Friday, November 08, 2019


Last month we visited the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, just outside Paris.  It was the home of Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV's finance minister, and was the creation of three great seventeenth century artists: architect Louis Le Vau, painter Charles Le Brun and landscape designer André le Nôtre.  Throughout Vaux-le-Vicomte there are explanatory signs with diagrams explaining how le Nôtre constructed the estate to create optical illusions.  When you look out from the house across the garden (below), you can see a distant slope with a golden statue, but there is no sign of the garden's canal (above) which actually stretches right across the garden.  A sign informs visitors of what they can expect as they walk down into this landscape.  "The Grand Canal, invisible from the château's front steps, appears out of the blue.  The grottos, which seem to be on the pool's edge, get further away as you progress along the main path of the garden and now seem to be on the opposite side of the canal!  The statue of Hercules now seems impossible to reach..."  I think this clever example of 'decelerated perspective' put Mrs Plinius off walking as far as the Hercules statue but, as you can see below, I was not discouraged and went up to get a good look at it.

The sun was so strong that Hercules himself presented two very different perspectives, shadowy on the way up and gleaming magnificently when you looked back down at him.  Although I felt like I was dutifully walking along a sightline, one of those rays on a diagram connected to an imaginary eyeball, it was impossible not to be distracted by birdsong and the crunch of fallen leaves under your feet.  The sharp shadows and bright sunshine were perfect conditions to enjoy the garden's mathematical aesthetic and indulge in the scopophilia of all those viewing points.  But it was still possible to enjoy the feel of the breeze and smell of the damp grass and choose your own ways of experiencing the space.  My sons got caught up in a game of catching the falling leaves.

On the way back to the château, as you round one end of the canal, there is a great example of borrowed scenery (what Japanese gardeners call shakkei).  What you can see (below) is the Vallée de l'Anqueuil and medieval Pont de Mons, giving the impression that Fouquet's land extended into this idyllic unspoilt landscape.  Here, nature is incorporated within the realm of the garden, but this seems relatively modest when compared to the main design where (as Allen S. Weiss has written) infinity itself, in the form of the vanishing point, is brought into the garden's purview. 

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Chateau d'If

Two years ago I wrote here about the plans-reliefs that Andrew Graham-Dixon visited for a TV documentary - he described them as 'a collection of extraordinary but largely forgotten' table-top landscapes. I mentioned that some of them remain in Paris and last weekend I got to see them - they are on display in Les Invalides.  I framed the photograph above so that this example resembles a real aerial landscape.  However, it is eerily empty - there are roads and buildings but no sign of actual human life: no figures in the fields, no cattle or horses or any other animals.  None of the relief maps show anything happening in these landscapes.  They are quite different from the models we are used to seeing in museums that recreate a key historical event or evoke everyday life at some date in the past.  The plans-reliefs represent a rather bleak vision of the world, as mere terrain to be defended or fought over.  Seeing a relief map of Saint-Tropez in this context was a particular shock - a place that conjures ideas of life at its most joyous - sun, sea, wine, music and Brigitte Bardot on the beach...

Near the glass cabinet dedicated to St Tropez, there is another one containing the Chateau d'If.  I remember that when I first began reading The Count of Monte Cristo I didn't realise that this place, a strangely-named island fortress near Marseilles, was a real location (or that Monte Cristo is an actual island).  But as this relief map from 1681 shows, the Chateau d'If was a key French fortification long before Dumas wrote his novel and the fictional Edmond Dantès was wrongly imprisoned there. Chateau d'Ifs have subsequently multiplied in the many adaptations of Dumas' novel: plays, films and, most recently, video games.  Sometimes other islands have stood in for it - Saint Mary's Tower on Comino, for example, was used in a 2002 film.  Dumas himself would later create another kind of model of the Chateau d'If.  In 1846 he bestowed the name on a grand writer's studio that he had built in the grounds of his country home.  But Dumas spent a lot less time there than Dantès spent in the Chateau d'If - just two years later, short of money, he had to sell it.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Water and sky, suspended like a dream

Gerald Bullett (1893-1958) is perhaps not very well known today, but he was a fairly prolific writer and according to Wikipedia (quoting a 1950 dictionary of authors), a "liberal socialist" who claimed to detest "prudery, Prohibition, blood sports, central heating, and literary tea parties".  Bullett spent the summer of 1945 making translations of ‘a Chinese rural sequence’ by the Song Dynasty geographer-poet-politician Fan Cheng-Ta (Fan Chengda 1126–1193).  These were published in a slim volume the following year as The Golden Year of Fan Cheng-Ta.  Like Ezra Pound and other Western translators, he was working from literal translations made by a Chinese scholar, Tsui Chi. The sequence comprises sixty poems in all, each eight lines long in his versions.  I doubt if they will ever be reprinted because although Bullett was fond of Whitman and didn't go overboard with his rhyming, they are a bit old-fashioned.  What follows here is an excercise in cutting these up and representing them as a kind of landscape poem.  I've condensed each poem into three fragments and strung these haiku-like images together to give a sense of the unfolding year in Suzhou in 1186. 

The Golden Year of Fan Cheng-Ta

Early Spring

Willow flower | young leaves of the mulberry | bright noon
Ten thousand spears of grass | showers | new shoots
The green of the wheat | river meadows |flowering almond and peach
Field-shrine | offerings to the spirit of the earth | faggots and rushes
After the festival | strewn on the grass, flowers | serene air
From the east | rumour of horsemen | a bright cloud, on noiseless hooves
Salad festival | a clear sky | wide panorama of Hu Chiu
Long is the day | in this arbour | we warm the wine
Rain over | to walk where earlier wayfarers have gone | a broad brook
Children and birds | thieving friends | net the cherry flowers
Rice-seed | thunderquake | filling the fields with water
Mulberry tree | measured rows | chives and cabbage

Late Spring

Close-folding lettuce | spring onions white as snow | wind and rain
Lake and sky | green coins of water-lily | bulrush shoots
Butterflies | enter the vegetable flowers | golden stream of the long day
Flood’s edge | the islet-dweller is doing her household washing | twilight is falling
Cool glow of dawn | falling petals | odour of spices borne on a light breeze
On golden mornings | dew that lingers | gather the mulberry leaf
Mud | an island sinking in the flood | weakness of a planted water-fence
Downy, pointed reedlings | russet berries | my walking stick
Rice-in-husk festival | the rain is silken | peony blossoms
After the rains, morning | soft radiance | listening to the golden orioles
Rivers rising | edible miscanthus roots | the oriental lilac blooms
Few come this way | shadows of dove-grey dusk | alone, I weave my fence


Heavy the trees | long barley blossoms into snow | hedged in with summer
Innumerable tadpoles | fields of the rice crop | water a foot deep
Abundance this surprising year | the oven’s crammed | season of ripening rice-grain
Cocoons, in boiling vats | wheels of the spinning-cart | mulberry-girls cross hands
Day after day | labour at the loom | the mulberry
Watercourses flowing full | upon this water engine | feet of the young men
Sons in the fields | little grandchild | under the mulberry his melon-seeds would grow
Air serenely cool | the rhamnus grows | benign shade
A millstone | a freshet of wind in the willow-shaded air | the noon hour
Lotus-flowers | I drift my boat | small waterfowls wise up, in sudden flight
Gathering caltrops | blood from his pricked fingers | tinges the pale water vermilion
Shadows extend | the cicadas’ bubbling noise | night falls.


