Thursday, December 31, 2020

Rock and Brook


The Coat of Arms of Alland, Lower Austria

I like the way that when you look somewhere up on Wikipedia you tend to get given its coat of arms and I've noticed over time that the heraldry for particular places and regions occasionally includes landscape features. Rivers are an obvious example. Wikimedia includes a whole category 'rivers in heraldry' which range from the subtle - just wavy lines or patches of blue - to complete symbolic landscapes like the one above, for the market town of Alland in Austria. 

Although my father is a heraldry buff, I know little about it and so I will have to quote here from the International Heraldry site. They explain how landscape symbols ('charges') have been used over the years:

The oldest geological charge is the mount, typically a green hilltop rising from the lower edge of the field, providing a place for a beast, building or tree to stand. Natural mountains and boulders are not unknown, though ranges of mountains are differently shown. An example is the arms of Edinburgh, portraying Edinburgh Castle atop Castle Rock. Volcanos are shown, almost without exception, as erupting, and the eruption is generally stylised. In the 18th century, landscapes began to appear in armoury, often depicting the sites of battles. For example, Admiral Lord Nelson received a chief of augmentation containing a landscape alluding to the Battle of the Nile. 

Lord Nelson's coat of arms - note the landscape above the shield.

If you take a particular European region and look at its heraldry you will mostly see lots of lions and eagles and crosses, but there will also be a few clues to the local topography. Taking a pretty much random example, consider the state of Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany, which has twenty-four districts. River symbols representing the Rhine appear on the arms of the districts of Ahrweiler, Germersheim and Rhein-Pfalz-Kreis. A wavy white line in the arms of Mayen-Koblenz represents both the Rhine and the Moselle. The district of Südliche Weinstraße is named after the tourist wine route and has a white bar representing the route and grapes representing the wine. As this shows, such designs are not ancient, although they can incorporate older motifs - the Rhein-Pfalz-Kreis shield includes water lilies which were used in earlier Rhineland heraldry. The best one from a landscape point of view is shown below. The jug represent the ceramic industry, the green band refers to forests and the basalt columns symbolise the Westerwald's volcanic rock.    

The Coat of Arms of Westerwald District, Rhineland-Palatinate
If it seems reductive to think of place as mere landscape, for example by representing a complex four dimensional environment within a two-dimensional painting, then an image like this goes a stage further. Here we have an icon signifying a whole district of Germany made of just three colours and three shapes. It has to be said that modern heraldry like this can seem no more interesting than corporate branding. I am sure though that there are fascinating examples of landscape in the history of heraldry if you dig into the subject (which I've not done). I did a quick search and came up with one: Bad Griesbach in Bavaria, which has a design canting on the name of the town (Gries = rock, Bach = brook). The Heraldry Wiki includes the modern arms but also an image from a manuscript of 1599. This is rather lovely and could almost be a fragment of an early landscape painting. 
The Coat of Arms of Bad Griesbach im Rottal, Bavaria

Monday, December 21, 2020

Sacred mountains speak

A recent edition of The Early Music Show on Radio 3 focused on the music of Latin America and had a segment on the soundscapes of ancient meso-American and Andean cultures. Music archaeologists Matthias Stöckli and Alexander Herrera described the way musical instruments were drawn from the landscape - llama hoof drums, bone flutes, turtle shells - and used in rituals to encourage fertile crops. Sixteenth century dictionaries describe a Mayan shell horn trumpet that would promote the "greening of the fields". In the Andes, music and dance were associated with the changing seasons. They provided a way of communicating with ancestors, particularly through echoes. 

"...So the echoes of the instruments in the landscape are a way of communicating with the landscape, of making those sacred mountains speak to you. We find it in caves, we find it in spaces with rock art, which have a particular sound to them. They also have names. [One of these denoted] a place with a very special soundscape and that soundscape was made to resonate at specific times of the year with specific instruments..."

Andean musical instruments
Source: Wikimedia Commons (Andean Culture History by Wendell Clark Bennett)

Whenever I come across something like this, from a field of knowledge I know nothing about, I find myself trawling the internet for information and hoping it will lead to unfamiliar intersections between culture and landscape. You can find a lot online about the wind and percussion instruments of Latin America but what interests me is the way that the wider landscape would have featured in performance. The Met website has an article on ancient Andean music and mentions the ceremonial centre of Chavín de Huántar, where 'engraved stone slabs surrounding a sunken circular court show elaborately dressed figures walking in procession and carrying ritual objects such as spondylus shells, hallucinogenic cactus stalks, and shell trumpets.' There is website devoted to the Chavín de Huántar Archaeological Acoustics project where you can watch a short video and hear the sound of a pututu conch shell trumpet. But these shells were not taken from the local landscape, they were obtained through long-distance trade. So really this would have been the opposite of music attuned to nature: the sound of the conch shell has been a means of summoning people in many cultures (as readers of Lord of the Flies are aware) and here it would have cut across the soundscape, collapsed distance and, like Wallace Stevens' jar in Tennessee, taken dominion everywhere.

One writer I have come across with help from Google is Henry Stobart, a Reader in Music and Ethnomusicology at Royal Holloway, who has written about traditional music in Bolivia. I will quote here one interesting paragraph, pointing to the importance of landscape features. Stobart has a whole chapter on Andean sirenas in an anthology of essays, Music of the Sirens.

During feasts people may also dance for many miles across the landscape, singing and playing instruments as they go, as they make a tour of community boundaries, undertake pilgrimages, or visit particular homesteads. The lyrics of the songs they perform on such journeys may also reference a range of features of the landscape. Links between music and landscape are made especially explicit in rural discourses about sirinus or sirenas, spirit beings that are typically associated with specific places in the landscape, such as waterfalls, springs, rocks or caves. While living over several years, during the 1990s, in the rural community of Kalankira in the Macha region of Northern Potosí, I was often told that all music ultimately comes from the sirinus. And, just as music comes from these spirit beings of the landscape, it was also often played back as consuelo or “consolation” to the powers of the “animated” landscape that ensure human welfare. On many occasions I joined friends in Kalankira to play music in the landscape, focusing our attention on particular rocks, corrals or other places that were seen to ensure the welfare and reproduction of the herds, rather than on any human audience.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Beach at Low Tide

In between the first and second waves of coronavirus I managed to get to an art exhibition - the Royal Academy's Léon Spilliaert retrospective. It was a strange experience, trying to enjoy paintings while wearing a mask (steaming up my glasses) and keeping a safe distance from other people. Laura Cumming had written a preview in February which made it sound great. 'This is a vital opportunity, then, to catch sight of his dark and startling art in all its precise originality, and to understand him as more than a painter of the cold North Sea'. He certainly was a fascinating artist, but here, in keeping with the blog's focus, I will focus on his sea paintings, with quotes drawn from an essay by Anne Adriaens-Pannier and Noémie Goldman. Here is a page from the catalogue, open to show a remarkable early work, now in a private collection: Seascape with Beacons (c. 1900).

