few hours, generous about my own writing on Baker, but adamant about the book’s adaptability: “A feature film would be very wrong. There are texts that should never be touched. Georg Büchner’s Lenz is one of these cases. In fact, whoever tries to make a feature film of The Peregrine should be shot without trial.”
This story got retold at an LRB Bookshop event last Wednesday.  The event was compèred by the sans pareil Gareth Evans and featured John Fanshawe, Robert Macfarlane and his former student, Hetty Saunders, who got inspired by Baker after taking a course on post-pastoral literature.  She has catalogued the Baker archive and written a fascinating short biography based on what can be gleaned from it.  This book, My House of Sky, includes an evocative selection of archive photographs that take you directly into Baker's world (these pages, incidentally, reminded me of Nick Drake: Remembered for a While, which also reproduced archival material on another intriguing cult figure from the late sixties).  Here is just one example of these pages, a bird watching diary from 1955, the year after J. A. Baker first saw a peregrine falcon.

The archive features a set of photographs that were taken of J. A. Baker's bookshelves.  Only one is included in the biography, along with a brief list of authors he is known to have read (J. G. Ballard is mentioned, but no specific titles).  However, the archive refers to a catalogue John Fanshawe made from the photographs and this can be found online at the Essex University Special Collections website.  His spreadsheet has gaps - for example, he lists as a blank what looks to me, from the indistinct image in My House of Sky, to be the spine of Arthur C. Clarke's Four Great SF Novels (I'm not certain of this identification, but I did spend my youth hunting for SF novels rather than goshawks and peregrines...)  The Ballard books are in the spreadsheet, although not all are named; there were quite a few, from The Drowned World through Crash to Empire of the Sun.  However, aside from these there aren't any startling titles that stand out and the collection is largely as you would expect.  I was slightly surprised in the LRB Bookshop talk when Robert Macfarlane likened Baker to H.D and the Objectivists - there's no evidence in this list of him reading these or any other post-Poundian poets.

My House of Sky also includes photographs of the annotations Baker made to proof-copies of his books, returning to them after they were published to study the effectiveness of his prose.  There are two pages from The Hill of Summer (the less-successful second and final book that he published), showing where he marked metaphors and similes and counted up the verbs and adjectives.  As these are landscape descriptions, it seems fitting to conclude a post on this blog with an example.  Here is the first paragraph of 'May: the Pine Wood', showing Baker's 'M's, 'S's and underlinings.
'The pine wood hides the sun, like a dark northernS god rising in menaceM above the white road that falls steeply to the west, and the small green hills beyond are recedingM into a grey autumnal haze.  The high town silvers in sunlight, and its sky is barbed with curvingM swifts.  But already the night's simplicity is settling uponM the valley.  Under the exoticM flowering of the early lights, a blue Venetian duskM laps at the windows of the shadowed houses.  As I watch, the high townM is extinguished, and its shiningM sky ascends.  The stiff-featheredM pines shed their darkness into the still air.'

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Clouds Rising from the Green Sea

Clouds Rising from the Green Sea

Ten Thousand Riplets on the Yangzi

The Waving Surface of the Autumn Flood

These beautiful images are from the Water Album, twelve studies made by the great Southern Song  painter Ma Yuan (c. 1160–65 – 1225).  They have always been admired and were adorned with admiring colophons by various Ming Dynasty connoisseurs from the late fifteenth century.  They were recently 're-made' by an artist, Zhang Hongtu, whose paintings question whether Ma Yuan would have been able to paint such views now, standing 'before today's rivers and lakes, fouled by chemical toxins and industrial waste.'  As Richard Edwards points out in The Heart of Ma Yuan: The Search for a Southern Song Aesthetic, Ma Yuan's calligraphic depictions of water are all based on a contradiction - lines alone are used to convey an ever changing, constantly moving element that seems impossible to describe in this way.  The titles of each one were added to the album by Empress Yang and dated 1222.  Edwards lists them in his book in a slightly different translation from the one used online for these images, but both sound good.  In sequence they resemble a poem on the properties of water as it forms pools and lakes, passes through rivers and enters the 'vast blue sea'.

