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  


Friday, May 18, 2018

Ideas for Sculpture in a Setting


Paul Nash, Event on the Downs, 1934

The Tacita Dean exhibition Landscape starts today, but before I get to that, I wanted to mention here the Still Life exhibition which is still on for a few more days at the National Gallery.  It is free, unlike Landscape and Portrait, and it also incorporates other artists' work (and so reminded me of An Aside, the excellent exhibition she curated back in 2005 at Camden Arts Centre).  It includes examples of an overlapping genre, 'still life in a landscape', of which Event on the Downs is a famous example.  Long before Surrealism though, Thomas Robert Guest was recording archaeological finds by painting them close to, towering over the places in which they were found.  There is a Tate Paper ('Thomas Guest and Paul Nash in Wiltshire') with more information on the rediscovery of Guest's paintings in the late 1930s.  Such hybrid works, situating the still life in a landscape, differ from the kind of painting I featured here last year, where the two form separate worlds within the same artwork.  John Crome's Study of Flints is another example, similar in composition to Guest's paintings.  In the exhibition it is represented not by the original but by a postcard (Tacita Dean is known for collecting and using postcards in her art).  Crome's painting relates closely to two of Dean's own works, films of flints owned by in Henry Moore, called Ideas for Sculpture in a Setting (Diptych) (2017).


Thomas Robert Guest, Bronze Age Grave Goods from a Bell Barrow
Excavated at Winterslow, Wiltshire, 1814
 


John Crome, Study of Flints, c. 1811

In her introduction to the catalogue, Tacita Dean writes about a Paul Nash painting that manages to combine all three genres: landscape, portraiture and still life.  Cumulus Head is 'said to be a portrait of his wife, Margaret.  She appears in a cumulus cloud landscape with a green, possibly grass, middle ground.'  Furthermore, this portrait 'is painted as a statue head carved in stone and mounted on what appears to be a stepped pedestal.'  There is nothing quite like this in the exhibition*, although the human form is evoked in Two White Manikins by Albert Reuss (the manikins are propped up among rocks in what looks like a desert).  There is though one small, strange work from the National Gallery's own collection, which from a distance appears to be another close-up view of a flint-like rock.  It includes two figures, plus an angel who is probably part of a scene that was cut from the panel.  St Benedict is in a cave, receiving food lowered down to him by St. Romanus.  But, as Marjorie E. Wieseman writes in the catalogue, 'whether by accident or design, Romanus' grey robed figure seems to rise out of / melt into the rocky forms encroaching Benedict's hermitage, inviting fantasies of a landscape come alive or, alternatively, of a figure turned to stone and subsumed into the land itself.  The stillness come awake; or life, become still.'

Paul Nash, Cumulus Head, c. 1944



Workshop of Lorenzo Monaco, Saint Benedict 
in the Sacro Speco at Subiaco, c. 1415-20
  
* the Paul Nash painting Cumulus Head is actually included at the RA in the third part of the Tacita Dean exhibition, 'Landscape'. 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The paulownia of Lung-men