'The sea appears in his earliest works like a lightly coloured patch of life, gentle and calm, betraying an aesthetic borrowed from the Impressionists. The pastel is applied in shapeless strokes, the delicate colours creating muted harmonies sometimes brightened by tiny spots of light.'


Léon Spilliaert, Seascape Seen from Mariakerke, 1909

'When Spillaert wanted to enhance the intensity of the sea, he introduced a disturbing nocturnal atmosphere and put greater emphasis on the horizon, where the silhouette of the urban coastline can sometimes be made out. In this series of  'sombre seascapes' ... the water , waves, currents, clouds and light evoke constant motion, the uncertainty of life and the suffering of a tormented character...' 

Léon Spilliaert, Beach at Low Tide, c. 1909

'Spillaert then abandoned these broader horizons to look at something closer to hand, at the water's edge on the beach ... The narrowing of his gaze led him to simplified forms, images stripped bare. Subtly sinuous, the waves take possession of a sandbank, tracing an organic, almost abstract shape on the damp, dark beach.'

I will conclude here with three more quotes about Spilliaert's Ostende beach scenes, taken from reviews of the exhibition.

'A longing to escape – or at least to have the option – is palpable in many of Spilliaert’s land- and seascapes. In a 1908 gouache and watercolour of Ostend’s Hofstraat, a towering street leads to a lantern in the sea, an inviting will-o’-the-wisp in the murk. Spilliaert’s beaches often surge towards the ocean beyond' - Joe Lloyd

'His beachscapes depict the breakwater as an advance, an invasion, while poles, pillars, lighthouses, masts, lampposts are all ranged precariously against the relentless horizontality of the sea. The vertical is temporary – the horizontal always wins.' - Patrick McGuiness 

'With a work such as Seascape Seen from Mariakerke (1909), you peer into the layers of India ink – shade upon shade of black – as though into mist, until a stray brushstroke or a scrub-mark that reveals the paper beneath reminds you that you’re looking at a two-dimensional surface. The immediate physical sensation is a kind of retinal whiplash – but as the process is repeated in seascape after seascape it amounts at last to something more like yearning: wishing yourself into another world while unable to forget where you are.' - Samuel Reilly

Saturday, December 12, 2020

The Cottage in a Cornfield

John Constable, The Cottage in a Cornfield, c. 1817-33 #cottagecore

I have often discussed here the enduring popularity of pastoral poetry and images of Arcadia. The latest manifestation of this long tradition is 'cottagecore'. An NPR article on the phenomenon explains that 'visually, cottagecore looks like this: sourdough bread starters, foraged mushrooms, open meadows, freshly picked flowers, homegrown produce, knitting, baking pies, and, yes, rustic cottages. The pastoral interpretations live on TikTok, Pinterest, and prominently on Tumblr.'  The Wikipedia article on cottagecore references Theocritus, Shakespeare, Marie Antoinette and Animal Crossing. It notes the impact of Covid-19: 'sites such as Tumblr had a 150% increase in cottagecore posts in the 3 months from March 2020. The trend has been described by Vox as “the aesthetic where quarantine is romantic instead of terrifying”.'

How does landscape figure in cottagecore? #cottagecore posters tend to favour flowery meadows, sunlit glades, golden hayfields and sun-dappled streams. Some of their photographs look too perfect to be real. The use of filters tend to make the world look like CGI. Tellingly there are a lot of images of paths you can imagine yourself taking, to escape the confinement of lockdown and fear of the pandemic. Cottages feature occasionally but so do many other kinds of building - the phrase clearly signifies a mood rather than a type of building. Sometimes young women picture themselves in these scenes, with long hair and natural-looking clothes (the forest-loving Mori girls were a similar internet fashion in Japan).

Cottagecore is part of the larger phenomenon of Generation Z aesthetics. A 2018 Pinterest article noted that 'there are over 37 million aesthetic related boards on the platform, with Gen Z’ers searching for “aesthetic” 447% more than Millennials.' There is an Aesthetics wiki that gives a list of 'aesthetics' used by Generation Z, of which cottagecore is but one. Under C, for example, you will find Classicism and Cubism, but also Clovercore (which 'conveys ideas of nature and love with a bright and dreamy color palette'), Chaotic Academia ('an aesthetic that involves haphazard routines, messy habits, unusual or banned literature and studying with a passion') and Cloudcore ('based on the visual culture of clouds. The pictures are usually taken during sunsets when the clouds have more color in them.') 

When it comes to landscape imagery there are various aesthetic categories similar to cottagecore: naturecore, forestpunk, mosscore. The goblincore hashtag denotes abject landscape features: 'aspects of nature that most would find "ugly" or dirty, ranging from animals such as frogs and snails to materials such as moss, mud, plants, and fungi such as mushrooms.' In contrast #fairycore or #fairywave 'is an aesthetic surrounding the theme of nature, soft pastels, butterflies, magic, flowers, soft animals like bunnies, and the vibe of springtime.' You could look on all this as trivial and even comical, but who knows where culture is heading next and how these social media platforms will evolve? Perhaps a wholly new landscape aesthetic will appear. 

I think I may have first come across the term cottagecore earlier this year in connection with Taylor Swift's album 'folklore'. She has just released another record, 'evermore', to very good reviews. Announcing it on Instagram she acknowledged the element of escapism in this latest collection of songs. "We were standing on the edge of the folklorian woods and had a choice: to turn and go back or to travel further into the forest of this music. We chose to wander deeper in."

