Saturday, November 11, 2017

Clouds Rising from the Green Sea

Clouds Rising from the Green Sea

Ten Thousand Riplets on the Yangzi

The Waving Surface of the Autumn Flood

These beautiful images are from the Water Album, twelve studies made by the great Southern Song  painter Ma Yuan (c. 1160–65 – 1225).  They have always been admired and were adorned with admiring colophons by various Ming Dynasty connoisseurs from the late fifteenth century.  They were recently 're-made' by an artist, Zhang Hongtu, whose paintings question whether Ma Yuan would have been able to paint such views now, standing 'before today's rivers and lakes, fouled by chemical toxins and industrial waste.'  As Richard Edwards points out in The Heart of Ma Yuan: The Search for a Southern Song Aesthetic, Ma Yuan's calligraphic depictions of water are all based on a contradiction - lines alone are used to convey an ever changing, constantly moving element that seems impossible to describe in this way.  The titles of each one were added to the album by Empress Yang and dated 1222.  Edwards lists them in his book in a slightly different translation from the one used online for these images, but both sound good.  In sequence they resemble a poem on the properties of water as it forms pools and lakes, passes through rivers and enters the 'vast blue sea'.

Waves Weave Winds of Gold
Light Breeze over Lake Dongting
Layers of Waves, Towering Breakers
Winter Pool, Clear and Shoal
The Yangzi River - Boundless Expanse
The Yellow River - Churning Currents
Autumn Waters - Waves Ever Returning
Clouds Born of the Vast Blue Sea
Lake Glow, Rain Suffused
Clouds Unfurling, A Wave Breaking
A Rising Sun Warms the Mountains
Gossamer Waves - Drifting, Drifting


The Yellow River Breaches its Course

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich

Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament Sunlight Effect (Le Parlement effet de soleil), 1903

Tate Britain's new exhibition, Impressionists in London, has been criticised as misleading, including non-Impressionist French artists who were working in England at the same time.  Jonathan Jones called it 'a desiccated seminar in third-rate history', 'the worst show about the impressionists I have ever seen.'  Suitably forewarned, I nonetheless came away from this show feeling it was well worth a visit.  There are four whole rooms devoted to impressionist landscape paintings of London and its suburbs, including Monet's marvellous Thames Series.  And Londoners at least will find the scenes painted by Tissot and 'the mediocrities Alphonse Legros and Jules Dalou' of at least passing interest for what they show of the city and its history.  Jones concludes his review grudgingly admitting it is worth buying a ticket, if only to see the 'artist who does shine through this pea souper', Camille Pissarro.  Whilst it seems perverse not to consider the Monets the highlight of the show (Leicester Square at Night is astonishing), the works of Pissarro on display are indeed fascinating.  Here I'll focus briefly on one of them, Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich.

Camille Pissarro, Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich, 1871

I discussed Pissarro here only recently, referring to his early landscape paintings in the Dutch West Indies and Venezuela.  Perhaps it's the name, but Dulwich sounds a lot less exotic.  It is very familiar to me from all the train trips I've made down to the Dulwich Picture Gallery.  Pissarro also painted views nearby, around Norwood and Sydenham, south London suburbs that had only recently been Surrey villages.  Many of these locations have barely changed since - the huge wave of late nineteenth century housebuilding left London with the streets we live in today.  My own home, where I'm writing this, is part of a terrace built in 1871-3, so would have been under construction when Pissarro was in England.  There are still train stations in Dulwich but not this one: Lordship Lane Station closed in 1954 (it had been heavily damaged in the Blitz).  In this painting it is only six years old and the railway looks freshly cut into green countryside.  The train heads towards us like the black engine in Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844), its smoke polluting the pale sky.  But it looks rather insignificant and unthreatening, as if what had seemed extraordinary to Turner was now merely commonplace.

A few years ago Michael Glover wrote an article in The Independent's 'Great Works' series devoted to this painting.  Here is how he sums up the appeal of this modest but moving landscape. 
'The painting itself is rooted in its own sense of its ordinariness. No part of it is more important than any other part. It is a masterful act of casual deployment of unmatched skills. It is also a beautifully muted painting tonally, which perfectly seizes a certain kind of slightly melancholy, drizzle-blighted English atmosphere – muffled, slightly dingy, damp-feeling greens give way to rusty browns, greys. Everything feels a little like a part of everything else. It all feels and looks so unshocking, so anti-picturesque in the solidity of its there-ness, you might say ... It feels terribly truthful in the way that the ever onward, undemonstrative drabness of life is truthful.'

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Dresden in Ruins

 

Earlier today I was looking at these images while listening on headphones to a recording the BBC reporter Wynford Vaughan Thomas made during an air raid on Berlin.  His voice was clear over what he described as the constant noise of the Lancaster bomber's engines, though his oxygen mask made speaking difficult.  These masks "reduced to uniformity" the individuals in the crew, men like the plane's bomber who before the war had been "a Sussex farmer".  As I listened, I imagined "the enemy coastline" looking something like the first of these two ambiguous images.  Then I began to see them as clouds the aircraft passed through as it approached the city.  Once the attack began, they came to resemble explosions of flack surrounding the bomber as it dodged the German searchlights.  Finally I thought of the dust, smoke and debris that would be left behind by the bombing mission.  These two drawings, chalk on slate, are by Tacita Dean and were specially made for this exhibition, Melancholia: A Sebald Variation.  The recording of the air raid is described in W. G. Sebald's book, On the Natural History of Destruction.


For me, one of the highlights of this small show was being able to see a selection of photographs from the W. G. Sebald archive in Marbach.  In addition to the two examples above, there were images of Vesuvius erupting, a man on a bicycle, a rocking horse, a young girl, a prosthetic leg, an isolated building and a group of people attending to something we cannot see.  Some of Sebald's photographs are reproduced in the small catalogue you can pick up for free (see below).  In another room there were photographs of the ruins of Dresden and a vitrine containing books on the Allied bombings, including Der Untergang by Hans Erich Nossack which Sebald particularly praised in his 'Air War and Literature'.  Two of Wilhelm Rudolph's ink drawings from the series 'Dresden in Ruins' looked at first glance like sixteenth century prints.  You come to them immediately after looking at the etching that gives this exhibition its title, Albrecht Dürer's Melancholia (1514).


