Saturday, July 27, 2013

That vast horizon, those thick clouds, that raging sea are all but a picture


The first description of a landscape photograph was written in 1760, almost eighty years before the invention of photography.  In Giphantie, Charles-François Tiphaigne de la Roche relates the experiences of a traveler in the land of Giphantia, a fertile place in the centre of Africa 'given to the elementary spirits the day before the Garden of Eden was allotted to the parent of mankind.'  After seeing various wonders he is led by the Prefect of Giphantia into a subterranean hall, 'not much adorned', but with a window opening out onto 'a sea which seemed to me to be about a quarter of a mile distant.  The air, full of clouds, transmitted only that pale light which forbodes a storm: the raging sea ran mountains high, and the shore was whitened with the foam of the billows which broke on the beach.'  Astonished to see the ocean in the center of Africa, the traveler rushes forward to put his head out of the window, but knocks his head 'against something that felt like a wall.  Stunned with the blow, and still more with so many mysteries, I drew back a few paces.'  His guide explains:  'That window, that vast horizon, those thick clouds, that raging sea are all but a picture.'  And the means by which this light painting was made can be read now as a remarkable anticipation of the photographic process:
'The elementary spirits (continued the Prefect), are not so able painters as naturalists; thou shalt judge by their way of working. Thou knowest that the rays of light, reflected from different bodies, make a picture and paint the bodies upon all polished surfaces, on the retina of the eye, for instance, on water, on glass. The elementary spirits have studied to fix these transient images: they have composed a most subtile matter, very viscous, and proper to harden and dry, by the help of which a picture is made in the twinkle of an eye. They do cover with this matter a piece of canvas, and hold it before the objects they have a mind to paint. The first effect of the canvas is that of a mirrour; there are seen upon it all the bodies far and near whose image the light can transmit. But what the glass cannot do, the canvas, by means of the viscous matter, retains the images. The mirrour shows the objects exactly; but keeps none; our canvases show them with the same exactness, and retains them all. This impression of the image is made the first instant they are received on the canvas, which is immediately carried away into some dark place; an hour after, the subtile matter dries, and you have a picture so much the more valuable, as it cannot be imitated by art nor damaged by time. We take, in their purest source, in the luminous bodies, the colours which painters extract from different materials, and which time never fails to alter. The justness of the design, the truth of the expression, the gradation of the shades, the stronger or weaker strokes, the rules of perspective, all these we leave to nature, who, with a sure and never-erring hand, draws upon our canvases, images which deceive the eye, and make reason to doubt whether, what are called real objects, are not phantoms which impose upon the sight, the hearing, the feeling, and all the senses at once.'
(anonymous English translation 1761)

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Pastel City

Robert Macfarlane recently wrote an appreciation of M. John Harrison that made me want to seek out his novel Climbers when I have more time.  It also reminded me of Harrison's Viriconium stories, set far in the future, which were being brought to a conclusion at the time I was at school and reading a lot of science fictionThis, from The Pastel City, is the kind of strange entopic landscape I used to enjoy: 'in the water-thickets, the path wound tortuously between umber iron-bogs, albescent quicksands of aluminium and magnesium oxides, and sumps of cuprous blue or permanganate mauve fed by slow, gelid streams and fringed by silver reed and tall black glasses.  The twisted, smooth-barked boles of the trees were yellow-ochre and burnt orange; through their tightly woven foliage filtered a gloomy, tinted light.  At their roots grew great clumps of multifaceted translucent crystal like alien fungi.'


Other landscapes in these books are more recognisable, like the glacial moor that the characters traverse later in The Pastel City, a place 'of bright green moss, and coarse, olive-green grass, and delicate washed-out winter flowers discovered suddenly in the lee of low, worn drumlins - of bent thorn and withered bullace, of damp prevailing winds that searched for voices in stands of birch and pine; of skylines, wrinkled with ridges; of heather and gorse, grey cloud and weather - of sudden open stretches of white water that would swell in Spring, dwindle and vanish with the coming of Summer - mysterious waterways...' 

