Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Wave Movements

Billboard poster advertising Mountains and Waves, Highbury, April 2015

We were at the Barbican on Sunday for the last concert in a weekend of new music entitled 'Mountains and Waves'.  The first half was a premiere of Wave Movements by Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire and Bryce Dessner of The National (see the clip embedded below).  This was 'composed directly to the actual rhythms of waves' and began with rising and falling sounds reminiscent of breakers arriving and departing.  It was pleasant enough but after a while I started hoping for more of the drama and beauty you hear in the great sea compositions (Debussy, Sibelius, Britten), or to hear something more surprising than swelling violins and the rumble of kettle drums.  The ending was rather surprising - Maddy Pryor, once of Steeleye Span, came on and sang what sounded like a sea-themed folk song (her voice was half drowned by the surging strings).  Having read that the performance would feature Hiroshi Sugimoto's Seascapes I had expected something quieter and more minimal.  Hung in a gallery setting, his images radiate silence and mystery, their skies empty, their grey seas stilled by the camera.  Perhaps we try too hard to project music on natural processes.  It was almost easier to sense 'wave movements' in the second part of the concert, listening to So Percussion perform Steve Reich's Drumming (1971)I could imagine something sounding like this inspired by the uneven phasing of waves striking a rocky coastline.  Drumming was composed under the influence of West African polyrhythms and Reich later recalled the impact of studying percussion in Accra with the Ghana Dance Ensemble: 'I was overwhelmed by their music, like being in front of a tidal wave.'

Friday, May 08, 2015

The Virgin and Child in a Landscape

 Jan Provoost, The Virgin and Child in a Landscape (detail), early 16th century

I managed a few minutes in the National Gallery at lunchtime yesterday resting my eyes on this landscape by Jan Provoost.  Everything is softly lit, ducks drift slowly down the river and the few figures going about their business are barely visible, blending into the dark green of the grass and pale brown of the buildings.  I suppose the Virgin is sitting in a walled garden, although it looks rather overgrown (it is hard to maintain a small garden when you have a young child).  Jan Provoost (or Provost) is one of ten sixteenth century artists discussed in Max Jakob Friedländer's classic study, From Van Eyck to Bruegel, Early Netherlandish Painting, first published in 1916.  This selection, which includes Massys, Patenier and Bruegel, compares well with the book's fourteenth century line-up, ten as well if you count Hubert van Eyck along with his more celebrated younger brother Jan (the Jackie and Bobby Charlton of early Netherlandish painting).  If only some publisher would commission monographs on lesser players like Provoost... all of them would be interesting to study for their treatment of landscape.  Friedländer concluded that 'Provost loved landscapes planned like gardens (flower-pots, espaliers, flower beds); he avoided distant views and wide vistas.'  

Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of this painting is the copper-gold of the Virgin's dress and hair.  I came across this same golden-haired Virgin a few weeks ago in Genoa in another work by Provoost, an Annunciation.  It is an interior scene with only grey light visible through one high window, but as if to compensate for the lack of a view a small unframed landscape picture has been tacked to the wall.  This shows a Samuel Palmerish village in the countryside with a large tree on the left and a church spire visible against the sky.  In the context of the Bible story its presence feels strange, as if the Virgin had come upon an image of a place far away in space and time, a humble rural scene whose strangeness made it seem as precious as the other more ornate objects in her room.  Not long ago I wrote a post on the theme of landscape paintings within paintings, focusing on illustrations of wealthy collectors' displays and conversation pieces set in bourgeois interiors.  Provoost's painting is much earlier, from a time when the idea of independent landscape painting barely existed.  The tiny view in the Annunciation has writing underneath (too small to read) and looks like it might be a page from a book or calendar rather than a painting. Nevertheless I have added it to my Pinterest board on landscape paintings to be found within other paintings.