Waves Weave Winds of Gold
Light Breeze over Lake Dongting
Layers of Waves, Towering Breakers
Winter Pool, Clear and Shoal
The Yangzi River - Boundless Expanse
The Yellow River - Churning Currents
Autumn Waters - Waves Ever Returning
Clouds Born of the Vast Blue Sea
Lake Glow, Rain Suffused
Clouds Unfurling, A Wave Breaking
A Rising Sun Warms the Mountains
Gossamer Waves - Drifting, Drifting

The Yellow River Breaches its Course

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich

Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament Sunlight Effect (Le Parlement effet de soleil), 1903

Tate Britain's new exhibition, Impressionists in London, has been criticised as misleading, including non-Impressionist French artists who were working in England at the same time.  Jonathan Jones called it 'a desiccated seminar in third-rate history', 'the worst show about the impressionists I have ever seen.'  Suitably forewarned, I nonetheless came away from this show feeling it was well worth a visit.  There are four whole rooms devoted to impressionist landscape paintings of London and its suburbs, including Monet's marvellous Thames Series.  And Londoners at least will find the scenes painted by Tissot and 'the mediocrities Alphonse Legros and Jules Dalou' of at least passing interest for what they show of the city and its history.  Jones concludes his review grudgingly admitting it is worth buying a ticket, if only to see the 'artist who does shine through this pea souper', Camille Pissarro.  Whilst it seems perverse not to consider the Monets the highlight of the show (Leicester Square at Night is astonishing), the works of Pissarro on display are indeed fascinating.  Here I'll focus briefly on one of them, Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich.

Camille Pissarro, Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich, 1871

I discussed Pissarro here only recently, referring to his early landscape paintings in the Dutch West Indies and Venezuela.  Perhaps it's the name, but Dulwich sounds a lot less exotic.  It is very familiar to me from all the train trips I've made down to the Dulwich Picture Gallery.  Pissarro also painted views nearby, around Norwood and Sydenham, south London suburbs that had only recently been Surrey villages.  Many of these locations have barely changed since - the huge wave of late nineteenth century housebuilding left London with the streets we live in today.  My own home, where I'm writing this, is part of a terrace built in 1871-3, so would have been under construction when Pissarro was in England.  There are still train stations in Dulwich but not this one: Lordship Lane Station closed in 1954 (it had been heavily damaged in the Blitz).  In this painting it is only six years old and the railway looks freshly cut into green countryside.  The train heads towards us like the black engine in Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844), its smoke polluting the pale sky.  But it looks rather insignificant and unthreatening, as if what had seemed extraordinary to Turner was now merely commonplace.

A few years ago Michael Glover wrote an article in The Independent's 'Great Works' series devoted to this painting.  Here is how he sums up the appeal of this modest but moving landscape. 
'The painting itself is rooted in its own sense of its ordinariness. No part of it is more important than any other part. It is a masterful act of casual deployment of unmatched skills. It is also a beautifully muted painting tonally, which perfectly seizes a certain kind of slightly melancholy, drizzle-blighted English atmosphere – muffled, slightly dingy, damp-feeling greens give way to rusty browns, greys. Everything feels a little like a part of everything else. It all feels and looks so unshocking, so anti-picturesque in the solidity of its there-ness, you might say ... It feels terribly truthful in the way that the ever onward, undemonstrative drabness of life is truthful.'

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Dresden in Ruins


Earlier today I was looking at these images while listening on headphones to a recording the BBC reporter Wynford Vaughan Thomas made during an air raid on Berlin.  His voice was clear over what he described as the constant noise of the Lancaster bomber's engines, though his oxygen mask made speaking difficult.  These masks "reduced to uniformity" the individuals in the crew, men like the plane's bomber who before the war had been "a Sussex farmer".  As I listened, I imagined "the enemy coastline" looking something like the first of these two ambiguous images.  Then I began to see them as clouds the aircraft passed through as it approached the city.  Once the attack began, they came to resemble explosions of flack surrounding the bomber as it dodged the German searchlights.  Finally I thought of the dust, smoke and debris that would be left behind by the bombing mission.  These two drawings, chalk on slate, are by Tacita Dean and were specially made for this exhibition, Melancholia: A Sebald Variation.  The recording of the air raid is described in W. G. Sebald's book, On the Natural History of Destruction.

For me, one of the highlights of this small show was being able to see a selection of photographs from the W. G. Sebald archive in Marbach.  In addition to the two examples above, there were images of Vesuvius erupting, a man on a bicycle, a rocking horse, a young girl, a prosthetic leg, an isolated building and a group of people attending to something we cannot see.  Some of Sebald's photographs are reproduced in the small catalogue you can pick up for free (see below).  In another room there were photographs of the ruins of Dresden and a vitrine containing books on the Allied bombings, including Der Untergang by Hans Erich Nossack which Sebald particularly praised in his 'Air War and Literature'.  Two of Wilhelm Rudolph's ink drawings from the series 'Dresden in Ruins' looked at first glance like sixteenth century prints.  You come to them immediately after looking at the etching that gives this exhibition its title, Albrecht Dürer's Melancholia (1514).

