Friday, March 16, 2018

Feelings from Mountain and Water

Feelings from Mountain and Water (山水情) is essentially an animated ink painting. It is a film about a master of the guqin, an instrument that seems to embody the Chinese landscape, as I have discussed in earlier posts on this blog.  The master and pupil are seen in various shan shui (rivers and mountains) settings, painted in a minimal and near-monochrome style.  We see the changing of the seasons and hear the sound of blowing wind and running water (there is no dialogue).  The camera pans across misty mountains which emerge out of the mist as ink spreads on paper.  I have embedded the film above - it only lasts 20 minutes.

Feelings from Mountain and Water was made in Shanghai in 1988 by the renowned Chinese animator Te Wei (1915-2010).  His ink wash technique, developed in the late fifties, was based on that of painter Qi Baishi (1864-1957), who was in turn influenced by Bada Shanren (1626 - 1705).  There is a fishing scene in Feelings From Mountain and Water that resembles Bada Shanren's Fish and Rocks (1696), a painting I've written about here before and featured today in my regular landscape 'tweet of the day'.  Another influence, evident in The Cowboy's Flute (1963), was the painter Li Keran (1907-89).  It was soon after the release of this film that the Cultural Revolution brought Te Wei's career to a sudden halt and, as Alex Dudok de Wit has written in a piece for the BFI site, he was interned in solitary confinement for a year, beaten, deprived of sleep and obliged to pen self-criticisms.  He kept himself sane by drawing sketches on the glass pane of a table, erasing them when guards approached.  Later he worked on a pig farm with his fellow animator A Da and it was only after Mao's death that they could consider returning to their work.

Feelings from Mountain and Water can now be seen as the culmination of Te Wei's career.  In 1989 he was honoured as one of the four outstanding Chinese filmmakers, and yet, as de Wit writes, 'the artist who had survived the Cultural Revolution did not weather the transition to the market economy, and he did not work in the last two decades of his life.'  Perhaps Te Wei's style of animation will be carried forward by others?  The knowledge that this was his last film gives added poignancy to the final scene involving the old master, in which he plays a qin that is merely a blur of ink, surrounded by layers of mist.  The precious instrument is passed on to his student, who plays it as the master's boat travels up the screen and into the distance until it seemingly fades into the sky.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Nine acres of orchids

'The fluttering swallows leave on their homeward journey;
The forlorn cicada makes no sound;
The wild geese call as they travel southwards;
The partridge chatters with a mournful cry.'
'Jiu bian', 'Nine Changes', is a set of poems attributed to Song Yu, a third century BCE poet about whom little is known.  Charles Hartman has described them as 'the locus classicus for later Chinese poetry of autumnal melancholy.'  David Hawkes translated them in his version of Chu ci (The Songs of the South) the collection in which they have come down to us (the second great source of Chinese poetry, along with The Book of Odes). He contrasts 'Jiu bian' with the great poem that opens the anthology, 'Li sao' ('Encountering Sorrow'), by Qu Yuan.
''Li sao' is full of allegorical flowers, birds and trees, but its author [...] has little time for contemplating the world of nature.  It would be hard to imagine him composing the magnificent threnody to dying nature with which 'Jiu bian' begins.  In 'Jiu bian' we encounter, perhaps for the first time, a fully developed sense of what the Japanese call mono no aware, the pathos of natural objects, which was to be the theme of so much Chinese poetry through the ages.' 
The author of 'Jiu bian' is all too aware of the passing years, expressing sentiments that strike a chord with me in my bleaker moments...
'I have left behind my blossom-burgeoning prime:
Sere and withered, I am full of melancholy.
First autumn heralds with warning of white dew;
Then winter redoubles rigour with bitter frost.'
'Song Yu Mourns Autumn' is a qin tune from the Xilutang Qintong (1525 CE), recorded by John Thompson and available on his wonderful silkqin website.

Yokoyama Taikan, Qu Yuan, 1898
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Qu Yuan, China's first great poet, was banished from the court of King Huai of Chu (who reigned from 328 to 299 BCE) and drowned himself in the River Miluo.  He is now associated with the Dragon Boat Festival, celebrated each year on the anniversary of his death.  'Li sao' may not contain landscape description but it is full of symbolic flowers.  Some of these clearly represent people at the Chu court: 'I thought that orchid could be trusted ... Pepper is full of flattery'.  Here (to swap translators) is Burton Watson's version of a few lines of 'Li sao', comparing Qu's official career to the planting of a garden. 
'In the past I planted nine acres of orchids,
sowed a hundred fields with heliotrope,
set out peonies and cart-halt flowers,
mixed them with asarums and fragrant angelica,
hoping their stems and leaves would flourish and grow firm,
looking for the time when I could reap them.
Though they wither and die, how would that pain me?'
Qu Yuan and Song Yu both often feature in later writing.  'The Poetic Exposition on Gao-tang', for example, was probably written about Song Yu by a Han Dynasty writer.  In Stephen Owen's translation it begins thus:
'Once upon a time King Xiang of Chu visited the high terrace of Yun-meng with Song Yu, when he gazed of toward the lodge of Gao-tang.  Above it was a mass of cloudy vapors, first rising up towering, then suddenly changing its aspect, so that in a moment there were endless transformations...'
Song Yu explains to the king that these are 'the clouds of dawn' which 'billow out like the perpendicular pine' and then 'glow like a comely maiden.'  They recall the goddess who visited a former king of Chu in a dream and made love to him.  On leaving she said she would be 'found on Wu Mountain's sunlit slope, on the steeps of the high hill.  In the early morning I am the clouds of dawn; in the evening I am the passing rain.'  This is the origin of the poetic term for sexual intercourse which you find in Chinese literature, 'clouds and rain.'

