Thursday, December 28, 2017

Primeval world

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

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

Josef Kuwasseg, Primeval world, c. 1850

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

Josef Kuwasseg, Leopoldsteinersee, no date
Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Landscape of the Megaliths

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

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

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

    John Constable, Stonehenge, 1835

Postscript 27/12/17

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

Saturday, December 16, 2017

A winding river and a bridge

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Streams, falling from the heights

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

Rufin Sudkovsky, Darial Gorge, 1884
Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

Friday, December 01, 2017

Withert vines, auld trees, derknin crows

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

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

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

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

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