Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Conway Castle - Panoramic View

Conway Castle - Panoramic View of Conway on the L.& N.W. Railway

I've been reading Bryony Dixon's book The Story of Victorian Film which can be seen as an extension of the brilliant free-to-access BFI Victorian Film archive. For example, she discusses Conway Castle - Panoramic View of Conway on the L.& N.W. Railway, a 'sedately paced' landscape film which the BFI website describes thus:

This beautiful film, shot in February 1898, has a dream-like quality and is hand tinted (possibly stencilled). It is believed to have been coloured some time after it was first shown as no contemporary reviews or advertisements refer to what would surely have been a major selling/talking point, 1898 being very early for coloured films.

This film was made in response to the first American phantom train ride film (by the British Mutoscope and Biograph's parent company, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company), 'The Haverstraw Tunnel', which showed the scenery around the Hudson river and a tunnel and so delighted the audience that the British operation decided to make their own version, which also proved very popular - it showed not only in London but also in Rochester, New York, and then travelled all over Europe, still being shown in cinemas as late as 1910. This film is preserved by the EYE Filmmuseum, Netherlands.

Dixon's chapter 'Moving Images: Panoramas, Phantom Rides and Travel' explains that the first travel film made from a moving vehicle was Alexander Promio's Panorama du Grand Canal pris d'un bateaux, shot from a gondola on 25 October 1896. There are several versions of this uploaded on YouTube and I've embedded one of them below. Two years later Biograph produced Panoramic View of the Vegetable Market at Venice with a large format camera that gives a remarkably clear, almost 3D stereoscopic effect. Such films can be related in their subjects and composition to earlier picturesque views in art, as well as the more recent phenomenon of moving panoramas (views unfurled on rolled-up cotton with a lecturer explaining each scene). A little later we get more Italian travelogues with more than one shot - Visit to Pompeii (1901) is 8 minutes long and features a 360-degree pan of the ruins, a lovely misty view of Vesuvius with sheep providing motion in the foreground and then a ride up the volcano's funicular railway (another version of the 'phantom train ride'). One more to recommend you look at is Ride on the Peak Tramway (1900), filmed in Hong Kong, which has a grainy, mesmerising quality. 'As the tram crests the peak it's just possible to see the huge vista of Victoria Harbour and Kowloon laid out before us, as if viewed from the world's greatest natural rollercoaster.' 



Another interesting genre discussed in Bryony Dixon's book is the sea wave film. 'Nearly every report of early film screening mentions audience reaction to films of sea waves. Films showing the movement of water were very popular for their mesmeric effect as well as for the initial shock they gave audiences at their feeling of 'absolute realness''. She quotes a reaction to Birt Acres' early Rough Sea at Dover (1895) - "It is not too much to say that persons seated near the screen must have shrunk from the approaching billows which gathered, lifted their foam-tossed crests, curled and crashed down with an absolute realism from which nothing was wanted but the roar." Again there are obvious precedents in art and recent photography (Acres was himself a photographer). Cecil Hepworth's film Rough Seas Breaking on Rocks (1899) reminds me of the 'rough seas' genre of postcards I wrote about here in 2011.  Dixon lists other examples but notes in particular 'the beautiful Sea Cave Near Lisbon, filmed by Henry Short for Robert Paul in 1896, in which Portugal's famous Boca di Inferno (Mouth of Hell) frames the waves swirling and smashing against the rocks.'

Sea Cave Near Lisbon

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Branches Waving in the Current

Back in October I was fortunate to be able to attend a book launch for Michael Wood's new book In the Footsteps of Du Fu. He gave an excellent speech on Du Fu's life and importance (not everyone present had read the poetry) and was clearly moved when he quoted '500 Words on the Road to Fengxian'. He said his interest in Chinese poetry was sparked by A. C. Graham's Poems of the Late T’ang, published in 1965 (this was the book that inspired Roger Waters' lyrics for 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun'). When I first read this book in the mid eighties there were still hardly any translations of Chinese poetry available, although Arthur Cooper's Li Po and Tu Fu had appeared as a Penguin Classic in 1973. I've never understood why more haven't appeared over the years, although readers of this blog will have encountered quotes from the trickle of books published by American publishers. I doubt Michael Wood's book will provoke a new wave of enthusiasm here for Du Fu, but you never know.

Michael Wood on the Yangtze
(from the one hour BBC documentary Du Fu: China's Greatest Poet, 2020)

Rather than discuss the whole book, I thought I'd use the opportunity to talk here about a specific landscape which Du Fu wrote about. White Emperor City (Baidicheng or Baidi Fortress) is on the northern shore of the Yangtze, near Fengjie. Sadly, construction of the Three Gorges Dam submerged many buildings although tourists can still visit what remains on an island. Du Fu was one of many poets who came here over the years - ‘Early Departure from White King City’ by his friend Li Bai (701-62) is in the Arthur Cooper book. On the 15th of November 767 Du Fu saw here ‘a pupil of the Lady Kung-Sun dance the sword mime.’ In response he wrote a beautiful, moving meditation on aging, at about the age I am now. He had seen Lady Kung-Sun when he was a child in 717, but now even her pupil was past her prime. Arthur Cooper says in his notes for the poem that the dance, in the style of ‘West of the Yangtse’, was ‘probably at its climax very fast and vigorous, much like Tartar or so-called Polovtian dances known today through Russian ballet.’

A. C. Graham, in Poems of the Late T'ang, explains that Kuizhou (K’uei-chou), was ‘a town adjoining and apparently no longer distinguished from Pai Ti (White Emperor City)’. These places can be seen in the helpful map above, which I hope it's OK to reproduce from Michael Wood's book. ‘K’uei-chou had been part of the old kingdom of Shu and contained a temple to the great Shu statesman Chu-ko Liang, who was one of Tu Fu’s heroes’ (David Hawkes). ‘Ballad of the Old Cypress’ concerns a tree that Chu-ko Liang (Zhuge Liang) was supposed to have planted. Also near the city ‘there was a formation of dolmens which appeared as the Yangzi river sank. This was supposed to have been Zhuge Liang’s symbolic representation of the military formations his army should assume in the conquest of Wu’ (Stephen Owen). Du Fu wrote a famous poem about these too, ‘The Diagram of Eight Formations’. This was the setting for Brian W. Aldiss's 1978 short story 'The Small Stones of Tu Fu' in which a time traveller meets the aging poet. 

