Monday, August 28, 2017

Chain Pier, Brighton

John Constable, Chain Pier, Brighton, 1826-7
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Turner versus Constable...  You can compare the two greatest figures in British landscape art directly in their paintings of the Chain Pier at Brighton - Constable exhibited his at the Royal Academy in 1827 and Turner began work on his a year later.  Why did they both tackle this motif?  The answer relates to the pier itself which was completed in 1823 to facilitate a new steam packet service: a key investor was the great art patron, Lord Egremont.  Constable made a detailed sketch during his first visit to the Brighton in the summer of 1824 - the delay in completing a finished work may have been because he was busy catering for the new market that had opened up in France, following his success at the 1824 Salon.  At this time Turner was also at the peak of his fame, but a decade earlier he had fallen out with Egremont, hitherto his greatest supporter.  They were reconciled though in 1827 and Turner was invited to stay at Petworth House, where he painted a series of marvellous sketches (I have included one of them here previously).  Among the full-scale landscape paintings he completed there is the painting of the pier below, which can still be seen at Petworth.  It includes one of the steamboats from Dieppe which Egremont's investment had helped facilitate. 

J.M.W. Turner, Brighton from the Sea, c. 1829
Source: Tate (Public domain)

In an essay for the exhibition Constable and Brighton, 'Taking on the Chain Pier - and Turner', Ian Warrell notes that Constable emphasises the traditional fishing trade and omits any reference to the steam packet service, but Turner too partially obscures the steamboat behind a group of fishermen. 'Turner fully accepted, welcomed even, the inevitability of technological progress.  But such advances are invariably represented in a way that tugs the emotions for what is passing away, or in danger of being superseded.'  Signs of Brighton's rapid urban expansion are evident in Turner's view, in the new buildings stretching along the coast and in the pollution represented by some discarded vegetables floating in the water (bottom right).  These vegetables inevitably prompted comment, being at eye-level for diners in Petworth's Carved Room. 'However, rather than disagreeing head-on about the desirability of their presence, the tactful Egremont chose to challenge the likelihood that the vegetables would float (something that was then tested, using real vegetables, in a bath tub.'

John Constable, Rainstorm over the sea, c. 1824-8
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The exhibition includes other paintings of Brighton beach by both artists, such as Constable's dramatic oil sketch of a rainstorm.  It also traces the walks Constable made along the coast and onto the Downs, where he sketched the windmills (a particular interest for the son of a mill owner).  Brighton Museum have even produced a leaflet 'In Constable's Footsteps' suggesting a walking route.  The exhibition itself was prompted by the recent identification of the exact house Constable rented in 1824.  A painter who now lives there and who did some of the research into Constable's whereabouts has been given the opportunity to show one of his own paintings in the exhibition (on the evidence of this it was, I think, a wise decision to restrict him to one painting, in contrast to the kind of joint show I mentioned on Saturday in my previous post).  Constable's paintbox and gold medal from the 1824 Salon are on display alongside his paintings, and there is also a small toy stage coach which, according to family legend, kept Constable's children amused on the journey down to Brighton. We didn't try taking our own children to this exhibition but I would certainly recommend it, along with the excellent catalogue.

Saturday, August 26, 2017


Robert Zünd, Buchenwald, 1887
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In English the word 'Buchenwald' is synonymous with horror and darkness, but in German it still denotes one of nature's most beautiful things, a beech forest.  This is a painting by a nineteenth century artist who became known as The Master of the Beech Leaf for his meticulous views of woods.  Robert Zünd (1826-1909) walked and sketched in the forests around Lucerne, producing highly finished landscapes back in the studio that came in different sizes to suit the budgets of different potential buyers.  His work can be found in most Swiss museums but is currently the subject of an exhibition, Bellevue, at the Kunstmuseum Luzern which pairs his paintings with large format analogue photographs by Tobias Madörin.  Madörin is based in Zürich but has travelled widely working on a project called Topos which examines 'communal spaces, the outskirts of metropolises, waste disposals sites, and landscapes marked by agriculture and mining.'  For Bellevue he has taken photographs around Lucerne, based on the compositions and methods of Robert Zünd.

Shows in which contemporary artists respond to old paintings that have hung for decades on museum walls are are very common these days.  Just to mention one other example, I wrote here last year about George Shaw's Back to Nature at the National Gallery.  Publicly funded institutions have a mission to make their collections engaging and accessible, which is why we don't really see the same phenomenon in other more 'private' art forms (though it is easy to imagine an anthology interspersing, say, tales by Poe with stories by a modern weird fiction writer, or an album juxtaposing nineteenth century études with a young composer's new works on similar themes).  The key to making these exhibitions work, I think, is for the artist not to go down the obvious route of producing a kind of 'negative' version of the earlier art.  As you can see above,  Madörin has partially done this in photographing the effects of logging on Zünd's woodland, exposing the economic role of the landscape and questioning the idyllic impression of the original scenes.  But he has also taken pains to produce photographs in tune with Zünd's desire to capture the splendour of natural phenomena.  Zünd could paint a rainbow at leisure in his studio whereas Madörin had to wait for the real thing, pitching a tent and being prepared for a moment when light would shine forth from the stormy sky.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Panorama of Thun

Whilst it is obviously true that any landscape painting loses something in reproduction, this is especially true of a panorama.  It is not just a question of losing the aura of the original artwork; there is the simple optical fact that a rectangular image in a book can give no idea of the experience of a large-scale panorama.  At the Thun Panorama, now housed in a purpose-built building in Schadau Park on the edge of Lake Thun, you can buy a framed reproduction for 95 Swiss Francs that is shrunk to such an extent it barely resembles the 360-degree view you have just seen.  And there is definitely an aura too that no postcard could convey.  This panorama may not have been considered High Art, but it is completely unique as a precious record of the city of Thun at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  It took Marquard Fidelis Wocher (1760-1830) four years to paint and survived the passage of two centuries only with some luck.  It is the oldest surviving panorama in the world.

