Saturday, February 29, 2020

White torrents and emerald depths

Because this blog focuses on the arts, I have rarely mentioned books by geographers, although it goes without saying that they often write beautifully about landscape.  In A Commentary on the Book of Rivers, Li Tao-Yuan (Li Daoyuan, d. 527) quoted no less than 437 different sources, but he also drew on his own memories and included the kind of description that would become common in future Chinese travel writing.  His monumental book was an expansion of an earlier author's Guide to Rivers, now lost, and it described 1,389 Chinese rivers (or 1,252 - I've seen both numbers quoted, but either way, that's a lot of water).

Li is regarded as the first writer to describe the famous Three Gorges landscape in detail.  For example:
'When winter turns to spring, there are white torrents and emerald depths; reflections appear upside down in the swirling eddies. Many oddly shaped junipers grow forth from jagged mountain peaks from which waterfalls plummet clamorously. Pure, verdant, lofty, flourishing—such qualities provide innumerable kinds of fascination. After a storm has cleared, or on frosty mornings, among forests chilled and streams desolate, the loud cry of a gibbon is often heard, prolonged and mournful. As it echoes through the empty valleys, its despairing wail lingers before disappearing. So the fishermen sing,
Of the Three Gorges in Eastern Pa
   Shaman Gorge is the longest.
Three cries of the gibbon
   and one's clothes become drenched with tears.'
Xie Shichen, Clouds and Waves at the Wu Gorge, 1368

This translation is from Richard E. Strassberg's Inscribed Landscapes, a wonderful book I have quoted from here before.  Strassberg also includes Li's descriptions of two other landscapes.  Meng's Gate Mountain (Meng-men-shan) straddles the Yellow River and Li describes its slanting cliffs with giant boulders poised to fall, white mist on the water where currents collide and colossal waves that 'multiply and collapse all the way down to the outlet.'  Lotus Mountain (Hua-shan) is one of the Five Sacred Mountains of China and Li describes climbing it: ascending through junipers and past shrines and rock altars until, at the summit, he is able to see two sacred springs, one called Reed Pond that flows westwards, and the other, Supremely Exalted Spring, flowing east.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

An artificial island on the Arno

Netherlandish Master, after Jacques Callot, 
The Mock Battle Between the Weavers' and Dyers' Guilds
on the Arno in Florence on 25 July 1619 (detail), c. 1620

In seventeenth century Florence there was an annual festival in which the Weavers' and Dyers' Guilds fought for possession of an artificial hill, built in the middle of the river.  This painting of the event, in Frankfurt's Städel Museum, was based on an etching by the French artist Jacques Callot (1592-1635).  Several museums have copies of Callot's print, which was made in the form of a fan.  The Grand Duke, Cosimo II, had these fans made before the event and distributed to the spectators.  It would be good if one of the people shown in the foreground of this picture could be seen holding one of those fans, but I can't see one. Callot may have included one though in his original design, as a Courtauld blog post about the print explains.

From a landscape perspective I would love to know more about this artificial island.  Who designed it?  How was it made?  It looks pretty big.  How was it anchored so that it didn't drift away or collapse under the weight of the battling weavers and dyers? An earlier artificial island on the Arno, complete with a temple, had been constructed as part of the extravagant wedding celebrations for Cosimo and Maria Magdalena on the 18 October 1608.  It was the stage for a re-enactment of Jason and the Golden Fleece and you can see it in the print below by Matthaeus Greuter (1564–1638).  But this doesn't look as impressive as the one built in 1619, which resembles a real landscape.  Did this hill only look real from a distance?  Were actual trees used?  I imagine a group of picnickers rowing out to enjoy this temporary idyll on the night before the battle.

Has anyone done a study of such islands?  They seem to have featured prominently in various European festivals and royal pageants.  In 1638, for example, another Medici, the Queen of France, was led in procession to an artificial island in the Amstel River for a display of dramatic tableaux. In England, Queen Elizabeth was entertained at Kenilworth Castle in 1575 with a famous display that included a floating island with the Lady of the Lake attended by nymphs (these festivities may have inspired Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream). There is an interesting description on the Brown University site, of one of these islands, made for the marriage of Louise-Elizabeth of France and Philip, prince and grand admiral of Spain, in August 1739.  It was not designed to resemble a natural island; this was pure stagecraft - it even contained a salon for an eighty-piece orchestra.
'The structure was suspended on two large boats which were concealed beneath the artificial rock outcroppings along the island’s perimeter. ... The citizens of Paris would instantly recognize that the island was not part of the natural landscape, but an illusionary construct on the river’s surface. However, rather than detracting from its ability to awe, in fact it added to the island’s captivating quality. The entirety of the structure was created for the conspicuous consumption of the spectators.'

