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.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Lunar surface and horizon

Apollo 11 Mission image - Lunar surface and horizon
Source: Internet Archive
Tomorrow is the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing and it feels too momentous to let it pass without mention on this blog.  I have written here before about landscape art and poetry in which the moon plays a central role, like the poetry of Du Fu, the drawings of Samuel Palmer or the long-exposure photographs of Darron Almond.  I have also mentioned here the lunar landscape itself, as imagined by artists before the Apollo programme, like Chesley Bonestell who painted a mural for the Boston Museum of Science, and then photographed by astronauts from orbit and the surface of the moon.  Jonathan Jones (or his Guardian sub-editor) recently called the shots taken by Armstrong and Aldrin 'the greatest photographs ever'.  In Armstrong's images of Aldrin, 'his scientific work seems ritualised and meaningless. It’s the astonishing fact of being on this desolate landscape that we’re drawn to.'

There are photographs of the moonscape from the Apollo 11 mission in which the astronauts do not feature.  They have an austere beauty, despite the absence of colour or any significant landforms.  The ones I have embedded here resemble Rothko's black paintings.  Paintings of the lunar surface have been made by the fourth man on the moon, Alan Bean, who pursued a career as an artist after retiring from NASA in 1981.  He has incorporated dust from the lunar surface into some of these. Here is what he has written about his influences:
"I have been inspired by other explorer artists such as Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt and Frederick Remington and Charles Russell. As the first artist on another world, I believe I am doing the same thing for the opening of the universe that they did for the opening of the American West, that my painting will satisfy the human need to record and remember new beginnings."

Naturally the anniversary of the moon landing has prompted various art events, like The Met's exhibition, 'Apollo's Muse'.  Last month, James Attlee wrote a piece on artists and the moon, appropriately for Apollo Magazine, mentioning the Katie Paterson piece I discussed here recently, Earth-Moon-Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon). Moon-related music is a theme at this year's Proms, which opens with Zosha Di Castri's 'Long Is the Journey - Short Is the Memory', a piece partly inspired by the famous moon poems of Sappho and Leopardi.  There's an acclaimed documentary that I haven't seen yet, Apollo 11, and many new or reissued books about the mission. The photograph below shows two of my own books - a Penguin Special published in 1969 that my father passed on to me and Andrew Chaikin's superb account of the Apollo programme.  Chaikin carries the story all the way through to Apollo 17 and it is noticeable how much emphasis there was on geology in those final missions.  With no life to discover, the moon landings became increasingly focused on the moon's grey landscape, and eventually there was not enough interest in this to keep the Apollo programme going. 

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Black ice

Sólheimajökull glacier, Iceland
Photographed by me in May 2019

After returning from Iceland recently I was keen to write something about its landscape but realised I had already covered a lot of the ground here previously - see for example 'An eagle, a mountain, a ship' and 'To Place: Verne's Journey'.  The photograph above was taken at a rapidly retreating glacier, beautifully sculpted by melting water and blackened by the underlying volcanic rock.  My excuse for including it here is a bit tenuous - it's that I was reading in Robert Macfarlane's new book Underland about glacier ice.  In Greenland he encounters a very different kind of black ice, dark from the compression of millenia, emerging 'from so deep down in time that it has lost all colour.'  As Colin Thubron writes in his review, this sight 'induces a kind of nausea.'
'The first block has fallen from the glacier’s face before he and his companions turn to look, and then an enormous white train seems to be driving out of its wall before plunging into the water, and it pulls white wagons after it, followed by the semblance of a cathedral and a whole fracturing city. ... Then, he adds, something terrible happens. A submerged, black pyramid of ancient, compacted ice rears up from the water as high as the glacier itself, a shape as hard as meteorite, and he and the others are dancing and shouting, “appalled and thrilled to have seen this repulsive, exquisite thing rise up that should never have surfaced.”'
An object like this can perhaps only be conveyed effectively in words.  Googling for images of black icebergs, I learned that a few years ago one particular photograph went viral - someone described it as 'goth as fuck' - and there was an article about it on the Smithsonian website.  Apparently 'flipped' icebergs, with the older parts on top, may become more common.  Glaciers no longer stretch into the cold seas but break apart at the edge of the land, "so you get these really thin pieces of ice that flip over right when they’ve broken off."  Nonetheless, this black iceberg was extremely rare, and the photographer considered himself incredibly lucky: "it’s like if you see a double rainbow over a whale breaching".  You can imagine Rob Macfarlane feeling equally lucky that the landscape had delivered up such a perfect metaphor for him.

Blue iceberg, Greenland
Photo: Wikimedia Commons - claire rowland

When I got back from Iceland, several people at work asked if I had gone 'to see the northern lights'.  It brought home to me what a bucket-list tourist phenomenon this has become.  No, we had not, and I suspect that if I did organise such a trip it would only be disappointing.  One of my colleagues went recently, to Norway I think he said, and said it had been cloudy until the last night, when they finally experienced the sky flickering, but witnessed none of the green light you see on photographs.  In Greenland, Rob and his companions first experience the Northern Lights as 'a scarf of radar-green' with the mountains shooting 'jade searchlights into space.'  On another night it appears as 'green fog-banks, rolling, coalescing, ebbing.'  And finally, at the end of the trip, they see a display that is 'profuse, extravagant, spinning over thousands of miles of sky.'  The stars seem to shine more brightly through the aurora. It seems paradoxical - 'none of us can explain how the green light could be collaborative rather than competitive with the starlight.'