In addition to Tacita Dean's drawings, there were works by other contemporary artists I have discussed on this blog before: Anselm Kiefer, Susan Hiller, Dexter Dallwood, George Shaw.  After seeing these - all of which I thought well chosen - I pushed open a Sebaldian black velvet curtain to watch a video work by Guido Van der Werve.  I was instantly confronted with the sight of a man on fire, running past an orchestra and into a canal; this was followed by a sequence in which a dark figure (the same man?) swam purposefully down various rivers for reasons that were a mystery.  I was just thinking how effective this was when the figure got out of the water and onto a bike (see below).  It transpired that he was doing an epic triathlon across Europe, which seemed a disappointingly unSebaldian pursuit, even if it did involve carrying some soil from the Polish church where Chopin's heart is buried.  I left him to it and returned through the curtain.  Before leaving, I spent a few minutes watching footage of Sebald himself, in an interview with Susan Sontag filmed two months before his death.  Then I headed out, back past the images of ruin and Dürer's Melancholia.  'For Sebald,' the curators write, 'melancholy was the only possible response to the brutality of the past.'  

 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Landfill

I recently came across a piece in the Yorkshire Post about the poet, John Wedgwood Clarke, whose book Landfill is the fruit of his year as a poet-in-residence at two Yorkshire rubbish dumps. “At Rufforth", he says, "it felt like I’d landed on the moon of waste. I bounced along in the car over marshy fields of nappies and chicken carcasses and plastic water bottles. They’d had to fire off rockets to clear the gulls before we could step outside.”  Reading his interview reminded me of Mierle Laderman Ukeles, the doyenne of landfill artists, who had a retrospective at the Queens Museum in New York earlier this year. Ukeles has been the artist-in-residence at New York City’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) since 1978.  There is a comprehensive article about this exhibition at Hyperallergic with many photographs of her work.  I'll quote here one paragraph from this review, concerning a relatively recent project that relates to landscape change. 
'The Queens Museum atrium is devoted to the artist’s work on Fresh Kills, a massive Staten Island landfill that’s currently undergoing a 30-year process of being transformed into a park, as well as two other, smaller landfills. [...]  “How does a place switch its meaning and become something else?” she writes in a 2001 proposal. To her, Fresh Kills is “a true social sculpture composed of 150 million tons from literally billions of individual decisions and acts of rejection.” Early on she envisioned a series of projects in which members of the public would donate objects they considered valuable for embedding in soil at the site. That proposal gave way to another one, since approved, that she’s been working on since 2008: “Landing,” an overlook positioned between two earthworks in Fresh Kills’ South Park. The model and structural drawings for the project are a bit cryptic, but what’s crucial is the sense of transformation they convey. As it turns out, maintaining and caring for the earth offer all sorts of possibilities for developing the world anew.'
Image of the future Freshkills Park
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In her essay 'Trash: Public Art by the Garbage Girls' (2000), Jo Anna Isaak noted that 'landfills seem to be the oeuvre of choice for a number of women artists.'  She discussed the work of Ukeles alongside Agnes Denes' Tree Mountain (considered in two of my earlier posts here and here) and Nancy Holt's New Jersey Landfill Project.  You can read about Holt's original proposal at the New York Times site, in an article from 1986 (her Sky Mound remains only partially completed).  Isaak quoted Holt's view that landfills would come to be seen as a distinctly late twentieth century version of a distinctive human structure that has a long and varied history, the rubbish dump.  Other more recent examples of women transforming landfill sites and garbage dumps include Jean Shin's sculptural installation at Seattle's North Transfer Station and Martha McDonald's song tour of a construction-waste recycling facility in Northeast Philadelphia.

In North America at least, it seems as if any self-respecting landfill site now has an artist-in-residence.  There's probably still time to apply for the scheme that was advertised last month for an artist to work at the waste management centre in Edmonton.  The best place to be a landfill artist may well be San Francisco, where 150 artists have now been through the Artist in Residence programme at Recology, the San Francisco Transfer Station and Recycling Center.  Clearly the aim of many of these artists is to recycle and transform the rubbish collected in these sites, as much as it is to comment on excessive consumption and environmental degradation.  Musicians too can adapt a landfill site to new ends, working with the materials on hand - Paraguay's Recycled Orchestra have received quite a lot of global attention and were the subject of a documentary, Landfill Harmonic (see clip below).  Writers have only their own words, but they can still change attitudes.  It remains to be seen whether John Wedgwood Clarke represents the beginning of a new trend for landfill poets.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Red Cliff

Unidentified artist in the style of Sheng Mou, 
Fan painting illustrating Su Shi's 'Second Ode on the Red Cliff', 
late 14th/early 15th century 
Source: The Met, public domain

Earlier this year I wrote about the Battle of Red Cliff, focusing on landscape in the poetry of Cao Cao, the warlord whose army was defeated there by the combined forces of Sun Quan and Liu Bei.  The battle's most famous literary retelling is in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of China (I discussed one of the others, Dream of the Red Chamber, here five years ago).  There is no dwelling on natural scenery in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms - the focus is entirely on the action, one of hundreds of battles in this vast novel covering an extraordinarily turbulent historical period.  But The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is only one lens through which the conflict has been remembered, as you can see in A Thousand, Thousand Churning Waves - The Legendary Red Cliff Heritage, an online exhibition at the Taiwan National Palace Museum.  Here I want to focus on the influence of Su Shi's two Red Cliff Odes, written in 1082, three centuries before The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  These two poems have themselves been the inspiration for artworks in many forms; I mentioned one - a stone seal - 1,002 posts ago, and have included some others here: a fan, a vase, a scroll, a plate and another stone seal.

 Square form vase decorated with Su Shi's Odes on the Red Cliff, c. 1662–1722
Source: The Met, public domain 

The two 'Odes' Su Shi wrote were in the wen fu form - fu were prose poems, and the wen fu was more prose than poem.  Burton Watson includes translations in his wonderful Selected Poems of Su Tung-p'o (Tung p'o means Eastern Slope and was the literary pseudonym Su assumed after building a residence on a Huangzhou hillside in 1081, thus incorporating a landscape feature into his actual name).  I will summarise the two poems here, with the knowledge that this can't really do them justice - they are very beautiful even in translation, so it does not seem surprising that they have been so admired in China over the last thousand years.  Just one thing to note though: the landscape that so moved Su Shi was not really the place where Cao Cao's forces were defeated in 208 CE (the precise location is still disputed).  As Burton Watson writes, 'because of its fame, many other spots on the Yangtze came to be called Red Cliff; the one where the poet and his friends are the spending the evening is not the actual site of the battle but considerably farther down the river.'

 Zhao Mengfu, The First Red Cliff Ode of Su Shi and His Portrait, 1301
Source: Wikimedia Commons 

The First Ode.
On an autumn night, Su Shi and some friends ventured out in a small boat to the foot of Red Cliff, drinking wine and admiring the moon.  'White dew settled over the river, and its shining surface reached to the sky.  Letting the boat go where it pleased, we drifted over the immeasurable fields of water.'  Inspired by the wine and the scenery Su composed a song while one of his friends played mournful notes on the flute.  They remembered the poem Cao Cao composed (see my earlier post) and his vast army on the river, 'yet where is he now?'  Su Shi suggested that they should take comfort in the changelessness of things - the river water never ceases to flow and the moon always rises.  Realising they had nothing left to eat, the friends lay down in the boat to sleep, 'unaware that the east was already growing light'.

