Friday, September 29, 2017

Elegant Rocks and Sparse Trees

 Zhao Mengfu, Autumn Colours on the Qiao and Hua Mountains, 1296

Back to normal now, for blog post number 1,001, and at this time of year it seems appropriate to admire these Autumn Colours on the Qiao and Hua Mountains.  Most of the trees in this marshy landscape are still green, as they are here in London as I write this, but the red seal marks added to the handscroll cover the sky like wind-blown maple leaves.  This is the best known work of Zhao Mengfu, who was able to observe the seasons change around these mountains after becoming governor of Jinan in 1293.  Mount Qiao and Mount Hua lie to the north of the city and can be seen in the video clip below.  This scroll was painted after Zhao had returned south, for a friend whose family came from Shandong.  It offered a new way forward for Chinese art, neither naturalistic or idealised, referring back to older 'antique' styles - specifically that of Dong Yuan (d. 962) who, founder of the distinct southern Jiangnan style.  Dong was said (by the great Song dynasty scientist/polymath Shen Kuo) to be 'particularly skilled in painting the mists of autumn and distant views'.

Zhao Mengfu is an artist I have referred to here three times before: first in connection with his scroll, The Mind Landscape of Xie Youyu; secondly as exemplifying, in his interest in recovering older styles, a kind of Renaissance attitude analogous to Italian quattrocento artists; and thirdly for a painting owned by the Met, Twin Pines, Level Distance.  I have not however mentioned one of the most interesting facts about Zhao, that he was married to an artist prominent in her own right, the painter, poet and calligrapher Guan Daosheng.  Guan seems to have taken up painting around the time they were living in Jinan (which was, incidentally, the city where China's greatest female poet, Li Qingzhao, lived two centuries earlier).  Guan worked in various genres but became known for her bamboo painting.  She qualifies for a mention on this blog because, instead of depicting individual branches, she tended to paint thickets and set them in landscapes.  In the example below, the bamboo in the background is covered in a band of mist.  She wrote on the scroll that it had actually been painted "in a boat on the green waves of the lake."

 Guan Daosheng, Bamboo Groves in Mist and Rain (detail), 1308

Chinese bamboo paintings are cropped close-ups of landscape, with rocks and old trees as likely to feature as bamboo plants.  Zhao Mengfu himself produced a marvellous example, Elegant Rocks and Spare Trees, which included a quatrain arguing that "calligraphy and painting have always been the same".  Although this is painting, not writing, the brushstrokes resemble calligraphy: broad ones ('flying white') for the rocks, blunt ones ('seal script') for the branches, spiky and tapered ones ('late clerical script') for the foliage.  Bamboo was a symbol of the scholar, surviving through difficult times.  Zhao Mengfu himself initially resisted the lure of Kublia Khan but elected to work for the new administration, an act that affected his later reputation.  He would not be numbered among the Four Masters of the Yuan dynasty, although one of those artists, Wang Meng, was his grandson.  Zhao Mengfu died in 1322, three years after Guan Daosheng, a wife whose "manner was winning… [and]… intelligence clear as moonlight."

Zhao Mengu, Elegant Rocks and Sparse Trees, Yuan Dynasty

Monday, September 18, 2017

Frozen Air

For this, the 1000th entry on this blog, I am pleased to announce... a book.

If you have liked some of what I have written here over the years I think you should enjoy it.  It is not a reprint of anything on the blog, though it does refer to artists and writers I have featured here (including Peter Lanyon, the subject of my 500th post).  Here is the description, taken from the Amazon page where you can order it.
At the edge of England the land ends suddenly in high chalk cliffs. From the beach at Cuckmere Haven, they stand like frozen air, silent above the waves that are gradually undermining them. Here the landscape seems timeless, reduced to its basic elements: rock, water, air and sunlight. But the cliffs have a remarkable history and an uncertain future. They continue to inspire painters and composers, photographers and filmmakers, poets and nature writers. In this sequence of short linked texts and photographs, Andrew Ray explores the Seven Sisters to consider the meaning of this extraordinary landscape.
You will be able to read some short extracts on Caught by the River starting tomorrow and if you don't fancy Amazon you can buy it from their shop.

As for the future of this blog - I am as fascinated by all this as I ever was and have no plans to stop at the first thousand posts...

