Friday, June 30, 2017

The Gardens of Fontainebleau

Narcisse Virgilio Díaz, Forest of Fontainebleau, 1868
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Forest of Fontainebleau has a special place in the history of western landscape art: painted repeatedly by the Barbizon School and the Impressionists who took inspiration from them.  That there is still a forest to explore is down in part to Théodore Rousseau: he 'appealed to Napoleon III to halt the wholesale destruction of the forest’s trees, and in 1853 the emperor established a preserve to protect the artists’ cherished giant oaks' (see the Met's online essay on the Barbizon School).  We were in Fontainebleau on that fiercely hot weekend earlier this month and I yearned to head into the forest to find some of that deep shade painted by Rousseau's friend Narcisse Virgilio Díaz.  But we'd come for culture rather than nature, to visit the Château de Fontainebleau.  Emerging from its opulent rooms in the full heat of the afternoon we made our way across the Grand Parterre, with its low hedges and topiary cones stretching into the distance.  This flat, mathematical space, planned out by André Le Nôtre and Louis Le Vau, is as different a landscape as can be imagined from the dense wooded slopes and tenebrous clearings explored by the Barbizon painters.  Strange then to find at its centre, beneath the surface of a square ornamental pool, a miniature forest, swaying gently in the cool, clear water. 

Before the Barbizon School there was the School of Fontainebleau, two schools in fact, the first comprising artists brought to decorate the palace during the sixteenth century (including Benvenuto Cellini, who describes the work in his wonderfully vivid Autobiography), the second at the beginning of the seventeenth during one of the phases of renovation and redecoration that continued down to Napoleon's time.  These Mannerist artists were much more interested in mythological figures and allegorical references than in anything to do with landscape, as can be seen in the print below, where a rocky scene is completely dominated by its framing figures. There are numerous references to hunting in their decorative schemes: the forest as resource for the king's pleasure.  The Palace contains a Gallery of Diana and a Gallery of Stags.  There is also a Jardin de Diane, with a fountain dating from the early nineteenth century dedicated to the goddess; its water comes from the mouths of stags and, as my son's were quick to point out, four "pissing dogs". 

Antonio Fantuzzi, Cartouche with male and female satyrs
carrying baskets and flanking a rocky landscape, 1543
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tommaso Francini, The Château and Gardens, early 17th century
 Source: Wikimedia Commons
One of the Valois Tapestries, showing a festival on the lake at Fontainebleau, 
made shortly after 1580.

The Carp Lake visible in the seventeenth century plan shown above is still there (as are the carp).  The photograph of it below was taken from a rowing boat that I was pressed into hiring.  The lake at Fontainebleau can also be seen in one of the Valois Tapestries, made to commemorate eight of Catherine de' Medici's famous court festivals.  This one took place in 1564 and was just one event in the royal progress that took her and her son, the new king, two and a half years to complete.  The household accompanying them included her 'flying squadron' (L'escadron volant) of eighty seductive ladies-in-waiting, and nine dwarfs who travelled in their own miniature coaches.  The great poet Pierre de Ronsard was present at Fontainebleau, where there were feasts, jousts, sirens singing, Neptune floating in his chariot and an attack on an enchanted island.  I wonder how many of them thought about the real forest beyond the Château as they acted out imaginary battles in an artificial landscape.  A century later the island in the lake was given a small pavilion; later it was restored by Napoleon.  We were warned as we climbed into the boat not to row too close it, although I don't think our inept collective efforts at steering could have got us there anyway.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Pink and White Terraces

Charles Blomfield, Pink Terraces, 1886
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this month news came in that the lost terraces of Lake Rotomahana had been discovered.  The Pink Terrace (Te Otukapuarangi - 'the fountain of the clouded sky') and the White Terrace (Te Tarata - 'the tattooed rock') were three quarters of a mile apart, each a descending sequence of pools formed by silica in the water that welled up from geothermal springs.  Having first been described by a European traveller in the early 1840s, they become a major tourist attraction for visitors to New Zealand; but in 1886, following an eruption of Mount Tarawera, they disappeared.  Two researchers now think the terraces may lie preserved under mud and ash and are assembling a “team of the willing” to explore the site.  However, in its report The Guardian cautions that another team thought they had found the terraces in 2011, and only last year GNS Science New Zealand concluded that most of them had been destroyed.