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

The calmness of that beauty

I was pleased when Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize last year, partly because I loved The Buried Giant, despite the misgivings of some critics.  Of all his novels, the one that seems to be most universally admired is The Remains of the Day, the story, in Salmon Rushdie's phrase, of 'a man destroyed by the ideas upon which he has built his life.'  It is narrated by the butler Mr Stevens as he slowly makes his way to the West Country on a rare holiday from his duties, hoping to be reunited after twenty years with the former housekeeper of Darlington Hall.  Near the beginning of his journey, he stops the car and climbs a hill to enjoy the view.  His idea of what it is that we appreciate at such moments encapsulates some of the novel's most important themes.  It hints at his misguided allegiance to an outdated idea of Englishness, exaggerated through a lifetime of service and deference, and it exemplifies his belief in the importance of restraint, something that will be shown to have had regrettable consequences for the course of his own life.
'...when I stood on that high ledge this morning and viewed the land before me, I distinctly felt that rare, yet unmistakable feeling - the feeling that one is in the presence of greatness.  We call this land of ours Great Britain, and there may be those who believe this is a somewhat immodest practice. Yet I would venture that the landscape of our country alone would justify the use of this lofty adjective.
  And yet what precisely is this greatness? Just where, or in what, does it lie? I am quite aware it would take a far wiser head than mine to answer such a question, but if I were forced to hazard a guess, I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart.  What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.  In comparison, the sorts of sights offered in such places as Africa and America, though undoubtedly very exciting, would, I am sure, strike the objective viewer as inferior on account of their unseemly demonstrativeness.
   The whole question is very akin to the question that has caused much debate in our profession over the years: what is a 'great' butler?...'

lllustration by Finn Campbell-Notman for
 the Folio edition of The Remains of the Day

Friday, March 02, 2018

Anglers, Mülheim

Last week we went to the reopened Hayward Gallery for its big Andreas Gursky retrospective.  Twenty years ago, everyone seemed to be talking about Gursky: there was, for example, a show at the Serpentine in 1999, and a year earlier he won the Photographers Gallery Citibank Prize (now called the Deutsche Börse Prize).  'This is an artist whose time it appears has come,' wrote Robin Muir, 'as anyone would attest who was held up in the bottleneck of admirers lingering over his floor-to-ceiling pictures at the show of shortlisted Citibank entries in March' (I would have been one of those admirers).  Photographs from that time, like Salerno (1990) and Paris, Montparnasse (1993), have became famous, whilst Rhein II (1999) and 99 Cent II Dyptich (2001) both broke auction records for the world's most expensive photograph (my friend Tom has a print of the latter up in his kitchen and I suspect he is not alone in this...)  All these years later I was curious to see what Gursky has been doing recently and whether he had found new approaches to landscape photography beyond such spectacular, digital-altered compositions as Bahrain I (2005), in which a desert race track was turned into something resembling an abstract painting.

Many of the recent works on show at the Hayward are fictionalised tableaux, a new direction certainly, but not as immediately likeable as his early work.  I confess I struggled to get the point of SH I, in which a superhero (Iron Man) and his love interest are seen embracing on a tropical beach.  But Gursky is also still photographing scenes of the technological sublime, such as Les Mées (2016), a striking view of a solar farm covering a hillside in France that is reproduced on the exhibition poster (above).  The most recent photograph in the show is also a landscape image, Utah (2017), and it certainly impressed The Guardian's critic, Laura Cumming:
'The show’s masterpiece is unlike almost anything Gursky has made before. It is a new work, a single shot of some prefab houses skimmed on a mobile phone while driving through Utah. The photograph registers the speed of the car racing through the landscape – and modern life – in all its random glitches and blurs. At the same time, the houses look perilously ephemeral against the ancient mountains behind them. This fragile little thing, a spontaneous and disposable shot, is enlarged to the size of a cinema screen – a monumental homage to the mobile phone and the outsize role it plays in depicting our times'
Leaving the exhibition I found myself thinking how much I still love Gursky's earliest photographs.  They reminded me of my most recent trip to The Photographers Gallery, to see 'Wim Wenders' Polaroids', although of course Gursky's views of West Germany are on a much larger scale.  Anglers, Mülheim (1989), for example, is an impressive take on our modern landscape, a place neither urban or rural.  Greg Hilty described it well in his essay for the catalogue of another 1990s exhibition, Tate Liverpool's 'Andreas Gursky: Images' (1995).
'Two groups of fishermen sit on the banks of a quiet river, some distance apart, in uneasy relation to each other and to their pseudo-idyllic surroundings.  In the distance we glimpse a motorway bridge, leading into the space behind the trees in front of which the anglers sit.  We know we're on the fringes of a town, we can hear the cars in the distance, smell the pollution of the river, almost pick out litter in the woods.  The site, like those in other works from the period, is on the margins in both social and pictorial terms.  What meaning the picture holds derives not from any incident portrayed, but from the relation of what we see to what we cannot see, but understand to be there.'