Sunday, November 22, 2020

A magical rain is falling

The Book of Songs (Shijing) contains the seeds of later Chinese landscape poetry.  Its oldest poems are around three thousand years old but here I wanted to draw attention to one rare example that can be attached to a particular date, 658 BCE, when the people of Wei were forced to abandon their capital north of the Yellow River. In his translations Arthur Waley explains that they built a new capital 'in a narrow strip between Shandong and Henan. In their move they were assisted and protected by Duke Huan of Qi, who sent a gift of three hundred horses'. The poem begins by describing the building of houses, oriented according to the sun. Alongside these they planted hazels, chestnuts-trees, catalpas, Paulownias and lacquer trees, 'that we may make the zithers great and small.'  I really like the idea of prioritising musical instrument making when designing a city. The poem then briefly describes a journey to look down on what they had created. 

We climb to that wilderness

To look down at Chu,

To look upon Chu and Tang,

Upon the Jing hills and the citadel. 

We go down and inspect mulberry orchards, 

We take the omens and they are lucky, 

All of them truly good. 


A magical rain is falling. 

We order our grooms 

By starlight, early to, to yoke our steeds; 

We drive to the mulberry-fields and there we rest...

This anonymous poem is one of the 'Airs of the States', in this case one of the 'Airs of Yong' (a small principality later absorbed into Wei).  As you read these poems certain lines leap out which transport you to the natural world of ancient China: its fields and orchards, mountains and rivers. As an experiment I tried extracting some of these phrases from the first five states in The Book of Songs, including Yong.



Climbing a high ridge

Cutting boughs that have been lopped and grown again

Plucking and gathering plantain

Water mallow growing in patches

Cloth-plant spread across the midst of the valley

Blazing flowers of a peach tree

 A 'cloth-plant' (ge)


Gathering white aster down in the ravine

Climbing the southern hill to pluck the fern-shoots

Covering with white rushes a dead doe

The flowers of the cherry

Paths drenched in dew

Thunder on the sun-side of the southern hills

 White China aster


Building earth-works at the capital

Gazing after a swallow

Off in a boat, floating, floating far away

A gentle wind from the south

A cloudless dawn begins to break

On the hills grows a hazel-tree

Chinese hazel



Going to gather goosefoot

I walk in the wilderness

We drive to the mulberry-fields and there we rest

Quails bicker

Thick grows the caltrop

A magical rain is falling



Drumming and dancing in the gully

She rests where the fields begin

She threw a quince at me

Kitesfoot so fresh

Reeds and sedges tower high

The mulberry-leaves have fallen

Mulberry leaf

Sunday, November 08, 2020

There I sat viewing the silver streams

I should have more time for the blog soon, but for now I will make do with posting a long quotation from The Compleat Angler, first published in 1653. As Marjorie Swann's introduction to the Oxford World's Classics edition explains, Izaak Walton's story of vacationing fishermen 'embodies his artistic response to trauma' - the death of his son and the national tragedy of the Civil War. The book asks how we should live and turns to the natural world for an answer. As such it reminds me of the way people have been finding solace in nature and landscape during the pandemic. In my extract below, Walton's alter ego, Piscator, has just been demonstrating chub fishing to his companion Venator, and they are about to head to an inn for supper. "Let's be going, good master," Venator says, "for I am hungry again with fishing." But Piscator isn't quite ready:  

"Nay, stay a little, good scholar. I caught my last Trout with a worm; now I will put on a minnow, and try a quarter of an hour about yonder trees for another; and, so, walk towards our lodging. Look you, scholar, thereabout we shall have a bite presently, or not at all. Have with you, Sir: o' my word I have hold of him. Oh! it is a great logger-headed Chub; come, hang him upon that willow twig, and let's be going. But turn out of the way a little, good scholar! toward yonder high honeysuckle hedge; there we'll sit and sing whilst this shower falls so gently upon the teeming earth, and gives yet a sweeter smell to the lovely flowers that adorn these verdant meadows.

"Look! under that broad beech-tree I sat down, when I was last this way a-fishing; and the birds in the adjoining grove seemed to have a friendly contention with an echo, whose dead voice seemed to live in a hollow tree near to the brow of that primrose-hill. There I sat viewing the silver streams glide silently towards their centre, the tempestuous sea; yet sometimes opposed by rugged roots and pebble-stones, which broke their waves, and turned them into foam; and sometimes I beguiled time by viewing the harmless lambs; some leaping securely in the cool shade, whilst others sported themselves in the cheerful sun; and saw others craving comfort from the swollen udders of their bleating dams. As I thus sat, these and other sights had so fully possess my soul with content, that I thought, as the poet has happily express it,

    I was for that time lifted above earth,
    And possest joys not promis'd in my birth.

"As I left this place, and entered into the next field, a second pleasure entertained me; 'twas a handsome milk-maid, that had not yet attained so much age and wisdom as to load her mind with any fears of many things that will never be, as too many men too often do; but she cast away all care, and sung like a nightingale. Her voice was good, and the ditty fitted for it; it was that smooth song which was made by Kit Marlow, now at least fifty years ago; and the milk-maid's mother sung an answer to it, which was made by Sir Walter Raleigh, in his younger days. They were old-fashioned poetry, but choicely good; I think much better than the strong lines that are now in fashion in this critical age. Look yonder! on my word, yonder, they both be a-milking again. I will give her the Chub, and persuade them to sing those two songs to us.

These songs, reproduced in Walton's text, are of course the famous pastoral poems 'The Passionate Shepherd to His Love' and 'The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd'.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Look into the cataract

I've been a bit short of time recently so here is just a brief post to share a clip from YouTube of the beginning of Werner Herzog's Heart of Glass (1976). Embedded clips like this usually disappear after a while so I am also including some still images from the film too. The Rückenfigur looking over the Bavarian Alps is the herdsman Hias, a character based on the legendary Bavarian prophet, Mühlhiasl who had Nostradamus-like visions of the future.  The second one shows clouds flowing over the mountains, a scene Herzog and his crew filmed frame-by-frame.  These mountains formed the landscape of Herzog's childhood, living until the age of twelve in a remote village which his mother had taken their family to after the house next door to theirs in Munich was bombed in an Allied raid.

