Thursday, December 27, 2018


'A lot of my paintings are anonymous backdrops for the drama of words.  In a way, they're words in front of the old Paramount Studios mountain.  You don't have to have a mountain back there - you could have a landscape, a farm.  I have background, foreground.  It's so simple.  And the backgrounds are of no particular character.  They're just meant to support the drama, like the Hollywood sign being held up by sticks.' - Ed Ruscha interviewed in Shift magazine, 1988.
I've been reading Richard D. Marshall's monograph on Ed Ruscha and what comes over repeatedly is his very postmodern, conceptual insistence that there is nothing very significant about the content of his paintings - backgrounds and foregrounds, images and texts are often arbitrary or deliberately chosen to subvert any obvious interpretation.  In this quote he is talking about the paintings he has done of words and mountains - I can't reproduce one for copyright reasons but you can see above in low res the results of a google image search for "Ed Ruscha mountain".  In these paintings, the mountains dominate the visual field and yet Ruscha's insistence that they are nothing more than a background returns landscape to its Renaissance function as parergon, secondary to the painting's actual subject matter. 

The original Paramount mountain, used from 1917 to 1967

Mention of the Paramount mountain made me look it up on Wikipedia.  The article's authors make this corporate logo's origins and meaning sound like an intriguing mystery:
'Legend has it that the mountain is based on a doodle made by W. W. Hodkinson during a meeting with Adolph Zukor. It is said to be based on the memories of his childhood in Utah. Some claim that Utah's Ben Lomond is the mountain Hodkinson doodled, and that Peru's Artesonraju is the mountain in the live-action logo, while others claim that the Italian side of Monviso inspired the logo. Some editions of the logo bear a striking resemblance to the Pfeifferhorn, another Wasatch Range peak, and to the Matterhorn on the border between Switzerland and Italy.'
The twenty-four stars on the logo referred to the actors originally under contract at Paramount in 1916.  Logos generally have to be simple but because this one is shown on a movie screen it can be very detailed - modern versions have tended to resemble nineteenth century landscape paintings.  And of course the actual logo you see at the cinema now is animated - I've included a clip of the 100th anniversary version below.   

In the quote above Ed Ruscha mentions another, different form of Hollywood landscape art - the famous old sign itself.  Erected in 1923, to advertise "HOLLYWOODLAND", a new segregated, whites-only housing development in the hills above the LA, it was originally only meant to stay up for a year, but soon came to be seen as a popular landmark and symbol of the home of cinema.  It was renovated in 1949 (losing the 'LAND') and again in 1978.  Wikipedia will tell you about some of the ways it has been altered, imitated and spoofed over the years, although I see that their 'In Popular Culture' section has a stern note from the editors saying 'this section appears to contain trivial, minor, or unrelated references...'  Perhaps someone should put a mention of Ed Ruscha in there - he painted several versions of the Hollywood sign in 1968 and returned to the subject again in 1977, showing the letters in reverse as The Back of Hollywood.  Here's another Ruscha quote, from an interview in 1984.
'The Hollywood sign is actually a landscape in a sense.  It's a real thing and my view of it was really a conservative interpretation of something that exists, so it almost isn't a word in a woay - it's a structure.  It's a phenomenon or something.' 
I think this ilustrates how difficult it is to define this sign, let alone an oil painting of it that exists within a long sequence of works whose subject is nothing but painted words.

The back of the HOLLYWOOD sign
Image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, December 26, 2018


I thought it was time to bring back my regular surveys of 'landscape music', having had a couple of years off.  The last one I did was in 2015 - it contains links to the earlier ones, or you can just check back through my old December posts.  I should apologise for some dead links in my previous surveys, as videos and tracks have been moved or taken down over the years.  Looking back I see there's now a missing video in a post I wrote back in 2010 about Toshiya Tsunoda, the Japanese sound artist.  He's the first of my picks for 2018, with the album Wovenland, a collaboration with Taku Unami (the title refers to the way their separate field recordings are woven together).  Reviewing it in Wire Magazine, Derek Walmsley thought this 'one of the most original and startling recording projects in recent years.'