Jan Provoost, Annunciation, first decade of the sixteenth century

Sunday, May 03, 2015

The Road to San Giovanni

In Liguria recently I took on our walks my much-read copy of Italo Calvino's Our Ancestors, which contains his short novel The Baron in the Trees.  In the book's introduction Calvino says that its tales 'breathe the air of the Mediterranean which I had breathed throughout my life ... So the Ligurian landscape, where trees have almost disappeared today, in the Baron is transformed into a kind of apotheosis of vegetation.'  He imagined a world of abundant fruit trees and olive groves of 'silvery grey, a cloud anchored halfway up the hillsides.'  Above these were the oaks, and then the pines and  the chestnuts.  'The woods climbed the mountain, and you could not see their bounds.'  Choosing to live out his life in these trees, the Baron would come to know a world of 'narrow curved bridges in the emptiness, of knots or peel or scores roughening the trunks, of lights varying their green according to the veils of thicker or scarcer leaves, trembling at the first quiver of the air on the shoots or moving like sails with the bend of the tree in the wind.'  

These steep wooded hills sloping down to the sea were important to Calvino from the outset, as he explained in a 1964 preface to his first novel, The Path to the Spiders' Nest (1946).  They had not really featured in literature before, except in the poems of Eugenio Montale (the subject of an earlier post on this blog).  Like the other neo-realists, Calvino was striving for authenticity, working with his own 'lexis and landscape', although his was a version of Liguria that omitted the tourist coastline centred on San Remo.
'I began with the alleyways of the Old Town, went up along the hillside streams, avoiding the geometric fields of carnations: I preferred the terraced strips planted with vines and olives surrounded by crumbling, dry-stone walls.  I advanced along the mule-tracks rising above the fallow fields up to where the pinewoods began , then the chestnut trees: that was how I moved from the sea - always seen from above, like a thin strip between two green curtains - up to the winding valleys of the Ligurian Pre-Alps'
Seen from the aeroplane: Calvino's Liguria

All the walks we made began by the shore and took us, like Calvino's descriptions, up through the trees towards the mountains.  In his autobiographical sketch, 'The Road to San Giovanni', Calvino recalls another of these climbs, from the family home to the experimental farm his father ran in the hills above San Remo.  The carnation fields Calvino would avoid mentioning in his novel a few years later were bypassed by his father too, 'as if, despite working professionally in the floriculture business himself, he felt secretly remorseful about it. ...  What he wanted to achieve was a relationship with nature, one of struggle and dominion: to get his hands on nature, to change it, to mould it, while still feeling it alive and whole beneath.'  His son, reluctantly accompanying him on these walks, 'could recognize not a single plant or bird'.  Living in the midst of nature, he wanted to be elsewhere.  'My father is talking about the way olive trees blossom.  I'm not listening.  I look at the sea and think I'll be down on the beach in an hour.'  It was later, in writing, that he would come to explore this landscape and it was through literature that he sought a different kind of connection to nature, where 'everything would become true and tangible and possessible and perfect, everything in a world that was already lost.'

Friday, May 01, 2015

Everywhere they tossed grass and flowers

Jan Wildens, May - Walk in the Avenue, c. 1615

On this first day of the month here is a delightful May painting that I saw a few weeks ago at The Palazzo Rosso in Genoa.  The Italian title of the painting uses the word 'la passeggiata', with its connotations of the customary evening stroll, "a socially sanctioned opportunity for flirting and courting" (Giovanna Delnegro, The Passeggiata).  In the midground a couple is walking very close together, in the foreground a young gentleman appears to be asking a young lady to dance, while another pair converse over a book.  A woman on the left may be concentrating on her dogs but the central figure with his back to us and his leg at a jaunty angle looks as if he might skip over to join her.  Everything is suffused in a silvery-pink light.  The water is a mirror reflecting the pale sky and soft green foliage.  The boat's passengers are no doubt returning to a pleasant evening in the country house half-hidden by the trees.