After these views of the mountain landscape where the film's story is set (just after the end of the clip embedded here), there is a sequence of stranger, more dream-like images of flowing water. These are supposed to put the viewer into a kind of trance, like the villagers in the story who talk and act as if in a waking dream - Herzog got all his actors to perform under hypnosis, with the exception of Josef Bierbichler who plays Hias (for more on this, see the book Werner Herzog and the making of 'Heart of Glass'). Over the waterfall footage you hear a voice in German: "I look into the cataract... I feel an undertow... It draws me, it sucks me down..."  As this is happening, Popul Vuh's music gently plays in the background.  Herzog described the effect of concentrating intensely on this imagery.  It "gives you a lift as if the waterfall was standing still and you start to float upwards. It's a little but like the effect of staring from a bridge into a river and all of a sudden you start to float..."   

Friday, September 18, 2020

A river made of crystal water-drops

Gaṅgā, the personification of the sacred river Ganges,
early 19th century watercolour in The British Museum

Eric Newby's Slowly Down the Ganges introduced me to the fact that the river has 108 names, all of which he lists so that they form a kind of poem at the beginning of the book.  The river is also a goddess, Ganga, and these names are thus part of Hindu faith, but as I have often talked here about aspects of landscape in European religious art, it does not seem inappropriate to take them out of context here. You can find the full list in English translation online. Here are the first ten, which show the way they mix very short geographical description with snatches of mythology and descriptions of the goddess herself.

  1. One who flows
  2. One who is born from the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu
  3. Dearest to Shiva
  4. Daughter of Lord of Himalaya
  5. One who flows through the mountains
  6. Mother of Kartikeya
  7. One who liberated 60,000 cursed sons of King Sagara
  8. Meeting Saraswati at Allahabad
  9. Being sweet and melodious
  10. Flowing and meeting the ocean

And from the remaining 98 names, here are ten more that together form a word picture of the river.

  • One who is imperishable, eternal (24)
  • One who is delightful (33)
  • A river made of crystal water-drops (34)
  • One whose water is as good as nectar (43)
  • As noisy as a conch-shell and drum (49)
  • One who flows with a force (54)
  • Just like the autumn moon (66)
  • One who drives away all sorrows (72)
  • One who is muttering (94)
  • One who is light amid the darkness of ignorance (104)

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

The mountains and the islands have a blue halo

Sophia de Mello Breyner has been one of my favourite poets since I first read her work in Richard Zenith's translations from the Portuguese in the late 90s. I kept recommending Log Book to people until I realised it had gone out of print and become ruinously expensive. Her poems do not describe landscapes but they are usually set near the sea and speak of sunlight and cicadas, pine trees, wind and wild sea birds. Her early memories were of reading Homer by the seashore in Portugal. Richard Zenith's introduction quotes her recollection of this: 'The ocean was a deep blue, and shone brilliantly. For me this world represented happiness, and I found the same world in Homer, in The Odyssey and then in The Iliad.'

Earlier this evening I watched Rita Azevedo Gomes’ 2016 essay film Correspondências, about the letters exchanged by Sophia (as everyone called her) and Jorge de Sena, her friend and fellow poet, who went into exile first in Brazil and then the USA. Gomes has her own friends read the letters, sometimes in their own homes and sometimes out in the landscape. It reminded me a bit of Tacita Dean's film Antigone, which I mentioned here a couple of years ago - perhaps because that too refers to Greek myth. Correspondência 1959-1978 has not I think been translated into English, but the film had subtitles and I am therefore able to quote below from one of the letters. In it, Sophia de Mello Breyner writes about visiting Greece, finding there what she had long imagined since those days of childhood when she first looked into Homer.

'I won't try to describe Greece to you or try to tell you how happy I was there. It was as if I said goodbye to all my misunderstandings. About Greece, only Homer had told me the truth: but not all of it. The first marvel of the Greek world is nature: air, light, sound, water. It's a mythological nature where the mountains and the islands have a blue halo that isn't imaginary, but an objective physical phenomenon they already debated in ancient times. Under the high sun, in an indescribable blue clarity, the air is so light it gives you wings and the slightest sound stands out whole and clear. The enormous and constant mountains fill everything with solemnity. It smells of resin and honey, an austere and lucid inebriation. ... In Greece everything is built as a connection between man and nature. In a way, in Greece I found my own poetry.'

Thursday, August 27, 2020


Killed by a landscape! This nearly happens in Bong Joon-ho's multiple prize-winning film Parasite. Chekhov famously said that "one must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off," so I did wonder what the significance would be of the scholar's rock in the shape of a mountain range that gets given to the character Ki-Woo near the start of the film. The climactic scene is referred to in an interesting Hollywood Reporter article (spoiler alert).  Torrential rain floods the home of Ki-woo (played by Choi Woo-shik) and his family...

As they wade through murky water, each searching for their most important belongings, the camera cuts to Ki-woo's perspective, looking down. There, the rock — seeming to defy the laws of nature — rises from the depths into his waiting hands. "In the script, the rock didn't originally float," Choi recalls. "But when we were shooting, director Bong was like, 'You know, I think it would be better if the stone floats up through the water.' I remember thinking, 'Whoa. What?' "

In the scene that follows, as the family lies on the floor of a crowded rescue shelter, Ki-woo tells his dad, Ki-taek, played by Bong's regular collaborator Song Kang-ho, that he feels as if the rock is following him. "Essentially, I think it represents this desire in the heart of Ki-woo not to give up on the idea that he can become the kind of guy who can find a way to give his family a better life," Song explains. But in the end, the rock that Ki-woo willed to be a metaphor is symbolic only in the manner of Sisyphus, or plainly literal as in "hard as a rock."

"All it ends up doing for Ki-woo is bashing his skull in," Song says.

Eve Willis wrote a piece about the Parasite landscape rock in The Guardian back in February. She made a connection with Uncut Gems, another excellent film in which rocks represent the aspiration to get ahead in an unfair society. When wealth is intangible and elusive, floating in an unreal world of bitcoins and mad property values, 'faith in the promise of stones and jewels makes abrupt sense.'  In Parasite,

'When Ki-woo is presented with the rock, he coos: “It’s so metaphorical.” In the final scenes, we see the origins of the viewing stone, as a pair of hands pluck the rock from a pristine stream. We hear Ki-woo’s message to his estranged, imprisoned father: he is making “a long-term plan … I’m going to make a lot of money.” The viewer watches, knowing this rock was used to split Ki-woo’s head open.'

