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.'

Friday, September 01, 2017

Crags, upon whose extreme edge I stand...

And thou fresh breaking Day, and you, ye Mountains,
Why are ye beautiful? I cannot love ye.
And thou, the bright eye of the universe,
That openest over all, and unto all
Art a delight—thou shin’st not on my heart.
And you, ye crags, upon whose extreme edge
I stand, and on the torrent’s brink beneath
Behold the tall pines dwindled as to shrubs
In dizziness of distance; when a leap,
A stir, a motion, even a breath, would bring
My breast upon its rocky bosom’s bed
To rest for ever—wherefore do I pause?

Lord Byron's poetic drama, Manfred, begun in 1816 when he was living in Switzerland, was published two hundred years ago.  Although its hero resembles Faust, the poem was, Byron claimed, more influenced by his impressions of the mountain landscape than his reading of Goethe.  There are no lengthy descriptions of scenery in Byron's poem, just enough to convey a sense of the high peaks where it is set (the quotation above is from Act 1 Scene 2: 'The Mountain of the Jungfrau.—Time, Morning. MANFRED alone upon the Cliffs.')  Instead, it is the entire poem that has the sublimity of the Alps, its themes of loss and despair echoing the spectacular but lonely isolation experienced on their heights.  Reading Manfred reminded me that works of art infused with a spirit of place are far more numerous than the ones I tend to restrict myself to here, that describe the actual appearance of a landscape.

Thomas Cole, Scene from 'Manfred', 1833
Source: Wikimedia Commons
There is one reference in Manfred to a natural phenomenon that is based on what Byron saw on 22 September, 1816.   He and his travelling companion John Cam Hobhouse were in the Lauterbrunnen Valley, looking up at the The Staubbach Fall.  Byron wrote in his journal that the torrent reminded him of the tail of a pale horse, such as Death might ride at the Apocalypse.  The next day they returned and Byron noted 'the Sun upon it forming a rainbow of the lower part of all colours – but principally purple and gold – the bow moving as you move – I never saw anything like this – it is only in the Sunshine.'  These impressions were used to set the scene for Act 2 Scene 2, with Byron also including a footnote on the rainbow.
It is not noon; the sunbow’s rays1 still arch
The torrent with the many hues of heaven,
And roll the sheeted silver’s waving column
O’er the crag’s headlong perpendicular,
And fling its lines of foaming light along,
And to and fro, like the pale courser’s tail
The Giant steed, to be bestrode by Death,
As told in the Apocalypse.
1This Iris is formed by the rays of the Sun over the lower part of the Alpine torrents. It is exactly like a rainbow come down to pay a visit, and so close that you may walk into it. This effect lasts till Noon.

A rainbow in the Trümmelbach Falls
Photographed by me, August 2017

We were in the Bernese Oberland ourselves last month and observed one of these rainbows in a waterfall near the one Byron visited.  We also ascended to the top of the Schilthorn, to look as he and Hobhouse had, across to the summit of the Jungfrau.  Byron saw clouds gathering on one side - 'curling up perpendicular precipices – like the foam of the Ocean of Hell during a Springtide – it was white & sulphery – and immeasurably deep in appearance.'  We picked a beautiful clear day, so clear that we could see Mont Blanc.  The downside of this was that the summit was pretty crowded with other tourists.  Even Byron could not enjoy the sight of the Jungfrau in solitude.  'Lying down for a few minutes to contemplate these wonders, Hobhouse and Byron were irritated by the sudden appearance of two or three female tourists on horseback when they had imagined they had the mountain to themselves' (Fiona MacCarthy, Byron: Life and Legend).

The Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau
Photographed by me, August 2017

Byron's hero has to get away from other people: 'my nature was averse from life; / And yet not cruel; for I would not make,  / But find a desolation.'  Manfred thinks he is alone on the summit of the Jungfrau, but he too is disturbed - by the unexpected appearance of a passing chamois hunter.  Death may be Manfred's inevitable fate at the end of the poem, but now, in its opening scene, this hunter prevents him from jumping into the void and leads him back down to safety:
The clouds grow thicker—there—now lean on me—
Place your foot here—here, take this staff, and cling
A moment to that shrub—now give me your hand,
And hold fast by my girdle—softly—well—
The Chalet will be gain’d within an hour.

John Martin, Manfred on the Jungfrau, 1837
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Monday, August 28, 2017

Chain Pier, Brighton

John Constable, Chain Pier, Brighton, 1826-7
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Turner versus Constable...  You can compare the two greatest figures in British landscape art directly in their paintings of the Chain Pier at Brighton - Constable exhibited his at the Royal Academy in 1827 and Turner began work on his a year later.  Why did they both tackle this motif?  The answer relates to the pier itself which was completed in 1823 to facilitate a new steam packet service: a key investor was the great art patron, Lord Egremont.  Constable made a detailed sketch during his first visit to the Brighton in the summer of 1824 - the delay in completing a finished work may have been because he was busy catering for the new market that had opened up in France, following his success at the 1824 Salon.  At this time Turner was also at the peak of his fame, but a decade earlier he had fallen out with Egremont, hitherto his greatest supporter.  They were reconciled though in 1827 and Turner was invited to stay at Petworth House, where he painted a series of marvellous sketches (I have included one of them here previously).  Among the full-scale landscape paintings he completed there is the painting of the pier below, which can still be seen at Petworth.  It includes one of the steamboats from Dieppe which Egremont's investment had helped facilitate. 

J.M.W. Turner, Brighton from the Sea, c. 1829
Source: Tate (Public domain)

In an essay for the exhibition Constable and Brighton, 'Taking on the Chain Pier - and Turner', Ian Warrell notes that Constable emphasises the traditional fishing trade and omits any reference to the steam packet service, but Turner too partially obscures the steamboat behind a group of fishermen. 'Turner fully accepted, welcomed even, the inevitability of technological progress.  But such advances are invariably represented in a way that tugs the emotions for what is passing away, or in danger of being superseded.'  Signs of Brighton's rapid urban expansion are evident in Turner's view, in the new buildings stretching along the coast and in the pollution represented by some discarded vegetables floating in the water (bottom right).  These vegetables inevitably prompted comment, being at eye-level for diners in Petworth's Carved Room. 'However, rather than disagreeing head-on about the desirability of their presence, the tactful Egremont chose to challenge the likelihood that the vegetables would float (something that was then tested, using real vegetables, in a bath tub.'

John Constable, Rainstorm over the sea, c. 1824-8
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The exhibition includes other paintings of Brighton beach by both artists, such as Constable's dramatic oil sketch of a rainstorm.  It also traces the walks Constable made along the coast and onto the Downs, where he sketched the windmills (a particular interest for the son of a mill owner).  Brighton Museum have even produced a leaflet 'In Constable's Footsteps' suggesting a walking route.  The exhibition itself was prompted by the recent identification of the exact house Constable rented in 1824.  A painter who now lives there and who did some of the research into Constable's whereabouts has been given the opportunity to show one of his own paintings in the exhibition (on the evidence of this it was, I think, a wise decision to restrict him to one painting, in contrast to the kind of joint show I mentioned on Saturday in my previous post).  Constable's paintbox and gold medal from the 1824 Salon are on display alongside his paintings, and there is also a small toy stage coach which, according to family legend, kept Constable's children amused on the journey down to Brighton. We didn't try taking our own children to this exhibition but I would certainly recommend it, along with the excellent catalogue.

