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.'   

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Down the stream to the City of Camelot

Illustration from Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory
printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1498

I have written before here about the description of nature in Gawain and the Green Knight, with its journey through a wintry Britain, where 'ice-cold water poured from the clouds / and froze before it hit the grey ground.'  Sadly there are no such descriptions in Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, even where landscape features in the story.  The lake, for example, into which Excalibur is thrown by Sir Bedevere, has to be imagined by the reader.  Tennyson, in his reworking of Malory, Idylls of the King, gives us more to go on: Bedevere takes zigzag paths past 'juts of pointed rock' until he comes to 'the shining levels of the lake' where there are dewy pebbles, bulrush beds and 'wild water lapping on the crag.'  Malory though, does make Bedevere say to the dying king that he had seen "nothing but waves and winds" a phrase somehow evocative because of its concision.  As I wrote here previously, these words begin a poem by France Horovitz, 'The Crooked Glen' - the title referring to 'Camboglana', the Celtic name for Birdoswald, one of the sites identified as the setting for Arthur's last battle.

The main way that landscape comes into Le Morte d'Arthur is through the book's locations, mentioned if not described, which cover the British Isles, France and sometimes further afield.  As a geographical region it feels both strange and familiar.  Often Malory himself provides a link with somewhere his readers will know, associating Camelot with Winchester, for example:
'Also Merlin let make by his subtilty that Balin's sword was put in a marble stone standing upright as great as a mill stone, and the stone hoved always above the water and did many years, and so by adventure it swam down the stream to the City of Camelot, that is in English Winchester.'
This sentence also illustrates again the way Malory's text might be unpacked and reimagined more fully - that magical stone heading downstream in a manner reminiscent of David Nash's Wooden Boulder.  As you read Malory you start to imagine an Arthurian Britain just below the surface, even in the Home Counties.  At one point he has King Arthur stay at the castle of Ascalot 'that is in English Guildford' - an identification probably due simply to its location between London and Arthur's intended destination, Winchester.

The topic of Arthurian topography is discussed by Geoffrey Ashe in The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. He dismisses the idea that Camelot would have been an actual city, as opposed to a military headquarters: 'the claim of the Somerset hill fort Cadbury Castle carries unrivaled weight.'  There are places in Britain that may be the connected with a historical Arthur, like the ten battle sites mentioned by Nennius in his Historia Brittonum, and then there are places that are merely named for him (or, less frequently, Merlin, Tristram, Guenevere and Lancelot).  I mentioned a Welsh landscape feature, Arthur's Chair, in my abecadarian piece on the Itinerarium Kambriae of Gerald of Wales (1188).  This was a lofty spot with a well-shaped pool, fed by a spring, in which trout were sometimes seen.  Earlier in the century, Hermann of Tournai, travelling through Devon and Cornwall in 1113 encountered another Arthur's Chair and also Arthur's Oven (the latter may be what is now called King's Oven on Dartmoor).

Some Arthurian features are natural, others are ancient megaliths that have become linked to his legend.  In descending order of scale there are: a mountain - Ben Arthur in Scotland; the saddle-like hills that have suggested Seats and Chairs; five earthworks known as 'Round Tables'; and many stones - at least six called Arthur's Stone and eleven called Arthur's Quoit.  The idea of Arthur has been fused with local folklore in places, turning him into a giant. Thus, 'seated on King's Crags in Northumberland, he tossed a huge boulder at Guenevere on Queen's Crags - which are half a mile away.  It bounced off her comb and now lies on the ground between, showing the toothmarks.' Geoffrey Ashe goes on to describe the way this folkloric Arthur differs from the knight of Romance, in the manner of his survival after death.  In the chivalric stories, Arthur resides in the Isle of Avalon, but in folklore he sleeps with his knights in a cave.  Intriguingly though, these may both point to a common source deep in Celtic myth.  In 82 CE a Roman official in Britain (quoted by Plutarch) reported that the Britons believed in a god lying asleep in a cave, attended by spirits.  This was on an island, a warm and pleasant place "in the general direction of sunset".

