Saturday, September 21, 2019

A Timeline for Landscape in the Arts

I have put together a new timeline of landscape and the arts based on entries in this blog.  It covers five hundred people, ranging in time from Sargon II, King of Assyria, to Robert Macfarlane.  It replaces the earlier chronology I did.  This long list was starting to feel a bit burdensome to keep up (I've also decided to drop my index for the same reason, and because in practical terms the search function here works pretty well).  The software for the timeline is free and uses Google Docs - I think it is pretty cool.  It was not really designed to have as many entries as I have so you will need to use the zoom buttons to navigate clearly through the more recent years.  I have shown an example of this below for a point in the twentieth centur.  If you want to go straight to a version that is on maximum zoom and pointed at the current year, click here.  But from any point you can drag the timeline forwards and backwards.  It is also easy just to move along one entry at a time.

As this timeline relates to people rather than events, there is only one entry per person.  So Emily Carr is recorded in 1942 (late in her career), the year she published 'The Book of Small', rather than, say, 1928 when she painted KitwancoolWilliam and Dorothy Wordsworth, Charlotte Smith and Lord Byron all get one entry only.  I could have included a lot more than 500, based just on the blog as it now stands.  However, I have omitted artists only mentioned in passing, lesser artists and more peripheral figures or well known names that have not really been prominent in exploring landscape (I decided not to include Picasso).  The timeline also concentrates on creative figures rather than critics, theorists, geographers and historians. I intend to amend it occasionally and add to it gradually, especially for earlier years; you can see now why I was interested in writing last week about a datable art work from 1072.  But the blog won't be skewed towards filling in gaps in the timeline.  Some Landscapes is not intended to be a historical encyclopedia of landscape and the arts and doesn't aim at being comprehensive (hence the word 'some').  It will continue to evolve through a process of serendipity, featuring whatever I have come across that seems interesting and worth sharing.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

A dialectic of the near and the far

Guo Xi, Early Spring, 1072

In 1072 the Chinese artist Guo Xi completed one of the most celebrated landscape paintings, Early Spring.  It is his only surviving large scale work - there are smaller scrolls in museums (I have mentioned one here before).  There is a story that he would 'have plasterers roughen the surface of a wall so that in painting his mountains and chasms he could follow the bumps and hollows they had made and get an even more convincing effect of relief' (Michael Sullivan, Symbols of Eternity).  One day I may do a post devoted to Guo's theories of painting, assembled by his son - Lofty Ambition in Forest and Streams (Ernest Fenollosa considered it, with the exception of a few dry sections, 'one of the greatest essays of the world').  Here I'll just provide five quotes about Early Spring interspersed with close-up details. 

'His greatest surviving work, the Early Spring of 1072 in the National Public Museum, Taipei, shows him as a master of monumental design, in which the realistic details of buildings, boats, and fishermen are totally subordinated to broad effects and dramatic contrasts of light and dark.' - Michael Sullivan, Symbols of Eternity

'Rather than an expression of the painter's love of nature in the abstract, it may have been understood by contemporary audiences at court as showing, not real nature, but the ideal landscape of a Daoist paradise.' - Craig Clunas, Art in China

'The man Guo Xi served, the emperor Shenzong, only rarely in his life had occasion to directly enjoy the natural world outside of his imperial palaces ... Early Spring is a vision of flux, growth, life, and order precisely suited to the imperial gaze.' Richard M. Barnhart, Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting

'The mountain as majestic lord is complemented by the figures that reflect perceptions of social hierarchy.  At the bottom of the composition, country fol and fishermen represent the foundation of society.' - Alfreda Murck, Poetry and Painting in Song China

'One cannot keep the near separate from the far; the two mesh intimately, mirroring each other rather than standing apart; so much so that there is no place for middle distance in a work such as this, which exhibits a dialectic of the near and the far - of the rocks below and the mountains above and behind it.' - Edward S. Casey, Representing Place: Landscape Painting and Maps

My reason for highlighting one datable painting from history in this way will become clear in my next blog post.  Suffice it to say now that I find it fascinating to think about the point at which this painting emerged into the river of world history: in the time of Omar Khayyam and El Cid, and just as a group of needleworkers whose names have not come down to us were embroidering the Bayeux Tapestry.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Bare plain, leafless, treeless

Reading the exiled Ovid's Tristia and Black Sea Letters you keep wanting him to tell his correspondents back in Rome about the landscape at Tomis.  But all of these poems are about one thing - his desire to get back home - and so his brief descriptions do not go into any details, they are a means of provoking sympathy in the reader. Here is what translator Peter Green says about Ovid's account of the region where Tomis was situated, on the tip of a peninsula, seventy miles south of the Danube delta. 
'Its treeless, monotonous steppe, he writes, resembles a frozen grey sea, patched - appropriately enough - with wormwood, a maquis of bitter and symbolic associations.  There are no vines, he repeatedly complains, no orchards: spring in the Italian sense doesn't exist and few birds sing.  The countryside is ugly, harsh, savage, inhuman.  The water is brackish, and merely exacerbates thirst.  But Ovid's two great fearful obsessions are the biting cold and the constant barbarian raids. Again and again he returns to the snow, the ice, the sub-zero temperatures: bullock-carts creaking across the frozen Danube, wine broken off and sold in chunks, the violent glacial north-easter (today known as the crivat) that rips off roof-tiles, sears the skin, and even blows down buildings if they are not solidly constructed.' 
Was he exaggerating? In the tenth Black Sea Letter Ovid actually gave some scientific proof that the Black Sea did actually freeze at Tomis.  In this area many freshwater rivers flow into the sea and there is a cold north wind that chills the air.  As Peter Green says in one of his endnotes (which are wonderfully witty and erudite): 'Dr. Stefan Stoenescu informs me that 'the rich salty waters [of the Danube delta] create a brackish region ear the littoral which allows an inversion of temperature to take place.  The unsalty waters of the Danube have sufficient power to maintain a thin layer of comparatively sweet fresh water above the deeply settled salty Mediterranean current.  As a result, near the Danube delta shores freezing is not an unusual occurrence.  Ovid was right.''