Saturday, August 26, 2017


Robert Zünd, Buchenwald, 1887
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In English the word 'Buchenwald' is synonymous with horror and darkness, but in German it still denotes one of nature's most beautiful things, a beech forest.  This is a painting by a nineteenth century artist who became known as The Master of the Beech Leaf for his meticulous views of woods.  Robert Zünd (1826-1909) walked and sketched in the forests around Lucerne, producing highly finished landscapes back in the studio that came in different sizes to suit the budgets of different potential buyers.  His work can be found in most Swiss museums but is currently the subject of an exhibition, Bellevue, at the Kunstmuseum Luzern which pairs his paintings with large format analogue photographs by Tobias Madörin.  Madörin is based in Zürich but has travelled widely working on a project called Topos which examines 'communal spaces, the outskirts of metropolises, waste disposals sites, and landscapes marked by agriculture and mining.'  For Bellevue he has taken photographs around Lucerne, based on the compositions and methods of Robert Zünd.

Shows in which contemporary artists respond to old paintings that have hung for decades on museum walls are are very common these days.  Just to mention one other example, I wrote here last year about George Shaw's Back to Nature at the National Gallery.  Publicly funded institutions have a mission to make their collections engaging and accessible, which is why we don't really see the same phenomenon in other more 'private' art forms (though it is easy to imagine an anthology interspersing, say, tales by Poe with stories by a modern weird fiction writer, or an album juxtaposing nineteenth century études with a young composer's new works on similar themes).  The key to making these exhibitions work, I think, is for the artist not to go down the obvious route of producing a kind of 'negative' version of the earlier art.  As you can see above,  Madörin has partially done this in photographing the effects of logging on Zünd's woodland, exposing the economic role of the landscape and questioning the idyllic impression of the original scenes.  But he has also taken pains to produce photographs in tune with Zünd's desire to capture the splendour of natural phenomena.  Zünd could paint a rainbow at leisure in his studio whereas Madörin had to wait for the real thing, pitching a tent and being prepared for a moment when light would shine forth from the stormy sky.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Panorama of Thun

Whilst it is obviously true that any landscape painting loses something in reproduction, this is especially true of a panorama.  It is not just a question of losing the aura of the original artwork; there is the simple optical fact that a rectangular image in a book can give no idea of the experience of a large-scale panorama.  At the Thun Panorama, now housed in a purpose-built building in Schadau Park on the edge of Lake Thun, you can buy a framed reproduction for 95 Swiss Francs that is shrunk to such an extent it barely resembles the 360-degree view you have just seen.  And there is definitely an aura too that no postcard could convey.  This panorama may not have been considered High Art, but it is completely unique as a precious record of the city of Thun at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  It took Marquand Fidelis Wocher (1760-1830) four years to paint and survived the passage of two centuries only with some luck.  It is the oldest surviving panorama in the world.

The modern visitor can feel a connection not just with the original artist as they surveyed a scene now long gone, but with all the viewers who came to see it, in its purpose-built building in Basel.  Many views of Thun and the surrounding Alps were painted for tourists to take home as personal souvenirs, but this single work, intended as a destination in its own right, was as unique as the landscape it depicted.  More so perhaps, because it shows one moment, frozen in time.  Some panorama painters like Thomas Girtin tried to avoid including human activity since the immobility of figures would reduce the verisimilitude of the illusion.  Wocher had no such qualms.  According to Bernard Comment in his book The Panorama, 'no fewer than 360 figures are shown' (was this number deliberate?)  Wocher's people going about their business on the streets and his cats sitting on the rooftops add to the charm of the painting.  This is the sort of town you can imagine a young wanderer coming to in a Romantic story, pausing for a moment as the late afternoon sun begins to gild its towers and soften the outlines of the distant mountains.

The Thun rotunda, built in 1961 to display this panorama after its rediscovery, is criticised by Bernard Comment for bringing the spectator too close to the canvas and failing to screen off the artificial light source.  However, these defects do allow you to see the details of Wocher's painting more clearly.  In Stephen Oettermann's book The Panorama, he notes that its original dimensions were smaller than became customary later in the nineteenth century.  Apparently some visitors to the first panoramas felt dizzy: 'observers adjusted their eyes to the illusion of distant vistas, and then when they walked around on the platform, it seemed as if they were wearing seven-league boots and covering vast distances with each step.  People became disorientated and likely to stumble.  (This effect can still be experienced at the panorama at Thun ... it has a diameter of only thirty-seven feet).'  This recalls to mind the famous Romantic novella Peter Schlemihl's Miraculous Story, published in 1814, the year Wocher completed his panorama.  Schlemihl, shunned by society after selling his shadow to the devil, seeks solace in nature, wandering the world in seven-league boots.  Perhaps if you look carefully enough you will see a shadowless figure somewhere in the Panorama of Thun.  

