Wednesday, October 19, 2016

It will hold the spring sunlight

Musō Soseki (1275-1351) designed two of the great landscape gardens in Kyoto, both now UNESCO World Heritage Sites, neither of which I managed to get to on my all-too-brief visit to the city nearly twenty years ago.  Saihō-ji had fallen into disrepair when Musō was brought in to create a paradise garden.  It was when the garden fell into disrepair again in the nineteenth century that the moss began to grow which has become its most famous feature.   Musō cannot have anticipated this development, although acceptance of inevitable change is one of the essences of landscape design.  The temple of Tenryū-ji, shown in the drone video I have embedded above, was built by the shogun Ashikaga Takauji in memory of the emperor whom he had deposed.  Musō wrote a sequence of poems about the landscape garden he helped create there, 'Ten Scenes in the Dragon of Heaven Temple.'  Some of these scenes have survived the centuries, like the lake Sōgen-chi where moonlight still strikes the waters in the dead of night; others have gone, like Dragon-Gate House where Musō observed the most transient of images, two passing puffs of cloud.

A Nanbokucho-period artist, Musō Soseki, c. 1334-1392

I have been reading Musō's poetry in the translations W. S. Merwin made in collaboration with Sōiku Shigematsu. Rather than use quatrains, their versions of Musō split each line in three, giving twelve line verses that slow the reader and suggest the chanting style in which they would have sounded in the original Chinese.  Whilst it's not possible to quote a whole poem, here are some of those lines-broken-in-three, taken from different poems: nine landscapes fragments.

from 'Jewel Field'                         from 'Pine Shade'                           from 'Snow Garden'
All the soil now                            The green haze                               Flowers with six petals
   is beginning                                   so deep and dense                          have covered the whole ground
      to shed light                                   it keeps out the light                         and frozen everywhere

from 'Gem Mountain'                   from 'Spring Cliff'                             from 'It'
The rain beats upon it                  Even the withered trees                  The cold cloud full of rain
   the wind cuts it                             on the dark cliff                                passes above
      it only shines brighter                   are blossoming                                 the hollow of the mountain

from 'Gem Creek'                         from 'House of Spring'                   from 'East Peak'
Without ruffling its surface           Hundreds of open flowers              It will hold the spring sunlight
   look carefully                                all come from                                 year after year
      into the depths                               the one branch                                after year

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Khyber Pass in Hull

'There are few sights in England that can quite equal the absurd charm of the imitation Khyber Pass in Hull's East Park.  This slice of South East Asia in the East Riding sits just a short stroll away from an animal house that is home to alpacas from Peru and a lake where oversized swan pedalo boats bob about.  Seeing it now is to feel, not unlike Lewis Carroll's Alice, that you have fallen into a dreamland where normality has been temporarily suspended.' - Travis Elborough, A Walk in the Park: The Life and Times of a People's Institution, 2016
I have never visited this park (or indeed Hull, next year's City of Culture), although I am familiar with Victoria Park in Hackney, where Travis was based during the writing of his new book.  In the chapter covering the Victorian period he describes how the landscape of Empire influenced the design of our urban green spaces.  After the Crimean war, captured Russian guns began to appear: in Bath, Salford, Bradford, Blackburn, Halifax, Sunderland, Derby and Glasgow (where, during the Second World War, the gun in Kelvingrove Park was melted back down and turned into munitions).  A realistic model of Sebastopol was constructed in Surrey Zoological Gardens, a private park, which charged visitors to come and see a troupe of invalided troops reenacting the battle.  Meanwhile bandstands were designed in emulation of the kiosks of India and the Ottoman Empire. There is still one of these in Victoria Park and it is still used, although we now tend to prefer our music amplified from a big stage (the last time I went to a concert there, in 2015, it was to hear Patti Smith doing the whole of Horses).