Collaboration is a key theme in Underland and one of the reasons why companionship is important on the trips it describes.  Rob is accompanied to Greenland by Helen Mort, 'a rock climber, a runner and a writer of rare abilities', and Bill Carslake, a composer who is able to hear notes in the sound of wind on the glacier ("it's the harmonic series of D!")  Nick Papadmitriou has complained that everyone encountered in Underland is 'imbued with a wisdom and roundness of character that marks them out as irritatingly exceptional human beings', but this is not a conventional travel book and there isn't space to develop proper portraits of people.  As a reader, part of the pleasure is trying to imagine travelling with Rob and his companions, coping with the exhausting ice peaks and crevasses, negotiating a dangerous scree slope and a narrow snow bridge, not to mention keeping pace conversationally with three erudite Cambridge graduates (a kind of intellectual Sublime).  I know I would not have made it far (I've an image of myself stuck on the glacier, driven mad with fear and exhaustion, like Leni Riefenstahl's husband in The White Hell of Pitz Palu, who has to be tied up for his own safety).  Fortunately, our holiday in Iceland presented no such hazards.  There were also many memorable sights in addition to the black and white Sólheimajökull glacier.  Nevertheless, I would love to have been on that beach in Greenland to witness the appearance of that extraordinary iceberg...

Twenty minutes after falling into the sea, it settles in the water.  Gulls land 'on this new territory in their dozens, shake out their wings, tuck one leg up into their breast feathers for warmth, hunker down.'  The next day Rob finds a small chunk of it, washed up on the shoreline and, with difficulty, lifts the dark ice and carries it back to the tents.
'The sun shines through it.  Air bubbles inside it show as silver: wormholes, right-angle bends, incredible zigzags and sharp layers.
That night an arctic fox comes to our camp, a playful blue shadow.
The little berg takes two days to melt.  It leaves a stain on the rock that won't vanish.'

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The white island

Keros and Dhaskalio
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Zde

I've just been reading an interesting article in the Independent about a kind of artificial mountain in the Aegean, built 'within 100 years or so of the creation of Stonehenge, the first Egyptian pyramids, the great cities of the Indus Valley and the first known Mesopotamian kingdoms.'  From around 2550-2400 BCE, an islet off the coast of Keros was gradually transformed using marble brought to it by boat. Excavations have revealed buildings and Cycladic artefacts, but from a landscape art perspective I am most interested in the idea of constructing an artificial landform:
'The architects “terra-formed” the pyramid-shaped island “mini-mountain”, known in recent centuries as Dhaskalio (possibly just meaning “islet”), to create around 1,000m of artificial terracing, arranged in six “steps” on its steep slopes. ... The 7,000-10,000 tonnes of white marble, needed for the project, were quarried in the southeastern part of Naxos.
From the south, the island would have been visible from many miles away as a gleaming white pyramid-shaped mini-mountain rising out of the sea.  It is not known for sure whether the pyramidic shape was in any way significant. But the place had certainly been specifically selected as a religious site in preference to other much higher, more impressive and potentially more accessible mountains that did not have that shape.'
The article goes on to talk about the Egyptian pyramids, which were made to gleam in the sun (like the white marble of Dhaskalio) by having their summits painted with gold leaf.  In both places the builders may have wanted to symbolise the idea of earth arising out of primordial chaos. '“It is potentially a fundamental place of origin for the phenomenon of sacred mountains within the Greek world,” said the world’s leading expert on Greek mountain-top sanctuaries, Dr Alan Peatfield.'

The findings at Dhaskalio are not all news - an Archaeology.com piece from last year noted that 'visits to the island were presumably seen as a special activity, and the way that the terraces on Dhaskalio were constructed to create rising walls in receding planes must have made the site look very impressive to those approaching by sea from the north.'  Dhaskalio is not accessible to ordinary visitors, but last year the writer Ben Okri went there to meet the archaeologists and wrote about his impressions in the FT.  He doesn't sound like he had a particularly interesting time. 'I shift soil and rock in a task that seems to yield nothing but that adds to the slow revelation of what was there.'

The Independent's article was picked up by the Evening Standard today with a hyperbolic headline: 'Archaeologists unearth probable origins of ancient Greece in groundbreaking discovery '.  An hour or so ago another article appeared on the Daily Mail site: 'Pyramid-shaped island in the Aegean Sea where sailors hauled marble to build complex structures and forged DAGGERS from copper 4,600 years ago reveals new clues on early Greek society'. I love the way the word daggers is in capitals!  You can read more on their website but be warned that the 'sidebar of shame' next to the article has some 'Love Island Spoilers'.  Looking at this made me very aware of the gulf of time separating those pilgrims to the sacred island of Dhaskalio and the 'hot young singles' of Love Island... 