One of the albums I missed by not doing this in 2016 was 3hattrio's Solitaire, inspired by Edward Abbey’s nature writing classic, Desert Solitaire (1968).  Abbey, author of The Monkey Wrench Gang, based this, his first non-fiction book, on the time he spent as a park ranger at Arches National Monument.  3hattrio say they play 'American desert music':
'Their aim is to create a new music which responds to the natural world of their sacred homeland near Zion National Park in Utah.  They also strive to acknowledge the cultural traditions of generations of people who have worked and lived on the deserts of the American southwest. The subject matter of the songs is often desert oriented, sometimes not. Mostly, they express the desert experientially from a daily-ness of watching light off distant mesas and hearing the way sound plays off sheer sandstone cliffs. Then they play music. They don’t over-think it.' 
Their new release is Lord Of The Desert and includes tracks called 'Night Sky', 'Skeleton Tree' and 'Dust Devil' (see video clip below).

My earlier round-ups always featured music from Touch and their most recent release is relevant - Howlround's The Debatable Lands.  This was inspired by the border region in Cumbria which Graham Robb wrote about in his latest book (quite interesting, but not as rewarding a read as I was expecting).  Another liminal space was the source for Jana Winderen's Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone, originally a sound installation for the 2017 Sonic Acts Festival:
'The marginal ice zone is the dynamic border between the open sea and the sea ice, which is ecologically extremely vulnerable. The phytoplankton present in the sea produces half of the oxygen on the planet. During spring, this zone is the most important CO2 sink in our biosphere. In Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone the sounds of the living creatures become a voice in the current political debate concerning the official definition of the location of the ice edge.' 
I'm listening to the album now as I write this, streaming from Jana Winderen's bandcamp page.

In my round-up for 2012 I featured Erland Cooper's Orkney Symphony.  In March this year he released Solan Goose, its tracks named after the Orcadian words for seabirds (the solan goose is a northern gannet).  He also released Murmeration, with a Norman Ackroyd picture on the cover (incidentally, Ackroyd's daughter Poppy is a Brighton-based composer, whose work sometimes references landscape themes and uses field recordings).  Erland Cooper is planning a third record in this vein, as he explained in an interview for The Island Review, which will explore 'our relationship and respect for the sea: how it surrounds the community and the landscape; how it supports the greatest ecosystem of all.'  Together these albums are inspired by the words of the poet George Mackay Brown. “The essence of Orkney's magic is silence, loneliness and the deep marvellous rhythms of sea and land, darkness and light.”

Stuart Hyatt's Metaphonics: The Complete Field Works Recordings comprises 7 LPs and a book, based around his own field recordings but incorporating collaborations from around forty other artists.  The YouTube clip below presents a track from the album Pogue's Run - 'from its source, through the city, into a mysterious three-mile underground tunnel, and finally to the White River, Pogue’s Run represents the ongoing tension between nature and civilization.'  I enjoyed seeing field recordists filmed as if they were in a pop video, although as this goes on and they reach the underground river, it more closely resembles scenes a scene from a science fiction film.  There is an interview with Hyatt at the online art/science magazine CLOT.  He quotes from an essay by Yiorgis Sakellariou in the Metaphonics book, which views field recording as "an alchemical practice, a transformation of perception of both recordist and environment. A recording location is not simply a geographically framed scenery, but more importantly, a place of inquiry, experimentation, and wonder."

