Saturday, April 22, 2017

The voice of the north wind sad

Zhang Fengyi as Cao Cao in John Woo's Red Cliff (2008-9)

In a post earlier this month I referred to the musical duel in Red Cliff, John Woo's epic film about  events at the end of the Han dynasty, based on 'the Iliad of China', The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  The composer/writer I discussed there, Cai Yong, only briefly features in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and doesn't appear in Red Cliff, but here I want to focus on Cao Cao, the great warlord at the heart of the story, whose army is defeated spectacularly in the movie.  Cao Cao was himself a renowned poet and wrote a famous poem just before the Battle of Red Cliff.  You can see him recite it in the clip from YouTube below - a scene from the 95-episode Chinese TV dramatisation Three Kingdoms.  This moment has often been depicted in art - there is a painting in the Long Corridor of the Beijing Summer Palace, for example, and I have reproduced below a Japanese ukiyo-e print showing Cao Cao composing the poem in a boat, with the moon rising and crows wheeling in the sky.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Moon rising over Mount Nanping, contemplated by Cao Cao, 1885

The real reason for mentioning Cao Cao on this blog is not his eve-of-battle composition, but a beautiful short poem 'Viewing the Ocean', which is an early example in world literature of pure landscape poetry.  Here are the first six lines in Burton Watson's translation; the Jieshi (Chieh-shi) mountains overlook the Bohai Gulf.
East looking down from Chieh-shih,
I scan the endless ocean:
waters restlessly seething,
mountained islands jutting up,
trees growing in clusters,
a hundred grasses, rich and lush.
Other translations of the full poem can easily be found online (there are two on a Chinese Poems site for example).

Another poem of Cao Cao's that has stayed with me over the years (since reading it in Burton Watson's The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry) is the 'Song on Enduring the Cold'.  This was probably written in 206 when Cao Cao was leading his troops across the Tai-hang mountains to attack a rival.  Taken out of context though, it could simply be a description of an arduous mountain journey - 'stark and stiff the forest trees, the voice of the north wind sad.'  The poem ends with a literary allusion, to 'that song of the Eastern Hills', a 'troubled tale that fills me with grief.'  It is a reference to a song in the Classic of Poetry (No. 156), attributed to the Duke of Zhou.  He had also been on a military campaign in the East, over a thousand years earlier, c. 1040 BCE (as distant from the time of Cao Cao as we are from Charlemagne).  I'll end here with the refrain from this ancient poem, repeated at the start of each verse (trans. Stephen Owen):
We marched to those eastern mountains,
streaming on and never turning.
And now we come back from the east,
in the pall of driving rain.   

Friday, April 21, 2017

In the mist of the secret and solitary hill

"I have given you the trouble of walking to this spot, Captain Waverley, both because I thought the scenery would interest you, and because a Highland song would suffer still more from my imperfect translation were I to introduce it without its own wild and appropriate accompaniments. To speak in the poetical language of my country, the seat of the Celtic Muse is in the mist of the secret and solitary hill, and her voice in the murmur of the mountain stream. He who woos her must love the barren rock more than the fertile valley, and the solitude of the desert better than the festivity of the hall."
An illustration to Sir Walter Scott's Waverley, from an edition of 1893

In my last post I wrote about the Chinese poetic ideal of hearing a guqin played in the landscape.  Here in Waverley (1814), the enchanting Flora McIvor is speaking to the eponymous hero, newly arrived in the Highlands, having led him to this perfect location to hear her 'imperfect translations' of Gaelic poetry, to the accompaniment of a harp.  This place of barren rocks and murmuring water might just as easily be the setting for a Chinese 'mountains and rivers' poem.  Making his way there, Waverley had found
'the rocks assumed a thousand peculiar and varied forms. In one place a crag of huge size presented its gigantic bulk, as if to forbid the passenger’s farther progress; and it was not until he approached its very base that Waverley discerned the sudden and acute turn by which the pathway wheeled its course around this formidable obstacle. In another spot the projecting rocks from the opposite sides of the chasm had approached so near to each other that two pine-trees laid across, and covered with turf, formed a rustic bridge at the height of at least one hundred and fifty feet. It had no ledges, and was barely three feet in breadth.'
From this vantage point Waverley had watched Flora cross the bridge, feeling all the emotions we associate with the Sublime.  The editor of the OUP edition of Waverley (Clare Lamont) notes that a similar bridge appeared in Scott's The Lady of the Lake (1810), that an actual bridge of this kind existed, spanning Keltie Water, and that there had been other examples of heroines of sensibility crossing Alpine bridges in slightly earlier novels written by Ann Radcliffe and Jane Porter.  Passing under the bridge, Waverley found himself in 'a sylvan amphitheatre, waving with birch, young oaks, and hazels, with here and there a scattered yew-tree. The rocks now receded, but still showed their grey and shaggy crests rising among the copse-wood. Still higher rose eminences and peaks, some bare, some clothed with wood, some round and purple with heath, and others splintered into rocks and crags.'  Then, turning the path, he came to the secluded spot where Flora would sing him her Highland song.

He found Flora gazing at 'a romantic waterfall.  It was not so remarkable either for great height or quantity of water as for the beautiful accompaniments which made the spot interesting.'  The description that follows is based on the falls of Ledard, as Scott explained in his own footnote.  Interestingly, the novel makes clear that this setting was not entirely wild.  'Mossy banks of turf were broken and interrupted by huge fragments of rock, and decorated with trees and shrubs, some of which had been planted under the direction of Flora, but so cautiously that they added to the grace without diminishing the romantic wildness of the scene.'  Here, with the sun stooping in the west, Waverley gazes at Flora, thinking 'he had never, even in his wildest dreams, imagined a figure of such exquisite and interesting loveliness. The wild beauty of the retreat, bursting upon him as if by magic, augmented the mingled feeling of delight and awe with which he approached her, like a fair enchantress of Boiardo or Ariosto, by whose nod the scenery around seemed to have been created an Eden in the wilderness.'

Reading this, you have the impression that the native Sublimity of the Highlands has somehow been infused with the light of Italy.  In the 1814 edition Scott described Flora by the waterfall as 'like one of those lovely forms which decorate the landscapes of Claude'.  I have mentioned here before the awkwardness of Claude's figures; soon after publication a correspondent pointed out to Scott that 'Claude's figures are reckoned notoriously bad, & indeed he only used them as vehicles for a little blue, red or yellow drapery to set of his gradation of tints & throw his landscape into distance.'  Scott took his advice and substituted Poussin for Claude in subsequent editions.

Flora begins to sing, sitting on a mossy fragment of rock, 'at such a distance from the cascade that its sound should rather accompany than interrupt that of her voice and instrument [...] A few irregular strains introduced a prelude of a wild and peculiar tone, which harmonised well with the distant waterfall, and the soft sigh of the evening breeze in the rustling leaves of an aspen, which overhung the seat of the fair harpress.'  But her song is not dedicated to Nature, though it begins with the mist on the mountains.  The year is 1745, Flora is an ardent supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Highlanders are about to rise and fight for the Jacobite rebellion.  Waverley, without firm political convictions, a lover of literature, is as yet unaware that the Young Pretender has landed at Glenaladale and raised his standard at Glenfinnan.  About to be caught up in the conflict (like one of those Chinese poets interrupted from their retreat in the mountains by political strife and war), for now he listens innocently, with a 'wild feeling of romantic delight', as Flora sings: 
"  ... the dark hours of night and of slumber are past,
The morn on our mountains is dawning at last;
Glenaladale’s peaks are illumined with the rays,
And the streams of Glenfinnan leap bright in the blaze..."

