Saturday, September 29, 2018

Sacred landscapes


Simon Bening, The Baptism of Christ and The Temptation of Christ, c. 1525-30

Last year the J. Paul Getty Museum mounted an exhibition called Sacred Landscapes: Nature in Renaissance Manuscripts. The catalogue contains many appealing images that I am tempted to share here, although of course landscape itself is rarely the main subject of these paintings.  The full page illustrations above are in a prayer book, commissioned by Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, Elector and Archbishop of Mainz.  In these two scenes certain elements of the landscape settings seem deliberately to echo each other: the cliff, the river, the distant blue mountain.  They were the work of perhaps the greatest of miniature painters, Simon Bening, who was based in Bruges and specialised in books of hours. Interestingly, as the Getty website explains, Bening's 'eldest daughter, Livinia, became court painter to Edward VI of England, and another daughter became a dealer in paintings, miniatures, parchment, and silk.'

These illustrations are both 6⅝ by 4½ inches - similar to a small paperback (an old Pelican book I have to hand by Jacquetta Hawkes measures about 7 by 4½ inches). The Getty site allows you to zoom into these images in great detail, noting the beauty of their colours and delicacy of Bening's brushwork, before quickly losing yourself in their imaginary worlds. In the baptism scene, you can peer down into the water, whose ripples are picked up in the curving forms of reeds and riverbank, or look into the distance where a boat glides past rocks the colour of clouds.  In the temptation scene, deer graze on the slopes and venture down to drink from the winding river. The mountain peak is painted in blues, pinks and orange that resemble a pastel by Degas, or a watercolour by Cézanne. The two figures looking down from this summit represent another part of the Bible story. 'The devil takes Christ to a high mountain from which all the kingdoms of the world can be seen and offers him these lands if Christ agrees to adore him. Jesus coolly refuses all of these temptations and commands the devil to leave.'

Sunday, September 23, 2018

A view of the gardens of the Palais du Luxembourg

Jacques-Louis David, View of the Gardens of the Palais du Luxembourg, 1794 

'After walking through a play area, as usual not very pretty – poorly designed swings and toboggans, painted in glaring colours, since it is an established fact that children have no taste – I enter a piece of woodland that seems almost wild, as the gardeners have taken care to let it grow with the least constraint possible. Then, between the edge of this forest and the side of the square, marked by the walls of the Mobilier National, in the centre of the open space we find a 'creation' – in the sense that Encelade's copse at Versailles is a creation. There is a topiary quincunx of box bushes, with roses in the middle: four open semi-cylindrical arbours frame a small obelisk of raw stone. The roses climb over the arbours and embrace the obelisk. To give an idea of the charm of the place, you have to recall one of those painters who were not landscape artists but painted almost by chance a single landscape – I have in mind the Villa Medici Gardens by Velázquez, or David‘s view of the Luxembourg, painted from the cell where he awaited the guillotine after Thermidor.'
-  Eric Hazan, describing the Square René-Le Gall in A Walk Through Paris, translated by David Fernbach, 2018

Diego Velázquez, View of the Garden of the Villa Medici, c. 1630

Reading this passage I thought it was an interesting way of describing the charm of an urban park, encountered as unexpectedly as these modest landscape views among the works of artists known for their figure painting.  I wrote here last year about the Velázquez, but what of David's painting? There was actually a good article devoted to it in The Independent a few years ago, by Michael Glover. In the course of it h, discusses details like that group of figures engaged in some sort of activity.  
'Are these people raking the earth itself? Are they mark-making? Are they engaged in an inscrutable game of some kind? What we do know for certain is that after the Revolution, parts of the Luxembourg Gardens were handed over to be tilled by the common people – in the new spirit of egalitarianism, no doubt. There is not much to be tilled here though, not at this time of year, not much evidence at all of Keats's season of mellow fruitfulness.'  
Why was David confined to this cell?  I have written a post here before about the artificial landscape he designed for the first Celebration of the Supreme Being in June 1794.  This marked the zenith of Robespierre's power - already people were turning against him and within a month he had been guillotined.  David, apparently ill, managed to avoid the same fate but was eventually arrested and spent August to December 1794 in prison. Michael Glover reads the politics of revolution into the landscape David painted there.
'Two factors seem to be at odds with each other in this painting: order and disorder. That fence looks makeshift in the extreme – shockingly makeshift for such an august location. And yet the layout of the gardens themselves, that perfect alignment of trees, for example, somewhat reminds us of how the Luxembourg Gardens are these days, a project that depends for its grandeur and its power to impress upon the taming and ordering of nature in the interests of human reason. And so it is here. But the tops of the trees tell quite a rather story. In these gardens, we are used to the sight of severely pollarded trees. Nature is to be tamed and regulated. Here things have got out of hand. The unruly crowns of the trees are rejoicing in their untamed spirit.'
He concludes by imagining David, in his high prison cell looking down on this view.  'Meditating upon partially untamed nature in this way may have helped his spirit to breathe.'