Saturday, July 06, 2019

The Sun's my Fire

Joan Carlile, The Carlile Family with Sir Justinian Isham 
in Richmond Park, detail, 1650s

Today we made our way through the Pride crowds in London to Lyon & Turnbull for “Bright Souls”: The Forgotten Story of Britain’s First Female Artists, an exhibition curated by Bendor Grosvenor devoted to Mary Beale, Joan Carlile and Anne Killigrew.  The landscape above and below is by Joan Carlile (1600-79), the first female professional artist in Britain, who lived in Richmond.  I like the fact that it is recognisable as Richmond - a park I have been visiting since I was a child - whilst in its distant vista framed by trees it reveals a rural landscape that has now largely disappeared.  Up close the sky's craquelure is rather beautiful, conveying the distance separating us from the time and place of this group portrait.  The portrait below also contains a  landscape, possibly inspired by a painting seen in the collection of King Charles I (her husband was a courtier).  Beneath the arch of rock, rosy light touches the tips of trees and tops of mountains.  This soft light, contrasting with the bright sheen of the lady's dress, draws you into a world of mist and shadows.  The name of the artist is wrong on the painting - ironically the attribution was to another female artist, Mary Beale.  It was Carlile who, according to Grosvenor, was the first artist of any gender in Britain to master complex landscape backgrounds.

Joan Carlile, Portrait of a Lady, possibly Elizabeth Massingberd, 1650s

Mary Beale mainly painted portraits, as did the third of the artists in Bright Souls, Anne Killigrew, although in her painting below you can see to the left of the lady a dark, melancholy landscape. There is a lake bordered by trees, a ridge of green hills and the last traces of a sunset in the sky.  The sad subject of the picture may be the artist herself, depicted as Venus grieving over Adonis, possibly marking some personal loss.  Sadly, Anne Killigrew was only 25 when she died, already a renowned poet as well as a painter - Dryden compared her to Sappho in his ode 'To The Pious Memory of the Accomplish'd Young Lady Mrs. Anne Killigrew'.  Here is one of her poems, which includes some landscape imagery and takes as its subject one of her own paintings: 'St. John Baptist Painted by her self in the Wilderness, with Angels appearing to him, and with a Lamb by him.'
The Sun's my Fire, when it does shine,
The hollow Spring's my Cave of Wine,
The Rocks and Woods afford me Meat;
This Lamb and I on one Dish eat:  
The neighbouring Herds my Garments send,
My Pallet the kind Earth doth lend:
Excess and Grandure I decline,  
M'Associates onely are Divine.

Anne Killigrew, Portrait of a Lady, probably the Artist, detail, c. 1685

The image above is a screen grab from the exhibition video trailer, which I have embedded below.  I'm afraid today was the last day of Brights Souls, but I suspect over time we will see more exhibitions devoted to these artists.

Friday, July 05, 2019

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon (1958)

In 1959, the Oscar for Best Short Subject (Live Action) was won by a Walt Disney film, Grand Canyon.  Nearly twenty years early the studio had received critical acclaim for Fantasia, its animated interpretations of eight pieces of classical music, and it was one of the directors of Fantasia, James Algar, who made Grand Canyon.  It was also conceived in relation to music, in this case as 'a pictorial interpretation of Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite.'  The film contains actual landscape footage but was initially shown with the animation Sleeping Beauty.  You can see all thirty minutes of Grand Canyon on YouTube at the moment - I'm not sure how long it will stay up, but I've embedded a link below.  The music was composed by Grofé between 1929 and 1931 structured into five parts: I. Sunrise, II. Painted Desert, III. On the Trail, IV. Sunset, and V. Cloudburst.

Who was Ferde Grofé?  He began as a jazz pianist and was the arranger for Paul Whiteman in the twenties, when the band leader was calling himself "King of Jazz".  The New York Times actually called Grofé the Prime Minister of Jazz in 1932 (an absurd title, but I'm now imagining my own fantasy jazz Cabinet).  'On the Trail', the middle section of the Grand Canyon Suite was used for thirty years to advertise a brand of cigarettes.  In addition to the Grand Canyon, Grofé composed musical evocations of the Mississippi and Hudson rivers, Death Valley and the Nigara Falls (a suite commissioned by the Niagara Falls Power Generation project). Grofé conducted some of these pieces outside in the landscape: the Death Valley Suite was performed in Desolation Valley at a centennial celebration of the '49ers, with a narration by film star James Stewart.  The event was far more popular than anticipated - crowds came by bus from Las Vegas, planes circled trying to land at the small airstrip and a long line of automobiles stretched into the desert. 