I will conclude by quoting one more article (on Artnet), where New York art historian Kyunghee Pyun provided some context for the landscape rock (suseok) in Parasite. 'The golden age of suseok collecting was during the Joseun dynasty (1392–1897), but they regained popularity in the 1980s among a class of businessmen (like Parasite’s newly wealthy Mr. Park).'

"Those in the know “don’t collect loose, granuled rock, or get a rock that might break.” Surfaces with a bit of a pattern or a wave, like the striated suseok in Parasite, are also more desirable, Pyun notes. “Round, three-dimensional is better than sort of a thin slab of stone,” she adds. “Almost like a porcelain type of quality, it should be seen from all directions.”

Prized suseok are found in nature. Ideally, they’re never altered by human hands. “In China or Japan, in order to accentuate the dramatic effect, they put varnish types of materials or trim a little bit,” Pyun notes. “But for Korean rock collectors, the essence is you never touch it. As is, the nature is the beauty of the rock.”'

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Landscape near Arles

In 1908 Pathé created their own version of Le Film d’Art, the new initiative to make more highbrow films whose first production, starring actors from the Comédie-Française, was The Assassination of the Duke of Guise. The Pathé version was the Société Cinématographique des Auteurs et Gens de Lettres and its first film was L'Arlésienne. The film is remarkable not for its acting (lots of arm waving) but for its technical sophistication (use of double exposure to illustrate the hero Frédéric’s hallunications) and use of real locations, most notably the amphitheatre at Arles. At 3 minutes 15 there is a remarkable 180 degree pan across the Provençal landscape. There are also a few other scenes which give a real sense of place, like the image above of a Frédéric deciding to marry his childhood sweetheart rather than the woman of Arles he met at the amphitheatre.

Of course one of the pleasures of seeing glimpses of Arles in 1908 is knowing that it was exactly twenty years earlier that Van Gogh and Gauguin we re painting there. The Gauguin picture below could almost be a view of the farmhouse where Frédéric lives. L'Arlésienne was based on one of the stories in Alphonse Daudet's Letters from My Windmill (1872).  I've never got round to reading this so I will quote from a Guardian piece on the book: 

'There are impressive tragedies at a scant 1,500 words, like the backstories to single paragraphs in an old newspaper: the inn depressed to ruin by deaths in the family, the farm boy obsessed by a flirt from Arles farandoling in her velvet and lace. Daudet based a melodrama on her with music by Bizet, but the stage version expands to lassitude. His sense of place was strongest when pent up in his fragments.'

This music by Bizet can be heard as the soundtrack to the film. And there is one more cultural link (which I read about on the Cinema History blog): the plot of L'Arlésienne is based on a real story which was told to Daudet by Frédéric Mistral, the great poet of Provence, whose statue now stands in Arles. A nephew of Mistral's, disappointed in live, committed suicide by throwing himself out of the window of the family house.

 Paul Gauguin, Landscape near Arles, 1888

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Industry on the Riverside

Thomas Bewick, Industry on the Riverside, 1804
'The unframed scene casts landscape into a new kind of subject.  The view is not given an off-the-peg edge, independent of and indifferent to its contents.  It is given a bespoke edge that responds to and defines the character of the scene.'

Tom Lubbock makes this interesting observation in his essay 'Defining the vignette', written to accompany a 2009 exhibition Thomas Bewick: Tale-pieces and reprinted in his posthumous collection, English Graphic. You can see in the image below of a thirsty traveller how the vignette's edges are defined by branches, leaves and tufts of grass. Lubbock saw this as 'place-portraiture', with Bewick isolating a site's distinctive features, 'those elements by which you would know it again'.
Thomas Bewick, Tail-piece - apparently of Thomas Bewick himself
as a thirsty traveller drinking from his hat, 1797

In his essay Lubbock includes a vignette of a hunter in the snow and then, underneath, the same image with a rectangular frame added.  Without the frame, the snow's whiteness feels stronger, drawing into itself the whiteness of the surrounding page. Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner had previously described the way light in Bewick's landscapes 'changes imperceptibly into the paper of the book, and realises, in small, the Romantic blurring of art and reality.'  Unfortunately I cannot convey the effect here because the background of the JPEG is a different white to the computer screen and thus creates its own frame.  

Thomas Bewick, Hunter in the Snow, 1804

When Bewick drew something like the sea, he had no clear border to give the vignette its outline and so his lines seem to fade and blur at the edge of the image.  Bewick's soft and hard edges draw attention to the ontology of perception, the distinction between things that can be delineated, like a tree, and things that cannot, like the sky.  Sometimes the sky is given shading, as in the view of sea-cliffs below, and sometimes it is left blank, to give a feeling of clear open air.  
Thomas Bewick, Bird's Eggs from Sea-Cliffs, 1804

Lubbock concludes his essay by drawing attention to the way vignettes differ from traditional window-like landscape views.  Their figures cannot pass out of view, they are rooted in their scenes. You cannot imagine the man below ever coming to the end of his piss and walking away - if he did, he would 'start to dematerialise or break up'.  (NB: this pissing figure is my example - Lubbock has a much more idyllic scene of a man on a grassy bank looking up at the sky!)  Bewick's vignettes remind us how the world shrinks to what we are conscious of at a particular moment. 'They communicate what it's like to be in the middle of something, to feel things in the now, to be entirely absorbed in your sensations.'

Thomas Bewick, That Pisseth Against a Wall, 1804
All images from Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Garden of Eusebius

Eusebius: 'Now that the whole countryside is fresh and smiling, I marvel at people who take pleasure in smoky cities.'
Timothy: 'Some people don’t enjoy the sight of flowers or verdant meadows or fountains or streams; or if they do, something else pleases them more. Thus pleasure succeeds pleasure, as nail drives out nail.'

This exchange can be found in The Godly Feast, one of the Colloquies written by Erasmus (first published in 1518 and then added to over the years; the Craig R. Thompson translation is available at the Catena Archive). Erasmus has Eusebius argue that "nature is not silent but speaks to us everywhere and teaches the observant man many things if she finds him attentive and receptive."  To prove his point he suggests a visit to his "little country place near town, a modest but well-cultivated place, to which I invite you for lunch tomorrow."  Timothy is worried he and his friends will be putting Eusebius out, but Eusebius reassures him: "you’ll have a wholly green feast made, as Horace says, 'from food not bought.'"