Friday, February 21, 2020

Mirages of landscapes leaping upwards

In July 1942, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Tullio Crali published in Rome a Futurist Manifesto entitled 'Plastic Illusionism of War and Perfecting the Earth'.  It was inspired by Crali's work on camouflage projects and it suggests that the 'plastic illusionism' used in Futurist painting could be used both to deceive enemy pilots and confuse them with 'visions of accelerated fractured cityscapes' and 'mirages of landscapes leaping upwards'.  And it goes further, arguing that the landscape itself could be altered - giving 'a volumetric character to plains', for example, by raising up artificial mountains.  These points read like a manifesto for Land Art and indeed Crali himself later argued that he had 'anticipated the interventions of American artists in this sphere by thirty years.'  In their vision for 'perfecting the earth', Marinetti and Crali wanted to 'refine the severe rugged aspects of wartime landscapes and cityscapes and their brutal masses.'  They would both 'virilise' and 'feminise' war-torn Italy, spirtualising and purifying it through the interventions of aeropainters, aeropoets, aeroarchitects and aeromusicians.

The aeropaintings of Tullio Crali are currently on display at the Estorick Gallery - their earlier exhibition devoted to the aeropainter Gerardo Dottori was the subject of a post I wrote here back in 2014.  Crali was much younger than Futurists like Dottori and Marinetti; he was only born in 1910, the year of the first Futurist Manifesto, and he lived until 2000, long after Futurism had become part of art history.  By the time the American Land Artists were coming to attention, Crali was a step ahead, thinking about extraterrestrial artworks.and writing his Futurist Manifesto of 'Orbital Art' (1969).  Some examples of his ideas are below - I particularly like the idea of the 'message-trains of audiovisual poetry' heading out into the cosmos like the Voyager golden record.

Another of Crali's artistic projects at that time (for which he had written a Manifesto in 1959) were the Sassintessi, compositions of stones mounted on neutral black or white backgrounds.  These were originally inspired by trips to Ploumanac'h where he saw the rocks that had fascinated earlier artists like Eileen Agar (her photographs have been admired, in turn, by Tacita Dean - see my earlier post, 'Rocks at Ploumenac’h, Brittany').  In her review of the Crali exhibition, Laura Cumming notes the novelty of the Sassintessi and thinks that 'every now and again they hit the mark, when Crali takes some sea-carved rock and twists it out of kilter, so that it suddenly looks like a rushing futurist figure.'  I was intrigued by the idea and by some examples, like Future Fossil of the Mechanical Civilisation (1963) which would fit right into a contemporary Anthropocene-themed exhibition.  Crali's rock collecting also inspired his son Massimo, who became a geologist.  Massimo's wife, Anna, was partly responsible for the exhibition and has been interviewed about it for a piece in the Telegraph.  

Finally, I should mention Tullio Crali's paintings.  After the war, he made various aerial views that combine abstract space with details of lakes or mountain peaks.  They reminded me a bit of Peter Lanyon's later works, particularly in the way they convey the intense blue of the sky.  Even as a nineteen-year old, Crali was making interesting compositions of intersecting clouds and planes of light, expressing the excitement of his first flight in 1928 ("the rebelliousness of the wind, air pockets, steep climbs: everything was wondrous...")  Arcs of overlapping colour are used to great effect in Lights at Sunset in Ostia (1930).  As Laura Cumming writes, this captures a moment when 'the shadows of hill and vale deepen, and rays of dying light arch between earth and sky. Translucent green patches stand for trees and clouds, and everything meets at the vanishing point of the ocean, radiant and serene – perhaps the most beautiful scene Crali ever painted.'

