Saturday, March 30, 2019

Places from the Other Side

My favourite parts of Václav Cílek's To Breathe With Birds (2015) are those descriptions of sites in Bohemia that lead off into speculation on the meaning of landscape, and his references to Mitteleuropean culture that are unfamiliar to English readers.  Just one example of the latter: 'the painter Václav Rabas used to say that it is important to find one's own square kilometer of landscape and try to understand it.' A footnote explains that Rabas (1885-1954) was a landscape painter whose artistic focus for several decades was a small agricultural area near Krušovice, a village to the west of Prague.'  The book's twelfth essay, 'Places from the Other Side', is perhaps the best example of his writing on the landscape of the Czech Republic, focusing on sites in the Sudetenland - former kaolin mines, depopulated villages, a musical city where 'trout jump joyfully' above the rivers in summertime...  There are references to Kafka, Borges and Adalbert Stifter but Cilek's focus is on what he experiences.  At a spot where Goethe once picked up phenocrysts of feldspar, Cilek is filled with gratitude by the simple sound of the river in the deepening night.  This region's beautiful old towns - Loket, Úterý, Rabštejn, Slavonice - are fragments of a forgotten dream, like Calvino's Invisible Cities

The last essay in the book, 'Bees of the Invisible', sets out what Cilek has learned about landscape in his decades as an earth scientist and writer. I will briefly paraphrase his twelve 'rules' here, which 'shouldn't be taken too seriously, because the essence of a place and the essence of a person cannot be captured in a single schema'.
  1. The Rule of Home: we must travel, but we are at home in only one landscape
  2. The Rule of Resonance: finding a small place that resonates for you is better than making a large pilgrimage where you are just a visitor
  3. The Rule of Irreplaceability: certain places and cities cannot be replaced by others
  4. The Rule of Blowing: our spirits are blown to certain places; we must respect these sites and that which moved us to go to them 
  5. The Rule of Various Viewpoints: aesthetic, historical and scientific appreciation of landscape are equally important
  6. The Rule of the Lid - some landscapes are covered, their essence concealed
  7. The Rule of Return - it is necessary to return continually to some sites for them to reveal themselves
  8. The Law of the Slow Approach - certain places require respect and an indirect approach
  9. The Rule of Friendly Teasing - if a landscape responds to active questioning its answers may be misleading
  10. The Rule of Sacred Games - the images a landscape conjures may refer to real events, but they may also be impossible to explain
  11. The Rule of Culmination - the spirit of a place grows and changes over the centuries
  12. and finally, The Rule of Mutual Awakening

'By traveling to places, we awaken and heal the earth, which repays us. A place in the landscape corresponds to a place in the heart.'

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

A dark and desolate place

... it seems to me that I had a dream
And in that dream
I am suddenly woken up by
the fracas of deafening explosions.
I open my eyes
on infinite smoke and fog.
The incandescence of the ground
under my feet reveals to me that
I am in a dark and desolate place.
With one glance around me I discover
That I have arrived at the edge
of the well of hell.

Zhao Liang’s documentary, Behemoth (2015), on environmental destruction and the blighting of lives in Inner Mongolia, is consciously modelled on Dante's The Divine Comedy.  The black pits created by mining and the fiery furnace in which men toil, shaping lumps of metal, certainly resemble Hell. Later in the film we see the grey industrial Purgatory that has arisen where once the steppe was verdant grassland.  Finally, in a brilliantly ironic touch, we reach Paradise: the ghost city of Ordos, built by developers with the materials that have caused so much suffering to extract, but empty of all life except a solitary street cleaner.  Zhao, interviewed for the Walker Art Centre by someone with the appropriate name of Bosch, said he read The Divine Comedy whilst making the film.  At several points we see a 'guide', walking ahead with a mirror on his back, reflecting the landscape.
'The pneumoconiosis patients who carry the mirror represent the poet Virgil, who leads Dante. The naked guy in the broken mirror represents “me”—and is also Dante himself. The mirror being carried on the back and the broken mirror echoed each other. The black frame symbolizes death. The broken mirror also symbolizes broken mountains and rivers.'

A review of the film for The Guardian points to some obvious visual reference points:
'Panoramic shots of the mines, and the termite trail of trucks that crawl down the side of these gouged-out wounds in the land, evoke iconic photographs by Sebastiao Salgado of the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil. There are also parallels with the work of Edward Burtynsky, whose large-format shots of factories and industrial blight were the subject of Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary Manufactured Landscapes, and with Dorothea Lange’s seminal portraits of Americans displaced by the Great Depression.'
Some critics have felt that Zhao could have given the workers more of a voice, rather than simply filming them as they worked and later, trying to wash away the filth of the day. But Zhao told The New York Times that he didn't need "to introduce the background of each person specifically. All we know is that this is a group of people who’ve been tossed about on earth and in the end they didn’t get anything. Their bodies are worn out and the environment is damaged. That’s all.”