Hull's East Park opened in 1887, with a ceremony on the day of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. As Travis describes it, the event seems not quite to have lived up to the occasion.
'In London, an Indian cavalry, headed up by the Maharao of Kutch in a diamond- and ruby-encrusted turban, and the no less resplendent Maharajar of Holkar, escorted Victoria to a special Service of Thanksgiving in Westminster Abbey.  Up in Hull, the park-opening was preceded by a somewhat more disorganised parade.  Led by the Knights of the Golden Horn and featuring Albert Loud Lodge of the United Order of Druids and a horse-drawn float carrying basket-weaving members of the local institute for the blind, it was branded the 'Jubilee Jumble' by a local newshound in the Hull Daily Mail, who deemed it a disgrace to the town and the Queen.'
East Park, Hull, 1914
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Back to Nature

There are just a couple more weeks to see George Shaw: My Back to Nature at the National Gallery.  The title comes from Shaw's observation that he has his back to nature most of the time, something that's true for myself as well: this blog is written with its back to nature, looking instead at what artists have made out of the landscape.  Underlying the paintings Shaw has conceived in response to the National Gallery collection is a nice idea, that what we don't see in the Bacchanalian revelries and triumphs of Pan, painted by artists like Poussin, is their aftermath... when the woods are quiet again and the floor is littered with bottles and discarded clothes.  In real life such remnants may be the only signs of life we encounter in the woods.  In a video to accompany the exhibition Shaw remembers finding a page from Penthouse once, only to be told by his father that he ought to be focusing his attention on the foxgloves. 

Years now after rising to prominence with scenes of the edgelands round Tile Hill, his childhood home, Shaw is still using the same humble Humbrol enamel paints.  Humbrol has nostalgic associations for many of us, although Shaw says he was never really an Airfix enthusiast - he was too busy doing art.  My own son wouldn't recognise the smell of a tin of Humbrol but I can see him one day painting sylvan landscapes in the Citadel paints he uses for Warhammer - Dryad Bark, Elysian Green, Ratskin Flesh, Troll Slayer Orange...  George Shaw's handling of Humbrol is praised by Laura Cumming in her review of the exhibition.  'Occasionally, the gallery lighting catches the glint of the Humbrol paint and the picture suddenly looks like an object as much as an image. ... Though he has remained faithful to this tough and lowly medium, despite the lure of the oil paint all around him, he takes it in new directions, achieving  the blue of a Titian sky or a Madonna’s cloak, turning a Tile Hill tarpaulin into something like silk.  The thinness is still there; these surfaces are hard-won. But the images have become deeper, more elegiac and literary.'

When I first looked round this small exhibition in May I found the contrast with the beautiful old paintings on display nearby a bit hard to take, but I now feel Jonathan Jones is right when he says 'it is not that Shaw has poisoned a once-pure landscape tradition: rather his paintings modernise the erotic myths that artists have always imagined in the woods.'  Jones thinks that 'an artist pissing against a tree is exactly what the National Gallery needs – and a painter who can hack it in the National Gallery is just what British art needs.'  To end this post I was tempted to embed Magazine's song 'Back to Nature', which Shaw mentions in the catalogue, but instead here is the artist again, poking around in some woods this time.  He points out an old tarpaulin, tin cans, packet of condoms etc., and finds a tangle of branches that would be an ideal refuge for kids, if kids still venture into such woods.  He admits he finds a painting of a tree much more exciting than a tree, "but I might change as I get older.  Maybe I just need to spend less time with paintings and more time with trees."

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

The fog has pathways

I was thinking, walking home this evening, that the season of mists is upon us again here in London.  Then, later, I found myself reading about a proposal for a fleet of sculptures in Santa Monica bay that would harvest fog and turn it into water. Regatta H2O, by Christopher Sjoberg and Ryo Saito, has just won first prize in the biannual Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI) contest. According to the Smithsonian website, the 'sails are made of mesh, which is veined with troughs to collect fog and transport it to the masts, where it can be piped to storage containers on the shore. When there’s not enough moisture in the air to generate fog, the sails retract for an unobstructed view. The energy needed to operate the pumping and steering mechanisms is wind-generated. At night, extra energy lights up rings that serve as navigational safety markers.'