How mant other landscape films won the Oscar for Best Short Subject (Live Action)?  Originally there were two categories - 'comedy' (the first winner was that famous Laurel & Hardy film where they have to get a piano up a flight of stairs) and 'novelty' - early nominees included short documentaries about Krakatoa and Everest.  Then the films were categorised by length - in 1937 Julian Huxley's celebrated British nature film The Private Life of the Gannets won the 'one reel' Oscar (it beat Jacques Tourneur's Romance of Radium). The Grand Canyon was actually the subject of a 1942 nominee, Desert Wonderland.  Disney and James Algar won the Oscar in 1949 for Seal Island, the first in its True Life Adventures series which by the end of the fifties had included films on the Everglades, Arctic and South American jungle.

In 1967, a lovely short film I have written about here before, Paddle to the Sea, was nominated for the award.  I am not sure what all the films in the shortlists since the 1970s were about but I get the impression they were mainly the film equivalent of short stories and rarely about landscape or nature.  The Solar Film (1979) sounds interesting though: commissioned by Robert Redford, made by Elaine and Saul Bass (the graphic designer who worked with Hitchcock, Kubrick, Scorsese etc.) and featuring 'Tubular Bells' on the soundtrack, it was a film about solar energy.  Since 1977 the BAFTAs also given out a short film award and the last winner was 73 Cows, a film about a couple who take up vegan organic farming.  Perhaps the climate crisis and boom in nature writing will lead to more short films that deal with aspects of landscape. 

I will conclude here by embedding from YouTube a trailer for one of Walt Disney's True Life Adventure Series, The Vanishing Prairie (1954).  This was another James Algar directed Oscar Winner, but in the longer 'Best Documentary Feature' category.  Disney had won the previous year too with The Living Desert, and the year before that the winner was a documentary based on Rachel Carson's classic study, The Sea Around Us (this film was made by Irwin Allen who would later produce The Poseidon Adventure).  In 1956, the Oscar went to The Silent World, Jacques Cousteau's pioneering film, co-directed with the young Louis Malle.  As with the short film award, landscape became less prominent as a theme from the late 1960s, but more recently winners have included March of the Penguins, The Cove and this year's Free Solo, about an attempt to climb El Capitan without any ropes or harnesses.

Friday, June 28, 2019


I have started the audiobook of Underland.  I listen to it underground, during my tube journeys to work, where claustrophobia comes from the crush of people rather than the confined space of the tunnels.  It is the first of Robert Macfarlane's books I have listened to and so far the reading is excellent and clear, although there is a point on my daily journey between Highbury and Kings Cross where the scream of the train is so loud that I have to reverse back a little way in order to move forward again.  The fifth chapter, 'Invisible Cities', is particularly resonant to anyone listening on the Underground, as it describes a weekend spent with urban explorers in the world beneath Paris.  At one point Rob is compelled to crawl through a crumbling tunnel which begins to rumble and shake with the passage of a train heading overhead to Montparnasse station.  It wasn't difficult to predict, as I did here a few years ago when Underland was a work in progress, that there would be some 'arduous activity' of this kind in the book.  But there are also rich seams of cultural history, like the pages devoted to Walter Benjamin (including his arduous final walk and memorial.)  And there's Italo Calvino of course: his 'Invisible City' of Eusapia had a copy of itself underground, a dead place that over time became more and more like the 'real city' above.  

Cities are increasingly vertical - it has been estimated that the infrastructure supporting urban life spans from 10,000m below sea level to 35,000 km above it.  But one day they will be gone. Then
'it is the invisible cities - the undercities - that will be preserved most cleanly, embedded as they already are within bedrock.  The above-ground structures we have built will collapse to form jumbled urban strata: medleys of concrete, brick and asphalt, glass compressed to a milky crystalline solid, steel dissolved to leave trace impressions of its presence.  Below ground, though, the subways and the sewerage systems, the catacombs and the quarry voids - these may preserve their integrity far into a post-human future.'
Listening to this, I imagined our tube train preserved intact within the fossil record, along with other machines and artifacts that have been abandoned or buried underground.  In an earlier chapter, Rob is told that potash mining machines are simply left when they come to the end of their lifespan.  In their caves they will gradually be covered in translucent halite, burial shrouds of salt.  Another striking Ballardian image occurs in 'Invisible Cities', when Rob remembers a trip he made to a slate mine with the writer and urban explorer Bradley Garrett.  There, in a great flooded chamber, a shaft of sunlight illuminates an avalanche of abandoned vehicles. The oldest cars were the furthest down - at its base, 'a blue Cortina estate was poised as perfectly as a glacial erratic atop the moraine, with a moss-green Triumph Herald both its pivot and its point of repose.'   

