Saturday, February 16, 2019

Heaven My Blanket, Earth My Pillow


The Song Dynasty poet Yang Wanli (1127–1206) currently has a mere three-line entry on Wikipedia and there is no anthology of his verse in translation currently in print.  However, it is easy to pick up a copy of Heaven My Blanket, Earth My Pillow second-hand - something I've done, as you can see above. The book's title comes from a four-line poem which begins 'the pure wind makes me chant poems, / the bright moon urges me to drink.'  There is quite a lot of drinking in these poems (the translations by Jonathan Chaves, published in 1975, perhaps indicate their age by the way he describes this as getting high).  A love of poetry also comes through - for example in the lovely short poem 'Reading by the Window', in which Yang opens a book of Tang Dynasty poetry to find inside a peach blossom petal, still fresh, that had been caught inside the previous spring.  But nature is his main theme and there are examples in this book of what can unhesitatingly be described as 'landscape poems', recalling a view seen from a boat, a mountain temple or a moon viewing terrace. 

Landscape poems like these may frame the world like a painting but their words are able to convey sound and motion and time passing.  There are two 'Evening Lake Scenes' for example, in the first of which Yang watches geese in Vs and crows in flocks, flying over a lake and taking their time settling down for the night.  In the second he describes the sunset:
I sit watching the sun set over the lake.
The sun is not swallowed by mountains or clouds:
it descends inch by inch, then disappears completely,
leaving no trace where it sinks into the water.
In his introduction, Chaves highlights Yang's 'obsession with capturing the momentary changes in natural phenomena'.  This is from a poem recording his impressions as he crossed between Zhedong and Yongfeng on a spring day in 1179.
The sunlight must be moving the waves by itself;
the sky is calm, and there is no wind.

Wu Zhen, Fisherman, c. 1350
One of the Chinese paintings reproduced as illustrations in Heaven My Blanket, Earth My Pillow

Yang Wanli is the last poet in David Hinton's anthology, Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poets of Ancient China. Hinton says that 'with him China's rivers-and-mountains poetry had opened up virtually all of its possibilities'. He highlights Yang's adherence to Ch'an Buddhism and the way it gave rise to a 'crystalline attention to things themselves ... The rivers-and-mountains realm was the natural terrain for this attentiveness, as its grandeur so easily calls one from the limitations of self to the expansiveness of a mirror-like empty mind that contains all things.'  Here, to conclude, are four lines from Hinton's translation of a poem Yang wrote after a hike to Universal-Completion Monastery. 
As our boat lacing mists angles off the cove's willow shores,
cloud mountains appear and disappear among the willows.

And the beauty of climbing a mountain while adrift on a lake?
It's this lake's mind - that gaze holding the mountain utterly.

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Ascent to the Village


I was very tempted this week to go to Cafe Oto for Brunhild Ferrari in conversation with David Grubbs, but it was on 14 February and I didn't think this proposal would go down very well.  I did though enjoy reading her 'Epiphany' at the back of February's Wire Magazine, which recalls how she met and started making music with Luc Ferrari (1929-2005). Apparently they bonded over a love of rocks - she loved painting them, he was fascinated by the geology of Corsica, where his father came from.  In the paragraph below she describes their experiments in field recording and mentions two famous landscapes that I have featured here before (in connection with Petrarch and Monet).  I have embedded above a clip of the composition she mentions, Presque Rien No. 1 (1967-70).


A couple of years ago Ferrari's four 'Presque Rien' ('Almost Nothing') compositions were reissued by Editions Mego.  Here, from a review by John Kealy, is a description of the fourth.
Presque Rien No. 4: La Remontée du Village (Almost Nothing No. 4: The Ascent to the Village) seemingly returns to bare elegance of the original work. This is the sound of Ferrari and his wife Brunhild ascending the hill to the Italian town of Ventimiglia and it is remarkably similar to the moods and feelings of the first piece. However, the sleepy isolation of the 1960s countryside has been lost as sounds from nearby televisions and passing scooters permeate the air around Ferrari’s microphones. Gradually, evidence of Ferrari’s tinkering becomes more and more noticeable as he slowly blends the sounds as they were recorded into something more akin to musique concrète. The climax of this is the powerful intrusion of a cow, preposterously embellished by Ferrari to sound super-real.
Another landscape-related piece reissued by Editions Mego was Petite symphonie intuitive pour un paysage de printemps (1973–1974).  Ferrari's notes explain that this too was based on a walk with his wife.
'Brunhild and I were in the Gorges du Tarn area. We chose to take a small path that was going up a rocky mountain for about ten kilometres. After a last turn, a totally unexpected landscape opened before my eyes. It was sunset. Before us, a vast plateau spread open with soft curves up to the horizon, up to the sun. The colours ranged from dry grass yellow to purple, in the distance, with the darkness of a few small groves punctuating the space. The almost bare nature was presenting itself to the eye, free from any obstacle. We could see everything. Later, when I recollected this place and the sensations I had experienced there, I tried to compose a music that could revive this memory.'
The reviewer for Pitchfork thought initially that this sounded like Boards of Canada, but then decided it 'feels more complex than that. For as alien as musique concrète can be, in the hands of Ferrari, he was able to render it into something that felt warmly familiar. Here he paints a stunning vista at dusk, capturing the expansive horizon with sound rather than sight.'