Friday, July 06, 2018

The Lake of Ashes

Claude Lanzmann died this week - obituaries can be read here, here and here.  For all the praise that Shoah received, it can still feel as if the film is underrated, perhaps because to praise Lanzmann's settings and use of sound would seem like trivialising his subject.  I have considered trying to write here about landscape in Shoah but felt I could not really do the subject justice.  Shoah seems to demand a response as long and complex as the film itself, and its methods raise many questions about documentary methods and ethics.  However, Lanzmann's approach to landscape can be stated very simply.  Eschewing archive material, he let much of his interviews play out against footage of the sites the victims were talking about, shown as they appeared nearly four decades later: the remnants of concentration camps, rail tracks through dark forest trees, village streets revealing nothing of their past. Lanzmann's style can be seen in the context of other European films from the period that made use of atmospheric long takes - Stalker, Kings of the Road, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser - but I can't think of anything remotely as powerful.  And Shoah still looks extraordinary in comparison with the imagery of contemporary filmmakers, such as Tacita Dean whose work I was discussing here last month.  If you have never watched the whole of Shoah, I cannot recommend it too highly.

Friday, June 29, 2018

From the earth decay is seeping

Heidegger thought that all of Georg Trakl's poetry was really one long poem, and perhaps it could be said that all of his poetry takes place in one landscape, with its and silent woods and dark paths, barren fields and withered gardensSometimes Trakl is content to create a poem almost entirely out of such images in parataxis; at other times they form a setting for the lonely wanderers that drift through his world like the figures in a Munch painting.  It is quite easy to give a sense of this composite landscape through a selection of quotes.  What I have done here is extracted a series of single line descriptions, each from a different poem in his first book, Gedichte, which was published in July 1913, less than 18 months before Trakl's death.  The translations are by Margitt Lehbert.
From the earth decay is seeping.
Flies are buzzing in yellow vapours.
The reed’s small movement sinks and rises.
Pitch-black skies of sheeted metal.
Menacing blossom-claws in treetops.
Swallows sketch lunatic signs.
The pond’s mirror loudly shatters.
Through black branches, the toll of grievous bells.
The tilled field shines white and cold.
It is a stubble field on which a black rain falls.
Ice-cold winds moan in the dark.
An old man turns sadly in the wind.
It is an empty boat that drifts down the black canal in the evening.
The blackbird laments in leafless branches.
'In Autumn', 'Tranfigured Autumn', 'An Autumn Evening', 'Autumn Soul', 'Autumn of the Lonely One'...  These poem titles show how Trakl's themes were suited to autumnal imagery, but he wrote about the other seasons too.  In this, his work reminds me of Japanese poetry.  It is just about possible to rewrite his shorter poems as haiku, making use of their season words.  I won't quote the results here, but I did this this myself with 'In the Park' (autumn), 'A Winter Evening'; 'In Spring'; and 'Evening in Lans'.  Lans is a village in Austria, but Trakl provides nothing specific in that poem to identify it - the whitewashed arches under which the narrator drinks could really be anywhere.  When Trakl names actual locations, like the The Mönchsberg or Hellbrunn Palace, they are 'purely evocative', as Margitt Lehbert says in the introduction to her Anvil Press translationsThe Trakl poem I wrote about here last year was called simply 'Landscape'.

Franz Marc, Red Deer, 1913
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Trakl's work seems to lend itself to reworking as well as straight translation.  An article in Jacket 2 describes two recent examples: Christopher Hawkey's 'writing through' Trakl in Ventrakl, and Daniele Pantano's reordering of lines from his verse in ORAKLIn addition to extracting landscape descriptions and turning poems into haiku, I have contemplated other operations such as arranging Trakl's lines according to colour.  Simple colour adjectives are used in almost every poem.  From his yellow suns, green forests, blue doves and white poppies it would be easy to assemble an expressionist painting resembling those of contemporaries like Franz Marc.  The poems can be searched for one particular colour, noting for example Trakl's red leaves, red deer, fish, wine, dresses, money, breasts and clouds (this last occurs in his famous war poem, 'Grodek').  However, as my list above illustrates, Trakl's places are also haunted by blackness, and in the course of reading him you will encounter black decay, black snow, black wind, black waters, black silence.  