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Jones Beach Piece

Next month a Joan Jonas retrospective is due to open at Tate Modern - you can read an interview in Tate Etc.  I should probably wait and see this before writing about her work here, but I just found the beginnings of a blog post I started years ago on her Jones Beach Piece and it got me looking online again to see what there is to be read about her work.  My original interest in Jones Beach Piece was an idea that it might have constituted a new form of landscape art, one in which the landscape is used to separate the art from the audience.  The beach was not just the setting for a performance, it was a medium through which the art had to be perceived.  The performers were deliberately situating themselves in a subordinate role to the landscape, like those small figures of shepherds in seventeenth century pastoral paintings.  Here's how she described her early outdoor performances in Interview Magazine.
'The first performance outdoors happened at Jones Beach [Jones Beach Piece, 1970]. It was based on the idea of how our perception of image and movement is altered by distance. A group of us performed a series of choreographed movements and signals with simple props such as a six-foot metal hoop, a ladder, a rope, a bag of shells, and a shovel. For instance, Susan Rothenberg, tied into the hoop, was rolled about by George Trakas and John Erdman. The audience was a quarter of a mile away. Performers stood at different distances from the audience and clapped blocks of wood together over their heads. The farther away, the greater the sound delay.
We next performed this work on the empty lots and the docks of the Lower West Side. It was called Delay Delay [1972]. We performed similar actions signaling to each other and the audience—who was situated on what is now the roof of Richard Serra’s loft building—from the farthest ends of the docks and the edges of the lots. Carol Gooden and Gordon Matta-Clark spent the entire performance painting a big circle and a line in the street below. Their dog sat nearby watching. Cars would slowly approach, slow down, and drive by carefully. During these performances, we were never interfered with. It was a different time.'
Ah, would that we could all have experienced New York City in the seventies!  That Interview interview is worth reading in full for quotes like this: "I remember Gordon Matta-Clark liked to wrestle..."

Among the more recent works Joan Jonas has made, there are two worth mentioning here which were inspired by Iceland. Volcano Saga was originally narrated by the artist but then turned into a video piece, with Tilda Swinton in the role of Guðrún from the thirteenth century Laxdaela Saga.  More recently she has developed Reanimation, a work inspired by the Halldór Laxness novel Under the Glacier.  Neither of these source books has much about Iceland's landscape, although the sites of Laxdaela Saga have become landmarks and there are some brief descriptions in Laxness.  It is hard though to imagine making art about Iceland that does not feature its glaciers, lava flows and sea cliffs, and both Jonas installations included scenes shot around the island.  You can watch Volcano Saga in the embedded clip above, and here is a description in The New Yorker of 'Reanimation.'
'What began as a lecture-performance at M.I.T., in 2010, has evolved into a multiscreen extravaganza surrounding a sculpture of dangling prismatic crystals, which sends flashes of light darting onto projections of glacial landscapes and the occasional seal, filmed in an archipelago in the Arctic Circle. Jonas also appears onscreen, drawing with black ink and with ice. The spellbinding piece is non-narrative, with no sense of beginning or end. As long as you remain in this world, Jonas seems to suggest, you’re still just passing through.'
My copies of Laxdaela Saga  - a Folio edition of the Magnusson/Pálsson translation with Peter Pendrey wood-cuts - and Under the Glacier, with one of those evocative Louisa Matthíasdóttir paintings that Vintage use for the covers of their Laxness translations.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Schmadribach Falls

Joseph Anton Koch, The Schmadribach Waterfall above Lauterbrunnen, c. 1793

Last month the Evening Standard carried a headline saying that 'The British Museum just bought a drawing for £68,000'.  The article (illustrated with a later painting rather than the actual pen and ink sketch) explained that 'an 18th-century drawing by Austrian Romantic artist Joseph Anton Koch — forgotten for over a century until it was discovered by the Standard’s late art critic Brian Sewell – has been bought by the British Museum for £68,750.'  Following its sale at Christies, a temporary export ban was put in place.  This means that you can read online various government statements about it, including one from the Arts Minister himself: 'This striking study for Joseph Anton Koch’s most celebrated landscape shows why this leading Romantic painter was so highly regarded by British artists.'

