Saturday, November 17, 2018

Land Makar


Land Makar is a half hour film by Margaret Tait, whose centenary is being celebrated this year.  Here is a brief description from the BFI's website, where it is listed as one of '10 films that defined Tait’s filmmaking style.'
'Starting with harvest, Land Makar (‘makar’ is a Scottish word for poet) is divided into seasons. The main character, Tait’s farming neighbour Mary Graham Sinclair, is filmed driving a tractor on the fields of an Orkney croft, going about her daily activity on the land and talking about “the beauty of a work day”. Tait started filming this place in 1977, observing the hard labour and activities that define the land. With Sinclair, she also explores the rarely told story of women and land labour.'
Maragaret Tait was a doctor-poet (like William Carlos Williams) as well as a film maker.  In a recent piece about Land Makar, for Sight and Sound, Becca Voelcker quotes the poem 'Now' in which Tait advises the reader to take poetry quickly, 'without water'.
'For Tait, poems are as ephemeral as wildflowers.  Prescribing a quickness of mind and body, like a capsule 'without water', the poem ends with urgency: 'Tomorrow they'll be something else.'  The poem, like Land Makar, imagines place as a cluster of transforming elements.  For Tait, landscape is a continuing process.'


I went to see Land Makar last week - it was part of the BFI season 'Rhythm and Poetry: The Films of Margaret Tait'.  Watching Sinclair on her tractor, scything long grass and climbing onto a compost heap, it was impossible not to admire her energy - all the physical effort put into this stretch of land.  At one point she recalls helping some swans build their nests (I caught the drift of this, but found the Orcadian dialect impossible to follow exactly).  Voelcker quotes another poem, 'The Scale of things', where Tait describes 'all the tiny plants and flowers / Which, together interlaced and inter-related, / Make the fine springing turf which people and animals / walk on.'  Crofters and poets (and swans) are makers' whose collective labour sustains the land.' 

Land Makar was shown at the NFT with The Drift Back (1956), a ten minute 'offical' documentary on the return of some families to Orkney, and The Big Sheep (1966), a 41 minute essay film concerning the landscape of East Sutherland, with striking music and sound effects.  Here is Margaret Tait's own description of The Big Sheep:
"A picture of East Sutherland in 1966. Tourists come north, coach-load after coach-load; and here is the countryside they come to see, dotted with sheep continually nibbling at grass and whin. Then the lamb sales, an open-air auction, after which the lambs are carried south, float after float. Vote, vote, vote, on the posters for a general election, but "Why don't you get your sheep to go and fight for you ? " echoes a voice from the past, at the sight of a recruiting poster at the local Drill Hall. In the glens stand stand roofless houses, as well as more ancient (prehistoric) remains, beside the Highland river.

PART TWO and the seaboard life of today; the railway line along the very edge of that marvellous strip of coast, school sports near the salmon river, crofter's fields where the Cheviot sheep now figure, local buses, electricity, the Highland Games and pibroch contest. Then John N MacAskill plays the "Lament for Donald of Laggan", while a small burn tumbles endlessly seaward, sometimes quietly, sometimes spate, and the film searches the same few yards of it again and again, watching along with the coalman who stands listening to the sound of it as if he could listen to it for ever."
It was that final sequence that I found most moving, with the pibroch constantly changing as it flowed from the pipes, before giving way to the natural music of the river.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Soundless hang mountain waterfalls, rainbows of jade

I have been reading J. D. Frodsham's translations, The Collected Poems of Li He, recently reissued by Calligrams.  If you are not familiar with Li He (790-816), here's how he's described in the blurb:
Li He is the bad-boy poet of the late Tang dynasty. He began writing at the age of seven and died at twenty-six from alcoholism or, according to a later commentator, “sexual dissipation,” or both. An obscure and unsuccessful relative of the imperial family, he would set out at dawn on horseback, pause, write a poem, and toss the paper away. A servant boy followed him to collect these scraps in a tapestry bag.
The book is wonderfully well-furnished with notes and an extensive introduction.  There is a short analysis of Li He's use of colour, similar to what I wrote about recently in relation to Georg Trakl (1887-1914).  Despite living 1,100 years and over 7000 km apart, Li He and Trakl had a lot in common.  I mentioned Trakl's use of black - 'black decay, black snow, black wind, black waters, black silence'.  For Li He, there was white, which in China is associated with mourning and misfortune.  'Even in the West, psychologists tend to associate a strong liking for white with psychic abnormality ... He's landscapes, drenched in this white radiance, shine with an unearthly pallor.' 

Li He in Wanxiaotang Zhuzhuang Huazhuan (1743)

Frodsham writes that Li He 'was haunted by the mystery of whiteness as another great, poet, Lorca, was haunted by the spell of green.'  This is a reference to Lorca's 'Romance Sonambulo' which begins 'Verde que te quiero verde', 'Green, how I want you green.'  Start looking for doomed poets who were obsessed with colour and you will quickly encounter other cases.  Dylan Thomas, for example, uses green 46 times in his poetry, black 39 and white 37.  This information comes from a 1972 article comparing Thomas and Lorca's use of green.  'Fern Hill' is the Thomas poem most infused with the colour green, where it means youth, innocence, and the hills and fields around a Carmarthenshire farmhouse where the poet went to stay as a boy.  

An analysis by Eliot Slater revealed that Shelley and Keats were 'relatively abundent' in their use of colour.  However, 'Shelley uses for the greater part straightforward and commonplace words: yellow, blue, snowy, purple, green, grey, white, black, golden, hoary, dun, azure, etc., and very rarely such exotic terms as "moonlight‑coloured". Keats is much freer with such words, and phrases as vermeil, damask, verdurous, Tyrian, rubious‑argent, ruddy gules, volcanian yellow, etc.'  Shelley favoured blue and green, Keats used white more than any other colour.