But, rather than end this post in blackness, I will conclude by quoting some of Trakl's uses of the colour blue.
Blue asters in the wind bow low and shiver.
Your lips drink the cool of the blue rock-spring.
The blue river runs splendidly on...
The blue of springtime waves through snapping branches...

A glance of blue / breaks from crumbling cliffs
A blue animal wants to bow before death...
A blue gust of air played placidly through the old elder...
O to dwell in the soulful blue of night.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

The sun is slowly eclipsed

I wrote here a few weeks ago about two of the Tacita Dean exhibitions in London this year; this post is about the third one, 'Landscapes', at the Royal Academy.  The first thing that will strike any visitor is the venue itself, the new RA extension, and (if you're my age) a feeling of déjà vu as you realise you're entering what was once the Museum of Mankind.  Then, the first room is full of clouds.  They were all created on slate, using spray chalk, gouache and charcoal pencil.  These obviously stand in the long tradition of artist cloud studies - Cozens, Constable, Stieglitz - but are immediately recognisable as the kind of blackboard drawing she became well known for in the nineties (her Turner Prize nomination was twenty years ago).  One cloud triptych is called Bless Our Europe and another Where England?  I found myself thinking about the chalk cliffs I wrote about in Frozen Air and the way clouds float freely over national borders. 

Beside these cloud studies, a whole wall is taken up by one of Dean's large-scale mountain drawings, The Montafon Letter (2017).  Here the brief textual annotations, which are a feature of her work in different media, come from the account of a devastating avalanche that took place in 1689.  A priest tending to the dying was buried by falling snow, but then unburied when another avalanche struck, and survived.  There is a photograph of Tacita Dean working on this, accompanying an interesting Guardian interview prior to the opening of this exhibition.  Another mountain scene dominates the second room: Quarantania (2018).  This shows a forbidding rock wall under a blood red sky - Mt. Quanrantania is the site in the Judean Desert where the devil is said to have tempted Jesus.  The image was constructed by manipulating early photographs and above the desert floor there is a kind of blurred mirage effect.  

In the final room you can watch Antigone, a new hour-long film which Tacita Dean has finally completed after one false start and many years reflecting on its underlying themes.  Landscape footage (which is of most relevance to the subject of this blog) is set alongside various approaches to the story of Antigone and her father, so that, for example, two bubbling volcanic vents remind you of the blind eyes of Oedipus.  In the catalogue she explains that: 
'Antigone has taken form as a result of the inherent blindness of film. Using masking inside the camera's aperture gate, I filmed one part of the film frame before rewinding the camera to film another part. This meant that the film was composed without the possibility of seeing what was already exposed in the frame. So Bodmin Moor under February drizzle sat in blind relationship with the shores of the Mississippi or geysers in Yellowstone with the total eclipse of the Sun. Only when I returned to California in the late Summer of 2017 and processed and printed my rolls of negative, did the film revealed itself to me.'

Sunlight on the catalogue for Landscapes, showing pages related to Antigone 

Adrian Searle, in his Guardian review, said that 'it is impossible to do justice' to this film. 
'We visit the floodplains of the Mississippi in Wyoming, the town of Thebes, Illinois, and the courthouse where Abraham Lincoln first practiced. Here we meet Anne Carson and actor Stephen Dillane.  For much of the film, Dillane is an Oedipus blinded by tinted glasses made for viewing the eclipse, and wearing a huge, straggly beard. He maunders across the world as though without purpose, at one point followed by a pair of curious dogs. As he walks out of frame, the dogs start copulating. Think ZZ Top. Think Saint Jerome. Think Harry Dean Stanton in the film Paris, Texas. A man on a mission, escaping his fate. Eagles circle the sky, their call a distant mewing. There are vultures and a crow stalks the horizon. Every moment of Antigone is a confusion, a complexity and a delight – a rich muddled stew of words and images, places and atmospheres. And through the imaginary day on which everything takes place, the sun is slowly eclipsed.'
I know what he means about ZZ Top, although I was thinking more of Warren Ellis from The Bad Seeds.  Those eclipse glasses were like the distinctive sun goggles in Herzog's Fata Morgana and the split-screen wandering of Oedipus reminded me of Ori Gersht's film about the last walk of Walter Benjamin, Evaders The idea of filming in Thebes, Illinois may seem a bit forced, but its old courthouse was a wonderfully atmospheric setting.  The whole film is worth seeing just for the way the early evening light falls on its old books and floorboards, and for the view across the river of the sun glowing and setting behind distant trees.  I would recommend arriving at the start (there's a showing every hour) and trying to get a front seat.  We did, and were engrossed by Antigone from start to finish.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Trodden by the feet of gods

