Monday, February 08, 2016

Tall Mountains and Flowing Waters

In an earlier post, 'Clouds over the Xiao and Xiang Rivers', I discussed landscape imagery in Song dynasty music for the qin (Wade-Giles: ch'in).  The ch'in, a type of zither but sometimes confusingly referred to as a lute, is the great instrument of Chinese history, played by scholars, emperors and poets.  There was T'ao Yüan-ming for example, whose fondness for it, along with books and wine, I once referred to here (T'ao was the founder of 'fields-and-gardens' poetry).  Indeed, 'T'ao was ultimately so imbued with ch'in music that he removed the strings from his instrument, writing that "I have understood the deeper meaning of the ch'in, why should I need the sound of the strings?"  This may help to explain why certain inaudible effects executed on the ch'in are admired, as both the performer and the educated listener can imagine the sounds even when they cannot hear them.  T'ao's statement also provided an excuse for later scholars who owned an instrument but could not play it.'

 Uragami Shunkin, A Portrait of Uragami Gyokudō, 1813

This quotation actually comes from a book about a Japanese ch'in player, Uragami Gyokudō (1745-1820).  In Tall Mountains and Flowing Waters: The Arts of Uragami Gyokudō, Stephen Addiss covers not just his music, but also Gyokudō's poetry, calligraphy and landscape painting.  It was music that came first though, as Minagawa Kien made clear in the preface to a collection of Gyokudō's poems, suggesting that this ability on the ch'in enabled Gyokudō to evoke the 'craggy and vast'.  In this he resembled the ancient Chinese ch'in player Po Ya, who could convey in his music the qualities of 'Tall Mountains' and 'Flowing Waters'.  Kien was referring here to a story in the Taoist text Lieh-tzu that became proverbial as an example of the understanding between friends.  Po Ya's friend Chung Tzu-ch'i was so in tune with his mind and music that he always knew what Po Ya was thinking when he played.  When Chung Tzu-ch'i died, Po Ya broke the strings of his ch'in and never played again.

Uragami Gyokudō, Snow Sifted Through Frozen Clouds, c. 1810

Gyokudō epitomised the bunjin ideal: an amateur artist who painted 'without knowledge of the six laws', who loved to play the ch'in but did not 'know the rules', who read for pleasure and detested scholarship.  Nevertheless it is easy to imagine that as the years went by his daily work as an official would have been increasingly tiresome.  In 1794 political circumstances prompted him to resign and devote himself entirely to the arts.  He seems to have had no regrets.  In 'Shutting My Gate, I Play the Ch'in' he writes of having left his concerns behind.  In another poem he finds that 'fifty years have passed / like a whistle in the wind,' and now 'among the short-tailed deer, / I strum my ch'in.'  Elsewhere he describes  himself like a figure in a painting: an old man playing his instrument as night deepens, illuminated by a moon above Dragon Mountain.   Or he can be found listening to the autumn wind in the forest trees and chanting his poems to the accompaniment of a waterfall.
You ask the plan of my life?
At roof's edge a strip of clouds,
inside the walls a ch'in.

Stephen Addiss performing 'Hito - Man's Nature' by Uragami Gyokudō

Friday, February 05, 2016

Study of Rocks and Trees

The Regional Book by David Matless was reviewed back in October by Ken Worpole on his New English Landscape blog.  He summarises it as 'a gazetteer of 44 Norfolk places, each described in telegraphese, halfway in style between Pevsner and the poet Roy Fuller.'  The book's style is indeed unusual, its highly abbreviated sentences reflecting the flatness of the landscape described, its cadences often reminding me of crossword clues.  Rather than discuss the book as a whole and risk repeating what Ken says, I want here to mention just one of the entries, on Norwich Castle Museum.  It's hardly a representative location but the section begins like others, with a spatial location and succinct description: ‘Ten miles from the Bure, one from the Wensum, on a Norman mound. The region on display in paint and diorama.’ A list of local subjects treated in the museum's paintings it terminates thus: ‘Studies in landscape, Langley’s scrutiny: uninventable.’ The solution to this cryptic reference can be found towards the end of R. F. Langley's wonderful journals (Helen MacDonald's desert island book).  Matless is referring to an entry for August 2005, when Langley stopped and studied the Museum's paintings with the kind of long, close attention I've written about here before.