Which brings us back to Li He... J. D. Frodsham provides a table showing that white (bai), ecru (su) and jade-white (yu) appear 172 times in Li He's poetry.  After that, comes gold or metal (jin, 73), red (hong, 69), blue-green (ching, 68), emerald (lu, 48), yellow (huang, 45), sapphire (bi, 26) and purple (zi, 25).  Frodsham lists of some of the 'white' lines in Li's verse (which is what I did for Trakl, only with blue). For example,  

The entire mountain bathed in a white dawn
A white sky, water like raw silk.
Jade mist on green water / like pennants of white.
And, as Frodsham writes, it is against this pallid background that 'the other colours burn with a brilliant flame...'
A thousand hills of darkest emerald

Smoky yellow mantles the willows 

Twilight purple freezes in the dappled sky
I will end here with a longer quote, as these isolated lines cannot do Li He's poems (and Frodsham's translations) justice at all.  I think it should be alright to include one whole short poem here, 'Cold up North', which describes ice on the Yellow River (a subject I once wrote a whole post about here).  The poem is unusually straightforward for Li He, and requires no particular explanation.  In its colours, it moves from the darkness of a winter sky to the jade white of frozen waterfalls.
One quarter lours black while three turn purple,
Ice vaults the Yellow River, fish and dragons die.
Tree-bark three feet thick splits against the grain,
Chariots of a ton or more travel on the river.

Frost-flowers on the grass, big as silver-coins,
No brandished blade could penetrate the sombre sky.
Swirling in a raging sea the flying ice-floes roar,
Soundless hang mountain waterfalls, rainbows of jade.

Monday, October 29, 2018

The Narrow Waters

In Julien Gracq's fluvial revery The Narrow Waters (1976) he recalls the childhood sensation of being drawn down the river Evre by an almost imperceptible current.  It was a memory that would provoke intense pleasure when he came to read 'The Domain of Arnheim', a story by Edgar Allan Poe that I discussed here a few years ago, in which the narrator's skiff seems to be pulled along by an invisible force. Then, again, 'years later, Lohengrin's swan moving up- and downstream on the imaginary waterways of the opera scene recalled once again, momentarily, that sensation of an almost troubling happiness.'  I too love this image of a boat gliding with no obvious means of propulsion, taking its passenger to some special destination.  It can be found in various legends associated, like Lohengrin, with King Arthur: indeed the Grail itself is said to have arrived in Britain this way, carried by Joseph of Arimathea in a ship guided by God.  

Wang Ximeng, A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains (detail), 1113

Later in The Narrow Waters, Gracq returns to the theme of the effortless river journey.
'Only Chinese painting (Song Dynasty landscapes in particular) has been haunted by the humble theme of a solitary rowboat moving through a wooded gorge.  Clearly the great charm of such an image derives from the contrast between the sheer physical effort evoked by the steep slopes and the level, incredible ease of the river flowing eternally between peaks: the jubilant feeling born, in the dreamer's consciousness, of the discovery of an effortless solution to contradictions here becomes a fixed reality.  Vaulted tree branches beneath which one glides along, branches of rock-loving pines that hang in angles over the water in Chinese drawings, intensify the feeling of calm intoxication and can give way, in a moment - with the whimsy of a ribbon of water ringed by precipices - to a protected intimacy, the alluring fancy of canopies of trees cradling a canal that runs straight into the horizon.'
At the end of the book, Gracq reflects on why he is not tempted to return to the Evre and make this journey again. It is 'not the fear of dispelling the charm of memories.  Rather, it's the impossibility of reanimating a dream, or at least of finding again its rhythm which, although devoid of any notion of speed, never ceases to change.'

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Nothing will take place, but the place.


Flicking through a book my son got out of the library last week called 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, I came to the year 1982.  Bladerunner, E.T, Gandhi are all there of course, but the first 'movie' you come to for that year is Trop Tôt, Trop Tard by Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet.  The half page entry for this film (Too Early, Too Late in English) was written by Jonathan Rosenbaum, who calls it 'one of the best landscape films', making me wonder if perhaps he could write a book called 1001 Landscape Films You Must See Before You Die.  His entry in the book is reproduced in full online, so I will quote its description of the film here:
'The first part shows a series of locations in contemporary France, accompanied by Huillet reading part of a letter Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Kautsky describing the impoverished state of French peasants, and excerpts from the “Notebooks of Grievances” compiled in 1789 by the village mayors of those same locales in response to plans for further taxation. The especially fine second section, roughly twice as long, does the same thing with a more recent Marxist text by Mahmoud Hussein about Egyptian peasants' resistance to English occupation prior to the “petit-bourgeois” revolution of Neguib in 1952. Both sections suggest that the peasants revolted too soon and succeeded too late. One of the film's formal inspirations is Beethoven's late quartets, and its slow rhythm is central to the experience it yields; what's remarkable about Straub and Huillet's beautiful long takes is how their rigorous attention to both sound and image seems to open up an entire universe, whether in front of a large urban factory or out on a country road.' 

None of the landscape footage in the film is particularly picturesque, it just seems to record the countryside as the filmmakers found it.  This unprepossessing muddy track, for example, appears just over an hour into the film, in the Egyptian section. The camera slowly pans across fields to this point and stays motionless for almost five minutes as a few figures pass, going about their business.  The view is fixed. You cannot turn around to see what a noise off screen might be or look more closely at something in the foreground. As people slowly approach you are almost forced to wonder what brought them here at this particular moment, about their lives and the lives of everyone around them.

The length, form and sequence of shots in the film seems almost arbitrary, so when this one ends at the point that an aeroplane can be heard overhead, you wonder if you should hear this as a symbol and a reminder that there is nothing 'timeless' in this view, or simply regard it as another chance element of the soundscape. The shot that follows this is another long take, this time from a vehicle travelling along a road.  Watching this reminded me of recent experiments in slow television, although these have been much more glossy and set in landscapes with clear visual appeal.  The rather grainy 16mm footage of Too Early, Too Late is sometimes reminiscent of Shoah, which I wrote about here last year.  Landscape in these films has to convey authenticity, both in the moment of its filming and the political history it has passed through.  