I've been twice now to see Charmed Lives in Greece, a highly enjoyable (free) exhibition at the British Museum celebrating the creative lives of Patrick Leigh Fermor, John Craxton and Niko Ghika.  In between these visits, we actually had a holiday in Greece (this wasn't planned, but in his review of Charmed Lives Alastair Sooke wrote that it will 'make you itch to book a holiday beside the Aegean Sea, because the Hellenic fantasy it offers is so irresistibly compelling.')  Whilst I'm sure readers of this blog will be familiar with Craxton and Leigh Fermor, Niko Ghika is perhaps less well known.  His paintings are as colourful and appealing as those of Craxton - nothing ground-breaking but very redolent of a time when the art world was still coming to terms with the influence of Picasso and Matisse.  The exhibition includes photographs, letters and wall quotes that convey the joie de vivre and intellectual curiosity you experience in reading Leigh Fermor...

Of course Leigh Fermor's 'charmed life' in Greece was facilitated by his partner Joan's private income and loyal, emotional support.  He and Craxton also made use of their friend Ghika's house on Hydra (there's a nice photograph of Craxton sketching there on the British Museum's blog post about the exhibition).  It was on Hydra that Leigh Fermor wrote Mani (1958), his digressive account of a journey round the southernmost tip of the Peloponnese.  Here is a passage from my favourite chapter, 'Short Summer Nights'.  It describes the unique sharpness of the sunlight in Greece.
...'All the vapours that roam the Italian atmosphere and muffle the outlines of things are absent here.   A huge magnifying glass burns up the veils of distance, making objects leagues away leap forward clearly as though they were within arm's length.  The eye shoots forth a telescopic braille-reading finger to discern the exact detail and texture of a church, a wood or a chasm ten miles off.  Things in the distance co-exist on equal terms with those hard by; they have a proprietary and complementary share in the patterns that immediately surround one.  A distant cordillera completes a curve begun by the vein along the back of a plane-tree leaf, a far-off belfry has the same intensity as a goat's horn a few yards away, a peninsula leans forward to strike the stem of a dried up thistle at right angles.  Mountain ranges that should melt with the heat-haze and recession, lean forward and impend till one is at a loss to say whether a hill is a small nearby spur or a far-away Sinai...'
This long paragraph continues with further examples before progressing to other properties of Greek light, such as the way it seems to sprinkle surfaces with 'a thin layer of pollen like the damask on a moth's wing.'  These surfaces retain light in the same way that they retain heat. Shadows appear more real than the phenomena they echo.  And 'it is probably because of all this that a strong mystical and sentimental significance pervades the actual surface of the earth, the rocks and the stones of Greek mountains.  The adjective theobadiston, 'trodden by the feet of gods (or God)' in ancient Greek and in the Byzantine liturgy comes to mind.'  All of this, he concludes, has a strange effect on the Greek landscape.  Nature becomes supernatural and 'the frontier between physical and metaphysical is confounded.'

