Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Great Forest

Jacob van Ruisdael, The Great Forest, 1655-60

Peter Handke's text The Lesson of Mont Sainte-Victoire (1980) unsurprisingly focuses on Cézanne and the landscape of Provence, but it ends with a painting by Ruisdael, The Great Forest, which can be seen in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, and a detailed description of a walk to an unregarded stretch of woodland on the outskirts of Salzburg.  As Handke points out, the title of Ruisdael's painting may simply refer to its size (1800 x 1390cm) rather than the scale of the forest it depicts, which at first sight hardly appears 'great'.  Then again, perhaps in this picture we are only at the beginning of the forest.  The wayfarer may simply have 'turned to cast a look before going deeper into the woods.  The feeling of spaciousness is further intensified by a peculiarity of seventeenth-century Dutch landscapes: for all the minuteness of their forms, they nevertheless, with their patches of water, their roads over dunes, their dark woods (under spacious skies), begin to grow as one beholds them' (trans. Ralph Manheim).

The woodland Handke walks to from Salzberg is also nothing like a great forest, 'yet it is wonderfully real'.  Few in Salzberg know of this space, lying between the city and the castle of Hellbrunn: 'here there are only logging roads and irregular paths, and you seldom see a walker; at the most you may hear a jogger's panting and see the skin of this face, mask replacing mask, change from dead to alive and back again at every step.'  Handke's description of the forest is as detailed as Ruisdael's and as attentive to light and colour.  Trying to follow his route on Google Earth (see my aerial view of the woodland below) only emphasises the unreality of that medium as it currently stands and its inadequacy in comparison with Handke's prose.  But this is not an idyllic landscape isolated from the surrounding suburbs.  At the end of his walk, Handke stands looking at polystyrene floating on a pond and a woodpile covered in plastic tarp.  We know from earlier in the book that a woodpile has complex associations for Handke and here in the woods it stimulates a kind of epiphany, a brief Tree of Life-style cosmic reverie.  The forest opens onto a vast spaciousness that encompasses both space and time.  Then it is over and he takes a deep breath and sets off back along the path to return to the city.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Pure light flooding the rock walls

There is a new article on China and its rivers in Lapham's Quarterly by Philip Ball, author of The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China.  He says that Chinese culture is orientated along the course of its rivers, West-East, from the mountains of Tibet to the Pacific Ocean.  The sources of its two greatest waterways, the Yangtze and the Yellow River, were debated for centuries.  The Ming Dynasty writer Xu Xiake (Hsü Hsia-k'o, 1587–1641) thought the Yangtze had its ultimate origin on the Qinghai plateau.  Nobody, Ball thinks, 'better personifies the Chinese devotion to its great rivers' than the inveterate traveller Xu Xiake.  According to a contemporary he 'used towering crags for his bed, streams and gullies for refreshment, and found companionship among fairies, trolls, apes, and baboons, with the result that he became unable to think logically and could not speak. However, as soon as we discussed mountain paths, investigated water sources or sought out superior geographical terrain, his mind suddenly became clear again.'

Xu Xiake 400th anniversary stamps

In Richard E. Strassberg's anthology of Chinese travel writing Inscribed Landscapes there are two extracts from the Diaries Xu put together at the end of each day.  In the first, written in May 1613, he visits Tiantai Mountain, where the famous Tang Dynasty poet Hanshan and his companion Shide lived in retreat.  I have written here before about a more recent attempt to find the geographical source of Hanshan's poetry - perhaps there's a parallel with the search for the source of a great river.  Xu died before his writing could be polished up for publication, so the Diaries retain the freshness of direct observation.  According to Strassberg 'his descriptions include visionary perceptions of Nature as an ever-fascinating texture of interacting phenomena.  He incorporates lyric responses to the environment in short, poetic phrases'.  Here is a brief example (published online) from the journey to Tiantai Mountain. 
'Outside the cave were two crags to the left, both located halfway up the cliffs. On the right was a rock shaped like a bamboo shoot jutting upward. Its top was even with one of the cliffs and separated from it by no more than a hairline. Green pines and purple flowers flourished on top. It complements perfectly the crags to the left—it could certainly be called a marvel. Exited through Eight-Inch Pass, climbed up another crag, also on the left. I looked up at it as I approached and it resembled a cleft, but when I reached the top it was spacious enough to hold several hundred people. There was a well in the middle named "Transcendent's Well"—shallow and yet inexhaustible. Beyond the crag was a particularly unusual rock several tens of feet high with a forked top resembling two men. The monk described it as "Han-shan and Shih-te." Stopped at the monastery there. After a meal, the clouds dispersed and the new moon appeared in the sky. I stood on the summit of this undulating cliff and watched the pure light flood the rock walls.'
 