 Joseph Anton Koch, The Schmadribach Falls, 1821-22

There is an Arts Council PDF of the expert's report, which discusses Koch's drawing in relation to the export ban Waverley criteria.  Here is its explanation of the particular significance in art historical terms of The Schmadribach Waterfall, which Koch developed into two oil paintings, one now in Munich, the other in Leipzig.
'Koch’s Schmadribach Waterfall fundamentally revised the previously accepted norms of landscape. Seemingly inspired by Albrecht Altdorfer’s Battle of Alexander (1529, Munich, Alte Pinakothek), he envisaged a panoramic ‘world landscape’ embodying the entirety of nature’s system as well as man’s place within it. Koch’s interpretation of Alpine scenery was more influential on the next generation of artists than the formulations of C.D. Friedrich or J.M.W. Turner. For example, Ludwig Richter (1803-84) paid direct homage to The Schmadribach Waterfall in his The Watzmann (1824, Munich, Neue Pinakothek).
Adrian Ludwig Richter, The Watzmann, c. 1824

I would love to know more about how Brian Sewell came upon this sketch.  The expert report notes only that 'the provenance of this drawing is unknown prior to its ownership by the well-known art critic Brian Sewell (1931-2015).'  A bit more information can be found in an article by Christies chairman Noël Annesley from the time of the posthumous sale:
'A notable discovery of Brian’s, and a demonstration of his flair for spotting rarities, is a meticulously drawn view from 1794 of the Schmadribach waterfall near Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland, a favourite subject of Joseph-Anton Koch. I do not know how it was previously described, but Brian recognised its authorship because of his interest in German Romantic art. This had been quickened many years before at the Courtauld, and then through visiting an extensive Arts Council exhibition in 1963 devoted to Koch and other members of the so-called Nazarene School which had previously been neglected in Britain.'
Looking at what else was on sale from his collection, I see there was a whole range of landscape sketches costing a lot less than £68,000.  If I'd had £10,000 to spare I might have been able to pick up a couple myself...  One can dream, although I have to admit that such valuable objects wouldn't really be safe in our house, where they would be at risk of being knocked off the wall during a lightsaber fight, splattered with Warhammer paint or hit by a flying emoji cushion.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Sleeping Dragon Ridge

Yosa Buson, Liu Bei visited Zhuge Liang in his hermitage three times, 18th century
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This beautiful winter scene was painted by the great Japanese haiku poet and artist, Yosa Buson.  It depicts a famous moment in Three Kingdoms, the epic Chinese novel describing real events at the end of the Han Dynasty.  The warlord Liu Bei has come to the 'thatched hut' of Zhuge Liang, the 'Crouching Dragon', to ask whether he will join him as an advisor.  Liu Bei is accompanied in this painting by his two oath brothers, Guan Yu (traditionally depicted with a red face and luxurious beard) and Zhang Fei.  These three and Zhuge Liang (also known as Kongming) have been depicted over and over again in books, plays, films, comic books and video games, along with their adversary Cao Cao (whose poetry I wrote about here last year).  Zhuge Liang was revered as a Chinese Ulysses, a great tactician, minister and inventor.  Moss Roberts, the translator of Three Kingdoms, describes him as a combination of Machiavelli, Clausewitz and Leonardo da Vinci.  But when Liu Bei came to call on him in the year 207, he was just a young scholar with a brilliant reputation.

Dai Jin, Looking Three Times at the Thatched Hut, Early Ming Dynasty
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The painting above, is by Dai Jin (Tai Chin) and dates from roughly the same period as the Three Kingdoms. Dai Jin's hanging scroll shows the same three characters being met at the gate by a boy, while Kongming can be glimpsed inside.  The titles of these pictures refer to the fact that Liu Bei made three trips to the thatched hut before Kongming made an appearance.  The first time he was told by the young boy that the master was not around and that his movements were uncertain.  On the second attempt, in the dead of winter, he encountered Kongming's brother but again was told that the master was away.  On the third, Liu Bei and his brothers were kept waiting while the scholar slept, but finally got to talk to him.  They found him to be a tall man 'with a face like gleaming jade and a plaited silken band around his head.  Cloaked in crane down, he had the buoyant air of a spiritual transcendent.'
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Xuande (Liu Bei) Visits Kongming Three Times in the Snow, 1853

This story is as well known in Japan and Korea as it is is in China, as can be seen by two more Japanese images of Liu Bei's journey.  The woodblock print above is by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, from a series called A Popular Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  The one below is by the last great master of the ukiyo-e print, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi ('Gentoku' and 'Kômei' are the Japanese versions of  Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang).  The Fitzwilliam curators note that Kongming is shown by Yoshitosi 'on the right poring over learned texts: in the absence of lamps, diligent scholars in ancient China were supposed to have read by the light of fireflies or by the reflected luminescence of snow, which they brought in from outside.' 