In 2011 Staub was interviewed during the Egyptian uprising, which seemed to add another layer of meaning to the film. The opening exchange does not auger well: 'Céline Condorelli: I only have three questions for you. Jean-Marie Straub: That’s very good, because I don’t have anything to say about this film.'  However, Straub does have some interesting things to say, e.g. about the reasons for juxtaposing as 'a diptych' the French and Egyptian footage - 'to compare places that in France look deserted with places that in Egypt are full of life and people.'  I will conclude here with three quotes from the interview, pertaining to landscape.
CC: [...] How does one choose the appropriate position for the camera?  JMS: That is the least one can do when filming…. You need to go there and walk around. Walk around a place or a village three times, and find the right topographic, strategic point. In a way that one may be able to see something, but without destroying the mystery of what one sees… but this isn’t specific to this film, this is the case in all our films.
JMS: [...] There is an element of fiction, but it comes from the place itself. When you see a donkey passing by chance, and of course this only happened for one take, pulled with a rope by a man, with a woman sitting on it… of course this becomes mythological.  Things like this cannot be anticipated, and are the gift of chance. But of course you need to have enough time, margins, and space for things like that to occur.
CC: But does the topography speak, can it have a voice?  JMS: Well cinema is, or should be, the art of space. Even though a film exists only if that space is able to become time. But the basic work is space. As Mallarmé said: “Nothing will take place, but the place.”

Friday, October 19, 2018

Ground Work

Tim Dee has edited a new collection of place writing called Ground Work.  His introduction recalls an earlier version of the same idea, Ronald Blythe's Places (1981), which featured people like John Betjeman, Susan Hill, Alan Sillitoe and Jan Morris; it's mood was 'wistful and elegiac'.   few years later, Richard Mabey's Second Nature (1984), made for Common Ground, included big names like John Fowles, Fay Weldon and John Berger alongside art by Henry Moore, Richard Long, David Nash and others.  It too was predominantly backward looking.  Ground Work aims to look beyond the picturesque and pretty, at places that are not famous but mean something special to the authors.  However, this degree of attachment means that you will still encounter idylls of various kinds, though some have disappeared or have come under threat.  It is a little hard not to envy some of these writers their childhoods out in nature or the time they have to spend in agreeable places (the Bodleian Library, a wilderness retreat in Finland, an old garden in the Cevannes...)  There are authors who have been able to beautify a ninety-acre Sussex farm, buy a thirty-one foot sloop 'for a book project', or acquire a wood in order to restore it from neglect.  I have to say though that this last example, in an essay by Richard Mabey, was a highlight of the book: his reflections on the moral quandaries of landscape management are fascinating.

Richard Huws, Piazza Waterfall ('Tipping Buckets'), 1967
Photograph taken on my phone, earlier this week.

Given my interest in art, I particularly enjoyed 'Tipping Buckets', the contribution by poet and edgelends explorer Paul Farley, which finds different metaphors in a piece of urban sculpture.  The work in question can be found in a small square near the waterfront in Liverpool.  As I was in Liverpool on Monday I popped down to see it, but sadly there was no sign of life - the buckets were not even 'chugging away in their backwater', they were still and the 'piazza' was empty.  A lot of the writing in Ground Work focuses in on small sites like this - an allotment plot, a bridge, a back garden, a bird hide.  However, in order to justify mentioning the book on this blog I will end here by highlighting an essay that features both landscape and poetry.  'At the Edge of the Tide' is by Michael Viney, a journalist and nature writer originally from Brighton, where I grew up, but resident in Ireland since before I was born. It describes the beach by his home, 'an acre on the wilder coast of County Mayo'.

Viney has explored the strand in the company of two close friends, an ornithologist called David Cabot and the poet Michael Longley, who comes down from Belfast to 'immerse himself in the landscape'. Back in 1993 they even made a film together - sadly I can't find this online.  Over the years, watching birds and looking for rare plants, they have seen the place change - most recently in the interests of promoting tourism.  He quotes a poem by Michael Longley:
'Now that the Owennadornaun has disappeared
For you and me where our two townlands meet,
The peaty water takes the long way round
Through Morrison's fields and our imaginations.
The Owennadornaun was the little river whose ford near the bottom of the boreen was so rich in the spirit of place. A sill of rock made a shallow waterfall just above the crossing, with the sun above the mountain to catch each ripple and splash.  It was here I saw my first dipper, walking under water, and where, in summer, sand martins came to nest in holes in the bank.  There were pied and grey wagtails dancing at the edge and, once or twice, a sandpiper.
This has all gone. [...] A car park behind the strand, with a summer loo, was clearly essential to setting up the Wild Atlantic Way. It meant diversion of the little river and a road bridge built above its bed, this now remaining dry and quite birdless.' 

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Reading in the Wilderness

 Giovanni Bellini, detail from Saint Jerome Reading in the Wilderness, c. 1485
National Gallery. Source: Wikimedia Commons

I've not yet been to see the new Bellini-Mantegna exhibition although I see Jonathan Jones was unimpressed (this is not necessarily a bad sign, of course).  However, the Bellini exhibition I would really like to have seen took place in Los Angeles last year, and focused on his treatment of landscape. The Getty Museum's catalogue is excellent and highlighted for me how our understanding of this great artist is still changing as new facts emerge.  Here I want to focus on Bellini's paintings of Saint Jerome, which are the subject of a catalogue essay by Hans Belting.  Bellini depicts Jerome as if he is a humanist in a library rather than a penitent in the desert.  His paintings can thus be seen as versions of an ideal I have referred to many times on this blog: scholarly retreat to a secluded place, surrounded by nature. In the Uffizi version below, 'the saint's attentive look captures the scene's total silence, interrupted only by voices of birds and running water.'
Giovanni Bellini, Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, c. 1480
Galleria degli Uffizi. Source: Wikimedia Commons