Guardian readers may recall a 2013 article Rob wrote about urban exploration, describing his first excursion with Bradley Garrett.  Some of this material reappears in Underland and encountering it again made me wonder about the tube journey I was taking - who else might have passed through those tunnels during the night?  Towards the end of his 'place-hacking' day in London, Rob was worried he might miss his half-midnight train from King's Cross.
'"We'll get you there," replied Garrett. "In fact, if you want we'll walk you north up the tunnels, and pop you out of a manhole just by the station." I liked the thought of taking the tube rather than the Tube back to King's Cross. But I pitied whoever sat next to me on the way home.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The wind that waves the pines

The Overstory (2018) is the novel about trees that was up for the Booker last year and has now won the Pulitzer Prize.  Clearly it is a very highly regarded novel but I have to admit I found it a slog to get through.  There is a lot of explanation of what we now know about trees and the Wood Wide Web which is very reminiscent of Peter Wohlleben, indeed one of the characters in the novel writes a book that sounds just like The Hidden Life of Trees (Powers has said this particular character is inspired by Suzanne Simard and Diana Beresford-Kroeger).  As for the story itself - I agree with Benjamin Markovits that 'the ordinary diversity that tends to shape plot on a human scale doesn’t get much of a look-in'.  There is an article by Sam Jordison that does a good job of describing the reasons why the novel didn't work for me ('if The Overstory really is one of the best books of the year, then the novel is dying even faster than the forests.')  However, you may well disagree - Powers clearly has lots of admirers - and my purpose on this blog is not really to give positive or negative reviews. 

I am mentioning The Overstory here because it deals in a sustained way with trees and forests, although I wouldn't say it has any particularly memorable descriptions of landscape.  I am therefore going to veer off and talk about a poem by Wang Wei that plays an important part in the book. One of the main characters learns that her father, a Chinese immigrant, has committed suicide.  He
'puts a Smith & Wesson 686 with hardwood grips up to his temple and spreads the workings of his infinite being across the flagstones of the backyard. He leaves no note except a calligraphic copy of Wang Wei’s twelve-hundred-year-old poem left unfurled on parchment across the desk in his study:
An old man,
I want only peace.
The things of this world
mean nothing.
I know no good way
to live and I can’t
stop getting lost in my
thoughts, my ancient forests.
The wind that waves the pines
loosens my belt.
The mountain moon lights me
as I play my lute.
You ask: how does a man rise or fall in this life?
The fisherman’s song flows deep under the river.'                                                                 (p51)
This poem, 'Answering Magistrate Zhang', can be found translated in many anthologies.  Most of them note that the last line is an allusion to an ancient poem 'Yu fu' ('The Fisherman'), one of The Songs of the South. 'The Fisherman' concerns the banishment of poet Qu Yuan (4th century BCE), which I wrote about here last year. Wandering by a river bank, he encounters a fisherman who tells him that it is wise not to be chained to material circumstances, but move as the world moves.  Qu Yuan wishes to hold himself aloof and pure rather than submit 'to the dirt of others'.  But the fisherman advises him to adapt to the times.  He paddles off, singing as he goes that when the river's waters are clear he can wash his hat-strings in them, and when they are muddy he can wash his feet.  The same song also appears in the Mencius, where the philosopher asks how to deal with a man who is inhumane, and who delights in the things that could lead to his destruction.  It can certainly feel sometimes as if we are dealing with such people in these times, and living in a world where mud is clouding the river waters...

Qu Yuan and the Fisherman
From 'Scenes from the Chu Ci poem Yu Fu' by Bai Yunli 
source: Silkqin.com

Friday, June 21, 2019

Chanctonbury Rings

"Time had gone soft at the crossroads..." 

So begins Chanctonbury Rings, Justin Hopper's spoken word album, based on his recent book, The Old Weird Albion.  I have written before here about his reading voice, its American accent sounding 'neutrally classless, not immediately identifiable either with those who live and work on the land or those who own, walk over and contemplate it.'  An acknowledged influence on Chanctonbury Rings is 'the lost era of  poetry and music albums, like David Cain and Radiophonic Workshop's The Seasons', a strange record I discussed here a while back.  The narrator of The Seasons was poet Ronald Duncan, whose eerie delivery is partly what makes the record so unusual - 'when not aggressively melancholy, the register is madly affirmative'.  There is one track on Chanctonbury Rings on which Justin sounds urgent a little unhinged, like Captain Beefheart reading The Peregrine, but mostly his voice is so appealing that it draws you in and holds you, changing pace and emphasis according to whether he is remembering a walk or dramatising an uncanny experience.  The record ends not with words but with music, the story having concluded with a recollection of descending the hillside and seeing that 'the calendar had turned. It was summer.’

The music for Chanctonbury Rings was created by Sharron Kraus, who collaborated with Justin on readings when The Old Weird Albion appeared, and Jim Jupp, whose Belbury Poly project I first mentioned here more than twelve years ago.  An article this week on Caught by the River describes some examples: 
'The hallowed chords on ‘Layers’ and ‘Wanderer’ come from an open-tuned dulcimer, wherein Kraus strikes the instrument’s body like someone rapping a coffin lid.  Ghostly exhales and buzzy drones on ‘Breath’ were created by Kraus layering bamboo flute, vocal noises and percussion, with Jupp adding extra elements. The close-mic’d crackling from a box of dried leaves adds a hair-raising creepiness. ‘Bonny Breast Knot’ then conjures an impish galliard that high steps into a full country dance [...] Jupp describes the microKORG used by Kraus as a ‘wonderful and massively underrated little synth’. It conjures bestial riffs on ‘The Devil And St. Dunstan’ where Jupp adds Mellotron and tape echo feedback.'
I particularly like this track, 'The Devil and St. Dunstan', which tells the story behind Devil's Dyke, an extraordinary dry valley near the house where I grew up.