John Craxton's cover for Mani

Saturday, June 09, 2018

The Canmore Mountain Range

The Dulwich Picture Gallery's Edward Bawden exhibition has a room devoted to 'Spirit of Place'.  It includes 'Houses at Ironbridge' (1956/7 owned by the Tate) which is a good example of the way Bawden experimented in his watercolours - the detailed, colourful brickwork might come from the illustration to a children's book but the cloud above is roughly scrawled like something in a contemporary abstract painting.  The same year he was elected as a Royal Academician and submitted as his 'Diploma Work' a watercolour of Lindsell Church.  This church, near Bawden's home, was also the subject of perhaps the most impressive work in the 'Spirit of Place' room, a large lithograph from 1963.  Bawden was generally happy to concentrate on depicting his small corner of Essex, but the exhibition also includes the work he did as a war artist in Italy, North Africa and the Middle East, and a rather striking view of The Canmore Mountain Range (1950), also in the Tate, which was painted on a teaching trip to Canada.  In this, the foreground is filled with the gravestones and spiked railings of a Ukrainian cemetery which crowd together and point up to the jagged facets of the mountains, all under a dark grey sky. 

From the pre-war years the exhibition has some watercolours of Newhaven Harbour, very like those of Bawden's friend Eric Ravilious.  They have the same Downland colour palette and the same fascination with mark making - stippling, scratching and washing the paint in various directions.  Curiously, the landscape itself seems to tilt down to the right, as if a straight horizon would have made the view look too boring.  There is a playfulness and energy in everything Bawden did, even if the results were sometimes rather twee or nostalgic.  The gallery obviously thinks the exhibition will appeal to children and (irritatingly) the main painting captions seem to have been written with them in mind.  It is, as the review in The Independent points out, easy to compare this exhibition unfavourably to the excellent Ravilious show at Dulwich which I wrote about here three years ago.  However, perhaps you can judge for yourself if I end here with an embedded clip of curator James Russell walking through his show.  I've also included a screen grab from this above, by way of illustration, as Bawden's actual images are still in copyright.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Deep mellow shades breaking upon the view

Harriet Gouldsmith, A View of Hampstead Heath Looking Towards Cannon Place, 1818

I recently came across a curious publication in which a landscape painting is the narrator of its own story.  A Voice from a Picture, privately printed in 1837, was by 'A Female Artist'; a review three years later, revealed that the author was Harriet Gouldsmith Arnold (1787–1863), an English landscape painter.  This review can be read online, as can the full text of A Voice from a Picture.  According to the reviewer, 'the idea of making a picture tell its history is not new; but it will bear a new treatment'.  This is interesting initself - are there actually earlier examples of landscape paintings relating their autobiographies?  In her introduction, Gouldsmith (she used the name Arnold after her marriage in 1839) says that she hopes her little book will help spread the knowledge of art 'as the fittest guide to the instructive love of nature in her better forms.'

The painting begins its autobiography with an account of 'the sorrows, hopes, and fears' of its 'parent': an artist (male) who possessed 'an unfeigned delight for the sublimities and beauties of nature.' 
Often have I witnessed the feelings of my fond parent, whilst gazing upon the last gleams of the setting sun, - the deep mellow shades breaking upon the view, 'ere night shed silence and repose upon all earthly things; and often has grey morning, the sweet harbinger of another day, brought vigour and renewed exertion to his enthusiastic and unwearied mind.  At length, after many solitary wanderings, and anxious efforts, I became a Picture.  Then, again, new fears and anxieties arose. - What was to be thought of me, amongst the thousands of connoisseurs, amateurs, artists, and critics, whom I should be compelled to face?
The painting was right to be anxious.  It imagines being neglected like the 'unobtrusive works' of Richard Wilson, put into the shade by the flash and fire of Loutherbourg.  For a long time it hangs unregarded on a London wall, while the painter accumulates a body of work, and is then taken to be exhibited in Manchester, but remains unsold.  People praise it but, because the artist is not a big name, nobody will buy it.  More exhibitions and an auction follow, without success, and eventually the painter becomes so poor that he sells all his possessions, including the landscape painting.  Then, at the low point of the story, the painting gets 'carried into a back garret, to answer all the purpose of a chimney board.'  However, after the poor artist dies in a debtors prison, his work starts to become sought after.  Found and restored, the painting becomes highly praised and ends up decorating 'the mansion of nobility.'

