Friday, May 18, 2018

Ideas for Sculpture in a Setting

Paul Nash, Event on the Downs, 1934

The Tacita Dean exhibition Landscape starts today, but before I get to that, I wanted to mention here the Still Life exhibition which is still on for a few more days at the National Gallery.  It is free, unlike Landscape and Portrait, and it also incorporates other artists' work (and so reminded me of An Aside, the excellent exhibition she curated back in 2005 at Camden Arts Centre).  It includes examples of an overlapping genre, 'still life in a landscape', of which Event on the Downs is a famous example.  Long before Surrealism though, Thomas Robert Guest was recording archaeological finds by painting them close to, towering over the places in which they were found.  There is a Tate Paper ('Thomas Guest and Paul Nash in Wiltshire') with more information on the rediscovery of Guest's paintings in the late 1930s.  Such hybrid works, situating the still life in a landscape, differ from the kind of painting I featured here last year, where the two form separate worlds within the same artwork.  John Crome's Study of Flints is another example, similar in composition to Guest's paintings.  In the exhibition it is represented not by the original but by a postcard (Tacita Dean is known for collecting and using postcards in her art).  Crome's painting relates closely to two of Dean's own works, films of flints owned by in Henry Moore, called Ideas for Sculpture in a Setting (Diptych) (2017).

Thomas Robert Guest, Bronze Age Grave Goods from a Bell Barrow
Excavated at Winterslow, Wiltshire, 1814

John Crome, Study of Flints, c. 1811

In her introduction to the catalogue, Tacita Dean writes about a Paul Nash painting that manages to combine all three genres: landscape, portraiture and still life.  Cumulus Head is 'said to be a portrait of his wife, Margaret.  She appears in a cumulus cloud landscape with a green, possibly grass, middle ground.'  Furthermore, this portrait 'is painted as a statue head carved in stone and mounted on what appears to be a stepped pedestal.'  There is nothing quite like this in the exhibition*, although the human form is evoked in Two White Manikins by Albert Reuss (the manikins are propped up among rocks in what looks like a desert).  There is though one small, strange work from the National Gallery's own collection, which from a distance appears to be another close-up view of a flint-like rock.  It includes two figures, plus an angel who is probably part of a scene that was cut from the panel.  St Benedict is in a cave, receiving food lowered down to him by St. Romanus.  But, as Marjorie E. Wieseman writes in the catalogue, 'whether by accident or design, Romanus' grey robed figure seems to rise out of / melt into the rocky forms encroaching Benedict's hermitage, inviting fantasies of a landscape come alive or, alternatively, of a figure turned to stone and subsumed into the land itself.  The stillness come awake; or life, become still.'

Paul Nash, Cumulus Head, c. 1944

Workshop of Lorenzo Monaco, Saint Benedict 
in the Sacro Speco at Subiaco, c. 1415-20
* the Paul Nash painting Cumulus Head is actually included at the RA in the third part of the Tacita Dean exhibition, 'Landscape'. 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The paulownia of Lung-men

Ming Dynasty painting of a scholar playing a qin in a landscape
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Having just written a post about Chinese rhyme-prose (fu) I can't quite bear to leave the topic, which is full of interest for those looking for ways of writing about landscape.  In his introduction to Chinese Rhyme-Prose, Burton Watson refers to a subgenre on the subject of musical instruments. 'In such pieces, it is customary to begin with an evocation of the wild and beautiful mountain forest where the wood or bamboo from which the instrument is fashioned grows.  These passages are among the earliest descriptions of nature to be found in Chinese poetry.'  He goes on to provide a translation of a fu of this kind by Mei Sheng, who died in 140 BCE.  Here is part of the opening (prose) section, describing the Longmen (Lung-men) mountain setting of the paulownia from which a qin would be made (for more on this instrument, the Chinese zither, see my earlier posts).
'The paulownia of Lung-men soars a hundred feet before it puts out branches, its center spiraling up amid a tangle of dark foliage, its roots sprawling outward this way and that.  Above it stand the thousand-yard peaks; below, it peers into a hundred-fathom hollow, while swift torrents and lashing waves eddy and tug about it.  Its roots are half dead, half alive; in winter it is buffeted by sharp winds, settling frost, the driven snow; in summer the sharp crack of thunder and lightning assaults it.  At dawn yellowbirds and pies are found singing there; at dusk the mateless hen, the lost bird roost there for the night.  The lonely snow goose at daybreak calls from the top of it; partridges, sadly crying, flutter beneath its boughs.'
This fu on music is one of 'Seven Incitements' (Qi fa) making up Mei Sheng's full poem.  Each of these stimuli is supposed to cure a prince who is suffering from sensual overindulgence.  This explanation is from an online article about Mei Sheng:
'The first six enticements are versified descriptions of various pleasures that the guest invites the prince to enjoy. They include in order: (1) music, (2) a banquet, (3) a chariot race, (4) an excursion to a scenic place, (5) a hunt, (6) a view of the spectacular tidal bore of the Qu River of Guangling. At the conclusion of each of these tantalizing descriptions, the guest asks the prince if he wishes to rise from his bed and participate. After the first four enticements, he replies that he is too ill to rise. The fifth enticement, a stirring description of a hunt, almost succeeds in reviving him. After hearing of the tidal bore that even has curative powers, the prince remains as sick as before. Thus, it takes the final enticement, the promise to introduce the prince to the “essential words and marvelous doctrines” of great sages and philosophers, to rouse him from his sickbed.' 
So neither the idea of music or a spectacular landscape phenomenon did the trick for him (you can read a translation of the tidal bore description on Wikipedia's fu page).

