Monday, October 29, 2018

The Narrow Waters

In Julien Gracq's fluvial revery The Narrow Waters (1976) he recalls the childhood sensation of being drawn down the river Evre by an almost imperceptible current.  It was a memory that would provoke intense pleasure when he came to read 'The Domain of Arnheim', a story by Edgar Allan Poe that I discussed here a few years ago, in which the narrator's skiff seems to be pulled along by an invisible force. Then, again, 'years later, Lohengrin's swan moving up- and downstream on the imaginary waterways of the opera scene recalled once again, momentarily, that sensation of an almost troubling happiness.'  I too love this image of a boat gliding with no obvious means of propulsion, taking its passenger to some special destination.  It can be found in various legends associated, like Lohengrin, with King Arthur: indeed the Grail itself is said to have arrived in Britain this way, carried by Joseph of Arimathea in a ship guided by God.  

Wang Ximeng, A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains (detail), 1113

Later in The Narrow Waters, Gracq returns to the theme of the effortless river journey.
'Only Chinese painting (Song Dynasty landscapes in particular) has been haunted by the humble theme of a solitary rowboat moving through a wooded gorge.  Clearly the great charm of such an image derives from the contrast between the sheer physical effort evoked by the steep slopes and the level, incredible ease of the river flowing eternally between peaks: the jubilant feeling born, in the dreamer's consciousness, of the discovery of an effortless solution to contradictions here becomes a fixed reality.  Vaulted tree branches beneath which one glides along, branches of rock-loving pines that hang in angles over the water in Chinese drawings, intensify the feeling of calm intoxication and can give way, in a moment - with the whimsy of a ribbon of water ringed by precipices - to a protected intimacy, the alluring fancy of canopies of trees cradling a canal that runs straight into the horizon.'
At the end of the book, Gracq reflects on why he is not tempted to return to the Evre and make this journey again. It is 'not the fear of dispelling the charm of memories.  Rather, it's the impossibility of reanimating a dream, or at least of finding again its rhythm which, although devoid of any notion of speed, never ceases to change.'

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Nothing will take place, but the place.


Flicking through a book my son got out of the library last week called 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, I came to the year 1982.  Bladerunner, E.T, Gandhi are all there of course, but the first 'movie' you come to for that year is Trop Tôt, Trop Tard by Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet.  The half page entry for this film (Too Early, Too Late in English) was written by Jonathan Rosenbaum, who calls it 'one of the best landscape films', making me wonder if perhaps he could write a book called 1001 Landscape Films You Must See Before You Die.  His entry in the book is reproduced in full online, so I will quote its description of the film here:
'The first part shows a series of locations in contemporary France, accompanied by Huillet reading part of a letter Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Kautsky describing the impoverished state of French peasants, and excerpts from the “Notebooks of Grievances” compiled in 1789 by the village mayors of those same locales in response to plans for further taxation. The especially fine second section, roughly twice as long, does the same thing with a more recent Marxist text by Mahmoud Hussein about Egyptian peasants' resistance to English occupation prior to the “petit-bourgeois” revolution of Neguib in 1952. Both sections suggest that the peasants revolted too soon and succeeded too late. One of the film's formal inspirations is Beethoven's late quartets, and its slow rhythm is central to the experience it yields; what's remarkable about Straub and Huillet's beautiful long takes is how their rigorous attention to both sound and image seems to open up an entire universe, whether in front of a large urban factory or out on a country road.' 

None of the landscape footage in the film is particularly picturesque, it just seems to record the countryside as the filmmakers found it.  This unprepossessing muddy track, for example, appears just over an hour into the film, in the Egyptian section. The camera slowly pans across fields to this point and stays motionless for almost five minutes as a few figures pass, going about their business.  The view is fixed. You cannot turn around to see what a noise off screen might be or look more closely at something in the foreground. As people slowly approach you are almost forced to wonder what brought them here at this particular moment, about their lives and the lives of everyone around them.

The length, form and sequence of shots in the film seems almost arbitrary, so when this one ends at the point that an aeroplane can be heard overhead, you wonder if you should hear this as a symbol and a reminder that there is nothing 'timeless' in this view, or simply regard it as another chance element of the soundscape. The shot that follows this is another long take, this time from a vehicle travelling along a road.  Watching this reminded me of recent experiments in slow television, although these have been much more glossy and set in landscapes with clear visual appeal.  The rather grainy 16mm footage of Too Early, Too Late is sometimes reminiscent of Shoah, which I wrote about here last year.  Landscape in these films has to convey authenticity, both in the moment of its filming and the political history it has passed through.  