I will stick there at five main recommendations, but here, briefly, are a few other albums from 2018 that reflect landscape in different ways.  Further suggestions in the comments below would be welcome.
  • Grouper's Grid of Points, written by Liz Harris during a residency in Ucross, Wyoming. One of its tracks is inspired by Zabriskie Point, a film I wrote about here in May.
  • Richard Skelton's Front Variations subjected sine waves 'to increasing amounts of feedback in order to simulate the so-called ice-albedo feedback mechanism. This is the process whereby the action of melting glaciers reduces the global surface area of ice, thereby reducing the amount of solar radiation that glaciers reflect, which in turn increases global temperatures and causes further glacial melting.'
  • Laurie Anderson's Landfall is a cycle of songs about Hurricane Sandy - a recording was released this year with the Kronos Quartet.  Tracks include 'Wind Whistles Through the Dark City,' 'The Water Rises' and 'Our Street is a Black River'...  
  • Daniel Bachman's guitar in The Morning Star is set against a background of field recordings.  It continues a sequence of 'Songs for the Setting Sun' that he began on the 2015 album River (which was featured on my 2015 round-up). 
  • Jim Ghedi's A Hymn For Ancient Land, was a bit too pastoral for the Quietus reviewer: 'only on ‘Phoenix Works’, a song dealing with the decline of traditional industries in the north, does he explicitly deal with darkness. This, coupled with the dense, meandering tonalities of ‘Fortingall Yew’, saves the album from being a landscape painting.' 
  • According to The Quietus, the album of the year was Gazelle Twin's Pastoral, which 'picks away at the bucolic, Constable-generated image of English countryside like a fetid scab.' Gazelle Twin is Brighton-based electonic musician  Elizabeth Bernholz, whose previous project was based on J. G. Ballard's last novel Kingdom Come
Finally, I will conclude here not with an album, but with an app.  Numero Group's 'Environments collects the entire historic record series by master sound engineer Irv Teibel into one easy to use package for the iPhone and iPad' (it costs £2.99).  If you're not familiar with Irv Teibel's 1970s psychoacoustic nature recordings, there's a good article about him at PitchforkAquarium Drunkard described the new app as 'an ingenious re-contextualization of this retro-futurist “gebrauchtsmusik” that recapitulates the series’ initial novelty. However captivating Teibel’s tale, the Environments app now illuminates an anthropocene landscape where 'Dusk in the Okefenokee Swamp' and a 'Summer Cornfield' are mediated by an inescapable layer of sleek, fabricated hardware and playfully nostalgic software.'

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Liquid landscapes

George Lambert, Box Hill with Dorking in the Distance, 1733
Images: Wikimedia Commons

Yale University's British Art Studies is a completely open access journal and its Autumn issue is dedicated to 'Landscape Now'.  In addition to various articles, including the Tim Barringer piece I referred to earlier this month, there is a 'Conversation Piece' coordinated by Alexandra Harris.  She refers to the current popularity of books about nature, but suggests that 'while readers are offered new ideas about landscape writing at every festival (several festivals are devoted to the subject) and with every Amazon click and with each week’s Caught by the River newsletter, it can be harder to get much purchase on developments in contemporary visual arts and art history. Work by art historians is not always being brought to the common table...'  Unsurprisingly (given what I wite about here), agree with this.  She also gives an insight into what she has been researching recently (I have written about here before about her previous books on landscape and culture, Weatherland and Romantic Moderns). 
I've been trying in my own research to get closer to an understanding of what places have looked like to different kinds of people living in them. I want to find evidence for what “views” have looked like to people, other than the makers and consumers of landscape art. It’s hard: I’ve been reading for two years—parish registers, local histories, antiquarian guides, court proceedings, wills and inventories, tithe maps, a very occasional diary; I’ve been wondering at the skill and sensitivity of local historians like Margaret Spufford and many who followed her lead—yet still I’m baffled by the difficulty of reaching the landscape feelings of the past. [...] Whether we are reaching back to life before (or without access to) the grammars of Western landscape painting, or looking again at Lambert, Wootton, and Wilson, or thinking about contemporary artists, it may be fruitful to reunite landscape with local knowledge and local people, from the airy prospects to make out local habitations and names.
John Wootton, A Fox Hunt, c. 1735

Several responses follow Alexandra Harris's introduction, some more informative than others.  Rachel Hewitt for example, tells us that at present 'there is important work being done, by Hayley Flynn among others, on [William] Blake’s interactions with, and subversions of, the eighteenth-century British landscape tradition' (I wonder if this new scholarship will surface in the Tate's Blake exhibition, scheduled for autumn next year). Emily Hayes writes about the influence of the Royal Geographical Society's magic lantern lectures, including those by Vaughan Cornish, a 'chemist turned geographer' who specialised in the study of waves, before turning later 'towards eugenics and landscape heritage activism'.  The intention is that this Conversation 'will develop as more respondents enter the debate. Readers can also join in by adding a response at the bottom of the page.'  There are no responses yet - I hope there will be, but I've learnt here that in the age of Twitter you can't really expect people to go to the trouble of adding written comments.