Jan Wildens (1586 - 1653) painted the other eleven months too, possibly while he was living in Italy.  They seem poised half way between north and south - there is a stepped gable visible in the painting above, but an Italian city in the painting for February.  The museum in Genoa has another painting, a collaboration with Cornelis de Wael, that has exactly the same compositional form as the May painting.  A comparison of the two is almost uncanny: there again music is being played to a group of people sitting in what appears to be the same avenue of trees, but around them the landscape has changed.  Nature is tamed into a formal garden and the avenue ends not in distant trees but at a baroque building.  The central standing figure seems a little bored as he looks over at his companions.  Put together they would resemble those 'before and after' landscapes Humphry Repton deployed to show clients how he would improve an estate.  

Simon Bening, Labours of the Months: May, from a Flemish Book of Hours, 
first half of the 16th century

Wildens' twelve compositions are a late example of a tradition that stretches back to medieval book illumination, stained glass and sculptural cycles for churches.  Although these 'Labours of the Months' generally show agricultural labour, May is the month for hawking, music and courtly love.  In the Da Costa Hours, illustrated by Simon Bening a century before Wilden's painting, a similar boat with four passengers glides towards a moated grange to the strains of recorder and lute.  This boat can also be seen in a Flemish Book of hours (above) and again, in a version by the workshop of Bening, heading under a bridge (it looks like it will be a bit of a squeeze).  There is an excellent Flickr site dedicated to the Labours of the Months where it is possible to look for other earlier echoes of the Jan Wildens paintings (the May boat for example can be seen here and here).  

I have referred here before to Les très riches heures du Duc de Berry, whose May scene shows noblemen and ladies processing at the edge of a forest.  In Michel Pastoureau's recent cultural history of the colour green he discusses the fact that three of the women  are wearing 'the pretty vert gai (light and bright) mentioned in wardrobe inventories and chronicles.'  All sixteen figures in this miniature are wearing the mai in the form of necklaces, crowns, leaves, branches.  This tradition  'consisted of attaching to oneself an element of greenery. ...  To be pris sans verd, that is, not to display on oneself a single element of this colour, neither plant nor textile, led to becoming the object of mockery and harassment.'  In Simon Bening's May the figures in the boat all carry sprigs of foliage.  On the first of May it was traditional for a young lover to plant a single branch in front of his lover's home, 'a linden branch constituted a declaration of love; a rose branch celebrated the young woman's beauty; an elder branch on the other hand discretely denounced her more or less fickle nature.'

 The Limbourg Brothers, May - Les très riches heures du Duc de Berry, c. 1412-16

Jan Wildens' painting really needs to be seen full size, although the small photograph I have included here emphasises the fact that landscape is his true subject.  The figures I have mentioned look insignificant in comparison to the trees' abundant crowns of fresh leaves.  Similar trees are central to Bening's miniature, and in front of them the riders and man on foot all hold leafy sprigs.  The boat party are sitting among sprays that turn their vessel into a floating version of the wooded countryside.  The transformation of the landscape in Spring was celebrated in the ancient practice of decorating houses with leaves and branches on this day in May.  I will conclude here with a passage Pastoureau quotes from the thirteenth century Guillaume de Dole, attributed to the Norman trouvère Jean Renart. 
'At nightfall the inhabitants of the town went to the woods to do their gathering ... In the morning when the day was very bright and when all was decorated with flowers, gladiola and green leafy branches, they brought in their May tree, carried it upstairs and displayed it before the windows, thus embellishing all the balconies.  Onto the floors, onto the cobblestones, everywhere, they tossed grass and flowers to celebrate the solemnity and the joy of this day.'

Thursday, April 23, 2015

In the Cairngorms

We spent last weekend at a remarkable wedding in the Cairngorms National Park. I'm not sure if I was technically 'in the Cairngorms', in the Nan Shepherd sense, as we didn't get to explore the mountains. However, as Robert Macfarlane has often pointed out, climbing to a summit was not for Shepherd the way to experience this landscape.  I've been reading her poems, originally published in 1934 and reprinted last year.  In the Cairngorms is a rather uneven collection: some poems shine out as brightly as when they were written, others are dulled with old-fashioned language (was hers the last generation to use 'thy' and 'thou'?)  Four are written in the Scots dialect Doric; for Robert Macfarlane these poems, which 'stud the book like garnets in granite', best exemplify her sense of the hills as both unsettling and enfolding.

