Saturday, June 23, 2018

The sun is slowly eclipsed

I wrote here a few weeks ago about two of the Tacita Dean exhibitions in London this year; this post is about the third one, 'Landscapes', at the Royal Academy.  The first thing that will strike any visitor is the venue itself, the new RA extension, and (if you're my age) a feeling of déjà vu as you realise you're entering what was once the Museum of Mankind.  Then, the first room is full of clouds.  They were all created on slate, using spray chalk, gouache and charcoal pencil.  These obviously stand in the long tradition of artist cloud studies - Cozens, Constable, Stieglitz - but are immediately recognisable as the kind of blackboard drawing she became well known for in the nineties (her Turner Prize nomination was twenty years ago).  One cloud triptych is called Bless Our Europe and another Where England?  I found myself thinking about the chalk cliffs I wrote about in Frozen Air and the way clouds float freely over national borders. 

Beside these cloud studies, a whole wall is taken up by one of Dean's large-scale mountain drawings, The Montafon Letter (2017).  Here the brief textual annotations, which are a feature of her work in different media, come from the account of a devastating avalanche that took place in 1689.  A priest tending to the dying was buried by falling snow, but then unburied when another avalanche struck, and survived.  There is a photograph of Tacita Dean working on this, accompanying an interesting Guardian interview prior to the opening of this exhibition.  Another mountain scene dominates the second room: Quarantania (2018).  This shows a forbidding rock wall under a blood red sky - Mt. Quanrantania is the site in the Judean Desert where the devil is said to have tempted Jesus.  The image was constructed by manipulating early photographs and above the desert floor there is a kind of blurred mirage effect.  

In the final room you can watch Antigone, a new hour-long film which Tacita Dean has finally completed after one false start and many years reflecting on its underlying themes.  Landscape footage (which is of most relevance to the subject of this blog) is set alongside various approaches to the story of Antigone and her father, so that, for example, two bubbling volcanic vents remind you of the blind eyes of Oedipus.  In the catalogue she explains that: 
'Antigone has taken form as a result of the inherent blindness of film. Using masking inside the camera's aperture gate, I filmed one part of the film frame before rewinding the camera to film another part. This meant that the film was composed without the possibility of seeing what was already exposed in the frame. So Bodmin Moor under February drizzle sat in blind relationship with the shores of the Mississippi or geysers in Yellowstone with the total eclipse of the Sun. Only when I returned to California in the late Summer of 2017 and processed and printed my rolls of negative, did the film revealed itself to me.'

Sunlight on the catalogue for Landscapes, showing pages related to Antigone 

Adrian Searle, in his Guardian review, said that 'it is impossible to do justice' to this film. 
'We visit the floodplains of the Mississippi in Wyoming, the town of Thebes, Illinois, and the courthouse where Abraham Lincoln first practiced. Here we meet Anne Carson and actor Stephen Dillane.  For much of the film, Dillane is an Oedipus blinded by tinted glasses made for viewing the eclipse, and wearing a huge, straggly beard. He maunders across the world as though without purpose, at one point followed by a pair of curious dogs. As he walks out of frame, the dogs start copulating. Think ZZ Top. Think Saint Jerome. Think Harry Dean Stanton in the film Paris, Texas. A man on a mission, escaping his fate. Eagles circle the sky, their call a distant mewing. There are vultures and a crow stalks the horizon. Every moment of Antigone is a confusion, a complexity and a delight – a rich muddled stew of words and images, places and atmospheres. And through the imaginary day on which everything takes place, the sun is slowly eclipsed.'
I know what he means about ZZ Top, although I was thinking more of Warren Ellis from The Bad Seeds.  Those eclipse glasses were like the distinctive sun goggles in Herzog's Fata Morgana and the split-screen wandering of Oedipus reminded me of Ori Gersht's film about the last walk of Walter Benjamin, Evaders The idea of filming in Thebes, Illinois may seem a bit forced, but its old courthouse was a wonderfully atmospheric setting.  The whole film is worth seeing just for the way the early evening light falls on its old books and floorboards, and for the view across the river of the sun glowing and setting behind distant trees.  I would recommend arriving at the start (there's a showing every hour) and trying to get a front seat.  We did, and were engrossed by Antigone from start to finish.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Trodden by the feet of gods