Silver plate showing a scene from the First Ode, 13th century
Source: Minneapolis Institute of Art, public domain 

The Second Ode.
Later that autumn, with the trees bare and frost on the ground, Su Shi was joined at his home by two guests.  They decided to make another trip to Red Cliff but when they got there Su realised the landscape had changed.  'The river raced along noisily, its sheer banks rising a thousand feet.  The mountains were very high, the moon small.  The level of the water had fallen, leaving boulders sticking out.'  Su begun to climb the embankment, leaving his friends trailing behind.  At the summit he gave a shrill whoop and the trees and grass swayed.  A wind suddenly rose and he felt a chill of fear.  He returned to his friends and they got back into the boat, letting it drift on the water.  A single crane flew in from the east, swooping low over the boat.  That night, back at home, Su dreamed that a Daoist immortal in a feather robe came to him and asked whether he had enjoyed his outing to Red Cliff.  Su recognised him as the crane.  The immortal just turned and laughed and when Su woke up, he was gone.

Tianhuang Seal showing Su Shi beneath Red Cliff, first half of the 19th century
Source: The Brooklyn Museum, public domain 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The ghats at Haridwar

Sita Ram, The Firoz Shah Minar at Gaur and a Palash tree, 1817

This watercolour is owned by the British Library and is one of several reproduced in a fascinating blog post by J. P. Losty, 'The rediscovery of an unknown Indian artist: Sita Ram's work for the Marquess of Hastings'.  The work of Sita Ram first attracted attention when some paintings of his were sold in 1974, with no real clue as to who he was or who had commissioned them.  From these and a few subsequent discoveries, scholars knew that he must have been working in Calcutta around 1810-15.  It was only in 1995 that his identity was pinned down (see India Today, 'An unknown painter of great talent emerges from the past').  This was when, as Losty writes, the BL was offered
'part of the collection of albums of drawings formed in India by the Marquess of Hastings, the Governor-General of Bengal 1813-23. The ten albums by Sita Ram illustrate Lord and Lady Hastings’ journey from Calcutta to Delhi and back in 1814-15. There were in all 25 albums of drawings in the collection, by Indian, Chinese and British artists. They had been for the last 150 years in the collection of the Marquis of Bute in Scotland, and indeed hitherto unknown and unsuspected.' 
This sort of story always makes you wonder what might still be buried in the homes of our aristocratic families.  I can find no comment from the current Marquess on this discovery; I see from Wikipedia that he is a former racing driver who actually made the Lotus Formula 1 team in 1986.  Sita Ram's paintings are now accesible to all and can be viewed in a handsome-looking book written by Losty for Thames & Hudson, which includes edited highlights of Lord Hastings' journal.

Sita Ram, The ghats at Haridwar, 1814-15

The watercolour above is one of the views Sita Ram painted on the Hastings' journey, showing the the holy city of Haridwar.  The entire seventeen-month trip took the Hastings from Calcutta to the Punjab and back, accompanied by officials, bodyguards and an army battalion.  When they left in 1814 they needed 220 boats.  After they got back, in October 2015, Sita Ram continued to work for Hastings in India. 
'Another two albums of drawings also by Sita Ram contain views in Bengal taken on subsequent tours, one during a sporting expedition to northern Bengal in 1817, and the other during a convalescent tour in the Rajmahal Hills in 1820-21. Sita Ram has matured even more as an artist by then and they contain some of his most beautiful works. With Hastings’ departure from India in 1823, however, Sita Ram disappears from the record and no further work is known from his hand.'

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Luxuriant Forest among Distant Peaks

Li Ch'eng, A Solitary Temple amid Clearing Peaks, Sung Dynasty

In Michael Sullivan's history of Chinese landscape painting, Symbols of Eternity, he describes the predicament of one of the great painters of the early Sung Dynasty.
'Li Ch'eng - unsuccessful aspirant to office, gentleman, poet, recluse - came of a family of Confucian scholars that had gone down in the world.  One wonders what he lived on.  To a persistent patron, owner of a fashionable restaurant in the capital, he is said to have written: "Since antiquity the four social classes have not mixed.  I am a Confucian scholar, and although I paint, I do it only for my own pleasure.  Why should I submit to being a retainer in a great household who grinds and licks his colours and is classed with the hua shih [i.e. men who hold office by virtue of their skill as painters] and other such riffraff?"  Yet he had to live, and did not consider it beneath him to exhibit his paintings in that same restaurant, which the emperor himself patronised.  Li Ch'eng's son and grandson were rather ashamed of him, for in spite of his disclaimer, he was a professional by necessity.  This was a predicament that was to face more and more artists of the scholar class, and the most delicate and indirect ways had to be found to reward them for their work without causing them to lose face as amateurs and gentlemen.'
I wonder how Li thought about that restaurant and its diners.  Mark Rothko apparently said of his murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, "anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine." 

 Li Ch'eng, Luxuriant Forest among Distant Peaks (detail), Sung Dynasty

Detail of that detail

The paintings here are both attributed to Li - possibly painted by his followers but probably no later than the tenth century.  Attribution of early Chinese paintings is always tricky - there is a story that Mi Fu (1051-1107), who lived only a century after Li Ch'eng (919-67), could locate only two genuine scrolls painted by Li and wondered if in fact any really existed.  Recently the art historian James Cahill caused controversy by suggesting some paintings from this period were twentieth century forgeries.  He thought Li's Reading the Memorial Stele, now in Osaka, was a copy, but valuable nonetheless.  I wrote about that painting here four years ago, after seeing it in an exhibition in London.  The warlord depicted in it trying to decipher the memorial stone, Cao Cao, was the subject of another Some Landscapes post earlier this year.

Here is one more quote concerning Li Ch'eng - Richard M. Barnhart's description of A Solitary Temple amid Clearing Peaks and Luxuriant Forest among Distant Peaks (in an essay in Yale's Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting).  He sees them as wonderfully detailed alternative worlds to escape into, but also models of the new Chinese state.
'Li Ch'eng's works contain rich human and architectural details - temples, villages, bridges, pagodas, wine shops, pavilions and pathways - and constitute deep miniature realms of imaginative construction, dream worlds that one is invited to enter like tray landscapes, or penzai (bonsai in Japanese).  Their compositional structure, however, is the very structure of the new empire of Sung, with the Son of Heaven represented in the dominant central peak, his ministers and associates in the supportive ranges and hills around the central peak, and the entire vast structure as ordered, clear and infinite as the great empire of China itself.  There is no dust or dirt, no violence or disorder, nature is placid and benevolent, controlled by the power and wisdom of the enlightened ruler who has brought humanity to this lofty condition through wise interaction with Heaven.'