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A view of Magdala

Watercolour World is a new online database of documentary watercolours painted before 1900 which launched at the end of January.  You can use filters and search by a keyword, e.g. 'waterfall', which brings up waterfalls in South Australia, Japan, Italy, French Polynesia and so on.  Enter 'Cozens' and you get a selection of watercolours by Cozens (although the first one is a Turner painting 'after J. R. Cozens').  But perhaps the main attraction is a map which you can zoom around and look for specific landmarks or places.  The distribution of watercolours on the map shows that this is a British initiative - there are over 25,000 watercolours for the British Isles but only around 50 for Japan (and those Japanese images are by late nineteenth century British illustrators).  They do have global ambitions, but the emphasis on 'documentary' images means that there is bound to be a bias towards cultures which valued topographic accuracy (either as art or as part of some branch of science).


Why watercolours and not, say, oil sketches?  Well non-watercolours are allowed in - they include aquatints and pencil sketches, for example, 'at our discretion'.  Perhaps surprisingly, they are happy to have images where the location is unknown, tagging these to the home of the artist.  How do they choose the images?  'We try to select images that have a clear connection to a real person, place or event, that the artist could plausibly have known first-hand. A painting of a battle that happened years before the artist was born would not be included, but an artist's satirical painting of Londoners in a pub would stay.'  As this last comment indicates, the website goes beyond landscape and covers all kinds of subject matter.  I am not sure how they would feel about, artists who were moving away from simple representation, a Cézanne watercolour of Mont Sainte-Victoire, for example.  There are none of these in the database; the only image from this part of Provence is a view of Aix-en-Provence by William Callow dating from 1836.

William Simpson, Untitled (Magdala), 1868
British Museum

I thought I would check out a a part of the world I don't recall featuring before here - Ethiopia.  In addition to a few archaeological drawings, I came upon the view above. It shows 'a vast stretch of bare tableland with winding gullies, and three figures in the foreground on the spur of a hill'.  There is no further context - the website refers you to the British Museum for more information.  In fact William Simpson had gone to Abyssinia as an illustrator for the London Evening News, covering the British Army's punitive campaign against the Ethiopian Emporer, who had captured British hostages.  Simpson arrived at Magdala after the fighting was over - those tiny figures are therefore looking out over a landscape that had recently seen a siege and bombardment.  Before leaving Magdala, the troops were permitted to loot it and some of the artifacts they took found their way eventually into London museums like the British Museum.  An Association For the Return Of the Magdala Ethiopian Treasures was formed in 1999 to lobby for their return to Ethiopia.

Friday, February 08, 2019

The Umbrian lake, smiling in summer heat

Richard Wilson, The Temple of Clitumnus, 
with the cows drinking from the spring of Clitumnus, 
near Spoleto, Umbria (detail), 18th century 
Source: Christies