Golden lilies, red chrysanthemums | concealed nearby, in sedgy marshland | crickets
Girls laugh and sing | the festival Begging Good Luck | river-ferrying stars
Between the boughs | shedding the husk | a brilliant many-coloured moth
Web under the low eaves | a dragonfly and bees | hang there
Fields ready | burden of the year | half the crop must go to pay our debts
Autumn come | we take the unthreshed grain | and spread it in the sun
A full moon | on idle oar | water and sky, suspended like a dream
Threshing of rice grain | fine frosty weather | beat of the flail
Tributary stores | still there’s left to us | husky rice to feed the children
Pulse and corn | jars of earthenware | Day of Double Brightness
Onions finely minced | this mess of fish | a tolerable dish
Unexpected frost | the woods | wear now a richly-embroidered silken dress


A pale slice of moon | tall trees | leaves scatter the ground
Under the eaves | back to the sun | bleak north wind
Safe from winter's harm | the wind | playing his flute in the fence of bamboo-stakes
A pine-tree flare | the aroma drifting slow | reddening sun
Under the constellation of the Ox | the earth-spirit | our simple shrine
Let the boat take me | air grows ever more crystalline | a brittle sheet of ice
Sweeping away the snow | cabbages | like honeyed lotus-roots
Night of snow | knobs of smokeless charcoal burn | chestnuts in the ashes
Wine to make ready | you who live in towns | are you better off?
Tax-paper | a smooth black-coated gentleman from town | how tiresome
A well-born youth | sees a flowering peach-tree | celestial sight!
The year ends | mutual visiting | linen garments, white as snow

As you can see, the golden year of Fan Cheng-Ta unfolded in a succession of seasonal plants, foods and festivals, while he observed the villagers labouring to produce silk, grain and rice, paying their taxes and receving occasional visitors from the city.  Moments of landscape beauty seem to have come when the author was drifting on a boat, like Rousseau or Wordsworth.  I'll end here by quoting in full one of the poems, No. 54, from which I took some words about the icy lake above.
Let the boat take me leisurely where it will,
So of these snow-bright slopes I have my fill.
The wind falls, is still.  Cold and fine,
The evening air grows ever more crystalline.
The rhythmic pole makes music in my ears
Like breaking jade or shatter of pearly spheres :
By which I guess the water's shining face
Already wears a brittle sheet of ice.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Rising sun over the landscape of Mount Paektu

Last week I discussed here the way artists over the centuries have depicted Korea's Diamond Mountains, but these extraordinary peaks are are not the most revered landscape in this part of the world.  The great stratovolcano, Mount Paektu, features in both North and South Korea's national anthems and has always been considered a sacred site - the birthplace of Dangun, founder of the first Korean kingdom, whose father was the Son of Heaven.  Mount Paektu is in what is now North Korea and has become inextricably linked with ideas of the country's leaders, a process that began with an epic poem, Cho Ki-chon's 'Mt. Paektu' (1947).  A recent example is 'We Will Go to Mount Paektu', a song which Laibach wanted to cover on their controversial visit to North Korea in 2015.

Heaven Lake, Mount Paektu

For his 2016 documentary Into the Volcano, Werner Herzog visited Mount Paektu with volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer.  In the film they note how frequently it appears in official iconography as a backdrop to images of North Korean leaders.  They are also shown another pilgrimage site, Kim Il-sung's secret log cabin where, according to his official biography, Kim Jong-il was born in 1941.  Herzog says in his voiceover that "in the Christian World, this would be like visiting the birthplace of Jesus - the stable in Bethlehem".  I have featured the humble retreats of poets and artists many time on this blog in the past; here again we have an example of the cultural significance of a solitary hut in a mountain landscape. 

The film goes on to show images of this log cabin in the snow and Mount Paektu at sunrise.  These represent a form of landscape art that requires vast numbers of people all obeying strict instructions, neither creating or seeing the image but themselves forming a human canvas.
"In the country's biggest stadium, more than 100,000 people participate in creating a unique artform.  The picture of the hut in the snow is not a painting.  It is made of human pixels.  And this is how it's done.  A prearranged pattern of coloured cards is held and flipped over in sync.  Here: the rising sun over the landscape of Mount Paektu." 
We often think of the way nature is reshaped in response to our dreams and desires, or the way artists have painted mountains as an expression of their individuality and subjective experience.  Here, in a setting that approaches the scale of a real landscape, there are no individuals and only one official story. 

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Diamond Mountains

Jeong Seon, General View of Mt. Geumgang, 1734
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In these days of mass global travel it feels as if everywhere of note is being constantly visited and photographed, but one of the most spectacular and culturally significant landscapes in the world is almost inaccessible.  The Diamond Mountains, known collectively as Mount Geumgang, are in what is now North Korea.  The art they inspired was recently the subject of an exhibition in New York which I would love to have seen. The Met's catalogue (a very lovely book) explains the three main areas travellers sought out, following in the footsteps of poets, painters and travel diarists: Inner Geumgang is a lush landscape of streams and pools; Outer Geumgang has steep trails, dramatic peaks and waterfalls; and by the shore, Sea Geumgang has strange rock formations and pillars rising from the waters. The painting above shows the entire mountain range and is by Jeong Seon (1676-1759), the artist who did more than any other to popularise the area.  It is an example of a 'general view' that tries to capture the whole landscape at once, rather like a modern skiing map.  Interpreters have seen this painting in cosmological terms, representing yin and yang - dark and light, wet and dry, earth and universe.