 Charles Blomfield, White Terraces, Rotomahana, 1903
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Some photographs were taken of the terraces (see below), but our main idea of what they looked like comes from the paintings of Charles Blomfield (1848-1926).  He began making landscape views in the North Island in the 1870s and the sketches he made of the Pink and White Terraces were source material for paintings long after the landscape had been buried.  Contemporary travel writers felt the inadequacy of words to convey the form and colours of what was before them.  In The Australian Abroad (1879) James Hingston was unequal to the task of describing Te Tarata: 'we had better stop until we get the shade of J. M. W. Turner, that great painter of the mystic, to assist us.'  However, as Lydia Wevers says in Country of Writing: Travel Writing and New Zealand, 'like many travel writers who apostrophise the indescribability of the terraces, Hingston proceeds to describe them for several paragraphs.'

Charles Spencer, Hot Water Cups, White Terrace, 1880
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1877 the prolific travel writer and painter Constance Gordon-Cumming visited Lake Rotomahana (her account can be read in Chapter XXV of At Home in Fiji).  The White Terraces were 'in nature what the Taj Mahal at Agra is in architecture, — a thing indescribable — a fairy city of lace carved in pure marble, — a thousand waterfalls suddenly frozen and fringed with icicles.'  The next day she took in Te Otukapuarangi and 'got a large very careful drawing from the ridge overlooking these terraces, with our tent and the white terraces on the other side of the lake.'  Lydia Wevers criticises the proprietorial birds-eye view Gordon-Cumming adopted in her sketches and the very Victorian attitude of colonial entitlement evident in her writing.  After painting the landscape she got into a dispute over whether a payment should be made to the local Maori (they had been asking £5 for a photograph and thought paintings would warrant a higher fee).

The Pink Terrace, New Zealand 
from Oceana, or England and her Colonies by James Anthony Froude (1886)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Before this unpleasantness over money occurred, Constance Gordon-Cumming had been relaxing in the waters of the Pink Terraces.  You can see from a description like this why people would be motivated to try to find them again, though surely their original magic would be unrecoverable:
'Rock and water are alike smooth and warm and pleasant, and you can prolong the delight of the bath to any extent, passing from one pool to another, sometimes receiving a gentle shower as the sparkling drops trickle from the overhanging rim of a pool, perhaps eight or ten feet above you, or else lying still in passive enjoyment, and watching the changing lights that flit across lake and hill, and all the time the kindly water is coating you with a thin film of that silica which makes the bath so smooth and the bather so silky'
I will conclude here with another description of this experience from perhaps the most famous visitor to the terraces, Anthony Trollope.  He was there in 1873 and remarked on the shell-like appearance of these natural pools, in which 'four or five may sport ... each without feeling the presence of the other.'
'In the bath, when you strike your chest against it, it is soft to the touch. You press yourself against it, and it is smooth. You lie upon it, and though it is firm, it gives to you. You plunge against the sides, driving the water over your body, but you do not bruise yourself. ... I have never heard of other bathing like this in the world.'

Charles Blomfield, White Terraces, Rotomahana, 1897
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Great Forest

Jacob van Ruisdael, The Great Forest, 1655-60

Peter Handke's text The Lesson of Mont Sainte-Victoire (1980) unsurprisingly focuses on Cézanne and the landscape of Provence, but it ends with a painting by Ruisdael, The Great Forest, which can be seen in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, and a detailed description of a walk to an unregarded stretch of woodland on the outskirts of Salzburg.  As Handke points out, the title of Ruisdael's painting may simply refer to its size (1800 x 1390cm) rather than the scale of the forest it depicts, which at first sight hardly appears 'great'.  Then again, perhaps in this picture we are only at the beginning of the forest.  The wayfarer may simply have 'turned to cast a look before going deeper into the woods.  The feeling of spaciousness is further intensified by a peculiarity of seventeenth-century Dutch landscapes: for all the minuteness of their forms, they nevertheless, with their patches of water, their roads over dunes, their dark woods (under spacious skies), begin to grow as one beholds them' (trans. Ralph Manheim).

The woodland Handke walks to from Salzburg is also nothing like a great forest, 'yet it is wonderfully real'.  Few in Salzburg know of this space, lying between the city and the castle of Hellbrunn: 'here there are only logging roads and irregular paths, and you seldom see a walker; at the most you may hear a jogger's panting and see the skin of this face, mask replacing mask, change from dead to alive and back again at every step.'  Handke's description of the forest is as detailed as Ruisdael's and as attentive to light and colour.  Trying to follow his route on Google Earth (see my aerial view of the woodland below) only emphasises the unreality of that medium as it currently stands and its inadequacy in comparison with Handke's prose.  But this is not an idyllic landscape isolated from the surrounding suburbs.  At the end of his walk, Handke stands looking at polystyrene floating on a pond and a woodpile covered in plastic tarp.  We know from earlier in the book that a woodpile has complex associations for Handke and here in the woods it stimulates a kind of epiphany, a brief Tree of Life-style cosmic reverie.  The forest opens onto a vast spaciousness that encompasses both space and time.  Then it is over and he takes a deep breath and sets off back along the path to return to the city.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Pure light flooding the rock walls

