Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Desert tracings

Last week the BBC published an interesting article by Paul Cooper on the theme of ruins and Arabic writing.  He notes that the 'motif of the atlal (‘ruins’) originates in the pre-Islamic period', possibly with the 6th Century poet-king Imru’ al-Qais. In 'The Mu’allaqah of Imru al-Qais', the landscape conveys an overwhelming sense of loss: 'The courtyards and enclosures of the old home have become desolate; / The dung of the wild deer lies there thick as the seeds of pepper.'  Robert Irwin includes a translation of this qasida (ode) in his excellent anthology of classical Arabic literature, Night & Horses & The Desert, and notes that in English Literature, Tennyson's 'Locksley Hall' begins in the same way, with the poet asking companions to leave him in peace with his memories.  Ruins recur in Arabic poetry down the years, even though the trope was being mocked as early as the eighth century, in a poem by Abu Nuwas: 'The wretch paused to examine an abandoned campsite, / While I paused to inquire about the neighbourhood tavern.'

Having set the historical context, the BBC article goes on to give three examples of ruins in more recent Arabic culture:
  • In the novels of Iraqi author Sinan Antoon, e.g. The Corpse Washer, where a character wonders through 'the ruin of the Baghdad National Library, which was destroyed during the 2003 invasion, and the National Film Archive, the repository of a century of Arab film-making destroyed by a US bomb.'
  • In the film Son of Babylon by Mohamed al-Daradji, in which a Kurdish boy searches for his imprisoned father through the earliest remains of civilisation - Ur, Nimrud, Bablyon - and the new ruins created by the Iraq war. But 'rather than seeing memories held in the ruins, al-Daradji’s characters find only blankness and emptiness...' 

Source: Film Walrus

I have summarised Paul Cooper's article here but I could equally have drawn this from his Twitter thread on the same subject. Personally, I find these threads irritating to read and suspect they are quite fiddly to compose.  Perhaps the thread is developing its own form, like a qasida...  I still prefer to use this blog to write about landscape, rather than split thoughts up into Twitter threads.  But of course nothing beats a good old fashioned book, and Cooper's article prompted me to dig out Desert Tracings, an anthology of six classical odes translated by Michael A. Sells.  Particularly moving is 'The Mu’allaqah of Labid', which begins, again, with the poet looking for traces of his beloved's campsite.  The images that follow convey the way memory can be effaced and restored.  The dung-strewn ground that suggests how long it has been since humans were present, is replenished by the rain:
The rills and the runlets
uncovered marks like the script
of faded scrolls
restored with pens of reed.
And yet, 'although renewed, the inscriptions are indecipherable.  When the poet questions the ruins, they are summ (hard, deaf), offering only a lapidary silence, or words whose meaning is unclear.'

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

End of the Glacier

We enjoyed a family day trip to Hastings at the weekend, where I am pleased to say I was victorious at crazy golf.  As a child I always imagined designing my own courses and on the way round I was daydreaming about one based on the great works of land art, where golf balls have to be putted through models of Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels and Michael Heizer's Double Negative, round the Spiral Jetty, through the Lightning Field and into Roden Crater... 

I was thinking about art because we had just been to the Jerwood Gallery, which is currently showing exhibitions by Mark Wallinger and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. The Wallinger includes Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (2007), which refers back to the great painting by Bruegel but is just a video installation with You've Been Framed clips. He also had some photographs of the local Birdman competition and a room with a wall of mirrors and an Eadward Muybridge grid, with encouragement to take photographs (my sons were happy to oblige). Here, I will focus on Barns-Graham, who I've only ever mentioned once before on this blog.

The Jerwood's display, Sea, Rock, Earth and Ice, is described on The Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust website.
'The Jerwood Gallery takes their own Barns-Graham painting Winter Landscape, 1952 as the rationale for the display. The starting point is a strong group of glaciers that includes Glacier Painting, Green and Brown, 1951 from Sheffield Museums (the show travels to the Graves Gallery, opening 8 December) before showing how the series developed away from having direct glacier references to one of rock forms...'
The sketchbooks and texts displayed alongside the paintings show the artist trying to uncover the shapes of the mountains' steep rock faces and curving ice fields.  I noted down part of a quote, next to End of the Glacier, Upper Grindelwald (1949), which conveys a strong sense of the Sublime.
"Once while working against the evening light rapidly fading, I experienced a terrifying desire to roll myself down the mountain side.  Calmly as I could I came down the wood steps cut in the ice, Grindelwald far below. ... I heard the awful roar of an avalanche and seeing what looked like a trickle of salt in the distant heights.  All this and the many moods beautiful and frightening fascinated me."