Detail of the General View of Mt. Geumgang

The painting on the cover of the Met's catalogue (below) is also very much a landscape of contrasts.  It is one of the thirteen views in Jeong's Album of Mount Geumgang (1711), painted after what is thought to have been his first visit to the mountains.  It shows the view from Danbal Ridge - 'Danbal' means "cutting one's hair" and comes from the idea that the view here is so astonishing it will lead the traveller to shave his head, become a monk and withdraw from the secular world.  In Korea people spoke of 'entering the mountain', in the sense of going into a spiritual realm, rather than 'ascending the mountain' and conquering it like a mountaineer.  Lee Soomi describes this painting in the catalogue:
'Jeong painted himself and his fellow travellers alighting in the magnificent scene.  Oer the clouds, the mountain's twelve thousand peaks shine as if in greeting.  Jeong juxtaposed the dark and earthy terrain of Danbal Ridge with the white, rocky peaks, defining the forested ridge with short Mi dots and emphasizing the mountain's steepness through sharp, diagonal forms.  A sheer fog hovers between the two kinds of mountains, creating a void that underscores the contrast.'
The Met website has a long and well-illustrated interview with the curator Soyoung Lee which is like a condensed version of the catalogue.  This includes views of the Diamond Mountains painted in subsequent centuries by literati, court painters and folk artists.  There are two remarkable twentieth century ink paintings, one by Byeong Gwansik (1899-1976) with a strange diagonal pinnacle cutting across the view, and another by Lee Ungno (1904-1989), where mountains are painted with strikingly beautiful brush strokes and colours (it would be a wonderful inspiration for anyone posting daily pictures at the moment for 'Inktober'). Soyoung Lee says that both of these artists
"travelled multiple times to the mountains and made sketches during the colonial period before 1945, when the peninsula was divided into north and south. Yet although they travelled and made sketches during this period, the finished paintings all date to post-1945, which speaks deeply to the particular sense of nostalgia people felt at that time, a nostalgia for a place before it was disrupted and divided. [,,,] The work of both these artists is deeply informed by a sense of longing and loss. They were recreating a site they had intimately experienced, which was no longer accessible to them."

Friday, October 11, 2019

Ten Skies and 13 Lakes

‘The only way one can understand landscape is through time.’ - James Benning

This is a still from TEN SKIES (2004) a film by James Benning that lasts over two hours and consists of ten static shots of the sky over California.  You can currently watch it all on YouTube.  Claudia Slanar has written about this film and its predecessor 13 LAKES (2004) that the attention they demand ‘leads to a fluctuation between impatience, immersion and digression.’ Scott MacDonald has described the experience of seeing them for the first time as like going into a horror film, where the viewer has to decide to ‘endure whatever the film is about to send their way.’ By the third ten minute sequence it will be clear that almost nothing is going to happen. So what exactly do they offer? MacDonald suggests they provide a kind of visual and auditory retraining. ‘Again and again during a viewing of either film, we ‘awake’ to realise that our minds have moved elsewhere, into daydream, memory, worry, planning… and we wrestle our consciousness back to the screen and soundtrack, often to realise that in the interim things have altered more than we might have expected.’

In these films, landscape is transformed directly into art. As Slanar says, they 'represent the concept of nature as a ’ready-made’, as a pre-existing object that is turned into a work of art by means of an artistic signature.’  The fragmentary soundtrack of Ten Skies ‘subtly evokes a sense of place without depending on synchronous sound’. She relates Benning's films to other examples of slow cinema – Peter Hutton's Time and Tide (2000) and At Sea (2007), Sharon Lockhart’s Pine Flat (2006), Abbas Kiorostami’s Five (2003).  Her essay, and that of Scott MacDonald, appear in an excellent compilation dedicated to James Benning published in 2007 by the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna. The book discusses his work's engagement with ideas of place and the rapidly changing American landscape.  As Julie Ault says, the films reveal a persistent iconography – ‘groups of cows, passing trains, emitting smokestacks, farmland being ploughed, billboards, gunshots, oil wells, highways, the Spiral Jetty and the Milwaukee neighbourhood where Benning was born and raised.’

Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty is the subject of Casting a glance (2007): seventy-eight one-minute shots made during sixteen trips to the Jetty between May 15 2005 and January 14 2007.  The title refers to something Smithson said that evokes that idea of landscape as 'ready-made': ‘a great artist can make art by simply casting a glance.’  Benning first saw Spiral Jetty almost twenty years earlier.  In those days it was much harder to find - he tried various roads from Rozel Point before finding one that led to wards the lake, then had to walk three miles to find it, submerged at that point under two feet of water.  I will end here with Benning's evocative description of encountering Spiral Jetty as a site constantly changing, illustrating his view that 'the only way one can understand landscape is through time.'
‘The Jetty is a barometer for both daily and yearly cycles. From morning to night its allusive, shifting appearance (radical or subtle) may be the result of a passing weather system or simply the changing angle of the sun. The yearly seasonal shifts and water level changes alter the growing salt crystals, the amount of algae in the water, and the presence of wildlife. The water may appear blue, red, purple, green, brown, silver, or gold. The sounds may come from a navy jet, wildlife, splashing water, a distant car radio, converging thunderstorms; or be a silence so still you can hear the blood moving through the veins in your ears.'

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Emerald City

I’ve been looking through a library copy of The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop, a huge, glossy and expensive book based on material in the Art Directors Guild archives. Among its many full page illustrations there is a relatively brief history of painted backdrops in Hollywood, followed by short chapters on some key figures: George Gibson, Ben Carré, Duncan Alanson Spencer and two family dynasties, the Coakleys and the Strangs.

George Gibson (1904-2001) is possibly the most interesting of these from a landscape perspective, partly because he was also a well regarded water colourist and leading figure in the Californian School of plein air artists (many of whom worked in Hollywood). Gibson had been trained at Glasgow School of Art before emigrating to America during the Depression.  He had quite a low opinion of some of the backdrop artists he found working at MGM...
‘We had a large backing of mountains and pine trees to paint. At that time we had to work off fixed scaffolding with standing levels seven feet apart with a forty foot high backing. The pine trees in the foreground of the backing ran full size top to bottom. [When we] struck the fixed scaffolding, the only part of the pine trees that matched was their trunks. Every section on the seven levels [of scaffolding] had a different version of pine needles because each artist had his own conception of what pine needles should look like. It was obvious that they hadn’t been painting in the out-of-doors, or even bothered to look critically at a pine tree, if ever.’ 
Gibson was put in charge of work on backdrops for The Wizard of Oz, Brigadoon, North by Northwest, Forbidden Planet and many others.  The book includes photographs of the sound stages on which such movies were acted out, with their foreground props merging quite convincingly with painted landscape backgrounds.  There is an example of one landscape setting he painted himself, a church in the snow which can be seen in The Brothers Karamazov (1958).  However, many of the old backdrops have long since been damaged and lost.

