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)