Footnote: the lines quoted at the start of this post I found on a movie script site.  I could have used the slightly different English version in the subtitles for the film, but the translation seems less good.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Winter Night in the Mountains

Harald Sohlberg, Flower Meadow in the North, 1905
Images: Wikimedia Commons

The Dulwich Picture Gallery have done it again with another superb show and catalogue: this time devoted to the Norwegian landscapes paintings of Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935). When I featured him last year in my 'tweet of the day' sequence I chose 'Flower Meadow in the North', with its extraordinary carpet of flowers.  Sohlberg was known for his very precise rendering of detail, against the prevailing impressionist fashion, but he didn't do this everywhere on his canvases, as can be seen here in the way the daisies become a blur of white in the middle ground. 

The catalogue includes his beautiful study of daisies in pen and pencil - it reminded me of the gentle precision of Laurie Clark's flower drawings.  Looking at the full size painting as opposed to a reproduction, I was really struck by the way the flowers in the foreground seem to float loose from the canvass. Your eye is led from them to those dark bushes which, as the curators point out, resemble an assembly of figures.  Then, beyond these, the silvery-white river and low sun.  It all looks so fresh and modern and yet the frame and label don't look as if they have been cleaned for a century, reminding you of how much time has actually passed since Sohlberg sketched these flowers and view of a river, so as to combine them in his memorable composite image.

 Harald Sohlberg, Winter Night in the Mountains, 1914

I could talk here about many of Sohlberg's paintings but will focus here on Winter Night in the Mountains, (1914) described by Øivind Storm Bjerke in his catalogue essay as 'arguably the most compelling symbolic expression of the sublime in Norwegian painting'. The exhibition also includes other versions and sketches dating back to 1899, when Sohlberg first visited the mountains on an arduous eight-day ski trekking holiday 'organsied as a kind of polar expedition'.  

Winter Night in the Mountains is initially most striking for its colours, although this could be said of almost all Sohlberg's paintings.  The blue that dominates the upper half of the painting in 1901 is everywhere in the 1914 version.  Øivind Storm Bjerke discusses the influence of colour symbolism in the nineteenth century, going back to Romanticism and the Blue Flower of Novalis and stretching to Edvard Munch, who had used a reduced palette in his recent paintings.   

Although Sohlberg's contemporaries were painting mountians (Hodler and Segantini, for example), he was more familiar with the legacy of Norwegian Romantic artists like Johan Christian Dahl and Thomas Fearnley.  What really impresses me about this painting is not the mountain peaks, but that mysterious foreground, framed by branches, which is more or less detailed depending on the version of the painting.  A photograph in the catalogue shows the darker lines to be ridges of distant fir trees.  Sohlberg said of this foreground that it should not be too crowded or too desolate, 'for it is here that the night and the fear in the picture should lie.'

Harald Sohlberg, Winter Night in the Mountains, 1901

Rondane and its mountains had already inspired nineteenth century writers, including Ibsen whose Hall of the Mountain King is beneath Rondslottet. Aasmund Olavson Vinje's poem 'At Rondane' (1864) was set to music by Edvard Grieg in 1880 - Sohlberg himself used to play Grieg's piano works and probably knew this piece. And there was Theodor Caspari's book, Norwegian Mountains (1898), with illustrations by contemporary artists.  This included a poem urging the reader to ascend and gaze over the mountain valleys, but also to 'lower your sights' and experience the lichen and mosses growing on the rocks.  This dual vision - far and near - is what Sohlberg achieved so perfectly in paintings like Flower Meadow in the North.

Friday, March 08, 2019

Pastoral Project

When Beethoven premiered his Pastoral Symphony in Vienna on December 22, 1808, he wrote that it should be considered "more an expression of feeling than painting." It is a feeling for nature that comes over strongly in a letter:
"How delighted I will be to ramble for awhile through the bushes, woods, under trees, through grass, and around rocks. No one can love the country as much as I do. For surely woods, trees, and rocks produce the echo that man desires to hear"
(quoted in NPR programme notes on the Pastoral Symphony).  
I have written here before about this 6th Symphony, although the theme of that earlier post was a much more obscure work that it resembled in form, Justin Heinrich Knecht's A Musical Portrait of Nature (1784).  Here, I want to highlight an interesting project that is due to culminate in 2020, Beethoven's 250th anniversary.  The Beethoven Pastoral Project 'invites artists from all over the world to form a network through their engagement with Beethoven's 'Pastoral’ Symphony', to 'take a stand against environmental degradation and to stand up for the UN's sustainable development goals and the Paris Agreement with a performance of 'their Pastoral''.  These performances will be on June 5 2020.

