Friday, March 31, 2017

’T is a most beauteous Strait

Towards the end of his life Henry Wadsworth Longfellow oversaw a 31-volume anthology, arranged geographically, called Poems of Places.  It can be read in its entirety on Bartleby.  The poems begin in England - in Aldborough to be precise, which comes first alphabetically in a list of English places.  Three poems by Crabbe are followed by something by one of the many lesser poets that bulk out the volumes and give the anthology its wide reach: Capel Lofft - lawyer, poet and patron, dismissed by Byron as 'the Maecenas of shoemakers and preface-writer general to distressed versemen' - whose poem begins 'THOU awful sea! upon this shingly beach / Of Aldborough I pace...'  Longfellow's America is not reached until Volumes XXV–XXIX, traversing the country from Maine to White Pine Nevada. 

Inevitably, perusing the contents pages, one is drawn not to the familiar poetic locations but to more far flung locations: back in 1874, what English verse was he able to find on Africa?  This continent is covered in Volume XXIV and the vast majority of its poems concern 'The Barbary States' and Egypt.  There are fewer poems about Central and Southern Africa than there are, earlier in the book, about specific London Streets and Taverns.  However, here are some lines from one of them, written by Thomas Pringle, a Scottish poet and abolitionist, who lived in Cape Town in the early 1820s.  They refer to a South African species, the yellowwood tree (podocarpus elongatus).  The original printing of the poem describes it as a 'Caffer Song' from the 'rocky cleugh of Eland':
DEEP in the forest lies hid a green dell,
Where fresh from the Rock of Elks blue waters swell;
And fast by that fountain a yellow-wood tree,
Which shelters the spot that is dearest to me.
This blog has moved freely between real and imagined landscapes and so it is with Longfellow's anthology.  The volume devoted to 'Oceanica' mostly comprises coral islands, tropical nights and Arctic seas that existed in the imaginations of Victorian writers.  However there are three poems on New Zealand by its fourth Premier (1862-3) Alfred Domett, who had been a friend of Browning before emigrating, and several on Australia by Henry Kendall.  The lines below, describing the coast of Tasmania, were written by John Dunmore Lang, another native Scotsman, who arrived in Sydney in 1823.  The Eden it describes seems as imaginary as the ideal islands dreamt by poets who never left Europe. 
’T is a most beauteous Strait. The Great South Sea’s
  Proud waves keep holiday along its shore,
And as the vessel glides before the breeze,
  Broad bays and isles appear, and steep cliffs hoar
With groves on either hand of ancient trees
  Planted by Nature in the days of yore:
Van Dieman’s on the left and Bruné’s isle
Forming the starboard shore for many a mile.

But all is still as death! Nor voice of man
  Is heard, nor forest warbler’s tuneful song.
It seems as if this beauteous world began
  To be but yesterday...

Sunday, March 26, 2017

A black mountaintop looms out of the slate-grey darkness

Awoiska van der Molen is one of the contenders for this year's Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize.  At the Photographers' Gallery her exhibition of large monochrome silver gelatin prints is on the top floor, after a room devoted to Sophie Calle's moving works on the death of her parents.  These too seem very private works, even though there are no titles or narrative - it is not even clear where the photographs were taken.  These landscapes convey a sense of the artist alone, quietly focusing on the way light was falling on foliage or illuminating the surface of rocks and water.  Sometimes this light is intense: what looks like a ribbon of white road seemingly scratched onto a mountainside or the bright tips of grasses caught by the slanting sun.  Sometimes it is softer, blurring forms, and you can imagine it disappearing altogether at the passing of a cloud.  A view out to sea has almost no light beyond a faint sheen at the horizon.   There are shadows too, but walking up close to the photographs you realise their resolution is too grainy to allow you to into into these dark places.   

The video interview with Awoiska van der Molen that I have embedded above begins (rather disappointingly from the perspective of this blog) with her admission "I am not interested in landscape".  She says that the landscapes she visits are places to escape to and find solace, a sense of safety.  Thus the pictures try to convey her feelings in the landscape rather than the landscape itself.  Sean O'Hagan has described her in The Guardian as 'a photographer that is infinitely patient, and interested in the stubborn core of things.'  He explains how she took the arresting image of a dark mountain (the photograph can be seen 45 seconds into the video above).  'In one of my favourite shots, a black mountaintop looms out of the slate-grey darkness, two wavy white lines flowing from the peak like moonlit streams. Astonishingly, these are light trails made by two groups of nocturnal hikers, which she managed to capture from a distance thanks to long exposure. You do not need to know this to appreciate its haunting beauty, but it alerts us to the delicacy of her transformative art.'