In addition to Tacita Dean's drawings, there were works by other contemporary artists I have discussed on this blog before: Anselm Kiefer, Susan Hiller, Dexter Dallwood, George Shaw.  After seeing these - all of which I thought well chosen - I pushed open a Sebaldian black velvet curtain to watch a video work by Guido Van der Werve.  I was instantly confronted with the sight of a man on fire, running past an orchestra and into a canal; this was followed by a sequence in which a dark figure (the same man?) swam purposefully down various rivers for reasons that were a mystery.  I was just thinking how effective this was when the figure got out of the water and onto a bike (see below).  It transpired that he was doing an epic triathlon across Europe, which seemed a disappointingly unSebaldian pursuit, even if it did involve carrying some soil from the Polish church where Chopin's heart is buried.  I left him to it and returned through the curtain.  Before leaving, I spent a few minutes watching footage of Sebald himself, in an interview with Susan Sontag filmed two months before his death.  Then I headed out, back past the images of ruin and Dürer's Melancholia.  'For Sebald,' the curators write, 'melancholy was the only possible response to the brutality of the past.'  


Thursday, October 26, 2017


I recently came across a piece in the Yorkshire Post about the poet, John Wedgwood Clarke, whose book Landfill is the fruit of his year as a poet-in-residence at two Yorkshire rubbish dumps. “At Rufforth", he says, "it felt like I’d landed on the moon of waste. I bounced along in the car over marshy fields of nappies and chicken carcasses and plastic water bottles. They’d had to fire off rockets to clear the gulls before we could step outside.”  Reading his interview reminded me of Mierle Laderman Ukeles, the doyenne of landfill artists, who had a retrospective at the Queens Museum in New York earlier this year. Ukeles has been the artist-in-residence at New York City’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) since 1978.  There is a comprehensive article about this exhibition at Hyperallergic with many photographs of her work.  I'll quote here one paragraph from this review, concerning a relatively recent project that relates to landscape change. 
'The Queens Museum atrium is devoted to the artist’s work on Fresh Kills, a massive Staten Island landfill that’s currently undergoing a 30-year process of being transformed into a park, as well as two other, smaller landfills. [...]  “How does a place switch its meaning and become something else?” she writes in a 2001 proposal. To her, Fresh Kills is “a true social sculpture composed of 150 million tons from literally billions of individual decisions and acts of rejection.” Early on she envisioned a series of projects in which members of the public would donate objects they considered valuable for embedding in soil at the site. That proposal gave way to another one, since approved, that she’s been working on since 2008: “Landing,” an overlook positioned between two earthworks in Fresh Kills’ South Park. The model and structural drawings for the project are a bit cryptic, but what’s crucial is the sense of transformation they convey. As it turns out, maintaining and caring for the earth offer all sorts of possibilities for developing the world anew.'
Image of the future Freshkills Park
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In her essay 'Trash: Public Art by the Garbage Girls' (2000), Jo Anna Isaak noted that 'landfills seem to be the oeuvre of choice for a number of women artists.'  She discussed the work of Ukeles alongside Agnes Denes' Tree Mountain (considered in two of my earlier posts here and here) and Nancy Holt's New Jersey Landfill Project.  You can read about Holt's original proposal at the New York Times site, in an article from 1986 (her Sky Mound remains only partially completed).  Isaak quoted Holt's view that landfills would come to be seen as a distinctly late twentieth century version of a distinctive human structure that has a long and varied history, the rubbish dump.  Other more recent examples of women transforming landfill sites and garbage dumps include Jean Shin's sculptural installation at Seattle's North Transfer Station and Martha McDonald's song tour of a construction-waste recycling facility in Northeast Philadelphia.

