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."

Friday, April 06, 2018

A slab of landscape

Paul Nash, Sketch for Empty Room, 1938
I am always interested in moments where interior and exterior change places and landscape somehow begins to appear within a building.  An early draft of Frozen Air began with a description of Paul Nash's sketch Empty Room - its sad tree stump growing from the floorboards, one wall like those in the house where I write this blog and the other transformed into a chalk cliff line reminiscent of the Seven Sisters.  This picture and two similar Nash drawings were the subject of an earlier post here on rooms becoming landscapes, along with other examples in the work of Giorgio De Chirico and Max Klinger, Maurice Sendak and Ray Bradbury.  Now I have encountered another version of this idea, in Ali Smith's most recent novel, Winter.

The vision of landscape in this book comes to a character called Art, who has gone to spend Christmas with his uptight and distant mother.  Art has just been dumped by his girlfriend, who had become exasperated with his nature blog, 'Art in Nature', a series of apolitical meditations on snow, puddles and hedgerows, written from a laptop without ever actually venturing outdoors.  Art pays a young woman called Lux, a homeless migrant originally from Croatia, to come with him to Cornwall and impersonate his girlfriend.  Then his mother's radical older sister arrives and things begin to unravel over Christmas dinner.  It is at this point that Art starts to imagine a fragment of actual nature floating above his head, as if  'someone had cut a slice out of the coast and dipped it into the room with us, like we’re the coffee and it’s the biscotti.'  A few reviewers have discussed this incident - Alexandra Harris, for example, imagined something 'like the clumps of landscape in the paintings of Julian Perry.'  However, in The New Yorker James Woods' discusses it in more detail and what he says is worth quoting here in full.
'Art does see something, and his visionary moment at the dining table is one of the novel’s unlikely triumphs, an oddly moving mixture of the fantastical and the allegorical. The Cleves family has been arguing steadily, about contemporary Britain, about borders and walls and refugees, when Art realizes that something is falling onto the table—pieces of dirt, grit, rubble. He looks up: “A foot and a half above all their heads, floating, precarious, suspended by nothing, a piece of rock or a slab of landscape roughly the size of a small car or a grand piano is hanging there in the air.” No one else notices it. Later, when Art tells Lux about it, she jokes that he has banged his head on the world. As if, she implies, instead of Dr. Johnson kicking the stone, the stone came and kicked Dr. Johnson. Reality exists, and it has come knocking, and Art, who shares some of his mother’s political obliviousness, will be knocked into a resensitized political awareness.

Perhaps Art’s political schooling is too obvious. But there’s something delicate, almost spectral—despite the hulking thisness of the symbol—about that piece of hanging landscape. It’s a piece of earth, a piece of Britain. (The English poet Edward Thomas, asked what he was going to fight for in the Great War, picked up some earth and replied, “Literally, for this.”) But, when I encountered the scene, I imagined not earth so much as a piece of cliff, perhaps a slice of the white cliffs of Dover; in other words, I imagined an edge, a border. The vision is surreally real, at once literal and symbolic, and the meanings productively multiply.'

Monday, April 02, 2018

Boisgeloup in the Rain

Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy is a wonderful exhibition, well worth the five stars Laura Cumming gave it in The Guardian.  There are many highlights but I suspect few critics will draw anyone's attention to the presence of five modestly-sized landscapes, painted at Boisgeloup where the artist was staying in the spring of 1932.  I was looking at these earlier today, having walked through relentless rain to reach Tate Modern.  The weather was apt - as John Richardson points out in his biography of Picasso, 'Easter was very wet that year; most of these views are striated with driving rain - an effect that van Gogh had borrowed from Hiroshige - otherwise they are surprisingly prosaic.'  This is certainly true in comparison to the marvellous sequence of Marie-Thérèse paintings Picasso was working on at the time.  As Laura Cumming writes, their 'atmosphere runs from midnight to bright day, across the seasons and centuries from some ancient grove to modern-day Paris. She dreams; he conjures the myths.'  Boisgeloup in the Rain can't really compete with this.

Pablo Picasso, Landscape with Dead and Live Trees, 1919
Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain because image published in 1921)

In 1932 Picasso's creativity was so all-embracing that it seems to have encompassed every genre of art, including landscape.  But I'm not surprised to find, looking back, that this is the first time I have featured him on this blog.  Picasso's attitude to landscape is captured by John Richardson in connection with another of his occasional paintings of the view outside (see above).  This was painted in 1919, shortly after Picasso had completed work on sets for Tricorne for the Ballets Russes.  
'Designing for the ballet had left a theatrical stamp on his perception of nature.  To the right, farm buildings constitute "wings" (as in Tricorne); to the left, two trees cry out to be scaled up, hung on gauze, and used as a repoussoir to imply recession without recourse to perspective.'
Richardson quotes Picasso's dealer Paul Rosenberg, writing to the artist with 'the most inconceivable news' that he had actually managed to sell this painting, 'the one you thought unsaleable, le paysage rousseauiste.'  
'Rosenberg's hyperbole was presumedly supposed to encourage his artist to do more landscapes, because they would appeal to collectors weaned on impressionism.  Rosenberg failed to realize that Picasso was not a paysagiste at heart.  Nature fascinated him, but only insofar as he could bring it within reach and have his metamorphic way with it.'