What I have briefly tried to convey here about Awoiska van der Molen's work is summarised in an essay by Arjen Mulder, published in the new monograph Blanco
'These are not photos of or after Nature, the photos are part of that same Nature, of an event enabled by Nature via her camera at that particular point in time and that particular exposure. As dusk falls, the thought takes shape in the landscape and the camera is part of this, replicates the scene to turn it into a relationship, a sign in which object and subject conflate, for that which is visualized coincides with what it refers to and who sees it. No symbol, no metaphor, no allegory — Awoiska van der Molen’s photography is so objective that to call it divine would not be an exaggeration. The photographer is utterly absent from her images, which, strangely enough, makes these photos highly personal and intimate, almost painfully so.'

Friday, March 24, 2017

Brick-dust in sunlight

‘Brick-dust in sunlight. That is what I see now in the city, a dry epic flavour, whose air is human breath. A place of walls made straight with plumb line and trowel, to desiccate and crumble in the sun and smoke. Blistered paint on cisterns and girders, cracking to show the priming. Old men spit on the paving slabs, little boys urinate; and the sun dries it as it dries out patches of damp on plaster facings to leave misshapen stains. I look for things here that make old men and dead men seem young. Things which have escaped, the landscapes of many childhoods.’ – Roy Fisher, City, 1961 

Roy Fisher passed away this week.  I thought I would remember him here with three quotations about landscape and place, taken from Interviews Through Time and Selected Prose, a book published by Shearsman in 2000, when Fisher was seventy.  In the first he is talking about City, the short sequence of poems and prose assembled for Gaell Turnbull's Migrant Press.  This drew on his experiences of Birmingham,   
‘… a particular large nondescript undersigned city, which was a deposit of all sorts of inadvertent by-products of ideas.  In many cases the cultural ideas, the economic ideas, had disappeared into the graveyards of people who had the ideas.  But the by-products in things like street layouts, domestic architecture, where the schools were, how anything happened – all these things were left all over the place as a sort of script, an indecipherable script with no key.   And the interesting thing for me was that the culture, particularly the metropolitan culture, the literary culture, had no alphabet to offer for simply talking about what I saw all the time.’
This second quotation gives me an excuse to include a Paul Klee painting and is part of a discussion on how his work is positioned in relation to the poems of place written by Ed Dorn and Charles Olson (I have written about the latter here before). 
‘I’ve been told that I’ve been influenced by Americans. An enormous number of people come to mind, some American, some not. You might just as well, for me, talk about Rilke’s Paris or Kafka’s Prague or the imaginary towns that Paul Klee made up or Kokoschka’s paintings of towns he worked in. […] Fascination with a location – I don’t want to duck out too hard from the American tag here, but it could as well be those little bits you get at the back of Italian primitive paintings, the cities on hilltops, as any sort of possibly theoretical concern with place, such as you get in Olson or Ed Dorn.’
Paul Klee, Castle and Sun, 1928
Public Domain