The photographs of this artwork suggest that the sails would not actually disperse the blanket of water vapour covering the bay.  It would, after all, be a shame to lose our fogs or demystify our mists.  I'm reminded of something Etel Adnan said in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrest (Etel Adnan in all her Dimensions, 2014), how she regretted that London no longer has its great fogs.  Adnan, whose art and poetry I wrote about earlier this year, has been inspired by the fogs of San Franciso.  ‘I love fog.  The arrival of fog is the coming of a new living being, the entering in the world of an extraordinary event.’  Fogs would come in from the ocean every afternoon around five o’clock. ‘It is not something static, it arrives like a horizontal cascade.  This fog has pathways.  It is stopped by the mountain, and by hills in the East, but it pours and even forms a huge curtain that isolates San Francisco by its surroundings.’  She has even tried to film the fog. In Journey to Mount Tamalpais she says ‘I made a movie, once, of fog, fog, fog.  They said “It’s a study in greys, an abstract movie, a joke!”  It’s none of these things.  It is the fog.’

Sunday, October 02, 2016

The Rakkóx cliffs

Félix Vallotton, illustration for Paul Scheerbart's Rakkóx the Billionaire, 1901

In this picture Kasimir Stummel, a young man employed in the Rakkóxian Department of Invention, is suggesting a grand project to Rakkóx, the eccentric multi-billionaire who is obsessed with spending his money on ever more grandiose schemes.  "When one wants to build on a grand scale," Stummel says, "it is prudent to make use of existing natural features, so that in the end it appears that one has created nature as well."  But what he asks is something far more ambitious - "you could transform not merely pieces of rock, but rather an entire cliff from top to bottom into a work of architectural art?  That truly would be a great thing, and would encourage coming generations over the course of the next millennium to convert the entirety of the Earth's surface into a great work of architectural art."

Later in the story the two men stand looking out over the moonlit ocean and Stummel provides further details of this concept.  In recent years artists like Michael Heizer may have carved huge structures out of the landscape but what Stummel describes is a means of sculpting the landscape into new forms of habitation.  
'There are a number of mountains that can easily be brought into a rectangular architectural form, and gleaming, complexly curved architectural compositions can be created, as well.  The halls that will be created within the Rakkóx cliffs will be of unprecedented dimensions, modern dimensions.  The new machines work so reliably that cave-ins need not be feared.  Furthermore, our mathematicians work almost too carefully.  I will cut off the entire top of the Cliffs of Kasimir so there can be a skylight in every hall.  I imagine the halls being almost completely filled with apartments - back porches, porticoes, and balconies of any expanse desired may be included.  The granite halls will appear immense.  Two hundred metres high - smooth as glass!  And the lighting will be torchlight.  In the lower levels there will be huge rooms for taking the waters - with fountains, cascades, ponds and gondolas.  Compared to these palace mountains the great cathedrals are not worthy of attention, wouldn't you agree?'
- trans. W. C. Bamberger for the Wakefield Press edition.
Paul Scheerbart photographed by Wilhelm Fechner, 1897
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Paul Scheerbart's visionary science fiction and writings on architecture have been attracting increasing attention.  New translations into English have begun to appear - see for example the review of Lesabéndio: An Asteroid Novel at Hyperallergic (Alfred Kubin's original illustrations can be seen at 50 Watts).  If you are not familiar with Scheerbart, I recommend profiles of his work at Writers No One Reads or the NYRB Blog.  The University of Chicago Press have now published an introductory anthology, Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!!: A Paul Scheerbart Reader (see 'Dreams from a Glass House', a Paris Review interview with Josiah McElheny, who co-edited it).  Writing about this book for Apollo, Owen Hatherley, notes that Scheerbart's manifesto on 'Glass Architecture was rediscovered in the English-speaking world by Reyner Banham in his 1960 book, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, which presents Scheerbart, with Marinetti and Malevich, as one of the inadvertent fathers of the modern movement in architecture and design.' An Architect piece on Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!! describes Scheerbart as a precursor of Archigram, the Japanese Metabolists and Rem Koolhaas. 