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Memoryscapes

I was pleased that Caught by the River made Frozen Air their Book of the Month, although they have now sneaked in a second one - The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris - a book it's been impossible to avoid this week, with coverage everywhere from the reviews pages to the Today programme.  There was a typically rich and thought-provoking essay by Robert Macfarlane on children, nature and reading in The Guardian, and I am tempted to set down my own reflections here, but they would be based on nothing more than personal experiences as a child and parent.

For fans of Macfarlane, The Lost Words will fill a gap while he completes Underland, a book that sounds from scattered interviews to be increasingly ambitious in scope.  Whatever it covers, it is certain to delight in language and the physical challenges of exploring a landscape.  In The Telegraph, two years ago, he described exploring the River Timavo which flows through the karst region of Slovenia and northern Italy. “I descended a 100ft doline, a sort of narrow, eroded vertical channel, with a 70-year-old Italian man called Sergio, who smoked a briarwood pipe all the way down. That was one of the most extreme places I have ever been: a great black river roaring out of a cave mouth on one side and disappearing down a rabbit hole on the other, and the sense of the earth’s surface above us.”

Alojzij Schaffenrath,  Postojna: view of the Great Cave, c. 1821

'The right names, well used, can act as portals.'  A doline is the name for a portal to the underland, and there are others too on the karstic plateau: foiba (a deep inverted funnel), abîme (a vertical shaft) uvala (a collection of sinkholes).  My only experience of descending into this world was on a family holiday to Yugoslavia, when we visited the spectacular Postojna cave system in Slovenia.  It felt as if I had suddenly entered the marvellous subterranean settings of my recent childhood reading: The Silver Chair, The Hobbit, Journey to the Centre of the Earth.  I can still recall the soundscape too - a a strange babel of amplified sound as competing tour groups listened to guides in the different languages of Europe.

As can be seen in the image above, tourism at Postojna stretches back to the early nineteenth century.  When Crown Prince Ferdinand visited in 1819, soon after the main caves were opened, he was greeted with a band and singers.  Perhaps the caves would have been too eerie, experienced in dripping silence.  They have subsequently hosted orchestras, jazz bands and even the La Scala chorus.  There is a long tradition of music making in caves and now, it seems, a new trend for concert halls themselves to be built underground.  I have written about caves and music before, so here I will conclude by returning to the surface and highlighting some recent music made in the karst landscape of Slovenia.


For Memoryscapes, the experimental folk trio Širom returned to the regions of Slovenia they grew up in and improvised outdoors, curious to see how the environment would affect what they played.  The film of the project (embedded below) begins with the construction of some bamboo balafons which they carry down into the hollow of the Bukovnik sinkhole.  As they sit under the trees, the camera pans slowly round, catching motes of light and the slight movement of branches in the breeze.  Watching this made me think that taking children into the woods to make and play instruments would be another way to reconnect them with nature.

On Mt Tolminski Migovec, the music is harsher and the surroundings cold and inhospitable.  In a mountain hut they do some more percussion with pots and pans (it looks like this would get annoying pretty quickly, as I know from having heard my own sons try it).  In the final segment, they sit surrounded by a sea of yellow flowers; if the music was as pretty as the visuals it would be too much to take.  The film ends by a watermill, with an insistent rhythmic sound, like hundreds of squeaky gears and cog wheels.  Eventually the music fades and breaks apart, leaving nothing but sunlight on the water.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Elegant Rocks and Sparse Trees

 Zhao Mengfu, Autumn Colours on the Qiao and Hua Mountains, 1296

Back to normal now, for blog post number 1,001, and at this time of year it seems appropriate to admire these Autumn Colours on the Qiao and Hua Mountains.  Most of the trees in this marshy landscape are still green, as they are here in London as I write this, but the red seal marks added to the handscroll cover the sky like wind-blown maple leaves.  This is the best known work of Zhao Mengfu, who was able to observe the seasons change around these mountains after becoming governor of Jinan in 1293.  Mount Qiao and Mount Hua lie to the north of the city and can be seen in the video clip below.  This scroll was painted after Zhao had returned south, for a friend whose family came from Shandong.  It offered a new way forward for Chinese art, neither naturalistic or idealised, referring back to older 'antique' styles - specifically that of Dong Yuan (d. 962) who, founder of the distinct southern Jiangnan style.  Dong was said (by the great Song dynasty scientist/polymath Shen Kuo) to be 'particularly skilled in painting the mists of autumn and distant views'.


Zhao Mengfu is an artist I have referred to here three times before: first in connection with his scroll, The Mind Landscape of Xie Youyu; secondly as exemplifying, in his interest in recovering older styles, a kind of Renaissance attitude analogous to Italian quattrocento artists; and thirdly for a painting owned by the Met, Twin Pines, Level Distance.  I have not however mentioned one of the most interesting facts about Zhao, that he was married to an artist prominent in her own right, the painter, poet and calligrapher Guan Daosheng.  Guan seems to have taken up painting around the time they were living in Jinan (which was, incidentally, the city where China's greatest female poet, Li Qingzhao, lived two centuries earlier).  Guan worked in various genres but became known for her bamboo painting.  She qualifies for a mention on this blog because, instead of depicting individual branches, she tended to paint thickets and set them in landscapes.  In the example below, the bamboo in the background is covered in a band of mist.  She wrote on the scroll that it had actually been painted "in a boat on the green waves of the lake."

 Guan Daosheng, Bamboo Groves in Mist and Rain (detail), 1308

Chinese bamboo paintings are cropped close-ups of landscape, with rocks and old trees as likely to feature as bamboo plants.  Zhao Mengfu himself produced a marvellous example, Elegant Rocks and Spare Trees, which included a quatrain arguing that "calligraphy and painting have always been the same".  Although this is painting, not writing, the brushstrokes resemble calligraphy: broad ones ('flying white') for the rocks, blunt ones ('seal script') for the branches, spiky and tapered ones ('late clerical script') for the foliage.  Bamboo was a symbol of the scholar, surviving through difficult times.  Zhao Mengfu himself initially resisted the lure of Kublia Khan but elected to work for the new administration, an act that affected his later reputation.  He would not be numbered among the Four Masters of the Yuan dynasty, although one of those artists, Wang Meng, was his grandson.  Zhao Mengfu died in 1322, three years after Guan Daosheng, a wife whose "manner was winning… [and]… intelligence clear as moonlight."

Zhao Mengu, Elegant Rocks and Sparse Trees, Yuan Dynasty

Monday, September 18, 2017

Frozen Air


For this, the 1000th entry on this blog, I am pleased to announce... a book.