According to a Deutsche Welle, in a Novermber 2017 article shortly after the project launched at COP23 in Bonn, several artists  had already signed on, 'including the Chinese composer and conductor Tan Dun, the American composer Uri Caine, the German jazz musician Gregor Hübner, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and its principal conductor, Paavo Järvi, as well as the Beethoven Orchestra Bonn and its principal conductor Dirk Kaftan.'  DW later interviewed Dirk Kaftan (great name!) about the project. He described the movements of the symphony, from the first - which is "about exhaling, letting go - and seeing nature as a refuge, a source of harmony and a point of balance" - to the last:
"Kuhreigen" – a cow waltz. This kind of melody is still played today on the alphorn in Switzerland to encourage cows to produce more milk. You could see this moment as simply a romanticized dream of Swiss milk and high-quality chocolate. But at the time when the Sixth Symphony was written, Switzerland was highly charged politically, and listeners at that time would have associated that with those sounds. Freedom struggles were taking place in Switzerland; just think of William Tell [I think he's referring here to Schiller's 1804 play]. I see this last movement as a hymn to humanity and the power of humans to change things.
It's hard to tell how the Beethoven Pastoral Project is progressing and whether they have had as many big names as they would have liked signing up to it.  I see that David Rothenberg (who I've mentioned here before) has become involved.  There is not a lot of recent news online, though perhaps people are busy working on their compositions rather than unveiling things in advance.  There are a few video clips on the project site, including one of Paul Barton playing Beethoven an upright piano to four elephants eating a pile of yams (performing classical music to rescued elephants in Thailand is what he does).  It would be a pity if the reputation of Beethoven and the (over)familiarity of the Pastoral Symphony put people off making more musically interesting interpretations for the project.

Given the link this initiative makes between environmental destruction and the Pastoral Symphony, I thought it would be appropriate to conclude here with a clip from Soylent Green (1973) - the scene in which Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson in his last role) lies listening to the music as he is about to die.  He has chosen euthanasia rather than live any longer in the polluted hell that the planet has become in 2022.  But before he dies, he watches a montage of vanished nature, landscapes he remembers from his youth that nobody will ever see again...

Saturday, March 02, 2019

The Himalayas of Black Narcissus

This image of a mystic alone in the mountains recalls the Himalayan paintings of Nicholas Roerich that I discussed in my previous post.  It is a shot from Black Narcissus, the 1947 Technicolor film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, which can currently be seen for free on the BBC iPlayer.  Adam Scovell has written about landscape in this film in a piece for the BFI (the Mr Dean he refers to is the cynical and worldly local British agent, played by David Farrar - 'all bare, hairy legs', in Marina Warner's memorable description):
Although a large part of it was shot at Pinewood Studios, and at Leonardslee Gardens in Sussex, Black Narcissus is very much a landscape film. The Himalayan topography is a Technicolor dream – vibrant like the hidden fantasies of many of the characters. The dramatic shot of Sister Clodagh ringing the convent’s bell in desperation summarises the film perfectly. In the matte painting of the mountain chasm (by the brilliant Walter Percy Day, with assistance from his sons, Arthur and Thomas), the gulf looks as though it could descend infinitely. But it’s equally the precipice of Sister Clodagh’s inner world. The world of her past passions is an emotional chasm that the landscape around forces her to confront – alongside Mr Dean’s impossibly short shorts, of course.  The camera emphasises this gulf, highlighting the fantastical nature of the landscape and the inner female experience. It’s incredibly fitting that this gulf eventually drags one character to their rocky doom.

So who was Walter Percy Day, the painter of these mountain scenes?  Born in 1878, he began his career as a conventional painter - you can see examples of his work on the Walter Percy Day website. He turned to cinema in the 1920s, developing his methods first in Britain, then in France (where he worked on Abel Gance's Napoléon), before returning here to make films with Alexander Korda and directors like David Lean, Laurence Olivier and Carol Reed.  The history of matte painting is full of epic landscapes like the mountains of Black Narcissus: jungles and deserts, volcanic islands and alien planets.  Moviegoers could be transported back in time with panoramic shots of ancient Egypt and medieval Europe, Victorian London or Imperial Rome. There are blogs devoted to the subject, such as Matte Shot and MovieMattepainting, and many examples there of paintings by the best-known artists like Albert Whitlock, Alan Maley and Jan Domela.  These artists did not often receive publicity, although Emil Kosa Jr. won an academy award in 1964 for his work on Cleopatra.  Kosa was also a member of the California Scene Painting movement - many matte artists had a parallel career selling their own work.