Zhuge Liang's Diagram of Eight Formations, or Stone Sentinel Maze, features in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written in the 14th century about events at the end of the Han Dynasty. Lu Xun is leading his troops towards Kui Pass when he begins to sense danger, but no sign of enemy soldiers. One of his followers inspects the area but finds only 'eighty or ninety chaotic rock piles alongside the river.' Some locals tell Lu Xun that when his enemy Zhuge Liang had been here, he had sent troops to arrange these rock formations and 'since then, a kind of cloudlike effluvium seems to emanate from their interiors'. As the sun goes down Lu Xun goes to investigate the rocks himself. Suddenly violent winds appear, the river rumbles and the sky is covered with streams of sand and stone. An old man appears and tells him this is the Eightfold Maze, whose openings appear unpredictably. They each have a name and Lu Xun had entered by the one called 'Perish'. But the man, who identifies himself as Zhuge Liang's father-in-law, leads him to safety. The novel then quotes Du Fu's poem.   

Du Fu had arrived in the Kuizhou-Baidicheng area in the spring of 766 and found two farmsteads to live in, the main house an hour’s walk uphill. Michael Wood, in the footsteps of Du Fu, noted that the poet's ‘vegetable garden with an orchard and orange grove of almost six acres commanded wonderful views which with a little imagination we can still see in the mind’s eye. Sometimes he walked higher up above the Gorges to see the whole vista unfold with distant mountain ranges beyond. So although the river has covered the site of Du Fu’s houses, if we look up, something of the ‘landscape remains’, as we would say’. It was here that the poet wrote his two great 'Autumn' sequences, which many consider the greatest of all Chinese poems. 

Bill Porter (Red Pine) visited this location a few years before Michael Wood for his odyssey round the poetic sites of China, Finding Them Gone (2016). The island of Baidicheng (Paiticheng) was surprisingly quiet - 'the only sounds I heard above the wind were those of crickets and doves. I was also joined by a passel of sparrows and what must have been the last butterflies of the year.' The famous view down the gorge (which can be found on a 10 Yuan note) still looked beautiful. As the site of Du Fu's Western Study has been drowned, a replacement version has been carved from rocks higher up. Red Pine ignored this and headed instead for Huanhua Village, named after the stream Du Fu lived by in Chengdu where he could look down over a slope of farm plots to the water, beneath which the poet's hut and orange grove now lie. He then made for the site of Du Fu's second submerged home, at a place called Huangchuehshu. A local explained that it is named for the ancient trees (Ficus virens) planted there.

'The trees were so big, he said, it took the outstretched arms of several people to encircle one of them. The huang-chueh was a relative of the banyan and was often used in that part of China to honour sites of historical or communal importance, and the site of Tu Fu's former house would have qualified. I thought about all those branches waving in the current where so many poems were written. It wasn't simply the landscape that inspired Tu Fu's poems. It was also his life coming to an end and he felt it.'

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Salt Island

 Mónica de Miranda, Salt Island, 2022 (detail)

I recently went to look around RE/SISTERS A Lens on Gender and Ecology, at the Barbican. In this exhibition the politics goes well beyond environmentalism and feminism, encompassing work that reflects on sexuality, race and the history of colonialism. And yet it would be possible in some cases to wilfully ignore all these strata of meaning and admire a work as landscape art, like Salt Island, a sequence of five photographs embroidered with green thread. We are told by the wall label that Mónica de Miranda's work 'considers the complex experience of Afrodiasporic lives and Europe's colonialist past through a Black ecofeminist lens, drawing on ideas of matrilineal relationships, kinship, migration, slavery and African liberation movements.' However it's hard to get all this from Salt Island and the exhibition would ideally have displayed more of the multimedia project of which this is just a part, The Island. There is a good description of this in a text by Ana Nolasco on the artist's website, including historical background on the “Ilha dos Pretos” (Island of Blacks) which inspired it - stories of an eighteenth century settlement of people of African origin by the Sado River. 


Agnes Denes, Wheatfield - A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan, 1982

The addition of new ways of understanding our relationship with the planet make it increasingly hard to position art in this field. Agnes Denes, for example, is included for her famous Manhattan Wheatfield project, but she is now being criticised for using wheat, a Eurocolonial industrial cereal crop, 'implicated in the displacement of Indigenous people and indigenous plants over much of the continent for at least two centuries' (Catriona Sandilands). Today, artists need to think intersectionally. They have to create arresting work while steering (if I can use a mythological gendered landscape metaphor) between the Scylla of 'Mother Earth' attitudes, that equate women too closely with nature, and the Charybdis of panoramic or abstracting viewpoints, associated with power and possession

Back in 1986, Tee A. Corinne's Isis photomontages placed vulvas in the landscape of Oregon. Did this go too far in equating the female body with nature? Context is important: Corinne is well known for her books and images celebrating lesbian lives and these 'landscapes' were just one small project in a prolific lifetime's work. It is hard to criticise artists like Corinne, Ana Mendieta, Laura Aguilar and others for positioning themselves as part of their environments, as an alternative to the disembodied vistas of landscape painters or large-scale interventions of land artists. They were 'performing ground' - locating 'the self not merely in the world but of it' (Lucy Bradnock). Writing about Corinne's work, Tamsin Wilton argues that her 'celebration of woman in the woodland focuses on women's sexuality, the seat of female sexual pleasure. In other words, precisely what is most often erased in the women-as-landscape genre.' 

Symrin Gill's aerial photographs of open-pit mines can be seen as avoiding the industrial sublime by 'alluding to the corporeal' (the series is called Eyes and Storms), emphasising the landscape's 'bodily textures' by allowing shadows to disrupt a two-dimensional 'extractivist viewpoint.' By contrast, Sim Chi Yin does provide a beautiful abstract aerial view (below) as part of her Shifting Sands project. But this aestheticisation of the 'infrastructural' gaze' is juxtaposed with other photographs ('the human gaze') that show the impact of erosion in poorer areas of the Global South. Another artist, Mary Mattingly is represented by some striking unpeopled 2016 photographs: Mineral Seep, where a cliff is transformed into a drip painting by black and brown stains, and Ore Transport, where an uncanny, unfathomable concrete structure, framed by grey water and pale sky, draws you into its shadowy interior. But these too are contextualised with a chalk board Cobalt Map showing the complex system that supports its production and distribution, 'a network of violence that percolates outward from the original site of extraction.'

Sim Chi Yin, Shifting Sands #2, 2017-ongoing

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Uncultivated regal hunting grounds

Awrangzib Hunts Nilgais c. 1660

I've just read Julian Bell's new book on Adam Elsheimer, Natural Light. He talks about the paintings I referred to here in 2006, when I visited the Dulwich Elsheimer exhibition, including The Flight Into Egypt (1609) with its extraordinary depiction of the night sky. He explains that Elsheimer would not necessarily have needed a newly-invented telescope to paint this, although he was working at a time of increasing interest in natural phenomena. The book's last chapter takes an unexpected turn east, to consider some paintings from Mughal India that have been described as 'naturalistic' in a similar way to art made in seventeenth century Europe, beginning in Rome with Elsheimer, Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci. The painting above, by an unknown artist (owned now by Dublin's Chester Beatty library), is one of Bell's examples. It struck me as a relatively rare Indian 'landscape painting'. Artists working in Agra knew about European compositions from engravings and some of Elsheimer's best paintings travelled in this form, although Bell doesn't suggest Awrangzib Hunts Nilgais is based on any of these. However, he thinks Vermeer's observational experiments, 'paintings of high ambition and coolly systematic facture', bear a 'distant affinity' to this detailed, panoramic view. Figures seem of minor importance here. Instead the interest is in 'unbounded open space - the looseness and rambliness of the uncultivated regal hunting grounds, with their warm harmonies of ochre and sap green'.      