In this third one, Fisher contrasts his approach to that of a landscape painter.
‘I’m capable of being invaded by visual landscape, though I love visible landscape. […] The poem I write is the portrait of a mind, and the sense of the self, a sense of the world, which is responding to a landscape in such a way that the landscape doesn’t quite have a chance to congeal.  I dramatise.   I deprive the landscape of a painter’s vocabulary, where I’ll say ‘Several miles off, there is a little row of red roofs, and in the middle distance is this and that…’  In a fairly gentle way I’m dramatising the landscape to put dynamic lines in, so that there are certain imperatives – in fact, to energise, to potentiate events it.’
A lot more could be said about Roy Fisher and landscape.  As William Wootton wrote in the Guardian back in 2005,
'Much of Fisher's best work has been a poetry of place, and that place has tended to be the city of his birth. As he puts it in "Six Texts for a Film": "Birmingham's what I think with." In City (1961), whose verse and prose moves from dirty realism and detailed urban description to passages of hypnotic reverie, Birmingham has become an unreal, nameless city. In later works, the places of Birmingham are named almost religiously, as are rather different sites, notably the rural Derbyshire in which Fisher now lives. As one description follows another, a pattern of scenes builds up in the reader's mind, until we get what A Furnace (1985) terms a poetry of "landscape superimposed upon landscape". Individual places, too, can now look like palimpsests. Traces of forgotten fields and rivers are found lurking beneath the city. Vanished towns and industries are discovered in the countryside.'
In News for the Ear: A Homage to Roy Fisher (2000), John Kerrigan asked the poet about his changing attitude to the poetry of place (the interview has been republished in Jacket Magazine).  Fisher had said of City that it was to do with the ‘EFFECTS of topography, the creation of scenic movements, psychological environments, and it’s not meant to be an historical/spatial city entailed to empirical reality.’  Kerrigan put it to him that ‘on the evidence of ‘The Burning Graves at Netherton’ (1981), however, and parts of Birmingham River (1994), you have become more at ease with a ‘poetry of place’ which admits descriptive elements and even paysage moralisé’.  Fisher replied that ‘the landscape has come, with the passage of time and changes in my understanding, to moralise itself under my eye, without any nudging from me. I read it as a record of conduct as well as something subjectively transfigured.’

I will end here with a clip of Roy Fisher, filmed at his Derbyshire home.  He reads 'Birmingham River' (9 minutes in) and then 'For Realism' (1965), with its snapshots of the city: flats on the ridge getting the last light and 'afterimages of brickwork' as windows turning silver in the shadows...

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The wind was bitter from the north

Last night a strong wind rose in the evening.  As it rattled the windows at the top of our house, I was watching an old TV play, Whistle and I'll Come to You.  The professor in this story, played by Michael Hordern, is similarly troubled by the sound of the wind as he sits up in bed.  He seems to have conjured it by blowing an old whistle, a mysterious object he had found earlier, buried near a grave on the edge of the sea.  On returning with this artifact to his room at the Globe, a Suffolk guesthouse, he had felt some kind of presence while walking over the beach.  This is how that evening landscape was described in the original story by M. R. James:
'Bleak and solemn was the view on which he took a last look before starting homeward. A faint yellow light in the west showed the links, on which a few figures moving towards the club-house were still visible, the squat martello tower, the lights of Aldsey village, the pale ribbon of sands intersected at intervals by black wooden groynings, the dim and murmuring sea. The wind was bitter from the north, but was at his back when he set out for the Globe. He quickly rattled and clashed through the shingle and gained the sand, upon which, but for the groynings which had to be got over every few yards, the going was both good and quiet. One last look behind, to measure the distance he had made since leaving the ruined Templars' church, showed him a prospect of company on his walk, in the shape of a rather indistinct personage in the distance, who seemed to be making great efforts to catch up with him, but made little, if any, progress...'
The following night, whenever he closes his eyes he sees himself running, pursued by something, over that same beach and groynes, each one seemingly higher than the last... 

James McBryde, illustration from the 1904 edition of 
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M. R. James   
Professor Parkins pictures 'a man running, jumping, clambering over the groynes, and every few seconds looking eagerly back. The nearer he came the more obvious it was that he was not only anxious, but even terribly frightened'
Source: Wikimedia

I will reveal no more about what happens to the professor after this disturbing night.  The details are slightly different in the original story and in the BBC adaptation, made by Jonathan Miller in 1968.  Both versions are discussed in a chapter of Mark Fisher's The Weird and the Eerie, which draws a link between Miller's film and Brian Eno's ambient album, On Land (1982) - 'both in effect are meditations on the eerie as manifested in the East Anglian terrain.'  Miller filmed on the large featureless beach at Waxham and at what is left of Dunwich, the medieval port that was destroyed by a storm and then gradually reclaimed by the sea.  Looking back on this blog to a post nearly ten years ago, I see I included a photograph of the beach at Dunwich and referred to a talk by Mark Fisher about On Land and the Suffolk landscape.  In The Weird and the Eerie, Fisher contrasts the destructive force in M. R. James's story with the gentler, mysterious mood of On Land.  Eno's eerie is alien but alluring.  It can still be unsettling though - in 'Shadow' for example, which 'features a quietly distressing whimper that could be a human voice, an animal sobbing, or an aural hallucination produced by the movement of the wind.' 