Images from my own visit to the Thun Panorama
this month - photography is permitted

Friday, August 04, 2017

High Water Everywhere

When it rains five days and the skies turn dark as night...
I woke up early this mornin', a water hole in my back yard...
Backwater rising, come in my windows and door... 
If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break...
I think I heard a moan, on the Arkansas side...
Nothing but muddy water, as far as I could see...
Lord the whole round country, man, is overflowed...
These are lines from songs by Bessie Smith, Barbecue Bob, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, Charlie Patton, Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe McCoy.  They all touch in different ways on the floods of the late twenties, particularly the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.  You can hear clips on the New York Public Radio's list, Great Songs About the Great Flood.  I learnt from the accompanying article that filmmaker Bill Morrison and guitarist-composer Bill Frisell have collaborated recently on a documentary called The Great Flood.  'Morrison’s films are usually inventive, phantasmagorical affairs, built on decaying silent film stock; here he bases his work on archival documentary footage from 1927, and Frisell provides a score that’s full of his eclectic take on Americana, jazz, and contemporary music. The result is a meditation on the American landscape, on loss, and on consequences -- whether intended or not.'  Sadly such floods seem likely to become increasingly common as global warming affects the weather systems that batter the Southern states.

I've been thinking about the blues and landscape this week, after reading Hari Kunzru's new novel, White Tears, which is partly set in Mississippi.  The way his protagonists are lured into the music's mythic history took me back to my own early enthusiasm for it, when finding information about the early musicians or hearing the records was still not straightforward.  As a sixth former I would take a bus to Sussex University library (you could just walk in if you looked like you were meant to be there) and spend time reading publications in the wonderful Jazz Book Club series.  Paul Oliver was the most prominent British writer on the blues and he seemed to have a fantastic life as an architect with a sideline in musical research.  Just now I dug out an anthology of his writings published in 1984, Blues off the Record, and it's noticeable how many of them describe the landscape that gave rise to the music in some detail, as if the blues was an aspect of geography.  His writing is not especially poetic, but any of those southern place names had an exotic poetry.  'As you descend from the hilly, wooded landscape of De Soto, Tate and Panola Counties in Mississippi to the flat bottomlands of the Mississippi River flood-plain, the landscape changes.  Not dramatically, because the hills aren't high enough to be a dramatic contrast, but very noticeably so, all the same...'

The early blues collectors are as fascinating as the singers themselves and much has now been written about them too.  They included people like John Fahey and Al Wilson (Canned Heat) who also made their own music and performed with renowned bluesmen.  I don't usually quote Wikipedia but I thought this paragraph in the entry for Al Wilson interesting, and as I'm a bit short of time at the moment, I will just leave this with you, along with a clip of 'Going up the Country'...
'Wilson was a passionate conservationist who loved reading books on botany and ecology. He often slept outdoors to be closer to nature. In 1969, he wrote and recorded a song, "Poor Moon", which expressed concern over potential pollution of the moon. He wrote an essay called 'Grim Harvest', about the coastal redwood forests of California, which was printed as the liner notes to the Future Blues album by Canned Heat. Wilson was interested in preserving the natural world, particularly the redwood trees. When he died, so too did the Music Mountain organization he had initiated dedicated to this purpose. In order to support his dream, Wilson's family has purchased a "grove naming" in his memory through the Save the Redwoods League of California. The money donated to create this memorial will be used by the League to support redwood reforestation, research, education, and land acquisition of both new and old growth redwoods.'