An interview Harrison once gave to Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction lodged in my mind; his obvious frustration with genre limitations and the difficulty of writing books that fully satisfied him seemed very honest and unusual.  I have just dug this out again to reread it.  Harrison was talking in December 1980 and the interview concludes with the wish that some 'young science fiction punks' would emerge and shake things up (six months later I was reading a striking short story in Omni called 'Johnny Mnemonic' by a writer new to me, William Gibson).  Here is how Harrison described the role of landscape writing in the two Viriconium novels he had then written.
'The landscapes of The Pastel City and A Storm of Wings are quite obviously the landscapes of upland Britain: the Peak District, the Derbyshire moors, the tops of the Lake District.  The landscapes in A Storm of Wings in particular have references to the Derbyshire moors, because on top of hills like Kinder Scout the landscape really is rotting and falling to pieces.  It's a genuine desert, drying up and blowing away on the wind every summer.  It has dreadful bogs in which you can sink without trace on a Sunday afternoon only nine miles from Sheffield.  They are the landscapes I now live in, and they obsess me.  Hilary Bailey said of many of the landscapes in A Storm of Wings that though they were bleak and awful, one had this sneaking suspicion that the author would like to go on his holidays there.  Hilary is very acute.'

Friday, July 12, 2013

Willow Mill

'For truly art is embedded in nature, and he who can extract it, has it.'
- Albrecht Dürer

Albrecht Dürer, Willow Mill, 1496-8
A view from the north bank of the River Pegnitz on the outskirts of Nuremburg

The latest LRB carries a piece on Dürer by Christopher S. Wood, who twenty years ago published possibly my favourite work of art history, Albrecht Altdorfer and the Origins of Landscape. This new article is a review of The Early Dürer, an exhibition catalogue edited by Daniel Hess and Thomas Eser.  What he says about their self-imposed academic caution made me reflect on the freedom that blogs provide to break rules and go off on unusual tangents.  'The professional habitus of many art historians is negative, debunking, normalising,' he writes.  On Dürer's sexuality, 'the catalogue simply cuts short any inquiry by invoking a normalising historical context. A drawn profile portrait of a laughing Pirckheimer, for example, signed by Dürer, is supplemented by a Greek phrase, written in Pirckheimer’s own hand: ‘with a cock up the ass’. The exhibition catalogue approvingly cites two scholars who tried to explain this inscription either as an erudite comment on the unflattering likeness or as a parody of conventional humanist epigrams. But there is surely more to be said. The catalogue comes across as pedantic if not priggish when it dismisses other scholars’ attempts to relate the inscription to Dürer’s and Pirckheimer’s sexuality as ‘methodologically problematic’'.


Albrecht Dürer, Pond in the Woods, c. 1496
Probably depicting a view of the sandy heathland near Nuremburg

When it comes to landscape, the catalogue's contributors are 'unwilling to read Dürer’s works as directly registering his experience. The watercolour landscapes, for example, have traditionally been seen as impressions of real places created on site during day trips or longer journeys. Rather, it is argued here, the landscapes were carefully contrived exempla or demonstration pieces, designed to establish their maker as an authority or to provide evidence of his travels: they functioned as tokens in a social game. According to the catalogue, we should not read the watercolours as engagements with the natural world because there is no evidence in written sources that artists in this period thought about landscape in such terms. One might well wonder why the authors don’t have more confidence in the drawings themselves as sources. The catalogue frequently strikes such notes of caution, as if there were a danger that the public might succumb to a thoughtless cult of genius.'  Wood, on the contrary, concludes that 'Dürer’s landscape watercolours remain emblems of a new concept of artistic authorship grounded in curiosity, desire and attentiveness to the real.'

 Albrecht Dürer, Pine, 1495-7

Monday, July 08, 2013

Black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease


Outline: an autobiography and other writings was published three years after the death of Paul Nash, in 1949.  The autobiography was unfinished and only takes him up to the age of twenty-five, just before the First World War, although there are tantalising notes covering later years. The book also contains seven short essays (including 'Unseen Landscapes' and 'Swanage, or Seaside Surrealism') but its most vivid pages are a selection made by his wife Margaret of the letters she received from the Front in 1917.  On February 20th Nash's regiment left for France: "Went with my brother officers of the Hampshires to the dullest cinema I have ever watched; returned to the docks, re-embarked, mist fell again.  Stopped.  About 6 o'clock, however, great noise of whistles, hoots, electric bells, guttural shouts - off - we are going to sail. Men break into a sort of cheer and a number in the stern begin to sing "Tipperary" rather doubtfully.  Mist gradually blots out the screeching cranes and bulky pens and the long shapes of dock sheds, and slowly we push up Southampton water towards the sea."

