Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Shore of Sumiyoshi

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 18, 2019

A shower has not long passed

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Garden or Evening Mists

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

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

Monday, May 06, 2019

Roden Crater

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

Roden Crater
Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 05, 2019

A place that exists only in moonlight

Katie Paterson, Inside this desert lies the tiniest grain of sand, 2010
Photography was permitted: this is my photograph of her photograph

We recently took the train down to Margate to see the exhibition A place that exists only in moonlight: Katie Paterson & J.M.W. Turner.  I last mentioned Paterson's work here nearly ten years ago when I saw her talk at a conference:
She described a work completed only last week, Inside this desert lies the tiniest grain of sand, which had involved returning to the Sahara desert a grain of sand that had been chiseled to 0.00005mm using the techniques of nanotechnology.  At extreme magnification the grain of sand resembled a planet and presumably the chiseling process could have created some nano-land art - a microscopic Spiral Jetty or near invisible Double Negative.  The point was made (by Brian Dillon) that she brings a necessary sense of humour to art that deals with cosmic scales of space and time. 
As can be seen above, the Turner Contemporary exhibition included a large black and white photograph of this work, showing the artist returning her tiny artwork to the desert.

Most of Paterson's work has been on a cosmic or planetary scale and therefore doesn't really qualify as landscape art.  For example,
  • Fossil Necklace (2013), my favourite piece in the show, in which time is considered as a circle of beads, charting the evolution of life on earth from its monocellular origins. You can view every bead individually on the artist's website
  • Earth-Moon-Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon) (2007), where Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was translated into Morse code and sent to the Moon and back. Craters on the moon fragmented the signal, leaving gaps in the music.
  • The Cosmic Spectrum (2019), a colour wheel designed to show the colour of the universe at each point in its development (the exhibit was broken and didn't rotate when we were there, but this might have made it easier for us to study it).  It resembles Olafur Eliasson's Turner Colour Experiments, shown at the Tate in 2014 (see my earlier post).
Turner's work was interspersed with Paterson's and included some marvellous studies inspired by light, such as Moonlight on the River (1826) and ? Boats at Sea (c. 1830-45), both from the Tate's collection.

 J. M. W. Turner, Moonlight on the River, 1826

 J. M. W. Turner, ? Boats at Sea, c. 1830-45

There is also a new book, A place that exists only in moonlight, published to coincide with the exhibition but oddly not on sale at the gallery itself (you have to send off for it and I have not (yet) done this).  It comprises short texts that describe artworks that can exist only in the imagination.  Some were placed on the wall, like the one below, which reads like a landscape haiku.  These reminded me of the work of her fellow Scottish artist-poets Thomas A. Clark and Alec Finlay.  As instructions for art projects, they are like the walking proposals of Richard Long, or indeed any of those texts of conceptual artists, writers and composers who have been interested in exploring space and time, light and substance.  Just one example that springs to mind as I write this: La Monte Young's Composition 1960 #15: 'This piece is little whirlpools out in the middle of the ocean.'  Someone could compile an anthology of such works, although they would probably seem less inspiring out of context.  Among the 'Ideas' on Katie Paterson's website, I particularly like A beach made with dust from spiral galaxies, Gravity released one unit at a time and, of course, A place that exists only in moonlight.

Friday, May 03, 2019

The Lithuanian forests

..."What do you think?" He knelt and showed his drawing.
Telimena studied his efforts with much grace,
Though clearly she was a connoisseur.  Her praise
Was sparing, but she encouraged him generously.
"Bravo!" she said. "You've great ability.
Though never forget: an artist has a duty
To seek out nature's loveliness.  Oh, the beauty
Of Italy's skies!  Of Rome's imperial
Rose gardens! Tibur's ancient waterfall,
Pausilippo's fearsome tunnel!  Now that's a land
For art!  This place is pitiful my friend!"
'This place' was Lithuania, setting for the epic poem, Pan Tadeusz, which has been newly translated by Bill Johnston and published in a beautiful edition by Archipelago. My quotation exemplifies a scene often encountered in early nineteenth century literature, where a 'connoisseur' (usually male) is unable to see beyond classical ideals of landscape and appreciate what is in front of them. The conversation between Telimena and the artist, a wealthy young Count, turns to the 'azure skies' of Italy whilst all around them 'the Lithuanian woods stretch limitless'.  Pan Tadeusz, the story's hero and a simple young man who 'still felt nature's draw', urges the Count to paint the trees surrounding them. Tadeusz cares little for "those skies of Italy / All clear and blue - they look like stagnant water! Wind and rain are surely so much better. / Look up right now..." and he goes on to describe the variety and endless beauty of the clouds.

In addition to its forests and skies, Pan Tadeusz celebrates the music, clothing, food and customs of Lithuania in a plot that dramatises the cause of Polish nationalism (Poland and Lithuania had existed as a powerful joint state in Europe before being carved up by its neighbours).  The book was set in Lithuania but written in Polish from Paris, where Adam Mickiewicz (who was actually born in what is now Belarus) had gone to live. Reading Pan Tadeusz I was conscious of the influence of Scott, Byron and Pushkin, but it also reminds me of Turgenev, while Bill Johnston sees elements of Thomas Hardy.  Some of the poem's most famous scenes lend themselves to landscape illustration, such as the bear hunt (below), or a mushroom picking excursion in which the young men look for chanterelles and the ladies seek 'the slim boletus known / In song as the mushroom's general.'

Franciszek Kosttrzevski, Hunting scene in 'Pan Tadeusz', 1886

It is not possible now to write about Pan Tadeusz without referring to Landscape and Memory, which opens with Simon Schama in the puszcza, the woodland wilderness that has become the 'consolatory myth of sylvan countryside that would endure uncontaminated whatever disasters befell the Polish state'.  He discusses Pan Tadeusz and the life of Adam Mickiewicz at some length, showing how, for example, 'no writer before Mickiewicz had described the etiology of the ancient forest with such a keen eye, or worked harder to convey its shifting zones of light and darkness.'  Beyond its tangle of broken trunks there are deep ponds 'half overgrown with grass' where 'the water has a bloody, rust-red sheen / While wisps of noxious smoke rise from within.'  But at the centre of the forest, Mickiewicz imagined a hidden world, ruled by bears, aurochs and bison, where 'decorousness prevails' and an unarmed man would be left unharmed.  Schama pictures Mickiewicz writing this in his Paris apartment, where it was a 'landscape of memory, seen through a lead-pane window: grey houses metamorphosing into timber ruins, the streets invaded by the forest primeval; an unattainable Lithuania governed by bison, a commonwealth of perfect justice and peace, impregnable behind palisades of splintered hornbeam.'