When they meet at this villa, Eusebius shows Timothy his statue of Jesus at the entrance to the garden: "I’ve placed him here, instead of the filthy Priapus as protector not only of my garden but of everything I own; in short, of body and soul alike." Eusebius stresses the utility and lack of luxury in his garden. What appears to be marble is merely painted concrete - ''we make up for lack of wealth by ingenuity".  There is a lesson for life in this: appearances can be deceptive, he warns Timothy.  A delightful stream is not all it seems either.  It is used to drain kitchen waste to the sewer, like Sacred Scripture cleansing the soul.  Elsewhere there are herbs for cooking and medicine, exotic trees, an aviary, orchards and bee hives.

In addition to the garden itself, Eusebius has had frescoes painted showing views of nature. This second, painted world even extends beneath their feet: "the very ground is green, for the paving stones are beautifully colored and gladden one with painted flowers".  He explains to Timothy that:
"One garden wasn’t enough to hold all kinds of plants. Moreover, we are twice pleased when we see a painted flower competing with a real one. In one we admire the cleverness of Nature, in the other the inventiveness of the painter; in each the goodness of God, who gives all these things for our use and is equally wonderful and kind in everything. Finally, a garden isn’t always green nor flowers always blooming. This garden grows and pleases even in midwinter."
Eusebius is proud of his garden but he is just as keen to mention his library, globe and paintings.  I like the fact that place names have been added to his religious paintings, "to enable the spectator to learn by which water or on which mountain the event took place".  It is clearly the ideal of a Renaissance scholar, and the garden is a highly artificial landscape.  Indeed, John Dixon Hunt has pointed out that it is 'substantially architectural: walled, with galleries and pillars, it may be seen as much as a city as a garden.'

Sunday, July 05, 2020

A Room with a View

"I wanted so to see the Arno..."   

Disappointed Lucy Honeychurch gets her wish when Mr Emerson and his son George kindly offer to swap rooms ("women like looking at a view; men don't").  The next morning she wakes and leans from the window, 'out into sunshine with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and close below, the Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road.'  Forster spends a paragraph describing the scene below - river men, children, soldiers, a tram temporarily unable to proceed.  'Over such trivialities as these many a valuable hour may slip away, and the traveller who has gone to Italy to study the tactile values of Giotto, or corruption of the Papacy, may return remembering nothing but the blue sky and the men and women who live under it.'  Eventually, over the course of the novel, Lucy chooses life over culture, George over the aesthete Cecil (memorably played by Daniel Day Lewis in the film), and A Room with a View ends with the newlyweds in Florence again, looking out over the Arno from the same window.

It is landscape - the desire for a good view - that leads to the novel's decisive moment, placing Lucy in the situation where George is compelled to kiss her.  Along with the other English travellers in Florence, they are invited by the chaplain, Mr Eager, to make an excursion into the hills.
"We might go up by Fiesole and back by Settignano. There is a point on that road where we could get down and have an hour’s ramble on the hillside. The view thence of Florence is most beautiful—far better than the hackneyed view of Fiesole. It is the view that Alessio Baldovinetti is fond of introducing into his pictures. That man had a decided feeling for landscape. Decidedly. But who looks at it to-day? Ah, the world is too much for us.” 
 Alesso Baldovinetti, Nativity (detail), between 1460 and 1462

And so they set off on the excursion and stop on the hillside with its view of the Val d'Arno. The group separate and Lucy finds herself at a place where 'the view was forming at last; she could discern the river, the golden plain, other hills.'  But then she slips and finds herself on a terrace covered with violets.
From her feet the ground sloped sharply into view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam. But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source whence beauty gushed out to water the earth.
Here, unexpectedly, she encounters George who sees 'the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves'.  He steps forward and kisses her.

In the Merchant Ivory film there are no violets - presumably they couldn't find any on location. Instead there is long grass and poppies and a rather overwhelming Puccini aria sung by Kiri Te Kanawa. The second kiss, which again takes Lucy by surprise, takes place after a tennis match some months later, when they are back in England. As she observes George playing in the fading sunshine, she imagines the landscape of Italy overlaying the familiar surroundings of Surrey.
Ah, how beautiful the Weald looked! The hills stood out above its radiance, as Fiesole stands above the Tuscan Plain, and the South Downs, if one chose, were the mountains of Carrara. She might be forgetting her Italy, but she was noticing more things in her England. One could play a new game with the view, and try to find in its innumerable folds some town or village that would do for Florence. Ah, how beautiful the Weald looked!
Everything in Forster is tinged with irony (see my earlier post on Howards' End) and of course these lines are there to show how Lucy is unaware of her own feelings, for George and the place he first kissed her.  But having grown up on the edge of the South Downs, I would love to believe that they are capable of becoming the hills of Tuscany.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

The Lark Ascending

A couple of days ago I read in The Guardian that 'police have warned young people not to attend illegal raves this weekend, promising a tougher approach after two “quarantine raves” attracted 6,000 people last Saturday.'  It made me think of the final chapters of Richard King's book The Lark Ascending which discuss the outdoor rave scene's emergence thirty years ago, followed by opposition that led to the introduction of the Criminal Justice Bill.  Jeremy Deller told a similar story last year in Everybody in the Place (although the participation of children in his film meant he left out some of the drug history).  King describes an early rave organised by Cymon Eckel and the Boys Own network which culminated in dawn breaking over a misty Sussex reservoir.  One of them would later describe seeing 'a flock of geese descend from the sky to make a perfect landing at the water's edge.
And here in the early hours of a perfect English summer's day, five hundred people sitting, or collapsed, on hay bales, grew energised by the dawn and looked out onto the water of Weir Wood Reservoir that borders Ashdown Forest, the location that inspired A. A. Milne's '100 Aker Wood', and the haven Eckel and his friends had created was experienced by all those present as their private Acid House Pooh Corner.'