Ming Dynasty painting of a scholar playing a qin in a landscape
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Having just written a post about Chinese rhyme-prose (fu) I can't quite bear to leave the topic, which is full of interest for those looking for ways of writing about landscape.  In his introduction to Chinese Rhyme-Prose, Burton Watson refers to a subgenre on the subject of musical instruments. 'In such pieces, it is customary to begin with an evocation of the wild and beautiful mountain forest where the wood or bamboo from which the instrument is fashioned grows.  These passages are among the earliest descriptions of nature to be found in Chinese poetry.'  He goes on to provide a translation of a fu of this kind by Mei Sheng, who died in 140 BCE.  Here is part of the opening (prose) section, describing the Longmen (Lung-men) mountain setting of the paulownia from which a qin would be made (for more on this instrument, the Chinese zither, see my earlier posts).
'The paulownia of Lung-men soars a hundred feet before it puts out branches, its center spiraling up amid a tangle of dark foliage, its roots sprawling outward this way and that.  Above it stand the thousand-yard peaks; below, it peers into a hundred-fathom hollow, while swift torrents and lashing waves eddy and tug about it.  Its roots are half dead, half alive; in winter it is buffeted by sharp winds, settling frost, the driven snow; in summer the sharp crack of thunder and lightning assaults it.  At dawn yellowbirds and pies are found singing there; at dusk the mateless hen, the lost bird roost there for the night.  The lonely snow goose at daybreak calls from the top of it; partridges, sadly crying, flutter beneath its boughs.'
This fu on music is one of 'Seven Incitements' (Qi fa) making up Mei Sheng's full poem.  Each of these stimuli is supposed to cure a prince who is suffering from sensual overindulgence.  This explanation is from an online article about Mei Sheng:
'The first six enticements are versified descriptions of various pleasures that the guest invites the prince to enjoy. They include in order: (1) music, (2) a banquet, (3) a chariot race, (4) an excursion to a scenic place, (5) a hunt, (6) a view of the spectacular tidal bore of the Qu River of Guangling. At the conclusion of each of these tantalizing descriptions, the guest asks the prince if he wishes to rise from his bed and participate. After the first four enticements, he replies that he is too ill to rise. The fifth enticement, a stirring description of a hunt, almost succeeds in reviving him. After hearing of the tidal bore that even has curative powers, the prince remains as sick as before. Thus, it takes the final enticement, the promise to introduce the prince to the “essential words and marvelous doctrines” of great sages and philosophers, to rouse him from his sickbed.' 
So neither the idea of music or a spectacular landscape phenomenon did the trick for him (you can read a translation of the tidal bore description on Wikipedia's fu page).

I would love to read more of these nature descriptions that Burton Watson refers to, but I am not sure whether many fu of this kind have been translated.  Some are listed on John Thompson's Silkqin site, but there are no English texts.  I also wonder whether there are any examples in Western poetry of writers thinking about the material origins of their lute or flute or zither?  (Or, for that matter, poems about books and paintings, sculpture and ceramics that begin with their physical sources in earth, rock and wood?)  It is quite easy to think of examples that compare the effects of an instrument to natural forces (Lorca's guitar, for example, wept 'as water weeps / as the wind weeps / over snowfields.')  But the only poem that comes to mind on a landscape that gave rise to an instrument is by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  'A Musical Instrument' describes the riverbank visited by 'the great god Pan' to find the reed to make his pipe.  She writes of how he tramples over nature in order to get at this reed and, though afterwards the lilies revive and the dragon-fly returns, there is a 'reed which grows nevermore again / As a reed with the reeds in the river.'

Friday, May 11, 2018

Shanglin Park

 Qiu Ying (attributed), Shanglin Park (detail), 16th century

One of the most famous descriptions of landscape in Chinese literature must be the Shanglin fu, 上林賦,, composed by Sima Xiangru.  It was written for the young Emperor Wu, who had summoned Sima to court in 137 BCE, and it describes the royal hunting park southwest of the capital Chang'an. There is a magnificent Ming Dynasty scroll attributed to Qiu Ying (c. 1494-1552) which illustrates the poem - I have extracted a few details to illustrate this blog post.  The first one above shows the poem's three narrators in discussion.  Burton Watson translates their names as Sir Fantasy, Master No-Such and Lord Not-Real.  In the first part of the fu, Sir Fantasy and Master No-Such describe hunts in Chu and Qi; in the second part, Lord Not-Real blows them away with his description of the far-more-extensive parkland of Shanglin and the hunting and entertainment that goes on there.  The park is shown to be not just representative of China, but a microcosm of the whole universe.


The fu rhyme-prose form became known for its ornate language and lists (in an earlier post I referred to a 5th century critic of Sima's poetry, who complained that his 'characters were strung together like fish'). This could make it difficult to translate, but Burton Watson does it brilliantly, as Lucas Klein explains in his preface to the recent reprint of Watson's Chinese Rhyme Prose (1971, 2015). Watson, a contemporary of the Beat poets, 'reaches beyond Snyder and Ginsberg, past Rexroth and Pound, back to Walt Whitman.'  Klein quotes this example from near the beginning, where Sir Fantasy is describing the hunting park he had seen in Chu (Watson explains that some of the plant names he uses are necessarily guesswork):
Here too are precious stones: carnelians and garnets,
Amethysts, turquoises, and matrices of ore,
Chalcedony, beryl, and basalt whetstones,
Onyx and figured agate.
To the east stretch fields of gentians and fragrant orchids,
Iris, turmeric, and crow-fans,
Spikenard and sweet flag,
Selinea and angelica,
Sugar cane and ginger.