Sunday, November 05, 2023

Lake Superior, Cascade River

Sugimoto Seascapes at the Hayward Gallery

I wrote about Hiroshi Sugimoto's seascape photographs here in 2007, referring to some online images at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum. Checking back just now I found the link was dead, but there is still information on the exhibition at their website. I would love to visit the actual building in Washington one day - not only did they do that major career retrospective, they have also more recently commissioned Sugimoto (who is also an architect) to redesign their lobby and renovate their sculpture garden. This autumn though, at long last, a British gallery has put on a Sugimoto retrospective and it's just a 341 bus ride away from our home. Hiroshi Sugimoto: Time Machine includes the photograph I mentioned sixteen years ago, Boden Sea, Uttwil (1993), along with others just as beautiful. 

These luminous images, made with an old large-format camera, are referred to by the artist as seascapes, although Boden Sea is what Sugimoto calls Bodensee, i.e. Lake Constance, and my photo below shows another lake view. But The Guardian exhibition review begins with a wonderful view of the North Atlantic Ocean and the Evening Standard's includes Sugimoto's photograph of the Bay of Sagami. I will briefly quote Laura Cummings' article, as she manages to include the lovely word for a cold sea fog, 'haar'.

These monochrome photographs must all be captured at a particular moment, by their very nature, and yet they appear to stand outside time. Their poetry lies in more than they show. [They] hover between representation and abstraction. There are visions of shining light where up and down appear inscrutable, seas that tip over the horizon, or resemble nothing but haar. There are seas that register as oblongs of graphite shading. All are real – look closely and you can even distinguish tidal flow – but as intangible as outer space.


Lake Superior, Cascade River, 1995

Sugimoto's photographs allow you to imagine a primal sea untouched by humanity. In my book Frozen Air I described looking out on the English Channel, which Sugimoto has photographed for this series from both shores. There can be passages of time when no ships cross your field of vision, and nothing but light and water lie in front of you. In Marcel Proust's first book, Pleasures and Days, he described this pristine vision: ‘unlike the earth, the sea does not bear the traces of human works and human life. Nothing remains on the sea, nothing passes there except in flight, and how quickly the wake of a ship disappears! Hence the sea's great purity, which earthly things do not have.'

Saturday, November 04, 2023

The Eight Mountains

I recently watched The Eight Mountains which I'd been looking forward to since reading Peter Bradshaw's review in The Guardian:

This rich, beautiful and inexpressibly sad film is about the friendship between men who can’t talk about their feelings and about winning and losing at the great game of life. It is set in the breathtaking and wonderfully photographed Italian Alpine valley of Aosta, which includes the slopes of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. But the “eight mountains” of the title refers to the eight highest peaks of Nepal: a mysterious symbol of worldly ambition and conquest. Belgian film-makers Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch have adapted the award-winning 2016 novel by Italian author Paolo Cognetti and have created a deeply intelligent meditation on our capacity for love, and how it is shaped by the arbitrary, irreversible experiences of childhood, and by our relationship with the landscape. The Aosta valley is depicted with magnificent sweep, and van Groeningen and Vandermeersch find a stratum of sadness under it, a kind of water table of tears.

Unfortunately, although I did quite enjoy it, I was disappointed - my view of the film was closer to Richard Brody's review in The New Yorker. In this he describes a scene that echoes a central dilemma of landscape appreciation I've referred to often on this blog. 'By far the best scene in the film is one in which the adult Pietro (Luca Marinelli) brings a trio of Turin friends to the mountains; in response to their rapturous enthusiasm for “nature,” Bruno (Alessandro Borghi) explains that the people who live in the mountains never use that “abstract” word but rather speak lovingly of the physical specifics—“forest, meadow, river, rock, path: things you can point at, things you can use.”' 


that line of dialogue conveys more of the essence of the movie’s alpine setting than does the cinematography. Much of the action there takes place outdoors; Pietro’s father (Filippo Timi) is an enthusiastic hiker and climber who takes the two boys with him on his expeditions, and Pietro, in his many returns to the region, delights in the peaks, in the clear water of the lake, in the rock formations. The movie presents these landscapes as cinematic abstractions, with drones and Steadicams and cameras perched on high to show the small figures of humans overwhelmed by, yes, nature, and to show the spectacular sights that surround the characters. But it stints on the visual point of view of the characters, voids itself of contemplative poise and analytical precision, hardly stays still long enough, looks in detail long enough. It doesn’t pay enough closeup, hands-on attention to soil and stone and water and snow, to wood and fire, to flesh and fabric, to suggest that the characters have any more of a physical connection to the settings than they have a perceptual one.

We used to exclaim "oh no, not a drone shot!" whenever they appeared on TV documentatries or movies, until they became almost ubiquitous. But complaining about the drone shot cliché has itself become a cliché, so I won't labour the point here. A New York Times article on the phenomenon did note some highly effective examples - Werner Herzog 'opens his remarkable 2016 picture “Into the Inferno” with an astounding aerial sequence that soars up a mountain and then into the volcano at its center.' Maybe we could just have some more drone shots that are grainy or misty or flawed in some way, rather than being taken on smooth glides over perfect landscapes that are not as awe-inspiring as they should be, because they look almost computer-generated. 

Another review of The Eight Mountains notes that 'some obvious drone shots are included, but much of the hiking sequences appear to have been done with Steadicams, following the men through their treacherous treks. Andrea Rauccio is listed as the Steadicam operator, but the credits for camera operators are lengthy, and the entire crew deserves credit.' Richard Brody may be being a bit harsh on all this, but I do know what he means when he says that in these scenes it's hard not to 'hear and see the crew, the walkie-talkies, the muffled clamor that goes into turning raw experience into overcooked and denatured images.' 

I feel I should end on a more positive note though. So here are a few more quotes from reviews (ending back with Peter Bradshaw), where the temptation to use mountain metaphors has proved irresistible.