Thursday, April 06, 2017

When the two essences of nature are bright and clear

A scholar playing the guqin, Ming Dynasty
Reproduced in R. H. van Gulik's The Lore of the Chinese Lute

I have written here about guqin music twice before: once in relation to two compositions of the Song Dynasty by Kuo Mien (Guo Mian) and more recently in a post about the Japanese guqin player, Uragami Gyokudō.  Here I am adding some more information on landscape and the art of the guqin via some quotations from the seminal Western book on the subject, R. H. van Gulik's The Lore of the Chinese Lute, first published in 1940.  This essay explains the evolution of the instrument into one of the scholar's most important possessions.  Artists and writers often depicted the poet wandering through mountains, accompanied by his lute, usually carried by a servant boy, so that he could play when moved by the beauty of the scenery.  Even when indoors, the lute player's 'mind should dwell with forests and streams'.  But ideally he would be outside, 'near an old pine tree, admiring its gnarled, antique appearance. In the shade of the pines some cranes should be stalking, and the lute player should admire their graceful movements, modelling on them his finger technique.' 

Here is a lovely sixteenth century description of the place of the lute in scholarly life.  Its subject is Ni Tsan (Ni Zan, 1301-74), the great Chinese landscape painter who I have referred to several times on this blog. 
'Where Ni Tsan dwelt there was the Ching-pi pavilion, breathing an atmosphere of profundity and remoteness from earthly things.  There he had assembled several thousand books, all of which he had corrected with his own hand.  On all sides there were arranged antique sacrificial vessels and famous lutes, and the abode was surrounded by pine trees, cinnamon trees, orchids, bamboos, etc.  It was fenced off by a high paling of poles and bamboo, suggesting aloofness and refined delicacy.  Every time the rain had stopped and the wind had abated, Ni Tsan used to take his staff and wander about, just going where his steps led him. When his eye met with something which particularly struck him, he played his lute, thus finding aesthetic satisfaction. Those who saw him then knew that he was a man who dwelt outside this world.'
An enviable life - I particularly like the way he 'corrected' the books in his library!  Playing the lute was seen as an almost priestly ritual: it could only be undertaken under the right circumstances.  The Lore of the Chinese Lute quotes a list from the Ming period in which over half of the fourteen rules relate to making music outdoors.  The lute may be played:
  1. When meeting someone who understands music.
  2. On meeting a suitable person.
  3. For a Taoist recluse
  4. In a high hall.
  5. Having ascended a storied pavilion.
  6. In a Taoist cloister.
  7. Sitting on a stone.
  8. Having climbed a mountain.
  9. Resting in a valley.
  10. Roaming along the waterside.
  11. In a boat.
  12. Resting in the shadow of a forest.
  13. When the two essences of nature are bright and clear.
  14. In a cool breeze and when there is a bright moon.

Finally here, I will highlight van Gulik's subdivision of the lute repertoire into five thematic groups: (1) The Mystic Journey; (2) Tunes of a Semi-Historical Character; (3) Musical Versions of Literary Products (e.g. poems from the ancient Book of Odes); (4) Tunes Descriptive of Nature; (5) Tunes Descriptive of Literary Life.  Elements of landscape may be evoked in any of these categories, but it is the fourth group that is of most interest here.  One such composition is the Song Dynasty tune I described here previously, 'Clouds over the Hsiao and Hsiang Rivers'.  Another is 'High Mountains and Flowing Waters' (for the story of Po Ya, to whom it was ascribed, see my earlier post).  This exists as two separate pieces, one of which, 'Flowing Waters', is now the best known qin composition  - a version was sent into space on the Voyager golden record (see clip above and, for more information, John Thompson's incredibly informative qin site). 

The third example of nature description van Gulik gives is by Ts'ai Yung (Cai Yong 133-92), a polymath of the Eastern Han period whose daughter also became a renowned poet and musician.  It is a tune which evokes in nine sections the end of winter and the coming of spring. A Ming Dynasty lute handbook says of this that 'it takes its inspiration from the snow, describes snow's purity and freedom from all earthly stains, and expresses contempt for the world and elevation to empty clearness'.
  1. Heaven and earth breathe purity.
  2. A clear, snowy morning.
  3. Snow and sleet fall together.
  4. Mountains and water merge in each other.
  5. The brilliant sun in the sky.
  6. The wind blows through the luxuriant forest.
  7. River and mountain are like a picture.
  8. The snow melts on cliffs and in vales.
  9. Spring returns to the world.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

This loud brook’s incessant fall

As this loud brook’s incessant fall
In streaming rings restagnates all,
Which reach by course the bank, and then
Are no more seen, just so pass men.

- from Henry Vaughan's 'The Waterfall', 1655
My previous post, on  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's anthology Poems of Places, brings to mind Geoffrey Grigson, whose (considerably shorter) anthology Poems & Places I discussed here in 2009.  In another of his books, Recollections (1984), Grigson writes of the pleasures to be had in 'visiting or soaking myself for a while in scenery spiritualized, I suppose that is the word, by writers in their poems.'  He lists the Quantocks (Coleridge), the Lakes (the Wordsworths), the Cotswolds (Gurney), the Vale of Clwyd (Hopkins), Long Island (Whitman - 'wiping it clean again in fancy to the nakedness of sands and sea birds he knew') and outside Brecon in Wales, 'the Black Mountains, rivers, streams and waterfalls and the Langhorse Lake, recognizable in Vaughan's verbal spiritualization of the scenery he had known since childhood.'  He goes on to say
'There are discoveries to be made in this way.  Searching the map, I found that there exists a neglected waterfall just outside Brecon which Vaughan might have had in mind when he wrote his waterfall poem.  Had he translated the Welsh name of the stream, which is Ffrwdgrech, into the 'loud brook' of his poem?  That could be the meaning of the Welsh in these Ffrwdgrech Falls.  So I looked for the waterfall, to which there is no path, which can be missed on a lane which doesn't give a hint of the Falls' existence; and I felt as if I were the first person to recognize the falls and admire their extraordinary charm since Vaughan had been their repeatedly in the seventeenth century.'

Ffrwdgrech Waterfall, near Brecon, 1880s
In his introduction to Poems & Places Grigson says that few poets before the Romantics 'felt landscape more powerfully and with a completer consciousness than Henry Vaughan.'   He quotes Vaughan's 'twin brother Thomas, alchemist and clergyman in the same parish', on the idea that we should try 'to refer all naturals to their spirituals by the way of secret analogy.'  Hence a poem like 'The Waterfall' in which landscape is a metaphor for the spirit.  Thomas Vaughan is represented in Grigson's anthology be one poem, 'So Have I Spent on the Banks of Ysca Many a Serious Hour', his brother by seven, including 'The Waterfall'.    I'll end here with more of Henry Vaughan's poem, this time from the beginning, where short lines evoke the rapid descent of the water.
With what deep murmurs through time’s silent stealth
Doth thy transparent, cool, and wat’ry wealth
           Here flowing fall,
           And chide, and call,
As if his liquid, loose retinue stay’d
Ling’ring, and were of this steep place afraid;
           The common pass
           Where, clear as glass,
           All must descend
           Not to an end,
But quicken’d by this deep and rocky grave,
Rise to a longer course more bright and brave.