I've been twice now to see Charmed Lives in Greece, a highly enjoyable (free) exhibition at the British Museum celebrating the creative lives of Patrick Leigh Fermor, John Craxton and Niko Ghika.  In between these visits, we actually had a holiday in Greece (this wasn't planned, but in his review of Charmed Lives Alastair Sooke wrote that it will 'make you itch to book a holiday beside the Aegean Sea, because the Hellenic fantasy it offers is so irresistibly compelling.')  Whilst I'm sure readers of this blog will be familiar with Craxton and Leigh Fermor, Niko Ghika is perhaps less well known.  His paintings are as colourful and appealing as those of Craxton - nothing ground-breaking but very redolent of a time when the art world was still coming to terms with the influence of Picasso and Matisse.  The exhibition includes photographs, letters and wall quotes that convey the joie de vivre and intellectual curiosity you experience in reading Leigh Fermor...


Of course Leigh Fermor's 'charmed life' in Greece was facilitated by his partner Joan's private income and loyal, emotional support.  He and Craxton also made use of their friend Ghika's house on Hydra (there's a nice photograph of Craxton sketching there on the British Museum's blog post about the exhibition).  It was on Hydra that Leigh Fermor wrote Mani (1958), his digressive account of a journey round the southernmost tip of the Peloponnese.  Here is a passage from my favourite chapter, 'Short Summer Nights'.  It describes the unique sharpness of the sunlight in Greece.
...'All the vapours that roam the Italian atmosphere and muffle the outlines of things are absent here.   A huge magnifying glass burns up the veils of distance, making objects leagues away leap forward clearly as though they were within arm's length.  The eye shoots forth a telescopic braille-reading finger to discern the exact detail and texture of a church, a wood or a chasm ten miles off.  Things in the distance co-exist on equal terms with those hard by; they have a proprietary and complementary share in the patterns that immediately surround one.  A distant cordillera completes a curve begun by the vein along the back of a plane-tree leaf, a far-off belfry has the same intensity as a goat's horn a few yards away, a peninsula leans forward to strike the stem of a dried up thistle at right angles.  Mountain ranges that should melt with the heat-haze and recession, lean forward and impend till one is at a loss to say whether a hill is a small nearby spur or a far-away Sinai...'
This long paragraph continues with further examples before progressing to other properties of Greek light, such as the way it seems to sprinkle surfaces with 'a thin layer of pollen like the damask on a moth's wing.'  These surfaces retain light in the same way that they retain heat. Shadows appear more real than the phenomena they echo.  And 'it is probably because of all this that a strong mystical and sentimental significance pervades the actual surface of the earth, the rocks and the stones of Greek mountains.  The adjective theobadiston, 'trodden by the feet of gods (or God)' in ancient Greek and in the Byzantine liturgy comes to mind.'  All of this, he concludes, has a strange effect on the Greek landscape.  Nature becomes supernatural and 'the frontier between physical and metaphysical is confounded.'

John Craxton's cover for Mani

Saturday, June 09, 2018

The Canmore Mountain Range

The Dulwich Picture Gallery's Edward Bawden exhibition has a room devoted to 'Spirit of Place'.  It includes 'Houses at Ironbridge' (1956/7 owned by the Tate) which is a good example of the way Bawden experimented in his watercolours - the detailed, colourful brickwork might come from the illustration to a children's book but the cloud above is roughly scrawled like something in a contemporary abstract painting.  The same year he was elected as a Royal Academician and submitted as his 'Diploma Work' a watercolour of Lindsell Church.  This church, near Bawden's home, was also the subject of perhaps the most impressive work in the 'Spirit of Place' room, a large lithograph from 1963.  Bawden was generally happy to concentrate on depicting his small corner of Essex, but the exhibition also includes the work he did as a war artist in Italy, North Africa and the Middle East, and a rather striking view of The Canmore Mountain Range (1950), also in the Tate, which was painted on a teaching trip to Canada.  In this, the foreground is filled with the gravestones and spiked railings of a Ukrainian cemetery which crowd together and point up to the jagged facets of the mountains, all under a dark grey sky. 