There is a new article on China and its rivers in Lapham's Quarterly by Philip Ball, author of The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China.  He says that Chinese culture is orientated along the course of its rivers, West-East, from the mountains of Tibet to the Pacific Ocean.  The sources of its two greatest waterways, the Yangtze and the Yellow River, were debated for centuries.  The Ming Dynasty writer Xu Xiake (Hsü Hsia-k'o, 1587–1641) thought the Yangtze had its ultimate origin on the Qinghai plateau.  Nobody, Ball thinks, 'better personifies the Chinese devotion to its great rivers' than the inveterate traveller Xu Xiake.  According to a contemporary he 'used towering crags for his bed, streams and gullies for refreshment, and found companionship among fairies, trolls, apes, and baboons, with the result that he became unable to think logically and could not speak. However, as soon as we discussed mountain paths, investigated water sources or sought out superior geographical terrain, his mind suddenly became clear again.'

Xu Xiake 400th anniversary stamps

In Richard E. Strassberg's anthology of Chinese travel writing Inscribed Landscapes there are two extracts from the Diaries Xu put together at the end of each day.  In the first, written in May 1613, he visits Tiantai Mountain, where the famous Tang Dynasty poet Hanshan and his companion Shide lived in retreat.  I have written here before about a more recent attempt to find the geographical source of Hanshan's poetry - perhaps there's a parallel with the search for the source of a great river.  Xu died before his writing could be polished up for publication, so the Diaries retain the freshness of direct observation.  According to Strassberg 'his descriptions include visionary perceptions of Nature as an ever-fascinating texture of interacting phenomena.  He incorporates lyric responses to the environment in short, poetic phrases'.  Here is a brief example (published online) from the journey to Tiantai Mountain. 
'Outside the cave were two crags to the left, both located halfway up the cliffs. On the right was a rock shaped like a bamboo shoot jutting upward. Its top was even with one of the cliffs and separated from it by no more than a hairline. Green pines and purple flowers flourished on top. It complements perfectly the crags to the left—it could certainly be called a marvel. Exited through Eight-Inch Pass, climbed up another crag, also on the left. I looked up at it as I approached and it resembled a cleft, but when I reached the top it was spacious enough to hold several hundred people. There was a well in the middle named "Transcendent's Well"—shallow and yet inexhaustible. Beyond the crag was a particularly unusual rock several tens of feet high with a forked top resembling two men. The monk described it as "Han-shan and Shih-te." Stopped at the monastery there. After a meal, the clouds dispersed and the new moon appeared in the sky. I stood on the summit of this undulating cliff and watched the pure light flood the rock walls.'
Dai Benxiao, The Strange Pines of Tiantai, 1687
Source: The Met

Xiake means 'mistlike traveler'.  According to the World of Chinese website, 'Xu Xiake is worshipped as the father of Chinese backpacking, and several of the routes he traversed some 400 years ago remain in use today.'  A couple of years ago Tony Perrottet retraced one of his routes for an interesting travel article in The Smithsonian.  I'll end here with a quote from this, but the whole piece is worth reading.  
'Traveling into the remoter regions of Yunnan is still a challenge. Squeezed into tiny bus seats on bone-jarring cliff highways and bartering for noodles in roadside stalls, I began to realize that few in the Chinese government can have actually read Xu Xiake’s diary. Despite his devotion to travel, he is an ambiguous poster boy for its pleasures, and as his diary attests, he suffered almost every mishap imaginable on his Yunnan journey.
He was robbed three times, contracted mysterious diseases and was lost and swindled. After one hapless mountain guide led him in circles, Xu questioned the whole effort: “I realized this was the most inauspiciously timed of a lifetime’s travels.” On another occasion, while waiting for funds after a theft, he became so broke he sold his clothes to buy food. He once recited poetry in exchange for mushrooms.

Sadly, Xu’s traveling companion, a monk named Jingwen, fell ill with dysentery on the road and died. He was an eccentric character who apparently carried a copy of the Lotus Sutra written in his own blood, but he was devoted to Xu, becoming injured while defending him from a violent robbery. Xu, devastated, decided to bury his friend’s remains at the ostensible goal of the journey, a sacred peak called Jizu Shan, which is now almost entirely forgotten by travelers. I decided to follow his footsteps there, too. [...]  The site felt like a poignant memorial to Xu Xiake himself. When he buried his friend here in 1638, Xu was uncharacteristically weary of travel. “Now with (my) soul broken at the end of the world,” he mourned, “I can only look alone.”