Dai Benxiao, The Strange Pines of Tiantai, 1687
Source: The Met

Xiake means 'mistlike traveler'.  According to the World of Chinese website, 'Xu Xiake is worshipped as the father of Chinese backpacking, and several of the routes he traversed some 400 years ago remain in use today.'  A couple of years ago Tony Perrottet retraced one of his routes for an interesting travel article in The Smithsonian.  I'll end here with a quote from this, but the whole piece is worth reading.  
'Traveling into the remoter regions of Yunnan is still a challenge. Squeezed into tiny bus seats on bone-jarring cliff highways and bartering for noodles in roadside stalls, I began to realize that few in the Chinese government can have actually read Xu Xiake’s diary. Despite his devotion to travel, he is an ambiguous poster boy for its pleasures, and as his diary attests, he suffered almost every mishap imaginable on his Yunnan journey.
He was robbed three times, contracted mysterious diseases and was lost and swindled. After one hapless mountain guide led him in circles, Xu questioned the whole effort: “I realized this was the most inauspiciously timed of a lifetime’s travels.” On another occasion, while waiting for funds after a theft, he became so broke he sold his clothes to buy food. He once recited poetry in exchange for mushrooms.

Sadly, Xu’s traveling companion, a monk named Jingwen, fell ill with dysentery on the road and died. He was an eccentric character who apparently carried a copy of the Lotus Sutra written in his own blood, but he was devoted to Xu, becoming injured while defending him from a violent robbery. Xu, devastated, decided to bury his friend’s remains at the ostensible goal of the journey, a sacred peak called Jizu Shan, which is now almost entirely forgotten by travelers. I decided to follow his footsteps there, too. [...]  The site felt like a poignant memorial to Xu Xiake himself. When he buried his friend here in 1638, Xu was uncharacteristically weary of travel. “Now with (my) soul broken at the end of the world,” he mourned, “I can only look alone.”

Friday, June 02, 2017

The ruins of Karnak

Paul Nash, The Wanderer (detail), 1911
Source: British Museum

The British Museum currently has an exhibition of British landscape watercolours which focuses on the period 1850-1950, the century after the Golden Age.  It includes familiar names that I have often featured here - Samuel Palmer, John Ruskin, James McNeill Whistler, Paul Nash (see above). There are also landscapes by artists more usually associated with other genres - John Singer Sargent (society portraits), Anna Airy (war workers), Hubert von Herkomer (depictions of the poor).  And there are the somewhat forgettable Victorian artists with their double names - Alfred William Hunt, George Pryce Boyce, Edward John Poynter - whose picturesque views are painted beautifully but don't stick in the mind very long.  One of the things you realise from this show is how many now-rather-obscure artists were renowned at the time and made a fortune from their paintings.  I made a note of one nice winter scene by William Russell Flint, who you would be forgiven for not having heard of, even though he was knighted in 1947 (according to Wikipedia he 'enjoyed considerable commercial success but little respect from art critics, who were disturbed by a perceived crassness in his eroticized treatment of the female figure.') 