The modern visitor can feel a connection not just with the original artist as they surveyed a scene now long gone, but with all the viewers who came to see it, in its purpose-built building in Basel.  Many views of Thun and the surrounding Alps were painted for tourists to take home as personal souvenirs, but this single work, intended as a destination in its own right, was as unique as the landscape it depicted.  More so perhaps, because it shows one moment, frozen in time.  Some panorama painters like Thomas Girtin tried to avoid including human activity since the immobility of figures would reduce the verisimilitude of the illusion.  Wocher had no such qualms.  According to Bernard Comment in his book The Panorama, 'no fewer than 360 figures are shown' (was this number deliberate?)  Wocher's people going about their business on the streets and his cats sitting on the rooftops add to the charm of the painting.  This is the sort of town you can imagine a young wanderer coming to in a Romantic story, pausing for a moment as the late afternoon sun begins to gild its towers and soften the outlines of the distant mountains.

The Thun rotunda, built in 1961 to display this panorama after its rediscovery, is criticised by Bernard Comment for bringing the spectator too close to the canvas and failing to screen off the artificial light source.  However, these defects do allow you to see the details of Wocher's painting more clearly.  In Stephen Oettermann's book The Panorama, he notes that its original dimensions were smaller than became customary later in the nineteenth century.  Apparently some visitors to the first panoramas felt dizzy: 'observers adjusted their eyes to the illusion of distant vistas, and then when they walked around on the platform, it seemed as if they were wearing seven-league boots and covering vast distances with each step.  People became disorientated and likely to stumble.  (This effect can still be experienced at the panorama at Thun ... it has a diameter of only thirty-seven feet).'  This recalls to mind the famous Romantic novella Peter Schlemihl's Miraculous Story, published in 1814, the year Wocher completed his panorama.  Schlemihl, shunned by society after selling his shadow to the devil, seeks solace in nature, wandering the world in seven-league boots.  Perhaps if you look carefully enough you will see a shadowless figure somewhere in the Panorama of Thun.  

Images from my own visit to the Thun Panorama
this month - photography is permitted

Friday, August 04, 2017

High Water Everywhere

When it rains five days and the skies turn dark as night...
I woke up early this mornin', a water hole in my back yard...
Backwater rising, come in my windows and door... 
If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break...
I think I heard a moan, on the Arkansas side...
Nothing but muddy water, as far as I could see...
Lord the whole round country, man, is overflowed...
These are lines from songs by Bessie Smith, Barbecue Bob, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, Charlie Patton, Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe McCoy.  They all touch in different ways on the floods of the late twenties, particularly the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.  You can hear clips on the New York Public Radio's list, Great Songs About the Great Flood.  I learnt from the accompanying article that filmmaker Bill Morrison and guitarist-composer Bill Frisell have collaborated recently on a documentary called The Great Flood.  'Morrison’s films are usually inventive, phantasmagorical affairs, built on decaying silent film stock; here he bases his work on archival documentary footage from 1927, and Frisell provides a score that’s full of his eclectic take on Americana, jazz, and contemporary music. The result is a meditation on the American landscape, on loss, and on consequences -- whether intended or not.'  Sadly such floods seem likely to become increasingly common as global warming affects the weather systems that batter the Southern states.

I've been thinking about the blues and landscape this week, after reading Hari Kunzru's new novel, White Tears, which is partly set in Mississippi.  The way his protagonists are lured into the music's mythic history took me back to my own early enthusiasm for it, when finding information about the early musicians or hearing the records was still not straightforward.  As a sixth former I would take a bus to Sussex University library (you could just walk in if you looked like you were meant to be there) and spend time reading publications in the wonderful Jazz Book Club series.  Paul Oliver was the most prominent British writer on the blues and he seemed to have a fantastic life as an architect with a sideline in musical research.  Just now I dug out an anthology of his writings published in 1984, Blues off the Record, and it's noticeable how many of them describe the landscape that gave rise to the music in some detail, as if the blues was an aspect of geography.  His writing is not especially poetic, but any of those southern place names had an exotic poetry.  'As you descend from the hilly, wooded landscape of De Soto, Tate and Panola Counties in Mississippi to the flat bottomlands of the Mississippi River flood-plain, the landscape changes.  Not dramatically, because the hills aren't high enough to be a dramatic contrast, but very noticeably so, all the same...'

The early blues collectors are as fascinating as the singers themselves and much has now been written about them too.  They included people like John Fahey and Al Wilson (Canned Heat) who also made their own music and performed with renowned bluesmen.  I don't usually quote Wikipedia but I thought this paragraph in the entry for Al Wilson interesting, and as I'm a bit short of time at the moment, I will just leave this with you, along with a clip of 'Going up the Country'...
'Wilson was a passionate conservationist who loved reading books on botany and ecology. He often slept outdoors to be closer to nature. In 1969, he wrote and recorded a song, "Poor Moon", which expressed concern over potential pollution of the moon. He wrote an essay called 'Grim Harvest', about the coastal redwood forests of California, which was printed as the liner notes to the Future Blues album by Canned Heat. Wilson was interested in preserving the natural world, particularly the redwood trees. When he died, so too did the Music Mountain organization he had initiated dedicated to this purpose. In order to support his dream, Wilson's family has purchased a "grove naming" in his memory through the Save the Redwoods League of California. The money donated to create this memorial will be used by the League to support redwood reforestation, research, education, and land acquisition of both new and old growth redwoods.'