What of the landscape behind Saint Jerome? Here is Belting's description:
'Alongside a river, a zone of barren land puts the fortification of a walled city into the farthest distance.  It is crossed by a long, winding path, which allows us to measure the journey to reach the solitary place.  A hind and a stag roam freely in this depopulated land, while humans appear only below the city walls. The river is flanked by settlements, the city or castello with a Venetian bell tower, and, on the other side, some sort of fortified monastery that resembles San Vitale in Ravenna. The topographical allusions have found various interpretations, since the cityscape is, in Felton Gibbons's words, "a curious potpourri of identifiable monuments".  Only the ruinous bridge over the river, connected to the city gates by wooden planks, seems to be a true portrayal of the old Roman bridge in Rimini as it looked in Bellini's time.  What matters is the realism of the Venetian settlements in the background and the contrasting view of solitary life in nature.'
Giovanni Bellini, Saint Jerome Reading in the Wilderness, c. 1485
National Gallery. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Here in London, the National Gallery has a very similar version of this composition (above), with the saint again intent on his book, but a different landscape behind him.  This painting was in the Getty Museum's exhibition, along with a later panel now in Washington (below), in which the saint sits by the entrance to a grotto.  A whole range of possible allusions have been found in its detailed landscape, which Bellini painted with the attention to detail we would associate with Flemish artists. As Susannah Rutherglen's catalogue essay points out, these are often contradictory...
  • A lizard is possibly a reference to the Garden of Eden's serpent or the concept of Resurrection, though in its darting motion it could equally be a metaphor for the saint's lively intellect.
  • A pair of rabbits facing each other could suggest either Christian meekness or sinful lust.
  • A squirrel may refer to intellectual pride or resistance to adversity.
  • A fig tree might symbolise temptation, but could also refer to the cross.
  • The water in a cistern could be associated with both 'demonic polymorphism and the rite of Baptism'    
  • And a bird of prey suggests either magnanimity or mystical contemplation, but also looms over the scene as a symbol of death.

Giovanni Bellini, Saint Jerome Reading in the Wilderness, 1505
National Gallery of Art, Washington. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Finally, there is an unusual altarpiece which Bellini painted as an old man. By this stage he had come under the influence of Giorgione (and outlived him).  Jerome is again shown reading, sitting on the trunk of a fig tree.  Belting quotes Roger Fry, writing in 1899, who found this 
'the strangest, most romantic enthronement ever conceived - an old hermit, who has grown by long years of secluded contemplation into mysterious sympathy with the rocks and plants and trees of his mountain solitude, sits in a scarlet robe, silhouetted against a golden sunset sky, across which faint purplish clouds are driven by the wind; and below him there spreads a vast expanse of valley and mountain ridges.  Bellini's intimate Wordsworthian feeling for the moods of wild nature finds here its remotest and sublimest expression.'
Giovanni Bellini, Saint Jerome with Saint Christopher and Saint Louis of Toulouse, 1513
Church of San Giovanni Crisostomo, Venice. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Sacred landscapes


Simon Bening, The Baptism of Christ and The Temptation of Christ, c. 1525-30

Last year the J. Paul Getty Museum mounted an exhibition called Sacred Landscapes: Nature in Renaissance Manuscripts. The catalogue contains many appealing images that I am tempted to share here, although of course landscape itself is rarely the main subject of these paintings.  The full page illustrations above are in a prayer book, commissioned by Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, Elector and Archbishop of Mainz.  In these two scenes certain elements of the landscape settings seem deliberately to echo each other: the cliff, the river, the distant blue mountain.  They were the work of perhaps the greatest of miniature painters, Simon Bening, who was based in Bruges and specialised in books of hours. Interestingly, as the Getty website explains, Bening's 'eldest daughter, Livinia, became court painter to Edward VI of England, and another daughter became a dealer in paintings, miniatures, parchment, and silk.'

These illustrations are both 6⅝ by 4½ inches - similar to a small paperback (an old Pelican book I have to hand by Jacquetta Hawkes measures about 7 by 4½ inches). The Getty site allows you to zoom into these images in great detail, noting the beauty of their colours and delicacy of Bening's brushwork, before quickly losing yourself in their imaginary worlds. In the baptism scene, you can peer down into the water, whose ripples are picked up in the curving forms of reeds and riverbank, or look into the distance where a boat glides past rocks the colour of clouds.  In the temptation scene, deer graze on the slopes and venture down to drink from the winding river. The mountain peak is painted in blues, pinks and orange that resemble a pastel by Degas, or a watercolour by Cézanne. The two figures looking down from this summit represent another part of the Bible story. 'The devil takes Christ to a high mountain from which all the kingdoms of the world can be seen and offers him these lands if Christ agrees to adore him. Jesus coolly refuses all of these temptations and commands the devil to leave.'

Sunday, September 23, 2018

A view of the gardens of the Palais du Luxembourg

Jacques-Louis David, View of the Gardens of the Palais du Luxembourg, 1794 

'After walking through a play area, as usual not very pretty – poorly designed swings and toboggans, painted in glaring colours, since it is an established fact that children have no taste – I enter a piece of woodland that seems almost wild, as the gardeners have taken care to let it grow with the least constraint possible. Then, between the edge of this forest and the side of the square, marked by the walls of the Mobilier National, in the centre of the open space we find a 'creation' – in the sense that Encelade's copse at Versailles is a creation. There is a topiary quincunx of box bushes, with roses in the middle: four open semi-cylindrical arbours frame a small obelisk of raw stone. The roses climb over the arbours and embrace the obelisk. To give an idea of the charm of the place, you have to recall one of those painters who were not landscape artists but painted almost by chance a single landscape – I have in mind the Villa Medici Gardens by Velázquez, or David‘s view of the Luxembourg, painted from the cell where he awaited the guillotine after Thermidor.'
-  Eric Hazan, describing the Square René-Le Gall in A Walk Through Paris, translated by David Fernbach, 2018

