Saturday, July 28, 2018

The field has eyes and the wood has ears

Hieronymus Bosch, The Tree-Man, c. 1505
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Leo Koerner's magisterial Bosch & Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life (2016) is so rich in interest it could furnish material for many blog posts.  Of the two artists, it was of course Breugel who was most influential on landscape painting.  I will do a post on Bruegel, but here I thought I would focus on Hieronymus Bosch.  The Tree-Man features in the right hand panel of his great triptych The Garden of Delights (c. 1490-1510), one of the monsters of Hell.  But he is also the subject of Bosch's largest surviving drawing (above), transplanted to a scene of marshes like those that surrounded his native town, 's-Hertogenbosch.  Beyond the marshes, as Koerner observes, there are 'harbor towns on a maze of waterways, like the huge delta where the Rhine, Meuse, and Scheldt rivers meet; and beyond the visible horizon, at a distance plotted by church spires and vast like the sky, the sea.  There the Tree-Man idly floats like some outlandish carrack adridt in an inland canal.' 

Some contemporaries of Bosch would have witnessed strange phenomena.  Koerner reproduces a sketch of a beached sperm whale drawn by Hendrick Goltzius in 1598 and recalls the story of Dürer trying to sketch another whale on his trip to Zeeland in 1520, only to arrive after the tide had carried it back out to sea. 'Netherlandish shores were natural theaters where wonders could be observed.'  Moreover, the Tree-Man 'travels in a real world along waters that, connecting near and far, explain how the monstrosity might have got there.'  The fact that this realistic landscape surrounds Bosch's fantastical figure makes the image seem 'to encompass the world complete in itself.'  It was only around 1500 that artist's own drawings became collectable and this strange image may actually be the first autonomous pen-and-ink sketch in northern art.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Field Has Eyes, The Forest Has Ears, c. 1500
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Before leaving Bosch it is worth mentioning another remarkable sketch, which at first sight simply depicts a tree in a landscape.  Here (and note the characteristically witty turn of phrase which makes Koerner's books such a pleasure), the 'dead tree serves as a shadowy refuge for an owl, which eyes us with dubious intent.'  Owls appear at least twenty-five times in Bosch's art and can almost be seen as a kind of signature.  In Dutch they were sometimes called boschvoghele.  Above the owl there are shrieking birds and below, at the base of the tree, a rooster pushing its way towards a fox, apparently resting.  But this is a Bosch drawing and so there are also two large ears standing in the thicket and eyes scattered over the ground.  The slope of the field reminds Koerner of the 'subtle curvature of the surface of the earth, ensuring that whatever the work's statement is, it will be global.'  And what does it mean?  'Historians have managed to reattach these stray sensoria to a proverb current in Bosch's day and published and illustrated in a woodcut dated 1546, "The field has eyes and the wood has ears; I will look, stay silent, and listen."'  In other words, in hostile times, it is wise to keep one's counsel.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

On the Banks of the Yangtze

Isabelle Bird, Trackers Houses on the Banks of the Yangtze, 1896
Source: The Ammonite Press.

In sketching, a landscape is represented by signs on paper, but in photography the actual view is imprinted as an image by the light that shone at that moment in time.  What, though if this 'indexical' process of signification went beyond just the action of light?  An article I was reading in the New York Review of Books this week suggests further possibilities.  Here Colin Thubron is discussing the journey into China of the nineteenth century photographer, Isabella Bird.
'After sunset she would set about developing the glass-plate negatives and toning her prints. Her darkroom was the Chinese night, but she had to block up chinks in the cabin walls to keep out the light of opium lamps. Then she cleaned the chemical from her negatives in the river and hung the printing-frames over the side of the boat. A faint trace of Yangtze mud survives on a few of her prints.'
So, in addition to light, her landscapes were imprinted with Chinese soil, dissolved in its great river.  All four elements could be said to have gone into the formation of these photographs.  The river's form was traced by light, purified by water and earth, and then fixed into permanence by the air that passing over its surface.