Vaughan Cornish, Breaker and Bores on a Flat Shore, 1910  

I will conclude here by pointing you to three other articles in the journal, each about landscape artists I have discussed here before.

  • Greg Smith takes a fresh look at Thomas Girtin's panorama, The Eidometropolis, drawing on material that has become available only in recent years;
  • And in 'Liquid Landscapes', Stephen Daniels juxtaposes a series of pond photographs by Jem Southam with Constable's depiction of Branch Hill Pond in his pictures of Hampstead Heath.

 John Constable, Hampstead Heath, with Pond and Bathers, 1821

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Water Village

Zhao Mengfu, Water Village, 1302
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I have been reading Shane McCausland's scholarly study, Zhao Mengfu: Calligraphy and Painting for Khubilai's China, which focuses not just on Zhao's paintings, but on the colophons added to them over the years by writers wishing to comment on the artist and his work.  These are not usually visible in reproductions - the photograph of Water Village above shows only the annotations and seals visible on the composition itself.  Below I've photographed the colophons for Water Village reproduced in McCausland's book (pp242-3).  A footnote lists the authors of these - most were writing soon after the painting was finished but others date from the late Ming Dynasty.  It would be natural to consider these as critical texts rather than works of landscape art themselves.  But the fact that these colophons were composed in verse and written in beautiful calligraphy mean that they form a kind of secondary landscape art themselves.  Zhao Mengfu himself was a renowned calligrapher and his own artistry can therefore be seen in colophons he added to other scrolls of paintings or poetry.

Water Village has a pictorial realism that impressed its colophon writers - one said you could almost forget it is actually a picture.  The handscroll 'begins' at the far right with a vertical title, leading the eye down to a bluff with bushes sprouting from it (see below).  McCausland sees this as having a 'liminal role', marking the transition from calligraphy to painting and from surface to illusionistic space. From there the eye can explore the low-lying landscape, arranged in an X-shape and centred on a tiny bridge. There are few people, just a few isolated huts.  Zhao Menfu himself wrote that this subject captured the ideal hermitage, a place of scholarly retreat. Other colophon writers were reminded of Wang Wei, the great landscape poet and painter who wrote about his own retirement from the world in the Wang River Sequence.

The most intrusive colophons to Water Village were added by the Qianlong Emperor, who reigned over China for much of the eighteenth century.  He added two seals and a poem to the painting itself.  In one of the first posts on this blog I wrote about the way the emperor filled his own painting of Mount Pan with no less than thirty-four later descriptions.  He also added a colophon to Zhao Mengfu's Autumn Colours on the Qiao and Hua Mountains (1296) pointing out an error in the artist's  geography (this painting is discussed in an earlier post).  For Water Village, he wrote a colophon referring to Qu Yuan, an early Chinese poet I wrote about here in March, who drowned himself after being wrongly banished from court.  The emperor read this act as a gesture of loyalty, perhaps reflecting his own anxieties as a Manchu ruler of the Chinese.  He also described taking the painting with him on a visit to the Eastern Mountains, where Water Village is set (somewhere near Sonjiang). 'In surveying the scene,' McCausland writes, 'the emperor drained this place and its depiction of any symbolism as a private refuge of the literati from the affairs of state and government.'