What Langley most admired were the watercolours of John Middleton (1827-56), particularly a Study of Rocks and Trees.  'The left side is ghosted in, a rising track, the right an equally hinted slope falling away with sky open behind it.  The foreground is out of focus rocks and clitter, done with the slightest washes and touches.  The centre is thus presented as altogether important, with the feeling of air around your head as you look at it, space where you are not looking.’ He describes the knots and gnarls and bulges of the trunks, patches of lichen found by the sun and branches twisting in unpredictable ways.  ‘Shadows jink over the individuality of irregularities.  The whole is done without any mess, everywhere with flair.’ Langley, writing of Middleton in a way that could easily be a description of his own prose and poems, finds that ‘nobody else has done the looking that was involved like this.  A study.  Indeed.’  Nothing else in the gallery that day had quite this quality of an actual place found, unique and ‘uninventable’.  The tree Middleton painted is a kind of challenge to the way we experience art and landscape.  ‘It makes fools of those who pass down the corridor with only a glance, as it does those who stroll down the lanes without being brought to a stop.  Seeing it like this must matter.’

The cover of the book is a drawing made by the author in 1962
(I cannot find an image of John Middleton's painting, but this looks to have ths same uninventable quality)

Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Ruin on the Road

 Francis Towne, A Ruin on the Road to the Ponte Nomentana, 1780
Yesterday I visited the British Museum for Light, time, legacy: Francis Towne’s watercolours of Rome.  The exhibition is curated by Richard Stephens, whose Catalogue Raisonné will soon be appearing online.  This is based on the PhD. Richard was still completing when he commented on a post I wrote here ten years ago referring to Francis Towne.  Back then I was sharing a favourite passage from the diaries of Thomas Jones, another painter rediscovered in the twentieth century.  Jones had taken Towne sketching in the countryside near Naples.  There they encountered 'three ugly-looking fellows dressed in the fantastic garb of the Sbirri di Campagna, with long knives, cutting up a dead jackAss… Towne started back as if struck by an electric Shock… "I'll go no further" says he, with a most solemn face, adding with a forced smile, that however he might admire Scenes in a Picture - he did not relish them in Nature.' 

Francis Towne, Temple of Minerva at Sunset, 1781

While he stayed in Rome, Towne also left the environs of the city to paint the surrounding countryside.  However, as Jonathan Jones points out in his  review of the exhibition, by 1780 the city itself had become a picturesque landscape.
'Towne’s Rome is not a modern living city: it’s a woodland dotted with half-collapsed temples, a meandering countryside populated by a few peasants, antiquaries and market traders, dwarfed by the melancholy remains of a greater past.  While Towne was wandering the seven hills of Rome, the historian Edward Gibbon was six years into writing The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Their visions of Rome are remarkably similar. Gibbon’s masterpiece is an awed attempt to understand how something as vast and powerful as the Roman empire could vanish. Towne’s watercolours ask that same question: what has happened in these sleepy valleys and woods? Temples and palaces that once ruled a huge part of the world are now the decaying picturesque decorations of a pastoral landscape where time seems to have slowed down like the meandering Tiber.'

Paul Oppé's article, 'Francis Towne, Landscape painter'  

Francis Towne, Arricia, 1781
Images from the exhibition's downloadable guide

The exhibition refers at several points to the revival of interest in Towne's work following his rediscovery and promotion by the collector Paul Oppé.  'Modernist taste of the 1920s and 1930s embraced the flat planes and spare, angular design of drawings like Arricia and Towne was feted as a pioneer.'  It made me wonder how future generations will look back on the more recent excitement over landscape paintings by Balke and Strindberg (which I discussed here).  I confess I usually find myself agreeing with modernist taste and for me the high points of this exhibition are the works they found most admirable.  Hard too not to envy Oppé, then a young civil servant at the ministry of education, who bought a bunch of uncatalogued watercolours in 1907 for 25 shillings that included several works by Towne, including A Study on the Spot at Tivoli.  The closest I'll ever get to owning a sketch of Tivoli is to paint one myself...  Having tried this on a couple of holidays, wrestling with the strong light contrasts and struggling to unify details of pine branches, Roman brickwork and distant ruins, I'm in awe at the way Towne achieved his elegant compositions.  As Laura Cummings writes in another Guardian review: 'he puts together a version of the great outdoors of exceptional lucidity – the world contained in limber lines, its colours pearly with light and marked by the ever-shifting atmosphere.'