  • 'Stately and serene from a distance, but up close riven with the fissures and follies of a friendship that costs both men so much but gives them even more, the movie, too, is a mountain.' (Variety)
  • 'Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi put in mountain-sized performances to offset the film’s silences and propensity for postcard shots, bringing heart and guts to the chilliest scenery. A worthwhile hike through many obstacles to friendship.' (Irish Times)
  • 'A movie that seems to grow before your eyes, leaping across continents as years go by, all the while slowly accruing power. By the end it has scaled a peak, offering a bracing perspective on life experience.' (FT)
  • Much like climbing a mountain, the two-and-a-half-hour runtime may occasionally feel arduous, but the emotional release is worth it once you reach the peak.' (Time Out)
  • 'This film has mystery and passion, it climbs mountainous heights and rewards you with the opposite of vertigo: a sort of exaltation.' (The Guardian) 

Friday, November 03, 2023

The Airfields of Lincolnshire

The cover of Simon Cutts' The Small Press Model is a photograph of his 'forgotten one-word poem' which can be found outside Skellingthorpe, 'A History of the Airfields of Lincolnshire'. It comprised seven slabs of concrete taken from RAF Sinderby with letters in orange anodised aluminium, glued on 'with the fiercest epoxy and a contraption that allowed it to set'. You can read a description at Simon's blog. Within the book is a the script for a talk he gave in New York called 'The Metaphor Books' which describes the book version of this poem and a later version where the word 'flax' is used to evoke the image of flak and the blue flowers that were becoming more prevalent on the old airbase. I doubt I'll ever visit Skellingthorpe, but I did have a look on Google Earth and found the sculpture - see my screenshot below (there is a visual glitch where the software has joined up photographs). Presumably that's the photographer's bicycle, well chosen to match the orange lettering.

The Small Press Model discusses artists and writers that I have written about here over the years, like Ian Hamilton Finlay, Richard Long and Jonathan Williams. Of particular interest for my theme is the introduction to The Unpainted Landscape, a 1987 exhibition that featured Finlay, Long, Thomas Joshua Cooper, Roger Ackling, Hamish Fulton, Andy Goldsworthy and Chris Drury (I've linked these names here to different Some Landscapes posts). The only artist Simon Cutts describes that I've not mentioned before is David Tremlett, who was up for the Turner Prize back in 1992 with his wall drawings. The Tate owns one of his early works, The Spring Recordings, comprising short soundscapes collected during 1972 in all 81 counties (there is a detailed description on their website). The tapes should ideally be heard when the work is on show, but in The Unpainted Landscape they were lined up on a shelf as 'a silent wallwork, referring to its source and potential replay.'

The Small Press Model was reviewed a few months ago on Caught by the River by Sukhdev Sandhu. 'Like its publisher Uniformbooks, The Small Press Model celebrates the local, the non-metropolitan, those who have a ‘resolve for a critical alternative to mainstream publishing’. ... It’s a model that stands for the dignity of production, the importance of collaboration, the need for alternative networks—and alternative publics.' The book's short texts range over five decades and the cumulative effect of reading them is to feel moved by lives 'built and lived' to support the idea of poetry - as words, objects, spaces and projects, carried out with serious attention to detail and a playful, questioning creativity.

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Ocean waves and mountain echoes


Kuncan, Origin of Immortals, 1661

I've been looking into the art of Kuncan (or Kun Can, 1623-73), a Buddhist monk who lived in and around Nanjing. In Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting, a book I've quoted from before, Nie Chongzheng highlights Kuncan's use of calligraphy and quotes lines he added to a 1661 landscape painting, Origin of Immortals. I'll reproduce these here as they are already quoted online in a Daily Art post about Kuncan.

I still find joy in this secluded life,

Treading on the path, I find beautiful scenes as I please,

I play my musical instrument as I walk along the river,

Until I enter a fascinating place through the clouds,

The water is deep, and the land is open and flat,

Mountains shine under the sunlight,

The deafening sound of spring covers other noises,

The flat rocks look so clean, as if they have been swept,

I feel so happy I forget my fatigue,

The stream winds all the way up to the high mountain,

When I look ahead, the mountains look as if they are cut,

And the irregular mountain caves are exquisite,

I feel as if I am high in the sky.

My steps feel so light as I walk in the pine woods,

Resting in the mountains, I forget about the material world.

The place is so quiet that even monks don’t come here,

I plan to live here for the rest of my life,

Until I die in the mountain.

These lines are lovely but not very memorable. The main reason I wanted to write this post was to include another Kuncan quote that I really like, this one taken from a 1670 landscape painting that was on loan to the Met.

Master Cheng Lian [a musician, 7th century B.C.] transformed people’s temperament with the sound of ocean waves. Zong Shaowen [the landscape artist Zong Bing, 375–443] did it with echoes in the mountains. Temperament can be transformed to transcend romantic and worldly attachments. Mr. Wang Dengxian [active mid-17th century] studies in the Gaozuo Monastery [in Nanjing], taking rainy woods as his ocean waves and mountain echoes. Every day he strolls in them, chanting his literary compositions and, when gay, singing out loud while tapping trees [to keep time]. He lives as he wishes. My senior Ji once said, “As emotions arise, wisdom is blocked. When thoughts shift, the body changes in accord.” How can anyone say there is no transformation-inducing cinnabar in this process? I painted this landscape to amuse myself. When Mr. Wang saw it, I gave it to him as a present.

Cheng Lian (Ch'eng-lien) was the qin player who taught Bo Ya (Po Ya), who I have referred to here previously. Zong Bing wrote the early aesthetic essay Huashanshuixu (“Preface on Landscape Painting"). Gaozuosi is in Rain Flower Terrace park in the south of Nanjing. It looks like there are still plenty of trees there in which one could walk and listen to the rain, but this landscape now has a dark place in history, with a monument commemorating the thousands of communists executed on the site by the Kuomintang.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Sunlit emptiness


West Lake, Hangzhou
Source: Wikimedia

I've just read Love & Time: The Poems of Ou-Yang Hsiu, a slim volume of J. P. Seaton translations published by the Copper Canyon Press in 1989. It includes Ou-Yang's series of ten poems entitled West Lake Is Good, which popularised the tz'u form (ci in pinyin) where verse is fitted into the form of a pre-existing song. His West Lake poems (the lake is in Hangzhou - see my earlier post on it) were written to the tune Picking Mulberries. I guess it would be like someone writing a set of poems about Windermere using the rhythms and rhyme scheme of 'Scarborough Fair'. Ouyang also wrote some beautiful landscape poems in the short shih (shi) style, like 'Drifting at I-Ch'uan' in which a stream grows in a gorge and rapids turn a tiny boat. 'Birds on the sand turn too: / away from me / and fly, to the grove's green tips.'  

