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.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

River Landscape

Annibale Carracci, The Sacrifice of Isaac, c. 1599-1600

In The Vision of Landscape in Renaissance Italy (1966), A. Richard Turner singled out this painting as the most brilliant landscape painted by Annibale Carracci (1560-1609).  It is quite hard to find on the Louvre's website but I eventually tracked it down ('le drame imminent du sujet biblique trouve un écho dans le paysage environnant.')  Why did Turner rate it so highly?  Partly, it was the way Carracci managed to achieve something monumental on such a small scale (45 x 34 cm).  It was painted on copper - a medium usually approached with the techniques of a miniaturist - but Carracci used a much looser, more confident approach.  Then there are those 'unforgettable' colours, the 'light-drenched blues and greens' of the valley are enough to make you forget the drama taking place on the cliff.  The way the landscape was structured is also unusual - we look both upwards to the scene of sacrifice and downwards towards the valley.  Light flowing in from the left delineates the landforms but then melts 'into softly differentiated colours and luminosities'.  Through his handling of light and colour Annibale showed himself more interested in tonality than form.  He had a 'flawless feeling for atmosphere'.

 Annibale Carracci, Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, c. 1604

Turner's chapter on Carracci goes on to talk about the influence of Paul Bril, who had popularised landscape painting in Italy in the 1580s, showing how Carracci moved beyond him.  Two similar paintings in lunette format offer an obvious point of comparison, Carracci's Flight into Egypt and a Bril landscape in the piano nobile of the Lateran palace.  'Annibale's landscape has a clear focus and is simple, while Bril's is panoramic and laden with discursive anecdote.'  Carracci's painting has its own Wikipedia page and has long been regarded as one of the great works of Western landscape art - numerous people have written about it as an influence on later artists like Claude and Poussin.  By contrast, I cannot find any images or mention of the Bril painting online at all, which just goes to show how valuable books like The Vision of Landscape in Renaissance Italy remain.

Annibale Carracci, The Penitent Magdalene in a Landscape, c. 1598

This time next week I will be in Berlin, where there is a Carracci River Landscape that Turner discusses in his book; perhaps I should try to see it, as I can find almost nothing about it online.  There is though another lovely River Landscape now in Washington that you can access via the Google Art Project - its caption says that 'nature here is appreciated first and foremost for herself and not as the backdrop for a story. A mellow sunlight dapples the land and picks out the ripples disturbing the surface of the river. The gold in the treetops suggests a day in early autumn.'  Turner, by contrast, concludes his discussion of Carracci with a painting in which landscape shares prominence with the penitent Magdalene, who is not so much 'in' a landscape as 'before it'.  He thinks that this painting shows Carracci's strengths as a landscapist and weakness as an artist, since there is no real relationship between figure and setting.  Nevertheless, that dark frame of trees around a brilliant cerulean sky 'suggests the sublimity of calm, permanence and civilised nature, all presented through the hand of a fine painter.'      

 Annibale Carracci, River Landscape, c. 1590

Monday, August 12, 2019

Windsor Castle and Park

Well, here's some interesting news from the British Library:
'With something like a thrill we must record that probably the very germ and protoplasm of landscape art in Britain sprang from a king, and took form and shape in the very national heart of all the kingdom. Somewhere about the year 1550 the son and heir to King Henry VIII, afterwards King Edward VI (1537–1553), sat down in Windsor Park and drew and coloured a view of the Castle.'
Edward Tudor (??), Coloured ink drawing of Windsor Castle and Park