Trees above Devil's Dyke
Photographed by me in 2015

Today, the summer solstice, is the official launch date of Chanctonbury Rings.  According to a site devoted to Sussex archaeology and folklore, 'you can see the fairies dancing in the Ring on Midsummer Eve as well as UFO's flying overhead.'  It is also one of the special days when the Devil can be summoned by walking widdershins seven times round the ring.  I'll end here with a quote about this uncanny landscape from an interview Justin did with Gary Budden at the Learned Pig.

'Chanctonbury is one of the highest points in the downs, so it was always going to be important. In the Iron Age, all of the settlements were at the top of the downs; today they’re at the bottom. Chanctonbury will probably still be there when Brighton and Shoreham are under the ocean.  But beyond that, I do think that there are thin places. It’s a special place. I didn’t know anything about it the first time I went up there, and I have truly visceral memories of that first moment. I’ve never slept up there, but everyone I know who has has said they wouldn’t do it again. If you go up there, you can feel that there’s something special – and we can’t say exactly what it is.'

Sunday, June 16, 2019


Colin Sackett has kindly sent me a copy of Printed Landscapes, an anthology drawing on his earlier books, some of which (like River Axe Crossings and The True Line) have featured on this blog previously. Its cover, as you can see, is plain Manila - no picturesque views here.  In a set of notes, positioned near the middle of the book rather than at the end, he says of this body of work, published since the early 1990s, that
the subjects are commonly about geography, its interpretation and abstraction on the printed page. The locations are often places of familiarity and association, from across southern England, while the book has to do with making connections between its modalities. As with places, or types of places – its subject as such – the reading is intendedly multi-directional.
A few examples can be seen on Colin's website - I've reproduced below an image from 'Geeooggrraapphhy', which comprises overprintings of four maps from London's Country, By Road, Steam and Fieldpath, a guidebook from 1923.  Another work inspired by an old book, The Coast of England and Wales in Pictures (1960), quotes test from the 167 picture captions that describe the coast.  I was pleased to see plenty of cliffs in this - it reminded me of a collage of words to describe the Ligurian coast that I made once here, using words from the poems of Eugenio Montale’s poems in Ossi di Seppia.  W. G. Hoskins, L. Dudley Stamp and Geoffrey Hutchings are all re-purposed in Printed landscape to draw attention to the ways in which places are framed and studied.  In 'Directory' some entries for 'Farmers' from the 1998 Yellow Pages are given, followed by aerial views of farms with their phone numbers.  It made we wonder whether telephone directories are still a thing or have they finally disappeared?  And also of that famous J. G. Ballard quote, that the Los Angeles Yellow Pages was "richer in human incident than all the novels of Balzac". 

Abinger, Albury, Gomshall, Merrow Downs, Shere, Wotton.

One of the entries I particularly like is 'Collection', which reproduces card labels that used to come with bunches of watercress (a shame they couldn't be reproduced in colour).  'Each label,' Colin writes, 'tethered the cress to a typical and identifiable landscape: a clay and chalk valley with water from a spring, or raised from boreholes, channelled to flow gently across wide beds of seeded concrete and gravel.  Seen from above, these planned rectilinear forms impose upon and contrast with the undulating topography on the ground.'  Living in London I don't often think about where watercress grows before it makes it into a salad.  I most associate it with the old Irish story of The Madness of Sweeney (Buile Shuibhne), an outcast who lives on a diet of little else.  Of course watercress labels no longer exist, as we buy the product from supermarkets sealed in plastic.  This collection of 'printed landscapes' has therefore become an archive of signs that remain 'fixed to the activity and geography of their time'.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Shore of Sumiyoshi

Tawaraya Sōtatsu, The Beach at Sumiyoshi,
from the 'Tales of Ise', c. 1600-40
The Cleveland Museum of Art

In the highly refined Heian dynasty culture of ninth century Japan, landscape was admired in ways that would not be seen in the West for nearly a thousand years.  Consider the 68th episode of The Tales of Ise (c. 900), concerning the journey to Izumi of the poet Ariwara no Narihira (825-80).  At Sumiyoshi beach, 'he was so moved by the scenery that he dismounted from his horse and sat down again and again to enjoy the lovely views.  One of his party proposed: 'Compose a poem with the phrase "the shore of Sumiyoshi" in it.'  The resulting poem in its five brief lines combines autumn and spring imagery, chrysanthemums, wild geese and the sea.

Katsukawa Shunshô, Snow Scene Like a Flowering Grove
from the series 'Tales of Ise in Fashionable Brocade Prints', c. 1770-73 
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Peter Macmillan's recent (2016) translation of The Tales of Ise is a pleasure to read and includes fascinating explanatory material.  He notes, for example, that 'Episodes 66, 67 and 68 are all set along the shores of Osaka Bay and feature beautiful poems on the local scenery.'  In the 66th tale, 'The Sea of Life', Narihura stops with his friends by the shore and composes a poem on the boats in the bay, 'carrying us across / the sorrow-filled sea of life.'  And in the 67th, 'Snow Blossom', they see Mount Ikoma, revealed when the sky cleared.  Only then were he and his friends able to see 'the woods in snow blossom', the 'pristine white snow ' on the branches of the trees. I have included an eighteenth century illustration of this scene above.