I have always loved Barns-Graham's glacier paintings, in particular Glacier Crystal, Grindelwald (1950) - not in this show, but reproduced (above) on the front of the Tate's 2005 exhibition catalogue.  Maybe this is partly because they resemble frozen air.  The Grindelwald glacier, she wrote, seemed to breath. "This likeness to glass and transparency, combined with solid, rough ridges made me wish to combine in a work all angles at once, from above, through, and all round, as a bird flies, a total experience..."

Sea, Rock, Earth and Ice took in other work from Barns-Graham's long career, and was a reminder of the abiding interest she showed in other naturally abstract landforms, from the quarries she sketched in the late fifties to the lava she drew in the early nineties.  The waves of the Lanzarote lava field were conveyed in white chalk and pastel on black paper, reminding me of the Tacita Dean drawings I saw recently in London. The fact that for a decade or so these artists were contemporaries is rather amazing.  When Barns-Graham died in 2004 at the age of 91, her 'radiant' late work was evidently as highly regarded by critics as anything else she had painted.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

River in the Catskills

Thomas Cole, River in the Catskills, 1843
Source: Wikimedia Commons

What was the first appearance of a train in a painting? Most people know Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed (1844), which is the earliest example listed on a Wikipedia page dedicated to railways and art. However, visitors to the National Gallery's Thomas Cole exhibition will see an earlier one in the painting reproduced above, River in the Catskills (1843).  At the scale you're reading this you probably can't see the train, just a faint puff of steam in an idyllic landscape.  But the railroad is in place and there are other signs too that the landscape is being changed - in the foreground men are chopping down trees.  At the exhibition this painting is juxtaposed with a similar view painted in the 1830s, showing a vision of America unsullied.  A baby reaches for the bouquet of wild flowers her mother has picked and on the gentle river an Indian canoe suggests a world of harmonious coexistence. However, as the curators point out, not everyone regretted the way things were going - there is a third view of this river by Asher Brown Durand, painted in 1853, with unmistakable signs of alteration and 'development', entitled Progress (The Advance of Civilisation).

Detail of River in the Catskills showing the train

Thomas Cole, View on the Catskill – Early Autumn, 1836-7
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Detail of View on the Catskill
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It would probably take too long to write here about the main subject of the National Gallery's exhibition, Cole's series of paintings charting The Course of Empire, or about their simultaneous Ed Ruscha show that updates the theme and raises questions about contemporary America.  You can read about these in various online reviews - e.g. Jonathan Jones, Waldemar Janusczcak, Michael Glover.  Instead I will just add a few words more on Cole's remarkable painting Titan's Goblet which normally hangs in the Met, where its curators admit that it 'defies explanation'.  This huge stone goblet is higher than the surrounding mountains and along its rim there are is a flourishing civilisation.  Water falls like divine light onto the ground far below, where there are also signs of habitation but of a more primitive kind.  That small sunlit sea, framed by the goblet's rim, is a landscape-within-a-landscape.  But it could also be viewed as an unusual example of the hybrid genre I discussed in connection with Tacita Dean recently, the still-life-within-a-landscape.  You can lose yourself in most of Cole's paintings but this is particularly true here.  His friend Louis Legrand Noble saw a kind of Mediterranean in those waters, where tourists might travel to versions of Greece or Syria, tracing their fancies in 'in the golden splendours of a summer sunset.'