From the pre-war years the exhibition has some watercolours of Newhaven Harbour, very like those of Bawden's friend Eric Ravilious.  They have the same Downland colour palette and the same fascination with mark making - stippling, scratching and washing the paint in various directions.  Curiously, the landscape itself seems to tilt down to the right, as if a straight horizon would have made the view look too boring.  There is a playfulness and energy in everything Bawden did, even if the results were sometimes rather twee or nostalgic.  The gallery obviously thinks the exhibition will appeal to children and (irritatingly) the main painting captions seem to have been written with them in mind.  It is, as the review in The Independent points out, easy to compare this exhibition unfavourably to the excellent Ravilious show at Dulwich which I wrote about here three years ago.  However, perhaps you can judge for yourself if I end here with an embedded clip of curator James Russell walking through his show.  I've also included a screen grab from this above, by way of illustration, as Bawden's actual images are still in copyright.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Deep mellow shades breaking upon the view

Harriet Gouldsmith, A View of Hampstead Heath Looking Towards Cannon Place, 1818

I recently came across a curious publication in which a landscape painting is the narrator of its own story.  A Voice from a Picture, privately printed in 1837, was by 'A Female Artist'; a review three years later, revealed that the author was Harriet Gouldsmith Arnold (1787–1863), an English landscape painter.  This review can be read online, as can the full text of A Voice from a Picture.  According to the reviewer, 'the idea of making a picture tell its history is not new; but it will bear a new treatment'.  This is interesting initself - are there actually earlier examples of landscape paintings relating their autobiographies?  In her introduction, Gouldsmith (she used the name Arnold after her marriage in 1839) says that she hopes her little book will help spread the knowledge of art 'as the fittest guide to the instructive love of nature in her better forms.'

The painting begins its autobiography with an account of 'the sorrows, hopes, and fears' of its 'parent': an artist (male) who possessed 'an unfeigned delight for the sublimities and beauties of nature.' 
Often have I witnessed the feelings of my fond parent, whilst gazing upon the last gleams of the setting sun, - the deep mellow shades breaking upon the view, 'ere night shed silence and repose upon all earthly things; and often has grey morning, the sweet harbinger of another day, brought vigour and renewed exertion to his enthusiastic and unwearied mind.  At length, after many solitary wanderings, and anxious efforts, I became a Picture.  Then, again, new fears and anxieties arose. - What was to be thought of me, amongst the thousands of connoisseurs, amateurs, artists, and critics, whom I should be compelled to face?
The painting was right to be anxious.  It imagines being neglected like the 'unobtrusive works' of Richard Wilson, put into the shade by the flash and fire of Loutherbourg.  For a long time it hangs unregarded on a London wall, while the painter accumulates a body of work, and is then taken to be exhibited in Manchester, but remains unsold.  People praise it but, because the artist is not a big name, nobody will buy it.  More exhibitions and an auction follow, without success, and eventually the painter becomes so poor that he sells all his possessions, including the landscape painting.  Then, at the low point of the story, the painting gets 'carried into a back garret, to answer all the purpose of a chimney board.'  However, after the poor artist dies in a debtors prison, his work starts to become sought after.  Found and restored, the painting becomes highly praised and ends up decorating 'the mansion of nobility.'