Sketching on the Spot, Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli, 2014

Friday, January 29, 2016

Where the River Goes

A while back on Caught by the River Rob St John reviewed Allan Burns' anthology Where the River Goes: The Nature Tradition in English Language Haiku (2013).  He found that 'the most enjoyable bits of this fascinating but slightly frustrating book are the haiku themselves' and criticised the contrast between the introduction's bleak view of the environment with what is conveyed in the subsequent poems.  Nevertheless, Burns' introduction does contain an interesting historical survey of the field, beginning in the sixties when nature-oriented poems were at the heart of the growing American haiku movement.  From this early period he includes the work of James W. Hackett, O Mabson Southard and Nick Virgilio, whose highly concise ‘lily’ and ‘bass’ proved particularly influential.  In the late sixties and early seventies nature haiku written by poets like John Wills and Robert Spiess became more specific  - ‘instead of generalized fish and butterflies, they wrote with field-guide precision of muskellunge and mourning cloaks’.

In the seventies such subject matter became less central within English-language haiku writing, but something of a revival was sparked by the work of Charles B. Dickson, a retired journalist who produced a significant body of work before his death in 1991.  Among this newer generation Wally Swist and Bruce Ross (compiler of The Haiku Moment) have been particularly devoted to nature-oriented haiku.  Poets of the mid-to late-nineties represent a third generation, often publishing via the internet. Burns highlights the work of Carolyn Hall (editor of a journal that focused on nature poetry, Acorn), John Martone (whose work resembles the minimalist poetry of Creeley and Corman) and the British poet John Barlow, whose Snapshot Press published this book.  I am embedding below a science animation produced in 2012 by Rob St. John that includes haiku by John Barlow which suggests how this writing is now being combined in new ways with sounds and images.

In his introduction Burns says that he has included mainly ‘type one’ haiku that refer exclusively to nature; type two haiku relate to both people and nature whilst type three are exclusively human-oriented.  This typology was devised by George Swede in 1992 and he estimated that the split between these approaches in English language haiku was about 20:60:20. Burns calculates that by 2013 pure nature haiku had become rarer, so that the split was more like 13:67:20. ‘Undeniably, haiku in recent years has witnessed a kind of anthropocentric creep that mirrors an accelerating alienation of humans from the natural world.’  He contrasts this with classical haiku: apparently about 90% of Fukuda Chiyo-ni's were on nature and many of Basho’s have no direct sign of humanity, although of course they can always be read metaphorically in terms of human thought and emotions.  I'd be interested to know how many 'type one' nature haiku suggest a whole landscape, by implying distance (birds on a lake, mountain mist) or uniting near and far (pool, moon).  Perhaps they all do and it is just a question of how far we are willing to imagine what is left unsaid.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Chiyo-ni standing beside a well, mid 1840s

Friday, January 22, 2016

Rocks at Mouthier

Gustave Courbet, The Painter's Studio, 1855

I have been reading the new anthology of John Berger's art writing, PortraitsIt is arranged in approximate chronological order from the Chauvet cave paintings to some recent sculptures by a young Palestinian artist. Where Berger has written more than once about an artist, the pieces are spliced together and you have to look to the end of the book to see when the component parts were written.  Although there are risks of repetition in this (e.g. reading twice a story about Monet painting his wife on her death bed) it actually works rather well.  On Gustave Courbet, for example, there is a 1953 essay defending his critical reputation and concluding that socialism was expressed in his work 'by its quality of uninhibited Fraternity'.  This is followed by something written twenty-five years later, by which time a new generation of art historians had written major studies reassessing Courbet's art.  I will quote from this second piece, 'Courbet and the Jura', below.

Five hundred pages long, Portraits is a rich source of ideas and insights on a wide range of artists, all written in Berger's marvellous, clear prose.  One small gripe though: for a book about art, it has surprisingly poor black and white images.  I couldn't help comparing them with the beautiful small colour reproductions in Robert Walser's Looking at Pictures, another set of essays published last year (a book I highly recommend).  This was a deliberate choice: Berger says in the Preface that 'glossy colour reproductions in the consumerist world of today tend to reduce what they show to items in a luxury brochure for millionaires' (which may be true, but one would have more sympathy with this if Verso weren't charging £25 for the book).  In the case of Courbet though, no reproductions in book or web page or smart phone would be able to do justice to a monumental painting like A Burial at Ornans, which is nearly 8m wide and covers a whole wall in the Musée d'Orsay.