Diego Velázquez, View of the Garden of the Villa Medici, c. 1630

Reading this passage I thought it was an interesting way of describing the charm of an urban park, encountered as unexpectedly as these modest landscape views among the works of artists known for their figure painting.  I wrote here last year about the Velázquez, but what of David's painting? There was actually a good article devoted to it in The Independent a few years ago, by Michael Glover. In the course of it h, discusses details like that group of figures engaged in some sort of activity.  
'Are these people raking the earth itself? Are they mark-making? Are they engaged in an inscrutable game of some kind? What we do know for certain is that after the Revolution, parts of the Luxembourg Gardens were handed over to be tilled by the common people – in the new spirit of egalitarianism, no doubt. There is not much to be tilled here though, not at this time of year, not much evidence at all of Keats's season of mellow fruitfulness.'  
Why was David confined to this cell?  I have written a post here before about the artificial landscape he designed for the first Celebration of the Supreme Being in June 1794.  This marked the zenith of Robespierre's power - already people were turning against him and within a month he had been guillotined.  David, apparently ill, managed to avoid the same fate but was eventually arrested and spent August to December 1794 in prison. Michael Glover reads the politics of revolution into the landscape David painted there.
'Two factors seem to be at odds with each other in this painting: order and disorder. That fence looks makeshift in the extreme – shockingly makeshift for such an august location. And yet the layout of the gardens themselves, that perfect alignment of trees, for example, somewhat reminds us of how the Luxembourg Gardens are these days, a project that depends for its grandeur and its power to impress upon the taming and ordering of nature in the interests of human reason. And so it is here. But the tops of the trees tell quite a rather story. In these gardens, we are used to the sight of severely pollarded trees. Nature is to be tamed and regulated. Here things have got out of hand. The unruly crowns of the trees are rejoicing in their untamed spirit.'
He concludes by imagining David, in his high prison cell looking down on this view.  'Meditating upon partially untamed nature in this way may have helped his spirit to breathe.'

Sunday, September 09, 2018

The road plunged at once into a beautiful wood

Because News From Nowhere is a dream vision of the future I have found myself wondering sometimes if certain details I recall are really in it, or whether I dreamed them myself.  After a trip to Hammersmith last weekend, when we walked past William Morris's old house on the Thames, I had an urge to go back to the text, to check whether he really had name-checked Stoke Newington, the part of London where I live.  In Morris's future London, I recollected, it was possible to walk all the way here from Hammersmith along a forest path.  And indeed it was as I remembered it - the description comes in Chapter 5, which begins with the narrator at Hammersmith Broadway (now a shopping centre from which the Thames can be reached only by negotiating a complex system of noisy roads round the Hammersmith Flyover).  'Past the Broadway there were fewer houses on either side.  We presently crossed a pretty little brook that ran across a piece of land dotted over with tree...'  Presently they reach Kensington, where the urban woodland begins.
"People are apt to gather here rather thick, for they like the romance of the wood; and naturalists haunt it, too; for it is a wild spot even here, what there is of it; for it does not go far to the south: it goes from here northward and west right over Paddington and a little way down Notting Hill: thence it runs north-east to Primrose Hill, and so on; rather a narrow strip of it gets through Kingsland to Stoke-Newington and Clapton, where it spreads out along the heights above the Lea marshes; on the other side of which, as you know, is Epping Forest holding out a hand to it..."
They walk on and
'The road plunged at once into a beautiful wood spreading out on either side, but obviously much further on the north side, where even the oaks and sweet chestnuts were of a good growth; while the quicker-growing trees (amongst which I thought the planes and sycamores too numerous) were very big and fine-grown.
'It was exceedingly pleasant in the dappled shadow, for the day was growing as hot as need be, and the coolness and shade soothed my excited mind into a condition of dreamy pleasure, so that I felt as if I should like to go on for ever through that balmy freshness.  My companion seemed to share in my feelings, and let the horse go slower and slower as he sat inhaling the green forest scents, chief amongst which was the smell of the trodden bracken near the wayside...'
A constant delight in the natural world is central to life in this future London.  As Fiona MacCarthy writes in her biography of Morris, there is no real dividing line between country and town life. 'Morris's visionary landscape is both decorous and lavish, mysterious and homely, an extraordinary and deeply imagined image of urban possibility. We can see its effects as the Garden Cities burgeoned early on in the next century...'   The narrator of News From Nowhere eventually leaves London for a journey up the river by boat, arriving at an old house resembling Kelmscott Manor, Morris's home in Oxfordshire.  Here the dream has to end and after a period of darkness he finds himself back in 'dingy Hammersmith.'  We left Hammersmith in bright sunshine and walked along the Thames Path and over the bridge, eventually reaching the Wetland Centre, with its otters and sand martins and dragonflies.  It is almost possible there to imagine a city partially reclaimed for nature.  Meanwhile, News from Nowhere continues to inspire readers across the world - I read just yesterday that Korean artists Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho will be using the title for a new exhibition, coming to Tate Liverpool later this year.

Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Water Willow, 1871
Jane Morris with Kelmscott Manor in the background

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Desert tracings

Last week the BBC published an interesting article by Paul Cooper on the theme of ruins and Arabic writing.  He notes that the 'motif of the atlal (‘ruins’) originates in the pre-Islamic period', possibly with the 6th Century poet-king Imru’ al-Qais. In 'The Mu’allaqah of Imru al-Qais', the landscape conveys an overwhelming sense of loss: 'The courtyards and enclosures of the old home have become desolate; / The dung of the wild deer lies there thick as the seeds of pepper.'  Robert Irwin includes a translation of this qasida (ode) in his excellent anthology of classical Arabic literature, Night & Horses & The Desert, and notes that in English Literature, Tennyson's 'Locksley Hall' begins in the same way, with the poet asking companions to leave him in peace with his memories.  Ruins recur in Arabic poetry down the years, even though the trope was being mocked as early as the eighth century, in a poem by Abu Nuwas: 'The wretch paused to examine an abandoned campsite, / While I paused to inquire about the neighbourhood tavern.'

Having set the historical context, the BBC article goes on to give three examples of ruins in more recent Arabic culture:
  • In the novels of Iraqi author Sinan Antoon, e.g. The Corpse Washer, where a character wonders through 'the ruin of the Baghdad National Library, which was destroyed during the 2003 invasion, and the National Film Archive, the repository of a century of Arab film-making destroyed by a US bomb.'
  • In the film Son of Babylon by Mohamed al-Daradji, in which a Kurdish boy searches for his imprisoned father through the earliest remains of civilisation - Ur, Nimrud, Bablyon - and the new ruins created by the Iraq war. But 'rather than seeing memories held in the ruins, al-Daradji’s characters find only blankness and emptiness...' 