William Russell Flint quote (after Thomas à Kempis) from 1924,
on display at the Places of the mind: British watercolour landscapes 1850–1950

The British Museum has been collecting watercolours for a long time - the exhibition includes one painting by Francis Towne that was part of his bequest in 1816.  Some parts of its collection have never been seen publicly before, including one work by an artist about whom very little is now known, Henry Stanier.  According to the Guardian, 'the long-awaited public showing comes 113 or so years after the death of the artist' (who was waiting for it they don't say - perhaps we all were, without knowing it).  Kim Sloan, this exhibition's curator 'discovered the huge watercolour in an obscure corner of the museum more than 10 years ago, when she was looking for the original frames for some Turner watercolours.  To her astonishment she found not just empty frames, but three paintings by Stanier, an artist she had never heard of. They appear to have been stashed away in the 1950s without ever being recorded in the museum’s collection.'  The unearthing of this view of the temple complex at Karnak sunds almost like an act of archaeology.  Karnak itself continues to yield new finds a century after Stanier was there and you wonder how much else there is to find in the recesses of the British Museum.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

The Gibberd Garden


We made a trip this week to see Sir Frederick Gibberd's garden, created between 1957 and 1984, and located just outside Harlow, the New Town for which he was chief architect.  Gibberd's best known design is probably Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral (aka 'Paddy's Wigwam'), a building I've always rather liked although Gibberd himself was sued for £1.3m over leaks and defects in the tiling (which have had to be replaced).  He was also involved in some key post-War industrial buildings - the original Heathrow Terminal buildings, the recently-demolished Didcot A Power Station - and a few of his garden's metal and concrete sculptures and salvaged objects have the look of once-futuristic constructions that have seen better days.  As a private collector Gibberd wouldn't have had resources to buy sculptures by world-renowned artists, although there is a piece by David Nash (see below).  Nor can the artworks compete with those made by practising artists like Barbara Hepworth and Ian Hamilton Finlay for their own gardens.  But Gibberd, as a planner and landscape architect, made good use of the site, turning the hillside and stream into a sequence of spaces with some sculptures set to catch the eye and others that you almost stumble upon.


There is an article about Gibberd by his grandson that praises the moated castle he built for his grandchildren in one corner of the site using recycled pieces of wood - my sons certainly enjoyed this too.  The garden feature we liked best was also recycled - two mossy Corinthian columns shaded by trees with real acanthus growing at their base to echo the stone foliage above.  This 'temple' fragment could almost have come from that erotic Renaissance idyll, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili; in fact the pillars were designed in 1831 by John Nash for a commercial building on The Strand in London, and salvaged by Gibberd when his firm redesigned it in the 1970s for Coutts Bank.  I am sure they are more appreciated in this garden among the trees than they would be on what is now the eighteenth most polluted street in Britain.


The garden must have been a pleasant place to relax in, but whether it was possible to enjoy it as a classical retreat or hortus conclusus I rather doubt.  I tried to record a chaffinch singing over the bright sound of water in the brook but by the time I had my phone out all you could hear was the slow rumble of an aeroplane flying overhead.  The embankment at the end of the garden carries a busy train line into Harlow.  Sculptures are largely absent from the adjacent arboretum, making all the more noticeable some overhead wires crossing the space above and a line of warning signs (see above) marking the presence of a gas pipeline under the grass.  You suspect though that Gibberd would not really have minded all these reminders that the garden is not separated off from the modern world he was so active in designing

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Trees that in moving keep their intervals

A constant keeping-past of shaken trees,
And a bewildered glitter of loose road;
Banks of bright growth, with single blades atop
Against white sky; and wires—a constant chain—
That seem to draw the clouds along with them
(Things which one stoops against the light to see
Through the low window; shaking by at rest,
Or fierce like water as the swiftness grows);
And, seen through fences or a bridge far off,
Trees that in moving keep their intervals
Still one 'twixt bar and bar; and then at times
Long reaches of green level, where one cow,
Feeding among her fellows that feed on,
Lifts her slow neck, and gazes for the sound.
These lines describe a train journey from London to Folkestone on 27 September 1849.  It was the end of a decade of remarkable expansion, when railways had developed from isolated lines to a national network, and the novelty of moving at speed through the countryside is evident in this poetry.  Ironically though, the writer - twenty-one-year-old Dante Gabriel Rossetti - was heading into the past, to see the medieval architecture and paintings of Paris, Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp.  He was accompanied on the trip by William Holman Hunt and addressed his verse letters home to the recently formed Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.   Among these are poems inspired by the places they visited - Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Field of Waterloo etc. - but they are interspersed by accounts of the journey itself and the embodied experience of moving through landscape.  Rossetti, as a painter, was also fascinated by the way the carriage windows framed what was visible, and how the railway line itself recomposed its surroundings.  The reference in the lines above to wires and clouds reminds me of what I wrote here last week about Fog Lines.  I will reproduce a few more examples of this landscape-in-motion poetry here.  The full set of poem can be read at the Rossetti Archive.