When Mark Cousins was directing the Edinburgh Film Festival in the mid 90s he decided to draw a link between The Wizard of Oz and the city of Gibson's birth.  "We thought it would be fun and challenging to transform Edinburgh Castle into the Emerald City. No-one knew about the Gibson connection at that time."  I'm not sure what this transformation entailed, but certainly the connection has now been established and you'll find Gibson referred to in several online guides to Edinburgh.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

A Timeline for Landscape in the Arts

I have put together a new timeline of landscape and the arts based on entries in this blog.  It covers five hundred people, ranging in time from Sargon II, King of Assyria, to Robert Macfarlane.  It replaces the earlier chronology I did.  This long list was starting to feel a bit burdensome to keep up (I've also decided to drop my index for the same reason, and because in practical terms the search function here works pretty well).  The software for the timeline is free and uses Google Docs - I think it is pretty cool.  It was not really designed to have as many entries as I have so you will need to use the zoom buttons to navigate clearly through the more recent years.  I have shown an example of this below for a point in the twentieth centur.  If you want to go straight to a version that is on maximum zoom and pointed at the current year, click here.  But from any point you can drag the timeline forwards and backwards.  It is also easy just to move along one entry at a time.

As this timeline relates to people rather than events, there is only one entry per person.  So Emily Carr is recorded in 1942 (late in her career), the year she published 'The Book of Small', rather than, say, 1928 when she painted KitwancoolWilliam and Dorothy Wordsworth, Charlotte Smith and Lord Byron all get one entry only.  I could have included a lot more than 500, based just on the blog as it now stands.  However, I have omitted artists only mentioned in passing, lesser artists and more peripheral figures or well known names that have not really been prominent in exploring landscape (I decided not to include Picasso).  The timeline also concentrates on creative figures rather than critics, theorists, geographers and historians. I intend to amend it occasionally and add to it gradually, especially for earlier years; you can see now why I was interested in writing last week about a datable art work from 1072.  But the blog won't be skewed towards filling in gaps in the timeline.  Some Landscapes is not intended to be a historical encyclopedia of landscape and the arts and doesn't aim at being comprehensive (hence the word 'some').  It will continue to evolve through a process of serendipity, featuring whatever I have come across that seems interesting and worth sharing.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

A dialectic of the near and the far

Guo Xi, Early Spring, 1072

In 1072 the Chinese artist Guo Xi completed one of the most celebrated landscape paintings, Early Spring.  It is his only surviving large scale work - there are smaller scrolls in museums (I have mentioned one here before).  There is a story that he would 'have plasterers roughen the surface of a wall so that in painting his mountains and chasms he could follow the bumps and hollows they had made and get an even more convincing effect of relief' (Michael Sullivan, Symbols of Eternity).  One day I may do a post devoted to Guo's theories of painting, assembled by his son - Lofty Ambition in Forest and Streams (Ernest Fenollosa considered it, with the exception of a few dry sections, 'one of the greatest essays of the world').  Here I'll just provide five quotes about Early Spring interspersed with close-up details. 

'His greatest surviving work, the Early Spring of 1072 in the National Public Museum, Taipei, shows him as a master of monumental design, in which the realistic details of buildings, boats, and fishermen are totally subordinated to broad effects and dramatic contrasts of light and dark.' - Michael Sullivan, Symbols of Eternity

'Rather than an expression of the painter's love of nature in the abstract, it may have been understood by contemporary audiences at court as showing, not real nature, but the ideal landscape of a Daoist paradise.' - Craig Clunas, Art in China

'The man Guo Xi served, the emperor Shenzong, only rarely in his life had occasion to directly enjoy the natural world outside of his imperial palaces ... Early Spring is a vision of flux, growth, life, and order precisely suited to the imperial gaze.' Richard M. Barnhart, Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting

'The mountain as majestic lord is complemented by the figures that reflect perceptions of social hierarchy.  At the bottom of the composition, country fol and fishermen represent the foundation of society.' - Alfreda Murck, Poetry and Painting in Song China

'One cannot keep the near separate from the far; the two mesh intimately, mirroring each other rather than standing apart; so much so that there is no place for middle distance in a work such as this, which exhibits a dialectic of the near and the far - of the rocks below and the mountains above and behind it.' - Edward S. Casey, Representing Place: Landscape Painting and Maps

My reason for highlighting one datable painting from history in this way will become clear in my next blog post.  Suffice it to say now that I find it fascinating to think about the point at which this painting emerged into the river of world history: in the time of Omar Khayyam and El Cid, and just as a group of needleworkers whose names have not come down to us were embroidering the Bayeux Tapestry.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Bare plain, leafless, treeless

Reading the exiled Ovid's Tristia and Black Sea Letters you keep wanting him to tell his correspondents back in Rome about the landscape at Tomis.  But all of these poems are about one thing - his desire to get back home - and so his brief descriptions do not go into any details, they are a means of provoking sympathy in the reader. Here is what translator Peter Green says about Ovid's account of the region where Tomis was situated, on the tip of a peninsula, seventy miles south of the Danube delta. 
'Its treeless, monotonous steppe, he writes, resembles a frozen grey sea, patched - appropriately enough - with wormwood, a maquis of bitter and symbolic associations.  There are no vines, he repeatedly complains, no orchards: spring in the Italian sense doesn't exist and few birds sing.  The countryside is ugly, harsh, savage, inhuman.  The water is brackish, and merely exacerbates thirst.  But Ovid's two great fearful obsessions are the biting cold and the constant barbarian raids. Again and again he returns to the snow, the ice, the sub-zero temperatures: bullock-carts creaking across the frozen Danube, wine broken off and sold in chunks, the violent glacial north-easter (today known as the crivat) that rips off roof-tiles, sears the skin, and even blows down buildings if they are not solidly constructed.' 
Was he exaggerating? In the tenth Black Sea Letter Ovid actually gave some scientific proof that the Black Sea did actually freeze at Tomis.  In this area many freshwater rivers flow into the sea and there is a cold north wind that chills the air.  As Peter Green says in one of his endnotes (which are wonderfully witty and erudite): 'Dr. Stefan Stoenescu informs me that 'the rich salty waters [of the Danube delta] create a brackish region ear the littoral which allows an inversion of temperature to take place.  The unsalty waters of the Danube have sufficient power to maintain a thin layer of comparatively sweet fresh water above the deeply settled salty Mediterranean current.  As a result, near the Danube delta shores freezing is not an unusual occurrence.  Ovid was right.''