Postscript 22/9/17: 
You can read a review by Ken Worpole of Frozen Air at The New English Landscape.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The yellow blossoms of autumn

Eight poems entitled, simply, 'Landscape':

1. 'Landscape' by Robert Gray

A walk over sandhills by the sea, turning inland, then wading through dead grass and along railway tracks in the heat of noon, hearing the immense quiet of the bush that dilates on the light hammering sound of a bell-miner. 
'Landscape' is an early poem by Robert Gray and is (I assume) about the north coast of New South Wales where he grew up.  He has said 'the landscape you like is the landscape in which your senses first open, the landscape you’re born into… That’s why Wordsworth is right: it’s the landscape of childhood that captures, that influences you for the rest of your life'.  I have recently been reading Gray's collected poems, Cumulus.  A Sydney Review of Books article on this book discusses his debt to Wordsworth, and the influence of Asian poetry, evident in Gray's translations of haiku and his own short imagist poems.

2. 'Landscape' by Charles Baudelaire

A dream of gardens, bluish horizons, water weeping in alabaster basins, birds singing and lovers kissing. 
In 'Paysage', one of the Tableaux Parisiens in Les Fleures du Mal (1857), Baudelaire pictures a bedroom where he could look out over the city and gaze at the night sky, at least until winter comes with its dreary snows - then he would shut out the world and live in this perfect imaginary landscape.  There are many translations of course, including one by John Ashbery who sadly died earlier this month.  Ashbery actually wrote his own poem with the title 'Landscape', included in his early collection The Tennis Court Oath.  I have to admit I would struggle to explain what it's about - it certainly has nothing to do with scenic description.  You can hear Ashbery read it in a recording accessible via Ubuweb.

Georges Antoine Rochegross, Tableaux Parisiens illustration, 1917 

3.  'Landscape' by Charles Marie René Leconte de Lisle

Olive trees, wild roses, flowering laburnum and a shepherd at rest; in the distance, fields of ripe wheat, paths through terebinth trees, woods, hills and a sparkling sea. 
Another idyllic landscape is evoked in one of Leconte de Lisle's Poèmes antiques (1852).  It is the only one of the poems in this list that mentions an actual location, Agrigento, which is in Sicily, where Theocritus lived and set his Idylls.  I was going to include here a poem by another Parnassian writer, Paul Verlaine.  However, as I explained in an earlier post, 'Landscape' is C.F. Macintyre's own title for a poem Verlaine called ‘Dans l’interminable ennui de la plaine’.

4. 'Landscape' by Federico García Lorca

A field of olive trees and above it a foundering sky of dark rain where the grey air ripples. 
This beautiful short poem deserves quoting in full, at least in Spanish where there are no copyright issues.  It was written when Lorca was twenty-three and published in Poem of the Deep Song, a book inspired by Andalusian gypsy music.  It suggests both an actual 'motionless sunset' that Lorca witnessed and an imaginary landscape inspired by the music of the siguiriya.  'To me,' he wrote, 'the gypsy siguiriya had always evoked (I am an incurable lyricist) an endless road, a road without crossroads, ending at the pulsing fountain of the child Poetry.'

El campo
de olivos
se abre y se cierra
como un abanico.
Sobre el olivar
hay un cielo hundido
y una lluvia oscura
de luceros fríos.
Tiembla junco y penumbra
a la orilla del río.
Se riza el aire gris.
Los olivos,
están cargados
de gritos.
Una bandada
de pájaros cautivos,
que mueven sus larguísimas
colas en lo sombrío

5. 'Landscape' by Georg Trakl

Shepherds return to an autumn village: a horse rears up, a doe feeezes at the edge of the forest and yellow blossoms bend over the blue countenance of a pond. 
The poem appeared posthumously in Sebastian in Traum (1915), Trakl having died of an overdose in a hospital in Cracow, exhausted after tending to soldiers wounded at the battle of Grodek.  Ludwig Wittgenstein, also serving on the Eastern front, had come to Cracow to see him but arrived just a few days too late.  Robert Bly mentions those yellow flowers in an essay on 'The Silence of Georg Trakl': 'The German language has a word for deliberately keeping silence, which English does not have. Trakl uses this word “schweigen” often. When he says “the flowers/Bend without words over the blue pond”, we realise that the flowers have a voice, and that Trakl hears it. They keep their silence in the poems.' 