Thomas Cole, Titan's Goblet, 1833
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Detail of Titan's Goblet
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, August 04, 2018

The Distant Cry of the Deer

Shibata Zeshin, Deer in a Forest, c. 1880s
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This week I attended the opening gala concert of the 2018 World Shakuhachi Festival.  The photograph below (by Jean-François Lagrost) was taken during one of the performances and shows the audience in the Union Chapel, Islington.  In the second half of the concert, Riley Lee and Christopher Yohmei Blasdel performed a shakuhachi duet, Shika No Tōne, 'The Distant Cry of the Deer'.  This began with Blasdel on stage, playing the opening phrase, then, at the back of the audience, Lee answering on his flute and beginning to walk slowly through the audience.  Eventually the two players met on stage.  Listening to this it occurred to me that they had transformed the listening audience into a landscape: we were like the trees in a Japanese forest through which the calls of two animals sounded.  This setting is evoked in the conclusion to the piece, as described on the International Shakuhachi Society website: 'it is as if, rather than viewing deer, the focus is changed to that of the scenery deep in the mountains where the leaves on the trees have turned red and yellow.'

The ISS page on Shika No Tōne has various notes on the piece and I will pass on here a few quotes from texts by Yokoyama Katsuya
'According to legend, Kurosawa Kinko, founder of the Kinko school, was taught this piece by a komusō priest named Ikkei in Nagasaki. The piece is interpreted as a representation either of two deer calling to one another to stress their territorial rights or of a male and a female deer responding to one another's calls deep in the autumnal mountains.'
'In ancient literature, it was sometimes said, "the stag and hind are calling each other." but in fact the hind does not cry, so it should perhaps be interpreted as the echo of the stag's cry.'
'Within its lonesomeness and liveliness, the music depicts the world seikan or the serene contemplation: it is just the same world as an ancient poet once depicted in his famous Tanka-poem:
Far up the mountain side,
While tramping over the scarlet maple leaves,
I hear the mournful cry of the wild deer:
This sad, sad autumn tide.'

Friday, August 03, 2018

Farther hills as hills again like these

Pieter Breugel the Elder, The Hunters in the Snow (Winter), 1565
Source Wikimedia Commons

To follow up my previous post, drawing on Joseph Leo Koerner's Bosch & Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life (2016), and also to provide some mental respite from this oppressive heat, I thought I would write here today about Breugel's The Hunters in the Snow.  It is a painting I have mentioned here before, in the context of poetry about landscape art ('Jagg'd mountain peaks and skies ice-green / Wall in the wild, cold scene below...' - Walter De La Mare).  It is also a painting loved by Tarkovsky fans as it features in both Mirror and Solaris.  Koerner discusses it in his final chapter, 'Nature', along with Bruegel's other paintings of The Seasons of the Year.  In a rare personal aside, Koerner says that he had a poster of The Hunters in the Snow on his wall right through his college and graduate school years.  Then, despite having a flat in Heidelberg with an 'expansive view of the Neckar Valley' through his window, he was happier losing himself in the depths of Bruegel's painting. 

Koerner imagines the viewer of this painting beginning by focusing on the pack of dogs, before being drawn towards 'one of the deepest depths in European art.'  And yet, 'the paw prints in the snow and the gigantic cliffs are part of the same continuum. Bruegel structures his painting to make our launch into space unavoidable.'  The distances made visible here recall contemporary Flemish atlases. Landscape features like trees and houses are shown in elevation but roads, rivers and valleys are depicted as if in elevation, offering us routes to be followed.  Bruegel reconciles near and far.  As he paints mountains and seas suggesting 'territories yet to be discovered, he pictures them as lifeworlds like our own, those farther hills as hills again like these.'

In the far distance (see above), a procession of figures can be discerned walking towards the horizon over the ice from a harbour town.  The winter before Breugel painted this view, the Scheldt at Antwerp had frozen over.  This flattening of the landscape into a single medium, ice, has effectively 'turned the world into a Borgesian one-to-one map of itself.'  The whiteness of the snow links different parts of the composition, from the hunters marching into the painting to the distant figures heading out of view.  It also dazzles the eye with an overabundance of light.  The roofscape of the mill, covered in snow, is hard to work out at first.  Here, 'Bruegel reverses the elucidating effects that snow has at a distance.'  Thick icicles hang from the buildings. It is a cold village to which the hunters return.  Everyone seems to turn away from us in this picture, 'as nature itself does in winter.  ... Through the mere resources of white paint, Bruegel shows home and the human from the indifferent perspective of the world.'