Eugène Delacroix, Ovid among the Scythians, 1862

Nevertheless, Ovid does not really say what Tomis was like outside winter.  Now called Constanța, it is a tourist destination and has 'a humid subtropical climate' with cool breezes in summer and warm autumns.  The treelessness Ovid complained about was true of his immediate location but if he had ventured further afield he would have encountered forests.  Presumably the dangers from the local tribesmen, with their poison-tipped arrows, prevented him leaving the town.  So this wasn't a poetic exile like some others that I have written about here - Xie Lingyun, for example, banished in 422 to the southeast coast of China, but able to draw solace from his walks in the mountains.  Ovid was trapped and desperate to leave.

I will end here with a few lines of Ovid's poetry, from Tristia Book III, written de profundis in his frozen hell.  The north wind screams and 'no comber will surge up from the hard packed flood' and Ovid sadly recalls those early autumn days when everything in Italy is ripening. 
... No sweet grapes here beneath thick shady vine-leaves,
   no frothing must to top up the deep vats;
no orchards, no fruit trees, no apple on which Acontius
   could cut the message for his love to read:
nothing to meet the eye here but bare plain, leafless, treeless -
   not the habitat any luckier man would choose -
and this, with the whole wide world's expanse to choose from,
   is the region selected for my punishment!

Sunday, September 08, 2019

A map of Elmbourne

I have just read All Among the Barley, the third novel by Melissa Harrison, whose writings and nature observations I've been following over the last few years via her prolific Twitter feed.  Looking online afterwards to see what had been written about the novel, I found a piece in Elementum by the artist who drew maps for her book, Neil Gower.  He says that over the years the most indecipherable author sketches he has had to work with are those of Jilly Cooper, 'A2 Basquiat-esque collages of who’s bonking whom (and where)'.  I was actually given a copy of Jilly Cooper's Riders as a joke birthday present recently and have just dug it out to see if it has a map in it.  I can't see one - perhaps they're in her other books?  Anyway, back to Melissa Harrison, who, by contrast, gave Gower very meticulous notes on her imagined Suffolk village of Elmbourne, along with 'stylistic cues in the form of an 1853 tithe map and a 1941 Tunnicliffe map (from Faber’s first edition of Henry Williamson’s The Story of a Norfolk Farm).'  Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter and supporter of Oswald Mosley, is mentioned in the novel - his opinions are admired by Constance FitzAllen, whose arrival from London leads to conflict in the village and confusion in the mind of Edie, the novel's teenage protagonist. 

From the perspective of this blog, I suppose I would rather the protagonist had been this character Connie, so as to learn more about her thinking on landscape.  It would have been interesting to read a bit more about the wider currents of nativist politics and rural revivalism - Lord Lymington, Rolf Gardiner and so on.  But that would have been a different novel; this one is very much contained within the fields and lanes that make up the world of Edie Mather.  According to Gower, Melissa Harrison too 'inhabits the landscape intimately, like her characters'.  For example, she advised him that in 'Suffolk lanes you often get a little triangle of grass left as an island with a white signpost on it. This is because the junctions were formed by carts/wagons and not cars. Carts can't turn such a tight corner as cars can...'  There's a potential paradox here, in reducing such a richly textured place to a two dimensional diagram.  But a map is a portal that can help the reader enter a novel's world and experience more than the author has been able to set down.

A few years ago The New Yorker carried an article on 'The Allure of the Map', beginning inevitably with Treasure Island and Lord of the Rings.  It went on to say that
Genre fiction often involves cartographic illustration, but so, too, do highly regionalist works. Sherwood Anderson commissioned a map of the titular town “Winesburg, Ohio,” as did the novelist Jan Karon for her novels set in the fictional town of Mitford, North Carolina. Henry David Thoreau surveyed Walden Pond for a map that he included in “Walden,” and William Faulkner drew his own map of Yoknapatawpha County for the publication of “Absalom, Absalom!” Faulkner revised the map ten years later for “The Portable Faulkner,” going so far as to call himself “sole owner and proprietor,” and adding a note: “Surveyed & mapped for this volume by William Faulkner.”
The list could be added to with British novels of place: I have mentioned here before Thomas Hardy's sketch map of Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native, for example.  All Among the Barley is part of this history of deeply imagined literary landscapes.

Finally, as a kind of postrscript, I can't resist mentioning another map in that New Yorker article, the one Ursula K. Le Guin drew for the Earthsea trilogy.  Just as I was reading All Among the Barley, my younger son was finishing A Wizard of Earthsea.  We have been talking about the book and he says he loves the way the archipelago contains so many different lands and ways of living.  It made me think about the way books open up our horizons, something that starts to happen to Edie in All Among the Barley...  The map of Earthsea particularly appealed to my son and he has identified on it his three favourite places (Too, Tor and O).  It is clear that he is now sailing his way among those islands in his imagination. 

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Blue River

The other day I pulled out from my library the anthology Poems of Arab Andalusia that City Lights Books published back in 1989.  The translations were made by Cola Franzen (1923-2018) and she based them on an anthology that Emilio García Gómez (1905-95) published in 1930.  Those modern Spanish versions of Andalusian Arabic poetry influenced Spain's Generation of 27, in particular Lorca, whose Divan del Tamarit (unfinished when he was assasinated) uses some of their imagery.  Gómez was working from a medieval codex he acquired in 1928, Banners of the Champions and the Standards of the Distinguished, a collection put together by the great Andalusian writer and traveller Ibn Sa'id and completed on 21 June 1243There is frustratingly little information to be found in the anthology or online about the actual poets.  Of Muhammad ibn Ghalib al-Rusafi, for example, who wrote a lovely little poem called 'Blue River', we are just told that he died in 1177 and came from Ruzafa, now part of Valencia (a 'hip district', I see from Google, noted for its indie clothing boutiques and organic food shops).  

As usual on this blog, I'm reluctant to quote whole poems from a book for copyright reasons.  But here are some extracts - five examples of rivers in medieval Andalusian poems, beginning with that blue one:

Blue River
The river of diaphanous waters
murmuring between its banks
would have you believe
it is a stream of pearls.
 Muhammad ibn Ghalib al-Rusafi (d. 1177)

Rain Over The River
The wind does the delicate work
of a goldsmith
crimping water into mesh
for a coat of mail.
Abu I-Qasim al-Manishi (12th century)

The Valley of Almería 
See how excited the river is?
Listen to its murmured applause
sounding beneath the dancing trees
that arch over it
wearing garlands of blossom. 
Ibn Safr al-Marini (12th century)

Tide in the Guadalquivir
When the West Wind ripped the river's tunic
the river overflowed its banks
to pursue and take revenge;

But the doves laughed, and made fun
from a sheltering thicket
Ibn Safr al-Marini

Honey River
Reflections of floating lights
pointed like lances
at the cuirasse of the river.

