Friday, November 08, 2019

Vaux-le-Vicomte


Last month we visited the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, just outside Paris.  It was the home of Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV's finance minister, and was the creation of three great seventeenth century artists: architect Louis Le Vau, painter Charles Le Brun and landscape designer André le Nôtre.  Throughout Vaux-le-Vicomte there are explanatory signs with diagrams explaining how le Nôtre constructed the estate to create optical illusions.  When you look out from the house across the garden (below), you can see a distant slope with a golden statue, but there is no sign of the garden's canal (above) which actually stretches right across the garden.  A sign informs visitors of what they can expect as they walk down into this landscape.  "The Grand Canal, invisible from the château's front steps, appears out of the blue.  The grottos, which seem to be on the pool's edge, get further away as you progress along the main path of the garden and now seem to be on the opposite side of the canal!  The statue of Hercules now seems impossible to reach..."  I think this clever example of 'decelerated perspective' put Mrs Plinius off walking as far as the Hercules statue but, as you can see below, I was not discouraged and went up to get a good look at it.


The sun was so strong that Hercules himself presented two very different perspectives, shadowy on the way up and gleaming magnificently when you looked back down at him.  Although I felt like I was dutifully walking along a sightline, one of those rays on a diagram connected to an imaginary eyeball, it was impossible not to be distracted by birdsong and the crunch of fallen leaves under your feet.  The sharp shadows and bright sunshine were perfect conditions to enjoy the garden's mathematical aesthetic and indulge in the scopophilia of all those viewing points.  But it was still possible to enjoy the feel of the breeze and smell of the damp grass and choose your own ways of experiencing the space.  My sons got caught up in a game of catching the falling leaves.


On the way back to the château, as you round one end of the canal, there is a great example of borrowed scenery (what Japanese gardeners call shakkei).  What you can see (below) is the Vallée de l'Anqueuil and medieval Pont de Mons, giving the impression that Fouquet's land extended into this idyllic unspoilt landscape.  Here, nature is incorporated within the realm of the garden, but this seems relatively modest when compared to the main design where (as Allen S. Weiss has written) infinity itself, in the form of the vanishing point, is brought into the garden's purview. 

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Chateau d'If


Two years ago I wrote here about the plans-reliefs that Andrew Graham-Dixon visited for a TV documentary - he described them as 'a collection of extraordinary but largely forgotten' table-top landscapes. I mentioned that some of them remain in Paris and last weekend I got to see them - they are on display in Les Invalides.  I framed the photograph above so that this example resembles a real aerial landscape.  However, it is eerily empty - there are roads and buildings but no sign of actual human life: no figures in the fields, no cattle or horses or any other animals.  None of the relief maps show anything happening in these landscapes.  They are quite different from the models we are used to seeing in museums that recreate a key historical event or evoke everyday life at some date in the past.  The plans-reliefs represent a rather bleak vision of the world, as mere terrain to be defended or fought over.  Seeing a relief map of Saint-Tropez in this context was a particular shock - a place that conjures ideas of life at its most joyous - sun, sea, wine, music and Brigitte Bardot on the beach...


Near the glass cabinet dedicated to St Tropez, there is another one containing the Chateau d'If.  I remember that when I first began reading The Count of Monte Cristo I didn't realise that this place, a strangely-named island fortress near Marseilles, was a real location (or that Monte Cristo is an actual island).  But as this relief map from 1681 shows, the Chateau d'If was a key French fortification long before Dumas wrote his novel and the fictional Edmond Dantès was wrongly imprisoned there. Chateau d'Ifs have subsequently multiplied in the many adaptations of Dumas' novel: plays, films and, most recently, video games.  Sometimes other islands have stood in for it - Saint Mary's Tower on Comino, for example, was used in a 2002 film.  Dumas himself would later create another kind of model of the Chateau d'If.  In 1846 he bestowed the name on a grand writer's studio that he had built in the grounds of his country home.  But Dumas spent a lot less time there than Dantès spent in the Chateau d'If - just two years later, short of money, he had to sell it.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Water and sky, suspended like a dream


Gerald Bullett (1893-1958) is perhaps not very well known today, but he was a fairly prolific writer and according to Wikipedia (quoting a 1950 dictionary of authors), a "liberal socialist" who claimed to detest "prudery, Prohibition, blood sports, central heating, and literary tea parties".  Bullett spent the summer of 1945 making translations of ‘a Chinese rural sequence’ by the Song Dynasty geographer-poet-politician Fan Cheng-Ta (Fan Chengda 1126–1193).  These were published in a slim volume the following year as The Golden Year of Fan Cheng-Ta.  Like Ezra Pound and other Western translators, he was working from literal translations made by a Chinese scholar, Tsui Chi. The sequence comprises sixty poems in all, each eight lines long in his versions.  I doubt if they will ever be reprinted because although Bullett was fond of Whitman and didn't go overboard with his rhyming, they are a bit old-fashioned.  What follows here is an excercise in cutting these up and representing them as a kind of landscape poem.  I've condensed each poem into three fragments and strung these haiku-like images together to give a sense of the unfolding year in Suzhou in 1186. 