Source: Film Walrus

I have summarised Paul Cooper's article here but I could equally have drawn this from his Twitter thread on the same subject. Personally, I find these threads irritating to read and suspect they are quite fiddly to compose.  Perhaps the thread is developing its own form, like a qasida...  I still prefer to use this blog to write about landscape, rather than split thoughts up into Twitter threads.  But of course nothing beats a good old fashioned book, and Cooper's article prompted me to dig out Desert Tracings, an anthology of six classical odes translated by Michael A. Sells.  Particularly moving is 'The Mu’allaqah of Labid', which begins, again, with the poet looking for traces of his beloved's campsite.  The images that follow convey the way memory can be effaced and restored.  The dung-strewn ground that suggests how long it has been since humans were present, is replenished by the rain:
The rills and the runlets
uncovered marks like the script
of faded scrolls
restored with pens of reed.
And yet, 'although renewed, the inscriptions are indecipherable.  When the poet questions the ruins, they are summ (hard, deaf), offering only a lapidary silence, or words whose meaning is unclear.'

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

End of the Glacier

We enjoyed a family day trip to Hastings at the weekend, where I am pleased to say I was victorious at crazy golf.  As a child I always imagined designing my own courses and on the way round I was daydreaming about one based on the great works of land art, where golf balls have to be putted through models of Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels and Michael Heizer's Double Negative, round the Spiral Jetty, through the Lightning Field and into Roden Crater... 

I was thinking about art because we had just been to the Jerwood Gallery, which is currently showing exhibitions by Mark Wallinger and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. The Wallinger includes Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (2007), which refers back to the great painting by Bruegel but is just a video installation with You've Been Framed clips. He also had some photographs of the local Birdman competition and a room with a wall of mirrors and an Eadward Muybridge grid, with encouragement to take photographs (my sons were happy to oblige). Here, I will focus on Barns-Graham, who I've only ever mentioned once before on this blog.

The Jerwood's display, Sea, Rock, Earth and Ice, is described on The Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust website.
'The Jerwood Gallery takes their own Barns-Graham painting Winter Landscape, 1952 as the rationale for the display. The starting point is a strong group of glaciers that includes Glacier Painting, Green and Brown, 1951 from Sheffield Museums (the show travels to the Graves Gallery, opening 8 December) before showing how the series developed away from having direct glacier references to one of rock forms...'
The sketchbooks and texts displayed alongside the paintings show the artist trying to uncover the shapes of the mountains' steep rock faces and curving ice fields.  I noted down part of a quote, next to End of the Glacier, Upper Grindelwald (1949), which conveys a strong sense of the Sublime.
"Once while working against the evening light rapidly fading, I experienced a terrifying desire to roll myself down the mountain side.  Calmly as I could I came down the wood steps cut in the ice, Grindelwald far below. ... I heard the awful roar of an avalanche and seeing what looked like a trickle of salt in the distant heights.  All this and the many moods beautiful and frightening fascinated me."

I have always loved Barns-Graham's glacier paintings, in particular Glacier Crystal, Grindelwald (1950) - not in this show, but reproduced (above) on the front of the Tate's 2005 exhibition catalogue.  Maybe this is partly because they resemble frozen air.  The Grindelwald glacier, she wrote, seemed to breath. "This likeness to glass and transparency, combined with solid, rough ridges made me wish to combine in a work all angles at once, from above, through, and all round, as a bird flies, a total experience..."

Sea, Rock, Earth and Ice took in other work from Barns-Graham's long career, and was a reminder of the abiding interest she showed in other naturally abstract landforms, from the quarries she sketched in the late fifties to the lava she drew in the early nineties.  The waves of the Lanzarote lava field were conveyed in white chalk and pastel on black paper, reminding me of the Tacita Dean drawings I saw recently in London. The fact that for a decade or so these artists were contemporaries is rather amazing.  When Barns-Graham died in 2004 at the age of 91, her 'radiant' late work was evidently as highly regarded by critics as anything else she had painted.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

River in the Catskills

Thomas Cole, River in the Catskills, 1843
Source: Wikimedia Commons

What was the first appearance of a train in a painting? Most people know Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed (1844), which is the earliest example listed on a Wikipedia page dedicated to railways and art. However, visitors to the National Gallery's Thomas Cole exhibition will see an earlier one in the painting reproduced above, River in the Catskills (1843).  At the scale you're reading this you probably can't see the train, just a faint puff of steam in an idyllic landscape.  But the railroad is in place and there are other signs too that the landscape is being changed - in the foreground men are chopping down trees.  At the exhibition this painting is juxtaposed with a similar view painted in the 1830s, showing a vision of America unsullied.  A baby reaches for the bouquet of wild flowers her mother has picked and on the gentle river an Indian canoe suggests a world of harmonious coexistence. However, as the curators point out, not everyone regretted the way things were going - there is a third view of this river by Asher Brown Durand, painted in 1853, with unmistakable signs of alteration and 'development', entitled Progress (The Advance of Civilisation).

Detail of River in the Catskills showing the train

Thomas Cole, View on the Catskill – Early Autumn, 1836-7
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Detail of View on the Catskill
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It would probably take too long to write here about the main subject of the National Gallery's exhibition, Cole's series of paintings charting The Course of Empire, or about their simultaneous Ed Ruscha show that updates the theme and raises questions about contemporary America.  You can read about these in various online reviews - e.g. Jonathan Jones, Waldemar Janusczcak, Michael Glover.  Instead I will just add a few words more on Cole's remarkable painting Titan's Goblet which normally hangs in the Met, where its curators admit that it 'defies explanation'.  This huge stone goblet is higher than the surrounding mountains and along its rim there are is a flourishing civilisation.  Water falls like divine light onto the ground far below, where there are also signs of habitation but of a more primitive kind.  That small sunlit sea, framed by the goblet's rim, is a landscape-within-a-landscape.  But it could also be viewed as an unusual example of the hybrid genre I discussed in connection with Tacita Dean recently, the still-life-within-a-landscape.  You can lose yourself in most of Cole's paintings but this is particularly true here.  His friend Louis Legrand Noble saw a kind of Mediterranean in those waters, where tourists might travel to versions of Greece or Syria, tracing their fancies in 'in the golden splendours of a summer sunset.'