In North America at least, it seems as if any self-respecting landfill site now has an artist-in-residence.  There's probably still time to apply for the scheme that was advertised last month for an artist to work at the waste management centre in Edmonton.  The best place to be a landfill artist may well be San Francisco, where 150 artists have now been through the Artist in Residence programme at Recology, the San Francisco Transfer Station and Recycling Center.  Clearly the aim of many of these artists is to recycle and transform the rubbish collected in these sites, as much as it is to comment on excessive consumption and environmental degradation.  Musicians too can adapt a landfill site to new ends, working with the materials on hand - Paraguay's Recycled Orchestra have received quite a lot of global attention and were the subject of a documentary, Landfill Harmonic (see clip below).  Writers have only their own words, but they can still change attitudes.  It remains to be seen whether John Wedgwood Clarke represents the beginning of a new trend for landfill poets.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Red Cliff

Unidentified artist in the style of Sheng Mou, 
Fan painting illustrating Su Shi's 'Second Ode on the Red Cliff', 
late 14th/early 15th century 
Source: The Met, public domain

Earlier this year I wrote about the Battle of Red Cliff, focusing on landscape in the poetry of Cao Cao, the warlord whose army was defeated there by the combined forces of Sun Quan and Liu Bei.  The battle's most famous literary retelling is in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of China (I discussed one of the others, Dream of the Red Chamber, here five years ago).  There is no dwelling on natural scenery in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms - the focus is entirely on the action, one of hundreds of battles in this vast novel covering an extraordinarily turbulent historical period.  But The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is only one lens through which the conflict has been remembered, as you can see in A Thousand, Thousand Churning Waves - The Legendary Red Cliff Heritage, an online exhibition at the Taiwan National Palace Museum.  Here I want to focus on the influence of Su Shi's two Red Cliff Odes, written in 1082, three centuries before The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  These two poems have themselves been the inspiration for artworks in many forms; I mentioned one - a stone seal - 1,002 posts ago, and have included some others here: a fan, a vase, a scroll, a plate and another stone seal.

 Square form vase decorated with Su Shi's Odes on the Red Cliff, c. 1662–1722
Source: The Met, public domain 

The two 'Odes' Su Shi wrote were in the wen fu form - fu were prose poems, and the wen fu was more prose than poem.  Burton Watson includes translations in his wonderful Selected Poems of Su Tung-p'o (Tung p'o means Eastern Slope and was the literary pseudonym Su assumed after building a residence on a Huangzhou hillside in 1081, thus incorporating a landscape feature into his actual name).  I will summarise the two poems here, with the knowledge that this can't really do them justice - they are very beautiful even in translation, so it does not seem surprising that they have been so admired in China over the last thousand years.  Just one thing to note though: the landscape that so moved Su Shi was not really the place where Cao Cao's forces were defeated in 208 CE (the precise location is still disputed).  As Burton Watson writes, 'because of its fame, many other spots on the Yangtze came to be called Red Cliff; the one where the poet and his friends are the spending the evening is not the actual site of the battle but considerably farther down the river.'

 Zhao Mengfu, The First Red Cliff Ode of Su Shi and His Portrait, 1301
Source: Wikimedia Commons 

The First Ode.
On an autumn night, Su Shi and some friends ventured out in a small boat to the foot of Red Cliff, drinking wine and admiring the moon.  'White dew settled over the river, and its shining surface reached to the sky.  Letting the boat go where it pleased, we drifted over the immeasurable fields of water.'  Inspired by the wine and the scenery Su composed a song while one of his friends played mournful notes on the flute.  They remembered the poem Cao Cao composed (see my earlier post) and his vast army on the river, 'yet where is he now?'  Su Shi suggested that they should take comfort in the changelessness of things - the river water never ceases to flow and the moon always rises.  Realising they had nothing left to eat, the friends lay down in the boat to sleep, 'unaware that the east was already growing light'.

Silver plate showing a scene from the First Ode, 13th century
Source: Minneapolis Institute of Art, public domain 

The Second Ode.
Later that autumn, with the trees bare and frost on the ground, Su Shi was joined at his home by two guests.  They decided to make another trip to Red Cliff but when they got there Su realised the landscape had changed.  'The river raced along noisily, its sheer banks rising a thousand feet.  The mountains were very high, the moon small.  The level of the water had fallen, leaving boulders sticking out.'  Su begun to climb the embankment, leaving his friends trailing behind.  At the summit he gave a shrill whoop and the trees and grass swayed.  A wind suddenly rose and he felt a chill of fear.  He returned to his friends and they got back into the boat, letting it drift on the water.  A single crane flew in from the east, swooping low over the boat.  That night, back at home, Su dreamed that a Daoist immortal in a feather robe came to him and asked whether he had enjoyed his outing to Red Cliff.  Su recognised him as the crane.  The immortal just turned and laughed and when Su woke up, he was gone.