Friday, March 31, 2017

’T is a most beauteous Strait

Towards the end of his life Henry Wadsworth Longfellow oversaw a 31-volume anthology, arranged geographically, called Poems of Places.  It can be read in its entirety on Bartleby.  The poems begin in England - in Aldborough to be precise, which comes first alphabetically in a list of English places.  Three poems by Crabbe are followed by something by one of the many lesser poets that bulk out the volumes and give the anthology its wide reach: Capel Lofft - lawyer, poet and patron, dismissed by Byron as 'the Maecenas of shoemakers and preface-writer general to distressed versemen' - whose poem begins 'THOU awful sea! upon this shingly beach / Of Aldborough I pace...'  Longfellow's America is not reached until Volumes XXV–XXIX, traversing the country from Maine to White Pine Nevada. 

Inevitably, perusing the contents pages, one is drawn not to the familiar poetic locations but to more far flung locations: back in 1874, what English verse was he able to find on Africa?  This continent is covered in Volume XXIV and the vast majority of its poems concern 'The Barbary States' and Egypt.  There are fewer poems about Central and Southern Africa than there are, earlier in the book, about specific London Streets and Taverns.  However, here are some lines from one of them, written by Thomas Pringle, a Scottish poet and abolitionist, who lived in Cape Town in the early 1820s.  They refer to a South African species, the yellowwood tree (podocarpus elongatus).  The original printing of the poem describes it as a 'Caffer Song' from the 'rocky cleugh of Eland':
DEEP in the forest lies hid a green dell,
Where fresh from the Rock of Elks blue waters swell;
And fast by that fountain a yellow-wood tree,
Which shelters the spot that is dearest to me.
This blog has moved freely between real and imagined landscapes and so it is with Longfellow's anthology.  The volume devoted to 'Oceanica' mostly comprises coral islands, tropical nights and Arctic seas that existed in the imaginations of Victorian writers.  However there are three poems on New Zealand by its fourth Premier (1862-3) Alfred Domett, who had been a friend of Browning before emigrating, and several on Australia by Henry Kendall.  The lines below, describing the coast of Tasmania, were written by John Dunmore Lang, another native Scotsman, who arrived in Sydney in 1823.  The Eden it describes seems as imaginary as the ideal islands dreamt by poets who never left Europe. 
’T is a most beauteous Strait. The Great South Sea’s
  Proud waves keep holiday along its shore,
And as the vessel glides before the breeze,
  Broad bays and isles appear, and steep cliffs hoar
With groves on either hand of ancient trees
  Planted by Nature in the days of yore:
Van Dieman’s on the left and Bruné’s isle
Forming the starboard shore for many a mile.

But all is still as death! Nor voice of man
  Is heard, nor forest warbler’s tuneful song.
It seems as if this beauteous world began
  To be but yesterday...

Sunday, March 26, 2017

A black mountaintop looms out of the slate-grey darkness

Awoiska van der Molen is one of the contenders for this year's Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize.  At the Photographers' Gallery her exhibition of large monochrome silver gelatin prints is on the top floor, after a room devoted to Sophie Calle's moving works on the death of her parents.  These too seem very private works, even though there are no titles or narrative - it is not even clear where the photographs were taken.  These landscapes convey a sense of the artist alone, quietly focusing on the way light was falling on foliage or illuminating the surface of rocks and water.  Sometimes this light is intense: what looks like a ribbon of white road seemingly scratched onto a mountainside or the bright tips of grasses caught by the slanting sun.  Sometimes it is softer, blurring forms, and you can imagine it disappearing altogether at the passing of a cloud.  A view out to sea has almost no light beyond a faint sheen at the horizon.   There are shadows too, but walking up close to the photographs you realise their resolution is too grainy to allow you to into into these dark places.   

The video interview with Awoiska van der Molen that I have embedded above begins (rather disappointingly from the perspective of this blog) with her admission "I am not interested in landscape".  She says that the landscapes she visits are places to escape to and find solace, a sense of safety.  Thus the pictures try to convey her feelings in the landscape rather than the landscape itself.  Sean O'Hagan has described her in The Guardian as 'a photographer that is infinitely patient, and interested in the stubborn core of things.'  He explains how she took the arresting image of a dark mountain (the photograph can be seen 45 seconds into the video above).  'In one of my favourite shots, a black mountaintop looms out of the slate-grey darkness, two wavy white lines flowing from the peak like moonlit streams. Astonishingly, these are light trails made by two groups of nocturnal hikers, which she managed to capture from a distance thanks to long exposure. You do not need to know this to appreciate its haunting beauty, but it alerts us to the delicacy of her transformative art.'

What I have briefly tried to convey here about Awoiska van der Molen's work is summarised in an essay by Arjen Mulder, published in the new monograph Blanco
'These are not photos of or after Nature, the photos are part of that same Nature, of an event enabled by Nature via her camera at that particular point in time and that particular exposure. As dusk falls, the thought takes shape in the landscape and the camera is part of this, replicates the scene to turn it into a relationship, a sign in which object and subject conflate, for that which is visualized coincides with what it refers to and who sees it. No symbol, no metaphor, no allegory — Awoiska van der Molen’s photography is so objective that to call it divine would not be an exaggeration. The photographer is utterly absent from her images, which, strangely enough, makes these photos highly personal and intimate, almost painfully so.'

Friday, March 24, 2017

Brick-dust in sunlight

‘Brick-dust in sunlight. That is what I see now in the city, a dry epic flavour, whose air is human breath. A place of walls made straight with plumb line and trowel, to desiccate and crumble in the sun and smoke. Blistered paint on cisterns and girders, cracking to show the priming. Old men spit on the paving slabs, little boys urinate; and the sun dries it as it dries out patches of damp on plaster facings to leave misshapen stains. I look for things here that make old men and dead men seem young. Things which have escaped, the landscapes of many childhoods.’ – Roy Fisher, City, 1961 

Roy Fisher passed away this week.  I thought I would remember him here with three quotations about landscape and place, taken from Interviews Through Time and Selected Prose, a book published by Shearsman in 2000, when Fisher was seventy.  In the first he is talking about City, the short sequence of poems and prose assembled for Gaell Turnbull's Migrant Press.  This drew on his experiences of Birmingham,   
‘… a particular large nondescript undersigned city, which was a deposit of all sorts of inadvertent by-products of ideas.  In many cases the cultural ideas, the economic ideas, had disappeared into the graveyards of people who had the ideas.  But the by-products in things like street layouts, domestic architecture, where the schools were, how anything happened – all these things were left all over the place as a sort of script, an indecipherable script with no key.   And the interesting thing for me was that the culture, particularly the metropolitan culture, the literary culture, had no alphabet to offer for simply talking about what I saw all the time.’
This second quotation gives me an excuse to include a Paul Klee painting and is part of a discussion on how his work is positioned in relation to the poems of place written by Ed Dorn and Charles Olson (I have written about the latter here before). 
‘I’ve been told that I’ve been influenced by Americans. An enormous number of people come to mind, some American, some not. You might just as well, for me, talk about Rilke’s Paris or Kafka’s Prague or the imaginary towns that Paul Klee made up or Kokoschka’s paintings of towns he worked in. […] Fascination with a location – I don’t want to duck out too hard from the American tag here, but it could as well be those little bits you get at the back of Italian primitive paintings, the cities on hilltops, as any sort of possibly theoretical concern with place, such as you get in Olson or Ed Dorn.’
Paul Klee, Castle and Sun, 1928
Public Domain