Richard Wilson, Lake Avernus, c. 1765

Before leaving A Voice from a Picture I can't resist a digression, to quote an anecdote Gouldsmith includes as an illustration of the straits to which poverty reduces artists.  Here a landscape painting is actually worn.
'A party of English artists meeting together in Italy, for the purpose of making studies from nature.  The weather proving very sultry, the members proposed that all should take off their coats, which was strongly objected to by one of the party, but at last submitting to the others, a Waterfall was discovered on his back, his waistcoat having been made out of a picture of that subject.'
Harriet Gouldsmith was painting during the Golden Age of British landscape painting.  She first exhibited at the RA in 1807 and was elected to the Water Colour Society in 1813.  The painting below is a late work and can be found in the Egham Museum, which purchased it in 1985.  I wonder how its 'life' played out over the preceding 140 years...  Its subject, Magna Carta Island, was itself put up for sale four years ago, with an asking price of £3,950,000 (see the BBC's report).  This island includes a Grade II-listed house, built a few years before Gouldsmith's painting, that features a specially-built Charter Room to house the stone on which the charter is supposed to have been signed.  Perhaps someone should write A Voice from an Island, to relate the history of its owners since that day in 1215 when Runnymede took its place in the story of England.  The Times reported that as a result of the sale, Magna Carta Island has been acquired by a Chinese family.

Harriet Gouldsmith Arnold, Magna Carta Island, 1845

Friday, June 01, 2018

Potted landscapes on the Tōkaidō

Utagawa Hiroshige, Hiratsuka on the Tokaido, 1833–1834

The Public Domain Review is a constant source of fascinating material and I thought I'd share here something I read about there recently, a book called Tokaido Gojusan-eki Hachiyama Edyu.
Connecting Edo (now known as Tokyo) to Kyoto, the Tōkaidō road was the most important of the “Five Routes” in Edo-period Japan. This coastal road and its fifty-three stations has been the subject of both art and literature, perhaps most famously depicted by the Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige in his The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō, a series of ukiyo-e woodcut prints created in the 1830s. This book from the mid-19th century, Tokaido Gojusan-eki Hachiyama Edyu, presents a series of fifty-three prints created by a relatively obscure ukiyo-e artist named Utagawa Yoshishige, each illustration depicting a Tōkaidō station in the form of a potted landscape. The preface tells us that the illustrations are based on actual pieces constructed by the preface writer’s father, Kimura Tōsen. Creating the models in 1847, a year before publication, Tōsen commissioned Utagawa Yoshishige to make illustrations of each model for a book through which he could share them with the world, and (due to his modesty) asked his son to write the preface.
The Public Domain Review article doesn't identify Kimura Tōsen's landscapes, but you can puzzle them out.  The image below is clearly a view of Hiratsuka - I have reproduced Hiroshige's version above. The other two examples below are (I think) Chiryū (No. 39, scene of a horse fair) and Kanbara (No. 15, a snow scene). Here landscape has been refracted first through the prints of Hiroshige, then through the tray landscapes of Tōsen and then once again through the medium of print, a trace of a trace of a trace of the views from the Tōkaidō road.




The article goes on to explain that of the two main types of Japanese potted landscape, these are likely to have been bonkei - sculpted models featuring people or buildings - as opposed to saikei in which real miniature trees and plants would grow.  The art of creating miniature landscapes was widespread and there were versions of it in China (penjing) and Vietnam (hòn non bộ).  The Wikipedia article refers as well to the Western model railway, a form of landscape art I have so far neglected on this blog!  In Japan there is another related art form, bonseki, in which sand and rocks are used to make a landscape on a black lacquer tray.  Below I have included three examples of women making bonseki tray landscapes, concluding with a recent Youtube clip showing the use of special tools and materials.  These bonseki could be seen as a subgenre of sand art, which reminds me of another childhood pursuit that I've never mentioned here, the art of the sand castle.  Perhaps next time we are on a beach I will have a go at some of the Fifty-three stations of the Tōkaidō... 

Katsushika Hokusai, Woman making a bonseki mountain, n.d.


Yōshū Chikanobu, A woman making a bonseki tray landscape showing the full moon, 1899