Having arrived safely at Le Havre, they sailed down the Seine towards Rouen and the letters provide a lyrical description of the landscape slipping by.  Rouen itself was "quite diverting" and he managed a walk out to a neighbouring village, the wind fresh and larks singing.  On March 7th he wrote from the trenches of the new grass pushing up through the sandbags, "while clots of white dandelions, clover, thistle and twenty other plants flourish luxuriantly, brilliant growths of bright green against the pink earth."  The letter lists some of the sketches he has completed and asks Margaret to send him a copy of the volume of poems just published by another member of the Artists' Rifles, Edward Thomas.  Just over a month later Thomas was killed and Nash knew that the same thing could happen to him.  "But if I am hit it does not matter, and I can think of you at the last and forever after till we meet again." 

We are Making a New World  
Paul Nash, We are Making a New World, 1918

At several points Nash describes the kind of landscape conveyed so powerfully in paintings like We are Making a New World (1918).  In a letter written on Good Friday 1917, he asks Margaret to "imagine a wide landscape flat and scantily wooded and what trees remain blasted and torn, naked and scarred and riddled.  The ground for miles around furrowed into trenches, pitted with yawning holes in which the water lies still and cold or heaped with mounds of earth, tangles of rusty wire, tin plates, stakes, sandbags and all the refuse of war.  In the distance runs a stream where the stringy poplars and alders lean about dejectedly, while farther a slope rises to a scarred bluff the foot of which is scattered with headless trees standing white and withered, hopeless, without any leaves, dead."  Shells pass overhead all day and as the sun sinks "the shapes of the trench stand massy and cold, the mud gleams whitely, the sandbags have a hard, rocky lock, the works of men look like a freak of nature ... Twilight quivers above, shrinking into night, and a perfect crescent moon sails uncannily below pale stars."

The last letter in the selection concludes with regret that his drawings cannot convey this "frightful nightmare of a country more conceived by Dante or Poe than by nature ... The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease.  They alone plunge overhead, tearing away the rotting tree stumps, breaking the plank roads, striking down horses and mules, annihilating, maiming, maddening, they plunge into the grave which is this land; one huge grave, and cast up on it the poor dead.  Is is unspeakable, godless, hopeless.  I am no longer an artists interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever.  Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and it may burn their lousy souls."

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Shoreless River


Reading this new Corbel Stone Press journal I was fascinated by a selection of short extracts from Fluss ohne Ufer (Shoreless River), a novel by Hans Henny Jahnn that has yet to be fully translated into English.  The article, 'Landscape as the Origin of Music' is a collaboration between editor Richard Skelton and translator Noor de Winter and touches on 'birch trees, music and the "artist-as-listener"'. Richard told me he encountered Noor de Winter's translation project through a blog post that draws a parallel between the music he makes out in the landscape (see my earlier post 'Threads Across the River') and the way Jahnn's character draws inspiration from nature.  flowerville is an impressively erudite blog (today's post is a quotation from Hans Blumenberg on the impossibility of grasping existence through metaphor), written in brief, fragmentary prose that leaves a lot unsaid: "jahnn writes in the april chapter that he got the idea for his music from the pattern of a bark of birch, materials which he used to start making a fire. He did set this pattern for a pianola and later for other instruments. the birchpiece is called dryad-quintet."  So is this Jahnn or his fictional character?  Does this composition actually exist outside the fragment given in Shoreless River?

Despite my lack of German I couldn't resist getting an old yellow hardback copy of Fluss ohne Ufer out of the British Library to see if I could piece together anything more from the novel itself.  It was easy enough to find the musical notation Noor de Winter includes on her post, but I soon realised Jahnn's text was just a river of words to me.  I'm left therefore with what is contained in Reliquiae - here for example is how the character Anias is described as having the idea for composing music from the harmonies to be found in birch bark.  'In the following days I worked in wonderful simplicity on a new piano roll.  Ever-changing interpretations braided themselves into each other, appeared like a deluge of strange harmonies, suddenly dissolving, falling apart to lamenting antiphonies.  Other pieces of bark became the basis for the composition having no end.  My obsession went so far that I derived different and oppositional temperaments from my archive of birch bark.  Because I had no instrument with which to bring this composition to a recital, I reworked my sketches to a complete score.  When I had played this music I knew it didn't originate in me, it came to me.  A miraculous telluric power of disclosure had used me.'

(In addition to 'Landscape as the Origin of Music', Reliquiae contains poems, myths, nature writing, two brief stories and some Canadian landscape paintings by Mark Brennan that reminded me of the Group of Seven).