In this third one, Fisher contrasts his approach to that of a landscape painter.
‘I’m capable of being invaded by visual landscape, though I love visible landscape. […] The poem I write is the portrait of a mind, and the sense of the self, a sense of the world, which is responding to a landscape in such a way that the landscape doesn’t quite have a chance to congeal.  I dramatise.   I deprive the landscape of a painter’s vocabulary, where I’ll say ‘Several miles off, there is a little row of red roofs, and in the middle distance is this and that…’  In a fairly gentle way I’m dramatising the landscape to put dynamic lines in, so that there are certain imperatives – in fact, to energise, to potentiate events it.’
A lot more could be said about Roy Fisher and landscape.  As William Wootton wrote in the Guardian back in 2005,
'Much of Fisher's best work has been a poetry of place, and that place has tended to be the city of his birth. As he puts it in "Six Texts for a Film": "Birmingham's what I think with." In City (1961), whose verse and prose moves from dirty realism and detailed urban description to passages of hypnotic reverie, Birmingham has become an unreal, nameless city. In later works, the places of Birmingham are named almost religiously, as are rather different sites, notably the rural Derbyshire in which Fisher now lives. As one description follows another, a pattern of scenes builds up in the reader's mind, until we get what A Furnace (1985) terms a poetry of "landscape superimposed upon landscape". Individual places, too, can now look like palimpsests. Traces of forgotten fields and rivers are found lurking beneath the city. Vanished towns and industries are discovered in the countryside.'
In News for the Ear: A Homage to Roy Fisher (2000), John Kerrigan asked the poet about his changing attitude to the poetry of place (the interview has been republished in Jacket Magazine).  Fisher had said of City that it was to do with the ‘EFFECTS of topography, the creation of scenic movements, psychological environments, and it’s not meant to be an historical/spatial city entailed to empirical reality.’  Kerrigan put it to him that ‘on the evidence of ‘The Burning Graves at Netherton’ (1981), however, and parts of Birmingham River (1994), you have become more at ease with a ‘poetry of place’ which admits descriptive elements and even paysage moralisé’.  Fisher replied that ‘the landscape has come, with the passage of time and changes in my understanding, to moralise itself under my eye, without any nudging from me. I read it as a record of conduct as well as something subjectively transfigured.’

I will end here with a clip of Roy Fisher, filmed at his Derbyshire home.  He reads 'Birmingham River' (9 minutes in) and then 'For Realism' (1965), with its snapshots of the city: flats on the ridge getting the last light and 'afterimages of brickwork' as windows turning silver in the shadows...

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The wind was bitter from the north

Last night a strong wind rose in the evening.  As it rattled the windows at the top of our house, I was watching an old TV play, Whistle and I'll Come to You.  The professor in this story, played by Michael Hordern, is similarly troubled by the sound of the wind as he sits up in bed.  He seems to have conjured it by blowing an old whistle, a mysterious object he had found earlier, buried near a grave on the edge of the sea.  On returning with this artifact to his room at the Globe, a Suffolk guesthouse, he had felt some kind of presence while walking over the beach.  This is how that evening landscape was described in the original story by M. R. James:
'Bleak and solemn was the view on which he took a last look before starting homeward. A faint yellow light in the west showed the links, on which a few figures moving towards the club-house were still visible, the squat martello tower, the lights of Aldsey village, the pale ribbon of sands intersected at intervals by black wooden groynings, the dim and murmuring sea. The wind was bitter from the north, but was at his back when he set out for the Globe. He quickly rattled and clashed through the shingle and gained the sand, upon which, but for the groynings which had to be got over every few yards, the going was both good and quiet. One last look behind, to measure the distance he had made since leaving the ruined Templars' church, showed him a prospect of company on his walk, in the shape of a rather indistinct personage in the distance, who seemed to be making great efforts to catch up with him, but made little, if any, progress...'
The following night, whenever he closes his eyes he sees himself running, pursued by something, over that same beach and groynes, each one seemingly higher than the last... 

James McBryde, illustration from the 1904 edition of 
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M. R. James   
Professor Parkins pictures 'a man running, jumping, clambering over the groynes, and every few seconds looking eagerly back. The nearer he came the more obvious it was that he was not only anxious, but even terribly frightened'
Source: Wikimedia

I will reveal no more about what happens to the professor after this disturbing night.  The details are slightly different in the original story and in the BBC adaptation, made by Jonathan Miller in 1968.  Both versions are discussed in a chapter of Mark Fisher's The Weird and the Eerie, which draws a link between Miller's film and Brian Eno's ambient album, On Land (1982) - 'both in effect are meditations on the eerie as manifested in the East Anglian terrain.'  Miller filmed on the large featureless beach at Waxham and at what is left of Dunwich, the medieval port that was destroyed by a storm and then gradually reclaimed by the sea.  Looking back on this blog to a post nearly ten years ago, I see I included a photograph of the beach at Dunwich and referred to a talk by Mark Fisher about On Land and the Suffolk landscape.  In The Weird and the Eerie, Fisher contrasts the destructive force in M. R. James's story with the gentler, mysterious mood of On Land.  Eno's eerie is alien but alluring.  It can still be unsettling though - in 'Shadow' for example, which 'features a quietly distressing whimper that could be a human voice, an animal sobbing, or an aural hallucination produced by the movement of the wind.' 

Posthumous tributes to Mark Fisher can be read at Verso, The Guardian, The Quietus, and on Owen Hatherley's blog.  I wish I had managed to see more of his talks; the k-punk blog was essential reading - see, for example, a piece on another BBC adaptation of 'Whistle and I'll Come to You', made in 2010 with John Hurt.  The Weird and the Eerie, published at the end of 2016, was discussed earlier this month by Roger Luckhurst in The LA Review of Books.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Court of Gayumars

Tabriz artist, Rustam Sleeping While Rakhsh Fights the Lion, c. 1515-22

This painting is the only page that survives from a manuscript of the Shahnameh (Ferdowsi's 'Book of Kings') commissioned by the Safavid ruler Isma'il I (1501-24).  It is used for the cover of The Art and Architecture of Islam 1250-1800 by Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom.  They note that the lush vegetation serves to detach the dreaming hero from the fight between horse and lion, which becomes a kind of 'stylized ballet'.  This kind of vibrantly coloured, elaborately stylised and beautifully patterned landscape can be seen too in what is 'considered by many to be the greatest of all Persian miniature paintings', The Court of Gayumars.  This too is a scene from the Shahnameh and was in a book made for Isma'il's son, Tahmasp, who succeeded him at the age of ten and reigned until 1574.  King Gayumars, the first king of Persia, is depicted seemingly floating above a garden where animals coexist peacefully and courtiers stand, dressed in leopard pelts.  Rocks, clouds and water seem to be solid, immaterial and liquid all at the same time.  The closer you look, the more you see extraordinary details hidden in the flowers or among the coral-like cliffs.  Trees grow beyond the frame and in the top-most branches some monkeys seem to have climbed above the golden sky with its Chinese clouds and out of the world altogether.

Sultan-Muhammad, The Court of Gayumars, c. 1525-35

In 1544 the painter Dust Muhammad wrote about the artists in Tahmasp's library, specifically praising Master Nizamuddin Sultan-Muhammad's 'scene of people wearing leopard skins' in the Shahnameh, which must be this painting.  'It is such', he said, 'that the lion-hearted of the jungle of depiction and the leopards and crocodiles of the workshop of ornamentation quail at the fangs of his pen and bend their necks before the awesomeness of his pictures.'  The Court of Gayumars is now in the Toronto Aga Khan Museum.  Blair and Bloom relate the later history of the great book itself, which included 258 paintings and was probably produced over the course of a decade from 1525-35 (one image is dated 1527/8).
'In 1567 the Safavid manuscript was presented by Tahmasp to the Ottoman sultan Selim II, and it remained in the Ottoman imperial collection at least until 1801. [...] By 1903 it had entered the collection of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, whose family sold it to an American collector in 1959.  The manuscript, which had survived intact for over four hundred years, was subsequently dismembered.  Individual folios were sold at auction like so-many slices of pizza, and the integrity of one of the masterpieces of Islamic art was ignominiously destroyed.'   