Kina Balu from Pinokok Valley, lithograph, 1862
Source: Wikimedia Commons 

Scheerbart's fictional version of the contemporary starchitect is Edgar Krug, the hero of his last novel The Gray Cloth, published in 1914, the same year as his manifesto on Glass Architecture.  As Krug flies round the world in his airship, responding to new commissions for glass architecture, some of his designs approach the ambition of Rakkóxian cliffs.  At one point he describes having to dissuade a client from converting Mount Kinabalu in Borneo into a pyramid, arguing that its mountain form should be retained but that it could be 'made habitable' with restaurants, terraces and baths.  Coming to see how work has progressed, Herr Krug arrives at night, seeing the mountain summit illuminated by the spotlights of airships and aeroplanes already there.  He and his companions admire the lever-trains which transport people rapidly up the mountain, using five-hundred-meter-long lever-arms.  They enjoy a lantern festival and visit a large glass hall with shells embedded in its walls.  On the night before they leave, they look out on the ocean from the mountain-top restaurant.  'The moon was not to be seen.  Meteors moved along parabolic lines across the starry skies.  On the horizon Venus was radiant.'

Bruno Taut, Glass House, 1914
 Source: Wikimedia Commons 

Scheerbart considered his collaboration with Bruno Taut on the Glass House at the Cologne Werkbund Exhibition to be 'the greatest event in my life.'  After Scheerbart's death in 1915, Taut formed a circle of German expressionist architects, The Crystal Chain, and wrote his own book in which a mountain landscape is transformed, Alpine Architecture (1919).  Composed in the last years of the war, it opposed utilitarian and materialistic culture with an ideal city of glass, built on the mountain tops and reflected in their lakes. These ideas were a manifestation of the vision Scheerbart had set out in his manifesto on Glass Architecture:
'If we want our culture to rise to a higher level, we are obliged, for better or for worse, to change our architecture. And this only becomes possible if we take away the closed character from the rooms in which we live. We can only do that by introducing glass architecture, which lets in the light of the sun, the moon, and the stars, not merely through a few windows, but through every possible wall, which will be made entirely of glass—of coloured glass.'

Bruno Taut, Alpine Architecture, seen from the Monte Generoso, 1919

Sunday, September 25, 2016


I only recently got round to reading Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies and can highly recommend it to readers of this blog.  A book like this will cover some familiar ground – Gawain’s winter journey, Lear goading the storm, Turner’s light, Constable’s clouds, Dickens’ fog – but it is written so well that you never feel like you’re just being told things you already know.  On the Wordsworths, to choose just one example, she points out that their appreciation of weather turned on ‘very specific moments of transformation – when the sun suddenly strikes through cloud, for example, or when a figure is glimpsed through fog.’  She quotes Dorothy noting ‘her favourite birch tree coming to life: “it was yielding to the gusty wind with all its tender twigs, the sun upon it and it glanced in the wind like a flying sunshine show […] It was like a spirit of water.” The earth-rooted tree takes flight in air, dissolves into a water spirit and, and glitters in the sun.’