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Gentoku visits Kômei in the snow, 1883

I will end this post with some lines from the novel itself, in Moss Roberts' translation.  On their first journey, Liu Bei and his brothers are directed to Sleeping Dragon Ridge:
'The twisting, turning ridge bears heavy clouds;
The frothing, churning stream is liquid jade.
Caught between the rocks, this dragon winds;
Shadowed by the pines, this phoenix hides.
A wattle gate half-screens a thatched retreat:
Undisturbed the recluse sits within.'
On their second journey, 'dense, somber clouds covered the sky.  The brothers rode into a cutting northern wind.  A heavy snow made the mountains gleam like arrowheads of white jade and gave the wood a silvery sheen.'  After being disappointed again, Liu Bei sets off back.
'Pear-petal flakes descending from the skies,
Antic willow puffs darting at his eyes,
He turns and halts to view the scene behind:
Banked with snow, the silvered ridges shine.'
On the third visit, he finally gains admittance and talks to Zhuge Yiang, who describes to him a three stage plan to reunite the Han empire.  Liu Bei rises from his mat and joins his hands together in gratitude, saying 'Master, you have opened the thicket that barred my view and have made me feel as if clouds and mist have parted and I have gained the blue sky.'

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Mundus Subterraneus

I have been immersed in Athanasius Kircher's Theatre of the World, a (literally) wonderful and wittily-written book about the great seventeenth century polymath.  Its author Joscelyn Godwin is something of a polymath himself but has written mainly about music and the occult (he has featured on this blog before as translator of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili).  The book discusses Kircher's inventions, some of which were housed in his museum at the Jesuit Roman College, and covers his extensive writings in Latin on language, religion, geography, science, music and many other topics.  There have been numerous books on Kircher in recent years and Godwin was the author of one of the first of these (in 1979); his aim in this subsequent volume was to focus attention on Kircher's illustrations. These, in contrast to the some of the original texts, 'have a quality of ingenuity and strangeness that are particular to his century, and of singular appeal to ours.'

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, c. 1563

The engravers worked from Kircher's designs which were either his own inventions or adaptations from other sources, sometimes mere sketches sent by travellers and correspondents.  The Tower of Babel reproduced on the cover of this book comes from Turris Babel (1679) and was obviously inspired by the famous Breugel painting.  It was actually drawn by Coenraet Decker and engraved by Lievin Cruyle.  The tower differs from Bruegel's in having 'a system of crossing ramps from one of Kircher's favourite ancient buildings, the Temple of Fortune in Praeneste'.  Bruegel's tower looks like it is being built in the Flemish countryside, but Kircher's is surrounded by ancient monuments, including numerous pyramids and obelisks, subjects he treated extensively in Oedipus Aegyptiacus (1652-4) and Obeliscus Aegyptiacus (1666).  His fascination with the obelisks of Rome made me want to revisit the city and spend a day tracking them all down, from the Flaminian obelisk now in the Piazza del Popolo to the Sallustian obelisk at the top of the Spanish Steps.

 Athanasius Kircher, The Earthly Paradise, from Arca Noë (1675)

Kircher's depictions of ancient sites as they might once have appeared range from the Roman villas that he could visit around Tivoli to places for which he had to rely on ancient texts: the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the citadel of Atlantis and the Garden of Eden (above).  For China Illustrata (1667) he made use of the Travels of Marco Polo and more recent information sent back by his fellow Jesuits.  It includes depictions of the Mountain of Fe, shaped either naturally or artificially (Kircher puts arguments for both possibilities) into the resemblance of a Chinese god; the Seven Peaks, which seem to correspond to the configuration of the Great Bear; and Lake Chin, on the surface of which float waterlilies and, more strangely, a child on a piece of wood, the sole survivor of a city destroyed by an earthquake.  In this volume Kircher also illustrates Dragon and Tiger Mountain with the creatures themselves about to fight each other.  Although sceptical of some mythical creatures, Kircher believed in the existence of dragons, even in Europe.  'It may surprise the reader', Joscelyn Edwards observes, 'to learn that dragons were nowhere more prevalent than in Switzerland.'  The idea of a dragon on Mt Pilatus terrorising Lucerne inevitably recalled for me Smaug's destruction of Lake-town in The Hobbit.

Athanasius Kircher, Dragons of Lake Lucerne, from Mundus Subterraneous (1664-78)

Some of Kircher's most famous 'landscape' drawings are in Mundus Subterraneus where they illustrate his theories of geography, geology and the movement and actions of fire and water.  His notion of the hydrological cycle required underground mountain reservoirs and subterranean channels connecting the seas.  At the North and South Poles, as yet unknown, he imagined the global flow of water governed by a vast whirlpool and spring.  I have included here before his image of Mt Vesuvius, a volcano Kircher explored himself.  Inside the crater he 'perceived the groaning and shaking of the dreadful mountain, the inexplicable stench, the dark smoke mixed with globes of fire which the bottom and sides of the mountain continuously vomited forth from eleven different places, forcing me at times to vomit it out myself...'