6. 'Landscape' by Rolf Dieter Brinkmann

A soot-covered tree, a wrecked car, defunct shoes in leafless shrubs, a fly-tipped sofa, a pair of stockings in a bough, a rusty bicycle frame. 
This is a vision of the edgelands - the kind of modern landscape George Shaw has been painting recently.  Brinkman was not much older than Trakl when he died in London in 1975, the victim of a hit-and-run driver.  His posthumously published Rom Blicke expanded the form of his writing beyond poems like this one to include photographs and documents.  In this book landscape was 'portrayed in a radically disillusionary way: as space where human life is shaped by capitalism, stupidity and egoism' (Monika Schmitz-Emans, in an essay 'The Book as Landscape').

7. 'Landscape' by John Hewitt
Not a 'fine view': for a countryman, a sequence of signs and underpinning this, good corn, summer grazing for sheep free of scab and fallow acres waiting for the lint.
Carol Rumens selected this as a poem of the week in The Guardian a couple of years ago.  She notes that lint is another word for flax, once the most significant crop in Northern Ireland, where Hewitt lived (a bar in Belfast is named after him).  The poem is an admonition to the reader, 'to understand any beautiful landscape in its utilitarian and social dimensions: to learn the names of places and people, and to value their language, as this poem, modestly, undemonstratively, has valued it.'

8. 'Landscape' by Dorothy Parker
A field of white lace, birch trees leaping and bending, hills of green and purple, breezes running fingers through the grass. 
But this idyll is flat and grey 'because a lad a mile away / has little need of me.'  I've always liked the idea of Dorothy Parker but found a lot of her writing, like this, not really to my taste.  I include it here though to acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that all the names above are male.  Perhaps this is not only a reflection of the limitations of my reading - maybe women writers have generally been too creativity to write a poem and end up calling it, simply, 'Landscape.'

These then are some 'Landscapes', written by poets from Australia, France, Réunion, Spain, Austria, Germany, Northern Ireland and America.  And for Some Landscapes, this is actually the 999th entry I have written and posted.  Over the years this blog has covered, like these eight poems, the rural and the urban, the pastoral and the post-pastoral, closely observed topography and places that could only be explored in a dream. 

Tomorrow I have a special announcement to coincide with my 1,000th post.

Friday, September 15, 2017

This snow has never melted

Anon (once attributed to Guo Xi), Mount Emei under Heavy Snow, 17th century

Mount Omei, or Emei, in Sichuan province, is one of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China and has often featured in Chinese poetry.  Li Po spent the early part of his life (before 725) in Sichuan and wrote a 'Song of Mount Omei's Moon', that would later be quoted by Su Shi in one of his own poems.  Su Shi was actually born near the foot of the mountain, in 1037, but spent his life being moved from one post to another, getting further and further away until he eventually found himself living on the island of Hainan (he died, back on the mainland, four years later).  Fan Ch'eng-ta, one of the 'Four Masters of Southern Sung Poetry', specialising in the field-and-gardens genre, described Mount Emei in his Diary of a Boat Trip to Wu (1177).  The higher he got, the colder it was - intensely so at night.  Reaching Brilliant Cliff he looked down into the clouds and glimpsed halos of coloured light.  Further on he could see the mountain range that stretches West, until it eventually becomes the Himalayas:
'Lofty, rugged, carved, sliced; scores, perhaps a hundred peaks in all.  When the rising sun first illuminates them, the snow glistens like shiny silver, shimmering in the light of the dawn.  From antiquity to the present, this snow has never melted.  These mountains extend all the way to the land of India and to tributary kingdoms along the border for a distance of I don't know how many thousands of li.  It looks like it is spread out on a table before one.  This spectacular, unique, unsurpassable view was truly the crowning one of my entire life.' 

Last month I was surprised to encounter a fragment of Mt Emei, perched on the summit of a mountain in Switzerland.  This 8 ton lump of basalt, the Emei Stone, was installed on the top of Mt. Rigi in 2015, a year after a Rigi Stone was 'inagurated' on Mt Emei.  They are meant to 'symbolise the cultural and touristic collaboration' between the two mountains.  An explanatory board refers to these landscapes like global corporations, with the exchange symbolising 'the valuable and long-standing partnership between RIGI and EMEI.'  I had not been to Switzerland for a while and was surprised by the number of Chinese tour groups.  There are visitors too from other parts of Asia.  At the bottom of Mount Titlis, a high, snow-capped peak near Rigi, you encounter the inviting smell of Indian street food on sale at the Spice Bistro.  And at its summit, you can take a selfie with cardboard cutout stars of the famous Bollywood film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), which was set in Switzerland (though not actually on Titlis).  The appeal of the Alps for Bollywood directors is discussed in an article for The Smithsonian and the Indian fascination with Switzerland is explored in an interestingby

