Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Grand Canal

When I first saw Canaletto's paintings in the National Gallery, like A Regatta on the Grand Canal, I was interested in their vivid detail but dismayed by the way the water was painted.  It wasn't just that the little white waves looked so unrealistic in comparison to the buildings and figures - something stylised to suggest that Venice is a kind of giant stage set might have been appropriate.  It was more that they seemed to have been slapped on in an almost childish manner, as if all that work on the rest of the painting had been spoiled by an artist who had left the water to last and not really known how to deal with it. 

 Canaletto, A Regatta on the Grand Canal (detail), c. 1740

Occasionally in childhood you carry the conviction that something which is supposed to be admirable is flawed, and it is satisfying to find out later that your original intuition was probably correct.  John Ruskin thought these waves monotonous, but in Modern Painters (vol. 2, 1846), he also took Canaletto to task for the way he dealt with reflection, breaking one of the rules for painting water outlined in the book.  Here is what Ruskin wrote, and I have included below an example of a painting that I think illustrates his point.
Among all the pictures of Canaletto, which I have ever seen, and they are not a few, I remember but one or two where there is any variation from one method of treatment of the water. He almost always covers the whole space of it with one monotonous ripple, composed of a coat of well-chosen, but perfectly opaque and smooth sea-green, covered with a certain number, I cannot state the exact average, but it varies from three hundred and fifty to four hundred and upwards, according to the extent of canvas to be covered, of white concave touches, which are very properly symbolical of ripple.

And, as the canal retires back from the eye, he very geometrically diminishes the size of his ripples, until he arrives at an even field of apparently smooth water. By our sixth rule, this rippling water as it retires should show more and more of the reflection of the sky above it, and less and less of that of objects beyond it, until, at two or three hundred yards down the canal, the whole field of water should be one even grey or blue, the colour of the sky receiving no reflections whatever of other objects. What does Canaletto do? Exactly in proportion as he retires, he displays more and more of the reflection of objects, and less and less of the sky, until, three hundred yards away, all the houses are reflected as clear and sharp as in a quiet lake.

Canaletto, The Grand Canal, 
Looking North-East from Palazzo Balbi to the Rialto Bridge, c. 1724
This, again, is wilful and inexcusable violation of truth, of which the reason, as in the last case, is the painter's consciousness of weakness. It is one of the most difficult things in the world to express the light reflection of the blue sky on a distant ripple, and to make the eye understand the cause of the colour, and the motion of the apparently smooth water, especially where there are buildings above to be reflected, for the eye never understands the want of the reflection. But it is the easiest and most agreeable thing in the world to give the inverted image: it occupies a vast space of otherwise troublesome distance in the simplest way possible, and is understood by the eye at once. Hence Canaletto is glad, as any other inferior workman would be, not to say obliged, to give the reflections in the distance. But when he comes up close to the spectator, he finds the smooth surface just as troublesome near, as the ripple would have been far off. It is a very nervous thing for an ignorant artist to have a great space of vacant smooth water to deal with, close to him, too far down to take reflections from buildings, and yet which must be made to look flat and retiring and transparent. Canaletto, with his sea-green, did not at all feel himself equal to anything of this kind, and had therefore no resource but in the white touches above described, which occupy the alarming space without any troublesome necessity for knowledge or invention, and supply by their gradual diminution some means of expressing retirement of surface. It is easily understood, therefore, why he should adopt this system, which is just what any awkward workman would naturally cling to, trusting to the inaccuracy of observation of the public to secure him from detection.

Thursday, April 18, 2019


It could be argued that John and Yoko made a form of landscape art in Apotheosis (1970), their seventeen minute experimental film of the view from an ascending balloon.  It was shot in December 1969, on a snowy day in Lavenham, Suffolk.  At the beginning you hear the balloon being inflated and see John and Yoko in hooded outfits.  It then becomes clear that the camera is mounted in the balloon, which rises out of the market place until you can see white fields and black trees that could have come from a Bruegel  painting.  This landscape gets progressively whiter and more indistinct until it eventually disappears.  After several minutes, the balloon emerges above the clouds which, in the words of Jonas Mekas, 'opened up like a huge poem, you could see the tops of the clouds, all beautifully enveloped by sun, stretching into infinity.'

Back in 2010, The East Anglian Daily Times published an article about the film and interviewed people who were there that day, such as Roger Deacon, manager of a local building firm, who remembers helping to lift the famous couple out of their balloon.
'John and Yoko didn’t take off on the flight, climbing out of the basket after the photographs to oversee the launch – to shouts of “chicken!” from the gathered crowd – while their collaborator and cameraman, Nic Knowland (himself a Suffolk man, originally from Debenham), ensured the shoot was carried out to their requirements.'
In his essay 'Walking on thin Ice: The Films of Yoko Ono', Daryl Chin compares Apotheosis to the contemporary work of Michael Snow (La Région Centrale, Snow's celebrated three-hour film of an uninhabited mountainous landscape, made with a robotic camera, was shot in September 1970).  However, The East Anglian Daily Times was not impressed by Apotheosis
'The best thing you could say about it is that it left the people of Lavenham - and Yoko - with some bizarre and brilliant memories (“We always have a laugh about it,” says Roger Deacon. “Not many people can say they’ve had their hands around Yoko Ono!”)
Other than that, it was a lot of hot air.'