Eugène Delacroix, Ovid among the Scythians, 1862

Nevertheless, Ovid does not really say what Tomis was like outside winter.  Now called Constanța, it is a tourist destination and has 'a humid subtropical climate' with cool breezes in summer and warm autumns.  The treelessness Ovid complained about was true of his immediate location but if he had ventured further afield he would have encountered forests.  Presumably the dangers from the local tribesmen, with their poison-tipped arrows, prevented him leaving the town.  So this wasn't a poetic exile like some others that I have written about here - Xie Lingyun, for example, banished in 422 to the southeast coast of China, but able to draw solace from his walks in the mountains.  Ovid was trapped and desperate to leave.

I will end here with a few lines of Ovid's poetry, from Tristia Book III, written de profundis in his frozen hell.  The north wind screams and 'no comber will surge up from the hard packed flood' and Ovid sadly recalls those early autumn days when everything in Italy is ripening. 
... No sweet grapes here beneath thick shady vine-leaves,
   no frothing must to top up the deep vats;
no orchards, no fruit trees, no apple on which Acontius
   could cut the message for his love to read:
nothing to meet the eye here but bare plain, leafless, treeless -
   not the habitat any luckier man would choose -
and this, with the whole wide world's expanse to choose from,
   is the region selected for my punishment!

Sunday, September 08, 2019

A map of Elmbourne

I have just read All Among the Barley, the third novel by Melissa Harrison, whose writings and nature observations I've been following over the last few years via her prolific Twitter feed.  Looking online afterwards to see what had been written about the novel, I found a piece in Elementum by the artist who drew maps for her book, Neil Gower.  He says that over the years the most indecipherable author sketches he has had to work with are those of Jilly Cooper, 'A2 Basquiat-esque collages of who’s bonking whom (and where)'.  I was actually given a copy of Jilly Cooper's Riders as a joke birthday present recently and have just dug it out to see if it has a map in it.  I can't see one - perhaps they're in her other books?  Anyway, back to Melissa Harrison, who, by contrast, gave Gower very meticulous notes on her imagined Suffolk village of Elmbourne, along with 'stylistic cues in the form of an 1853 tithe map and a 1941 Tunnicliffe map (from Faber’s first edition of Henry Williamson’s The Story of a Norfolk Farm).'  Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter and supporter of Oswald Mosley, is mentioned in the novel - his opinions are admired by Constance FitzAllen, whose arrival from London leads to conflict in the village and confusion in the mind of Edie, the novel's teenage protagonist. 

From the perspective of this blog, I suppose I would rather the protagonist had been this character Connie, so as to learn more about her thinking on landscape.  It would have been interesting to read a bit more about the wider currents of nativist politics and rural revivalism - Lord Lymington, Rolf Gardiner and so on.  But that would have been a different novel; this one is very much contained within the fields and lanes that make up the world of Edie Mather.  According to Gower, Melissa Harrison too 'inhabits the landscape intimately, like her characters'.  For example, she advised him that in 'Suffolk lanes you often get a little triangle of grass left as an island with a white signpost on it. This is because the junctions were formed by carts/wagons and not cars. Carts can't turn such a tight corner as cars can...'  There's a potential paradox here, in reducing such a richly textured place to a two dimensional diagram.  But a map is a portal that can help the reader enter a novel's world and experience more than the author has been able to set down.

A few years ago The New Yorker carried an article on 'The Allure of the Map', beginning inevitably with Treasure Island and Lord of the Rings.  It went on to say that
Genre fiction often involves cartographic illustration, but so, too, do highly regionalist works. Sherwood Anderson commissioned a map of the titular town “Winesburg, Ohio,” as did the novelist Jan Karon for her novels set in the fictional town of Mitford, North Carolina. Henry David Thoreau surveyed Walden Pond for a map that he included in “Walden,” and William Faulkner drew his own map of Yoknapatawpha County for the publication of “Absalom, Absalom!” Faulkner revised the map ten years later for “The Portable Faulkner,” going so far as to call himself “sole owner and proprietor,” and adding a note: “Surveyed & mapped for this volume by William Faulkner.”
The list could be added to with British novels of place: I have mentioned here before Thomas Hardy's sketch map of Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native, for example.  All Among the Barley is part of this history of deeply imagined literary landscapes.

Finally, as a kind of postrscript, I can't resist mentioning another map in that New Yorker article, the one Ursula K. Le Guin drew for the Earthsea trilogy.  Just as I was reading All Among the Barley, my younger son was finishing A Wizard of Earthsea.  We have been talking about the book and he says he loves the way the archipelago contains so many different lands and ways of living.  It made me think about the way books open up our horizons, something that starts to happen to Edie in All Among the Barley...  The map of Earthsea particularly appealed to my son and he has identified on it his three favourite places (Too, Tor and O).  It is clear that he is now sailing his way among those islands in his imagination.