Posthumous tributes to Mark Fisher can be read at Verso, The Guardian, The Quietus, and on Owen Hatherley's blog.  I wish I had managed to see more of his talks; the k-punk blog was essential reading - see, for example, a piece on another BBC adaptation of 'Whistle and I'll Come to You', made in 2010 with John Hurt.  The Weird and the Eerie, published at the end of 2016, was discussed earlier this month by Roger Luckhurst in The LA Review of Books.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Court of Gayumars

Tabriz artist, Rustam Sleeping While Rakhsh Fights the Lion, c. 1515-22

This painting is the only page that survives from a manuscript of the Shahnameh (Ferdowsi's 'Book of Kings') commissioned by the Safavid ruler Isma'il I (1501-24).  It is used for the cover of The Art and Architecture of Islam 1250-1800 by Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom.  They note that the lush vegetation serves to detach the dreaming hero from the fight between horse and lion, which becomes a kind of 'stylized ballet'.  This kind of vibrantly coloured, elaborately stylised and beautifully patterned landscape can be seen too in what is 'considered by many to be the greatest of all Persian miniature paintings', The Court of Gayumars.  This too is a scene from the Shahnameh and was in a book made for Isma'il's son, Tahmasp, who succeeded him at the age of ten and reigned until 1574.  King Gayumars, the first king of Persia, is depicted seemingly floating above a garden where animals coexist peacefully and courtiers stand, dressed in leopard pelts.  Rocks, clouds and water seem to be solid, immaterial and liquid all at the same time.  The closer you look, the more you see extraordinary details hidden in the flowers or among the coral-like cliffs.  Trees grow beyond the frame and in the top-most branches some monkeys seem to have climbed above the golden sky with its Chinese clouds and out of the world altogether.

Sultan-Muhammad, The Court of Gayumars, c. 1525-35

In 1544 the painter Dust Muhammad wrote about the artists in Tahmasp's library, specifically praising Master Nizamuddin Sultan-Muhammad's 'scene of people wearing leopard skins' in the Shahnameh, which must be this painting.  'It is such', he said, 'that the lion-hearted of the jungle of depiction and the leopards and crocodiles of the workshop of ornamentation quail at the fangs of his pen and bend their necks before the awesomeness of his pictures.'  The Court of Gayumars is now in the Toronto Aga Khan Museum.  Blair and Bloom relate the later history of the great book itself, which included 258 paintings and was probably produced over the course of a decade from 1525-35 (one image is dated 1527/8).
'In 1567 the Safavid manuscript was presented by Tahmasp to the Ottoman sultan Selim II, and it remained in the Ottoman imperial collection at least until 1801. [...] By 1903 it had entered the collection of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, whose family sold it to an American collector in 1959.  The manuscript, which had survived intact for over four hundred years, was subsequently dismembered.  Individual folios were sold at auction like so-many slices of pizza, and the integrity of one of the masterpieces of Islamic art was ignominiously destroyed.'   


Friday, March 03, 2017

Pyramids in the Sea

If you haven't been yet, there are still two days left to make your way through the long David Hockney queues and see Tate Britain's Paul Nash retrospective.  His work may seem familiar from relatively frequent exhibitions and the permanent collections of the Tate and Imperial War Museum, but there are a few exhibits on show that I don't remember seeing before, including two borrowed from Canadian museums.  Monster Shore (1939) shows a shattered elm which Nash encountered while 'the declining sun suffused the evening sky to a brickish red; beneath which the Malverns piled up intensely blue.'  Those hills almost seem to belong in a different painting - T. J. Clark refers to this work in his partly critical LRB review as 'a Dali-plus-Ernst assemblage'.  The other painting from Canada, Dymchurch Steps (1924, reworked 1944), is centered on a concrete structure that would not look out of place on Ballard's Terminal Beach, Sebald's Orford Ness, or somewhere in Tarkvosky's ZonaAccording to the curator Emma Chambers it is 'one of the most important works for understanding the beginnings of Nash’s interest in the metaphysical possibilities of architecture, and is among the earliest of a group of works which place a substantial architectural object having an uncompromising and mysterious presence in the centre of a landscape composition.'