I would love to read more of these nature descriptions that Burton Watson refers to, but I am not sure whether many fu of this kind have been translated.  Some are listed on John Thompson's Silkqin site, but there are no English texts.  I also wonder whether there are any examples in Western poetry of writers thinking about the material origins of their lute or flute or zither?  (Or, for that matter, poems about books and paintings, sculpture and ceramics that begin with their physical sources in earth, rock and wood?)  It is quite easy to think of examples that compare the effects of an instrument to natural forces (Lorca's guitar, for example, wept 'as water weeps / as the wind weeps / over snowfields.')  But the only poem that comes to mind on a landscape that gave rise to an instrument is by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  'A Musical Instrument' describes the riverbank visited by 'the great god Pan' to find the reed to make his pipe.  She writes of how he tramples over nature in order to get at this reed and, though afterwards the lilies revive and the dragon-fly returns, there is a 'reed which grows nevermore again / As a reed with the reeds in the river.'

Friday, May 11, 2018

Shanglin Park

 Qiu Ying (attributed), Shanglin Park (detail), 16th century

One of the most famous descriptions of landscape in Chinese literature must be the Shanglin fu, 上林賦,, composed by Sima Xiangru.  It was written for the young Emperor Wu, who had summoned Sima to court in 137 BCE, and it describes the royal hunting park southwest of the capital Chang'an. There is a magnificent Ming Dynasty scroll attributed to Qiu Ying (c. 1494-1552) which illustrates the poem - I have extracted a few details to illustrate this blog post.  The first one above shows the poem's three narrators in discussion.  Burton Watson translates their names as Sir Fantasy, Master No-Such and Lord Not-Real.  In the first part of the fu, Sir Fantasy and Master No-Such describe hunts in Chu and Qi; in the second part, Lord Not-Real blows them away with his description of the far-more-extensive parkland of Shanglin and the hunting and entertainment that goes on there.  The park is shown to be not just representative of China, but a microcosm of the whole universe.

The fu rhyme-prose form became known for its ornate language and lists (in an earlier post I referred to a 5th century critic of Sima's poetry, who complained that his 'characters were strung together like fish'). This could make it difficult to translate, but Burton Watson does it brilliantly, as Lucas Klein explains in his preface to the recent reprint of Watson's Chinese Rhyme Prose (1971, 2015). Watson, a contemporary of the Beat poets, 'reaches beyond Snyder and Ginsberg, past Rexroth and Pound, back to Walt Whitman.'  Klein quotes this example from near the beginning, where Sir Fantasy is describing the hunting park he had seen in Chu (Watson explains that some of the plant names he uses are necessarily guesswork):
Here too are precious stones: carnelians and garnets,
Amethysts, turquoises, and matrices of ore,
Chalcedony, beryl, and basalt whetstones,
Onyx and figured agate.
To the east stretch fields of gentians and fragrant orchids,
Iris, turmeric, and crow-fans,
Spikenard and sweet flag,
Selinea and angelica,
Sugar cane and ginger.

As my theme here is landscape, here is a brief summary of the first part of the Shanglin Park section of the poem:
  • Eight rivers are described, 'twisting and turning their way / through the reaches of the park' until eventually they reach giant lakes, 'shimmering and shining in the sun.'
  • Then the poem moves in, to list the dragons and turtles that inhabit these lakes and rivers, the precious stones on their beds and the waterfowl that 'flock and settle upon the waters, drifting lightly over the surface.'
  • Next the mountains and valleys are recalled, with the hills and islands at their base and the level land beyond.
  • There follows a long list of the flowers and herbs that line the river banks and spread over the plains, wafting a hundred perfumes upon the air.
  • After conveying a sense of the park's vast scale, the poem lists some of its exotic animals: zebras, aurochs, elephants, rhinoceroses.
  • It then mentions the emperor's palaces, retreats and mountain halls, with their fabulous grottoes and gardens. There are fruit trees and flowers, dense copses and forests that blanket the mountain slopes.
  • Finally, before getting on to the hunt itself and the activities of the courtiers, the poem describes apes, gibbons and lemurs, sporting among the trees and chasing over bridgeless streams.

