Monday, December 23, 2019

Out of the sluggish, clogged-up city

Coming to the end of the year, I find myself thinking about this blog.  Whilst I still enjoy writing here, I think I will keep posts short and less frequent in future.  This is partly because I've noticed (if Blogger 'stats' are to be believed) that readership has declined, which is hardly surprising given how much is now out there on the Internet.  I started Some Landscapes before Twitter and Instagram. People clearly like rapidly flicking through photos and pithy messages, rather than reading whole paragraphs.  This is a pity because I have found it is hard to say anything useful on Twitter without recourse to a whole thread.  Whether or not people read 'Some Landscapes', it remains useful to me as a kind of notebook.  And if I worried about readers, I  would not write anything spontaneous and unresearched. Here for example, I want to say something about Rainer Maria Rilke, aware as I do so that the world is full of German literature experts who know far more about his poetry than me...

The Poetry Foundation website refers to the turn towards realism in Rilke's New Poems (1907).
'The major influence behind this work was Rilke’s association with the famous French sculptor, Auguste Rodin. Working as Rodin’s secretary from 1905 to 1906, Rilke gained a greater appreciation of his work ethic. More importantly, however, the poet’s verses became objective, evolving from an impressionistic, personal vision to the representation of this vision with impersonal symbolism. He referred to this type of poetry as Dinggedichte (thing poems).'
There are many 'things' in these poems - in the second part of the book, for example, he writes about a bed, a sundial, a dog, an alchemist, a stylite, a blind man, a prophet and an archaic torso of Apollo (a famous poem that I've referred to here before).  How, though, to write about the 'thingness' of a whole landscape?  His poem 'Landschaft', which Stephen Cohn translates as 'Townscape' consists of three stanzas, each like a painting. In the first, the 'orange flames of sunset' turn the city into a scene of destruction; in the second, there is a healing and quenching as the sky turns blue; and in the third it is night and the buildings are silent and pale, suddenly illuminated by a shaft of moonlight that resembles the sword of an archangel.  The poem that follows 'Townscape' relates to another scene in Italy, but takes a more surprising approach.  When you first read 'Roman Campagna', you expect it to describe the emotions of the poet looking at the view or the feelings of somebody present in the landscape.  Instead, Rilke take the point of view of the road itself that leads from Rome up into the hills.

Here, to avoid the copyright problem of quoting a whole poem, I've cut the poem in three and provided three different translators' words: 

Out of the sluggish, clogged-up city, which
Would rather sleep on, undisturbed, and dream
Of its soaring baths, the road to the fever marsh –
The Appian tomb-road – heads past each last farm
And farmhouse, out under the malign
Gaze of windows that fasten on its back, [...]                           - Seamus Heaney

[...]  as on it goes, wrecking things left and right,
till it is panting, pleading, out of sight,
then quickly lifts its blankness to the vast,
clear sky.  [...]                                                                            - Len Krisack

[...] While it beckons

the aqueducts approaching in the distance,
heaven rewards it with an emptiness
which will outlast it, which will never end.                               - Stephen Cohn

What interests me here is the way this road actually moves over the course of the poem and is therefore able to convey a sense of landscape.  This is obviously quite an extreme form of personification, as the road pants, pleads and glances around itself.  But there are often touches of personification in Rilke's poetry - that archaic torso of Apollo, for example, appears to see you and in doing so radiates its stern warning: 'you must change your life'.  Years later, in the Sonnets to Orpheus, Rilke wrote a lovely poem about a fountain, which speaks through water brought from the Apennines, into the ear of marble basin.  'Just with herself alone / does she talk this way. And if a jug slips in, / she feels that you are interrupting her.'

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Hanging Gardens of Rock City

A detail from Hanging Gardens of Rock City (1970) by Liliane Lijn

In the British Museum at the moment you can see Hanging Gardens of Rock City, a collage by Liliane Lijn. It was one of four she made in 1970, imagining aerial walkways and parks among the rooftops of Manhattan. Of course these can now be seen as anticipating The High Line.  The museum caption quotes her as saying 'I have always found the rooftops of the buildings in Manhattan exciting and strange as if their architects had allowed their fantasies free at that distance from the ground.'  In her collages, the public has access to these private buildings and can be seen sunbathing and walking around, far above the streets of the city.