'I wish the car had got into his paintings occasionally' writes T. J. Clark.  Figures too are largely absent, as Laura Cummings notes in her review of the exhibition.
'People do appear in his art, surprisingly often, but always as wraiths or surrogates. Far more haunting are nature’s figures, such as the two tiny trees holding still at the centre of The Pyramids in the Sea.  This irreducibly strange vision shows roiling seas by night, two pyramids dropped among them, and sand dunes metamorphosing into waves. It is a vision from the land of counterpane, made when Nash was scarcely 23. Yet it contains the future like a kernel – the intermingling of land and sea, the premonition of surrealism, the Samuel Palmer moon (long before Palmer was discovered in the 1920s) of Nash’s English nocturnes. Above all the bell-shaped waves that rise and fall across the picture, and all through the rest of his work.'
Paul Nash, Pyramids in the Sea, 1912
Source: Tate Gallery - public domain

In his catalogue essay, 'A Spectral Modernity', David Mellor wonders if this picture may partly have been inspired by a writer Nash is known to have enjoyed, Algernon Blackwood.  In one of Blackwood's stories, 'Sand', an English explorer experiences the desert as if it were liquefied.  'Rising above the yellow Libyan horizon, gloomed the vast triangles of a dozen Pyramids, cutting their wedge-shaped clefts out of a sky fast crimsoning through a sea of gold.'  Mellor's essay traces the influence of spiritualism on Nash and his wife Margaret, who believed she was clairvoyant.  I wonder whether she considered Pyramids in the Sea a kind of premonition of their first meeting, a year after it was drawn.  Margaret spent her early childhood in Cairo and her father was an Arab, born near Jerusalem, who later moved to Oxford where he taught the undergraduate T. E. Lawrence colloquial Arabic.  Lawrence admired Nash's work - he bought his first painting of the sea at Dymchurch and asked him to provide illustrations for an edition of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  Ten years later Paul and Margaret Nash were about to visit Lawrence at Cloud's Hill when they heard the news that he had been killed. 

After the war Margaret Nash wrote a memoir of her husband.  It was published last year in a new edition of Outline, Nash's unfinished autobiography and letters from the front which originally appeared in 1949.  It provides a moving insight into the way Nash endured his asthma attacks, caused, it was thought, by breathing in the poison gas at Passchendaele.  At the end of 1933 the couple journeyed south through France and Spain, having to stop periodically while Nash recovered his health.  They visited Matisse in his studio, where Nash had to put up with advice from the great man on using a rowing machine to help improve his breathing.  Eventually they reached Ronda in southern Spain, from where it was a short journey across the Straits of Gibraltar to Morocco.  'Here Paul felt very well, as we were greeted in that lovely April by a glowing sun and a light, refreshing breeze which came from the Atlas Mountains, still snow covered.'  They returned home with plans to try to go back to North Africa but sadly it wasn't to be, as Nash's health problems persisted and war eventually closed in again.  Nash went on to paint a sea of wrecked war planes in Totes Meer (1944) - evidence according to T. J. Clark of 'an artist at last sure of his ground'.  But he would never get to experience the moonlit waves of the desert.

This year, Paul Nash entered the public domain so I have returned to some earlier posts on this blog and added images of his paintings and drawings:
  • a post on Nash's views of the sea wall at Dymchurch, one of the seven significant landscapes featured in a 1989 exhibition, 'Paul Nash: Places';
  • a post on the flowers he saw growing in the trenches, and on his vision of flowers in the sky during the Second World War;
  • a post on his late painting Landscape of the Vernal Equinox (1944), discussed by Roger Cardinal in The Landscape Vision of Paul Nash;
  • a post on his the way landscapes intrude into interiors in work at the Dulwich Picture Gallery's 'Paul Nash: The Elements' exhibition in 2010;
  • and a post on his letters home from France, describing the landscape he would paint in We are Making a New World. 
Nash is also referred to in other posts - to see these click on the 'Paul Nash' label below, consult the index or use the search box.