I have been re-reading Gilbert Highet, whose Poets in a Landscape (1957) I wrote about in an earlier post about the Springs of Clitumnus.  Highet was drawn to this place through 'two lines of sincere poetry' in an elegy by Sextus Propertius (c. 50/45-15 BCE):
among the woods where the Clitumnus hides its lovely
  springs, and white oxen bathe in the cool stream
The rest of this poem, and almost everything else Propertius wrote, is about love and his life in the city of Rome.  However, you can find more landscape in his poetry, in this description of his origins.
Old Umbria bore you on a famous family-tree,
  I do not lie; the borders of your home
are these: cloudy Mevania, among rain-soaked fields,
  the Umbrian lake, smiling in summer heat,
and steep Asisium's wall climbing towards the peak -
  the wall to which your genius has brought fame.
Mevania is modern Bevagna and the lake was nearby although it was drained long ago and no longer exists. Asisum is Assisi and there are still Roman stones there bearing the Propertius family name.  But, as Highet explains,
'In Assisi today, everything belongs to the world of St. Francis.  Apart from a few inscriptions and details, there is only a small and elegant Capitoline temple (dedicated to the trinity of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva) above ground to remind the visitor of the world of Propertius, and, below ground, the relics of the Roman Forum.  High above them soar the immense walls and towers of the churches of St. Francis. ... Around the towers of the church of St. Francis, the doves which once were the messengers of Venus now rise, the emanations of a loftier and purer spirit.'
Giotto (attribution uncertain), St. Francis Preaching to the Birds, 1297-99
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Francesco Bernadone - St. Francis - is much more associated with nature than Propertius, through the stories that he preached to the birds and made peace between a wolf and a village.  He is included, albeit 'stretching the point', in Italian Landscape Poems, the 1993 anthology compiled and translated by Alistair Elliot, who sadly died late last year.  The book starts with St. Francis' Canticle of the Sun or Laudes Creaturarum ('Praise of the Creatures'), which is said to have been composed in 1224.  It is in the Umbrian dialect of Italian, rather than the Latin written by Propertius, and is often considered the earliest work of Italian literature.  Here are some lines in praise of the elements: the wind, air and clouds, water ('so helpful and humble, precious and chaste'), fire and finally earth, 'who nourishes and guides us / and brings forth fruit in kinds, with coloured flowers, and grass.'
Laudato si, mi Signore, per frate Vento
et per aere et nubilo et sereno et onne tempo,
per lo quale, a le Tue creature dài sustentamento.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per sor'Acqua,
la quale è multo utile et humile et pretiosa et casta.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per frate Focu,
per lo quale ennallumini la nocte:
ed ello è bello et iucundo et robustoso et forte.

Laudato si, mi Signore, per sora nostra matre Terra,
la quale ne sustenta et gouerna,
et produce diuersi fructi con coloriti fior et herba.

Saturday, February 02, 2019

The Great Polish Map of Scotland

The Great Polish Map of Scotland
Source: Wikimedia Commons (John Riddell)

I have written here before about relief maps, focusing on the impressive set of table-top landscapes made at the behest of Louis XIV.  These were relatively portable, indoor objects, but there is also a history of larger relief maps made outdoors.  Such scaled-down landscapes are subject to the same forces of weathering and erosion as the 'real' landscape in which they are set.  Thus, one of the best-known examples, the Great Polish Map of Scotland, has had to undergo a process of restoration recently.  Its concrete is more vulnerable to frost and rain than the gneiss and granite of the Scottish mountains, but, unlike the Highlands, it can always be repaired and maintained in a relatively pristine state.  The map was constructed in the late 1970s at a hotel owned by the Polish war veteran, Jan Tomasik and designed by cartographer Kazimierz Trafas. Water for the sea, rivers and lochs was diverted from a nearby stream.  There are various photographs online - the one below showing the map in snow is quite striking.

 Aerial view in snow
Source: Wikimedia Commons (Novemberscot)

The Great Polish Map of Scotland is 50x40m and has been described as the largest relief map in the world.  However, according to Wikipedia, a site in Ningxia province, China was spotted in 2006 using satellite imagery measuring 900 by 700 metres.  It 'appeared to be a large scale relief model (1:500) of Aksai Chin, a disputed territory between China and India.'  You can find this using Google - I have reproduced the satellite image below.  It is a reminder that the history of relief maps in China, as elsewhere, has always been associated with politics and territorial claims (a map is the territory...)  There are other examples of large-scale relief maps around the world: the Philippines can be seen in reproduced in Rizal Park, Manila, and Guatemala has been scaled down in the 'Mapa en Relieve', as described in an Atlas Obscura article.  Such endeavours have been conceived and executed by scientists rather than artists, but I could imagine some more creative alternatives, relief maps that only partially reproduce a landscape, in order to idealise, reinvent or deconstruct it. 

 A large outdoor relief map in China?

Friday, January 25, 2019

I made those waters flow over it


I am returning here to a subject I covered over ten years ago, the gardens of the kings of Assyria, because I have been to see the British Museum's exhibition, 'I am Ashurbanipal'.  I ended my previous post by referring to a relief dated 645 which shows King Ashurbanipal and his Queen in the royal park in Nineveh, dining under an arbour of grape vines, with the decapitated head of the conquered king of the Elamites hanging from a nearby tree.  This scene is on show in the current exhibition, mounted with other smaller ones to show how a complete wall might have looked.  You can see this in my photograph above, which I think also gives an indicates of how wonderfully well lit everything is.  The garden landscape in which Ashurbanipal is seen drinking and listening to music contains alternating pine and fruit-bearing date palms, perhaps symbols of Assyria and Babylonia respectively.  And in the foliage, a bird goes after a locust - in his annals, Ashurbanipal likened the Elamites to a swarm of locusts.