Thomas Cole, Titan's Goblet, 1833
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Detail of Titan's Goblet
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, August 04, 2018

The Distant Cry of the Deer

Shibata Zeshin, Deer in a Forest, c. 1880s
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This week I attended the opening gala concert of the 2018 World Shakuhachi Festival.  The photograph below (by Jean-François Lagrost) was taken during one of the performances and shows the audience in the Union Chapel, Islington.  In the second half of the concert, Riley Lee and Christopher Yohmei Blasdel performed a shakuhachi duet, Shika No Tōne, 'The Distant Cry of the Deer'.  This began with Blasdel on stage, playing the opening phrase, then, at the back of the audience, Lee answering on his flute and beginning to walk slowly through the audience.  Eventually the two players met on stage.  Listening to this it occurred to me that they had transformed the listening audience into a landscape: we were like the trees in a Japanese forest through which the calls of two animals sounded.  This setting is evoked in the conclusion to the piece, as described on the International Shakuhachi Society website: 'it is as if, rather than viewing deer, the focus is changed to that of the scenery deep in the mountains where the leaves on the trees have turned red and yellow.'

The ISS page on Shika No Tōne has various notes on the piece and I will pass on here a few quotes from texts by Yokoyama Katsuya
'According to legend, Kurosawa Kinko, founder of the Kinko school, was taught this piece by a komusō priest named Ikkei in Nagasaki. The piece is interpreted as a representation either of two deer calling to one another to stress their territorial rights or of a male and a female deer responding to one another's calls deep in the autumnal mountains.'
'In ancient literature, it was sometimes said, "the stag and hind are calling each other." but in fact the hind does not cry, so it should perhaps be interpreted as the echo of the stag's cry.'
'Within its lonesomeness and liveliness, the music depicts the world seikan or the serene contemplation: it is just the same world as an ancient poet once depicted in his famous Tanka-poem:
Far up the mountain side,
While tramping over the scarlet maple leaves,
I hear the mournful cry of the wild deer:
This sad, sad autumn tide.'

Friday, August 03, 2018

Farther hills as hills again like these

Pieter Breugel the Elder, The Hunters in the Snow (Winter), 1565
Source Wikimedia Commons

To follow up my previous post, drawing on Joseph Leo Koerner's Bosch & Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life (2016), and also to provide some mental respite from this oppressive heat, I thought I would write here today about Breugel's The Hunters in the Snow.  It is a painting I have mentioned here before, in the context of poetry about landscape art ('Jagg'd mountain peaks and skies ice-green / Wall in the wild, cold scene below...' - Walter De La Mare).  It is also a painting loved by Tarkovsky fans as it features in both Mirror and Solaris.  Koerner discusses it in his final chapter, 'Nature', along with Bruegel's other paintings of The Seasons of the Year.  In a rare personal aside, Koerner says that he had a poster of The Hunters in the Snow on his wall right through his college and graduate school years.  Then, despite having a flat in Heidelberg with an 'expansive view of the Neckar Valley' through his window, he was happier losing himself in the depths of Bruegel's painting. 

Koerner imagines the viewer of this painting beginning by focusing on the pack of dogs, before being drawn towards 'one of the deepest depths in European art.'  And yet, 'the paw prints in the snow and the gigantic cliffs are part of the same continuum. Bruegel structures his painting to make our launch into space unavoidable.'  The distances made visible here recall contemporary Flemish atlases. Landscape features like trees and houses are shown in elevation but roads, rivers and valleys are depicted as if in elevation, offering us routes to be followed.  Bruegel reconciles near and far.  As he paints mountains and seas suggesting 'territories yet to be discovered, he pictures them as lifeworlds like our own, those farther hills as hills again like these.'

In the far distance (see above), a procession of figures can be discerned walking towards the horizon over the ice from a harbour town.  The winter before Breugel painted this view, the Scheldt at Antwerp had frozen over.  This flattening of the landscape into a single medium, ice, has effectively 'turned the world into a Borgesian one-to-one map of itself.'  The whiteness of the snow links different parts of the composition, from the hunters marching into the painting to the distant figures heading out of view.  It also dazzles the eye with an overabundance of light.  The roofscape of the mill, covered in snow, is hard to work out at first.  Here, 'Bruegel reverses the elucidating effects that snow has at a distance.'  Thick icicles hang from the buildings. It is a cold village to which the hunters return.  Everyone seems to turn away from us in this picture, 'as nature itself does in winter.  ... Through the mere resources of white paint, Bruegel shows home and the human from the indifferent perspective of the world.'

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The field has eyes and the wood has ears

Hieronymus Bosch, The Tree-Man, c. 1505
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Leo Koerner's magisterial Bosch & Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life (2016) is so rich in interest it could furnish material for many blog posts.  Of the two artists, it was of course Breugel who was most influential on landscape painting.  I will do a post on Bruegel, but here I thought I would focus on Hieronymus Bosch.  The Tree-Man features in the right hand panel of his great triptych The Garden of Delights (c. 1490-1510), one of the monsters of Hell.  But he is also the subject of Bosch's largest surviving drawing (above), transplanted to a scene of marshes like those that surrounded his native town, 's-Hertogenbosch.  Beyond the marshes, as Koerner observes, there are 'harbor towns on a maze of waterways, like the huge delta where the Rhine, Meuse, and Scheldt rivers meet; and beyond the visible horizon, at a distance plotted by church spires and vast like the sky, the sea.  There the Tree-Man idly floats like some outlandish carrack adridt in an inland canal.' 

