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."