Isabella Bird, Hsin Tan Rapid on the Yangtze River, 1896
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Yangtze River that the sixty-four year old Isabella Bird travelled had no modern dams or steam boats.  Thubron admires her courage in ascending its gorges in a shallow-bottomed houseboat, rowed by sixteen men who would 'heave against the current and curl into wadded quilts at night, lost in opium sleep'.  It was a perilous and uncomfortable journey. 'Where perpendicular cliffs constricted the Yangtze into a fearsome torrent, big junks and sampans were hauled upriver by teams of trackers sometimes four hundred strong, threading precipitous paths and rock-cut steps with the din of drums and gongs and the explosion of firecrackers to intimidate the spirit of the rapids ... The steep shores and inlets were littered with ships’ remains, and with human skeletons.'  But this was also a world of beauty, barely known to Western travellers. 'With its canopied bridges and watermills and temples rising from bamboo and cedar groves, it intoxicated Bird by its sheer luxuriance, and by its conformity to some childhood expectation (the word “picturesque” recurs), as if she were traveling through a timeless Cathay.'

Isabella Bird, A Bridge at Wan Hsien of the Single Arch Type, 1896
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Evening Calm, Concarneau

I am over halfway through the year now in my project to tweet a landscape a day. Looking back to January 1st when I launched this initiative, I see I was particularly keen to include as many women artists as possible, and this remains the case.  I recently featured Cecilia Beaux for example, who is not so well known now, but a century ago was highly regarded in America (albeit for her portraits).  Her luminous Half Tide, Annisquam River received just three 'likes' though (including one from my Mum!), suggesting that my 'followers' are not especially bothered about my attempts to unearth unheralded women landscape painters...  Of course little can really be concluded from these Twitter 'likes' - a simple, colourful, modern image is likely to do better than a complicated composition by a Northern Renaissance artist or Ming Dynasty literatus.  I think the most popular image I have tweeted so far was Fuga ('Fugue') by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, which I discussed on this blog back in 2012.  I'm therefore hoping for a few retweets for the painting above, which I'll be tweeting this week - it is another painting inspired by music, with the subtitle: Adagio, Opus 221.

Paul Signac,  Morning Calm, Concarneau, Opus 219 (Larghetto), 1891

Signac's Setting Sun, Sardine Fishing is discussed in Peter Vergo's book The Music of Painting.  He explains that it is one of five that Signac painted while in Brittany that summer, each with musical instructions assigned to them.  Opus 221 was joined by three others with specific tempos: Opus 219 (above) was larghetto, Opus 220 (below) was allegro maesttoso and Opus 222 was presto-finale.  The first in the series of five, Sardine Boat, Concarneau, was smaller and might be seen as a kind of prelude (labelled scherzo, i.e. playful or light-hearted). Vergo suggests that although clearly a series, they were not meant to resemble sections of a single composition (which would imply not giving them separate Opus numbers).  Signac was always fascinated in the analogies between art and music, and in his essay D'Eugène Delacroix au Néo-Impressionnisme, published in 1899, he quoted Charles Baudelaire, who wrote that 'in colour one finds harmony, melody and counterpoint.'

Paul Signac, Evening Calm, Concarneau, Opus 220 (Allegro Maestoso), 1891

Peter Vergo quotes Signac, writing about painting in general but in words that could well describe his paintings of Concarneau: 'if he is sensitive to the play of harmony, he will soon perceive ... how the kind of symphony created by boats with blue sails is completed by the arrival of the crew dressed in orange clothing.'  In addition to colour harmony, these compositions, with their pointillist dots and visual repetitions, convey a clear sense of rhythm.  In painting, the visual field is punctuated by objects that can be perceived in two ways: as they would be in three dimensional space (some boats nearer than others) and as they appear on the image (spaced across the water).  Such patterns play through all the Concarneau paintings but they are most obvious in Setting Sun, Sardine Fishing.  Here, Vergo writes, 'there is so little to distract us - only sea and sky and the ever-present line of the horizon - that the eye inevitably lingers on the repeated patterns of the fishing boats with their identically shaped hulls and steeply raked masks.'   

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Down the stream to the City of Camelot

Illustration from Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory
printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1498

I have written before here about the description of nature in Gawain and the Green Knight, with its journey through a wintry Britain, where 'ice-cold water poured from the clouds / and froze before it hit the grey ground.'  Sadly there are no such descriptions in Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, even where landscape features in the story.  The lake, for example, into which Excalibur is thrown by Sir Bedevere, has to be imagined by the reader.  Tennyson, in his reworking of Malory, Idylls of the King, gives us more to go on: Bedevere takes zigzag paths past 'juts of pointed rock' until he comes to 'the shining levels of the lake' where there are dewy pebbles, bulrush beds and 'wild water lapping on the crag.'  Malory though, does make Bedevere say to the dying king that he had seen "nothing but waves and winds" a phrase somehow evocative because of its concision.  As I wrote here previously, these words begin a poem by France Horovitz, 'The Crooked Glen' - the title referring to 'Camboglana', the Celtic name for Birdoswald, one of the sites identified as the setting for Arthur's last battle.