In fact this is not news but a quote from a book published over sixty years ago: Maurice Harold Grant's A Chronological History of the Old Landscape Painters (in oil), from the XVIth Century to the XIXth Century (8 vols, Leigh on Sea, 1957-1961), I, p. 31.  However, as the most recent blog post in the BL's excellent 'Picturing Places' series says, 'Grant’s suggestion that this image represents the first stirring of British landscape art has been universally ignored'.  Fred Smith has now looked again at the evidence that the sketch, pasted into the flyleaf of an edition of Myles Coverdale’s 1538 New Testament, may have been done by the future king.  For example, Edward is reported to have been proficient on the lute, but could he have also been taught how to draw?  On the landscape itself,
'Although Edward passed relatively little time at Windsor, he spent a prolonged period there on at least one occasion. Fearing unrest in the capital, Protector Somerset had conveyed the young king to Windsor for his safety in October 1549.  Having spent some days confined to the castle and its grounds, Edward reportedly likened it to a prison, complaining: ‘here be no galleries nor no gardens to walke in’.  Perhaps he took to drawing the castle to divert his attention?'
I have mentioned royal painters here before, from the Qianlong Emperor of China to Prince Eugen of Sweden, but have not been particularly interested in discussing the amateur efforts of our own royal family - Queen Victoria, for example, or Prince Charles (whose watercolours the Telegraph described as 'torpor-inducingly conventional').  This sketch though, if it is by Edward, would be fascinating as it is so early in the history of Western landscape art.  Unfortunately, there is evidence that it was not painted by the prince.  It looks as if it may have been copied from a background in Marcus Gheeraerts’s print 'Procession of the Knights of the Garter', published in 1576, after Edward's death.  Disappointing, although as Fred Smith says, such a conclusion still 'raises some intriguing questions. Where and when did the myth of Edward’s authorship originate?'  And, whoever painted it, there is something charming about those delicately sketched deer sitting, walking and jumping around on the turf, underneath the dark ramparts of the castle.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

Viewing the Three Lakes


Hsieh T'iao
'Viewing the Three Lakes'

I have previously devoted a post to Hsieh Ling-yün (Xie Lingyun, 385-433), known as the founder of the shan-shui ("rivers-and-mountains") tradition in Chinese poetry.  Here I want to focus on Hsieh T'iao (Xie Tiao), a younger kinsman also known for his landscape poetry, who lived from 464-499.  His work is not easy to find online and his Wikipedia entry is currently just a stub.  However, I have actually quoted one of his poems before, 'Viewing the Three Lakes' - 'Red clouds mirrored where the waters meet. / From the red terrace -- birds returning, / the encircling plains, mosaic of river isles. / Inklings of spring's luxuriance / as autumn's last yellows fade...'

Cynthia L. Chennault has written a study of Hsieh's work.  In The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, she says that his poetry 'is perhaps best known for the rich variety of ways in which it describes qualities of light'.  She points to two ways in which he developed the nature writing tradition in Chinese poetry:
  • Subject matter: his landscapes are expansive, more generalized, less 'vertical' and often include man-made features.
  • Style: he uses syntactic variation to give more variety to his descriptions and incorporate emotional expression - a river as a metaphor for the poet's directional ambivalence, for instance.

Hsieh T'iao held various official posts and in 495 was made governor of Hsüan-ch'eng (Xuancheng).  'Hardly different from a hermit's life' he called it, with 'few law suits to hear on the grass-grown terrace.'  Hsieh built himself there a pavilion that would later feature in a poem by Li Po (Li Bai, 701-62) - 'Farewell to Uncle Yun, Imperial Librarian, at Xie Tiao Pavilion in Xuancheng'.  A century later another great poet, Tu Mu (Du Mu, 803-52), came to the city and saw Hsieh's old home.  There he wrote poems about Kai-yuan temple, built earlier in the T'ang Dynasty, long after Hsieh's time ('the brook's sound enters the dreams of monks, / and the moonlight glows on its stucco walls.')

Moving further ahead in time to 1170, another great poet, Lu Yu (Lu You, 1125-1209), visited Hsieh's old residence, and also the Southern capital of Chin-Ling (Jinling) where Hsieh had lived and written poetry.  There is a good article by Nathan Woolley, based on Lu's 'An Account of a Journey to Shu', of his time at Chin-Ling.  It quotes three of Hsieh's poems - here are the opening lines of 'About to Set Forth From Stone Fortress, I Ascend the Beacon-fire Loft':
Wavering and hesitant, I pine over the capital;
With dragging steps, I tread up to the storied loft.
Seen from a height, the palace grounds and gate towers seem close by,
But as I peer into the distance, windblown clouds are many.
Departure for Hsieh was hard when all he could see beyond the city was upsurging hills and a sea of dashing waves. 