Friday, March 03, 2017

Pyramids in the Sea

If you haven't been yet, there are still two days left to make your way through the long David Hockney queues and see Tate Britain's Paul Nash retrospective.  His work may seem familiar from relatively frequent exhibitions and the permanent collections of the Tate and Imperial War Museum, but there are a few exhibits on show that I don't remember seeing before, including two borrowed from Canadian museums.  Monster Shore (1939) shows a shattered elm which Nash encountered while 'the declining sun suffused the evening sky to a brickish red; beneath which the Malverns piled up intensely blue.'  Those hills almost seem to belong in a different painting - T. J. Clark refers to this work in his partly critical LRB review as 'a Dali-plus-Ernst assemblage'.  The other painting from Canada, Dymchurch Steps (1924, reworked 1944), is centered on a concrete structure that would not look out of place on Ballard's Terminal Beach, Sebald's Orford Ness, or somewhere in Tarkvosky's ZonaAccording to the curator Emma Chambers it is 'one of the most important works for understanding the beginnings of Nash’s interest in the metaphysical possibilities of architecture, and is among the earliest of a group of works which place a substantial architectural object having an uncompromising and mysterious presence in the centre of a landscape composition.'

'I wish the car had got into his paintings occasionally' writes T. J. Clark.  Figures too are largely absent, as Laura Cummings notes in her review of the exhibition.
'People do appear in his art, surprisingly often, but always as wraiths or surrogates. Far more haunting are nature’s figures, such as the two tiny trees holding still at the centre of The Pyramids in the Sea.  This irreducibly strange vision shows roiling seas by night, two pyramids dropped among them, and sand dunes metamorphosing into waves. It is a vision from the land of counterpane, made when Nash was scarcely 23. Yet it contains the future like a kernel – the intermingling of land and sea, the premonition of surrealism, the Samuel Palmer moon (long before Palmer was discovered in the 1920s) of Nash’s English nocturnes. Above all the bell-shaped waves that rise and fall across the picture, and all through the rest of his work.'
Paul Nash, Pyramids in the Sea, 1912
Source: Tate Gallery - public domain

In his catalogue essay, 'A Spectral Modernity', David Mellor wonders if this picture may partly have been inspired by a writer Nash is known to have enjoyed, Algernon Blackwood.  In one of Blackwood's stories, 'Sand', an English explorer experiences the desert as if it were liquefied.  'Rising above the yellow Libyan horizon, gloomed the vast triangles of a dozen Pyramids, cutting their wedge-shaped clefts out of a sky fast crimsoning through a sea of gold.'  Mellor's essay traces the influence of spiritualism on Nash and his wife Margaret, who believed she was clairvoyant.  I wonder whether she considered Pyramids in the Sea a kind of premonition of their first meeting, a year after it was drawn.  Margaret spent her early childhood in Cairo and her father was an Arab, born near Jerusalem, who later moved to Oxford where he taught the undergraduate T. E. Lawrence colloquial Arabic.  Lawrence admired Nash's work - he bought his first painting of the sea at Dymchurch and asked him to provide illustrations for an edition of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  Ten years later Paul and Margaret Nash were about to visit Lawrence at Cloud's Hill when they heard the news that he had been killed. 

After the war Margaret Nash wrote a memoir of her husband.  It was published last year in a new edition of Outline, Nash's unfinished autobiography and letters from the front which originally appeared in 1949.  It provides a moving insight into the way Nash endured his asthma attacks, caused, it was thought, by breathing in the poison gas at Passchendaele.  At the end of 1933 the couple journeyed south through France and Spain, having to stop periodically while Nash recovered his health.  They visited Matisse in his studio, where Nash had to put up with advice from the great man on using a rowing machine to help improve his breathing.  Eventually they reached Ronda in southern Spain, from where it was a short journey across the Straits of Gibraltar to Morocco.  'Here Paul felt very well, as we were greeted in that lovely April by a glowing sun and a light, refreshing breeze which came from the Atlas Mountains, still snow covered.'  They returned home with plans to try to go back to North Africa but sadly it wasn't to be, as Nash's health problems persisted and war eventually closed in again.  Nash went on to paint a sea of wrecked war planes in Totes Meer (1944) - evidence according to T. J. Clark of 'an artist at last sure of his ground'.  But he would never get to experience the moonlit waves of the desert.

This year, Paul Nash entered the public domain so I have returned to some earlier posts on this blog and added images of his paintings and drawings:
  • a post on Nash's views of the sea wall at Dymchurch, one of the seven significant landscapes featured in a 1989 exhibition, 'Paul Nash: Places';
  • a post on the flowers he saw growing in the trenches, and on his vision of flowers in the sky during the Second World War;
  • a post on his late painting Landscape of the Vernal Equinox (1944), discussed by Roger Cardinal in The Landscape Vision of Paul Nash;
  • a post on his the way landscapes intrude into interiors in work at the Dulwich Picture Gallery's 'Paul Nash: The Elements' exhibition in 2010;
  • and a post on his letters home from France, describing the landscape he would paint in We are Making a New World. 
Nash is also referred to in other posts - to see these click on the 'Paul Nash' label below, consult the index or use the search box.

Friday, February 24, 2017


If you have access to the BBC iPlayer you can see Andrew Graham-Dixon's latest series, an attempt to tell the story of the Art of France in three hours.  The first episode stretches over the centuries from L'abbé Suger to Chardin.  During the course of this, he visits Versailles and looks down on its gardens, with their panoptic design of paths radiating out from the palace of the Sun King.  But he also finds time for a visit to the basement of the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille where he wanders among 'a collection of extraordinary but largely forgotten' table-top landscapes, made at the behest of Louis XIV.
"They were all made for the king, these great tables.  Each one is a town - a representation of a town that he had fortified.  This is Ypres.  This is Tournai.  There were originally a hundred and forty-four of these objects.  They occupied 8,000 square meters of the Louvre - nearly a mile to walk past all of them.  And what they represented I think for Louis was a tangible demonstration of the extent to which he had expanded and secured France's borders.  They also served a very practical purpose because when he came here with his generals or his advisers he could plan strategy.  He could literally feel with his hand the lie of the land.  And he could enjoy, as no-one else in the world could do, a bird's-eye view of these strategically important cities.  I think the Plans-Reliefs as they are called (it's extraordinary - goodness knows how many man hours went into their creation) - I think what they represent is a making good of the promise that Versailles holds out.  That, yes, the king's eye stretches to the very end of the realm."
This collection of relief maps has a complicated history.  Having been only accessible to Louis XIV and his staff, they eventually came to be seen as works of art, on show once a month to the public during the nineteenth century.  A new set of relief plans were made for Napoleon, seventeen of which were taken by the Prussians to Berlin after his defeat.  These were almost all destroyed during World War Two, but one of them, the map of Lille, was restored and returned to France.  Of the original seventeenth century plans, some are still in Paris and some have been transferred to Lille, where Andrew Graham-Dixon saw them. 