Last year I saw Richard King give an interesting talk on his book at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival.  He began with his view that the popularity of Ralph Vaughan Williams' composition comes from the way it conveys musically a sense of freedom and at the same time connectedness to an unspecified British landscape.  The full subtitle of The Lark Ascending on my paperback edition is 'People, Music and Landscape in Twentieth Century Britain', making clear that this is not merely a study of music inspired by nature.  In fact there is little in the book about music written to convey a spirit of place - from Vaughan Williams he skips over British landscape composers like Ireland, Bax and Finzi, moving instead to Ewan MacColl's 'The Manchester Rambler' (in a discussion of the Kinder Scout trespass) and then forward to Stan Tracey's jazz suite inspired by Under Milk Wood.  Later chapters discuss the music of Donovan, Gavin Bryars, Kate Bush, Penguin Cafe Orchestra and Ultramarine.  It got me listening anew to some of this on Spotify, though I have to admit I find the late sixties Donovan albums pretty hard going...

The book ends in the 1990s, although there is a brief epilogue featuring Rob St John (it mentions Surface Tension, a piece of music I described here five years ago).  In the new century, issues of ownership and access to land have become ever more complicated, and now the age of coronavirus has raised a whole new set of questions.  The idea of assembling at a rave by a Sussex reservoir this summer would come up against ethical choices around social distancing, pitting hedonism and personal freedom against the interests of the more vulnerable in society.  It is however still possible to go for a ramble, and so, given the reference to Manchester in that piece about an illegal rave, I'll end here with the closing lines of Ewan MacColl's song:
So I'll walk where I will over mountain and hill
And I'll lie where the bracken is deep
I belong to the mountains, the clear running fountains
Where the grey rocks lie ragged and steep
I've seen the white hare in the gullies
And the curlew fly high overhead
And sooner than part from the mountains
I think I would rather be dead
-    'The Manchester Rambler', 1932

Saturday, June 13, 2020

A Vale of Tears

Literature and Nature in the English Renaissance: An Ecocritical Anthology edited by Todd Andrew Borlik was published last year and so far has a solitary one star review on Amazon.  "Frankly, if a book of out-of-copyright texts is THAT expensive, you may as well download the contents list to Kindle and go and find the texts yourself. Absurd pricing."  At £84, it is certainly out of reach of my pocket, but as this reviewer notes, the contents list is freely available.  Here are two sections:

In this post I wanted to highlight the first text above, Robert Southwell's poem 'A Vale of Tears'.  Here are its first four stanzas:
A vale there is, enwrapt with dreadful shades,
     Which thick of mourning pines shrouds from the sun,
Where hanging cliffs yield short and dumpish glades,
     And snowy flood with broken streams doth run.

Where eye-room is from rock to cloudy sky,
     From thence to dales with stony ruins strew'd,
Then to the crushèd water's frothy fry,
     Which tumbleth from the tops where snow is thaw'd.

Where ears of other sound can have no choice,
     But various blust'ring of the stubborn wind
In trees, in caves, in straits with divers noise;
     Which now doth hiss, now howl, now roar by kind.

Where waters wrestle with encount'ring stones,
     That break their streams, and turn them into foam,
The hollow clouds full fraught with thund'ring groans,
     With hideous thumps discharge their pregnant womb.
It is certainly a pretty bleak-sounding place, where pleasant landscape features we associate with pastoral poetry provide no comfort ('crystal springs crept out of secret vein, / Straight find some envious hole that hides their grace').  Surrounded by all this, the mind turns inward and dwells on sin and the need for repentance. 'Come, deep remorse,' the poet concludes, 'possess my sinful breast; / Delights, adieu!  I harbour'd you too long.'

Robert Southwell was a Jesuit Catholic martyr: canonised in 1970; hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1595.  A recent profile of him in The Tablet describes his training in France and Rome and return to England in 1586 to undertake clandestine missionary work.
'Southwell’s literature infiltrated the Catholic country houses of England. Though he was a priest without a pulpit and an outlaw, Southwell hoped that word of a Catholic revival would disseminate through the secret printing presses to the peasantry, yeomanry, and lesser gentry. [...] His great poem “A vale of teares”, issued in the year of his death, likens England’s perceived fallen state under Elizabeth I to a “dumpish” (melancholy) wasteland, “Where nothing seemed wronge yet nothing right”. In the absence of a settled spiritual solution to England’s break from Rome, the poem offered Catholics a negative solace.'    
In a 2018 article, Gary Bouchard cites critics who have explained the poem in terms of a prescribed Ignatian penitential framework or in psychological terms as a 'therapeutic scene'.  His own view is that it can be read as an anti-pastoral, contrasting it specifically with Spenser's 'The Shepheard's Calender' (1579).  But he also notes that some of the language and imagery is proto-Romantic - a landscape one could imagine 'Victor Frankenstein and his creature passing through'.  Southwell had crossed the Alps via the St. Gotthard Pass on his journey to Rome in 1578 and would have seen sights that later writers and artists would come to admire for their sublimity.

J. M. W. Turner, A Ravine in the Pass of St Gotthard, 1802 
Source: Tate

I will close here with one more stanza from the poem:
The pines thick set, high grown and ever green,
     Still clothe the place with sad and mourning veil;
Here gaping cliff, there mossy plain is seen,
     Here hope doth spring, and there again doth quail.
Reading Robert Southwell's poem prompts the obvious thought that in these dark times - of climate crisis, global pandemic, economic hardship and racist brutality - it is hard not to feel that we are all walking through a vale of tears.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Wrapped Coast

The passing of Christo has prompted various articles and obituaries - I have included some links below.  The Guardian published one about Wrapped Coast (1969), where Christo and Jeanne-Claude used 90,000 square meters of erosion-control fabric and 56 kilometres of polypropylene rope to transform a craggy shoreline south of Sydney into something that more closely resembled a chalk cliffscape.  I wrote about this work in my book about chalk cliffs, Frozen AirWrapped Coast had its own unique qualities, moving with the wind, creating a cliff surface in constant motion, but it also obscured and smoothed over the irregularities of real earth and rock. Something like this happens when we view cliffs at a distance, as a landscape composed of shapes and simple colours. I wondered how this fake coastal feature might have changed people’s experiences of being there.
For some it must have de-familiarised a place they had known for years. Perhaps in covering over the natural backdrop to their experiences it brought old memories back into focus. For others, with no prior knowledge of that coastline, the reality of the landscape could only be imagined, hidden under a vast dust sheet. 