The whole history of English literature seems to be contained in the book but it cannot of course be completely comprehensive.  There is no George Eliot for instance - just as I was finishing Weatherland, Mrs Plinius was rereading Middlemarch and reminded me that the love between Will and Dorothea finally surfaces during a thunderstorm.  This though is an example of ‘significant weather’, a novelist’s device deplored by Julian Barnes who, I learnt from Weatherland, originally intended his novel Metroland to be called No Weather, since he was determined to avoid using it as a symbol of anything.  The book's scope is restricted to England and there are moments when Alexandra Harris comes across as very English herself (as she did in Romantic Moderns - see my post on 'The bracing glory of our clouds').  She refers, for example, to Milton’s Paradise, where the seasons are fixed and bountiful and ‘Eve lays out a spread for the visiting archangel Raphael’, observing that Eve may have been ‘the only picnicker in history to remain completely free from concerns about the weather.’  Hard to imagine, say, a Californian academic writing this!

Abraham Hondius, The Frozen Thames, 1677
 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Weatherland takes inspiration at various points from Virginia Woolf's Orlando, a book I have referred to here before.  My favourite scenes in Orlando concern the icing over of the Thames, when birds suddenly freeze in the air and Orlando falls in love with a Muscovite princess.  Woolf herself had read an evocative account of the winter of 1608 in Thomas Dekker's The Great Frost: Cold Doings in London, which refers to a new 'pavement of glass' and fish trapped below a thick roof of ice.  Here, from Weatherland's chapter 'On Freezeland Street', are three more responses to those surreal transformations of the city, which only came to an end when the demolition of London Bridge made the river swifter, deeper and permanently liquid. 
  • Poetry: John Taylor, Thames boatman and self-styled water-poet, composed The Cold Tearme: Or the Frozen Age: Or the Metamorphosis of the River of Thames in 1621.  He compared the ice to a pastry crust and the freezing wind to a barber's razor, 'turning Thames streames, to hard congealed flakes, / And pearled water drops to Christall cakes.'  He describes visitors coming to the Frost Fair, 'Some for two Pots at Tables, Cards or Dice: / Some slipping in betwixt two cakes of Ice.'  Here he added a rueful note in the margin, 'Witnesse my selfe'.  
  • Painting: the view reproduced above is by one of the many artists who came over to England from the Low Countries in the seventeenth century.  'While Englishmen produced diagrammatic engravings of the Frost Fairs, labelling the attractions, Hondius produced an essay in atmosphere.  His expansive sky, worthy of the Netherlands, is flushed with the apricot pinks of a winter sunset.'  Alexandra Harris imagines the effect the frozen river would have had on his imagination.  At around the same time he painted a ship stuck in the pack ice of Greenland, Arctic Adventure.  'The Thames was a noisy, busy river, but in its frozen state it transported Hondius to the desolate edges of the world.'
  • Music: John Dryden may have been inspired by the Frost Fair of 1683-4 when he wrote the libretto for Purcell's King Arthur.  Together 'they wanted to freeze and melt the human voice, dramatising in the process the freezing and melting of the the heart.'  The evil Saxon magician Osmond strikes his wand on the ground and magically summons up 'a prospect of winter in frozen countries.'  Then the personification of Cold sings slowly in C minor, chosen as the coldest key, and is followed by a chorus of cold people, whose stuttering singing mimics the chattering of teeth.  The whole masque is conjured to demonstrate the warmth of love, but it is a deception played on Emmeline, who is betrothed to Arthur.  His plan is foiled though and at the end of the opera he is cast into a dungeon whilst Arthur and Emmeline are reunited.  

There are numerous versions of the 'Cold Song' online, some pretty strange.  I've chosen here a  concert version by Andreas Scholl; you can also see a video for this where the singer is dressed in a pale suit, looking lost near some tower blocks.  Incidentally, the Prelude to the Frost Scene was the basis for Michael Nyman's 'Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds' in The Draughtsman's Contract and was recently used again by the Pet Shop Boys in 'Love Is a Bourgeois Construct'.