Earlier, smaller relief plans were made in sixteenth century Venice and Bavaria.  The Bavarian plans were the work of Jakob Sandtner (fl. 1561-79) who seems to have made the first one himself, which then came to the attention of Duke Albrecht, who bought it and commissioned others.  But these were city plans - what I like about the French Plans-Reliefs is that they show the surrounding terrain.  The inclusion of woods and fields was consistent with their use as a military tool.  But their usefulness declined as technology 'improved'.  Eventually, as the director of the Paris musée des Plans Reliefs explains in an interview, the range of cannon fire was too great for maps on this scale.  It is tempting though to imagine modellers trying to keep up, at work on ever larger constructions, eventually covering the whole of France and fitting together like a jigsaw.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Under the trees, where the light air stirs the shadows

I once wrote for myself a guide to the trees and plants in Virgil's Eclogues, drawing on the Clarendon Press commentary by Wendell Clausen.  I won't bore you with the whole thing, but will give here a brief summary to indicate how these details help create a landscape for the ten pastoral poems. Virgil's Arcadia is more artificial than the Sicily in which Theocritus set his Idylls, but I think this makes it all the more rewarding to try to picture the details of his settings.  In the course of the poems Virgil refers to both Greek and Italian places; it could be said that the Eclogues are partly set in the North Italian countryside near Mantua, where the poet grew up, and partly, overlaid on this, in an ideal, pastoral Greece of the mind. 

Tityrus and Meliboeus in the 5th century Vergilius Romanus

Eclogue One

The first Eclogue begins under the cool shade of a beech tree.  Meliboeus, exiled from his farm after the land confiscations that followed the Battle of Philippi, encounters Tityrus, playing his reed pipe and teaching the woods to repeat his song 'Fair Amaryllis'.  I have described this scene before, in a post that goes on to talk about the reappearance of Tityrus in Paul Valéry’s ‘Dialogue of the Tree’ (1943).  Virgil's beech woods would not have been dense, since the hills would need to have allowed grazing to take place.  Meliboeus has been driving goats through the hazel thickets and cannot let them remain to graze on the bitter willow and clover.  He pictures Tityrus, recently freed, happy on his farm, with bees in the willow boundary hedge and wood pigeons and turtle doves in the tops of the elms.  Tityrus takes pity on Meliboeus and invites him to stay the night for a meal of apple, cheese and chestnuts.  The poem ends with the sun setting and the mountains casting lengthening shadows.

Eclogue Two

It is the heat of the day and the sun is driving cattle into the shade and lizards into thorn thickets.  The shepherd Corydon seeks the shade of a beech plantation to contemplate his thwarted passion for the handsome boy Alexis.  The harvesters enjoy a refreshing pottage but Corydon trails after Alexis in the heat, his hoarse voice accompanied by the cicadas.  He imagines a life together with Alexis, herding kids with switches of green mallow.  He offers him gifts: a reed pipe made of hemlock stalks, two roe deer, a garland created by the nymphs, a simpler offering of his own: quinces, chestnuts, plums and branches of laurel and myrtle.  The sun goes down and Corydon thinks of his own half-pruned vines.  He decides that if Alexis rejects him, he can always find another love.

Eclogue Three

The setting for this singing match is an old beech plantation.  The judge, Palaeomon, remarks on the beauty of the wider landscape: crops growing, orchards full of fruit and woodlands in leaf.  The two shepherds sing of various imaginary loves.  In the course of their songs, Menalcus likens his feelings for Amyntus to the way crops love the rain, goats love the arbitus tree and breeding herds love the willow; Damoetus describes a love-sick bull who is pining away even though he is surrounded by vetch to eat.  The contest is declared a draw and Palaeoman asks them to stop their songs, because the meadows have had their fill.

Eclogue Four

This fourth poem is not set in a landscape, its subject is politics - probably the Pact of Brundisium between Anthony and Octavian.  Virgil excuses himself for leaving his pastoral theme, saying that not everyone likes the 'tamarisk' and that he will now sing a 'forest'.  He evokes a Golden Age that will come with the birth of a child (possibly the future child of Antony and Octavia), when grapes will hang from thorn trees and honey will be secreted by the oak trees.  Soil will need no harrowing, vines will need no pruning and - a detail that sounds rather less appealing - sheep will grow their wool in various bright colours.

Eclogue Five

Menalcus, the older of the singing shepherds in Eclogue Three, meets Mopsus and suggests that they sit down in a grove of hazel and elm.  But Mopsus has an alternative to sitting 'under the trees, where the light air stirs the shadows,' and proposes a cave, its entrance hanging with wild vines.  He wants to share a song that he had inscribed onto a beech trunk (it has been pointed out that the song is rather long to have been written out in full on a tree...)  He sings of the death of Daphnis, mourned by Nature so that where once there were fields of barley there now grew only darnel and wild oats, whilst violets and narcissi were succeded by thistle and thorn.  Menalcus then sings his own elegy for Daphnis, saying that he will be praised as long as boars love the heights, fish love streams, cicadas drink dew and bees suck thyme.

Eclogue Six

In this poem the god Silenus sings to two shepherd boys so beautifully that the oak trees bow their heads.  Among the myths he recounts is that of Pasiphaë, wandering in search of the bull who rests under the ilex among soft hyacinths.  The bull is described as pale, pallentis, a word that may represent the greenish yellow of summer grass.  Silenus tells of Phaeton's sisters, transformed into tall alders after lamenting his death on the banks of the Eridanus.  He sings all the songs that Apollo once composed and made the laurels along the river Eurotus learn.  It was at Eurotus that Apollo mourned the loss of Hyacinthus.  Finally evening comes and the young shepherds leave for home to count their sheep.

Eclogue Seven

The narrator is Meliboeus, from Eclogue One, who remembers being approached one day by Daphnis when he was busy protecting his myrtles from frost damage.  Daphnis persuaded him to go down to the river, fringed with reeds and the sacred oak, a-drone with bees.  There they witnessed a singing contest between Corydon and Thyrsis.  Corydon longed for a nymph sweeter than thyme and fairer than pale ivy.  He sang of the beautiful pastoral landscape: springs, soft grass, arbitus trees, vines, chestnuts and juniper bushes.  He concluded by listing plants associated with the gods and heroes but saying that above these is the hazel, loved by Phyllis; Thyrsis in turn said that if only his lover Lycidas were with him more often, the ash and pine would mean nothing to him.

Eclogue Eight  

This is another singing match in which the shepherd Damon laments his lost love while leaning against the trunk of an olive tree (or possibly on an olive-wood staff, like the one owned by Polyphemus in the Odyssey).  He sings of a world gone awry, of alders that bear sweet narcissus and tamarisks that shed tears of amber.

Eclogue Nine

The landscape here is that of the first Eclogue, and the conversation is between Lycidas and Moeris, a dispossessed landowner who is suffering the indignity of looking after the new owner's goats.  Lycidas thought that the land, which stretches down to a river where beeches grow, had been saved by the poetry of Moeris's friend.  But poetry wasn't sufficient to spare this countryside; the beeches by the river have their tops broken off.  The two men recall various poems, including one addressed to Galatea, which I have referred to here before.  Seamus Heaney translated this and in his version the grotto of Cyclops is an undermined riverbank with swaying poplars and vines in thickets 'meshing shade with light.'  Lycidas wants to hear more but Moeris is in no mood to continue.