 Athanasius Kircher, The Loudspeaker System at Mentorella, from Phonurgia Nova (1673)

Kircher wrote a topographical study, Latium (1671) about the region around Rome.  He was particularly drawn to the sanctuary of Mentorella, which he helped preserve, and it was here that he performed some of his acoustic experiments, with loudspeakers directed at the surrounding hills (see above).  This sacred place had witnessed the conversion of St Eustace, when the figure of Christ appeared between the antlers of a stag (see illustration below).  Kircher's book Historia Eustachio-Mariana (1665) contains a memorable description of his discovery of the sanctuary and I will end this post with it.  As Joscelyn Godwin remarks, 'the eighteenth century did not invent the Sublime, nor the Romantic era the melancholy attraction of ruined choirs.'
 'In 1661, while I was exploring the mountains of Polano and Praeneste, I started in Tivoli and passed through wild mountains and rocks.  Around noon I came to a horrid, solitary place, hemmed round with rocks like a crown.  It really was a place filled with horror, where the stony pyramids seemed to scrape the heavens, and, falling from hanging rocks in formidable vortices, seemed to express infernal motion.  In the midst of all this, among dark trees and rocks, I came across the remnants of a roof: it was a church, all but collapsed.  But how could there be a church in this place of terror and solitude?  I asked the guide.  Going in I saw the pictures and sculptures of the saints.  Everything breathed the devotion of ancient piety.'
 Athanasius Kircher, The Conversion of St. Eustace, from Latium (1671)

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Body of Ice

In 2011, Australian harpist Alice Giles got the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of her geologist grandfather Cecil Madigan, who has been a member of Mawson's First Australasian Antarctic Expedition a century earlier.  At Davis Station she left her instrument by the shore as an aeolian harp, as you can see in the clip from her website embedded above. "The sound of the wind through the strings was incredibly clear and concentrated,'' she told the Sydney Morning Herald.  On her return she composed Alice in Antarctica, mixing music and extracts from Madigan's expedition diary.  She also participated in a conference about the Antarctic and music, the papers for which can be read (open access) in  Antarctica — Music, Sounds and Cultural Connections (Australian National University Press, 2015).  Here are some other things covered in this book that seemed worth noting on this blog.

Gilbert Kerr playing bagpipes to an indifferent penguin
on the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition
Unknown photographer. Source: Royal Scottish Geographical Society

  • Music made by explorers and scientists.  Various kinds of instruments and music making equipment were taken on the polar voyages, from hand organs on Franklin's expedition to the pianola used by Scott. One of the book's essays concerns a well-known photograph of Gilbert Kerr and his bagpipes (above) - the pipes themselves were later taken to the war and lost during the Battle of the Somme.  A piano on the Morning, a relief ship sent to Scott's first expedition in 1902, was used to compose what is probably the first published music written on an Antarctic polar journey.  Gerald S. Doorly wrote a small collection of songs, including 'Ice King', written as they searched the coastline looking for Scott's ship Discovery.  Most intriguing for me though is the idea that a Japanese flute may have been played over the ice on the Shirase Antarctic Expedition (1910-12).  Research by Rupert Summerson, himself a Shakuhachi player, polar explorer and scholar (a pretty cool job description), suggests that the player would have been Keiichi Tada, who also wrote tanka inspired by his journey to the Antarctic:
Looking back
Looking back again
Looking back
All I’ll see are mountains
And mountains of snow (trans. Amelia Fielden)
  • Compositions inspired by the Antarctic. The earliest example of a composition based on experience of the continent may be James Dwight Dana's musical setting of lines from Thulia: a Tale of the Antarctic, a narrative poem written by James Croxall Palmer, who was assistant surgeon to the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838–42.  Dana was an eminent geologist and part of the same expedition, though not on the ship that sailed down to the edge of Antarctica. Of course there are numerous more recent examples of music directly inspired by encounters with the Antarctic - I have mentioned here before the work of Peter Maxwell Davies for example.  An essay in the book by Patrick Shepherd refers to his own experience and that of three other New Zealand composers who have been to Antarctica: Chris Cree Brown, Gareth Farr, and Phil Dadson, who experienced a kind of epiphany while out on the ice:
'I was recording ice cracks for one entire night (without too much luck I have to say) and during this time sat motionless, simply watching and listening, much of the time focused on my relationship with the planet and to the sun. Instead of watching the sun slowly creeping along the horizon line, I could literally sense the earth turning around the sun. It was a simple and profound sensation and it has stayed with me.'
  • Sound art made on the continentPure field recording may be rarer now than it was when Douglas Quin made Antarctica twenty years ago.  Instead it tends to be a component of projects that combine different kinds of sound or used it to accompany other media.  Philip Samartzis provided field recordings for Body of Ice, a dance piece by Christina Evans, who contributes an essay to the book describing how she worked with her dancers to imitate the movements of ice - rolling, crumbling, melting and freezing.  When Cheryl E. Leonard visited the Antarctic she collected material to make natural instruments: limpet shells, the bones of adelie penguins, igneous rock slabs forming a scale of tones and glossy rock shards that chimed like glass.  She is now able to play these instruments to the accompaniment of her own field recordings, of seals, meltwater and the Antarctic ice, cracking and drifting in the sea. 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Frail songs by torrents