Friday, September 23, 2016


Friedrich Georg Weitsch, Alexander von Humboldt, 1806
Images: Wikimedia Commons

Andrea Wulf has just won another prize for The Invention of Nature and I am not surprised as it is a really good read.  In addition to telling the life of Alexander von Humboldt, she has chapters on other great men who he influenced: Goethe, Jefferson, Bolívar, Darwin, Thoreau, Haeckel, Muir and America's first environmentalist, George Perkins Marsh.  Of course Humboldt was so protean and long-lived that she could have included far more people, at the risk of turning her own book into something the size of Humboldt's thirty-four volume Voyage to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent.  The one time I have referred to Humboldt's influence on this blog was in connection with Carl Gustav Carus and his notion of Earth-life painting - Carus doesn't make it into the book at all.  Here though are some of the artists, writers and composers she does mention, in connection with three of Humboldt's most widely read publications.
In 1808 Humboldt published Views of Nature in Germany and France, combining scientific facts with poetic landscape description.  Reading it, Goethe told him 'that I plunged with you into the wildest regions' and Chateaubriand said that 'you believe you are surfing the waves with him, losing yourself with him in the depths of the woods.'  Later it inspired Darwin, Thoreau and Emerson.  Jules Verne used passages verbatim in his Voyages Extraordinaires, particularly The Mighty Orinoco.  Captain Nemo owned the complete works of Alexander von Humboldt.
In 1814 Humboldt's account of his travels in South America, the Personal Narrative, appeared in England and started to influence writers like Wordsworth, who adapted a passage for his sonnet sequence on the River Duddon. Coleridge may already have read him in the original German; he had spent some time with Wilhelm, the 'brother of the great traveller', in Rome in 1805.  Byron had fun with the idea of Humboldt's cyanometer, a device for measuring the blueness of the sky which he had taken on his travels.  Here are the lines from Don Juan:
Humboldt, 'the first of travellers,' but not
The last, if late accounts be accurate,
 Invented, by some name I have forgot,
As well as the sublime discovery's date,
An airy instrument, with which he sought
To ascertain the atmospheric state,
 By measuring 'the intensity of blue:'
O, Lady Daphne! let me measure you!

Horace Bénédicte de Saussure, cyanometer, 1760
 Saussure (like Humboldt a scientist and mountaineer) originally devised the cyanometer

In 1845, after eleven years' work, Humboldt published Cosmos, a huge success with students, scientists, politicians and even royalty (Prince Albert ordered a copy).  Hector Berlioz declared him 'a 'dazzling writer; the book was so popular among musicians, Berlioz said, that he knew one who had 'read, re-read, pondered and understood' Cosmos during his breaks at opera performances when his colleagues played on.'  In America, Emerson got hold of one of the first copies, Poe was inspired by it to write his visionary last work Eureka, and Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass with a copy of Cosmos on his desk.
Frederic Edwin Church, The Heart of the Andes, 1859

On the day Humboldt died in May 1859, New Yorkers were queuing to see a painting he had inspired: The Heart of the Andes by Frederic Edwin Church.  Church had gone to South America and retraced Humboldt's route, returning to paint landscapes that united poetic feeling with scientific accuracy.  The New York Times described him as 'the artistic Humboldt of the new world.'  Church wanted his painting to travel to Berlin so that the old man could see again 'the scenery which delighted his eyes sixty years ago.'  When he heard the news of Humboldt's passing, Church said that it felt as if he had 'lost a friend.'

Alexander von Humboldt, Naturgemälde, 1807

The Invention of Nature begins on a high ridge of Chimborazo, the great extinct volcano that Humboldt climbed in 1802.  Nobody had ever been this high before, not even the early balloonists.  After descending to the Andean foothills, Humboldt began to sketch the first version of his famous Naturgemälde - an image of Chimborazo familiar to those of us professionally interested in infographics but more importantly, as Andrea Wulf emphasises, an encapsulation in one two-by three foot page of Humboldt's new vision of nature as a living whole.  She ends her book with a beautiful quote from his friend Goethe, who compared Humboldt to a 'fountain with many spouts from which streams flow refreshingly and infinitely, so that we only have to place vessels under them.'