Saturday, March 28, 2020

Scrub and quarry

Painting en plein air can bring many unexpected problems, from the bandits encountered by Thomas Jones to the waves that drenched Claude Monet.  The British artist Ray Atkins has not made it easy for himself:
'He sets up his boards – sometimes up to 10 foot wide, and weighing a hundredweight – in the landscape he's painting, tethering the work to the ground with rocks and leaving them in situ for weeks at a time. Obviously this method leaves the work at the mercy of the elements and of vandals - indeed, one of his monumental works of the Thames at Millwall ended up floating downstream after his secret painting place was discovered by local vandals.' (The Guardian, October 2012)
Wind is a particular risk if you're going to set up pictures on this scale - once one of Atkins' pictures ended up at the bottom of a quarry, as William Feaver noted in his catalogue essay for a 1996 retrospective.

Catalogue for the 1996 Ray Atkins exhibition at Art Space Gallery, Bristol

It would be easy to criticise this approach to painting as playing out the stereotype of 'man' against nature.  But William Feaver argued that
'there is no need to label Atkins 'heroic' in his persistence. The difficulties he makes for himself are essential to the outcome. Without them he would lack the resistance necessary for deep impetus. Painting on board rather than canvas gives him another sort of resistance. He dedicates himself to laborious cultivation; his is a kind of fieldcraft and makes him more the hunter-farmer than the painter of pleasing projects.' 
Feaver was impressed by Atkins's paintings of Cornwall, which were mainly done inland in an environment of 'scrub and quarry, land worked over and worked out.'  Scrapyard IV (1989) is particularly striking - 'crumpled colours dumped on the landscape'.

Eventually Atkins left Cornwall for the French Pyrennees, where he still lives and paints.  There is a YouTube video of him made in 2018 which shows a soft-focus sun-dappled landscape a world away from the docks of Millwall and scrapyards of Cornwall.  Here, near his home, you see him fixing up one of his boards in a field and beginning to work, before breaking off to enjoy the sunset.  As someone says at the end of the film, artistic fame may have passed him by, but at least he has been able to spend a lifetime painting.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Driving with Greenland Dogs

In these days of forced isolation, lots of people are turning to film streaming sites.  If you are interested in silent movies, I can highly recommend the Danish Film Institute's new site which so far has 64 good quality videos from the Golden Age of Danish cinema, including classics like The Abyss and A Trip to Mars.  The first Danish film, Peter Elfelt's Driving with Greenland Dogs (1897), can also be seen there in all its 40-second glory.  It is like a haiku in its brevity, single memorable incident and strong seasonal imagery.  Of course this film's original viewers would have been amazed by the way motion is captured, but viewing it now, what I like is the moment of stillness half way through, after the sled has left the shot and before it enters again from the other side (see image above).  For a second or so you just see a winter landscape with a line of trees like musical notes on the high horizon and fresh tracks written in the snow.

Another film you can see on is Løvejagten (The Lion Hunt, 1907) made by Ole Olsen's Nordisk Film and directed by Viggo Larsen.  It is an extraordinary eleven minutes - a catalogue of tasteless moments that I can't really do justice to in a short description (do all hunters enjoy a sort of post-coital cigarette with the carcass?)  Attitudes change, but even back then the film caused an uproar because the two lions (bought by Olsen from Hamburg Zoo) were actually killed.  Even before these poor creatures and the film they starred in were shot, the Danish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was protesting in vain to the Minister for Justice.  The publicity just helped the film become a success. 

Most stories from the early years of cinema with external scenes were set somewhere easy to simulate with local scenery.  But Denmark is not well-endowed with jungles and so one was recreated in Jægersborg Dyrehave near Copenhagen, a beautiful deer park (as I recall from visiting it once) but not an obvious setting for a lion hunt.  There's something a bit Douanier Rousseau about the scenes filmed there, with unnatural looking tropical plants sticking out of woodland paths.  The shore on which the lions met their end (see above) doesn't exactly bring to mind a tropical beach either - this scene was filmed on the island of Elleore in Roskilde fjord and watching it you can almost feel the cold wind whipping off the sea.

I will end here with something more uplifting, two lovely tinted photographs which can be found in an article on Danish art cinema by .  He speculates that early non-dramatic travelogue films (now lost) may have had 'atmospheric exteriors' resembling picturesque postcards,
'as could possibly be demonstrated by one of the two Nordisk films Fiskerliv i Norden [literally: Being a Fisherman in the Nordic Countries] (Viggo Larsen, 1906) or Ved Havet [literally: By the Sea] (Ole Olsen, 1909). These two fisherman tales only survive in a Swedish distribution copy in which the two were cut together, but what remains contains two beautiful tinted atmospheric inserts of a moonlit and sunset seascape though it is unclear in which of the two these are featured.'
This footage is not yet available on Stumfilm but perhaps under current circumstances the Danish Film Institute will be able to add more titles like this soon.