Yesterday evening I listened yesterday to a recent episode of 'Late Junction' in which Anne Hilde Neset was taken by Jana Winderen to a snowy forest just outside Oslo to discuss field recording. I have embedded a clip of this below, although I'm not sure how long it will be available.  I would actually recommend listening to the whole programme while you can (among other things it includes a wonderful Morton Feldman tribute on what would have been his ninety-second birthday, David Fennessy's 'Piano Trio - Music for the pauses in a conversation between John Cage and Morton Feldman').  Winderen talks about the way the sounds of the forest change completely day by day - sound like light has to be captured instantly or it is gone forever.  She has been waiting many years to catch a particular lake when it is just about freezing.  At that moment the ice is like a drum skin and if you tap it you can hear the sound flying over the surface.  But on the rare occasions when the lake has been in this state, she has happened to be without her equipment. "Then I just have to listen to it with my ears and remember that, recorded in my memory".

After listening to this programme I took up a book, the latest collection of Thomas A Clark's poems, Farm by the Shore.  As I read it, I kept thinking of the deep listening and close attention to landscape that Jana Winderen describes.  Poems refer to the drone of the wind, the water song in leaves, the lapping of little waves, unquiet on quiet.  A small brown bird hidden in glancing light seems to vanish when it stops singing.  There is often a focus on such moments, when what is observed offers an insight into the processes of thought.  'Quicker than tadpoles / in pools the shadows / of tadpoles in pools / or the notion of shadows / of tadpoles in pools.'  There are places, these poems suggest, to which you can retreat to tune the mind or simply find repose in the shadows of trees.  Jana Winderen's recording includes the sound of tadpoles at rest, hibernating in their cold winter pools, waiting for spring.  Waiting is essential for her too, as she "concentrates into the environment" and begins to notice small things or experience chance phenomena like snow falling from a tree.  It is easy to picture Thomas A Clark walking the winter woods and listening to them with similar quiet patience: 'snowflakes on eyelashes / frail songs by torrents.'

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Lichens and Ferns on a Rock Face

Gherardo Cibo, Men Collecting Specimens on a Hillside, 16th century

This illuminated manuscript page shows specimen hunters on an Italian hillside, equipped with sickle, mattock and sack.  They are so intent on their work they seem oblivious to the beautiful sunset behind them.  It was painted by the amateur botanist Gherardo Cibo (1512-1600) who illustrated his own researches in Urbino and incorporated elements of the surrounding landscape into his botanical illustrations.  The example below is one of several that can be seen at the British Library page for 'Additional MS. 22332'.  In addition to the Daphnoides it shows 'a botanist gathering plants on a mountainside and a fortified town and river in the background.'  In other paintings of specimens we see a countrywoman gathering plants, a man sitting on a fallen column, people harvesting olives, a person reading a book and a man hitting a snake with a branch.  But it his distant views that are particularly appealing - a flock of sheep, a weir and watermill, a fortified town, a port, a rocky island, a mountainous landscape.  Cibo's people are in scale with these landscapes; it is the plants that have grown to giant proportions, like a Fumewort under which two young girls are able to sit in the shade and chat.

Gherardo Cibo, Daphne Laureola (Spurge-laurel), 16th century 

I came upon the painting of specimen hunters last week in the 'Herbology' section of the British Library's exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic.  There is clearly something magical about the other pictures in the MS too, as Cibo transforms herbs into plants the size of trees.  J. K. Rowling's treatment of landscape is something I can't really discuss as I've not read her books (though I have caught the gist of the story while Mrs Plinius was reading them to our kids and seen bits of the Harry Potter movies). The exhibition is excellent though, whether you're bothered about Harry Potter or not, with many interesting objects and books in addition to the Gherardo Cibo herbal.  However, one manuscript that wasn't on display was the second one by Cibo that the Library owns, 'Additional MS. 22333'.  The images on the British Library page include two seascapes and a landscape, along with the delightful view below, which at first appears to be a typical sixteenth century depiction of the Italian countryside, until you see the outsize lichens and ferns growing over the surface of the rocky hillside.