Having reached Folkestone and sailed the 'the iron-coloured sea' to Boulogne, the travellers took a train to Amiens and thence to Paris.
The sea has left us, but the sun remains.
Sometimes the country spreads aloof in tracts
Smooth from the harvest; sometimes sky and land
Are shut from the square space the window leaves
By a dense crowd of trees, stem behind stem
Passing across each other as we pass:
Sometimes tall poplar-wands stand white, their heads
Outmeasuring the distant hills.
From Paris they made an excursion by train to Versailles.
The wind has ceased, or is a feeble breeze
Warm in the sun. The leaves are not yet dry
From yesterday's dense rain. All, low and high,
A strong green country; but, among its trees,
Ruddy and thin with Autumn. After these
There is the city still before the sky.
Versailles is reached. Pass we the galleries
And seek the gardens...
At the end of their stay in Paris, they took the train to Belgium.  Rossetti struggled to sleep (insomnia would plague him in later life) and there were several stops at stations where he looked in some wonder at the train itself.  'The mist of crimson heat / Hangs, a spread glare, about our engine's bulk.'  The landscape they passed on this journey was anything but picturesque. 
A sky too dull for cloud. A country lain
In fields, where teams drag up the furrow yet;
Or else a level of trees, the furthest ones
Seen like faint clouds at the horizon's point.
Quite a clear distance, though in vapour. Mills
That turn with the dry wind. Large stacks of hay
Made to look bleak. Dead autumn, and no sun.

The smoke upon our course is borne so near
Along the earth, the earth appears to steam.
Blanc-Misseron, the last French station, passed.
We are in Belgium.

J. M. W. Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844
 
From Brussels they travelled to the old cities of Flanders.  In Bruges Rossetti felt himself close to Van Eyck and Memling, listening to the same bells that had rung through the city when they were at work in the fifteenth century (perhaps he was thinking of the passage in Victor Hugo that I quoted earlier this month?)  I will end this selection of quotations with lines that refer to the title of Turner's famous painting, first exhibited five years earlier.  Writing recently in the LRB, Inigo Thomas says that John Ruskin, the great champion of the Pre-Raphaelites, 'never wrote a word about Rain, Steam and Speed, and he was never convinced that any train, or any idea of the ‘scientific people’, as he scornfully described them, was worthy of artistic representation.'  In 1849 Ruskin was yet to meet Rossetti and you wonder what he would have made of these railway journey poems.  They were only published decades later, two years after Rossetti's death, and given by his brother the rather prosaic title, 'A Trip to Paris and Belgium'.
The country swims with motion. Time itself
Is consciously beside us, and perceived.
Our speed is such the sparks our engine leaves
Are burning after the whole train has passed.

The darkness is a tumult. We tear on,
The roll behind us and the cry before,
Constantly, in a lull of intense speed
And thunder. Any other sound is known
Merely by sight. The shrubs, the trees your eye
Scans for their growth, are far along in haze.
The sky has lost its clouds, and lies away
Oppressively at calm: the moon has failed:
Our speed has set the wind against us. Now
Our engine's heat is fiercer, and flings up
Great glares alongside. Wind and steam and speed
And clamour and the night. We are in Ghent.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Fog Line