Adam Scovell highlights the visual impact of Black Narcissus and of course it is easy to view these scenes in terms of the aesthetics of the Sublime.  An online article by Raphaëlle Costa de Beauregard in the journal Caliban does just this, and also discusses the film's relationship with imperialism.  She mentions the way the Himalayan wind catches the nuns' wimples and cloaks, giving their figures an agitated look. The constant sound of this wind is, for me, one of the most striking aspects of the film, providing an eerie soundscape to all the scenes set on top of the mountain, where one of the nuns, Sister Ruth, slips gradually into madness.  And here there is another connection with Nicholas Roerich and his journey into the high mountains of Asia, and the book it inspired, H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness.  Lovecraft describes the evil sound of the wind created by the pinnacles and cave mouths of the mountain range, and his narrator wishes he had wax-stopped ears like Ulysses' men, to keep that 'disturbing wind-piping from my consciousness.'

Friday, March 01, 2019

The Mountains of Madness

'The last lap of the voyage was vivid and fancy-stirring, great barren peaks of mystery looming up constantly against the west as the low northern sun of noon or the still lower horizon-grazing southern sun of midnight poured its hazy reddish rays over the white snow, bluish ice and water lanes, and black bits of exposed granite slope. Through the desolate summits swept raging intermittent gusts of the terrible antarctic wind; whose cadences sometimes held vague suggestions of a wild and half-sentient musical piping, with notes extending over a wide range, and which for some subconscious mnemonic reason seemed to me disquieting and even dimly terrible. Something about the scene reminded me of the strange and disturbing Asian paintings of Nicholas Roerich, and of the still stranger and more disturbing descriptions of the evilly fabled plateau of Leng which occur in the dreaded Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. I was rather sorry, later on, that I had ever looked into that monstrous book at the college library.'
- H. P. Lovecraft - At the Mountains of Madness, 1936
Nicholas Roerich, Milarepa, the One Who Harkened, 1925 

Nicholas Roerich's 'strange and disturbing' Asian paintings are mentioned several times in Lovecraft's novel.  A character notices 'odd formations on slopes of highest mountains. Great low square blocks with exactly vertical sides, and rectangular lines of low vertical ramparts, like the old Asian castles clinging to steep mountains in Roerich’s paintings.'  Later the narrator says 'There was indeed something hauntingly Roerich-like about this whole unearthly continent of mountainous mystery.' Finally, at the end of the story, after the horror of the mountains of madness is revealed:
'From these foothills the black, ruin-crusted slopes reared up starkly and hideously against the east, again reminding us of those strange Asian paintings of Nicholas Roerich; and when we thought of the damnable honeycombs inside them, and of the frightful amorphous entities that might have pushed their foetidly squirming way even to the topmost hollow pinnacles, we could not face without panic the prospect of again sailing by those suggestive skyward cave-mouths where the wind made sounds like an evil musical piping over a wide range.'

Nicholas Roerich, Himalayas, 1933

Various Lovecraft bloggers have mentioned Roerich and posted images of his art.  One quotes a letter Lovecraft wrote in 1930: "surely Roerich is one of those rare fantastic souls who have glimpsed the grotesque, terrible secrets outside space & beyond time, & who have retained some ability to hint at the marvels they have seen."  Lovecraft was able to see these paintings at the Nicholas Roerich museum, established in New York in 1929.  In that same year Roerich was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize - the Roerich Pact protecting cultural property in war is named after him.  It would be hard to briefly summarise his extraordinary life up until that point - it included a long trip through Russia painting its architecture, set designs for Diaghilev (including The Rite of Spring), the creation of a mystical sect in London and then the epic Journey Through Asia that inspired the paintings Lovecraft admired.  You can read the story of this expedition, in which Roerich hoped to find the hidden land of Shambhala, in an Atlas Obscura article 'Why the Soviets Sponsored a Doomed Expedition to a Hollow Earth Kingdom.'  Roerich's own experiences sound very much like those of a Lovecraftian explorer:
It is said that the closer one approaches to the hidden, hollow-earth city, the more vague their writings become, because Shambhala cannot be described in mere words. In his esoteric book Shambhala the Resplendent, which he was writing along with his more scientific and much drier travel diary, Nicholas began charting another, parallel journey written in stories and riddles. As the expedition went deeper, he increasingly recorded strange manifestations, fires, lights and visions over their camp —though those were mostly left out of his scientifically-minded travel diary. His paintings also became more esoteric, increasingly depicting the messianic King of Shambhala. ... Communication was lost, and the Roerichs were considered dead. [Eventually, after a year, they reemerged in India, having been detained in Tibet where five expedition members died.]   The closest they had gotten to Shambhala, according to Nicholas’ travel diaries, was in the Altai mountains, in the valley of Uimon, when an “Old Believer” proudly showed them the entrance to the subterranean kingdom, now barred with stones.