Tianhuang Seal showing Su Shi beneath Red Cliff, first half of the 19th century
Source: The Brooklyn Museum, public domain 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The ghats at Haridwar

Sita Ram, The Firoz Shah Minar at Gaur and a Palash tree, 1817

This watercolour is owned by the British Library and is one of several reproduced in a fascinating blog post by J. P. Losty, 'The rediscovery of an unknown Indian artist: Sita Ram's work for the Marquess of Hastings'.  The work of Sita Ram first attracted attention when some paintings of his were sold in 1974, with no real clue as to who he was or who had commissioned them.  From these and a few subsequent discoveries, scholars knew that he must have been working in Calcutta around 1810-15.  It was only in 1995 that his identity was pinned down (see India Today, 'An unknown painter of great talent emerges from the past').  This was when, as Losty writes, the BL was offered
'part of the collection of albums of drawings formed in India by the Marquess of Hastings, the Governor-General of Bengal 1813-23. The ten albums by Sita Ram illustrate Lord and Lady Hastings’ journey from Calcutta to Delhi and back in 1814-15. There were in all 25 albums of drawings in the collection, by Indian, Chinese and British artists. They had been for the last 150 years in the collection of the Marquis of Bute in Scotland, and indeed hitherto unknown and unsuspected.' 
This sort of story always makes you wonder what might still be buried in the homes of our aristocratic families.  I can find no comment from the current Marquess on this discovery; I see from Wikipedia that he is a former racing driver who actually made the Lotus Formula 1 team in 1986.  Sita Ram's paintings are now accesible to all and can be viewed in a handsome-looking book written by Losty for Thames & Hudson, which includes edited highlights of Lord Hastings' journal.

Sita Ram, The ghats at Haridwar, 1814-15

The watercolour above is one of the views Sita Ram painted on the Hastings' journey, showing the the holy city of Haridwar.  The entire seventeen-month trip took the Hastings from Calcutta to the Punjab and back, accompanied by officials, bodyguards and an army battalion.  When they left in 1814 they needed 220 boats.  After they got back, in October 2015, Sita Ram continued to work for Hastings in India. 
'Another two albums of drawings also by Sita Ram contain views in Bengal taken on subsequent tours, one during a sporting expedition to northern Bengal in 1817, and the other during a convalescent tour in the Rajmahal Hills in 1820-21. Sita Ram has matured even more as an artist by then and they contain some of his most beautiful works. With Hastings’ departure from India in 1823, however, Sita Ram disappears from the record and no further work is known from his hand.'

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Luxuriant Forest among Distant Peaks

Li Ch'eng, A Solitary Temple amid Clearing Peaks, Sung Dynasty

In Michael Sullivan's history of Chinese landscape painting, Symbols of Eternity, he describes the predicament of one of the great painters of the early Sung Dynasty.
'Li Ch'eng - unsuccessful aspirant to office, gentleman, poet, recluse - came of a family of Confucian scholars that had gone down in the world.  One wonders what he lived on.  To a persistent patron, owner of a fashionable restaurant in the capital, he is said to have written: "Since antiquity the four social classes have not mixed.  I am a Confucian scholar, and although I paint, I do it only for my own pleasure.  Why should I submit to being a retainer in a great household who grinds and licks his colours and is classed with the hua shih [i.e. men who hold office by virtue of their skill as painters] and other such riffraff?"  Yet he had to live, and did not consider it beneath him to exhibit his paintings in that same restaurant, which the emperor himself patronised.  Li Ch'eng's son and grandson were rather ashamed of him, for in spite of his disclaimer, he was a professional by necessity.  This was a predicament that was to face more and more artists of the scholar class, and the most delicate and indirect ways had to be found to reward them for their work without causing them to lose face as amateurs and gentlemen.'
I wonder how Li thought about that restaurant and its diners.  Mark Rothko apparently said of his murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, "anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine." 

 Li Ch'eng, Luxuriant Forest among Distant Peaks (detail), Sung Dynasty

Detail of that detail

The paintings here are both attributed to Li - possibly painted by his followers but probably no later than the tenth century.  Attribution of early Chinese paintings is always tricky - there is a story that Mi Fu (1051-1107), who lived only a century after Li Ch'eng (919-67), could locate only two genuine scrolls painted by Li and wondered if in fact any really existed.  Recently the art historian James Cahill caused controversy by suggesting some paintings from this period were twentieth century forgeries.  He thought Li's Reading the Memorial Stele, now in Osaka, was a copy, but valuable nonetheless.  I wrote about that painting here four years ago, after seeing it in an exhibition in London.  The warlord depicted in it trying to decipher the memorial stone, Cao Cao, was the subject of another Some Landscapes post earlier this year.

