Last week I discussed here the way artists over the centuries have depicted Korea's Diamond Mountains, but these extraordinary peaks are are not the most revered landscape in this part of the world. The great stratovolcano, Mount Paektu, features in both North and South Korea's national anthems and has always been considered a sacred site - the birthplace of Dangun, founder of the first Korean kingdom, whose father was the Son of Heaven. Mount Paektu is in what is now North Korea and has become inextricably linked with ideas of the country's leaders, a process that began with an epic poem, Cho Ki-chon's 'Mt. Paektu' (1947). A recent example is 'We Will Go to Mount Paektu', a song which Laibach wanted to cover on their controversial visit to North Korea in 2015.
For his 2016 documentary Into the Volcano, Werner Herzog visited Mount Paektu with volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer. In the film they note how frequently it appears in official iconography as a backdrop to images of North Korean leaders. They are also shown another pilgrimage site, Kim Il-sung's secret log cabin where, according to his official biography, Kim Jong-il was born in 1941. Herzog says in his voiceover that "in the Christian World, this would be like visiting the birthplace of Jesus - the stable in Bethlehem". I have featured the humble retreats of poets and artists many time on this blog in the past; here again we have an example of the cultural significance of a solitary hut in a mountain landscape.
The film goes on to show images of this log cabin in the snow and Mount Paektu at sunrise. These represent a form of landscape art that requires vast numbers of people all obeying strict instructions, neither creating or seeing the image but themselves forming a human canvas.
"In the country's biggest stadium, more than 100,000 people participate in creating a unique artform. The picture of the hut in the snow is not a painting. It is made of human pixels. And this is how it's done. A prearranged pattern of coloured cards is held and flipped over in sync. Here: the rising sun over the landscape of Mount Paektu."
We often think of the way nature is reshaped in response to our dreams and desires, or the way artists have painted mountains as an expression of their individuality and subjective experience. Here, in a setting that approaches the scale of a real landscape, there are no individuals and only one official story.
In these days of mass global travel it feels as if everywhere of note is being constantly visited and photographed, but one of the most spectacular and culturally significant landscapes in the world is almost inaccessible. The Diamond Mountains, known collectively as Mount Geumgang, are in what is now North Korea. The art they inspired was recently the subject of an exhibition in New York which I would love to have seen. The Met's catalogue (a very lovely book) explains the three main areas travellers sought out, following in the footsteps of poets, painters and travel diarists: Inner Geumgang is a lush landscape of streams and pools; Outer Geumgang has steep trails, dramatic peaks and waterfalls; and by the shore, Sea Geumgang has strange rock formations and pillars rising from the waters. The painting above shows the entire mountain range and is by Jeong Seon (1676-1759), the artist who did more than any other to popularise the area. It is an example of a 'general view' that tries to capture the whole landscape at once, rather like a modern skiing map. Interpreters have seen this painting in cosmological terms, representing yin and yang - dark and light, wet and dry, earth and universe.
Detail of the General View of Mt. Geumgang
The painting on the cover of the Met's catalogue (below) is also very much a landscape of contrasts. It is one of the thirteen views in Jeong's Album of Mount Geumgang (1711), painted after what is thought to have been his first visit to the mountains. It shows the view from Danbal Ridge - 'Danbal' means "cutting one's hair" and comes from the idea that the view here is so astonishing it will lead the traveller to shave his head, become a monk and withdraw from the secular world. In Korea people spoke of 'entering the mountain', in the sense of going into a spiritual realm, rather than 'ascending the mountain' and conquering it like a mountaineer. Lee Soomi describes this painting in the catalogue:
'Jeong painted himself and his fellow travellers alighting in the magnificent scene. Oer the clouds, the mountain's twelve thousand peaks shine as if in greeting. Jeong juxtaposed the dark and earthy terrain of Danbal Ridge with the white, rocky peaks, defining the forested ridge with short Mi dots and emphasizing the mountain's steepness through sharp, diagonal forms. A sheer fog hovers between the two kinds of mountains, creating a void that underscores the contrast.'
The Met website has a long and well-illustrated interview with the curator Soyoung Lee which is like a condensed version of the catalogue. This includes views of the Diamond Mountains painted in subsequent centuries by literati, court painters and folk artists. There are two remarkable twentieth century ink paintings, one by Byeong Gwansik (1899-1976) with a strange diagonal pinnacle cutting across the view, and another by Lee Ungno (1904-1989), where mountains are painted with strikingly beautiful brush strokes and colours (it would be a wonderful inspiration for anyone posting daily pictures at the moment for 'Inktober'). Soyoung Lee says that both of these artists
multiple times to the mountains and made sketches during the colonial
period before 1945, when the peninsula was divided into north and south.
Yet although they travelled and made sketches during this period, the
finished paintings all date to post-1945, which speaks deeply to the
particular sense of nostalgia people felt at that time, a nostalgia for a
place before it was disrupted and divided. [,,,] The work of both these
artists is deeply informed by a sense of longing and loss. They were
recreating a site they had intimately experienced, which was no longer
accessible to them."
