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.'