There we stayed until
the jewels of frost
forced us to separate.
Ibn Abi Rawh (12th century)

Friday, August 30, 2019

Roma antica e moderna

German soldiers in 1944, posing with a picture by Giovanni Paolo Panini taken from Naples
Source: Wikimedia Commons

We have just returned from a holiday in Berlin where quite a lot of time was spent at museums and monuments describing the rise of Nazism and the consequences of the Second World War.  So it was something of a relief to spend a day at Sanssouci ('without worries'), the beautiful rococo summer palace of Frederick the Great, built to the design of Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff between 1745 and 1747. There we saw the painting below, by Giovanni Paolo Panini, a vedute showing some architectural highlights of Baroque Rome. It came to Sanssouci in 1750 and was paired there with a similar painting showing the Forum and ancient Rome.  Viewers could compare the two, like readers of the popular contemporary city guidebook Roma antica e moderna (1745), written by Gregorio Roisecco, who owned a bookshop at the Piazza Navona.  What I like about Panini's painting is not the distant church spires and dome of St Peter's Basilica, but the foreground of fields and vineyards.  This is now the district of Prati, described on websites as a 'white collar' area of 'high end shopping streets' and 'cool restaurants'.

Giovanni Paolo Panini, View of Rome from the foot of Monte Mario, 1749
My photograph in Sanssouci

When I included a Panini painting in my year of landscape art tweets, I made a bit of a lame joke comparing the collecting of Panini paintings by Grand Tourists with the collecting of Panini stickers by football fans.  I don't think the Panini brothers, who founded their company in Modena in 1961, are related to the eighteenth century artist.  But look at the painting below, now in the Met, and it is hard not to think of a Panini sticker album, like the ones I collected as a boy (I actually managed to complete the 1982 World Cup collection).  In Panini's Ancient Rome (1757), the Count of Stainville, who commissioned the painting, can be seen in the middle with a guidebook, visiting an imaginary gallery in Rome.  Panini himself is visible behind the chair.  There is a companion painting to this that shows Modern Rome, now owned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

 Giovanni Paolo Panini, Ancient Rome, 1757
 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Frederick the Great built his own picture gallery between 1755 and 1764 which we saw on our trip to Sanssouci.  However, only ten of the original paintings were retrieved after the war and although some more were brought back from the USSR in 1958, others remain in Russia.  Theft is the dark side of the collecting impulse.  One of the most widely reproduced photographs of Nazi looting, reproduced above, shows soldiers from the Hermann Göring Division posing with a Panini painting.  Naturally there have been many instances of Panini sticker robberies, from the 300,000 packs stolen in Brazil in 2014 and the armed robbery at a printing house in Argentina in 2018, down to domestic burglaries targeting albums carefully assembled by individual collectors.

Engraved sheets from Roma antica e moderna

Of course sight-seeing itself is a form of collecting. The guidebook Roma antica e moderna laid out distinct itineraries for a ten day stay and included illustrations of each site.  The photograph above shows a set of detached sheets that was up for sale, transforming the old book into a collection of collectible images.  Another, earlier guidebook entitled Roma antica e moderna (published by Giordano Ziletti in 1558) contained a whole section listing every Roman statue still visible in the city.  I wonder how many people (men!) went round and tried to tick them all off.  Last week, looking at the sites in Panini's painting, I was enjoying a collection (of buildings) within a collection (of paintings), and this was itself part of the collection of places in and around Berlin that we made for ourselves during a week's holiday.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

River Landscape

Annibale Carracci, The Sacrifice of Isaac, c. 1599-1600

In The Vision of Landscape in Renaissance Italy (1966), A. Richard Turner singled out this painting as the most brilliant landscape painted by Annibale Carracci (1560-1609).  It is quite hard to find on the Louvre's website but I eventually tracked it down ('le drame imminent du sujet biblique trouve un écho dans le paysage environnant.')  Why did Turner rate it so highly?  Partly, it was the way Carracci managed to achieve something monumental on such a small scale (45 x 34 cm).  It was painted on copper - a medium usually approached with the techniques of a miniaturist - but Carracci used a much looser, more confident approach.  Then there are those 'unforgettable' colours, the 'light-drenched blues and greens' of the valley are enough to make you forget the drama taking place on the cliff.  The way the landscape was structured is also unusual - we look both upwards to the scene of sacrifice and downwards towards the valley.  Light flowing in from the left delineates the landforms but then melts 'into softly differentiated colours and luminosities'.  Through his handling of light and colour Annibale showed himself more interested in tonality than form.  He had a 'flawless feeling for atmosphere'.

 Annibale Carracci, Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, c. 1604

Turner's chapter on Carracci goes on to talk about the influence of Paul Bril, who had popularised landscape painting in Italy in the 1580s, showing how Carracci moved beyond him.  Two similar paintings in lunette format offer an obvious point of comparison, Carracci's Flight into Egypt and a Bril landscape in the piano nobile of the Lateran palace.  'Annibale's landscape has a clear focus and is simple, while Bril's is panoramic and laden with discursive anecdote.'  Carracci's painting has its own Wikipedia page and has long been regarded as one of the great works of Western landscape art - numerous people have written about it as an influence on later artists like Claude and Poussin.  By contrast, I cannot find any images or mention of the Bril painting online at all, which just goes to show how valuable books like The Vision of Landscape in Renaissance Italy remain.

Annibale Carracci, The Penitent Magdalene in a Landscape, c. 1598

This time next week I will be in Berlin, where there is a Carracci River Landscape that Turner discusses in his book; perhaps I should try to see it, as I can find almost nothing about it online.  There is though another lovely River Landscape now in Washington that you can access via the Google Art Project - its caption says that 'nature here is appreciated first and foremost for herself and not as the backdrop for a story. A mellow sunlight dapples the land and picks out the ripples disturbing the surface of the river. The gold in the treetops suggests a day in early autumn.'  Turner, by contrast, concludes his discussion of Carracci with a painting in which landscape shares prominence with the penitent Magdalene, who is not so much 'in' a landscape as 'before it'.  He thinks that this painting shows Carracci's strengths as a landscapist and weakness as an artist, since there is no real relationship between figure and setting.  Nevertheless, that dark frame of trees around a brilliant cerulean sky 'suggests the sublimity of calm, permanence and civilised nature, all presented through the hand of a fine painter.'      