Ouyang Xiu (1007-72 - I'm swapping now to pinyin spelling) had the Zuiweng Pavilion constructed at Langya Mountain near Chuzhou. It was built to his design by a Buddhist priest of the mountain, Zhi Xian, and you can now build one yourself – I see that a Lego set is available to buy! Ouyang called it The Pavilion of the Old Drunkard, but as Richard Strassberg writes in Inscribed Landscapes, what Ouyang ‘cares about is to be amid mountains and streams. The joy of the landscape has been captured in his heart, and wine drinking merely expresses this.’ Ouyang’s calligraphy was engraved at the pavilion in 1048 but because it was difficult to make rubbings, Su Shi (1037-1101) rewrote it in larger characters (rubbings of this still exist). Inscribed Landscapes includes a further text on another pavilion ordered near here by Ouyang Xiu: The Pavilion of Joyful Abundance, which is by a spring at the foot of Mount Abundance, Fengshan. 

In 1070 Ouyang wrote his ‘Account of the Pavilion on Mount Xian’ (1070), an early description of the ‘principle whereby a place becomes known through a particular person’, as Stephen Owen says in his Anthology of Chinese Literature. ‘Mount Xian looks down on the river Han', Ouyang wrote. 'when I gaze at it, I can barely make it out. It is surely the smallest of the major mountains, yet its name is particularly well known in Jingzhou. This is, of course, because it of the persons associated with it. And who are those persons? None other than Yang Hu and Du Yu.’ Yang Hu and Du Yu were governors during the Jin Dynasty and Mount Xian, near Xiangyang (formerly Xiangfan) had a ‘stele for shedding tears’ dedicated to Yang Hu.  

Of course Ouyang himself created sites of future literary pilgrimage - not just the pavilions near Chuzhou. Pingshan Hall was built in 1048 when he was prefecture chief of Yangzhou. Su Shi was again on hand to commemorate the older poet, writing a poem after Ouyang’s death on an occasion when he revisited the hall. It can still be visited today - it is in the western part of Daming Temple, on the middle peak of Shugang Mountain near Yangzhou - but it has been destroyed and re-built many times over the years. Stephen Owen’s anthology includes ‘An Account of the Reconstruction of Level Mountain Hall’ written in the seventeenth century by Wei Xi (1624-80). Pingshan means ‘Level Mountain’ and comes from the fact that the mountains from this viewpoint all appear at the same level. J. P. Seaton translated one of Ouyang's poems on this landscape. He looks out and leans into 'sunlit emptiness, / the mountain's colours in the mist / now there, now gone.'

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Distant mountains and steep torrents

I have been reading Plum Shadows and Plank Bridge, a fascinating account of late Ming courtesan culture, translated and edited by Wai-yee Li. It mainly comprises two literati memoirs - Reminiscences of the Plum Shadows Convent by Mao Xiang (1611–93) and Miscellaneous Records of Plank Bridge by Yu Huai (1616–96) - which recall the pleasures of Nanjing before the dynasty's collapse into turmoil and war. This is how Columbia University Press summarise these texts:

'Mao Xiang chronicles his relationship with the courtesan Dong Bai, who became his concubine two years before the Ming dynasty fell. His mournful remembrance of their life together, written shortly after her early death, includes harrowing descriptions of their wartime sufferings as well as idyllic depictions of romantic bliss. Yu Huai offers a group portrait of Nanjing courtesans, mixing personal memories with reported anecdotes. Writing fifty years after the fall of the Ming, he expresses a deep nostalgia for courtesan culture that bears the toll of individual loss and national calamity. Together, they shed light on the sensibilities of late Ming intellectuals: their recollections of refined pleasures and ruminations on the vagaries of memory coexist with political engagement and a belief in bearing witness.'  

Dong Bai, also known as Dong Xiaowan (1624–1651), had many accomplishments. The titles of four successive sections of Plum Shadows convey her character and artistic pursuits: 'Record of her quiet intelligence'; 'Record of her respectful abstemiousness'; 'Record of her interest in poetry, history, calligraphy and painting'; 'Record of her interest in tea, incense, flowers and the moon.' Mao doesn't overpraise her talents - when it came to painting, she didn't achieve mastery but specialised in 'small clumps of bushes and wintry trees,' where 'her brushwork was graceful and appealing.' Nevertheless she clearly had a strong appreciation for gardens and landscape and lived for a time in Suzhou, which as I've mentioned here before, is famous for its gardens. Mao describes the pleasure they both took in Suzhou's Lovebirds Lake, flanked by sandbanks and temples with the Tower of Mist and Rain rising into the sky. 'She and I once roamed there for a whole day. We also reminisced together about the marvels of blue waves and dark green crags at Tongjun Mountain and the Yan Rock Rapids on the Qiantong River.' 

Some of the courtesans described by Yu Huai were renowned for their music, poetry and art. Gu Mei (1619-1664) for example, also known as Gu Hengbo 'excelled in painting orchids' and a couple of her works from the Smithsonian are reproduced in the book. Like Dong Bai, she was one of the Eight Beauties of Qinhuai (courtesans mainly lived on the South Bend of Nanjing's Qinhuai River), where she hosted a famous literary salon. 'Just as she fashions her eyebrows, she fashions orchids and calligraphy', wrote one contemporary poet. 'Surrounded by paintings, books and antique vessels, / it is hard to make room in the mind for romantic affairs.' 


Fan painting by Gu Hengbo in the Palace Museum, Beijing


Yu Huai mentions another courtesan in Plank Bridge who specialised in landscape painting, Fan Jue (also known as Fan Yun). 'She painted ancient trees with gnarled, uneven branches, distant mountains, and steep torrents.' According to him 'she was abstemious and quiet', although in an endnote Wai-yee Li observes that while he describes 'an austere artist, the poems addressed to Fan by her admirers are quite sensual.' Yu says that in art she took as her models Shi Zhong and Gu Yuan, 'she was a Fan Kuan among women.' I can't find any online images of her work, so here is a Shi Zhong landscape in the Met. Interestingly, both Shi Zhong and Gu Yuan were known for their eccentric, individual styles.

 Shi Zhong, Winter Landscape with Fishermen (detail), late 15th century or early 16th century

Friday, June 16, 2023

Pure blue in the dawn

Robert Macfarlane on Twitter, three days ago:

Ah…Cormac McCarthy has died today. A giant of a writer, who wrote with a pen of iron, torqued language into new forms & worked the rhythms of prose into wire-flashes of lightning & great rolls of thunder. Favourite lines, passages? This from Blood Meridian will stay with me:

A few responded to the invitation with other descriptions of landscape, like the stunning final paragraph of The Road

Another quoted this, from Blood Meridian, although the author of a Washington Post piece on McCarthy felt the writing here went 'past feverish to become nearly comical'.