In these poems the elements are never entirely stable.  They change places and touch each other, unifying everything that can be perceived and felt in the landscape.  Light is the substance of the mountains; a loch is 'bricht, an' bricht, an' bricht as air'; the shadows of rocks are like the smoke from a bonfire.  In one poem 'air is tinged with earth', in another it is hard to tell a distant, tremulous blue hill from a morning star, vanishing in the morning light.  At dawn, a flooded landscape is 'unsubstantial blue', 'uncertain, half like dew / and half like light withdrawn.'  After the rain, clouds 'plod to the slouch of the wind their drover', stars process across space, 'boats come in from the width of the ocean.'  Water resembles 'clear deeps of air, / light massed upon itself', and tumbles in 'cataracts of wind' that crash in the corries.   

Robert Macfarlane finds echoes of Nan Shepherd's poems in the prose of The Living Mountain.  Her chapter on water, for example, explains the transparency of the Cairngorms' burns, undarkened by peat, which the poems describe as 'fiercely pure' and flowing with a 'glass-white shiver'.  When the water has a colour at all it is 'a green like the green of winter skies, but lucent, clear like aquamarines, without the vivid brilliance of glacier water.  Sometimes the Quoich waterfalls have violet playing through the green, and the pouring water spouts and bubbles in a violet froth. ... In summer I have stood on the high buttress of Ben a' Bhuird above the Dubh Loch, with the sun striking straight downwards into its water, and seen from that height through the water the stones upon its floor.'

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A landscape of touch and double-touch

From the film Possession (2002): poets Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash

These two fictional nineteenth century poets in A. S. Byatt's novel Possession (1990) both draw inspiration from nature.  In one brief, intense summer they explore together the coast and moors of Yorkshire.  They write under the influence of Lyell and Ruskin but, like their Romantic predecessors, they are fascinated too with myths of metamorphosis, animism and elemental forces.  The poems of Christabel LaMotte (her name recalls Coleridge's poem 'Christabel' and the author of 'Undine', Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué) become, by the time the contemporary sections of the novel are set, the subject of close readings by feminist scholars.  One such critical study is read by Possession's unassuming hero, a lowly 1980s academic called Roland, just before he sets off to retrace the poets' journey north.  It leaves him with a vision of a land 'covered with sucking human orifices and knotted human body hair.'  I'd like to quote a paragraph here because, even as an amusing parody of academic writing, it is interesting on writing and landscape.  Byatt's novel is full of such extracts from fictitious poems, letters and journals.  Here, places reimagined by nineteenth century novelists are reinterpreted a century later by an American scholar who is herself merely a fictional character in Possession - nature transformed and distorted through three cultural filters.
'And what surfaces of the earth do we women choose to celebrate, who have appeared typically in phallocentric texts as a penetrable hole, inviting or abhorrent, surrounded by, fringed with-something? Women writers and painters are seen to have created their own significantly evasive landscapes, with features which deceive or elude the penetrating gaze, tactile landscapes which do not privilege the dominant stare. The heroine takes pleasure in a world which is both bare and not pushy, which has small hillocks and rises, with tufts of scrub and gently prominent rocky parts which disguise sloping declivities, hidden clefts, not one but a multitude of hidden holes and openings through which life-giving waters bubble and enter reciprocally. Such external percepts, embodying inner visions, are George Eliot's Red Deeps, George Sand's winding occluded paths in Berry, Willa Cather's cañons, female-visioned female-enjoyed contours of Mother Earth. Cixous has remarked that many women experience visions of caves and fountains during the orgasmic pleasures of autoeroticism and shared caresses. It is a landscape of touch and double-touch, for as Irigaray has showed us, all our deepest "vision" begins with our self-stimulation, the touch and kiss of our two lower lips, our double sex. Women have noted that literary heroines commonly find their most intense pleasures alone in these secretive landscapes, hidden from view. I myself believe that the pleasure of the fall of waves on the shores is to be added to this delight, their regular breaking bearing a profound relation to the successive shivering delights of the female orgasm. There is a marine and salty female wave-water to be figured which is not, as Venus Anadyomene was, put together out of the crud of male semen scattered on the deep at the moment of the emasculation of Father Time by his Oedipal son. Such pleasure in the shapeless yet patterned succession of waters, in the formless yet formed sequence of waves on the shore, is essentially present in the art of Virginia Woolf and the form of her sentences, her utterance, themselves. I can only marvel at the instinctive delicacy and sensitivity of those female companions of Charlotte Bronte who turned aside when she first came face to face with the power of the sea at Filey, and waited peacefully until, her body trembling, her face flushed, her eyes wet, she was able to rejoin her companions and walk on with them.'