If you have liked some of what I have written here over the years I think you should enjoy it.  It is not a reprint of anything on the blog, though it does refer to artists and writers I have featured here (including Peter Lanyon, the subject of my 500th post).  Here is the description, taken from the Amazon page where you can order it.
At the edge of England the land ends suddenly in high chalk cliffs. From the beach at Cuckmere Haven, they stand like frozen air, silent above the waves that are gradually undermining them. Here the landscape seems timeless, reduced to its basic elements: rock, water, air and sunlight. But the cliffs have a remarkable history and an uncertain future. They continue to inspire painters and composers, photographers and filmmakers, poets and nature writers. In this sequence of short linked texts and photographs, Andrew Ray explores the Seven Sisters to consider the meaning of this extraordinary landscape.
You will be able to read some short extracts on Caught by the River starting tomorrow and if you don't fancy Amazon you can buy it from their shop.

As for the future of this blog - I am as fascinated by all this as I ever was and have no plans to stop at the first thousand posts...

Postscript 22/9/17: 
You can read a review by Ken Worpole of Frozen Air at The New English Landscape.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The yellow blossoms of autumn

Eight poems entitled, simply, 'Landscape':


1. 'Landscape' by Robert Gray

A walk over sandhills by the sea, turning inland, then wading through dead grass and along railway tracks in the heat of noon, hearing the immense quiet of the bush that dilates on the light hammering sound of a bell-miner. 
'Landscape' is an early poem by Robert Gray and is (I assume) about the north coast of New South Wales where he grew up.  He has said 'the landscape you like is the landscape in which your senses first open, the landscape you’re born into… That’s why Wordsworth is right: it’s the landscape of childhood that captures, that influences you for the rest of your life'.  I have recently been reading Gray's collected poems, Cumulus.  A Sydney Review of Books article on this book discusses his debt to Wordsworth, and the influence of Asian poetry, evident in Gray's translations of haiku and his own short imagist poems.

2. 'Landscape' by Charles Baudelaire

A dream of gardens, bluish horizons, water weeping in alabaster basins, birds singing and lovers kissing. 
In 'Paysage', one of the Tableaux Parisiens in Les Fleures du Mal (1857), Baudelaire pictures a bedroom where he could look out over the city and gaze at the night sky, at least until winter comes with its dreary snows - then he would shut out the world and live in this perfect imaginary landscape.  There are many translations of course, including one by John Ashbery who sadly died earlier this month.  Ashbery actually wrote his own poem with the title 'Landscape', included in his early collection The Tennis Court Oath.  I have to admit I would struggle to explain what it's about - it certainly has nothing to do with scenic description.  You can hear Ashbery read it in a recording accessible via Ubuweb.

Georges Antoine Rochegross, Tableaux Parisiens illustration, 1917 


3.  'Landscape' by Charles Marie René Leconte de Lisle

Olive trees, wild roses, flowering laburnum and a shepherd at rest; in the distance, fields of ripe wheat, paths through terebinth trees, woods, hills and a sparkling sea. 
Another idyllic landscape is evoked in one of Leconte de Lisle's Poèmes antiques (1852).  It is the only one of the poems in this list that mentions an actual location, Agrigento, which is in Sicily, where Theocritus lived and set his Idylls.  I was going to include here a poem by another Parnassian writer, Paul Verlaine.  However, as I explained in an earlier post, 'Landscape' is C.F. Macintyre's own title for a poem Verlaine called ‘Dans l’interminable ennui de la plaine’.

4. 'Landscape' by Federico García Lorca

A field of olive trees and above it a foundering sky of dark rain where the grey air ripples. 
This beautiful short poem deserves quoting in full, at least in Spanish where there are no copyright issues.  It was written when Lorca was twenty-three and published in Poem of the Deep Song, a book inspired by Andalucian gypsy music.  It suggests both an actual 'motionless sunset' that Lorca witnessed and an imaginary landscape inspired by the music of the siguiriya.  'To me,' he wrote, 'the gypsy siguiriya had always evoked (I am an incurable lyricist) an endless road, a road without crossroads, ending at the pulsing fountain of the child Poetry.'

El campo
de olivos
se abre y se cierra
como un abanico.
Sobre el olivar
hay un cielo hundido
y una lluvia oscura
de luceros fríos.
Tiembla junco y penumbra
a la orilla del río.
Se riza el aire gris.
Los olivos,
están cargados
de gritos.
Una bandada
de pájaros cautivos,
que mueven sus larguísimas
colas en lo sombrío


5. 'Landscape' by Georg Trakl

Shepherds return to an autumn village: a horse rears up, a doe feeezes at the edge of the forest and yellow blossoms bend over the blue countenance of a pond. 
The poem appeared posthumously in Sebastian in Traum (1915), Trakl having died of an overdose in a hospital in Cracow, exhausted after tending to soldiers wounded at the battle of Grodek.  Ludwig Wittgenstein, also serving on the Eastern front, had come to Cracow to see him but arrived just a few days too late.  Robert Bly mentions those yellow flowers in an essay on 'The Silence of Georg Trakl': 'The German language has a word for deliberately keeping silence, which English does not have. Trakl uses this word “schweigen” often. When he says “the flowers/Bend without words over the blue pond”, we realise that the flowers have a voice, and that Trakl hears it. They keep their silence in the poems.' 

6. 'Landscape' by Rolf Dieter Brinkmann

A soot-covered tree, a wrecked car, defunct shoes in leafless shrubs, a fly-tipped sofa, a pair of stockings in a bough, a rusty bicycle frame. 
This is a vision of the edgelands - the kind of modern landscape George Shaw has been painting recently.  Brinkman was not much older than Trakl when he died in London in 1975, the victim of a hit-and-run driver.  His posthumously published Rom Blicke expanded the form of his writing beyond poems like this one to include photographs and documents.  In this book landscape was 'portrayed in a radically disillusionary way: as space where human life is shaped by capitalism, stupidity and egoism' (Monika Schmitz-Emans, in an essay 'The Book as Landscape').

7. 'Landscape' by John Hewitt
Not a 'fine view': for a countryman, a sequence of signs and underpinning this, good corn, summer grazing for sheep free of scab and fallow acres waiting for the lint.
Carol Rumens selected this as a poem of the week in The Guardian a couple of years ago.  She notes that lint is another word for flax, once the most significant crop in Northern Ireland, where Hewitt lived (a bar in Belfast is named after him).  The poem is an admonition to the reader, 'to understand any beautiful landscape in its utilitarian and social dimensions: to learn the names of places and people, and to value their language, as this poem, modestly, undemonstratively, has valued it.'

8. 'Landscape' by Dorothy Parker
A field of white lace, birch trees leaping and bending, hills of green and purple, breezes running fingers through the grass. 
But this idyll is flat and grey 'because a lad a mile away / has little need of me.'  I've always liked the idea of Dorothy Parker but found a lot of her writing, like this, not really to my taste.  I include it here though to acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that all the names above are male.  Perhaps this is not only a reflection of the limitations of my reading - maybe women writers have generally been too creativity to write a poem and end up calling it, simply, 'Landscape.'