‘The only way one can understand landscape is through time.’ - James Benning
This is a still from TEN SKIES (2004) a film by James Benning that lasts over two hours and consists of ten static shots of the sky over California. You can currently watch it all on YouTube. Claudia Slanar has written about this film and its predecessor 13 LAKES (2004) that the attention they demand ‘leads to a
fluctuation between impatience, immersion and digression.’ Scott MacDonald has described the experience of seeing them for the first
time as like going into a horror film, where the viewer has to decide to
‘endure whatever the film is about to send their way.’ By the third
ten minute sequence it will be clear that almost nothing is going to
happen. So what exactly do they offer? MacDonald suggests they provide a kind of visual and
‘Again and again during a viewing of either film, we ‘awake’ to realise
that our minds have moved elsewhere, into daydream, memory, worry,
planning… and we wrestle our consciousness back to the screen and
soundtrack, often to realise that in the interim things have altered
more than we might have expected.’
In these films, landscape is transformed directly into art. As Slanar says, they 'represent the concept of nature as a ’ready-made’, as a
pre-existing object that is turned into a work of art by means of an
The fragmentary soundtrack of Ten Skies ‘subtly evokes a sense of place without
depending on synchronous sound’.
She relates Benning's films to other examples of slow cinema – Peter Hutton's Time and Tide (2000) and At Sea (2007), Sharon Lockhart’s Pine Flat
(2006), Abbas Kiorostami’s Five (2003). Her essay, and that of Scott MacDonald, appear in an excellent compilation dedicated to James Benning published in 2007 by the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna. The book discusses his work's engagement with ideas of place and the rapidly changing American landscape. As Julie Ault says, the films reveal a persistent iconography – ‘groups of cows,
passing trains, emitting smokestacks, farmland being ploughed,
billboards, gunshots, oil wells, highways, the Spiral Jetty and the
Milwaukee neighbourhood where Benning was born and raised.’
Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty is the subject of Casting a glance (2007): seventy-eight one-minute shots made during sixteen trips to the Jetty between May 15 2005 and January 14 2007. The title refers to something Smithson said that evokes that idea of landscape as 'ready-made': ‘a great artist can make art by simply casting a glance.’ Benning first saw Spiral Jetty almost twenty years earlier. In those days it was much harder to find - he tried
various roads from Rozel Point before finding one that led to wards
the lake, then had to walk three miles to find it, submerged at that point under two feet of water. I will end here with Benning's evocative description of encountering Spiral Jetty as a site constantly changing, illustrating his view that 'the only way one can understand landscape is through time.'
‘The Jetty is a barometer for both daily and yearly cycles. From
morning to night its allusive, shifting appearance (radical or subtle)
may be the result of a passing weather system or simply the changing
angle of the sun. The yearly seasonal shifts and water level changes
alter the growing salt crystals, the amount of algae in the water, and
the presence of wildlife. The water may appear blue, red, purple,
green, brown, silver, or gold. The sounds may come from a navy jet,
wildlife, splashing water, a distant car radio, converging
thunderstorms; or be a silence so still you can hear the blood moving
through the veins in your ears.'
I’ve been looking through a library copy of The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop, a huge, glossy and expensive book based on material in the Art Directors Guild archives. Among its many full page illustrations there is a relatively brief history of painted backdrops in Hollywood, followed by short chapters on some key figures: George Gibson, Ben Carré, Duncan Alanson Spencer and two family dynasties, the Coakleys and the Strangs.
George Gibson (1904-2001) is possibly the most interesting of these from a landscape perspective, partly because he was also a well regarded water colourist and leading figure in the Californian School of plein air artists (many of whom worked in Hollywood). Gibson had been trained at Glasgow School of Art before emigrating to America during the Depression. He had quite a low opinion of some of the backdrop artists he found working at MGM...
‘We had a large backing of mountains and pine trees to paint. At that time we had to work off fixed scaffolding with standing levels seven feet apart with a forty foot high backing. The pine trees in the foreground of the backing ran full size top to bottom. [When we] struck the fixed scaffolding, the only part of the pine trees that matched was their trunks. Every section on the seven levels [of scaffolding] had a different version of pine needles because each artist had his own conception of what pine needles should look like. It was obvious that they hadn’t been painting in the out-of-doors, or even bothered to look critically at a pine tree, if ever.’
Gibson was put in charge of work on backdrops for The Wizard of Oz, Brigadoon, North by Northwest, Forbidden Planet and many others. The book includes photographs of the sound stages on which such movies were acted out, with their foreground props merging quite convincingly with painted landscape backgrounds.
There is an example of one landscape setting he painted himself, a church in the snow which can be seen in The Brothers Karamazov (1958). However, many of the old backdrops have long since been damaged and lost.
When Mark Cousins was directing the Edinburgh Film Festival in the mid 90s he decided to draw a link between The Wizard of Oz and the city of Gibson's birth. "We thought it would
be fun and challenging to transform Edinburgh Castle into the Emerald
City. No-one knew about the Gibson connection at that time." I'm not sure what this transformation entailed, but certainly the connection has now been established and you'll find Gibson referred to in several online guides to Edinburgh.