In the sixties Lijn moved from New York to London, where she was married to Takis, who was the subject of a major retrospective at Tate Modern earlier this year.  In the course of her long career she has worked in all media, from performance to prose-poems and made plastic sculptures, poem machines, 'vibrographs', cone-shaped koans, kinetic clothing, light columns, biomorphic goddesses and solar installations in the landscape. The last of these is of particular interest here.  They are collaborations with astronomer John Vallerga in which powerful prisms reflect sunlight of different colours, depending on their angle.  Getting permission to install these has not been easy and ensuring they are protected from damage is also a challenge.  The video below shows a couple of these artifical suns on the hills behind the Golden Gate Bridge.  Another, Sunstar, has been shining from the summit of Mount Wilson - the Los Angeles Magazine reported on it last year.  Here is some information from the Mount Wilson Observatory website.
'An array of six prisms, Sunstar takes incoming sunlight and refracts it, bending the light and spreading it into a spectrum–all the colors of the rainbow. It is mounted near the top of the Observatory’s 150-foot Solar Telescope Tower. With motion controls, it can be remotely directed to project the spectrum to a specific point in the Los Angeles basin. An observer below will see an intense point of light in a single wavelength, shining like a brilliant jewel from the ridgeline of Mount Wilson, 5800 feet above in the San Gabriel Mountains. [...] 
The prism will be beaming daily to various sites around the Los Angeles basin — Griffith Observatory, the Rose Bowl, Pasadena City Hall, Memorial Park by the Armory, Elysian Park, the Music Center, wherever there is a view of Mount Wilson.  If you see it, please let us know what you think. Requests to have it beam your way can often be accommodated. Email: Include the time you’d like to see the beam and your location’s address, or geographic coordinates if you prefer.'

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

This earth is cursed

I was at the White Cube on Sunday to see the latest batch of Anselm Kiefer paintings, Superstrings, Runes, The Norns, Gordian Knot.  I am a huge admirer, but I know he does not appeal to everyone.  For me, the beauty of these artworks as physical objects is evident regardless of their possible meanings and interpretations.  The composition above, for example, is in a room devoted to the theme of the Gordian Knot, but I didn't immediately start puzzling out its meaning or worrying over whether it is profound or pretentious; instead, what struck me was the feeling that I'd never before seen a field painted with such dramatic intensity.  What you can't appreciate from a photograph is the sense of scale, the texture of paint or the subtleties of its wintry colours (that sunset glow and the purples and greys of the sky).  Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Jones described these waves of wheat as being 'arrayed like a flowing frieze of abundance. Real branches daubed with gold have been used to create their colossal stalks. But two axes hang in the gleaming fullness, waiting to devastate this cornucopian field. This earth is cursed.'

The second landscape I want to highlight here is called Väinämoinen sucht die drei fehlende Buchstaben ('Väinämoinen Searches for the Three Missing Letters' - a reference to the Kalevala, Runo XVI).  Those black posts standing in rows in the snow (or is it ash?) are shaped like runes.  In the foreground some of them are made from actual pieces of charred wood.  This painting is a kind of text (like the Landscripts of Xu Bing) and because runes were used for divination there seems to be some kind of hidden prophecy in this bleak landscape.  The Norns, which Kiefer refers to in the title of his exhibition, were the spinners of fate in Norse mythology.  In an installation stretching the length of the gallery, their names - Urd, Verdandi and Skuld - are written alongside the equations of string theory, suggesting a continuity between ancient and modern means of unlocking the world's secrets.

I'll conclude this post with one of three paintings called Superstrings, each of which measures nearly three metres high and eight metres wide.  All of them appear to be desolate landscapes of earth, snow, muddy water, stubble, straw and leafless trees.  Approaching the one I have photographed here, I felt I could still make an art historical connection to Van Gogh's ploughed fields.  Right up close, the paint surface resembles a rain soaked field or a muddy path.  But from further away, those furrows start to seem more abstract - lines of force, converging at speed towards a grey sunless horizon.  We are used to thinking of the universe in terms of pure and beautiful structures like celestial spheres or Platonic solids, but Kiefer is clearly drawn to a messier, more chaotic theory of the cosmos. 

Friday, November 29, 2019

Troubled Waters

This cool poster gives a strong impression of 'Troubled Waters', an alternative title for Mauritz Stiller's Johan.  The film was an adaptation of Juhani Aho's Finnish novel, published a decade earlier in 1911.  Landscape initiates the story, as a group of men arrive to dig out a canal in the countryside and, in a memorable sequence, people watch from the riverbank as water floods through the new channel.  One of the workers, the film's anti-hero (or villain, depending on how you see it) rows up to the new waterway and surfs down it in his small boat.  Time passes and one day he returns and seduces Marit, the film's heroine, taking her away in his boat over the wild rapids.  Given how skilfully this white water rafting is carried out, I find it amazing that it was the actor Urho Somersalmi who took the boat over the Kamlunge rapids.  Jenny Hasselqvist, who played Marit, was apparently the first woman to make this journey and at one point during the shoot she saved Somersalmi when he was washed overboard.    