The Golden Year of Fan Cheng-Ta

Early Spring

Willow flower | young leaves of the mulberry | bright noon
Ten thousand spears of grass | showers | new shoots
The green of the wheat | river meadows |flowering almond and peach
Field-shrine | offerings to the spirit of the earth | faggots and rushes
After the festival | strewn on the grass, flowers | serene air
From the east | rumour of horsemen | a bright cloud, on noiseless hooves
Salad festival | a clear sky | wide panorama of Hu Chiu
Long is the day | in this arbour | we warm the wine
Rain over | to walk where earlier wayfarers have gone | a broad brook
Children and birds | thieving friends | net the cherry flowers
Rice-seed | thunderquake | filling the fields with water
Mulberry tree | measured rows | chives and cabbage

Late Spring

Close-folding lettuce | spring onions white as snow | wind and rain
Lake and sky | green coins of water-lily | bulrush shoots
Butterflies | enter the vegetable flowers | golden stream of the long day
Flood’s edge | the islet-dweller is doing her household washing | twilight is falling
Cool glow of dawn | falling petals | odour of spices borne on a light breeze
On golden mornings | dew that lingers | gather the mulberry leaf
Mud | an island sinking in the flood | weakness of a planted water-fence
Downy, pointed reedlings | russet berries | my walking stick
Rice-in-husk festival | the rain is silken | peony blossoms
After the rains, morning | soft radiance | listening to the golden orioles
Rivers rising | edible miscanthus roots | the oriental lilac blooms
Few come this way | shadows of dove-grey dusk | alone, I weave my fence

Summer

Heavy the trees | long barley blossoms into snow | hedged in with summer
Innumerable tadpoles | fields of the rice crop | water a foot deep
Abundance this surprising year | the oven’s crammed | season of ripening rice-grain
Cocoons, in boiling vats | wheels of the spinning-cart | mulberry-girls cross hands
Day after day | labour at the loom | the mulberry
Watercourses flowing full | upon this water engine | feet of the young men
Sons in the fields | little grandchild | under the mulberry his melon-seeds would grow
Air serenely cool | the rhamnus grows | benign shade
A millstone | a freshet of wind in the willow-shaded air | the noon hour
Lotus-flowers | I drift my boat | small waterfowls wise up, in sudden flight
Gathering caltrops | blood from his pricked fingers | tinges the pale water vermilion
Shadows extend | the cicadas’ bubbling noise | night falls.

Autumn

Golden lilies, red chrysanthemums | concealed nearby, in sedgy marshland | crickets
Girls laugh and sing | the festival Begging Good Luck | river-ferrying stars
Between the boughs | shedding the husk | a brilliant many-coloured moth
Web under the low eaves | a dragonfly and bees | hang there
Fields ready | burden of the year | half the crop must go to pay our debts
Autumn come | we take the unthreshed grain | and spread it in the sun
A full moon | on idle oar | water and sky, suspended like a dream
Threshing of rice grain | fine frosty weather | beat of the flail
Tributary stores | still there’s left to us | husky rice to feed the children
Pulse and corn | jars of earthenware | Day of Double Brightness
Onions finely minced | this mess of fish | a tolerable dish
Unexpected frost | the woods | wear now a richly-embroidered silken dress

Winter

A pale slice of moon | tall trees | leaves scatter the ground
Under the eaves | back to the sun | bleak north wind
Safe from winter's harm | the wind | playing his flute in the fence of bamboo-stakes
A pine-tree flare | the aroma drifting slow | reddening sun
Under the constellation of the Ox | the earth-spirit | our simple shrine
Let the boat take me | air grows ever more crystalline | a brittle sheet of ice
Sweeping away the snow | cabbages | like honeyed lotus-roots
Night of snow | knobs of smokeless charcoal burn | chestnuts in the ashes
Wine to make ready | you who live in towns | are you better off?
Tax-paper | a smooth black-coated gentleman from town | how tiresome
A well-born youth | sees a flowering peach-tree | celestial sight!
The year ends | mutual visiting | linen garments, white as snow

As you can see, the golden year of Fan Cheng-Ta unfolded in a succession of seasonal plants, foods and festivals, while he observed the villagers labouring to produce silk, grain and rice, paying their taxes and receving occasional visitors from the city.  Moments of landscape beauty seem to have come when the author was drifting on a boat, like Rousseau or Wordsworth.  I'll end here by quoting in full one of the poems, No. 54, from which I took some words about the icy lake above.
Let the boat take me leisurely where it will,
So of these snow-bright slopes I have my fill.
The wind falls, is still.  Cold and fine,
The evening air grows ever more crystalline.
The rhythmic pole makes music in my ears
Like breaking jade or shatter of pearly spheres :
By which I guess the water's shining face
Already wears a brittle sheet of ice.