Tawaraya Sōtatsu,  Noblemen Viewing the Nunobiki Waterfall,
 from the 'Tales of Ise', c. 1600-40
Minneapolis Institute of Art

Another episode involving admiration of scenery is 'Travels in Ashiya' (no. 87) - its theme, according to Peter Macmillan, is 'how excursions and the pleasures of the landscape can fill the heart with delight.'  The hero and his companions decide to climb the mountain to see the Nunobiki Waterfall. 
'The rock face was a good two hundred feet high and fifty feet wide, and the water pouring over it made it look as if its whole surface was covered in rippling silk.  A rock the size of a round straw mat jutted out from the top of the falls, and water cascaded over it in huge drops the size of chestnuts and mandarin oranges.  The man invited everyone there to compose a poem on the waterfall...'  
The resulting poems are good, but not as beautiful as the poem composed on their way home, as night fell and they could see firelight on the sea:
Are those stars on a cloudless night
or fireflies on the riverbank,
or are they the lights
of the fishermen's fires
in the direction of our home?

Saturday, May 18, 2019

A shower has not long passed

In a recent clear-out my mother passed on to me this 1950 publication on Constable.  At first I took it to be an exhibition catalogue but it is actually a short booklet concerning the V&A's superb collection of Constables, based on a gift made by the artist's daughter in 1888.  There are thirty-three black and white reproductions - I've included one of the paintings featured below.  The book cost one shilling and a note in the back says that copies 'may be had from the Victoria and Albert Museum bookstall and from H.M. Stationery Office...'  I've always read this as 'Her Majesty's' but of course in 1950 it would have been His Majesty's Stationery Office.  In the United States of America it could be obtained 'from the British Information Services, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York.'  The publication is 'Small Picture Book No. 23' - a quick search online reveals other V&A titles in this series covering, for example Adam Silver (no. 35), English Chintz (No. 22), Toys (No. 63), English Prehistoric Pottery (No. 28) and Glass Table-Ware (No. 1).

John Constable, Study for The Leaping Horse, c. 1825

The paintings in the book are preceded by a wonderful series of quotes, many of which will be very familiar to those with an interest in Constable (some have been used on this blog in the past). Here are ten of them

  • "The landscape painter must walk in the fields with an humble mind. No arrogant man was ever permitted to see nature in her beauty."
  • "The world is wide; no two days are alike, nor even two hours; neither were there ever two leaves of a tree alike since the creation of the world; and the genuine productions of art, like those of nature, are all distinct from each other.'
  • "Light - dews - breezes - bloom - and freshness; not one of which has yet been perfected on the canvas of any painter in the world."
  • "I never did admire the Autumnal tints, even in nature, so little of a painter am I in the eye of commonplace connoisseurship.  I love the exhilarating freshness of Spring." 
  • "The landscape of Gainsborough is soothing, tender and affecting. The stillness of noon, the depths of twilight, and the dews and pearls of the morning are all to be found on the canvases of this most benevolent and kind-hearted man.  On looking at them, we find tears in our eyes, and know not what brings them."

 J. M. W. Turner, The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and the Sibyl, 1823
  • "Turner is stark mad with ability.  The picture (the Bay of Baiae) seems painted with saffron and indigo." 
  • "Brightness was the characteristic excellence of Claude; brightness, independent on colour, for what colour is there here?" (holding up a glass of water).
  • "What were the habits of Claude and the Poussins? Though surrounded with palaces filled with pictures, they made the fields their chief places of study."
  •  "... some 'high-minded' members [of the Royal Academy] who stickel for the 'elevated and noble' walks of art - i.e. preferring the shaggy posteriors of a Satyr to the moral feeling of Landscape."
  • "I have seen an affecting picture this morning by Ruysdael; it haunts my mind and clings to my heart, and stands between you and me while I am talking to you; it is a water-mill; a man and boy are cutting rushes in the running stream (the tail-water); the whole so true, clean, and fresh, and as brisk as champagne; a shower has not long passed."

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Garden or Evening Mists

Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists is a novel that circles round various mysteries: the life and death of a Japanese garden designer, Aritomo, living after the war in exile in Malaya, and the location and purpose of a prison camp that he may have had some connection with.  The narrator of the novel, Yun Ling, a survivor of this camp, wants to create a garden in memory of her sister, who died there.  This sister had developed a fascination with Japanese gardens on a visit to Kyoto before the war.  Yun Ling goes to visit Aritomo, with the intention of asking him to design a memorial garden, but instead she becomes his apprentice, lover and then the inheritor of his own garden.  Aritomo begins her training with a copy of the Sakuteiki (which I mentioned here once before), written by Tachibana no Toshitsuna in the eleventh century, and explains to her various principles of Japanese gardening, such as shakkei ('borrowed scenery').  Later she writes that 'Aritomo could never resist employing the principles of Borrowed Scenery in everything he did' and the reader suspects something significant in this, that the landscape beyond the garden has some kind of special significance linked to their memories.