As my theme here is landscape, here is a brief summary of the first part of the Shanglin Park section of the poem:
  • Eight rivers are described, 'twisting and turning their way / through the reaches of the park' until eventually they reach giant lakes, 'shimmering and shining in the sun.'
  • Then the poem moves in, to list the dragons and turtles that inhabit these lakes and rivers, the precious stones on their beds and the waterfowl that 'flock and settle upon the waters, drifting lightly over the surface.'
  • Next the mountains and valleys are recalled, with the hills and islands at their base and the level land beyond.
  • There follows a long list of the flowers and herbs that line the river banks and spread over the plains, wafting a hundred perfumes upon the air.
  • After conveying a sense of the park's vast scale, the poem lists some of its exotic animals: zebras, aurochs, elephants, rhinoceroses.
  • It then mentions the emperor's palaces, retreats and mountain halls, with their fabulous grottoes and gardens. There are fruit trees and flowers, dense copses and forests that blanket the mountain slopes.
  • Finally, before getting on to the hunt itself and the activities of the courtiers, the poem describes apes, gibbons and lemurs, sporting among the trees and chasing over bridgeless streams.


There is obviously some exaggeration going on in this poem, so what was Shanglin Park really like? In Mark Edward Lewis's book The Early Chinese Empires, he writes that Emperor Wu installed in it 'rare plants, animals, and rocks that he had received as tribute from distant peoples, as booty from expeditions to Central Asia, or as confiscations from private collectors. The emperor's exotica included a black rhinoceros, a white elephant, talking birds, and tropical forests.'  The park contained a palace complex and an artificial lake with a statue of a whale which has recently been found during an archaeological excavation.  Emperor Wu's ambitious landscape gardening would be emulated by later Chinese rulers - see for example my post here on the Song Dynasty Emperor Huizong's rock garden. And Emperor Wu lived only a century or so after the First Emperor, whose mausoleum with its rivers of mercury and terracotta army was a kind of dead equivalent to the abundant parkland described by Sima Xiangru.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Zabriskie Point


Michelangelo Antonioni's film Zabriskie Point (1970) is named for the ancient lake beds where it is partially set. The two protagonists Daria and Mark drive to this viewpoint and explore its dry slopes before making love.  As Adam Scovell has written, the way they become gradually covered with sand 'unites them with the topography and camouflages their presence from themselves and the world around them'.  The dream-like appearance of a whole bunch of other hippies coupling in the dust adds to the effect (and, to be honest, would be quite hard to take if it wasn't for the accompanying music by Jerry Garcia).  This empty terrain seems as far from the city as it is possible to get (Zabriskie Point had stood in for Mars in one earlier film), but Death Valley is hardly an idyllic retreat.  After the two of them part, Daria drives on through the desert to the lavish modernist home of her boss Lee Allen, built among some rocks near Phoenix.  Here, in a kind of capitalist oasis, women sit around a pool and businessmen discuss the possibility of investing in Allen's new real estate development.  As Daria leaves she imagines the whole luxury house destroyed in an explosion.

Daria and Mark explore the landscape in Zabriskie Point
  
Whilst Zabriskie Point itself is central to the film and its wind-sculpted shapes are pretty remarkable, what really seems strange to the modern (British) viewer are the earlier scenes set in Los Angeles.  This is the LA of Ed Ruscha, designed around the automobile and full of garish signs and billboards.  At one point Mark drives past a large hoarding painted incongruously with a rural scene of barn, animals and farmers.  The film features other artificial landscapes too, like the one we glimpse in an absurd promotional film for Lee Allen's new development, Sunny Dunes.  At the end of the film, when he is trying to sell his proposal, the businessmen congregate around a semi-transparent map of the scheme.  Here the landscape is no more than an abstraction onto which they can project their financial schemes.  As they discuss the possible deal, drinks are served by two native American women, suggesting the way power and ownership of the land has changed in the course of a century.