Mount Rigi became a major tourist destination in the nineteenth century, in part because it is easy to get to from Lucerne.  A Telegraph article on this phenomenon made the connection with Turner's Blue Rigi, a centrepiece of the Tate's 2014 Late Turner show (looking back I see I wrote at the time about Turner's Italian landscapes rather than the exhibition's views of the Alps).  Rigi developed a special appeal, and
'so great was this charisma, that within a couple of decades of Turner’s visit, a stay in Lucerne and an ascent of The Rigi were among the most desirable experiences for any traveller to Continental Europe. In 1857 the first grand hotel opened at the summit, and by 1860 there were 1,000 horses and numerous guides and sedan chairs stationed at the foot of the mountain in Weggis. The highlight of Thomas Cook’s first group tour to Switzerland, in 1863, was an ascent of The Rigi to watch the sunrise, and in 1868 Queen Victoria herself came here, to be carried up to the hotel in a chair, and woken before dawn for the same view.

J.M.W. Turner, The Blue Rigi, Sunrise, c. 1841-42
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mount Emei has a much longer tradition of tourism than Mount Rigi, centred on its temples and the 'silver world' - a sea of clouds - visible from its summit.  In the Qing Dynasty, the poet Tan Zhongyue named ten scenic attractions, including 'Blue Sky After Snowfall on the Great Plateau', 'Crystal Waters and Autumn Winds', and 'Felicitous Light on the Golden Summit'.  Today, the UNESCO World Heritage site acknowledges the threat posed by visitor numbers ('there are numerous drink stands and souvenir stalls which detract from the natural atmosphere of the mountain'), but also notes that 'as a sacred place, Mount Emei has benefited from a long-standing and traditional regime of conservation and restoration.'

A thousand years ago, back in the Song Synasty, Fan Ch'eng-ta's does not mention encountering any other sight-seers.  Perhaps he had the view to himself.  Turner never tried making the ascent of Rigi, possibly put off by the prospect of tourists.  In J. M. W. Turner: A Wonderful Range of Mind, John Gage suggests that 'it may be that he felt the Rigi was already too popular a vantage point, and he did not want to share his experiences with the two or three hundred other tourists who were said to congregate daily on the summit for the dawn.'  Gage quotes an earlier traveller, Henry Matthews, who did make the ascent and what he saw is reminiscent of Fan Ch'eng-ta's vision of dawn on Mt. Emei.  Matthews found it a 'magnificent spectacle' and concluded that experiencing a sunrise on Rigi 'forms an epoch in one's life, which can never be forgotten.'

J.M.W. Turner, The Red Rigi, 1842
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Reichenbach Falls

J. M. W. Turner, The Great Fall of the Reichenbach, in the Valley of Hasle, Switzerland, 1804
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Turner painted the Reichenbach Falls before they became famous as the setting for Sherlock Holmes' apparent death at the hands of Professor Moriarty.  But to what extent were they 'famous' already, before Conan Doyle visited the falls in 1893, or even before Turner arrived in 1802?  The Tate has a sketch by Turner made earlier, in the mid 1790s, after a painting by John Robert Cozens.  The Tour through Switzerland made in 1776 by connoisseur Richard Payne Knight, accompanied by Cozens, influenced later itineraries and it was around this time that the Reichenbach Falls became a destination for early Alpine tourists.  In Leslie Stephen's book on the Alps, The Playground of Europe, he refers to the way geographical features become cultural destinations.  Looking back to geologist Gottlieb Sigmund Gruner's Die Eisgebirge des Schweizerlandes (1760) he notes that the Reichenbach Falls had already become an 'object of interest', separated off from the surrounding landscape, whereas the Rigi (a mountain now particularly associated with Turner) was still a mere 'phenomenon of nature'.

We visited the Reichenbach Falls on a misty day last month and, as you can see from my photographs, it is still an impressive landmark.  Here is Conan Doyle's description in 'The Final Problem'.
It is indeed, a fearful place. The torrent, swollen by the melting snow, plunges into a tremendous abyss, from which the spray rolls up like the smoke from a burning house. The shaft into which the river hurls itself is an immense chasm, lined by glistening coal-black rock, and narrowing into a creaming, boiling pit of incalculable depth, which brims over and shoots the stream onward over its jagged lip. The long sweep of green water roaring forever down, and the thick flickering curtain of spray hissing forever upward, turn a man giddy with their constant whirl and clamour. We stood near the edge peering down at the gleam of the breaking water far below us against the black rocks, and listening to the half-human shout which came booming up with the spray out of the abyss.