When Aritomo first explains shakkei to Yun Ling, he mentions Tenryuji, "Temple of the Sky Dragon, the first garden to ever use the techniques of shakkei."  Here's what I said about this garden, designed by the great poet Musō Soseki (1275-1351), in another earlier post
'The temple of Tenryū-ji, was built by the shogun Ashikaga Takauji in memory of the emperor whom he had deposed.  Musō wrote a sequence of poems about the landscape garden he helped create there, 'Ten Scenes in the Dragon of Heaven Temple.'  Some of these scenes have survived the centuries, like the lake Sōgen-chi where moonlight still strikes the waters in the dead of night; others have gone, like Dragon-Gate House where Musō observed the most transient of images, two passing puffs of cloud.'
Aritomo goes on to list the four approaches to shakkei:  "Enshaku - distant borrowing - took in the mountains and the hills; Rinshaku used the features from a neighbour's property; Fushaku took from the terrain; and Gyoshaku brought in the clouds, the wind and the rain."  Years later, looking again at their garden, Yun Ling wonders whether the wind and clouds and ever changing light had been part of Aritomo's design.  And if the mists were an element of shakkei too, gradually thickening and erasing the distant mountains.

Monday, May 06, 2019

Roden Crater

I thought I would follow up my last post on Katie Paterson with something about James Turrell, whose light works I was reminded of when looking at her Light Bulb to Simulate Moonlight (2008).  I have been reading James Turrell: A Retrospective, a sumptuously produced book which I should think gets as close as possible to giving a sense of what his artworks look like, even though they are nearly impossible to describe in two dimensional photography and words on a page. It is interesting how often the word 'landscape' is used in the book, even though what is usually being described is a perceptual environment or spaces from which to observe the sky.  Of course Turrell is a contemporary of the American land artists and it is easy to relate his magnum opus, Roden Crater, to their more monumental earthworks.  Turrell himself has said, 'I am not an Earth artist, I'm totally involved in the sky.'  But works like Observatory by Robert Morris (1971) and Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels (1973-6), which are aligned with the solstice, can be seen as precursors to Roden Crater.

Roden Crater
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was clear from the book that Turrell's career hinges on that famous flight in 1974 when he located the setting for what has become his life's work. An experienced pilot, Turrell used a Guggenheim Foundation to fuel his plane and scoured the western states to find 'a solitary cinder cone or a butte' that would allow him to create the perfect space from which to experience the phenomenon of 'celestial vaulting'.  Work continues at Roden Crater - there are plans for a Fumarole, for example, which will look like a giant eye.  A pool will act as a lens and light from the sky will pass over it through an aperture.  'At night, the still water will focus images of the stars onto a floor of black volcanic cinder underneath such that a visitor might have the experience of walking on light from the stars.  The bowl shape of the bath's bronze-and-glass bottom is complemented by a small invisible antenna on the aperture's edge that effectively turns it into a simple radio telescope.  Bathers will be able to submerge their ears under the water to hear the ancient static radio noise emitted from the portion of the sky visible through the aperture.'

Some of the inspirations for Turrell's work, and some of the phenomena he has explored in his art:
Skyspaces - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry - blackout curtains - the desert landscapes drawn by George Herriman in his 1940s Krazy Kat cartoons - the view from the Apollo spacecraft - Plato's Cave - Ganzfelds - Minimalism - Perceptual Cells - Blake's 'doors of perception' - Quakerism - the temple at Borobudur - Mesoamerican pyramids - emblemata depicting effects of light in a 1636 book by Guilielmus Hesius - Jun'ichirō Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows - Buddhism's 'embrace of the void'...
Of course Turrell is familiar with the ways light has been used in the history of art, but his whole practice has been to work with light, rather than merely representing it.

According to the Christine Y. Kim in James Turrell: A Retrospective, there are now more than seventy-five Skyspaces around the world, enclosed chambers with an opening that lets visitors contemplate the sky.  You can find photographs of these online - the one I have included below is in Switzerland and actually shows the view out through its door (I guess if the spectacle of the sky starts to pall, you can still contemplate the Alps).  There are some spectacular looking Skyspaces in sunny places like Napa Valley, California.  Photographs of the Skyspace in Yorkshire Sculpture Park (which I mentioned here once before) show a damp patch of floor where the rain has entered.  Another British example is Cat Cairn (2000), in Northumberland, built with natural stone to blend into the landscape (the Kielder website explains that Turrell has recently upgraded the lighting system for this work).  Back in 2000 Monty Don wrote in The Observer about his experience of Cat Cairn.  'The experience of sitting quietly (albeit freezing) is enormously satisfying and enriching, even though sensation is stripped down and pared back as far as it will go without being diminished. All superfluities are abandoned. I would love this in my garden.'

James Turrell, Skyspace, Piz Uter, (inside) - 2005
Source: Wikimedia Commons: Kamahele