These then are some 'Landscapes', written by poets from Australia, France, Réunion, Spain, Austria, Germany, Northern Ireland and America.  And for Some Landscapes, this is actually the 999th entry I have written and posted.  Over the years this blog has covered, like these eight poems, the rural and the urban, the pastoral and the post-pastoral, closely observed topography and places that could only be explored in a dream. 

Tomorrow I have a special announcement to coincide with my 1,000th post.

Friday, September 15, 2017

This snow has never melted

Anon (once attributed to Guo Xi), Mount Emei under Heavy Snow, 17th century

Mount Omei, or Emei, in Sichuan province, is one of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China and has often featured in Chinese poetry.  Li Po spent the early part of his life (before 725) in Sichuan and wrote a 'Song of Mount Omei's Moon', that would later be quoted by Su Shi in one of his own poems.  Su Shi was actually born near the foot of the mountain, in 1037, but spent his life being moved from one post to another, getting further and further away until he eventually found himself living on the island of Hainan (he died, back on the mainland, four years later).  Fan Ch'eng-ta, one of the 'Four Masters of Southern Sung Poetry', specialising in the field-and-gardens genre, described Mount Emei in his Diary of a Boat Trip to Wu (1177).  The higher he got, the colder it was - intensely so at night.  Reaching Brilliant Cliff he looked down into the clouds and glimpsed halos of coloured light.  Further on he could see the mountain range that stretches West, until it eventually becomes the Himalayas:
'Lofty, rugged, carved, sliced; scores, perhaps a hundred peaks in all.  When the rising sun first illuminates them, the snow glistens like shiny silver, shimmering in the light of the dawn.  From antiquity to the present, this snow has never melted.  These mountains extend all the way to the land of India and to tributary kingdoms along the border for a distance of I don't know how many thousands of li.  It looks like it is spread out on a table before one.  This spectacular, unique, unsurpassable view was truly the crowning one of my entire life.' 

Last month I was surprised to encounter a fragment of Mt Emei, perched on the summit of a mountain in Switzerland.  This 8 ton lump of basalt, the Emei Stone, was installed on the top of Mt. Rigi in 2015, a year after a Rigi Stone was 'inagurated' on Mt Emei.  They are meant to 'symbolise the cultural and touristic collaboration' between the two mountains.  An explanatory board refers to these landscapes like global corporations, with the exchange symbolising 'the valuable and long-standing partnership between RIGI and EMEI.'  I had not been to Switzerland for a while and was surprised by the number of Chinese tour groups.  There are visitors too from other parts of Asia.  At the bottom of Mount Titlis, a high, snow-capped peak near Rigi, you encounter the inviting smell of Indian street food on sale at the Spice Bistro.  And at its summit, you can take a selfie with cardboard cutout stars of the famous Bollywood film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), which was set in Switzerland (though not actually on Titlis).  The appeal of the Alps for Bollywood directors is discussed in an article for The Smithsonian and the Indian fascination with Switzerland is explored in an interestingby


Mount Rigi became a major tourist destination in the nineteenth century, in part because it is easy to get to from Lucerne.  A Telegraph article on this phenomenon made the connection with Turner's Blue Rigi, a centrepiece of the Tate's 2014 Late Turner show (looking back I see I wrote at the time about Turner's Italian landscapes rather than the exhibition's views of the Alps).  Rigi developed a special appeal, and
'so great was this charisma, that within a couple of decades of Turner’s visit, a stay in Lucerne and an ascent of The Rigi were among the most desirable experiences for any traveller to Continental Europe. In 1857 the first grand hotel opened at the summit, and by 1860 there were 1,000 horses and numerous guides and sedan chairs stationed at the foot of the mountain in Weggis. The highlight of Thomas Cook’s first group tour to Switzerland, in 1863, was an ascent of The Rigi to watch the sunrise, and in 1868 Queen Victoria herself came here, to be carried up to the hotel in a chair, and woken before dawn for the same view.

J.M.W. Turner, The Blue Rigi, Sunrise, c. 1841-42
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mount Emei has a much longer tradition of tourism than Mount Rigi, centred on its temples and the 'silver world' - a sea of clouds - visible from its summit.  In the Qing Dynasty, the poet Tan Zhongyue named ten scenic attractions, including 'Blue Sky After Snowfall on the Great Plateau', 'Crystal Waters and Autumn Winds', and 'Felicitous Light on the Golden Summit'.  Today, the UNESCO World Heritage site acknowledges the threat posed by visitor numbers ('there are numerous drink stands and souvenir stalls which detract from the natural atmosphere of the mountain'), but also notes that 'as a sacred place, Mount Emei has benefited from a long-standing and traditional regime of conservation and restoration.'


A thousand years ago, back in the Song Synasty, Fan Ch'eng-ta's does not mention encountering any other sight-seers.  Perhaps he had the view to himself.  Turner never tried making the ascent of Rigi, possibly put off by the prospect of tourists.  In J. M. W. Turner: A Wonderful Range of Mind, John Gage suggests that 'it may be that he felt the Rigi was already too popular a vantage point, and he did not want to share his experiences with the two or three hundred other tourists who were said to congregate daily on the summit for the dawn.'  Gage quotes an earlier traveller, Henry Matthews, who did make the ascent and what he saw is reminiscent of Fan Ch'eng-ta's vision of dawn on Mt. Emei.  Matthews found it a 'magnificent spectacle' and concluded that experiencing a sunrise on Rigi 'forms an epoch in one's life, which can never be forgotten.'

J.M.W. Turner, The Red Rigi, 1842
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Reichenbach Falls

J. M. W. Turner, The Great Fall of the Reichenbach, in the Valley of Hasle, Switzerland, 1804
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Turner painted the Reichenbach Falls before they became famous as the setting for Sherlock Holmes' apparent death at the hands of Professor Moriarty.  But to what extent were they 'famous' already, before Conan Doyle visited the falls in 1893, or even before Turner arrived in 1802?  The Tate has a sketch by Turner made earlier, in the mid 1790s, after a painting by John Robert Cozens.  The Tour through Switzerland made in 1776 by connoisseur Richard Payne Knight, accompanied by Cozens, influenced later itineraries and it was around this time that the Reichenbach Falls became a destination for early Alpine tourists.  In Leslie Stephen's book on the Alps, The Playground of Europe, he refers to the way geographical features become cultural destinations.  Looking back to geologist Gottlieb Sigmund Gruner's Die Eisgebirge des Schweizerlandes (1760) he notes that the Reichenbach Falls had already become an 'object of interest', separated off from the surrounding landscape, whereas the Rigi (a mountain now particularly associated with Turner) was still a mere 'phenomenon of nature'.