Gustave Courbet, A Burial At Ornans, 1849-50

Berger is fascinating on the geographical origins of Courbet's art. In 'Courbet and the Jura' he writes that 'the region in which a painter passes his childhood and adolescence often plays an important part in the constitution of his vision. The Thames developed Turner.  The cliffs around Le Havre were formative in the case of Monet. Corbet grew up in – and throughout his life painted and often returned to – the valley of the Loue on the western side of the Jura mountains.'  The heavy rainfall in this region sinks into the karst landscape's underground channels and gushes out powerfully as the river Loue.  'On the horizontal strata of limestone there are often marl deposits which allow grass or trees to grow on top of the rock. One sees this formation – a very green landscape, divided near the sky by a horizontal bar of grey rock – in many of Courbet's paintings, including A Burial at Ornans.' But this environment offered more than just background scenery, according to Berger it influenced the forms Courbet's paintings took.

Gustave Courbet, The Stonebreakers, 1849

  • Darkness - in paintings like The Stonebreakers there is little visible sky.  'Due to its folds, the landscape is tall; the sky is a long way off.'  In the shadowy spaces of valleys and forests light is only partial and the painter develops the eye of a hunter.  In The Painter's Studio the only light seems to emanate from the woods in the painter's canvas.  Sometimes it is as if Courbet's scenes take place underwater, where light plays tricks with perspective.
  • Water - it frequently occurs in his art (I've written here more than once about Courbet's paintings of the sea) and even when absent, 'the foreground forms are frequently reminiscent of the currents and swirls of running water.'  His objects have the brilliance of pebbles seen in a clear river. Rocks at Mouthier, colour glistening on its surface, might be a reflection in a pond.  His palette knife was like 'a stream of light passing over the broken surface of leaves, rocks, grass...'
  • Rocks - they are 'the primary configuration of this landscape.  They bestow identity, allow focus.'  Rocks do not take on a particular form and in them the painter finds something arbitrary and lawless, but at the same time irreducibly real.  Courbet, the great realist painter, painted everything as if it were a rock face, without interiority, but in amazement because 'to see, where there are no laws, is to be constantly surprised'.

Gustave Courbet, Rocks at Mouthier, c. 1855
Images from Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The holy mount for the Festival of the Supreme Being

Pierre-Antoine Demachy, The Festival of the Supreme Being, 1794

On 8 June 1794 (20 Prairial Year II) an artificial landscape was erected in the centre of Paris.  This day had been chosen for the first Celebration of the Supreme Being, a new godhead devised by Robespierre, then at the zenith of power.  He had been elected President of the Convention four days earlier; less than two months later he would be guillotined without trial in the Place de la Révolution.  The landscape was designed by the great revolutionary artist Jacques-Louis David.  A plaster-and cardboard mountain topped with a liberty tree was built on the Champ de Mars.  That afternoon, as Simon Schama writes in Citizens, 'deputies of the Convention climbed to the summit and looked down to the twenty-four hundred deployed along the paths, slopes and terraces that had been cut into the mountain.  At a crucial moment, when the singing and blaring of martial brass had been silenced, Robespierre descended from the mountain like some Jacobinical Moses, parting the waves of tricolored patriots, and graciously received the burst of orchestrated applause that broke over his head.'  Jacques-Alexis Thuriot, a former president of the Convention, was heard saying, "Look at the bugger; it’s not enough for him to be master, he has to be God".

Thomas Naudet, Festival of the Supreme Being at the Champs-de-Mars, 1794
What kind of mountain would be adequate for the Supreme Being?  Not, it would seem from contemporary prints, a perfectly shaped one.  In his book Political Landscape, in a section that discusses the perennial desire of leaders to carve massive statues and faces into mountains, Martin Warnke remarks on this:
'The mount as a whole appears strangely rugged, as if its irregular shape had been copied from works by Mantegna; what we see is a kind of nature monument that could be construed as an enormous head, but the caverns, paths and platforms also serve to direct the movement of the crowd: the men march on the right, the women on the left; the young people march round the hill, and a special commissaire sees to it that there is no confusion.  Only optically does the landscape admit of irregularity and contingency.  It belongs to the type of fantastic landscape that once rose towards gold skies in the backgrounds of altarpieces, in the early days of landscape painting.  Yet the overall physiognomy of the rock still has some of the impressive force attributed to faces in mountains.'