This second photograph shows the royal park created by Ashurbanipal's grandfather Sennacherib, which I also mentioned in my earlier post.  In the new exhibition, coloured light is projected onto this relief, picking out the irrigation channels and trees.  You can see the effect in a gif at the British Museum blog site. I will quote here what this site has to say about the landscape:
'The gardens at Nineveh were irrigated by an immense canal network built by Ashurbanipal’s grandfather, Sennacherib. He brought water to the city over a great distance using channels and aqueducts to create a year-round oasis of all types of flora. The canals stretched over 50km into the mountains, and Sennacherib boasted about the engineering technology he used. A monumental aqueduct crossing the valley at Jewan, which you can still see the remains of today, was made of over 2 million stones and waterproof cement. The aqueduct was constructed over 500 years before the Romans started building their aqueducts, and was inscribed with the following words: "Sennacherib king of the world king of Assyria. Over a great distance I had a watercourse directed to the environs of Nineveh, joining together the waters… Over steep-sided valleys I spanned an aqueduct of white limestone blocks, I made those waters flow over it."
Since I wrote my last blog post on the gardens at Nineveh, it has been argued that they were in fact 'the real Hanging Gardens of Babylon'.  Archaeologist Stephanie Dalley first formulated this theory in 1992 and then published a book with new research in 2013.  A Channel 4 documentary was made and her new evidence was widely reported in the news.  It would obviously be helpful to do some more digging, but the site of Nineveh, around Mosul, has been too dangerous to excavate.  Dalley was quoted in 2013 as saying she thought it unlikely that excavations would be possible in her lifetime.  A year later, Daesh overran the area and, as Jonathan Jones says in his review of this exhibition, 'they smashed antiquities in the Mosul Museum and set about demolishing Nineveh itself.'  It is sad to think how much can change in the course of a few years, but at least these remarkable artifacts remain to give us, amongst much else, an idea of the gardens created by the kings of Assyria.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

The mountain tops, like little isles appear'd

Salomon Gessner, Bucolic Scene, 1767

My post yesterday was about a nineteenth century French-speaking Swiss writer from Geneva; this one is about an eighteenth century German-speaking Swiss poet from Zurich.  However, as can be seen above, Salomon Gessner (1730-88) was also a visual artist.  Here is a snatch of his poetry, describing autumn. It is taken from an 1809 translation of Gessner's Idylls (1756-72).  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, 'his pastorals were translated into 20 languages, including Welsh, Latin, and Hebrew. The English translation ran through many editions and was admired by the Romantic writers Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, and Wordsworth.'  However, I see from Wikipedia that 'The New International Encyclopædia (1905) finds his writing “insipidly sweet and monotonously melodious,” and attributes Gessner's popularity to the taste of a generation nursed on Rousseau.'
O'er every vine of gold and purple hue
The sun its animating lustre threw;
And every curling branch, whose friendly shade
Waved o'er his cot, beneath the zephyr play’d.
Clear was the sky, o'er all the valley's bed
The low-land vapours like a lake were spread;
Amidst whose floating surface lightly rear'd
The mountain tops, like little isles appear'd;
Where smoaking huts and fruitful groves were seen
In autumn's richest vest of gold and green.

Salomon Gessner, Pastoral landscape with two women and a boy
playing a flute in front of a herm of Pan, 1787

Gessner was on my mind today as I saw the painting above in the British Museum.  It was in the Prints and Drawings room, in a display of art linked to the sketch by Joseph Anton Koch they recently purchased from the Brian Sewell estate (see my post on it last year).  Gessner's painting was the basis for an 1805 etching by another artist I have discussed here before, Carl Wilhelm Kolbe.  The British Museum also owns an etching by Kolbe of the memorial to Gessner which stands in Zurich's Platspitz Park.  In it, 'a well-dressed couple and child looking at Gessner's tomb in the form of a Greek memorial with a low relief sculpture, set behind a railing in woodland.'