The Reichenbach Falls can easily be reached from the village of Meiringen (although to keep Dr Watson away from the action, Conan Doyle made the distance further).  There in the village, next to the Sherlock Holmes museum, Leslie Stephen is commemorated in a dramatic statue.  He looks full of energy, very different from how I usually think of him, as Virginia Woolf's bearded Victorian father, the model for Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse.  Up at the falls there is a plaque, put up in 1991, commemorating the centenary of Holmes's encounter with Moriarty.  It refers to what Conan Doyle later decided had really happened on that narrow path: 'At this fearful place, Sherlock Holmes vanquished Professor Moriarty, on 4 May 1891.'  Thus fiction changes how we experience a landscape.  The lure of particular places is often down to their association with stories and myths, but here we can trace the process over the course of just a few years - from the Reichenbach Falls' preexisting fame, which brought Conan Doyle here in the first place, to their dramatic role in an event that shocked the reading public, and then, after Holmes was brought back from the dead, their subsequent fascination as a site of speculation, which shows no signs of dying away.  

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Landscape near Malines

The Listener magazine, founded by John Reith as a cultural supplement to the BBC's Radio Times, folded in 1991.  I think I remember some sadness when it ended, but it doesn't seem to have been much missed.  'It gradually declined after 1960 as British society changed, the BBC became more plural, and other sources of information became more readily available' (Wikipedia).  There is a digital archive but, perhaps surprisingly for a Reithian product, it is not freely accessible to the public.  Back in the early sixties, the Listener featured essays on art, first broadcast as part of a Home Service series called 'Painting of the Month'.  In each programme, an art expert would discuss in an accessible way a work that could be found in a British museum.  The aim was 'to contribute to the listener's understanding of what the artist is trying to convey, and in this way to increase his enjoyment of painting.'  In addition to the programmes and Listener articles, you could collect separate illustrated supplements each month with notes on the paintings, and keep them in special folders.  My parents still have complete sets of these and the accompanying Listener articles for four years, covering 1962-5.  The example above is for October 1962, when Andrew Forge discussed a landscape by Rubens which hangs in Birmingham University's Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

Peter Paul Rubens, Landscape near Malines, 1630s
See The Barber Insitute, where it is now called A Landscape in Flanders 

The talk on this painting sets it in the context of the great allegories and mythological scenes for which Rubens was famous, and spends some time discussing two of his more famous landscapes.  'The Rainbow Landscape and its great companion the Chateau de Steen in the National Gallery are in a sense no less public utterances than Rubens' figure pieces.'  However, these late works do convey more of a feel for his surroundings than was evident in Rubens' earlier compositions.  Mr Forge (as The Listener calls him) describes the Rainbow Landscape, for all its drama, as inconsistent in its design.  It is only the distant part that looks real - 'here all the busyness of separate incidents is resolved: everything is unified and calm.  Arrived here, one feels suddenly released - no longer tied to categories of things and no longer involved in watching events.'  And it is just this quality that we find in Landscape near Malines.  'The whole landscape turns in front of us, not with the coiling artifice of the earlier pictures but with the simple single unfolding that our own movement brings to landscape.'

Peter Paul Rubens, Rainbow Landscape, c. 1636
Source: Wikimedia Commons 

Over the course of 1962 Andrew Forge discussed two more landscapes, Constable's Leaping Horse and Matisse's Tree near Trivaux Pond.  Other speakers did three programmes each on still life, figure painting and portraits.  In 1963 the entire series was devoted to Renaissance art, which meant landscape was only touched upon, e.g. in Bryan Robertson's talk on Leonardo's The Virgin of the Rocks.  I have to admit to being fascinated by some of the advertisements in the old Listener magazines - turning from Leonardo you come to a full page ad for the British Iron and Steel Federation ('Britain needs more homes fast.  Steel shows the way in multi-story flats...')   In 1964 the series had twice as many paintings and included landscapes by Canaletto and Turner.  In 1965 the focus was on British art and there were landscapes by Gainsborough, Crome, Constable and Turner.  Perhaps I will draw on some of these essays in future.