Back in 2014 I wrote a blog post on Blood Meridian that quoted several beautiful passages describing a bloody journey made by the scalphunters ('they rode through the long twilight and the sun set and no moon rose and to the west the mountains shuddered again and again in clattering frames and burned to final darkness and the rain hissed in the blind night land'.) This writing, ignored at the time and subsequently acclaimed, is now studied by academics in books like Cormac McCarthy's Borders and Landscapes (2016). I'll conclude here with Ted Goia's words on McCarthy's landscape descriptions and another quote from Blood Meridian.

Just as a librarian throwing a dart at the text of The Sun Also Rises will inevitably strike upon an account of eating or drinking, or doing the same with Updike will encounter some creative variant on copulation, the same technique applied to the world of Blood Meridian will doubtless intersect a description of prairie or desert or hill country. A typical McCarthy passage: “They rode all day upon a pale gastine sparsely grown with saltbush and panicgrass. In the evening they entrained upon a hollow ground that rang so roundly under the horses’ hooves that they stepped and sidled and rolled their eyes like circus animals. . . . On the day following they crossed a lake of gypsum so fine the ponies left no trace upon it.” The characters of his books both haunt these landscapes and are haunted by them in turn.

Sunday, June 04, 2023


Photograph of the Rheinterrasse on the third floor of the Berlin Vaterland building, with its view overlooking the river between Sankt Goar and the Lorelei rock.
(Source: Wikimedia)

In July 1930 Antonin Artaud was in Berlin, where he was to play a beggar in the French version of G. W. Pabst's The Threepenny Opera (you can see him in the finished film on YouTube). Antonin wrote a letter from the city to psychoanalyst René Allendy which concludes with a description of Haus Vaterland in Potsdamer Platz (translation by Helen Weaver):  

'There is an amazing building here called the Vaterland-- Paris contains nothing like it. It is a kind of pleasure house five stories high. On each story there are one or two café-restaurants, each evoking a different country, and at the back of each café is a theatrical landscape in relief, representing in one the Bosporus (the Turkish café), in another the mountains of the Tyrol, in a third Vienna, in another Spain, in another Hungary, in another America. And each serves the drinks and dishes of that country. The most amazing is the café of the Rhine, which contains a kind of overhanging balustrade with a view of the Rhine and its castles. And suddenly the sky covers over with clouds, thunder growls, it grows dark, and a torrential rain falls while lighting effects simulate a thunderstorm with absolute realism. The thunder especially bears no relation to theatrical thunder. You hear the slightest rumbles with meticulous precision. It's extraordinary.'

Haus Vaterland at night in 1932.
(Source: Wikimedia)

Haus Vaterland opened as Haus Potsdam in 1912 and was the headquarters of German filmmakers UfA, with a huge cinema in the lower floors. It was transformed and relaunched as Haus Vaterland in 1928 and features in Weimar era paintings, films and novels. Bombed in the war, it was reopened and became the haunt of spies before being torched in the East German strike and protest of 1953. It was then left in ruins - according to a 1966 Der Spiegel article: 'kestrels nest in the burned-out Haus Vaterland and hunt down rats that crawl out of barred S-Bahn entrances.' 

The burned out ruin of Haus Vaterland in 1975.
(Source: Wikimedia. More photos at Getty Images)


When it comes to restaurants with views in Berlin, I immediately think of the revolving restuarant on the Fernsehturm tower (subject of a film by Tacita Dean). As it turns it you can look west towards Potsdamer Platz, still undeveloped when I first had a meal there in 1993. But at that height you are lifted above the reality of the city, even as it stretches out before you. 

I can see why other restaurants have provided escapism with murals of idealised or fantastic landscapes, transporting diners far away from the surrounding streets. One of the best known examples in London was the Tate restaurant's Rex Whistler's painting The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats, a capriccio painted in 1927 but now judged offensive (visitors are still able to see it but cannot dine surrounded by its exotic landscapes). Unsurprisingly the Vaterland Haus, dating from the same period was pretty dodgy too, with rooms influenced by Germany's changing political situation and allegiances (there were no British or French scenes, reflecting continuing animosity over Versailles). There is some remarkable UfA footage of Sidney Bechet playing in the Haus Vaterland's Palm House ballroom, with a couple of paintings visible that would not be acceptable today. This film was shot in June 1930, just a month before Artaud experienced the building.

I am fond of restaurants with landscape views that try to give you a flavour of some distant sunny location. Of course they are often hackneyed picturesque scenes, but does it matter? 'Sparkling sky-blue body of water? Check. Rolling hillsides? Check. Rounded archways with marble columns? Check and check. This is Italy as viewed through rose-colored glasses, and it’s likely painted right on the wall at your favorite red sauce joint.' For this article, art critics were asked their views on these restuarant pictures. "This art fits very well with the American version of Italian food. I mean, Italians find spaghetti and meatballs totally alien, so it’s fitting that it be eaten beneath murals that are very much American remixes of an idea of the Italian landscape.” I suppose the Vaterland Haus was doing something similar on an ambitious scale. But it also went beyond the purely visual with those Rheinland thunder effects and you can see why this would have appealed to Artaud, with his ideas of theatre as spectacle. 

I'll conclude here with another reference to Haus Vaterland and its Rheinterrase. This is from Irmgard Keun's The Artifiical Silk Girl, translated by Kathie von Ankum, in an extract published at Brooklyn Rail.

The Vaterland has spectacularly elegant staircases like a castle with countesses in stride, and landscapes and foreign countries and Turkish and Vienna and summer homes of grapevine and that incredible Rhine valley with natural scenarios that produce thunder. We are sitting there and it’s getting so hot that the ceiling is coming down—the wine makes us heavy—

“Isn’t it beautiful here and wonderful?” It is beautiful and wonderful. What other city has this much to offer, rooms and rooms bordering on each other, forming a palatial suite? All the people are in a hurry—and sometimes they look pale under those lights, then the girls’ dresses look like they’re not paid off yet and the men can’t really afford the wine—is nobody really happy?

Friday, June 02, 2023

Drinking the Rivers of Dartmoor

A few weeks ago I saw this at the National Gallery's excellent exhibition themed around Saint Francis of Assisi. It reminded me that I hadn't had a chance to note here anything about the recent Richard Long show at the Lisson Gallery, Drinking the rivers of Dartmoor (in the website's video clip interview he says he has used Dartmoor as his studio all his life). I found looking at these works rather moving because some of them clearly looking back over his long career and revisit ideas that shaped his walks. 'A Path of Innocence' (2022), for example, relates only tangentially to the landscape of Wales and uses phrases that relate to different phases of his life. He says the title was inspired by something he heard Wisława Szymborska say in her Nobel acceptance speech (although I can't see a source for it).


Another text work I particularly liked was 'Walking at the Speed of Spring' - a lovely concept, although one that only emerged retrospectively.