Mark driving through LA

 Promotional film for Sunny Dunes with fake bird and people

 A map of the proposed development

I will conclude here with a paragraph from an excellent Lightmonkey essay which I think illustrates the point that, whilst Zabriskie Point undoubtedly has its faults, it is fascinating for anyone interested in landscape and cinema.
'In a series of striking shots we see glimpses of an older Los Angeles from Lee Allen’s modernist office with large windows overlooking the city. This office was located near Wilshire Boulevard in the downtown area and had a spectacular view of the city skyline. Antonioni went to great pains, and expense, to light the office with the same color temperature as the outside, creating the possibility of using deep focus to shoot Lee Allen at his desk and the skyline, both in sharp focus, establishing a dialog between actors and location. These extraordinary shots give the sensation that the interior space and the man made landscape outside go on forever morphing into one large electronically controlled space. Buildings from various time periods rise up like markers, most prominently a magnificent black and gold Art Deco tower on Flower St. Not surprisingly this landmark building was demolished shortly after the film was made, to make way for the new sleek skyscrapers that would come to dominate the city, and that were more in keeping with the international style of architecture favored by the surging corporate state. From the point-of-view of Mark, as he rides around on his truck the city seems to already be a collage that is in the process of being created and destroyed at the same time, with no time to reflect on the historical causes or the psychological effects.'

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Plum blossoms, green willows, warblers, and wine

Cherry Walk, Kew Gardens

Last weekend at Kew Gardens the cherry trees were in full bloom.  It prompted me to organise for last night a small blossom viewing gathering at our house (we actually have a crab apple tree, but it's a perfectly good stand-in).  During the week, the weather had turned from bright sunshine to wind and showers, so our tree, though still in bloom, had begun to shed its petals over the lawn.  I didn't really mind.  There was plenty of sake and good conversation to be had inside and spring rain is, in any case, almost as frequently encountered in Japanese poetry as cherry blossoms, sometimes in the same poem.  A 9th century poet, Ōtomo no Kuronushi, asked whether the gentle rains of spring are tears shed for the scattering of the cherry blossoms.

I have written here before about blossom viewing in Japan, but today I thought I would highlight one particular party, held as long ago as 730.  In the first month of that year (February 8th by the Western calendar), Ōtomo no Tabito, the Governor-General of Dazaifu, invited guests to a gathering in his garden to see the plum blossoms, whose flowering precedes the cherry season.  The tanka poems they composed feature in Edwin A. Cranston's anthology The Gem-Glistening Cup.  He describes their verse as 'decorous expressions of the pleasure of being together in spring, along with the occasional twinge of anxiety that spring will not last forever.  The principal images are plum blossoms, green willows, warblers, and wine.  The tone is celebratory, shadowless as the diffused light of a spring day.'

The poets at the gathering were mostly obscure, just the local talent in a remote outpost (Dazaifu is on the southern island Kyushu, far from the Japanese capital of Nara).  Their poems are simple and generally lacking in artifice.  The participants are identified by their job titles - a junior secretary, a senior judge, an assistant governor, a 'master of computation' etc.  Here is one of the poems, in Cranston's translation, written by the host himself.
   In my arbor now
Petals scatter from the plum -
   Or is it snow
That floats down drifting over us
From the boundless sky?
This is one of several poems comparing blossom and snow; it is an example of 'elegant confusion', a technique taken from Chinese poetry.  Later in the sequence one of the other guests, Tanabe no Makami (identified as 'Clerk of Chikuzen') adds mist to this poetic equation.  As his contribution could be classified as landscape poetry I will conclude by quoting it here too.
   Over spring fields
Mist rises, spreads across the ground,
   And snow sifts down -
Or so we see it as we watch
Plum blossoms scattering.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Pure sky, brooks, rose laurels, sun, shadow