We visited the Reichenbach Falls on a misty day last month and, as you can see from my photographs, it is still an impressive landmark.  Here is Conan Doyle's description in 'The Final Problem'.
It is indeed, a fearful place. The torrent, swollen by the melting snow, plunges into a tremendous abyss, from which the spray rolls up like the smoke from a burning house. The shaft into which the river hurls itself is an immense chasm, lined by glistening coal-black rock, and narrowing into a creaming, boiling pit of incalculable depth, which brims over and shoots the stream onward over its jagged lip. The long sweep of green water roaring forever down, and the thick flickering curtain of spray hissing forever upward, turn a man giddy with their constant whirl and clamour. We stood near the edge peering down at the gleam of the breaking water far below us against the black rocks, and listening to the half-human shout which came booming up with the spray out of the abyss.

The Reichenbach Falls can easily be reached from the village of Meiringen (although to keep Dr Watson away from the action, Conan Doyle made the distance further).  There in the village, next to the Sherlock Holmes museum, Leslie Stephen is commemorated in a dramatic statue.  He looks full of energy, very different from how I usually think of him, as Virginia Woolf's bearded Victorian father, the model for Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse.  Up at the falls there is a plaque, put up in 1991, commemorating the centenary of Holmes's encounter with Moriarty.  It refers to what Conan Doyle later decided had really happened on that narrow path: 'At this fearful place, Sherlock Holmes vanquished Professor Moriarty, on 4 May 1891.'  Thus fiction changes how we experience a landscape.  The lure of particular places is often down to their association with stories and myths, but here we can trace the process over the course of just a few years - from the Reichenbach Falls' preexisting fame, which brought Conan Doyle here in the first place, to their dramatic role in an event that shocked the reading public, and then, after Holmes was brought back from the dead, their subsequent fascination as a site of speculation, which shows no signs of dying away.  

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Landscape near Malines


The Listener magazine, founded by John Reith as a cultural supplement to the BBC's Radio Times, folded in 1991.  I think I remember some sadness when it ended, but it doesn't seem to have been much missed.  'It gradually declined after 1960 as British society changed, the BBC became more plural, and other sources of information became more readily available' (Wikipedia).  There is a digital archive but, perhaps surprisingly for a Reithian product, it is not freely accessible to the public.  Back in the early sixties, the Listener featured essays on art, first broadcast as part of a Home Service series called 'Painting of the Month'.  In each programme, an art expert would discuss in an accessible way a work that could be found in a British museum.  The aim was 'to contribute to the listener's understanding of what the artist is trying to convey, and in this way to increase his enjoyment of painting.'  In addition to the programmes and Listener articles, you could collect separate illustrated supplements each month with notes on the paintings, and keep them in special folders.  My parents still have complete sets of these and the accompanying Listener articles for four years, covering 1962-5.  The example above is for October 1962, when Andrew Forge discussed a landscape by Rubens which hangs in Birmingham University's Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

Peter Paul Rubens, Landscape near Malines, 1630s
See The Barber Insitute, where it is now called A Landscape in Flanders 

The talk on this painting sets it in the context of the great allegories and mythological scenes for which Rubens was famous, and spends some time discussing two of his more famous landscapes.  'The Rainbow Landscape and its great companion the Chateau de Steen in the National Gallery are in a sense no less public utterances than Rubens' figure pieces.'  However, these late works do convey more of a feel for his surroundings than was evident in Rubens' earlier compositions.  Mr Forge (as The Listener calls him) describes the Rainbow Landscape, for all its drama, as inconsistent in its design.  It is only the distant part that looks real - 'here all the busyness of separate incidents is resolved: everything is unified and calm.  Arrived here, one feels suddenly released - no longer tied to categories of things and no longer involved in watching events.'  And it is just this quality that we find in Landscape near Malines.  'The whole landscape turns in front of us, not with the coiling artifice of the earlier pictures but with the simple single unfolding that our own movement brings to landscape.'

Peter Paul Rubens, Rainbow Landscape, c. 1636
Source: Wikimedia Commons 

Over the course of 1962 Andrew Forge discussed two more landscapes, Constable's Leaping Horse and Matisse's Tree near Trivaux Pond.  Other speakers did three programmes each on still life, figure painting and portraits.  In 1963 the entire series was devoted to Renaissance art, which meant landscape was only touched upon, e.g. in Bryan Robertson's talk on Leonardo's The Virgin of the Rocks.  I have to admit to being fascinated by some of the advertisements in the old Listener magazines - turning from Leonardo you come to a full page ad for the British Iron and Steel Federation ('Britain needs more homes fast.  Steel shows the way in multi-story flats...')   In 1964 the series had twice as many paintings and included landscapes by Canaletto and Turner.  In 1965 the focus was on British art and there were landscapes by Gainsborough, Crome, Constable and Turner.  Perhaps I will draw on some of these essays in future.

I can't resist a list, especially a chronological one, so I was interested to see in the introduction to the 1962 series a table of 'Some Important Paintings in Europe in the Four Categories covered by the Talks.'  There are sixty in the landscape list, beginning with Lorenzetti's Good and Bad Government (which I wrote about here nine years ago) and ending with the Matisse I mentioned above.  Nothing more recent than Matisse and only five on the list by artists born in the nineteenth century.  This was the BBC that would soon commission Civilisation so the skew towards Old Masters is not surprising (nearly half the artists on the landscape list were born before 1500).  There is no mention of Caspar David Friedrich - as I have noted here before, he was barely known in Britain before the 1970s.  Here are the works on this list I have featured here before - just a fraction of them, because even though this is my 996th post on Some Landscapes, I have only scratched the surface of the history of landscape art.

Friday, September 08, 2017

An architectural view surrounded by trompe-l’oeil elements

 
 Charles-Joseph Flipart, Landscape with an architectural view surrounded by trompe-l’oeil elements symbolising the Arts, c. 1779 
Image from the Prado site for non-commercial use

This painting is two things at once, a still-life and a landscape.  The landscape has a mysterious, De Chirico feel to it, with its strange architectural fragments rendered in slightly unsettling perspective and absence of people beyond those visible in the foreground.  In the centre, out of scale with the huge columns, there is what appears to be a curious quincunx-like arrangement of short pillars or steles, until you realise these are actually skittles.  It was painted as the design for a console table, which could have had actual fruit, books and musical instruments placed on it.  The Prado has another similar sketch by Flipart which also shows ruins casting long shadows.  In both paintings leaves curl round the border of the landscape - they could be part of the still life or the world beyond.