I can't resist a list, especially a chronological one, so I was interested to see in the introduction to the 1962 series a table of 'Some Important Paintings in Europe in the Four Categories covered by the Talks.'  There are sixty in the landscape list, beginning with Lorenzetti's Good and Bad Government (which I wrote about here nine years ago) and ending with the Matisse I mentioned above.  Nothing more recent than Matisse and only five on the list by artists born in the nineteenth century.  This was the BBC that would soon commission Civilisation so the skew towards Old Masters is not surprising (nearly half the artists on the landscape list were born before 1500).  There is no mention of Caspar David Friedrich - as I have noted here before, he was barely known in Britain before the 1970s.  Here are the works on this list I have featured here before - just a fraction of them, because even though this is my 996th post on Some Landscapes, I have only scratched the surface of the history of landscape art.

Friday, September 08, 2017

An architectural view surrounded by trompe-l’oeil elements

 Charles-Joseph Flipart, Landscape with an architectural view surrounded by trompe-l’oeil elements symbolising the Arts, c. 1779 
Image from the Prado site for non-commercial use

This painting is two things at once, a still-life and a landscape.  The landscape has a mysterious, De Chirico feel to it, with its strange architectural fragments rendered in slightly unsettling perspective and absence of people beyond those visible in the foreground.  In the centre, out of scale with the huge columns, there is what appears to be a curious quincunx-like arrangement of short pillars or steles, until you realise these are actually skittles.  It was painted as the design for a console table, which could have had actual fruit, books and musical instruments placed on it.  The Prado has another similar sketch by Flipart which also shows ruins casting long shadows.  In both paintings leaves curl round the border of the landscape - they could be part of the still life or the world beyond.

Image from the Prado site for non-commercial use

I am not sure how numerous hybrid works combining still life and landscape are, but in a recent exhibition I saw Flipart's Landscape with an architectural view hanging next to the painting below.  Here too, the eye can focus for a while on the foreground detail, yet cannot help being drawn away into the sunlit space of the landscape.  Perhaps those alluring distances offered the paintings' owners a respite from the decorative excess of their own interiors.  Flipart also did one of his still life/landscapes with a view out to sea and there are parallels in the two artists' careers. Johann Rudolf Bys (1660–1738) was Swiss but became a court painter in Prague after travels that took him to Germany, Holland and England.  Charles-Joseph Flipart (1721–1797), who was French, also travelled in Europe before becoming court painter in Spain. 

Johann Rudolf Bys, Flower Still Life with Veduta in a Cartouche, before 1713
Kunstmuseum Basel's ¡Hola Prado! exhibition - photography permitted

The flowers in the painting by Bys are reminiscent of those used by other artists at that time to create intricate illusionistic borders.  Garlands surround images of the holy family in seventeenth century paintings by the Breughels and other Flemish artists.  The art of Abraham Brueghel (1631 – c. 1690) is diverse but always full of flowers and in one example in Zagreb they frame a sunlit country scene.  There have been many artists who painted still life in the foreground of a landscape - the dead game paintings of Jan Weenix, for example - but fewer who separated the two and gave them equal prominence within the same painting.  Perhaps there is still potential in this genre - I'm thinking of what George Shaw might do: a sylvan landscape surrounded by trompe-l'œil renderings of the bottles, discarded clothes and other litter to be found in our woodlands.  But there is something fresh in the paintings of Bys and Flipart, in their fascination and delight in nature and culture, that seems to arise directly from the dreams and desires of early modern Europe.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

A meadow, a wood, and a few peaceful houses

'For anyone who has watched with anticipation as the writings of Robert Walser (1878-1956) have slowly appeared in English over the past two decades or so, Carl Seelig’s Wanderungen mit Robert Walser has been high atop the list of Walser-related books we have wanted to see translated. This is Seelig’s narration of dozens of walks and conversations that he had with the writer over the twenty-year span from 1936 to 1956, when, usually several times a year, he would call upon Walser at a sanatorium in Herisau, Switzerland, where Walser had lived since 1933.  [...] Now, sixty years after its first appearance, Seelig’s book has finally appeared in English as Walks with Walser (New Directions) and it doesn’t disappoint. On those long walks through the countryside and nearby villages, Seelig tried to draw the reticent Walser into talking about his past, his books, other writers, and numerous topics of interest. Walser, it turns out, seems to have been more or less like some of the great characters in his fiction — a delightful and sometimes wily crank who could easily have been mistaken for an unsophisticated soul.' - Terry Pitts, on his always-fascinating Sebaldian blog, Vertigo, 6 July 2017
Last month I had the pleasure of reading Walks with Walser in Switzerland, though sadly not in the region where Walser and Seelig did their walking. I won't set down here my own reflections on this marvellous book because you can read other reviews online - I recommend an excellent piece by Dorian Stuber (like him I am intrigued to know the fate of Bob Skinner's earlier, never-published  translation).  What I have done though, in addition to plotting the dates in a chart (see below - the gaps are in 1939 and 1951), is create a map of the forty-four walks described by Seelig.  Click on one and you will see I have included a short quote which, where possible, relates to the landscape they passed through.  The colours refer to the seasons and my use of a little sporty hiker icon is a joke, because Walser did all these often-strenuous sounding hikes wearing a suit and carrying an umbrella, as can be seen in the photograph used on the book's cover.