Eclogue Ten

In this last poem Virgil himself appears in Arcadia, surrounded by his goats.  He sings of his friend Gallus, who was lying love sick under a crag, while the laurels and tamarisks wept for him, when Pan, stained with the juice of elderberries, arrived with Sylvanus, wearing a coronet of fennel and Madonna lilies.  Pan told Gallus not to weep over his love, but Gallus, inconsolable, vowed to live alone in the forest or by wandering in the mountains.  Virgil says that he hopes this song will not displease Gallus, for whom he expresses a love that is growing hourly, like alders shooting up in the spring.  He notices a chill in the air, under the shade of a juniper tree, so he gathers together his goats and heads for home.   

Monday, February 13, 2017

The ebb-tide beach

Trees and rocks in the 1466 Maeda manuscript of Senzui narabi ni yagyo no zu (Illustrations for Designing Mountain, Water, and Hillside Field Landscapes), attributed to the priest Zoen.

The last words of this manuscript are these, 'You must never show this writing to outsiders.  You must keep it secret.'  I'm not about to reveal all its advice on landscape gardening here, if only because it would take too long and you can read the full text in David A. Slawson's Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens.  Also, the nature of the text is such that it can only be fully understood alongside advice that would have been provided directly by a master: it begins with the warning: 'If you have not received the oral transmissions, you must not make gardens.'  As Slawson points out, by the fifteenth century, when these Illustrations were written down, 'secret teachings' were being passed on in other Japanese art forms - Zeami's famous treatises on acting and Noh theatre only became widely known in the early twentieth century.  The precise origin of the Illustrations is unclear.  It includes advice that clearly predates the fifteenth century and it is attributed to a priest, Zoen, who lived before the eleventh century, which is prior to the first Japanese garden treatise we have, the Satuteiki, written by Tachibana no Toshitsuna (1028-94).

The teachings in the Illustrations have much to say about the arrangement of different types of rock and how to choose appropriate flowers, herbs and trees (see the different varieties of pine branches above, providing diagonal, horizontal and vertical forms).  The treatise is mainly concerned with the design of a 'scroll garden', viewed from the house like a painting, rather than a 'stroll garden' which requires a walk to take in different vistas.  It therefore has interesting things to say about space, scale and perspective; for example, suggesting a 'narrow-and-widen' principle in designing winding paths or streams so that they appear closer or more distant, depending on the site.  Some elements of a garden can be imbued with religious symbolism or evoke the Eastern Paradise.  Cultural references are also possible: the Illustrations refers to 'Boat-concealing rocks' placed in water to 'convey the feeling of a boat vanishing behind isles in the bay of Akashi', an allusion to a poem in the Kokinshū in which the poet's longings follow a ship into the morning mist, which disappears behind a distant isle.  

The text gives advice on evoking various kinds of landscape - a river valley, a marsh pond, a seashore.  I will end here with a paragraph from Slawson's translation which describes the subtle ways in which simple materials can convey the impression of a landscape in motion.
'Another type of shoreline scenery is the ebb-tide beach, which has no striking features but simply creates the impression of the tide constantly ebbing and flowing.  Here, if just by spreading fine and coarse grains of sand and without setting any rocks you can visually re-create a single scenic ambience - that of a beach rising to a knoll where a pine or some such tree alternately appears at high tide to be out in the middle of the sea, and at ebb tide to tower as if suddenly borne high above the beach that is now exposed so far into the distance that one cannot tell where it ends and the sea begins - you have nothing more to learn.  The visual impression of an ebb-tide beach is produced simply by the way the tree is planted and the way the fine and coarse grades of sand are spread.'

Friday, February 10, 2017

Wind at Walden Pond

The artwork on the cover of this January 2008 edition of Art in America is by Spencer Finch: Sunlight in an Empty Room (Passing Cloud for Emily Dickinson, Amherst, MA, August 28, 2004).  Emily Dickinson once famously wrote of 'a certain Slant of light' - 'when it comes, the Landscape listens...'  On his visit to her home, Finch took precise measurements of the level of sunlight and then tried to recreate the effect using a cloud of blue gels suspended in front of two rows of fluorescent lights.  Finch is fascinated with light and has made various similar cultural pilgrimages to record it: heading, for example, to Ingmar Bergman’s Stockholm residence at the ‘magic hour’ when the director did much of his filming, to Time Square, the inspiration for Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, and to Giverny where he was looking for a shadow similar to the one Monet captured in the painting reproduced below.  Things don't always go to plan: in 1996 he travelled to Rouen only to find that the cathedral Monet had painted in different lights was under scaffolding; undaunted, he did a piece instead based on the colours of his hotel room.  The artworks arising from these trips range from drawings to sculptures and installations.  Eos (Dawn, Troy, 10/27/02), for example, resembles a Dan Flavin light piece, but is designed to match the measurements Finch took at Troy during the hour of Homer's ‘rosy-fingered Dawn’.

Claude Monet, Grainstacks at Sunset (Snow Effect), 1890-91

The Art in America review by Stephanie Cash describes two works Finch had recently completed that were inspired by Thoreau.  The first of these concerns wind rather than light - I have drawn a diagram below to show how the gallery installation worked.  ‘For about two hours the fans periodically create a gentle, intermittent breeze from various directions and at various speeds, determined by Finch’s measurements using a digital anenometer and weathervane while standing on the shore of Walden Pond, where Thoreau spent two years, two months and two days.  Viewers standing at the work’s centre can experience the approximate breeze that Finch, and presumably Thoreau, did.’ Not having experienced this work I can only imagine it from Cash's description, another level of mediation which only goes to emphasise the impossibility of feeling the wind that rippled the surface of the water during the years 1845-7.  

Diagram showing Spencer Finch's
Two hours, Two minutes, Two seconds (Wind at Walden Pond, March 12, 2007)

The other work, Walden Pond (morning effect, March 13, 2007), sounds less appealing because it mixes together Thoreau and Monet, although it is hard to tell from photographs.  The finished work was  
'a wall collage comprising 139 reproductions, arranged in the shape of the pond, of aqueous paintings by Monet.  From 20 spots around the pond’s perimeter, Finch noted the hues of the water and ice, then located their matches in the Monet reproductions.  Each image bears a notation with an arrow pointing to the particular colour, and the time, location on the shore and direction he was facing.  It’s a rather complicated enterprise, and visually and intellectually engaging, but atypically for Finch, it doesn’t present a coherent, unified effect.’

There was a Spencer Finch show at Turner Contemporary in 2014, which regrettably I didn't get to see.  In the video clip above he talks about the influence of Turner and installs a sculpture which resembles the Emily Dickinson one, called Passing Cloud (After Constable).  [Incidentally, I did get to go to the previous exhibition at Turner Contemporary in 2014 - which was also inspired by clouds, including Constable's - and wrote about it here.]  Finch has done cloud studies himself, as well as drawings of ice, wind, sunlight and water.  The colours of the surface of the Hudson River were his raw material for The River That Flows Both Ways, an installation on New York's High Line that could be seen last year.  His website has some other examples of recent work but I will end here with a piece he made some time ago, described in the Art in America article.  It sounds preposterous but also rather magical.
‘Resembling an amateur science project, an early installation that also looks to the cosmos, Blue (One second brainwave transmitted to the star Rigel), 1993, comprises a tattered orange armchair, a TV set, an old Apple computer, electrodes, an antenna and a tripod-mounted transmitter.  Using these jury-rigged components, Finch recorded his brain wave for one second as he watched the huge blue wave in the opening sequence of the 1970s TV show Hawaii Five-O, a still of which appears on the TV screen.  His brainwave was then translated by the software and projected into space by the transmitter.  It should reach its destination, the bluest star in our sky, in the year 2956.  With the ‘real’ work supposedly somewhere in the cosmos, modern-day viewers are left with a scrappy installation that belies the beauty of the concept.’