As I mentioned in January, finding female landscape painters to highlight in my 'tweet of the day' has been quite difficult, partly because social restrictions reduced their ability to go out sketching and painting in the open air.  The two quotations below, from the diary of the nineteenth century artist Marie Bashkirtseff (1859-84), illustrate the point.  Born in Ukraine, she moved to Paris with her family at the age of twelve and began exhibiting at the Salon after studying at The Académie Julian (women were not permitted to attend the École des Beaux-Arts).  Her frustrations here as a twenty-year old aspiring artist have an added poignancy, because just five years later she succumbed to tuberculosis. 
Thursday January 2nd 1879 — What I long for, is the liberty to ramble alone, to come and go, to seat myself on the benches in the garden of the Tuileries, and especially of the Luxembourg, to stop at the artistic shop- windows, enter the churches, the museums, to ramble at night in the old streets, that is what I long for, and that is the liberty without which one can not become a true artist. Do you believe that we profit by what we see when we are accompanied, or when going to the Louvre, we must await our carriage, our chaperone or our family?
   Ah! heavens and earth! that is what makes me so angry to be a woman! I will dress myself like a woman of the middle class, wear a wig, and make myself so ugly that I will be as free as a man. There is the liberty that I want and without which I shall never succeed in being anything.
   One's thoughts are fettered by this stupid and enervating constraint; even if I disguise myself and make myself homely, I am but half free, for a woman who roams about is imprudent. And in Italy, in Rome? The idea of going in a landau to visit ruins!
   "Where are you going, Marie?"
   "To see the Coliseum."
   "But you have already seen it! Let us go to the theatre or take a drive, where there will be a crowd."
    And that is enough to bind one down to the earth. That is one of the great reasons why there are no women artists. Oh, sordid ignorance? Oh, savage routine! It is horrible to think of it all!
Marie Bashkirtseff, Autumn, 1883

'What I long for, is the liberty to ramble alone' - this has a familiar ring from many recent critiques of androcentric nature writing and male psychogeographers.  Marie Bashkirtseff may not have lived to paint the Coliseum, but she did complete the view of Paris in Autumn that I have reproduced here (now in the State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg).  There is something sad about that empty road, with its litter of leaves and the bench knocked over so that nobody can sit on it.  However, what really leaves an impression, assuming this reproduction resembles the real painting, is the intensity of that sunlight in the distance.  Perhaps it was affected by her yearning for the brightness of southern Europe.  Here is a second entry from her diary, in which she puts down a volume of Gautier to dream of travelling to Spain.    
  Wednesday June 20th, 1882 — Well! nothing new. A few calls exchanged and painting — and Spain. Ah, Spain! A volume of Théophile Gautier is the cause of all this [...] Ah! how short is life! Ah! how unhappy we are to live so little! For to live in Paris is only the point of departure for everything. But to make these sublime, artistic journeys! Six months in Spain, in Italy! Italy, sacred soil; divine, incomparable Rome! it takes away my reason.
   Ah! how women are to be pitied; men are free, at least. They have absolute independence in ordinary life, liberty to come and go, to start out, to dine at a restaurant or at home, to go on foot to the Bois or to a café; that liberty is the half of talent and three-quarters of ordinary happiness.
   But, you will say, superior woman that you are, give yourself that liberty!
   It is impossible, for the woman who emancipates herself thus — the young and pretty woman, be it understood — almost has the finger pointed at her, she becomes singular, commented on, insulted, and consequently still less free than before she shocked idiotic custom.
   So there is nothing to do but deplore my sex and return to dreams of Italy and Spain. Granada! Gigantic Arabs, pure sky, brooks, rose laurels, sun, shadow, peace, calm, harmony, and poetry!
This translation is by A. D. Hall (1908).  I see that another early translator, Mathilde Blind (1890), rendered the last sentence 'Granada! Gigantic vegetation! pure sky...'  Whatever the 'gigantic' thing was that Marie Bashkirtseff longed for, along with the rose laurels (oleander), sunshine and shadows, it was never to be...