Saturday, February 15, 2020

In jasmine country, it is evening

Marutam, Queen's Flower, Lagerstroemia speciosa 
Source: Mokkie
In the afterword to A. K. Ramanujan's celebrated anthology of classical Tamil love poetry, The Interior Landscape (1967), there is a diagram showing the conceptual framework within which they were written.  This is based around five landscapes, each linked to a phase of love.  I have set these out below.  Their names derive from kinds of plant: mullai is jasmine, kuṟiñci is a mountain flower (strobilanthes), marutam is a tree that grows in pastoral regions and neytal is a water lily.  Ramanujan's diagram also lists other features of each category: (i) time, (ii) season, (iii) birds, (iv) beasts, (v) trees/plants, (vi) type of water, and (vii) the type of people or activity likely to be encountered.  For example, a kuṟiñci poem may refer to (i) night time, (ii) the cold season or early frost, (iii) a peacock or parrot; (iv) a monkey, elephant, horse or bull; (v) a jackfruit, bamboo or vengai; (vi) a waterfall; (vii) hill tribes, guarding the millet harvest or gathering honey.  In a footnote he says 'this is not an exhaustive list ... the names of gods, clans, musical instruments, and kinds of food have been omitted.'
Genre Landscape Theme
kuṟiñci mountains Sexual union
mullai forest Yearning
marutam countryside Sulking
neytal seashore Pining
pālai wasteland Separation
You can read a fuller description of this schema in the Wikipedia article 'Sangam Landscape'.  Sangam is the name given to this classical literature, which was composed in the early years of the common era (one narrow estimate is between 100 BCE to 250 CE).  Its poets are known by their names or by epithets that are often based on specific metaphors they used.  As a result, there are writers called The Poet of the Red Earth and Pouring Rain, The Poet of the Long White Moonlight and The Poet of the Foam on the Rocks.  These writers were not constrained to rigid formulae by the system of symbols - they were at liberty to 'confuse' the genres and to convey a precise mood.  And although the genres were named after landscapes, their settings were not as important as the people in them. 'Mere nature-description or "imagism"', Ramanujan explains, 'would be uninteresting to Tamil poets and critics.'

The existence of these poetic modes mean that when you read a Tamil love poem you are experiencing a kind of hidden landscape poem. And when poems are ostensibly nature scenes, they are really about some episode in a love affair.  To give a brief sense of the actual Tamil landscape in these poems I will quote here two of Ramanujan's translations, both of which refer to jasmine and are thus about 'yearning'.  
In jasmine country, it is evening
for the hovering bees,
but look, he hasn't come back. 
These lines are by a woman writer, Okkur Macatt.  She begins this poem with rains bringing new leaves to the fields and grass spears 'trimmed and blunted by the deer.'  The next one is by Uraiyar Mutukorran, whose name implies he may have been a stone mason in Uraiyur, the Chola dynasty's capital city in Tamil Nadu.  It is also in the voice of a female lover and set during rainfall.  A goat-herd comes to town to obtain rice and take it to some others who are waiting, holding palmyra rain-guards.  In the goat-herd's hair, tiny buds of jasmine are visible.
My lover has not come back:
the jasmine has blossomed.

Jasmine buds
Source: SKsiddhartthan

Friday, February 14, 2020

A bend in the river

This is a detail from one of the colour Polaroid photographs taken by Wim Wenders in 1974, when he was working on The Wrong Move.  These Polaroids were on show in London a couple of years ago and I recently treated myself to the accompanying book, Instant Stories, where they are mostly reproduced in their original 7 x 9cm dimensions, re-photographed with all the dust and markings of age.  This particular image, along with a few others, is blown up to five times its original size, as if to see how it works as a photographic art, rather than a small physical artefact of the film making process.  When I saw this Polaroid in the exhibition, I thought it was the river bend the characters in The Wrong Move have behind them on their walk up the hill.  But memory mists over details and, as you can see from the embedded clip below, it is not the same place.

For this post I will just note three other highlights of the book (focusing on landscape subjects):
  • There are a small group of location scouting Polaroids from his unsuccessful adaptation of The Scarlet Letter (1973), eventually filmed in Spain.  New England hadn't looked right (I have written before here about the gap between the real American landscape and the way Europeans imagine it).  At first, when the archivist unearthed these Polaroids, Wenders thought they must be views of the Baltic. 'Those Polaroids had aged, but the amazing effect was: they had become more beautiful in the process.  They now showed the place that I had been looking for in vain. A lost America.' 
  • For the third of his road movies, Kings of the Road, Wenders says 'I traveled all along the German/German border and visited each and every movie theater that was left in that stretch of land from the Elbe river in the North down to the German/Czech border in the South.  the entire border covered some 1400 kilometres. A deep depression had befallen these lost little towns and villages that were cut off from their hinterland.'  In these places he took a poignant sequence of black and white Polaroids showing these small, drab cinemas with their grandiose names, Capital, RIO, LUX...
  • On this page you can see Wenders' shots of the Elbe where he filmed the memorable opening sequence of Kings of the Road. The location was near the old Dömitz fortress. 'There, across the stream, stood the watchtowers of the East German border patrol.  Wherever we shot, we saw their binoculars blinking.  I always wondered what they were thinking of us.'
Finally, I am embedding below a video of Wim Wenders in which he describes his use of the Polaroid camera.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Clouds Sweeping Distant Mountains

The Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom by Sung Po-jen is the world’s earliest-known printed art book, published in 1238.  Only one copy seems to have survived the Mongol invasion of 1276 and this eventually came to be owned by the 16th century artist Wen Cheng-ming (Wen Zhengming), who I have mentioned here before in connection with his painting Garden of the Inept Administrator.  This copy disappeared from view until it was found in 1801 in a Peking antique market by a connoisseur who recognised its importance and had it reprinted.  There is an English translation by Red Pine, published in a lovely edition by the Copper Canyon Press.  Sung Po-jen's book takes the form of one hundred ink drawings, showing a plum blossom in all its stages from budding to opening, flowering, fading and forming fruit.  Each is accompanied by a short poem on a subject suggested by the shape of the blossom.  Thus there are poems on bowls and drinking vessels, hats, birds, insects, fruit, shells, an ancient coin, an arrow head, a zither pick, a hanging bell, a fan and a jade dipper.

Some of the poem titles evoke actual landscapes and moments of time, suggested by nothing more than the simple form of a single branch and flower.  'Lone Goose Calling to the Moon', 'New Lily Pads in Pouring Rain', 'Crow Landing on a Tree in Winter...'  Poem 78 in the sequence is called 'Clouds Sweeping Distant Mountains'.  Looking at the accompanying image (left), I can start to see it.  Through this visual metaphor Sung's plum blossom becomes a kind of landscape drawing.

The four lines of 'Clouds Sweeping Distant Mountains' each recall other the words of other poets. The first pictures clouds 'aimlessly rolling out of mountain caves' and refers to something T'ao Yuan-ming wrote (I mentioned T'ao last month in my post about We Ying-wu). The second, 'one wave and the slopes are gone' quotes a contemporary poet, Huang Keng, whose 'Evening Stroll in the West Garden in Spring', describes the disappearance of a mountain at sunset.  The third refers to to a Tu Fu poem on the changeability of the sky: 'a turn of the hand and the clouds appear / another turn and they become rain'.  And the last line, which mentions the 'demon of drought', is derived from 'River of Clouds', a poem in the earliest collection Chinese poetry, the Book of Songs

Saturday, February 01, 2020

Woodland Scenery with Hermits

 Pieter Stevens, Woodland Scenery with Hermits, 1614

This beautiful, atmospheric landscape painting is just 6.9 x 12.8 cm, as you can see from the photo with my hand below.  What makes it so enchanting is the silvery light on bark and leaves, and the way trees frame an opening onto sunlit space, suggesting a whole other world beyond the green shadows of the forest.  You can zoom in on this at the Frankfurt Städel Museum website, but all you see is Pieter Stevens' brushstrokes.  When you look at the real painting your eyes don't register this - it really feels like you are peering into a miniature world.  This approach to painting in the early sixteenth century can be seen in various forms, most notably the cabinet paintings on copper of Paul Bril, Adam Elsheimer and others.  Here, though, it is on a significantly smaller scale.  This landscape is the size of a playing card, because it was actually painted on the back of one.  When the museum bought it in 1869, it was possible to turn the painting over and see the front of a playing card.  Annoyingly, this got removed, but there are still traces and modern curators have worked out that it was a court card used in the game of Trappola.    

As noted a few weeks ago, I'm going to keep a lot of my blog posts short from now on, so I won't say more here about the work of Pieter Stevens, a Flemish artist mainly based in Prague, or riff on the subject of landscape and playing cards.  Miniature portraits were sometimes painted or mounted on cards (there is one of Henry VIII, for example) but I don't know of any other landscape views.  I have written before about many kinds of miniature landscape but the way this one opens up a whole world for the imagination reminded me particular of the Raymond Roussel poem 'The View', a description over 2000 lines long of a tiny beach scene set into the lens of a pen-holder.