Richard Wilson, Lake Avernus, c. 1765

Before leaving A Voice from a Picture I can't resist a digression, to quote an anecdote Gouldsmith includes as an illustration of the straits to which poverty reduces artists.  Here a landscape painting is actually worn.
'A party of English artists meeting together in Italy, for the purpose of making studies from nature.  The weather proving very sultry, the members proposed that all should take off their coats, which was strongly objected to by one of the party, but at last submitting to the others, a Waterfall was discovered on his back, his waistcoat having been made out of a picture of that subject.'
Harriet Gouldsmith was painting during the Golden Age of British landscape painting.  She first exhibited at the RA in 1807 and was elected to the Water Colour Society in 1813.  The painting below is a late work and can be found in the Egham Museum, which purchased it in 1985.  I wonder how its 'life' played out over the preceding 140 years...  Its subject, Magna Carta Island, was itself put up for sale four years ago, with an asking price of £3,950,000 (see the BBC's report).  This island includes a Grade II-listed house, built a few years before Gouldsmith's painting, that features a specially-built Charter Room to house the stone on which the charter is supposed to have been signed.  Perhaps someone should write A Voice from an Island, to relate the history of its owners since that day in 1215 when Runnymede took its place in the story of England.  The Times reported that as a result of the sale, Magna Carta Island has been acquired by a Chinese family.

Harriet Gouldsmith Arnold, Magna Carta Island, 1845

Friday, June 01, 2018

Potted landscapes on the Tōkaidō

Utagawa Hiroshige, Hiratsuka on the Tokaido, 1833–1834

The Public Domain Review is a constant source of fascinating material and I thought I'd share here something I read about there recently, a book called Tokaido Gojusan-eki Hachiyama Edyu.
Connecting Edo (now known as Tokyo) to Kyoto, the Tōkaidō road was the most important of the “Five Routes” in Edo-period Japan. This coastal road and its fifty-three stations has been the subject of both art and literature, perhaps most famously depicted by the Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige in his The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō, a series of ukiyo-e woodcut prints created in the 1830s. This book from the mid-19th century, Tokaido Gojusan-eki Hachiyama Edyu, presents a series of fifty-three prints created by a relatively obscure ukiyo-e artist named Utagawa Yoshishige, each illustration depicting a Tōkaidō station in the form of a potted landscape. The preface tells us that the illustrations are based on actual pieces constructed by the preface writer’s father, Kimura Tōsen. Creating the models in 1847, a year before publication, Tōsen commissioned Utagawa Yoshishige to make illustrations of each model for a book through which he could share them with the world, and (due to his modesty) asked his son to write the preface.
The Public Domain Review article doesn't identify Kimura Tōsen's landscapes, but you can puzzle them out.  The image below is clearly a view of Hiratsuka - I have reproduced Hiroshige's version above. The other two examples below are (I think) Chiryū (No. 39, scene of a horse fair) and Kanbara (No. 15, a snow scene). Here landscape has been refracted first through the prints of Hiroshige, then through the tray landscapes of Tōsen and then once again through the medium of print, a trace of a trace of a trace of the views from the Tōkaidō road.

The article goes on to explain that of the two main types of Japanese potted landscape, these are likely to have been bonkei - sculpted models featuring people or buildings - as opposed to saikei in which real miniature trees and plants would grow.  The art of creating miniature landscapes was widespread and there were versions of it in China (penjing) and Vietnam (hòn non bộ).  The Wikipedia article refers as well to the Western model railway, a form of landscape art I have so far neglected on this blog!  In Japan there is another related art form, bonseki, in which sand and rocks are used to make a landscape on a black lacquer tray.  Below I have included three examples of women making bonseki tray landscapes, concluding with a recent Youtube clip showing the use of special tools and materials.  These bonseki could be seen as a subgenre of sand art, which reminds me of another childhood pursuit that I've never mentioned here, the art of the sand castle.  Perhaps next time we are on a beach I will have a go at some of the Fifty-three stations of the Tōkaidō... 

Katsushika Hokusai, Woman making a bonseki mountain, n.d.

Yōshū Chikanobu, A woman making a bonseki tray landscape showing the full moon, 1899