A fortnight ago I was at the Wellcome Trust for an event curated by Amy Cutler in which artists, musicians and academics re-soundtracked nature documentaries by performing texts, improvising music and creating alternative soundscapes.  The ways in which animals are filmed and presented to viewers are continually changing (demonstrated vividly last year in the BBC's Zoo Quest in Colour) and this event included footage made with very different purposes in mind, from the scientific (Julian Huxley) to the surreal (Jean Painlevé).  As someone who grew up with Animal Magic and Johnny Morris doing amusing voiceovers to the 'antics' of zoo creatures, I've always viewed nature programmes with some suspicion and they clearly offer a rich field for academic enquiry, raising many more questions than the obvious ones around anthropomorphism.  The reason for mentioning the Wellcome Trust event here is that two of the performers, Justin Hopper and Sterling MacKinnon, chose not to soundtrack a nature documentary, performing instead to Larry Gottheim's seminal landscape film, Fog Line (1970). 



In introducing this performance Amy said that her students hate it when she makes them sit through Fog Line.  If this seems hard to believe, check out the hostility of the film's lone reviewer on IMDB.  In The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place, Scott MacDonald describes a kind of blindness in people who are asked to watch it.  'When I ask viewers immediately after a screening of Fog Line what they've just seen, a frequent response is a sardonic "Nothing!"'  Many are unaware that there are horses in the film, shadowy forms that become visible about two thirds of the way through.  It is as if the static camera, slow silence and gradual evaporation of the fog condition the viewer into thinking nothing at all will happen.  MacDonald suggests that an inability to notice the horses also reflects a refusal to see the filmmaker 'as the designer of the image'; in fact Gottheim chose his location partly because he had observed horses moving in and out of the space.

In his discussion of the film, MacDonald suggests that it presents the viewer with three conundrums: why did Gottheim include the wires, how is it that the horses appear so small compared to the trees, and what is that blurry grey disc, like a dark sun, that appears above the trees?  The answers illustrate Gottheim's interest in the way landscape vision is mediated through technology.  Those power lines offer a frame to measure the change in our field of vision, from blankness to a flat grey pattern and finally a three-dimensional space.  The depth of field that seems to distort what would naturally be seen by someone on the spot is the result of using a telephoto lens.  And that mysterious disc in the sky is simply a smudge on the camera that Gottheim did not remove - even if the film lasted longer than the last of the fog, we would never see the landscape perfectly.

I had only ever seen Fog Line in silence, though never of course in absolute silence, and as I watch it now the lifting fog is accompanied by the hum of my computer, a distant intermittent drill and the slow rumble of an aeroplane.  Nevertheless, the film itself projects a sense of quiet, and it is easy to imagine the fog muting any ambient sound.  At the Wellcome Trust, Fog Line was accompanied by a gradual amplification, with the emergence of recognisable landscape features echoed in the way a spoken fragment - 'Fogs also vary' - was repeated with more and more words until it became William Gilpin's complete sentence: 'Fogs also vary a distant country as much as light, soften the harsh features of landscape and spreading over them a beautiful, grey, harmonising tint.'

In preparing his piece, Justin discovered that Fog Line was filmed near the small town (Binghamton, New York) where he grew up.  So, after the Gilpin quote, he included words to evoke the 'physical and psychic landscape of small-town America: William S Burroughs, Walt Whitman and others. This telephone-wired and neon-lit landscape that dramatically appears from behind the fog's gauze, coming into focus just in time to snap back out again.'  It's strange, because to me those mist-covered trees and fields don't seem particularly American at all.  Instead they bring to mind the Sussex of my own childhood, although as I try now to recall that 'distant country' it slips slowly back into the fog.

Friday, May 05, 2017

This city which is no longer anything but an orchestra

When in the past I have added extra features to Some Landscapes, I have tried to include some new material at the same time.  What follows was going to be appended to my last post, introducing a new Chronology, but I decided it would be better kept separate (its relevance was that it concerns how a view, in this case a cityscape, has changed through history).  The quotation below, from Victor Hugo, is a great piece of Romantic prose but particularly interests me as an evocation of landscape through sound.  I checked back to see if it was referred to in R. Murray Schafer's classic book The Tuning of the World; it isn't - probably because Hugo was writing a work of historical recreation rather than direct observation.  Whether Paris ever sounded anything like Hugo's idea of the city in 1482 would be difficult to say.