The main way that landscape comes into Le Morte d'Arthur is through the book's locations, mentioned if not described, which cover the British Isles, France and sometimes further afield.  As a geographical region it feels both strange and familiar.  Often Malory himself provides a link with somewhere his readers will know, associating Camelot with Winchester, for example:
'Also Merlin let make by his subtilty that Balin's sword was put in a marble stone standing upright as great as a mill stone, and the stone hoved always above the water and did many years, and so by adventure it swam down the stream to the City of Camelot, that is in English Winchester.'
This sentence also illustrates again the way Malory's text might be unpacked and reimagined more fully - that magical stone heading downstream in a manner reminiscent of David Nash's Wooden Boulder.  As you read Malory you start to imagine an Arthurian Britain just below the surface, even in the Home Counties.  At one point he has King Arthur stay at the castle of Ascalot 'that is in English Guildford' - an identification probably due simply to its location between London and Arthur's intended destination, Winchester.

The topic of Arthurian topography is discussed by Geoffrey Ashe in The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. He dismisses the idea that Camelot would have been an actual city, as opposed to a military headquarters: 'the claim of the Somerset hill fort Cadbury Castle carries unrivaled weight.'  There are places in Britain that may be the connected with a historical Arthur, like the ten battle sites mentioned by Nennius in his Historia Brittonum, and then there are places that are merely named for him (or, less frequently, Merlin, Tristram, Guenevere and Lancelot).  I mentioned a Welsh landscape feature, Arthur's Chair, in my abecadarian piece on the Itinerarium Kambriae of Gerald of Wales (1188).  This was a lofty spot with a well-shaped pool, fed by a spring, in which trout were sometimes seen.  Earlier in the century, Hermann of Tournai, travelling through Devon and Cornwall in 1113 encountered another Arthur's Chair and also Arthur's Oven (the latter may be what is now called King's Oven on Dartmoor).

Some Arthurian features are natural, others are ancient megaliths that have become linked to his legend.  In descending order of scale there are: a mountain - Ben Arthur in Scotland; the saddle-like hills that have suggested Seats and Chairs; five earthworks known as 'Round Tables'; and many stones - at least six called Arthur's Stone and eleven called Arthur's Quoit.  The idea of Arthur has been fused with local folklore in places, turning him into a giant. Thus, 'seated on King's Crags in Northumberland, he tossed a huge boulder at Guenevere on Queen's Crags - which are half a mile away.  It bounced off her comb and now lies on the ground between, showing the toothmarks.' Geoffrey Ashe goes on to describe the way this folkloric Arthur differs from the knight of Romance, in the manner of his survival after death.  In the chivalric stories, Arthur resides in the Isle of Avalon, but in folklore he sleeps with his knights in a cave.  Intriguingly though, these may both point to a common source deep in Celtic myth.  In 82 CE a Roman official in Britain (quoted by Plutarch) reported that the Britons believed in a god lying asleep in a cave, attended by spirits.  This was on an island, a warm and pleasant place "in the general direction of sunset".

Friday, July 06, 2018

The Lake of Ashes

Claude Lanzmann died this week - obituaries can be read here, here and here.  For all the praise that Shoah received, it can still feel as if the film is underrated, perhaps because to praise Lanzmann's settings and use of sound would seem like trivialising his subject.  I have considered trying to write here about landscape in Shoah but felt I could not really do the subject justice.  Shoah seems to demand a response as long and complex as the film itself, and its methods raise many questions about documentary methods and ethics.  However, Lanzmann's approach to landscape can be stated very simply.  Eschewing archive material, he let much of his interviews play out against footage of the sites the victims were talking about, shown as they appeared nearly four decades later: the remnants of concentration camps, rail tracks through dark forest trees, village streets revealing nothing of their past. Lanzmann's style can be seen in the context of other European films from the period that made use of atmospheric long takes - Stalker, Kings of the Road, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser - but I can't think of anything remotely as powerful.  And Shoah still looks extraordinary in comparison with the imagery of contemporary filmmakers, such as Tacita Dean whose work I was discussing here last month.  If you have never watched the whole of Shoah, I cannot recommend it too highly.