Friday, April 10, 2015

Lake Mashū

I have just finished reading Nicolas Bouvier's Japanese Chronicles (1989, translated by Anne Dickerson) a compilation of travel sketches based on his experiences in the country between 1955 and 1970.  Bouvier spent some time in the northern island of Hokkaidō, a little more than twice the size of his native Switzerland, just then becoming popular with younger Japanese tourists.  Older Japanese, he observed, 'will never go there and don't think much of it.  This island has no prestige in their eyes because it has almost no history ... this neglect has lasted for a thousand years.'  Thus one cannot find old Japanese poems and paintings devoted to Hokkaidō's most beautiful views, but this has not stopped experts codifying their qualities for tourists.  Lake Mashū is an almost pristine volcanic lake, once (according to a measurement taken in 1931) the clearest in the world, although its transparency was reduced with the introduction of sockeye salmon and rainbow trout in the fifties.  Bouvier went to see it in the late sixties:
'Mashū-ko lake lies in a crater dominated by another crater that resembles a felt hat that has been crushed by a fist.  A little like the lakes in the Swiss mountains, but wilder, with the ambiguity a volcano adds to the landscape. In the middle, a small island.  No sign of inhabitants, but an observation platform for tourists where, on Sundays in August, you can hear Osanai de kudasamaise (Be so good as not to push).  There are two other lakes in the area that rival this one, but the Mashū-ko lake is sought after for its 'mystical' or mysterious ambience (I think that it is better to understand the word shimpiteki in the first sense) - no doubt because some authority in matters of landscape has said so.  I am the only foreigner. 
'Do you find the lake mystical?' someone asked me.
'I find it very beautiful, but why mystical?'
'Because a very esteemed professor said so - when will you learn to believe?'
'When? Very good question!'
Nicolas Bouvier is best known for The Way of the World (1963), an account of the journey he made ten years earlier with the artist Thierry Vernet from Yugoslavia to the Khyber Pass.  It contains some remarkable passages of image-rich descriptive writing that seem both densely packed and lightly done. At different points it reminds me of two very different books, On the Road and A Time of Gifts (Patrick Leigh Fermor described it as 'nothing short of a masterpiece').  Vernet's striking Indian ink illustrations punctuate the text and give a sense of the landscapes they encounter (the photograph below shows my copy open at their journey on the road to Anatolia).  Bourier was inspired to travel by his childhood reading - 'at eight years old, I traced the course of the Yukon with my thumbnail in the butter on my toast'.  As the biography in the back of the Eland Press translation says, 'without waiting for the result of his degree, in 1953 he left to join Thierry Vernet in Yugoslavia with no intention of returning.'  The Way of the World covers only the first eighteen months of his travels and it was not until 1956 that he reached Japan (as described in Japanese Chronicles).  He was an advocate of  slow travel and 'proud to boast that it had taken him longer to get to Japan than Marco Polo.'