 Annibale Carracci, River Landscape, c. 1590

Monday, August 12, 2019

Windsor Castle and Park

Well, here's some interesting news from the British Library:
'With something like a thrill we must record that probably the very germ and protoplasm of landscape art in Britain sprang from a king, and took form and shape in the very national heart of all the kingdom. Somewhere about the year 1550 the son and heir to King Henry VIII, afterwards King Edward VI (1537–1553), sat down in Windsor Park and drew and coloured a view of the Castle.'
Edward Tudor (??), Coloured ink drawing of Windsor Castle and Park

In fact this is not news but a quote from a book published over sixty years ago: Maurice Harold Grant's A Chronological History of the Old Landscape Painters (in oil), from the XVIth Century to the XIXth Century (8 vols, Leigh on Sea, 1957-1961), I, p. 31.  However, as the most recent blog post in the BL's excellent 'Picturing Places' series says, 'Grant’s suggestion that this image represents the first stirring of British landscape art has been universally ignored'.  Fred Smith has now looked again at the evidence that the sketch, pasted into the flyleaf of an edition of Myles Coverdale’s 1538 New Testament, may have been done by the future king.  For example, Edward is reported to have been proficient on the lute, but could he have also been taught how to draw?  On the landscape itself,
'Although Edward passed relatively little time at Windsor, he spent a prolonged period there on at least one occasion. Fearing unrest in the capital, Protector Somerset had conveyed the young king to Windsor for his safety in October 1549.  Having spent some days confined to the castle and its grounds, Edward reportedly likened it to a prison, complaining: ‘here be no galleries nor no gardens to walke in’.  Perhaps he took to drawing the castle to divert his attention?'
I have mentioned royal painters here before, from the Qianlong Emperor of China to Prince Eugen of Sweden, but have not been particularly interested in discussing the amateur efforts of our own royal family - Queen Victoria, for example, or Prince Charles (whose watercolours the Telegraph described as 'torpor-inducingly conventional').  This sketch though, if it is by Edward, would be fascinating as it is so early in the history of Western landscape art.  Unfortunately, there is evidence that it was not painted by the prince.  It looks as if it may have been copied from a background in Marcus Gheeraerts’s print 'Procession of the Knights of the Garter', published in 1576, after Edward's death.  Disappointing, although as Fred Smith says, such a conclusion still 'raises some intriguing questions. Where and when did the myth of Edward’s authorship originate?'  And, whoever painted it, there is something charming about those delicately sketched deer sitting, walking and jumping around on the turf, underneath the dark ramparts of the castle.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

Viewing the Three Lakes


Hsieh T'iao
'Viewing the Three Lakes'

I have previously devoted a post to Hsieh Ling-yün (Xie Lingyun, 385-433), known as the founder of the shan-shui ("rivers-and-mountains") tradition in Chinese poetry.  Here I want to focus on Hsieh T'iao (Xie Tiao), a younger kinsman also known for his landscape poetry, who lived from 464-499.  His work is not easy to find online and his Wikipedia entry is currently just a stub.  However, I have actually quoted one of his poems before, 'Viewing the Three Lakes' - 'Red clouds mirrored where the waters meet. / From the red terrace -- birds returning, / the encircling plains, mosaic of river isles. / Inklings of spring's luxuriance / as autumn's last yellows fade...'

Cynthia L. Chennault has written a study of Hsieh's work.  In The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, she says that his poetry 'is perhaps best known for the rich variety of ways in which it describes qualities of light'.  She points to two ways in which he developed the nature writing tradition in Chinese poetry:
  • Subject matter: his landscapes are expansive, more generalized, less 'vertical' and often include man-made features.
  • Style: he uses syntactic variation to give more variety to his descriptions and incorporate emotional expression - a river as a metaphor for the poet's directional ambivalence, for instance.

Hsieh T'iao held various official posts and in 495 was made governor of Hsüan-ch'eng (Xuancheng).  'Hardly different from a hermit's life' he called it, with 'few law suits to hear on the grass-grown terrace.'  Hsieh built himself there a pavilion that would later feature in a poem by Li Po (Li Bai, 701-62) - 'Farewell to Uncle Yun, Imperial Librarian, at Xie Tiao Pavilion in Xuancheng'.  A century later another great poet, Tu Mu (Du Mu, 803-52), came to the city and saw Hsieh's old home.  There he wrote poems about Kai-yuan temple, built earlier in the T'ang Dynasty, long after Hsieh's time ('the brook's sound enters the dreams of monks, / and the moonlight glows on its stucco walls.')

Moving further ahead in time to 1170, another great poet, Lu Yu (Lu You, 1125-1209), visited Hsieh's old residence, and also the Southern capital of Chin-Ling (Jinling) where Hsieh had lived and written poetry.  There is a good article by Nathan Woolley, based on Lu's 'An Account of a Journey to Shu', of his time at Chin-Ling.  It quotes three of Hsieh's poems - here are the opening lines of 'About to Set Forth From Stone Fortress, I Ascend the Beacon-fire Loft':
Wavering and hesitant, I pine over the capital;
With dragging steps, I tread up to the storied loft.
Seen from a height, the palace grounds and gate towers seem close by,
But as I peer into the distance, windblown clouds are many.
Departure for Hsieh was hard when all he could see beyond the city was upsurging hills and a sea of dashing waves. 

Ten poems by Hsieh appear in the anthology New Songs from a Jade Terrace (compiled 534-45) but none of them are 'landscape' poetry.  Five might be considered 'still life' - 'object poems' on a lamp, a candle, a bed, a mirror stand and falling plum blossom.  He also wrote a set of 'Songs of the Drum and Flute', dedicated to the Prince of Sui which Cynthia Chennault describes as charming early works. Arthur Waley translated one of them in his seminal anthology, A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1919), a 'Song of the Men of Chin-Ling' who are marching back to the capital.
The green canals of the city stretch on and on 
And its high towers stretch up and up. 
Flying gables lean over the bridle-road: 
Drooping willows cover the Royal Aqueduct.
Hsieh T'iao did not make it into our sixth century - he died in prison in 499.  It was a sad echo of the fate of his predecessor Hsieh Ling-yün, who was executed following a third and final banishment from court.  A year before his death, Hsieh T'iao wrote a 'Poetic Essay Requiting a Kindness', addressed to his fellow poet Shen Yüeh (it is the subject of a 1990 article by Richard Mather).  After Hsieh's death, Shen wrote a lament for him.  'His melodies resound in tune with bells and lithophones; / His thoughts soar high above the winds and clouds.'