Here are twelve of the quotes used on the map:
July 26 1936 (the first walk).
'Silence is the narrow path on which we approach each other. Our heads burning in the sun, we ramble through the landscape - the hilly, tranquil landscape of woods and meadows.'

June 27 1937
'Incidental remark: "Nature does not need to make an effort to be meaningful. It simply is."' 
April 15 1938
'Robert stops often to admire the charm of a hill-top, the sturdiness of a tavern, the blue of the paschal day, the peaceful seclusion of a stretch of landscape, or a greenish-brown clearing.'
July 20 1941
On the way to Appenzell they see a baroque building.
"Shall we look in?"
"Such things are prettier from the outside.  One need not investigate every secret."

May 16 1943
'He says "I don't care a fig about superb views and backdrops.  When what is distant disappears, what is near tenderly draws nearer.  What more do we need to be satisfied than a meadow, a wood, and a few peaceful houses.'
July 24 1944
'As we reach the church in Arbon, an air-raid siren wails.  We hear the crack of antiaircraft guns on the far shore of Lake Constance.  Robert grows quiet.'
April 9 1945
'Far above us, a dogfight. The farmers stop their work and stare at the sky.  Robert, on the other hand, turns to the fir trees and flowers, the clean little Appenzell houses and steep rocky slopes.  For him the whole morning walk is one great delight.'

September 23 1945
'He comments that he often welcomes rain.  It makes the colours and scents more intense, and under an umbrella one can feel quite at home.'

November 3 1947
'A silent hike to Oberberg Schloss, which lies perched on a hill.  The honey-yellow flames of the fruit trees seem to soothe Robert a little.'

January 23 1949
'We climb higher up the Freudenberg, past frozen ponds and into snowy woods.  "It's like a fairy tale," he whispers, laying his hand lightly on my arm.'

Christmas 1952
'We enjoy these springlike hours, praising the woods, Lake Constance, which shimmers like a landscape of dunes, and the joy of walking.'

July 17 1955
The penultimate walk recorded by Seelig. 'Is his condition more serious than I realize?  I am wracked with worry.  As we part his last words are: "Did you see the heavenly colours of Lake Constance?"'
I have chosen these quotes because they convey an idea of Robert Walser's attitude to landscape, something I have discussed here several times before, e.g. in his novel The Assistant.  But they give a very unrepresentative idea of Walks with Walser, which is full of fascinating biographical material and Walser's thoughts on writers and books.  Then there's the food... I could easily have made an alternative Google Map based on the breakfasts and lunches the two writers enjoyed on their day-long excursions.  Last month I visited the Robert Walser Zentrum in Bern and talked to one of the team there about Walks with Walser - we agreed that both the length of the walks and the writers' appetite for good food and wine afterwards was impressive and life-affirming.  There is great poignancy in the contrast between these moments and Walser's daily life in the hospital at Herisau.

I took these two photographs in the Robert Walser Zentrum.  The first shows a beautiful, very expensive set of Walser manuscripts published by Schwabe, the world's oldest publisher (founded in 1488).  The second is a bookshelf which gives the impression there is still a lot more by and about Walser that it would be wonderful to have in English.  In one of the last walks with Walser, Seelig told him about the first English translations that had just appeared, done by Christopher Middleton 'with admirable sensitivity'.  Walser responded 'with a curt "Really!"'  Walks with Walser ends a few pages later with Walser's death during his final solitary walk on Christmas Day 1956.  There is snow everywhere and the sun is weak, 'tenderly melancholic and hesitant, as if today it would like to give the lovely landscape over to night sooner than usual.'