Monday, December 03, 2018

La Mer Pacifique

Jean-Gabriel Charvet and Joseph Dufour,
 Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique wallpaper, before 1829

A new article in British Art Studies by Tim Barringer provides a history of recent trends in landscape art history. In this century, he explains, there has been a strong focus on art and empire, influenced by Edward Said’s Orientalism, and analysis of paintings made far from Europe, which reveal 'the impediments offered to the totalizing “colonial picturesque” by local geographies'.  He then describes a recent artwork that I was looking at only this weekend:
'The work of contemporary indigenous artists increasingly offers critical reflections on the continuing power of landscape as a contested space open to multiple interpretations, and as a site of historical and contemporary violence. Lisa Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected], (2015–2017), on display at the time of publication in the exhibition Oceania at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, responds to the historical provocation of Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, a scenic coloured wallpaper in twenty panels, created in 1804 by Joseph Dufour on the basis of imagery from the Pacific voyages of James Cook (Les Voyages du Capitaine Cook was proposed as an alternative title for the paper). Reihana’s panoramic video spanning 26 metres embraces the “monarch of all I survey” viewpoint of the painted panoramas of the late eighteenth century, but inserts speaking, singing, and moving figures to contest the silent, stereotypical representations of indigenous people in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sources.'

At the Royal Academy, you encounter this video panorama towards the end of the exhibition and I found it quite hard to drag myself away.  Figures like Captain Cook, Joseph Banks and Chief Kalani'opu'u are seen in various moving tableaux as the viewpoint pans steadily round.  The original wallpaper was not on display in the exhibition (the National Gallery of Australia has an example) - perhaps it would have been out of place among so many beautiful objects from the islands.  In an interview in the Guardian, Lisa Reihana describes its design as
'“a concoction, a fabulation invented in someone else’s elsewhere”.  The greenery, for example, was transplanted not from Polynesia but from South America, which Jean Gabriel Charvet, the Frenchman who designed the wallpaper, had recently visited. Similarly, the idealised, pale-skinned locals are dressed in neoclassical costumes inspired more by what had recently been dug up at Pompeii than by anything from Hawaii or Tahiti.'
In Pursuit of Venus was previously shown at the Venice Biennale and has its own website (it even has an Instagram feed, although there are no posts on it yet...)  Tim Marlow, the RA Director, calls it 'stupendous' in an interview with Lisa Reihana, viewable on the RA's site.  Excellent as it is, there are many more wonders in the show which I could mention but which go beyond the remit of this blog, from the Brancusi-like male deity sculpture tino aitu to a Tobi Island necklace of sea-urchin spines.  As Jenny Uglow wrote in her review, 'Oceania is a powerful demonstration of art’s capacity to fight the tide of loss, honoring tradition, reclaiming places, histories, and identities, and opening the way to the future.'

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Crossing a river

One of the most renowned Buster Keaton stunts involves him getting the better of a landscape feature.  Our Hospitality (1923) has scenes filmed at California's Truckee River and when I first saw it I thought the waterfall scene (above) was filmed at a real location.  In reality the whole waterfall was constructed on a Hollywood backlot, as is explained (with photographs) on the excellent Silent Locations website.  I will quote here what John Bengtson says there:
During the climax of Our Hospitality, Buster rescues his girlfriend, played by his first wife Natalie Talmadge, from sweeping over the brink of a waterfall, by swinging like a pendulum from a rope tied to a log jammed in the rocks, grabbing her just as she starts to fall.  Buster’s waterfall stunt set was built astride the [...] T-shaped concrete pool (or plunge as they were called back then) that stood on the Robert Brunton Studio backlot just north of Melrose Avenue, now part of the current-day Paramount Studios lot.

The Our Hospitality waterfall stunt set
Image from Photoplay Productions Ltd via SilentLocations.
In Sherlock Jr. (1924), Keaton, a projectionist, falls asleep and walks in his dream into the motion picture he is showing.  We then see him in a sequence of cuts that seamlessly position Keaton in different landscapes: a rocky promontory (below), a jungle, a beach, a rock in the sea.  This was done using surveying instruments to position him at precisely the right place in each setting.  From the rock in the sea, Keaton dives into the water and lands in a park, then leans against a tree and finds himself in a garden, after which the main story of this film-within-a-film begins, with the humble projectionist somehow transformed into a Sherlock Holmes style detective. 