 Gherardo Cibo, Lichens and Ferns on a Rock Face, 1584

Saturday, January 06, 2018

The sea like a vortex

"The sixth storm, rain. Just barely saved the boat. The sea like a vortex, the surf like cannon fire. The tent broke. Wonderfully beautiful." - Tove Jansson
In the middle of the Tove Jansson exhibition, which is on for a few more days at Dulwich Picture Gallery, there are three large paintings of waves: Abstract Sea (1963), Weathering (1965), Eight Beaufort (1966).  You can see the first of these reproduced in the Telegraph's review, 'Revelatory show about the Moomins creator'. They were painted after she had returned to painting, in the wake of abstract expressionism and after having spent two decades creating the world of the Moomins.  As Tuula Karjalainen writes in the catalogue, Jansson was at this point 'so committed to storytelling that she usually included a figurative element even in her abstract works.  As subjects, she often selected motifs that in themselves already appeared abstract', hence these studies of the sea.  It was also at this time that she was planning and building her cottage on Klovharun island - the quotation above describes her experience camping there before construction began.  The islands of the Finnish archipelago appear through her art and have become part of the imaginative world of anyone who has loved Moominpappa at Sea or The Summer Book.

Thirty years before these abstract sea paintings, at the beginning of her painting career, Tove Jansson painted landscapes in strong colours which are reminiscent of early twentieth century Primitive, Symbolist and Surrealist artists (looking at them I thought of Rousseau, Munch and Nash).  These inevitably prefigure the later Moomin illustrations, like a set of watercolours in this exhibition showing scenes from The Dangerous Journey (1976).  The most striking of her early landscape compositions is actually called Mysterious Landscape and has no precise date.  Mostly painted in cold shades of blue, it shows ghostly trees lining a path to a white building that reminded me of what I saw last year at dusk in Stockholm's woodland cemetery.  Paths of light lead up dark mountains, bare trees burn bright red, and in the distance there is a moonlit fjord.  It seems to be part of a strange and magical story that at the time, before Moomintroll came along, she was still just telling to herself.

Monday, January 01, 2018

There Lies the Temple

Today I launched a new initiative, to post 365 landscapes on Twitter over the course of 2018.  In doing this I am using a format (see above) which will usually include a telling detail in addition to the main image, in this case a dark idol just beyond the brow of the yellow hill.  Whether people on twitter will find this interesting I am not sure, but it is giving me a chance to look across the whole field of landscape art and share the things I find most interesting.  And by allowing myself only one landscape per artist, it is possible to cover quite a lot of ground in 365 tweets.  I have pretty much planned the selections out already so am able to say now that they are all interesting and (mostly) beautiful artworks - there's been no need to include dull canvasses by second-rate Impressionists or attempt full coverage of all the minor Dutch landscape painters.  The one key rule I am setting myself is only to include artists who died before 1948.  This is obviously for copyright reasons, but also helps restrict the field a bit; in addition to nothing post-war, it means I will not be including anything by artists like Georges Braque, Georgia O'Keeffe or Giorgio de Chirico.  I will mainly focus on painting but will include some work in other media - drawings, photographs, tapestry, stained glass, mosaic.  The coverage will be worldwide, though with an inevitable focus on Western art (the other main tradition is Chinese painting).

One thing that struck me from the outset in doing this was how difficult it would be to achieve adequate representation of women artists.  In Europe, before the late nineteenth century, women painters did not generally specialise in landscape.  One of the images I have lined up for later this month illustrates the point.  It is a pastel sketch of an Alpine lake, made during a summer holiday, by Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, who was renowned throughout Europe as a portrait painter (subjects included Marie Antoinette, Lady Hamilton and Lord Byron).  Another of my selections is by Berthe Morisot, whose best known subjects are her domestic interiors, even though her first appearance at the Paris Salon, in 1864, was with two landscapes.  It is only towards the end of the period that you find professional women landscape painters whose work really stands out, and some of these could be better known - Zdenka Braunerová (1858-38) for example, who will also be featuring in January.  I'd love one day to see an exhibition gathering together a whole range of pre-twentieth century landscape art by women artists.  A fourth one on my list for January is Emily Carr, whose work I featured here following a retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery.  The next post on this blog will be about a more recent artist whose work I saw at Dulwich last week, Tove Jansson.

I will conclude here with a few more words about Paul Gauguin's painting (sometimes called 'Sacred Mountain'), which shows a marae, or sacred enclosure, in the Marquesas Islands.  It is, like most (perhaps all?) of the landscapes I'll be tweeting about, a product of the artist's imagination.  Gauguin was inspired to paint and sculpt images based on Tahitian traditional religion and the gods that had been suppressed by Chirstian missionaries.  However, as Joseph J. Rishel explains (see the Philadelphia Museum site), 'the fence with its decoration of skulls, the idol on the hill, and the evocation of sacrifice in a thread of smoke ascending before the demanding god have no basis in Tahitian culture, Gauguin has created another kind of paradise in the opulence of his colour and the splendid sensuality of his images.'  Robert Goldwater (Gauguin, 1957) wrote that the artist had painted a kind of 'Olympus bathed in light, somewhere above the world of men. The baleful fence tells us we are shut out from it, and mortal, but the bright flowers remind us that this is still a world of life and lovely colour.'