Chinese edition of The Selected Works of Xie Tiao and Yu Xin

Thursday, August 01, 2019

The sky was a subtle newsprint grey

Last month, in connection with the Apollo landing anniversary, I mentioned Earth-Moon-Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon) (2007), Katie Paterson's work in which Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was translated into Morse code and sent to the Moon and back.  Morse code has been used since 1844 and I guess Samuel Morse, who developed an early version in 1837, must be one of the most universally known eponymous inventors.  But Morse only became an involved in telegraphic communication in the 1830s - until then he had been a professional painter, mainly of portraits, although he did do landscapes too.  A profile of Morse in Wired, 'The American Leonardo', notes that he 'died rich and famous in 1872.  Congress passed a memorial resolution praising his contribution to modern communications.'  Morse had once written to his friend Fenimore Cooper that "I have no wish to be remembered as a painter, for I never was a painter."

Samuel F. B. Morse, Landscape composition: Helicon and Aganippe
(allegorical landscape of New York University), 1836 

This was Samuel Morse the painter, of an allegorical landscape that relocates NYU’s University Building from Washington Square to an idyllic Claudian landscape.  Aganippe is a fountain at the foot of Mount Helicon dedicated to the Muses.  In her book Anglophilia: Deference, Devotion, and Antebellum America, Elisa Tamarkin notes that in this painting Morse 'finds the promise of the college not in the vitality of its students and faculty (which he joined) but in the symbolic grandeur of the institution and in an organic vision that admits no sign of change but a formulaic dawn.'  Such conservatism was in line with Morse's reactionary politics - he was anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant and pro-slavery.  This was the kind of worldview that would influence elite American universities as they developed policies to exclude minorities.

If you are familiar with Robert Smithson's writings you can probably guess where I am going with this...  'A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey' on 30 September 1967 famously begins with Smithson purchasing a copy of the Brian W. Aldiss novel, Earthworks to read on the bus.  But he also picked up a copy of that morning's New York Times and there he saw a reproduction of Morse's allegorical landscape:
'the sky was a subtle newsprint grey, and the clouds resembled sensitive stains of sweat  reminiscent of a famous Yugoslav watercolourist whose name I have forgotten.  A little statue with right arm held high faced a pond (or was it the sea?).  “Gothic” buildings in the allegory had a faded look, while an unnecessary tree (or was it a cloud of smoke?) seemed to puff up on the left side of the landscape.'
So much for Morse; Smithson makes no mention of his role in developing an entirely new form of signification and communication.  Smithson got off the bus when he reached the first 'monument' of his tour, a bridge over the Passaic.  He must still have been thinking about the dead landscape reproduced in the paper.  As he watched the bridge open to let a barge go past, he viewed these actions as 'the limited movements of an outmoded world.'

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Mountain R

Mountain R is a 1996 novel by the French Oulipian writer Jacques Jouet (1947-) about a failed attempt to construct an artificial mountain.  The Dalkey Archive published an English translation by Brian Evenson in 2004.  The story is a dark satire told in three parts, from three different points of view.  It begins with a speech by The President of the Republican Council, setting out the proposal for this grand projet and arguing that a 1,500 meter high mountain would bring in tourism, reduce unemployment and provide a fitting symbol for the greatness of the nation.  The second part is a dialogue between one of the contractors involved in building Mountain R and his daughter, which gradually reveals shocking truths about the human cost of its construction.  The third part is an excerpt from the trial of those responsible for the project's failure, recounted by another unreliable narrator, a novelist paid to write about Mountain R, whose full role in the enterprise becomes progressively more apparent.

As I began reading I thought back to The Man Without Qualities, a novel about a pointless national celebration that I read at about the same time the Millennium Dome fiasco was unfolding here. However, as a construction project driven by hubris, funded in murky circumstances and failing to leave anything worthwhile it actually reminded me more of several recent initiatives, some of them in London.  For many years, cities have measured themselves on who can erect the biggest tower.  In Mountain R the President begins his speech by complaining that the Republic, though magnificent already, 'looks like a flat-chested girl.  Too bad!  But we are going to alter her, the Republic ... we are here to act ... to give her what we can: a womanly figure.'  It sounds like 'Northumberlandia', the proposal for a giant 'curvaceous woman' which I wrote about here in 2009 (it was subsequently built and opened in 2012).  

I have discussed the construction of other artificial mountains here before, from the marble peak on a Greek island made sometime between 2550-2400 BCE, to the holy mount for the first Celebration of the Supreme Being in post-Revolutionary France.  All such ventures share common traits, but perhaps the closest precursor to Mountain R that I have written about is the Mountain of Stability, centre piece of Emperor Huizong's great garden at Kaifeng, which led to instability in China as resentment rose over the costs of building it, until Huizong was deposed and his construction left in ruins. Mountain R is built by migrant workers who have to live in appalling conditions.  There are an unknown numbers of fatalities as the authorities try to hide the true cost of the project.  Reading this brought to mind what we have heard about the Qatar World Cup - see for example the BBC's 2015 report on the death toll there, which had been put then at 1,200 workers.

There was an article about Mountain R in The French Review by Oulipo scholar Warren Motte (whose actually crops up in the book as the name of an American funding body).  He shows how the book is about language and the processes of narration, pointing in particular to a passage in which the third narrator compares the writing of a novel to a construction project.  The failure to complete his novel mirrors the failure to complete the mountain.  Motte has also provided a useful introduction to Jouet's work on the Dalkey Archive website.  Of Mountain R he says that 'Jouet asks us to consider how we view monuments and how we tend to monumentalize our leaders, our progenitors, and the tasks we pursue, both individually and severally.' 

Motte also discusses some of Jouet's other works and, although it has nothing to do with Mountain R, I can't resist ending here by quoting the first of Jouet's Poèmes de métro, which itself defines the Oulipian constraint involved in writing them.  Something to consider, for those of us who use the London Underground everyday...
A metro poem is a poem composed
in the metro, during the duration
of a trip.
A metro poem has as many verses as
your trip has stations, minus one.
The first verse is composed in your
head between the two first stations
of your trip (counting the station
from which you departed).
It is transcribed onto paper when the
train stops at the second station.
The second verse is composed in
your head between the second and
third stations of your trip.
It is transcribed onto paper when the
train stops at the third station. And
so forth.
One must not transcribe when the
train is in motion.
One must not compose when the
train is stopped.
The last verse of the poem is
transcribed on the platform of
your last station.
If your trip involves one or more
changes of subway lines, the poem
will have two or more stanzas.