"I had the idea to walk from the southern tip to the northern tip of Great Britain, and the idea was to make a walking sculpture, so I put a stone on the road every day. The text work that came out of that was 'A Line of 33 Stones, A Walk of 33 days'. I thought that was it, and then I happened to be looking at some of the photographs I took on that walk and I noticed the beautiful yellow of the gorse. And then I realised that that gorse was also in Cornwall when I started the walk. So I realised that I actually had been walking at the speed of spring. And that was on the cusp of winter turning into spring, that walk, because in Lincolnshire I remember some snow showers and hail storms. So I had some bad weather, but it started in the spring and it ended in the spring."

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Jena before us in the lovely valley

“Jena before us in the lovely valley”

This is the beginning of Gottfried Benn's poem 'Jena' (1926), translated by Michael Hoffmann and reprinted on the Poetry Foundation website. The words were his mother's, written on a postcard. 'It wasn’t a great picture,' he recalls. You can read what he says next as either touching or condescending: 

... the hills weren’t green with vineyards,
but she was from back-country hovels,
so the valleys probably did strike her as lovely,
she didn’t need laid paper or four-color print,
she supposed others would see what she had seen.

He guesses that the landscape had moved her sufficiently to ask a waiter for a postcard. When Benn wrote the poem, she was long gone, and yet that moment in front of the landscape, 'an exaltation', remained fixed in her words. Like his mother, we will all become ancestors, Benn concludes, including those who are looking at the valley today.

Michael Hoffmann, whose translation appears in the book Impromptus: Selected Poems, observes that  'Jena' is a strange but typical mixture: 'almost coldly dispassionate' and yet elegiac at the same time. Another translation can be found at the New Criterion, by Teresa Iverson, who says that it is written in 'a style which, to some, has barely seemed to avoid sentimentalism.' I had a look online to see if I could find a postcard that might resemble the one in the poem. Perhaps something like this one, dated 1903. Benn's mother died in 1912 of untreated cancer (in Impromptus the date is given as 1922, the year his wife passed away). For me, 'Jena' is doubly elegiac because nobody now sends postcards home from their holidays. This one might have been cheap and uninspiring, but it permitted Benn to return to a vanished instant of time inhabited by his mother and 'see what she had seen.'

Sunday, May 07, 2023

Atlantic Flowers

Last year I bought the latest New Arcadian Journal, Atlantic Flowers: The Naval Memorials of Little Sparta. 'The upland garden of Little Sparta is evocative of distant seas. Atlantic Flowers offers fresh insights into the poetic gardening of Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006) by acknowledging that the warship sculptures are simultaneously naval memorials.' This makes it sound like quite a specialised study but the pleasure of reading the journal (essentially a beautifully illustrated book), is that it conveys a lifetime's engagement with the garden as a whole and Patrick Eyres' long friendship with Finlay. An appendix provides a bibliography of ten previous NAJs and eleven New Arcadian Broadsheets devoted to Little Sparta and IHF. Photographs show how garden features have evolved over time, since Patrick's first visit in 1979. Paintings, drawings and artworks are reproduced on almost every page, based on the work of Finlay and NAJ collaborators and friends like Chris Broughton, Catherine Aldred and former-Mekon Kevin Lycett.

The last artwork discussed in Atlantic Flowers was installed in 2001, not long before Finlay's death: Camouflaged Flowers. This was conceived as a monument to the men of the wartime Flower Class corvettes, ships that had been given incongruously pastoral names like Begonia, Larkspur and Heartsease. Some of them were transferred to the US Navy during the war and renamed; in 'Ovidian Flowers' Finlay highlighted these metamorphoses: Begonia became Impulse, Larkspur Fury and Heartsease Courage. Nicholas Monsarrat wrote about life on board a corvette in The Cruel Sea. In his memoir he described these boats as 'cramped, wet, noisy, crowded, and starkly uncomfortable.' They may have had lovely floral names but they were all the same: 'wallowing cages for eighty-eight men condemned to a world of shock, fatigue, crude violence and grinding anxiety' (It Was Cruel, 1970). Finlay's Camouflaged Flowers was the culmination of his interest in the Flower Class corvettes, following printed works, wall plaques and an obelisk. It consists of seven brick plinths with bronze plaques commemorating five ships: Lavender, Campion, Polyanthus, Montbretia and Bergamot. Three of these survived, two were torpedoed. Polyanthus sunk with total loss of life.

I'll conclude here with Patrick Eyres' description of Camouflaged Flowers, which Finlay located 'high on the hillside at the edge of moorland, where they are exposed to wind and the vagaries of weather.'

'Here this monumental artwork is an epic composition that embraces the 'disparate elements' of garden and landscape, planting and sculpture, weather and seasons, and which is animated by leaf, blossom and berries. Now that it has matured, we can appreciate that the moorland swell and undulating horizon are evocative of Atlantic seascapes. The plantings can be imagined as the waves, through which the corvettes plough their way. Sea states are intimated by the foreground grasses, whether windblown or swaying in the breeze.'

Wednesday, May 03, 2023


I have been reading Rob St John's Örö (available via Bandcamp), a book based on fieldwork and experiments undertaken during two periods as an artist in residence on the Finnish island of Örö, in January 2016 and June 2017. You can also see on Rob's website a film he made using footage and sounds from the island. Örö is an abandoned military base (before that it provided pasture for mainland farmers) and since 2014 it has hosted many artists, as can be seen on the ÖROS 21 exhibition page. It's easy to see the appeal of a location like this for contemporary land artists, field recordists and experimental film makers. One makes art that explores 'memory, ecology and destruction', another operates 'site-sensitively collaborating with weathers, insects, soil and scrap materials', another works with future fossils, 'relics of consumerism, the traces that humankind leaves in the environment'. Amy Cutler, who I've mentioned here before, was there in the winter of 2019-20 (see her Vigil for Örö). The island is a node in an international network of environmental art residences, often located in sparse, elemental landscapes. One of the Örö artists, Jessica MacMillan, has also worked on Svalbard, a location I discussed in my post High Arctic, and also at Seyðisfjörður in Iceland, where Richard Skelton did two artist residences a few years ago.

It must be somewhat daunting now to rock up at Örö and be aware of all the documentation, photography, sound recording and artistic interventions that have preceded you. What's particularly interesting about Rob's book is the way he covered so many possibilities in his time there: sampling the island through different recording methods and strategies to collect indexical signs, then processing the collected materials to create film, sound and visual art. He recorded the winter and summer soundscape using hydrophones and binaural mics, collected archive recordings and sourced data to use in sonifications. He used cameraless photography for cyanotypes, durational pinhole solargraphs and polargrams, lumen prints and panchromatic plates. He used film and digital cameras, keeping the viewpoint still to allow water to ripple, specks of snow to fall and bark to flutter in the wind. He exposed polaroids for eighteen months on the forest floor to see what would happen. He walked the island according to transects drawn on a map, stopping every hundred steps to make notes. In other methods reminiscent of Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy, he designed text pieces and photographed the crack in a split rock which he filled with different kinds of material washed in by the tide. He also made inks by steeping Örö's bilberries, rowan berries, birch leaves and rusted iron, painting simple diamonds of colour which I think are particularly beautiful.