Friday, January 08, 2016

The sound of wind in the pines

'The innkeeper had lent him an old Kyoto tea-kettle, skilfully inlaid in silver with flowers and birds, and from it came the sound of wind in the pines.  He could make out two pine breezes, as a matter of fact, a near one and a far one.  Just beyond the far breeze he heard faintly the tinkling of a bell.'
-Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country, 1947 (trans.  Edward G. Seidensticker)

A quote that links my last two posts on wind in the trees and the snow in Japan. I first read this novel at university and scenes from it have stayed with me ever since, like the opening in which the protagonist travels north to the Snow Country, looking at the reflection of a woman superimposed on a snowy landscape in the mirror of his train compartment.  This quote comes towards the end and it is referred to by R. Murray Schafer in an essay on 'Music and the Soundscape' as an exemplification of the music of the Japanese kettle which Okakura describes in this passage from The Book of Tea.
'The host will not enter the room until all the guests have seated themselves and quiet reigns with nothing to break the silence save the note of the boiling water in the iron kettle.  The kettle sings well, for pieces of iron are so arranged in the bottom as to produce a peculiar melody in which one may hear the echoes of a cataract muffled by clouds, of a distant sea breaking among the rocks, a rainstorm sweeping through a bamboo forest, or of the soughing of pines on some faraway hill.'
- Kakuzo Okakura, The Book of Tea, 1906
That last sentence suggests a level of expertise on behalf of the tea master in adjusting the inside of a kettle like a prepared piano so as to evoke a particular feeling in nature.  No need of music or poetry to suggest these things when the process of making the tea creates its own soundscape.  I wonder if any modern sound artists have attempted to manipulate recordings of boiling water, or augmented them with field recordings to recreate these effects, or tried to pursue the original idea of simply using 'pieces of iron'?  I would love to know more about the landscape music of Japanese kettles; whilst the whisper of the boiling water is named Matsukaze after the sound of wind in the pines, the idea that different effects - sea, rain, a cataract - could be produced by manipulating the kettle is intriguing.  But perhaps there was some poetic licence in Okakura's account, written in English for an eager audience of Boston aesthetes (T. S. Eliot would later picture him in an art gallery, 'bowing among the Titians', as 'Hakagawa' in his poem 'Gerontian').

Sen Sōtan, grandson of the great Sen no Rikyū, wrote that the essence of the tea ceremony, Cha-no-yu, could be described as 'the sound of wind-blown pines in a painting.'  In his book Zen Landscapes Allen S. Weiss points out that the kettle-wind sonic trope could be reversed, as it is at the end of an account of Hideyoshi's great Cha-No-Yu at Kitano in 1587.  Hideyoshi was Japan's most powerful politician and Sen no Rikyū was among the tea-masters at Kitano (four years later Hideyoshi would order Rikyū to commit ritual suicide for reasons that remain mysterious). The account of the gathering at Kitano is told in A. L. Sadler's Cha-no-yu: The Japanese Tea Ceremony (a copy of which I bought many years ago in the book section of that much-missed emporium near Covent Garden, Neal Street East).
'Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Kwanpaku, was a dilettante who always liked to do things on a large scale.  He conceived the idea of assembling all the Tea masters in the country and collecting all the rare tea vessels for a huge Cha-no-yu. ... 
And so the meeting was held as arranged, and everywhere in the wide open space under the pines at Ukon-no-baba at Kitano tea-enclosures were made in a setting of plum trees and rocks and pools of water, and all the tea lovers flocked thither and did their utmost to see who could produce the most interesting and recherche effect.  The whole extent of the gathering was about a mile square.  Fortunately the day was a fine one, and Hideyoshi with all his nobles and retainers set out at daybreak to find some five hundred and fifty tea-masters assembled, while immense crowds of spectators appeared from all over the country, and the number of the fires that were lighted under the kettles seemed greater than that of the stars in the autumn heaven. ...
Very great was the joy and enthusiasm of the people, and the display would have continued for ten days as arranged, but unfortunately a rebellion broke out in Higo, and Hideyoshi had to break up the meeting after one day only, so that all the carefully prepared tea-booths were soon taken down and the glade resumed its wonted quiet.  And only the sound of the wind in the pines, which again resumed their sovereignty over the landscape, remained to recall the bubbling of a thousand kettles.'
 - A. L. Sadler, Cha-no-yu: The Japanese Tea Ceremony, 1933