Image from the Prado site for non-commercial use

I am not sure how numerous hybrid works combining still life and landscape are, but in a recent exhibition I saw Flipart's Landscape with an architectural view hanging next to the painting below.  Here too, the eye can focus for a while on the foreground detail, yet cannot help being drawn away into the sunlit space of the landscape.  Perhaps those alluring distances offered the paintings' owners a respite from the decorative excess of their own interiors.  Flipart also did one of his still life/landscapes with a view out to sea and there are parallels in the two artists' careers. Johann Rudolf Bys (1660–1738) was Swiss but became a court painter in Prague after travels that took him to Germany, Holland and England.  Charles-Joseph Flipart (1721–1797), who was French, also travelled in Europe before becoming court painter in Spain. 


Johann Rudolf Bys, Flower Still Life with Veduta in a Cartouche, before 1713
Kunstmuseum Basel's ¡Hola Prado! exhibition - photography permitted

The flowers in the painting by Bys are reminiscent of those used by other artists at that time to create intricate illusionistic borders.  Garlands surround images of the holy family in seventeenth century paintings by the Breughels and other Flemish artists.  The art of Abraham Brueghel (1631 – c. 1690) is diverse but always full of flowers and in one example in Zagreb they frame a sunlit country scene.  There have been many artists who painted still life in the foreground of a landscape - the dead game paintings of Jan Weenix, for example - but fewer who separated the two and gave them equal prominence within the same painting.  Perhaps there is still potential in this genre - I'm thinking of what George Shaw might do: a sylvan landscape surrounded by trompe-l'œil renderings of the bottles, discarded clothes and other litter to be found in our woodlands.  But there is something fresh in the paintings of Bys and Flipart, in their fascination and delight in nature and culture, that seems to arise directly from the dreams and desires of early modern Europe.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

A meadow, a wood, and a few peaceful houses

'For anyone who has watched with anticipation as the writings of Robert Walser (1878-1956) have slowly appeared in English over the past two decades or so, Carl Seelig’s Wanderungen mit Robert Walser has been high atop the list of Walser-related books we have wanted to see translated. This is Seelig’s narration of dozens of walks and conversations that he had with the writer over the twenty-year span from 1936 to 1956, when, usually several times a year, he would call upon Walser at a sanatorium in Herisau, Switzerland, where Walser had lived since 1933.  [...] Now, sixty years after its first appearance, Seelig’s book has finally appeared in English as Walks with Walser (New Directions) and it doesn’t disappoint. On those long walks through the countryside and nearby villages, Seelig tried to draw the reticent Walser into talking about his past, his books, other writers, and numerous topics of interest. Walser, it turns out, seems to have been more or less like some of the great characters in his fiction — a delightful and sometimes wily crank who could easily have been mistaken for an unsophisticated soul.' - Terry Pitts, on his always-fascinating Sebaldian blog, Vertigo, 6 July 2017
Last month I had the pleasure of reading Walks with Walser in Swtizerland, though sadly not in the region where Walser and Seelig did their walking. I won't set down here my own reflections on this marvellous book because you can read other reviews online - I recommend an excellent piece by Dorian Stuber (like him I am intrigued to know the fate of Bob Skinner's earlier, never-published  translation).  What I have done though, in addition to plotting the dates in a chart (see below - the gaps are in 1939 and 1951), is create a map of the forty-four walks described by Seelig.  Click on one and you will see I have included a short quote which, where possible, relates to the landscape they passed through.  The colours refer to the seasons and my use of a little sporty hiker icon is a joke, because Walser did all these often-strenuous sounding hikes wearing a suit and carrying an umbrella, as can be seen in the photograph used on the book's cover.




Here are twelve of the quotes used on the map:
July 26 1936 (the first walk).
'Silence is the narrow path on which we approach each other. Our heads burning in the sun, we ramble through the landscape - the hilly, tranquil landscape of woods and meadows.'

June 27 1937
'Incidental remark: "Nature does not need to make an effort to be meaningful. It simply is."' 
April 15 1938
'Robert stops often to admire the charm of a hill-top, the sturdiness of a tavern, the blue of the paschal day, the peaceful seclusion of a stretch of landscape, or a greenish-brown clearing.'
July 20 1941
On the way to Appenzell they see a baroque building.
"Shall we look in?"
"Such things are prettier from the outside.  One need not investigate every secret."

May 16 1943
'He says "I don't care a fig about superb views and backdrops.  When what is distant disappears, what is near tenderly draws nearer.  What more do we need to be satisfied than a meadow, a wood, and a few peaceful houses.'
July 24 1944
'As we reach the church in Arbon, an air-raid siren wails.  We hear the crack of antiaircraft guns on the far shore of Lake Constance.  Robert grows quiet.'
April 9 1945
'Far above us, a dogfight. The farmers stop their work and stare at the sky.  Robert, on the other hand, turns to the fir trees and flowers, the clean little Appenzell houses and steep rocky slopes.  For him the whole morning walk is one great delight.'

September 23 1945
'He comments that he often welcomes rain.  It makes the colours and scents more intense, and under an umbrella one can feel quite at home.'

November 3 1947
'A silent hike to Oberberg Schloss, which lies perched on a hill.  The honey-yellow flames of the fruit trees seem to soothe Robert a little.'

January 23 1949
'We climb higher up the Freudenberg, past frozen ponds and into snowy woods.  "It's like a fairy tale," he whispers, laying his hand lightly on my arm.'

Christmas 1952
'We enjoy these springlike hours, praising the woods, Lake Constance, which shimmers like a landscape of dunes, and the joy of walking.'

July 17 1955
The penultimate walk recorded by Seelig. 'Is his condition more serious than I realize?  I am wracked with worry.  As we part his last words are: "Did you see the heavenly colours of Lake Constance?"'
I have chosen these quotes because they convey an idea of Robert Walser's attitude to landscape, something I have discussed here several times before, e.g. in his novel The Assistant.  But they give a very unrepresentative idea of Walks with Walser, which is full of fascinating biographical material and Walser's thoughts on writers and books.  Then there's the food... I could easily have made an alternative Google Map based on the breakfasts and lunches the two writers enjoyed on their day-long excursions.  Last month I visited the Robert Walser Zentrum in Bern and talked to one of the team there about Walks with Walser - we agreed that both the length of the walks and the writers' appetite for good food and wine afterwards was impressive and life-affirming.  There is great poignancy in the contrast between these moments and Walser's daily life in the hospital at Herisau.


I took these two photographs in the Robert Walser Zentrum.  The first shows a beautiful, very expensive set of Walser manuscripts published by Schwabe, the world's oldest publisher (founded in 1488).  The second is a bookshelf which gives the impression there is still a lot more by and about Walser that it would be wonderful to have in English.  In one of the last walks with Walser, Seelig told him about the first English translations that had just appeared, done by Christopher Middleton 'with admirable sensitivity'.  Walser responded 'with a curt "Really!"'  Walks with Walser ends a few pages later with Walser's death during his final solitary walk on Christmas Day 1956.  There is snow everywhere and the sun is weak, 'tenderly melancholic and hesitant, as if today it would like to give the lovely landscape over to night sooner than usual.'