In 2011 Staub was interviewed during the Egyptian uprising, which seemed to add another layer of meaning to the film. The opening exchange does not auger well: 'Céline Condorelli: I only have three questions for you. Jean-Marie Straub: That’s very good, because I don’t have anything to say about this film.'  However, Straub does have some interesting things to say, e.g. about the reasons for juxtaposing as 'a diptych' the French and Egyptian footage - 'to compare places that in France look deserted with places that in Egypt are full of life and people.'  I will conclude here with three quotes from the interview, pertaining to landscape.
CC: [...] How does one choose the appropriate position for the camera?  JMS: That is the least one can do when filming…. You need to go there and walk around. Walk around a place or a village three times, and find the right topographic, strategic point. In a way that one may be able to see something, but without destroying the mystery of what one sees… but this isn’t specific to this film, this is the case in all our films.
JMS: [...] There is an element of fiction, but it comes from the place itself. When you see a donkey passing by chance, and of course this only happened for one take, pulled with a rope by a man, with a woman sitting on it… of course this becomes mythological.  Things like this cannot be anticipated, and are the gift of chance. But of course you need to have enough time, margins, and space for things like that to occur.
CC: But does the topography speak, can it have a voice?  JMS: Well cinema is, or should be, the art of space. Even though a film exists only if that space is able to become time. But the basic work is space. As Mallarmé said: “Nothing will take place, but the place.”

Friday, October 19, 2018

Ground Work

Tim Dee has edited a new collection of place writing called Ground Work.  His introduction recalls an earlier version of the same idea, Ronald Blythe's Places (1981), which featured people like John Betjeman, Susan Hill, Alan Sillitoe and Jan Morris; it's mood was 'wistful and elegiac'.   few years later, Richard Mabey's Second Nature (1984), made for Common Ground, included big names like John Fowles, Fay Weldon and John Berger alongside art by Henry Moore, Richard Long, David Nash and others.  It too was predominantly backward looking.  Ground Work aims to look beyond the picturesque and pretty, at places that are not famous but mean something special to the authors.  However, this degree of attachment means that you will still encounter idylls of various kinds, though some have disappeared or have come under threat.  It is a little hard not to envy some of these writers their childhoods out in nature or the time they have to spend in agreeable places (the Bodleian Library, a wilderness retreat in Finland, an old garden in the Cevannes...)  There are authors who have been able to beautify a ninety-acre Sussex farm, buy a thirty-one foot sloop 'for a book project', or acquire a wood in order to restore it from neglect.  I have to say though that this last example, in an essay by Richard Mabey, was a highlight of the book: his reflections on the moral quandaries of landscape management are fascinating.

Richard Huws, Piazza Waterfall ('Tipping Buckets'), 1967
Photograph taken on my phone, earlier this week.

Given my interest in art, I particularly enjoyed 'Tipping Buckets', the contribution by poet and edgelends explorer Paul Farley, which finds different metaphors in a piece of urban sculpture.  The work in question can be found in a small square near the waterfront in Liverpool.  As I was in Liverpool on Monday I popped down to see it, but sadly there was no sign of life - the buckets were not even 'chugging away in their backwater', they were still and the 'piazza' was empty.  A lot of the writing in Ground Work focuses in on small sites like this - an allotment plot, a bridge, a back garden, a bird hide.  However, in order to justify mentioning the book on this blog I will end here by highlighting an essay that features both landscape and poetry.  'At the Edge of the Tide' is by Michael Viney, a journalist and nature writer originally from Brighton, where I grew up, but resident in Ireland since before I was born. It describes the beach by his home, 'an acre on the wilder coast of County Mayo'.

Viney has explored the strand in the company of two close friends, an ornithologist called David Cabot and the poet Michael Longley, who comes down from Belfast to 'immerse himself in the landscape'. Back in 1993 they even made a film together - sadly I can't find this online.  Over the years, watching birds and looking for rare plants, they have seen the place change - most recently in the interests of promoting tourism.  He quotes a poem by Michael Longley:
'Now that the Owennadornaun has disappeared
For you and me where our two townlands meet,
The peaty water takes the long way round
Through Morrison's fields and our imaginations.
The Owennadornaun was the little river whose ford near the bottom of the boreen was so rich in the spirit of place. A sill of rock made a shallow waterfall just above the crossing, with the sun above the mountain to catch each ripple and splash.  It was here I saw my first dipper, walking under water, and where, in summer, sand martins came to nest in holes in the bank.  There were pied and grey wagtails dancing at the edge and, once or twice, a sandpiper.
This has all gone. [...] A car park behind the strand, with a summer loo, was clearly essential to setting up the Wild Atlantic Way. It meant diversion of the little river and a road bridge built above its bed, this now remaining dry and quite birdless.' 