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Picturing Paradise

Li Cheng, A Solitary Temple Among Clearing Peaks, Song Dynasty

We have got rather behind in watching Civilisations on the iPlayer, so I have only just seen Simon Schama's episode concerning landscape, 'Picturing Paradise'.  I really enjoyed it and was full of admiration for the way he explained the significance and beauty of specific works of art in a such a short space of time. The programme actually begins in twentieth century China with Mu Xin, who painted his landscapes in secret during the Cultural Revolution.  His trajectory from enemy of the people to revered cultural figure culminated recently in the establishment of a Mu Xin museum in Wuzhen.  Schama then takes the story back to Song Dynasty China and Li Cheng, whose paintings I wrote about last year.  The way the camera pans in close over A Solitary Temple Among Clearing Peaks reveals far more detail (see below) than can be gleaned from the rather dark image of this painting (above) I've used here before. 



Having devoted a decent amount of time to Li Cheng, the programme moves on to Qiao Zhongchang's handscroll illustrating The Second Prose Poem on the Red Cliff.  I imagine Schama would love to have had time to give the full background on Shu Shi's poem, but he focuses on the mood conveyed in this painting, contrasting the pleasures of an excursion with the sadness of exile, "a dream, but one with a bitter-sweet taste".  This Chinese section concludes with Wang Meng's Dwelling in the Qingbiang Mountains, allowing Schama to introduce themes of political symbolism - the turbulence in Song Dynasty China echoed in the way Wang painted his landscape.  The idea that landscapes tell us much about the world in which they were painted is then taken up, after a brief mention of Islamic art and gardens, in his account of Western landscape art.  In all, a quarter of the whole programme is devoted to Chinese landscape painting - if only this could have been expanded into a whole series...

 Qiao Zhonchang, Illustration to the Second Prose Poem on the Red Cliff, Song Dynasty

By this point in the programme we had become conscious of Simon Schama's rather idiosyncratic pronunciation of certain words.  'Most of us', as Gerard O'Donovan wrote in his Telegraph review,
'put the stress on the first syllable (MOUNtain), but he places it on the second (mounTAIN). As in, say, maintain or plantain. Usually, such idiosyncrasy would go unremarked. But being devoted to landscape art, there were so many mounTAINs (and even a founTAIN) in last night’s enthralling third edition of Civilisations, you had to wonder whether he’d ever noticed it himself.'
A bit harsh, but then it is hard not to focus on the mannerisms of the presenters given that they are effectively being pitched against the magisterial, patrician authority of Sir Kenneth Clark (incidentally, there's a nice clip of Clark in the original Civilisation (1969) embedded in a post I did back in 2010 about Jean-Jacques Rousseau).  I was dismayed to read a few days ago an article headlined 'Mary Beard 'cut' from US version of Civilisations, fearing 'slightly creaky old lady isn't ideal for US TV'.  I agree with O'Donovan that Schama's enthusiasm is inspiring to watch and that, like him, I'm happy to listen to views delivered 'with the unshakeable confidence of a man who goes through life pronouncing mounTAIN like he’d invented the word himself.'

I will not attempt to summarise the rest of the programme, which focuses on some of the themes Schama has written about before - the German forest, mercantile Holland and the American wilderness.  Perhaps the fact that he has written things like Landscape and Memory explains why he has not contributed a series tie-in book, unlike the other two presenters.  As for the inevitable omissions in this programme, I'm guessing Turner, Constable, Monet and Van Gogh will come in somehow to a later episode, but suspect there might be no more on post-Song Dynasty Chinese landscape art.  To conclude here I will transcribe a quote from the programme which I hope conveys why I think Schama is so good.  Here he takes an apparently unprepossessing painting by the prolific Jan Van Goyen and leaves you thinking of it as a minor masterpiece.

Jan Van Goyen, Polder Landscape, 1644
"Even though we know that Van Goyen really had to work fast and with rubbish materials that didn't cost him very much money (he was so always in debt), there's a credible kind of convergence between what he's painting and how he's painting it.  It's like a sketch.  It's like an immediate note from his own vision.  And everything that's kind of rough and raw and crude and clay-like and meagre about it actually makes you feel there. There are tops of houses - roofs - and you don't see anything else of the house.  Why?  Because they're actually below the waterline.  This delivers a world - the silvery quality of the canals, a little boat floating past, and you think you're waking up and you can smell the peat turned over; it's a raw day in the middle of winter, and you're absolutely enveloped by the wind, the dark, lead coloured light.  But this still, in it's scraped-away authenticity, is a kind of home."