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."