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Reading in the Wilderness

 Giovanni Bellini, detail from Saint Jerome Reading in the Wilderness, c. 1485
National Gallery. Source: Wikimedia Commons

I've not yet been to see the new Bellini-Mantegna exhibition although I see Jonathan Jones was unimpressed (this is not necessarily a bad sign, of course).  However, the Bellini exhibition I would really like to have seen took place in Los Angeles last year, and focused on his treatment of landscape. The Getty Museum's catalogue is excellent and highlighted for me how our understanding of this great artist is still changing as new facts emerge.  Here I want to focus on Bellini's paintings of Saint Jerome, which are the subject of a catalogue essay by Hans Belting.  Bellini depicts Jerome as if he is a humanist in a library rather than a penitent in the desert.  His paintings can thus be seen as versions of an ideal I have referred to many times on this blog: scholarly retreat to a secluded place, surrounded by nature. In the Uffizi version below, 'the saint's attentive look captures the scene's total silence, interrupted only by voices of birds and running water.'
Giovanni Bellini, Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, c. 1480
Galleria degli Uffizi. Source: Wikimedia Commons

What of the landscape behind Saint Jerome? Here is Belting's description:
'Alongside a river, a zone of barren land puts the fortification of a walled city into the farthest distance.  It is crossed by a long, winding path, which allows us to measure the journey to reach the solitary place.  A hind and a stag roam freely in this depopulated land, while humans appear only below the city walls. The river is flanked by settlements, the city or castello with a Venetian bell tower, and, on the other side, some sort of fortified monastery that resembles San Vitale in Ravenna. The topographical allusions have found various interpretations, since the cityscape is, in Felton Gibbons's words, "a curious potpourri of identifiable monuments".  Only the ruinous bridge over the river, connected to the city gates by wooden planks, seems to be a true portrayal of the old Roman bridge in Rimini as it looked in Bellini's time.  What matters is the realism of the Venetian settlements in the background and the contrasting view of solitary life in nature.'
Giovanni Bellini, Saint Jerome Reading in the Wilderness, c. 1485
National Gallery. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Here in London, the National Gallery has a very similar version of this composition (above), with the saint again intent on his book, but a different landscape behind him.  This painting was in the Getty Museum's exhibition, along with a later panel now in Washington (below), in which the saint sits by the entrance to a grotto.  A whole range of possible allusions have been found in its detailed landscape, which Bellini painted with the attention to detail we would associate with Flemish artists. As Susannah Rutherglen's catalogue essay points out, these are often contradictory...
  • A lizard is possibly a reference to the Garden of Eden's serpent or the concept of Resurrection, though in its darting motion it could equally be a metaphor for the saint's lively intellect.
  • A pair of rabbits facing each other could suggest either Christian meekness or sinful lust.
  • A squirrel may refer to intellectual pride or resistance to adversity.
  • A fig tree might symbolise temptation, but could also refer to the cross.
  • The water in a cistern could be associated with both 'demonic polymorphism and the rite of Baptism'    
  • And a bird of prey suggests either magnanimity or mystical contemplation, but also looms over the scene as a symbol of death.

Giovanni Bellini, Saint Jerome Reading in the Wilderness, 1505
National Gallery of Art, Washington. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Finally, there is an unusual altarpiece which Bellini painted as an old man. By this stage he had come under the influence of Giorgione (and outlived him).  Jerome is again shown reading, sitting on the trunk of a fig tree.  Belting quotes Roger Fry, writing in 1899, who found this 
'the strangest, most romantic enthronement ever conceived - an old hermit, who has grown by long years of secluded contemplation into mysterious sympathy with the rocks and plants and trees of his mountain solitude, sits in a scarlet robe, silhouetted against a golden sunset sky, across which faint purplish clouds are driven by the wind; and below him there spreads a vast expanse of valley and mountain ridges.  Bellini's intimate Wordsworthian feeling for the moods of wild nature finds here its remotest and sublimest expression.'
Giovanni Bellini, Saint Jerome with Saint Christopher and Saint Louis of Toulouse, 1513
Church of San Giovanni Crisostomo, Venice. Source: Wikimedia Commons