Screenshot from the installation film Örö, 2021

The book provides fascinating detail on all these approaches. I love the way it uses an impersonal scientific style and reports on experiments in the passive voice ('metal fence wires marking island enclosures were bowed with a violin bow, as were coat peg nails in an empty disused barracks'). It is full of paragraphs I'd like to quote but I'll just choose one here, concerning photograms he made of organic winter island materials - lichens, dried seed pods, bird feathers, reeds, sands and sediments.

'In the dark of the cabin bathroom, film canisters were cracked and unfurled - like the unrolling of the ecologist's transect line or the archivist's microfilm reel - and weighted at each end with stones. Relying only on touch in the pitch black, the island materials were laid out on the film strip and exposed in a brief flash of headtorch light; a visual patterning akin to the experience of being in the forest at night. Later experiments encased the island materials in ice lenses frozen inside the used metal containers of burnt-out tea lights. In both cases, when subsequently developed, the island objects became traced onto the film strips as abstracted forms: an archipelago archive. Lichen forms echo the shape of the island itself, micro-ice formations mimic patterned ground. Seed pods become dormant expressions of microbial life: pre-echoes of the ecological unfurling of the midsummer island.'  

Friday, April 28, 2023

Sussex Waters

I had been looking forward to 'Sussex Landscape: Chalk, Wood and Water' at Pallant House but was sadly too ill to go down and see it. The catalogue is interesting though, with an overview of the exhibition and essays on photography, engraving, chalk and flint. Some of the artists I discuss in Frozen Air were included - Frank Newbould, Eric Ravilious, John Piper, Bill Brandt and Jem Southem. Other famous artists associated with places in Sussex featured - William Blake (Felpham), John Constable (Brighton), Vanessa Bell (Charleston), Lee Miller (Farleys) - along with art by people I have discussed on this blog before - Roger Fenton, Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, Andy Goldsworthy. I imagine the exhibition's centrepiece would have been Turner's stunning Chichester Canal (c. 1828) which includes the hazy silhouette of the cathedral, located just a street away from Pallant House.  

I'll mention here a few less well known works from the catalogue:    

  1. A View of East Dean and Mr. Dipperay's House from the Hills on the East Side of the Village, 1785 by Samuel Hieronymous Grimm. One of the views commissioned for a planned history of Sussex, this is closer to documentation than art but is fascinating now as a record of what could be seen from a specific spot at the end of the eighteenth century. The British Library has 866 of these topographical watercolours.
  2. View of the Sussex Weald. c. 1927 by C.R.W. Nevinson. If I'm ever in Reading I'll have to visit their museum to see this delightful view through a window, strikingly different to the 'angular views of the war-scarred Western Front' we associate with Nevinson. 'A flourishing genre of images of the Sussex landscape framed by the domestic window is testament to the many artists who made the area their home for short or long periods during the inter-war years.'
  3. The Wave, 1966 by Gluck. This one is in a private collection and the catalogue's reproduction is a bit small and dark so it's hard to tell what it is really like. A small cropped view in an unusual frame: the whitewater and face of a breaker emerging from a turquoise-grey sea. It was painted when Gluck was living at Chantry House in Steyning with Edith Shackleton Heald.   
  4. Track with Sheep (Near Lewes) c. 1983-87 by John Holloway. 'Holloway began photographing the landscape in 1978, and over the next twenty-five years would provide a unique view of the land by taking photographs at a height of 1,500 feet from a small aeroplane. He would work at two specific times of the year - either side of the spring and autumn equinox - when the angle of the sun reveals the textures of the Downs.' You can see examples of his work in The Guardian's obituary.
  5. Solar, Seven Sisters, 2019 by Jeremy Gardiner. This combines a familiar (to me) view of the cliffs and buildings at Cuckmere Haven with abstract planes reminiscent of St Ives painters or Richard Diebenkorn. The relief surfaces 'represent both pictorially and conceptually the geological strata of the coastline.'

Before concluding I will just mention one of the book's essays as it's by an artist I'm surprised I haven't mentioned here before, Tania Kovats. I remember going to see her Darwin-inspired artwork TREE at the Natural History Museum back in 2011 (see photo below!) For Sussex Waters in this exhibition she installed bottles of water taken from the county's rivers. The idea of collecting and exhibiting water samples isn't new - Roni Horn's Library of Water in Iceland is more dramatic and directly addresses climate change in preserving glacial meltwater. But if you come from Sussex, the list of rivers Kovats visited is evocative in itself. They have some beautiful, resonant names - Cuckmere of course, and Cowfold, Woodsmill, Adur, Arun, Rother, Uck, Ouse. Glynde evokes an image of well-healed highbrow culture, Gatwick Stream a remnant of a landscape built over for a 'London' airport. There are quite a few I've never heard of but would like to visit. As she says, 'even naming rivers opens us up to connection.'

Sunday, April 16, 2023

A landscape submerged

The St. Elizabeth's Day Flood, c. 1490-95


During the night of 19 November 1421 a heavy storm caused rivers to surge, dikes to overflow and large areas of polder land in Zeeland and Holland to be flooded. Thousands died. Some land was eventually reclaimed, some remains flooded to this day. The Dordrecht region was particularly damaged and the survivors commissioned an altarpiece, with outer panels depicting the disaster. As you can see from the close up below, the painting includes lots of interesting details. At the bottom right a woman in Maasdam has been left behind and looks out on the devastation from her cottage. A shop is ignored by a couple in a boat as they concentrate on saving themselves. And in the top right the flood water can be seen flooding the polder near the church of Wieldrecht. Elsewhere in the paintings there is a pig trying to swim ashore, a dead body in the water, a naked man caught in a tree, a cat balanced on a baby's cradle and a refugee arriving at the gates of Dordrecht. 


I saw these panels in the Stedelijk Museum recently after we'd been to the Vermeer exhibition. They have a guide to the picture that you can pick up and refer to - the image below is from this, showing the location of some of the villages. It indicates how the artist has created an interesting kind of landscape painting, expansive and extremely condensed at the same time, utilising a birds eye view, reducing distances and restricting places to just one or two buildings. Hollands Diep in the middle was an estuary which the flood extended further inland, separating the towns of Geertruidenberg and Dordrecht. The Biesboch is now a wetland national park, but before the flood it was Grote Hollandse Waard, cultivated farmland with several villages. We are quite used to seeing images of flooded landscapes now but I found it moving to think that all this took place six hundred years ago.