Friday, March 20, 2020

A Lane Near Arles

One of the many pleasures of Vincent van Gogh's paintings is the way he changes his style of painting at different places in the composition whilst retaining their overall harmony.  Here we have densely stippled foliage, a path defined by broad strokes of yellow and lavender, and a sky in which the zig-zag swirls of blue suggest the movements of a Provençal breeze. As you can see below, there are also blocks of pure colour - the green of the fields, the yellow of the house, the blue (!) of the tree trunks.  But it all works perfectly together. The same can be said of other landscapes from this time, like Farmhouse in Provence with its wonderful lilac wall and turquoise sky.  You imagine van Gogh looking at these landscapes and intuiting the phenomena before him - tree, path, sky - in such a way that the right means of conveying them in paint came almost instinctively.

Vincent van Gogh, A Lane Near Arles, 1888

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Wandering on the Tiantai Mountains

Unknown artist, Jade Mountain Illustrating 
the Gathering of Scholars at the Lanting Pavilion, 1790
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This landscape in jade shows Mount Kuaiji (in present-day Zhejiang) and the celebrated Orchard Pavilion Gathering that took place there during the Spring Purification Festival on the third day of the third month in the year 353.  The event is most famous for a piece of calligraphy, the Lantingji Xu - 'Preface to the Poems Collected from the Orchid Pavilion' written by Wang Xizhi (303-361).  He describes the location, with its
'mighty mountains and towering ridges covered with lush forests and tall bamboo, where a clear stream with swirling eddies cast back a sparkling light upon both shores.  From this we cut a winding channel in which to float our wine cups, and around this everyone took their appointed seats.  True, we did not have harps and flutes of a great feast, but a cup of wine and a song served well enough to free our most hidden feelings.' (trans. Stephen Owen)
Feng Chengsu, Tang Dynasty copy of Wang Xizhi's Lantingji Xu (now lost) 
Source: Wikimedia Commons

There were forty-two literati at this famous party and one of them was the poet Sun Chuo (Sun Ch'o, 314-71), whose fu 'Wandering on the Tiantai Mountains' has also been translated by Stephen Owen.  Here is an extract:
... I pushed through thickets,     dense and concealing,
I scaled sheer escarpments     looming above me.
I waded the You Creek,      went straight on ahead,
left five borders behind me     and fared swiftly forward.
I strode over arch     of a Sky-Hung Walkway,
looked down ten thousand yards     lost in its blackness;
I trod upon mosses     of slippery rock,
clung to the Azure Screen     that stands like a wall ...
Burton Watson has also translated this poem and writes of Sun's journey that 'as he proceeds up the mountain, the scenery becomes increasingly fantastic and idealized, until at the end he reaches a plane of pure philosophy, in which Taoist and Buddhist allusions are balanced one against the other.'

Dai Xi,  Rain-coming Pavilion by the Stone Bridge at Mt. Tiantai, 1848
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Sky-Hung Walkway referred to in this poem was a natural stone bridge.  It has often been depicted in art - The Smithsonian has a twelfth century painting of it by Zhou Jichang and they describe it as follows:
'The natural rock bridge spanning a waterfall is one Tiantai's most famous sights. According to legend, this arch is also a pathway to paradise where the five-hundred luohan, saintly guardians of the Buddhist faith, worship and dwell among magnificent celestial temples. Those who venture to tread this perilous trail, however, find that the bridge, which narrows to a width of several centimeters, is obstructed at its far end by an insurmountable block of stone.'
There are some photographs online of tourists admiring what I assume is this same rock bridge (e.g. on Wikimedia).  In the Japanese ink painting below by Soga Shōhaku (1730–1781) it looks much more spectacular.  In this dramatic scene a mother lion throws cubs over the cliff to see which will succeed in life by being able to climb back up to her.

Soga Shōhaku, Lions at the Stone Bridge of Mount Tiantai, 1790 
Source: Met Museum

An article by Zornica Kirkova explains that Mount Tiantai also features in a poem by Sun Chuo’s friend, the Buddhist monk Zhidun (314–366).  This 'opens in the idyllic setting of a spring garden, where the poet leisurely reflects on the passage of time and, “moved by things” ... lets his thoughts soar up to the sacred realm of the Celestial Terrace Mountain'.
The piping creek plays clear tunes.
Empyrean cliffs nurture numinous mists,
Divine plants, holding moisture, grow.
Cinnabar sand shimmers in the turquoise stream,
Fragrant mushrooms sparkle with the five brilliances.
In this poem, 'the mountains are envisioned as a sublime and sacred realm of purity and beauty.'  As with Sun Chuo, more realistic images - the cool breeze, the clear tunes of the creek - are combined with 'fantastic paradise depictions, pertaining to the theme of immortality (eternal divine plants, cinnabar sand, magic mushrooms)'.  It is easy to forget when you read poetry like this that it is a real mountain, so I will end here with an image from the internet taken with an iPhone 6S in June 2016, 1,663 years after the Orchard Pavilion Gathering.

The cliffs of Mount Tiantai
Source: Huangdan2060