The novel this description is taken from, Notre-Dame de Paris (in a nineteenth century translation on Project Gutenberg) is, like many nineteenth century historical novels, about history.  It was written partly to draw attention to the way contemporary Parisians were neglecting their architectural heritage.  Hugo suggests in it that before the invention of the printing press, poetry was manifested in architecture: cities were like great texts.  He stops the action of the story in order to devote the whole of Book Three to a description of medieval Paris from its cathedral.  Centring on the small island of the City and 'trapezium' of the university, the view would have encompassed a vast semicircle of the Town and, beyond this, the immense plain, 'patched with a thousand sorts of cultivated plots, sown with fine villages', ending at the hills on the horizon.  'Such was the Paris which the ravens, who lived in 1482, beheld from the summits of the towers of Notre-Dame.' 
'And if you wish to receive of the ancient city an impression with which the modern one can no longer furnish you, climb—on the morning of some grand festival, beneath the rising sun of Easter or of Pentecost—climb upon some elevated point, whence you command the entire capital; and be present at the wakening of the chimes. Behold, at a signal given from heaven, for it is the sun which gives it, all those churches quiver simultaneously. First come scattered strokes, running from one church to another, as when musicians give warning that they are about to begin. Then, all at once, behold!—for it seems at times, as though the ear also possessed a sight of its own,—behold, rising from each bell tower, something like a column of sound, a cloud of harmony. First, the vibration of each bell mounts straight upwards, pure and, so to speak, isolated from the others, into the splendid morning sky; then, little by little, as they swell they melt together, mingle, are lost in each other, and amalgamate in a magnificent concert. It is no longer anything but a mass of sonorous vibrations incessantly sent forth from the numerous belfries; floats, undulates, bounds, whirls over the city, and prolongs far beyond the horizon the deafening circle of its oscillations.
'Nevertheless, this sea of harmony is not a chaos; great and profound as it is, it has not lost its transparency; you behold the windings of each group of notes which escapes from the belfries. You can follow the dialogue, by turns grave and shrill, of the treble and the bass; you can see the octaves leap from one tower to another; you watch them spring forth, winged, light, and whistling, from the silver bell, to fall, broken and limping from the bell of wood; you admire in their midst the rich gamut which incessantly ascends and re-ascends the seven bells of Saint-Eustache; you see light and rapid notes running across it, executing three or four luminous zigzags, and vanishing like flashes of lightning. Yonder is the Abbey of Saint-Martin, a shrill, cracked singer; here the gruff and gloomy voice of the Bastille; at the other end, the great tower of the Louvre, with its bass. The royal chime of the palace scatters on all sides, and without relaxation, resplendent trills, upon which fall, at regular intervals, the heavy strokes from the belfry of Notre-Dame, which makes them sparkle like the anvil under the hammer. At intervals you behold the passage of sounds of all forms which come from the triple peal of Saint-Germaine des Prés. Then, again, from time to time, this mass of sublime noises opens and gives passage to the beats of the Ave Maria, which bursts forth and sparkles like an aigrette of stars. Below, in the very depths of the concert, you confusedly distinguish the interior chanting of the churches, which exhales through the vibrating pores of their vaulted roofs.
'Assuredly, this is an opera which it is worth the trouble of listening to. Ordinarily, the noise which escapes from Paris by day is the city speaking; by night, it is the city breathing; in this case, it is the city singing. Lend an ear, then, to this concert of bell towers; spread over all the murmur of half a million men, the eternal plaint of the river, the infinite breathings of the wind, the grave and distant quartette of the four forests arranged upon the hills, on the horizon, like immense stacks of organ pipes; extinguish, as in a half shade, all that is too hoarse and too shrill about the central chime, and say whether you know anything in the world more rich and joyful, more golden, more dazzling, than this tumult of bells and chimes;—than this furnace of music,—than these ten thousand brazen voices chanting simultaneously in the flutes of stone, three hundred feet high,—than this city which is no longer anything but an orchestra,—than this symphony which produces the noise of a tempest.'