Carl Wilhelm Kolbe, The Monument to Salomon Gessner in Zurich, c. 1807

In their current exhibition, the British Museum curators have put Gessner's Pastoral Landscape on show next to a different memorial to Gessner, this one by Johann Heinrich Bleuler.  The etching was published in the year of Gessner's death and shows a memorial to him situated by a lake.  Was it imaginary, like Caspar David Friedrich's proposal for a monument to Goethe?  If not, is there still something resembling this at Lake Klöntal, a permanent presence of a landscape painter in the landscape he painted?  Yes, it would seem there is, according to the local tourism website and you can do a nice walk to it. They describe the origin of the inscription thus: 'Sie wurde ihm von zwei Verehrern gewidmet, die sich 1788 zur Einweihung des Gedenksteins mit Tränen in den Augen um den Hals fielen und küssten.' ('It was dedicated to him by two devotees who fell around the neck and kissed each other in 1788 with tears in their eyes for the inauguration of the memorial stone' - Google Translate). The writing looks quite amateurish and crudely done, but clearly those admirers meant well.

Johann Heinrich Bleuler, Commemorative stone in memory of Salomon Gessner, 
at Lake Klöntal, Glarus, 1788

Friday, January 18, 2019

A fine rain was falling

'Any landscape is a condition of the spirit.' -  Henri-Frédéric Amiel

This is one of those quotes about landscape you come across in a diverse range of books.  It is also available in tweet-friendly images, such as the one below where it is superimposed on a mountain scene.  This longer version is from the translation of Amiel's Journal Intime, published in 1885 by the British novelist Mrs. Humphry Ward.  The whole book can be found on Project Gutenburg, so I have copied from there below the journal entry where Amiel makes his observation.  As can be seen, it was prompted by an autumn day, with leaves on the ground and a few flowers lingering in the garden.  The mountains in the distance were the Alps - Lancy is part of Geneva, the city where Amiel was born and died.  This entry was written when he was thirty-one.  He was a poet and a philosopher but this journal only appeared posthumously. 'It reveals,' according to the Encyclopedia Bitannica, 'a sensitive man of great intellectual ability, struggling for values against the skepticism of the age. Widely translated, it gained Amiel lasting fame.'

 
October 31, 1852. (Lancy.)—Walked for half an hour in the garden. A fine rain was falling, and the landscape was that of autumn. The sky was hung with various shades of gray, and mists hovered about the distant mountains, a melancholy nature. The leaves were falling on all sides like the last illusions of youth under the tears of irremediable grief. A brood of chattering birds were chasing each other through the Shrubberies, and playing games among the branches, like a knot of hiding schoolboys. The ground strewn with leaves, brown, yellow, and reddish; the trees half-stripped, some more, some less, and decked in ragged splendors of dark-red, scarlet, and yellow; the reddening shrubs and plantations; a few flowers still lingering behind, roses, nasturtiums, dahlias, shedding their petals round them; the bare fields, the thinned hedges; and the fir, the only green thing left, vigorous and stoical, like eternal youth braving decay; all these innumerable and marvelous symbols which forms colors, plants, and living beings, the earth and the sky, yield at all times to the eye which has learned to look for them, charmed and enthralled me. I wielded a poetic wand, and had but to touch a phenomenon to make it render up to me its moral significance. Every landscape is, as it were, a state of the soul, and whoever penetrates into both is astonished to find how much likeness there is in each detail. True poetry is truer than science, because it is synthetic, and seizes at once what the combination of all the sciences is able at most to attain as a final result. The soul of nature is divined by the poet; the man of science, only serves to accumulate materials for its demonstration.
Ferdinand Hodler, Lake Geneva with the Savoy Alps, 1907

Mrs Ward's translation of Amiel's Journal was reviewed and praised by the great Victorian critic, Walter Pater.  He quotes Amiel's statement about landscape and the soul in this review (which can be read online).  He also observes that although 'in Switzerland it is easy to be pleased with scenery', there are passages of natural description in Amiel that 'rise to real distinction.'   He gives three examples, on the effects of fog, frost and rain, and I will close here by quoting the last of these:
August 22, 1873. (Scheveningen).—The weather is rainy, the whole atmosphere gray; it is a time favorable to thought and meditation. I have a liking for such days as these; they revive one’s converse with one’s self and make it possible to live the inner life; they are quiet and peaceful, like a song in a minor key. We are nothing but thought, but we feel our life to its very center. Our very sensations turn to reverie. It is a strange state of mind; it is like those silences in worship which are not the empty moments of devotion, but the full moments, and which are so because at such times the soul, instead of being polarized, dispersed, localized, in a single impression or thought, feels her own totality and is conscious of herself. 
Vincent Van Gogh, Scheveningen Beach in Stormy Weather, 1882