Some contemporaries of Bosch would have witnessed strange phenomena.  Koerner reproduces a sketch of a beached sperm whale drawn by Hendrick Goltzius in 1598 and recalls the story of Dürer trying to sketch another whale on his trip to Zeeland in 1520, only to arrive after the tide had carried it back out to sea. 'Netherlandish shores were natural theaters where wonders could be observed.'  Moreover, the Tree-Man 'travels in a real world along waters that, connecting near and far, explain how the monstrosity might have got there.'  The fact that this realistic landscape surrounds Bosch's fantastical figure makes the image seem 'to encompass the world complete in itself.'  It was only around 1500 that artist's own drawings became collectable and this strange image may actually be the first autonomous pen-and-ink sketch in northern art.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Field Has Eyes, The Forest Has Ears, c. 1500
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Before leaving Bosch it is worth mentioning another remarkable sketch, which at first sight simply depicts a tree in a landscape.  Here (and note the characteristically witty turn of phrase which makes Koerner's books such a pleasure), the 'dead tree serves as a shadowy refuge for an owl, which eyes us with dubious intent.'  Owls appear at least twenty-five times in Bosch's art and can almost be seen as a kind of signature.  In Dutch they were sometimes called boschvoghele.  Above the owl there are shrieking birds and below, at the base of the tree, a rooster pushing its way towards a fox, apparently resting.  But this is a Bosch drawing and so there are also two large ears standing in the thicket and eyes scattered over the ground.  The slope of the field reminds Koerner of the 'subtle curvature of the surface of the earth, ensuring that whatever the work's statement is, it will be global.'  And what does it mean?  'Historians have managed to reattach these stray sensoria to a proverb current in Bosch's day and published and illustrated in a woodcut dated 1546, "The field has eyes and the wood has ears; I will look, stay silent, and listen."'  In other words, in hostile times, it is wise to keep one's counsel.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

On the Banks of the Yangtze

Isabelle Bird, Trackers Houses on the Banks of the Yangtze, 1896
Source: The Ammonite Press.

In sketching, a landscape is represented by signs on paper, but in photography the actual view is imprinted as an image by the light that shone at that moment in time.  What, though if this 'indexical' process of signification went beyond just the action of light?  An article I was reading in the New York Review of Books this week suggests further possibilities.  Here Colin Thubron is discussing the journey into China of the nineteenth century photographer, Isabella Bird.
'After sunset she would set about developing the glass-plate negatives and toning her prints. Her darkroom was the Chinese night, but she had to block up chinks in the cabin walls to keep out the light of opium lamps. Then she cleaned the chemical from her negatives in the river and hung the printing-frames over the side of the boat. A faint trace of Yangtze mud survives on a few of her prints.'
So, in addition to light, her landscapes were imprinted with Chinese soil, dissolved in its great river.  All four elements could be said to have gone into the formation of these photographs.  The river's form was traced by light, purified by water and earth, and then fixed into permanence by the air that passing over its surface.

Isabella Bird, Hsin Tan Rapid on the Yangtze River, 1896
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Yangtze River that the sixty-four year old Isabella Bird travelled had no modern dams or steam boats.  Thubron admires her courage in ascending its gorges in a shallow-bottomed houseboat, rowed by sixteen men who would 'heave against the current and curl into wadded quilts at night, lost in opium sleep'.  It was a perilous and uncomfortable journey. 'Where perpendicular cliffs constricted the Yangtze into a fearsome torrent, big junks and sampans were hauled upriver by teams of trackers sometimes four hundred strong, threading precipitous paths and rock-cut steps with the din of drums and gongs and the explosion of firecrackers to intimidate the spirit of the rapids ... The steep shores and inlets were littered with ships’ remains, and with human skeletons.'  But this was also a world of beauty, barely known to Western travellers. 'With its canopied bridges and watermills and temples rising from bamboo and cedar groves, it intoxicated Bird by its sheer luxuriance, and by its conformity to some childhood expectation (the word “picturesque” recurs), as if she were traveling through a timeless Cathay.'

Isabella Bird, A Bridge at Wan Hsien of the Single Arch Type, 1896
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Evening Calm, Concarneau

I am over halfway through the year now in my project to tweet a landscape a day. Looking back to January 1st when I launched this initiative, I see I was particularly keen to include as many women artists as possible, and this remains the case.  I recently featured Cecilia Beaux for example, who is not so well known now, but a century ago was highly regarded in America (albeit for her portraits).  Her luminous Half Tide, Annisquam River received just three 'likes' though (including one from my Mum!), suggesting that my 'followers' are not especially bothered about my attempts to unearth unheralded women landscape painters...  Of course little can really be concluded from these Twitter 'likes' - a simple, colourful, modern image is likely to do better than a complicated composition by a Northern Renaissance artist or Ming Dynasty literatus.  I think the most popular image I have tweeted so far was Fuga ('Fugue') by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, which I discussed on this blog back in 2012.  I'm therefore hoping for a few retweets for the painting above, which I'll be tweeting this week - it is another painting inspired by music, with the subtitle: Adagio, Opus 221.

Paul Signac,  Morning Calm, Concarneau, Opus 219 (Larghetto), 1891

Signac's Setting Sun, Sardine Fishing is discussed in Peter Vergo's book The Music of Painting.  He explains that it is one of five that Signac painted while in Brittany that summer, each with musical instructions assigned to them.  Opus 221 was joined by three others with specific tempos: Opus 219 (above) was larghetto, Opus 220 (below) was allegro maesttoso and Opus 222 was presto-finale.  The first in the series of five, Sardine Boat, Concarneau, was smaller and might be seen as a kind of prelude (labelled scherzo, i.e. playful or light-hearted). Vergo suggests that although clearly a series, they were not meant to resemble sections of a single composition (which would imply not giving them separate Opus numbers).  Signac was always fascinated in the analogies between art and music, and in his essay D'Eugène Delacroix au Néo-Impressionnisme, published in 1899, he quoted Charles Baudelaire, who wrote that 'in colour one finds harmony, melody and counterpoint.'

Paul Signac, Evening Calm, Concarneau, Opus 220 (Allegro Maestoso), 1891

Peter Vergo quotes Signac, writing about painting in general but in words that could well describe his paintings of Concarneau: 'if he is sensitive to the play of harmony, he will soon perceive ... how the kind of symphony created by boats with blue sails is completed by the arrival of the crew dressed in orange clothing.'  In addition to colour harmony, these compositions, with their pointillist dots and visual repetitions, convey a clear sense of rhythm.  In painting, the visual field is punctuated by objects that can be perceived in two ways: as they would be in three dimensional space (some boats nearer than others) and as they appear on the image (spaced across the water).  Such patterns play through all the Concarneau paintings but they are most obvious in Setting Sun, Sardine Fishing.  Here, Vergo writes, 'there is so little to distract us - only sea and sky and the ever-present line of the horizon - that the eye inevitably lingers on the repeated patterns of the fishing boats with their identically shaped hulls and steeply raked masks.'