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.'