D. W. Griffith's Way Down East was released six months before Johan and it too contains a famous river sequence.  Whereas the rapids in Johan feel central to the story, symbolising the attraction and dangers of the seductive stranger, the landscape in Way Down East is really only present at the end of the film, heightening its emotional climax, as Lilian Gish runs despairingly out into a blizzard and then finds herself trapped on the frozen river as its ice breaks up around her.  Again, there were no stunt doubles: it was Gish who lay on the ice while Richard Barthelmess jumped over the cracks to rescue her.  Gish wrote about the experience in her autobiography
"The scenes on and around the ice were filmed at White River Junction, Vermont, where the White River and the Connecticut flowed side by side. The ice was thick; it had to be either sawed or dynamited, so that there would be floes for each day's filming. The temperature never rose above zero during the three weeks we worked there. ... I suggested that my hand and my hair trail in the water as I lay on the floe that was drifting toward the falls. Mr. Griffith was delighted with the effect. After a while, my hair froze, and I felt as if my hand were in a flame. To this day, it aches if I am out in the cold for very long."

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Sentences on the sea

I am looking forward to reading Experiments on Reality, a new collection of essays by Tim Robinson.  Googling him this weekend and looking at his Wikipedia page, it struck me that for all the praise his work has received, and the reverence in which he is held by those interested in writing about landscape, he doesn't seem to be as famous as you would think...  Oh well, here are three quotes from his book Aran: Pilgrimage (1986), which give me a chance to include a few photos from our stay on Inis Meáin six years ago.  The first quote concerns the way sailors use landmarks to navigate - for example, to reach one particular tiny offshore island, Robinson was told you needed to line up a dip in the Cliffs of Moher with the southern tip of Inis Meáin, and then align a small church with some boulders on a cliff edge (my photograph below was actually taken from Inis Meáin and you can see a dip in the distant Cliffs of Moher).
'The currach-fishermen had dozens of these runes to guide them to good fishing grounds and keep them out of danger. They often involve places the fishermen had never visited and to which they gave names their inhabitants would not recognize. ... A tiny patch of green grass clinging to the brinkof the cliff below Túr Mháirtín is well known to the Inis Meáin boatmen as An Réallóg, whereas few Árainn men would know it had a name at all ... Thus offshore usage recreates the surrounding landscapes; like a poet I know who finds his lines by glancing along titles on library shelves, so the fisherman low among the waves raises his eyes and picks words off the land with which to write sentences on the sea.'

My second quote links landscape, myth and music.  Robinson is talking about a sea cave which is said, improbably, to connect to a lake on the north coast.  The story goes that a piper once entered the cave and was never seen again, though his music can still sometimes be heard.
'Tom O'Flaherty mentions this legend in one of his autobiographical pieces.  According to him the piper was a fugitive outlaw from Connemara, and "anyone who hears his mournful music will before long be called to the Piper's Castle, from which none return."  ... I am told by a spelaeologist that similar legends are widespread in other countries too, connecting certain caves with the traditional musical instruments of the locality.  Orpheus himself was probably not the first musician to visit the Underworld.'

There are many paragraphs like these in Aran: Pilgrimage that could be quoted, but I will conclude here with a description of the idea underpinning his walk and his book, the attempt to take 'a single step as adequate to the ground it clears as is the dolphin's arc to its wave'.  To do this it is necessary to bring into unity 'geologies, biologies, myths, history, politics etcetera', not to mention personal associations.
'To forget these dimensions of the step is to forgo our honour as human beings, but an awareness of them equal to the involuted complexities under foot at any given moment would be a crushing backload to have to carry.  Can such contradictions be forged into a state of consciousness even fleetingly worthy of its ground?  At least one can speculate that the structure of condensation and ordering necessary to pass from such various types of knowledge to such an instant of insight would have the characteristics of a work of art, partaking of the individuality of the mind that bears it, yet with a density of content and richness of connectivity surpassing any state of mind.'  
At the end of the book, Robinson concludes that such an artwork has proven impossible to write.  But what does seem evident is that a sequence of steps can still amount to something: momentary propositions, taken with a freedom beyond academic or national boundaries.  There may be a likelihood of 'superficiality, restlessness, fickleness and transgression', but also 'by contraries, goes the possibility of recurrency, of frequentation, of a deep, an ever-deeper, dwelling in and on a place, a sum of whims and fancies totalling a constancy as of stone.'

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.