Friday, September 01, 2017

Crags, upon whose extreme edge I stand...

And thou fresh breaking Day, and you, ye Mountains,
Why are ye beautiful? I cannot love ye.
And thou, the bright eye of the universe,
That openest over all, and unto all
Art a delight—thou shin’st not on my heart.
And you, ye crags, upon whose extreme edge
I stand, and on the torrent’s brink beneath
Behold the tall pines dwindled as to shrubs
In dizziness of distance; when a leap,
A stir, a motion, even a breath, would bring
My breast upon its rocky bosom’s bed
To rest for ever—wherefore do I pause?

Lord Byron's poetic drama, Manfred, begun in 1816 when he was living in Switzerland, was published two hundred years ago.  Although its hero resembles Faust, the poem was, Byron claimed, more influenced by his impressions of the mountain landscape than his reading of Goethe.  There are no lengthy descriptions of scenery in Byron's poem, just enough to convey a sense of the high peaks where it is set (the quotation above is from Act 1 Scene 2: 'The Mountain of the Jungfrau.—Time, Morning. MANFRED alone upon the Cliffs.')  Instead, it is the entire poem that has the sublimity of the Alps, its themes of loss and despair echoing the spectacular but lonely isolation experienced on their heights.  Reading Manfred reminded me that works of art infused with a spirit of place are far more numerous than the ones I tend to restrict myself to here, that describe the actual appearance of a landscape.

Thomas Cole, Scene from 'Manfred', 1833
Source: Wikimedia Commons
There is one reference in Manfred to a natural phenomenon that is based on what Byron saw on 22 September, 1816.   He and his travelling companion John Cam Hobhouse were in the Lauterbrunnen Valley, looking up at the The Staubbach Fall.  Byron wrote in his journal that the torrent reminded him of the tail of a pale horse, such as Death might ride at the Apocalypse.  The next day they returned and Byron noted 'the Sun upon it forming a rainbow of the lower part of all colours – but principally purple and gold – the bow moving as you move – I never saw anything like this – it is only in the Sunshine.'  These impressions were used to set the scene for Act 2 Scene 2, with Byron also including a footnote on the rainbow.
It is not noon; the sunbow’s rays1 still arch
The torrent with the many hues of heaven,
And roll the sheeted silver’s waving column
O’er the crag’s headlong perpendicular,
And fling its lines of foaming light along,
And to and fro, like the pale courser’s tail
The Giant steed, to be bestrode by Death,
As told in the Apocalypse.
1This Iris is formed by the rays of the Sun over the lower part of the Alpine torrents. It is exactly like a rainbow come down to pay a visit, and so close that you may walk into it. This effect lasts till Noon.

A rainbow in the Trümmelbach Falls
Photographed by me, August 2017

We were in the Bernese Oberland ourselves last month and observed one of these rainbows in a waterfall near the one Byron visited.  We also ascended to the top of the Schilthorn, to look as he and Hobhouse had, across to the summit of the Jungfrau.  Byron saw clouds gathering on one side - 'curling up perpendicular precipices – like the foam of the Ocean of Hell during a Springtide – it was white & sulphery – and immeasurably deep in appearance.'  We picked a beautiful clear day, so clear that we could see Mont Blanc.  The downside of this was that the summit was pretty crowded with other tourists.  Even Byron could not enjoy the sight of the Jungfrau in solitude.  'Lying down for a few minutes to contemplate these wonders, Hobhouse and Byron were irritated by the sudden appearance of two or three female tourists on horseback when they had imagined they had the mountain to themselves' (Fiona MacCarthy, Byron: Life and Legend).

The Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau
Photographed by me, August 2017

Byron's hero has to get away from other people: 'my nature was averse from life; / And yet not cruel; for I would not make,  / But find a desolation.'  Manfred thinks he is alone on the summit of the Jungfrau, but he too is disturbed - by the unexpected appearance of a passing chamois hunter.  Death may be Manfred's inevitable fate at the end of the poem, but now, in its opening scene, this hunter prevents him from jumping into the void and leads him back down to safety:
The clouds grow thicker—there—now lean on me—
Place your foot here—here, take this staff, and cling
A moment to that shrub—now give me your hand,
And hold fast by my girdle—softly—well—
The Chalet will be gain’d within an hour.

John Martin, Manfred on the Jungfrau, 1837
Source: Wikimedia Commons