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. (1924)

The bridge scene in The General (1926)

Thinking about Keaton in relation to this blog, it occurs to me that his most spectacular film stunt - building a bridge and wrecking a real train for The General (1926) - had a similar level of ambition to the works of land artists like Christo and Jeanne Claude.  Apparently, bits of Keaton's railtrack can still be seen at the bottom of Row River at low tide.  But if I had to choose my favourite example of Buster Keaton 'landscape art' it would be the moment in The Scarecrow (1920) when he manages to cross a river without getting his feet wet, by walking across it on his hands. 

I will conclude here by recommending again the website, which is still posting fascinating information on Keaton and other silent movie stars.  Browsing through it I came across the photograph below: if Richard Long had been working in the 1920s he might have looked like Charlie Chaplin in this field.  In fact, this circle is the trace of the departing circus, which is just packing up and leaving The Little Tramp behind.  Detective work by Bengtson and other enthusiasts has identified the location for this scene and even a surviving tree that was there when the film was made.  'Just as there are trees that remain today having witnessed the making of The Birth of A Nation, a giant old oak tree in Glendale, appearing onscreen at left, witnessed the concluding scenes from The Circus.'

Charlie Chaplin in The Circus
Image from SilentLocations.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Ellen's Isle, Loch Katrine

Robert S. Duncanson, Vesuvius and Pompeii, 1870
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I now have just over a month left of my project to tweet a landscape a day for 2018.  It is never possible to predict how many 'likes' these will get - obviously I feel they're all interesting or beautiful in one way or another.  Possibly my least popular one this year, with just two 'likes' (one of which came from my mother!) was a Robert S. Duncanson landscape painting showing Vesuvius and Pompeii.  This, despite the fact I posted it with the hashtag #BlackHistoryMonth...  Clearly if anyone was looking for this hashtag during that particular month, they were not interested in my Duncanson painting.  He may have been the first prominent African-American landscape artist, but his style of painting is perhaps too unfashionable to excite much buzz on social media.  But his paintings are interesting in their own right - in my tweet I said that "in this view of Pompeii I particularly like that painting-within-a-painting, a large fresco resembling an outdoor cinema."

Robert S. Duncanson was born in 1821 in the state of New York. His grandfather was a freed slave from Virginia and his father lived there, until growing opposition to freed black men persuaded him to move north.  The family settled in Michigan and then, as a young man, Robert Duncanson taught himself painting in Cincinnati, 'the Athens of the West'.  His first significant landscape painting, Cliff Mine, Lake Superior (1848) was acquired by Charles Avery, one of several abolitionist patrons who bought his work. In 1853 he visited Europe and a year later he collaborated with the prominent African-American photographer James Presley Ball on an anti-slavery panoramic painting, Mammoth Pictorial Tour of the United States Comprising Views of the African Slave Trade.  When the Civil War began, he moved to Canada and then Britain, where he was particularly impressed by the Scottish Highlands.  He returned to America and died at the age of just 51, possibly due to the effects of lead poisoning.  The view of Vesuvius and Pompeii is thus a late work, inspired by his travels almost twenty years earlier.

Robert S. Duncanson, Blue Hole, Flood Waters, Little Miami River, 1851

Until this year, Duncanson did not have a tombstone.  However, it was good to come upon a report in the Detroit Free Press (via a JStor article last week), explaining that this is about to change. 
'For more than a century, his body has remained in Monroe, about 40 miles south of Detroit, with nothing but grass growing over his grave. Now, a small foundation marks the site of his burial awaiting the arrival of a tombstone.
“No one has asked about him — not in my lifetime,” said Michael Huggins, 55, the manager of the Historic Woodland Cemetery for the past two decades, and the person who helped find the exact location of Duncanson’s burial plot. 
[... Now] nearly a century and a half later, Monroe resident Dora Kelley is looking to rewrite a chapter of Duncanson’s life. Kelley worked with LeClair Monuments in Lambertville to design a sleek black granite tombstone for Duncanson complete with his full name, the year of his death and an etched version of his Ellen’s Isle painting from the DIA’s collection.  Kelley also chose a quote from the late artist to grace the monument, which speaks to Duncanson’s unprecedented position as a freeborn artist in the era of slavery: “I have no color on the brain; all I have on the brain is paint.”
Robert S. Duncanson, Ellen's Isle, Loch Katrine, 1871

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.'