Here is one more quote concerning Li Ch'eng - Richard M. Barnhart's description of A Solitary Temple amid Clearing Peaks and Luxuriant Forest among Distant Peaks (in an essay in Yale's Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting).  He sees them as wonderfully detailed alternative worlds to escape into, but also models of the new Chinese state.
'Li Ch'eng's works contain rich human and architectural details - temples, villages, bridges, pagodas, wine shops, pavilions and pathways - and constitute deep miniature realms of imaginative construction, dream worlds that one is invited to enter like tray landscapes, or penzai (bonsai in Japanese).  Their compositional structure, however, is the very structure of the new empire of Sung, with the Son of Heaven represented in the dominant central peak, his ministers and associates in the supportive ranges and hills around the central peak, and the entire vast structure as ordered, clear and infinite as the great empire of China itself.  There is no dust or dirt, no violence or disorder, nature is placid and benevolent, controlled by the power and wisdom of the enlightened ruler who has brought humanity to this lofty condition through wise interaction with Heaven.'

Saturday, October 07, 2017


I was pleased that Caught by the River made Frozen Air their Book of the Month, although they have now sneaked in a second one - The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris - a book it's been impossible to avoid this week, with coverage everywhere from the reviews pages to the Today programme.  There was a typically rich and thought-provoking essay by Robert Macfarlane on children, nature and reading in The Guardian, and I am tempted to set down my own reflections here, but they would be based on nothing more than personal experiences as a child and parent.

For fans of Macfarlane, The Lost Words will fill a gap while he completes Underland, a book that sounds from scattered interviews to be increasingly ambitious in scope.  Whatever it covers, it is certain to delight in language and the physical challenges of exploring a landscape.  In The Telegraph, two years ago, he described exploring the River Timavo which flows through the karst region of Slovenia and northern Italy. “I descended a 100ft doline, a sort of narrow, eroded vertical channel, with a 70-year-old Italian man called Sergio, who smoked a briarwood pipe all the way down. That was one of the most extreme places I have ever been: a great black river roaring out of a cave mouth on one side and disappearing down a rabbit hole on the other, and the sense of the earth’s surface above us.”

Alojzij Schaffenrath,  Postojna: view of the Great Cave, c. 1821

'The right names, well used, can act as portals.'  A doline is the name for a portal to the underland, and there are others too on the karstic plateau: foiba (a deep inverted funnel), abîme (a vertical shaft) uvala (a collection of sinkholes).  My only experience of descending into this world was on a family holiday to Yugoslavia, when we visited the spectacular Postojna cave system in Slovenia.  It felt as if I had suddenly entered the marvellous subterranean settings of my recent childhood reading: The Silver Chair, The Hobbit, Journey to the Centre of the Earth.  I can still recall the soundscape too - a a strange babel of amplified sound as competing tour groups listened to guides in the different languages of Europe.

As can be seen in the image above, tourism at Postojna stretches back to the early nineteenth century.  When Crown Prince Ferdinand visited in 1819, soon after the main caves were opened, he was greeted with a band and singers.  Perhaps the caves would have been too eerie, experienced in dripping silence.  They have subsequently hosted orchestras, jazz bands and even the La Scala chorus.  There is a long tradition of music making in caves and now, it seems, a new trend for concert halls themselves to be built underground.  I have written about caves and music before, so here I will conclude by returning to the surface and highlighting some recent music made in the karst landscape of Slovenia.

For Memoryscapes, the experimental folk trio Širom returned to the regions of Slovenia they grew up in and improvised outdoors, curious to see how the environment would affect what they played.  The film of the project (embedded below) begins with the construction of some bamboo balafons which they carry down into the hollow of the Bukovnik sinkhole.  As they sit under the trees, the camera pans slowly round, catching motes of light and the slight movement of branches in the breeze.  Watching this made me think that taking children into the woods to make and play instruments would be another way to reconnect them with nature.

On Mt Tolminski Migovec, the music is harsher and the surroundings cold and inhospitable.  In a mountain hut they do some more percussion with pots and pans (it looks like this would get annoying pretty quickly, as I know from having heard my own sons try it).  In the final segment, they sit surrounded by a sea of yellow flowers; if the music was as pretty as the visuals it would be too much to take.  The film ends by a watermill, with an insistent rhythmic sound, like hundreds of squeaky gears and cog wheels.  Eventually the music fades and breaks apart, leaving nothing but sunlight on the water.