Screenshot from the Kaldor Public Art Project film (below) of Wrapped Coast, 1969

The Guardian article quotes Australian collector John Kaldor, who released a statement following Christo’s death. “It wasn’t an easy task to find a coastline close to Sydney and get permission to wrap it,” Kaldor recalled. “The reaction was mostly disbelief and ridicule.”  One of the volunteers who helped assemble it, Ian Milliss, recalled how the artists seemed very glamorous. 
"They would fight all the time but she was the organiser. There was a very clear division of labour: he was up in the studio putting it all together in his mind, but she made sure everything happened on the ground.”
“Little Bay wasn’t just a beautiful object in the landscape. It was a total work. You looked at it like you look at the pyramids, as a huge piece of embodied labour and organisation. To me that was the thing that was most impressive about it – more than the scale of it, more than the beauty.”

Some additional Christo links:

Obituaries: The Guardian, Dezeen, BBC, LA Times, Vogue.

Christo's relationship with landscape and nature is not straightforward - Running Fence, the 44.5 mile-long white nylon fence they stretched across California in the mid-70s, required a 450-page environmental impact report.  I wasn't surprised to find a short notice of his death in Plastics News...

Here are three more appreciations.
  • Lynne Hershman Leeson: 'I worked in the office for the two weeks while Running Fence remained on view. (Meanwhile, Jeanne-Claude operated the secret decoy unit—something she learned from her father, who was a general in the French army, so that no one would interrupt her work.) On the very last day the work was up, I took a helicopter ride over the landscape. Only from that distance could I see its entire expanse. It was breathtaking.'
  • Adrian Searle:  'Surrounding a group of small islands near Miami with floating pink fabric in 1983, and extending floating, interconnecting piers or pontoons covered in yellow fabric across a huge Italian lake in 2016, the artists transformed these places, albeit briefly, into a kind of gorgeous abstraction.'
  • Jerry Saltz: 'Today, the week of his death, amidst the extended three and a half years of this terrible long American night, I wish we could enlist them to wrap the White House in black fabric shroud, a hyper-lucid mummified metaphor for the ghost ship of current pain and racism. Instead we can only mourn them, as we grieve for ourselves.' 

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Land | Sea | Sky

Autojektor, Basilisk, 2019

Well, the weeks drag on and I am starting to forget what hills, rivers and shorelines actually look like.  I keep wondering whether it is worth the health risk to hire a car or take a train to see something other than Victorian terraces.  But where would we go?  The virus has drawn attention to the way we pick destinations to experience and how much effort we are prepared to make to get to them.  Conversely it has shown how much interest there is in exploring the local streets - not exactly deep topography, but still a lesson in noticing previously overlooked details.  I'm sure I'm not alone in having made a short film based on these exercise walks - it seemed an obvious thing to do, even if I am no Jonathan Meades (despite insisting on posing in similar shades).

Lockdown walks near our home in London 

Mersea Island photographed by me in 2011

When I asked my wife where, in theory, she would most like to travel to outside London, she thought about it for a bit and then started reminiscing about Mersea Island.  I was thinking about this when I started reading a place-themed edition of the Moving Image Artists Journal, since Mersea Island is actually where the editors Danial & Clara have been living under lockdown.  How, I wondered, did these different filmmakers, with all the possibilities of mobility before coronavirus, choose particular landscapes to be the focus of their films?  A few examples from the thirteen articles:
  • Estrangement and escape: The Super 8 artist Autojektor lives in London but made Basilisk in the Black Forest.  They refer to the story of Hansel and Gretel, lost in the woods, and write of being an innocent abroad themselves: 'as someone that had only been out of the country once before as a kid, it was easy to lose myself.'  The landscape became a creative space to escape from our permanently connected world.  'I would purposely get myself lost – I’d let my phone run down and I’d walk into the thickest woods and heaviest fog until I started to panic. And then I would sit and write.' 
  • Memory and family history: 'Landscape is the lens through which I see the world, and the landscape of my lifetime is defined by loss,' writes Seán Vicary. His project, Chain Home West, involved 'active place-based research, that was often reflexive and sometimes even ritualistic or performative.'  The film's locations had personal associations and centred on his desire to seek out the site of a mobile radar unit that his father had been assigned to during the war.   
  • Hauntology and psychogeography: For Headlands, Yvonne Salmon and James Riley headed to a hauntologically-rich location in North Cornwall: setting for a 1981 BBC Series, The Nightmare Man, and linked to a 17th century maid who is recorded as having encountered fairies (or possibly aliens).  On their filming trip, 'things happened which we found difficult to explain' and they returned from Cornwall 'not the same people who started out on the journey.'   
  • Aesthetic choice: Peter Traherne's Atmospheric Pressure began with an attempt to make a film inspired by Gawain and the Green Knight.  In looking for locations he found a farm in Sussex with flooded fields and dead pigs.  'Needless to say, the location charmed me. Maybe not the carcasses but the texture of it all.'  The Gawain theme was dropped in favour of a film about 'The Farmer', although the real farmer's involvement was not straightforward: 'we could never shoot his scenes, for he must always be elsewhere.'  The film crew eventually left with 'dark images of a world of weather and animals; images that were densely uncommunicative yet surfeited with sense and matter'.
  • Residency: finally, some settings get chosen because they are readily to hand.  Daniel & Clara write about filming with old VHS cameras on walks near their former home in Hastings, or assembling footage taken on a daily basis in Portugal to form a composite landscape film (see below).  They have also taken the opportunity to film when invited to participate in exhibitions or other projects.  In another article, Amy Cutler (whose curating I have written about here before) discusses her recent filmmaking and refers to an artist residency on the Finnish fortress island of Örö last winter.  
Sadly such opportunities are no longer available in 2020 (we were actually due to go to Finland this summer but have now cancelled the holiday).  Experimental films will have to stay closer to home.  Fortunately there is a lot you can do without leaving the house at all - I've recently been looking through old VHS footage from the 90s, exploring the landscape of memory and family history.  And I know from her tweets that Amy, confined to her flat, has been interrogating and repurposing old nature documentaries.  If it is possible to head out of London soon, perhaps even to Mersea Island, I will take the time to record some footage and keep it ready, just in case we have to go into lockdown again...