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Cattle and their doubles in the lucid shallows of the bay

This little book, Letters on Landscape Photography, was published in London in 1888.  By then there were numerous such books dedicated to the hobby, but many people, like its author Henry Peach Robinson, were old enough to recall the days when photography was still in its infancy.  It would take almost another century for the question that underlies the book - can photography be art? - to be definitely settled by museum curators in the affirmative.  Robinson writes that ‘more than twenty years ago, when the opposition to art in photography was at its fiercest, there was a capital article on landscape painting in a now dead review.’  The author of this article had criticised the idea of the landscape photographer with an anecdote about a trip to the Highlands.  There, one day, he had settled down to paint en plein air, having found the perfect spot in a ‘wide open space of sea and sky, with a glorious foreground of cattle and their doubles in the lucid shallows of the bay.’  He was soon painting quietly...
'The ripple hardly broke louder than my pulse.  Presently a stoat bounds into the road, and I had time to observe what enjoyment of life there was in the unalarmed, untamed step of the creature.  The heron rose near me; and as I was beginning to take it all in with half-shut eyes, and to remark how the powerful tones of the cattle, fawn and flame colour, white and yellow, blood-red and black, seemed to give infinitude to space – a photographer walks briskly before me, and with an air and noise of satisfaction begins to open and adjust his box.  I give you my word that the look of quiet horror that came over the scene was unmistakable – not horror exactly – did you ever remark the face of a girl when she sets it?  It was precisely that.  Not only did the stoat disappear, but – I don’t know whether it was the creaking of the machine, or the business-like stare of the man – the cattle grew conscious and uncomfortable, and it was not without satisfaction that I saw a mist creep up from the sea, and steal away the shimmer and the charm.  I left him some cows lashing their tails, some blackthorn and Scotch fir, and the average coast formation.’
Robinson concedes that this is prettily written but thinks ‘this sort of tip-tilting of the nose at photography as an art is only possible now with fifth-rate painters, or, in the press, with their friends, or those who have failed in the art.’  It's a good example of the never-ending arguments about how to behave in the landscape and have an 'authentic' experience of nature.  These will return every time there is a new technological development that provides a novel means of 'capturing' the view.  I note that the title of Hamish Fulton's new exhibition, starting next week in Munich, is called 'Walking without a Smartphone'...  The paragraph is interesting too from a gender perspective, where the painter is permitted to see the view in its natural state, while the business-like 'stare of the man' with his camera prompts nature to set her face.  You half expect the photographer to be set upon by dogs like Actaeon.  And yet there remains an impression that the painter himself has not really been seeing what is before him, apparently and paradoxically able to 'take it all in with half-shut eyes...'

Thursday, February 02, 2017

The spousalls betwixt the Medway and the Thames

William Blake, Edmund Spenser, c. 1800
Source: Wiimedia Commons

In Book IV, Canto XI of The Faerie Queene (1596), Edmund Spenser describes the marriage of Thames and Medway.  I won't attempt to describe here how this fits into the plot, but it takes place in Proteus's house and the guests include many gods of seas and rivers.  Among these are Nile, Rhine, Ganges, Amazon and 'rich Oranochy, though but knowen late' (Spenser's friend Raleigh had explored the Orinoco a year earlier, hoping to find El Dorado).  English rivers are of course invited, but so too are the rivers of Ireland, where Spenser was living at the time.  Incidentally, there are occasional brief references to the Irish landscape in other parts of The Faerie Queene, e.g. the River Shannon (Shenan) whose battle with the ocean tide is a simile for the struggle between two knights (and perhaps the unequal struggle between Ireland and England too).  I have written here before about Spenser and Ireland and it is not really surprising that this wedding encompasses the Irish rivers, for 'why should they not likewise in loue agree'.

Thames, the bridegroom, arrives with his elderly parents Thame and Isis to the accompaniment of a harp played by Arion.  His bride arrives later with handmaids and sea nymphs.  I will quote here just one stanza, which comes as Thames processes in, dressed in a light blue robe and wearing a coronet in the shape of London.  Various tributaries to the Thames are mentioned, including the one nearest to where I live, the Lee.
And round about him many a pretty Page
Attended duly, ready to obey;
All little Rivers, which owe Vassalage
To him, as to their Lord, and Tribute pay;
The chaulky Kenet, and the Thetis grey,
The morish Cole, and the soft-sliding Brean,
The wanton Lee, that oft doth lose his way,
And the still Darent, in whose Waters clean
Ten thousand Fishes play, and deck his pleasant Stream.
I love that description of the Lee.  It would make a good quiz to match the epithet to the river in this Canto - stately Severn, storming Humber, speedy Tamar - or guess it from a brief description 'decked all with Woods / Like a Wood-God, and flowing fast to Rhy' (the River Rother).  In real life the Thames and Medway meet and merge at Rochester, where Spenser had worked as secretary to the Bishop in 1589.  A year later he mentioned in a letter a poem he was working on, now lost, called Epithalamion Thamesis, which prefigured this section of The Faerie Queene.  There was also a model for this Canto in another river-wedding poem, De Connubio Tamae et Isis, fragments of which appear in William Camden's great topographical work Britannia (1586).  In Camden, Isis is the male god, who comes from a cave in the Cotswolds to meet his bride, Tame, at Dorchester in Oxfordshire, where they retire to the nuptial chamber.  After the celebration they rise as one, Thamisis, and make their way downriver, past Windsor, Runnymede, Hampton Court and Richmond, towards the sea.   

Are there earlier examples of river-marriage poems?  In a an article on the subject ('Spenser, Camden, and the Poetic Marriages of Rivers', Studies in Philology, 1967), Jack B. Oruch notes that the Italian humanist Giovanni Pontano wrote a 'topographical pageant' into his poem Lepidina (1496), in which Sebeto, a river god, marries the patron divinity of Naples.  As for later writers, there is Michael Drayton, whose Poly-Olbion I have mentioned here before - his Fifteenth Song (1612) takes up again the theme of the marriage of Thame and Isis.  The rivers Walla and Tavy are wed in Britannia's Pastorals (1616) by a friend of Drayton's, William Browne of Tavistock.  Browne may also be the author of an anonymous poem in which the Torridge marries the Ock.  And there is a 1613 masque by Francis Beaumont in which the Thames marries the Rhine, part of the celebrations for the wedding of Princess Elizabeth (later called The Winter Queen) and Frederick V.

J. M. W. Turner, Union of the Thames and Isis ('Dorchester Mead, Oxfordshire), 1808
Source: Wiimedia Commons 

The poetic tradition seems to have faded out in the early seventeenth century.  In 1808 Turner exhibited a painting entitled the Union of the Thames and Isis, but this is not one of his mythological paintings.  Instead of Camden's magnificent bridal chamber, prepared for Tame by Grace, Concord, Hymen and the Naiads, we have a view of cows standing in brown water.  The Tate's curators describe this quiet landscape: 'The Thame, hardly more than a stream, is in the foreground while the Thames [Isis] is glimpsed beyond the wooden bridge on the right. Modest and direct, the picture also evokes the seventeenth-century painter Aelbert Cuyp in its lighting and pastoral imagery.'  Two more centuries on, it is hard to imagine a return to the extravagant topological wedding feasts of Spenser's time, though it would be fun to write one in which the river gods make small talk over glasses of fizz, watch the bride and groom trying not to giggle, sit through an inappropriate best man's speech and end up the dancing drunkenly to Abba on a slippery dance floor.