Ten poems by Hsieh appear in the anthology New Songs from a Jade Terrace (compiled 534-45) but none of them are 'landscape' poetry.  Five might be considered 'still life' - 'object poems' on a lamp, a candle, a bed, a mirror stand and falling plum blossom.  He also wrote a set of 'Songs of the Drum and Flute', dedicated to the Prince of Sui which Cynthia Chennault describes as charming early works. Arthur Waley translated one of them in his seminal anthology, A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1919), a 'Song of the Men of Chin-Ling' who are marching back to the capital.
The green canals of the city stretch on and on 
And its high towers stretch up and up. 
Flying gables lean over the bridle-road: 
Drooping willows cover the Royal Aqueduct.
Hsieh T'iao did not make it into our sixth century - he died in prison in 499.  It was a sad echo of the fate of his predecessor Hsieh Ling-yün, who was executed following a third and final banishment from court.  A year before his death, Hsieh T'iao wrote a 'Poetic Essay Requiting a Kindness', addressed to his fellow poet Shen Yüeh (it is the subject of a 1990 article by Richard Mather).  After Hsieh's death, Shen wrote a lament for him.  'His melodies resound in tune with bells and lithophones; / His thoughts soar high above the winds and clouds.'

Chinese edition of The Selected Works of Xie Tiao and Yu Xin

Thursday, August 01, 2019

The sky was a subtle newsprint grey

Last month, in connection with the Apollo landing anniversary, I mentioned Earth-Moon-Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon) (2007), Katie Paterson's work in which Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was translated into Morse code and sent to the Moon and back.  Morse code has been used since 1844 and I guess Samuel Morse, who developed an early version in 1837, must be one of the most universally known eponymous inventors.  But Morse only became an involved in telegraphic communication in the 1830s - until then he had been a professional painter, mainly of portraits, although he did do landscapes too.  A profile of Morse in Wired, 'The American Leonardo', notes that he 'died rich and famous in 1872.  Congress passed a memorial resolution praising his contribution to modern communications.'  Morse had once written to his friend Fenimore Cooper that "I have no wish to be remembered as a painter, for I never was a painter."

Samuel F. B. Morse, Landscape composition: Helicon and Aganippe
(allegorical landscape of New York University), 1836 

This was Samuel Morse the painter, of an allegorical landscape that relocates NYU’s University Building from Washington Square to an idyllic Claudian landscape.  Aganippe is a fountain at the foot of Mount Helicon dedicated to the Muses.  In her book Anglophilia: Deference, Devotion, and Antebellum America, Elisa Tamarkin notes that in this painting Morse 'finds the promise of the college not in the vitality of its students and faculty (which he joined) but in the symbolic grandeur of the institution and in an organic vision that admits no sign of change but a formulaic dawn.'  Such conservatism was in line with Morse's reactionary politics - he was anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant and pro-slavery.  This was the kind of worldview that would influence elite American universities as they developed policies to exclude minorities.

If you are familiar with Robert Smithson's writings you can probably guess where I am going with this...  'A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey' on 30 September 1967 famously begins with Smithson purchasing a copy of the Brian W. Aldiss novel, Earthworks to read on the bus.  But he also picked up a copy of that morning's New York Times and there he saw a reproduction of Morse's allegorical landscape:
'the sky was a subtle newsprint grey, and the clouds resembled sensitive stains of sweat  reminiscent of a famous Yugoslav watercolourist whose name I have forgotten.  A little statue with right arm held high faced a pond (or was it the sea?).  “Gothic” buildings in the allegory had a faded look, while an unnecessary tree (or was it a cloud of smoke?) seemed to puff up on the left side of the landscape.'
So much for Morse; Smithson makes no mention of his role in developing an entirely new form of signification and communication.  Smithson got off the bus when he reached the first 'monument' of his tour, a bridge over the Passaic.  He must still have been thinking about the dead landscape reproduced in the paper.  As he watched the bridge open to let a barge go past, he viewed these actions as 'the limited movements of an outmoded world.'