There is obviously some exaggeration going on in this poem, so what was Shanglin Park really like? In Mark Edward Lewis's book The Early Chinese Empires, he writes that Emperor Wu installed in it 'rare plants, animals, and rocks that he had received as tribute from distant peoples, as booty from expeditions to Central Asia, or as confiscations from private collectors. The emperor's exotica included a black rhinoceros, a white elephant, talking birds, and tropical forests.'  The park contained a palace complex and an artificial lake with a statue of a whale which has recently been found during an archaeological excavation.  Emperor Wu's ambitious landscape gardening would be emulated by later Chinese rulers - see for example my post here on the Song Dynasty Emperor Huizong's rock garden. And Emperor Wu lived only a century or so after the First Emperor, whose mausoleum with its rivers of mercury and terracotta army was a kind of dead equivalent to the abundant parkland described by Sima Xiangru.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Zabriskie Point

Michelangelo Antonioni's film Zabriskie Point (1970) is named for the ancient lake beds where it is partially set. The two protagonists Daria and Mark drive to this viewpoint and explore its dry slopes before making love.  As Adam Scovell has written, the way they become gradually covered with sand 'unites them with the topography and camouflages their presence from themselves and the world around them'.  The dream-like appearance of a whole bunch of other hippies coupling in the dust adds to the effect (and, to be honest, would be quite hard to take if it wasn't for the accompanying music by Jerry Garcia).  This empty terrain seems as far from the city as it is possible to get (Zabriskie Point had stood in for Mars in one earlier film), but Death Valley is hardly an idyllic retreat.  After the two of them part, Daria drives on through the desert to the lavish modernist home of her boss Lee Allen, built among some rocks near Phoenix.  Here, in a kind of capitalist oasis, women sit around a pool and businessmen discuss the possibility of investing in Allen's new real estate development.  As Daria leaves she imagines the whole luxury house destroyed in an explosion.

Daria and Mark explore the landscape in Zabriskie Point
Whilst Zabriskie Point itself is central to the film and its wind-sculpted shapes are pretty remarkable, what really seems strange to the modern (British) viewer are the earlier scenes set in Los Angeles.  This is the LA of Ed Ruscha, designed around the automobile and full of garish signs and billboards.  At one point Mark drives past a large hoarding painted incongruously with a rural scene of barn, animals and farmers.  The film features other artificial landscapes too, like the one we glimpse in an absurd promotional film for Lee Allen's new development, Sunny Dunes.  At the end of the film, when he is trying to sell his proposal, the businessmen congregate around a semi-transparent map of the scheme.  Here the landscape is no more than an abstraction onto which they can project their financial schemes.  As they discuss the possible deal, drinks are served by two native American women, suggesting the way power and ownership of the land has changed in the course of a century.

Mark driving through LA

 Promotional film for Sunny Dunes with fake bird and people

 A map of the proposed development

I will conclude here with a paragraph from an excellent Lightmonkey essay which I think illustrates the point that, whilst Zabriskie Point undoubtedly has its faults, it is fascinating for anyone interested in landscape and cinema.
'In a series of striking shots we see glimpses of an older Los Angeles from Lee Allen’s modernist office with large windows overlooking the city. This office was located near Wilshire Boulevard in the downtown area and had a spectacular view of the city skyline. Antonioni went to great pains, and expense, to light the office with the same color temperature as the outside, creating the possibility of using deep focus to shoot Lee Allen at his desk and the skyline, both in sharp focus, establishing a dialog between actors and location. These extraordinary shots give the sensation that the interior space and the man made landscape outside go on forever morphing into one large electronically controlled space. Buildings from various time periods rise up like markers, most prominently a magnificent black and gold Art Deco tower on Flower St. Not surprisingly this landmark building was demolished shortly after the film was made, to make way for the new sleek skyscrapers that would come to dominate the city, and that were more in keeping with the international style of architecture favored by the surging corporate state. From the point-of-view of Mark, as he rides around on his truck the city seems to already be a collage that is in the process of being created and destroyed at the same time, with no time to reflect on the historical causes or the psychological effects.'