Friday, April 12, 2019

The Living Stones

The Living Stones (1957) is one of two illustrated travelogues written by surrealist Ithell Colquhoun in the mid 1950s and recently re-published by Peter Owen. They now come with a foreword by comedian and Colquhoun fan Stewart Lee (who, funnily enough, doesn’t mention the negative view of jokes and comedy she expresses on p212 of The Living Stones).  It is easy to see why they have been reprinted now, in a period where so many people have been delving into folk rituals, ancient stones and hidden landscapes.  The Living Stones is an exploration of what we would now call the psychogeography of West Cornwall.  Ithell Colquhoun may be most familiar as an artist (her 1938 painting Scilla in the Tate is a well known example of bodily forms as landscape - two rocks like a woman’s thighs and a patch of seaweed resembling pubic hair), but she was also prominent in esoteric circles. Lee calls her a gnostic travel guide and says that her drawings and cryptic titles originally drew him to buy these volumes, as part of ‘the long-standing folk-mystic second-hand book bender I’m still on.’

I will quote here from the penultimate chapter, ‘Hills of Michael’, in which Colquhoun describes what she calls ‘the ancient centres of Michael-force.’  One Michaelmas Day she climbed a hill to find Chapel Carn Brea, only to find that ‘the summit was littered with dismal reminders of the war, when a radar station had been established here.’
Disused defences collect about them a miasma-like aura which infects them almost physically; this happens to no other buildings in the same degree. Whether this emanation is due to the residues of hatred, fear, boredom and sex-frustration left by the servicemen who have been stationed in them I do not know, but they constitute a centre of astral pestilence. For this reason alone they should be destroyed, but since a plea for their liquidation based on such grounds would be disregarded, one can only point out their deleterious effect on amenity, which is serious enough.  
Turning from this ‘unsavoury debris’ she looked towards a small granite carn and felt drawn to it as ‘the chief remaining vortex of the Michael-force on this much impaired centre’.
Here, perhaps, was the site of that Chapel of St Michael de Bree, which was granted in 1396 by the Mount’s prior to the hermit Ralph de Bolouhal. He kept a light burning in it for the guidance of travellers and fisherman by night, While during the hours of light its whitewashed walls would serve, like those of many coastal shrines, as a day mark. Leaning against the massive boulders or reclining in the shelter they afforded from a wind which otherwise would have made me cough, I mused for an hour, enveloped in air, space and sunlight.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Banana Plantation

John Dunkley, Banana Plantation, c. 1945

A recent New York Review of Books introduced me to the art of John Dunkley (1891 - 1947), a self-taught Jamaican painter whose landscapes remind me of Samuel Palmer's.  He was apparently familiar with Blake, Henri Rousseau, Surrealism and even Chinese painting, which was championed by the art historian in charge of the Institute of Jamaica, where Dunkley spent much of his time when he wasn't working as a barber.  In the NYRB article, Sanford Schwartz notes the aptness of the recent exhibition's title, 'John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night': darkness seems to be ever-present in these paintings.  Here is how Schwartz describes Dunkley's landscapes.  
'They take us less to Jamaica (or to the island of popular imagination) than into the mind of someone who happened to be Jamaican. Dunkley’s pictures, which generally are not of particular places in his country, are in many instances like crosses between little theater sets and the creations of a landscape architect. The painter’s characters, so to speak, are meaty plants, assertive leaves, and cumbrous rosettes (or clusters of leaves), which he makes resemble heads of enormous cauliflowers. There are tidy stone walls, brand-new-looking log fences, and strange cut-down trees, which stick out here and there like baseball bats and can strike viewers, we read in the catalog, as “unabashedly phallic.”
[... His backgrounds] are marked by roads or canals—or allées, river beds, shoreline bluffs, or walkways—that swerve, or zoom off in straight lines, into complete darkness. Next to the stilled and emphatic vegetable life at center stage, these many routes to or from somewhere provide a welcome cursive elegance and sense of movement. We are not sure if they represent invitations to depart from our garden world or stand for uncertainties that our garden world keeps us from facing.'
As this exhibition won't be crossing the Atlantic, I can't see Dunkley's intriguing-sounding paintings for myself.  However, here is another description of them, from a review in the New York Times by Roberta Smith (the eminent art critic, nothing to do with the British artist Bob and Roberta Smith):
'Working in a faded-tapestry palette of mostly black, dark brown and white tinted with green, rose and yellow, he energized his images with disorienting shifts in scale, perspective and form. Bushes and trees suggest large vegetables or flowers; chopped-off tree trunks intimate water pipes, corncobs or phalluses. The branches they sprout are often trees unto themselves. Numerous paths and lanes disappear into dark forests or tunnels while reinforcing the flatness of the canvas. The paint textures range from a thick stucco (used mostly for sheep) to a thinned-down Impressionism (thatches of strokes that denote either grassy banks or overflowing water). Sexual tensions abound, along with a mood that has been called melancholy or gloomy.'
 John Dunkley, Back to Nature, 1939