Sunday, September 09, 2018

The road plunged at once into a beautiful wood

Because News From Nowhere is a dream vision of the future I have found myself wondering sometimes if certain details I recall are really in it, or whether I dreamed them myself.  After a trip to Hammersmith last weekend, when we walked past William Morris's old house on the Thames, I had an urge to go back to the text, to check whether he really had name-checked Stoke Newington, the part of London where I live.  In Morris's future London, I recollected, it was possible to walk all the way here from Hammersmith along a forest path.  And indeed it was as I remembered it - the description comes in Chapter 5, which begins with the narrator at Hammersmith Broadway (now a shopping centre from which the Thames can be reached only by negotiating a complex system of noisy roads round the Hammersmith Flyover).  'Past the Broadway there were fewer houses on either side.  We presently crossed a pretty little brook that ran across a piece of land dotted over with tree...'  Presently they reach Kensington, where the urban woodland begins.
"People are apt to gather here rather thick, for they like the romance of the wood; and naturalists haunt it, too; for it is a wild spot even here, what there is of it; for it does not go far to the south: it goes from here northward and west right over Paddington and a little way down Notting Hill: thence it runs north-east to Primrose Hill, and so on; rather a narrow strip of it gets through Kingsland to Stoke-Newington and Clapton, where it spreads out along the heights above the Lea marshes; on the other side of which, as you know, is Epping Forest holding out a hand to it..."
They walk on and
'The road plunged at once into a beautiful wood spreading out on either side, but obviously much further on the north side, where even the oaks and sweet chestnuts were of a good growth; while the quicker-growing trees (amongst which I thought the planes and sycamores too numerous) were very big and fine-grown.
'It was exceedingly pleasant in the dappled shadow, for the day was growing as hot as need be, and the coolness and shade soothed my excited mind into a condition of dreamy pleasure, so that I felt as if I should like to go on for ever through that balmy freshness.  My companion seemed to share in my feelings, and let the horse go slower and slower as he sat inhaling the green forest scents, chief amongst which was the smell of the trodden bracken near the wayside...'
A constant delight in the natural world is central to life in this future London.  As Fiona MacCarthy writes in her biography of Morris, there is no real dividing line between country and town life. 'Morris's visionary landscape is both decorous and lavish, mysterious and homely, an extraordinary and deeply imagined image of urban possibility. We can see its effects as the Garden Cities burgeoned early on in the next century...'   The narrator of News From Nowhere eventually leaves London for a journey up the river by boat, arriving at an old house resembling Kelmscott Manor, Morris's home in Oxfordshire.  Here the dream has to end and after a period of darkness he finds himself back in 'dingy Hammersmith.'  We left Hammersmith in bright sunshine and walked along the Thames Path and over the bridge, eventually reaching the Wetland Centre, with its otters and sand martins and dragonflies.  It is almost possible there to imagine a city partially reclaimed for nature.  Meanwhile, News from Nowhere continues to inspire readers across the world - I read just yesterday that Korean artists Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho will be using the title for a new exhibition, coming to Tate Liverpool later this year.

Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Water Willow, 1871
Jane Morris with Kelmscott Manor in the background