Friday, June 02, 2017

The ruins of Karnak

Paul Nash, The Wanderer (detail), 1911
Source: British Museum

The British Museum currently has an exhibition of British landscape watercolours which focuses on the period 1850-1950, the century after the Golden Age.  It includes familiar names that I have often featured here - Samuel Palmer, John Ruskin, James McNeill Whistler, Paul Nash (see above). There are also landscapes by artists more usually associated with other genres - John Singer Sargent (society portraits), Anna Airy (war workers), Hubert von Herkomer (depictions of the poor).  And there are the somewhat forgettable Victorian artists with their double names - Alfred William Hunt, George Pryce Boyce, Edward John Poynter - whose picturesque views are painted beautifully but don't stick in the mind very long.  One of the things you realise from this show is how many now-rather-obscure artists were renowned at the time and made a fortune from their paintings.  I made a note of one nice winter scene by William Russell Flint, who you would be forgiven for not having heard of, even though he was knighted in 1947 (according to Wikipedia he 'enjoyed considerable commercial success but little respect from art critics, who were disturbed by a perceived crassness in his eroticized treatment of the female figure.') 

William Russell Flint quote (after Thomas à Kempis) from 1924,
on display at the Places of the mind: British watercolour landscapes 1850–1950

The British Museum has been collecting watercolours for a long time - the exhibition includes one painting by Francis Towne that was part of his bequest in 1816.  Some parts of its collection have never been seen publicly before, including one work by an artist about whom very little is now known, Henry Stanier.  According to the Guardian, 'the long-awaited public showing comes 113 or so years after the death of the artist' (who was waiting for it they don't say - perhaps we all were, without knowing it).  Kim Sloan, this exhibition's curator 'discovered the huge watercolour in an obscure corner of the museum more than 10 years ago, when she was looking for the original frames for some Turner watercolours.  To her astonishment she found not just empty frames, but three paintings by Stanier, an artist she had never heard of. They appear to have been stashed away in the 1950s without ever being recorded in the museum’s collection.'  The unearthing of this view of the temple complex at Karnak sunds almost like an act of archaeology.  Karnak itself continues to yield new finds a century after Stanier was there and you wonder how much else there is to find in the recesses of the British Museum.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

The Gibberd Garden

We made a trip this week to see Sir Frederick Gibberd's garden, created between 1957 and 1984, and located just outside Harlow, the New Town for which he was chief architect.  Gibberd's best known design is probably Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral (aka 'Paddy's Wigwam'), a building I've always rather liked although Gibberd himself was sued for £1.3m over leaks and defects in the tiling (which have had to be replaced).  He was also involved in some key post-War industrial buildings - the original Heathrow Terminal buildings, the recently-demolished Didcot A Power Station - and a few of his garden's metal and concrete sculptures and salvaged objects have the look of once-futuristic constructions that have seen better days.  As a private collector Gibberd wouldn't have had resources to buy sculptures by world-renowned artists, although there is a piece by David Nash (see below).  Nor can the artworks compete with those made by practising artists like Barbara Hepworth and Ian Hamilton Finlay for their own gardens.  But Gibberd, as a planner and landscape architect, made good use of the site, turning the hillside and stream into a sequence of spaces with some sculptures set to catch the eye and others that you almost stumble upon.

There is an article about Gibberd by his grandson that praises the moated castle he built for his grandchildren in one corner of the site using recycled pieces of wood - my sons certainly enjoyed this too.  The garden feature we liked best was also recycled - two mossy Corinthian columns shaded by trees with real acanthus growing at their base to echo the stone foliage above.  This 'temple' fragment could almost have come from that erotic Renaissance idyll, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili; in fact the pillars were designed in 1831 by John Nash for a commercial building on The Strand in London, and salvaged by Gibberd when his firm redesigned it in the 1970s for Coutts Bank.  I am sure they are more appreciated in this garden among the trees than they would be on what is now the eighteenth most polluted street in Britain.

The garden must have been a pleasant place to relax in, but whether it was possible to enjoy it as a classical retreat or hortus conclusus I rather doubt.  I tried to record a chaffinch singing over the bright sound of water in the brook but by the time I had my phone out all you could hear was the slow rumble of an aeroplane flying overhead.  The embankment at the end of the garden carries a busy train line into Harlow.  Sculptures are largely absent from the adjacent arboretum, making all the more noticeable some overhead wires crossing the space above and a line of warning signs (see above) marking the presence of a gas pipeline under the grass.  You suspect though that Gibberd would not really have minded all these reminders that the garden is not separated off from the modern world he was so active in designing