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Taste of a Stone

The Documenta 14 catalogue is organised in a way that appeals to my fondness for chronologies - each of the 163 living artists is allotted a double page corresponding to a day during the duration of the exhibition, and is also allowed to pick one date that is particularly important for them.  The artists are then ordered in accordance with their special dates, so for example Susan Hiller chose 4 November 1899 (the date Freud's Interpretation of Dreams was published) which means that she gets August 16th, in between artists who went for events in 1900 and 1897.  I'm not sure if this makes sense without looking through the catalogue.. in any case it's not really relevant to what I thought I would do here: highlight those artists in Documenta who have been addressing the landscape in various ways.  This is not necessarily an exhaustive list but it gives an idea of the range of current practice.  Some of these artists are using various media to consider sites round the world that are threatened, contested or marked with traces of recent political change.  Others are finding new approaches to the profusion of new land and environmental art practices that emerged in the sixties.

The landscape as artist
Probably every artist at Documenta is influenced at some level by landscape, but some allow it to act on their own work, bring a chance element to the final product.  Nevin Aladağ has made a sound piece out of furniture for Documenta but she has previously made city symphonies by filming instruments being played by the environment itself.  In City Language I , 'a flute held out the car window is played by the wind; claves tumble down streets; a tambourine skates across the water behind a boat'.  That was in Istanbul; in the video clip below she describes a more recent piece made in the playgrounds and pedestrian areas of Stuttgart.  Another artist who allows the landscape to complete her artworks is the Guatemala-based painter Vivian Suter.   Leaving her work outdoors, 'she befriends deluge and mud; she invites time to act on her canvases in the manner of acid biting an etched plate. Implicit in the work is a politics of insistent experimentation and an embrace of ruin.'

Landscape documentation
Khvay Samnang's is represented at Documenta by work he made in the Areng Valley, the last great forest in Cambodia, now under threat from a hydroelectric dam project.  A few years ago he highlighted pollution in the lakes of Phnom Phen, wading into them and pouring buckets of sand over his head.  Bonita Ely has had similar environmental concerns and is best known for The Murray River Project.  In the video clip below she describes coming to the river in 1977 when concerns over pollution were first emerging.  She did field research at five locations, objectively photographing the water through cartographic grids (she says she is fascinated by maps and the way they reflect our real interests - "we don't make maps of where daisies grow, we don't make maps of how a butterfly flies across the landscape").   The ecology of the river continues to be disrupted through irrigation and the construction of weirs: "the health of the river depends on flooding but nobody wants it to flood."  Ely has recently returned to the original locations to document how they have changed.  She has also reprised a performance piece called Murray River Punch in which she serves up an unappealing cocktail of all the pollutants that are put into the river. 

Landscape performance
Many of the artists here incorporate performance into their multimedia practice.  It might seem a stretch to think of Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens as landscape artists but perhaps we should.  Sprinkle recently took a Guardian journalist on an “ecosexy nature walk” - "a nature walk with a former porn star who keeps encouraging me to find my Eco spot (or E-spot) is much more exciting than anything I’ve seen on Countryfile".  Something perhaps for a future Robert Macfarlane book?  Documenta also contains archival material from the long career of postmodern dance pioneer Anna Halprin.  In their catalogue essay Pierre Bal-Blanc and Lou Forster highlight the continuing importance of her outdoor dance deck, 'built in collaboration with Lawrence, her husband, the landscape architect, urban designer, and ecologist, between 1953 and 1954, in the redwood area of Kentfield, California.'  Performances that relate in different ways to nature and landscape stretch from The Branch Dance (1957) to Spirit of Place (2009). You can see the dance deck in the video clip below.

Land art structures
Agnes Denes is an artist I discussed here in one of my early blog entries, a short post about Tree Mountain.  Much more recently she has made another land art pyramid, in Long Island City, New York.  Candice Hopkins describes it in the Documenta catalogue: 'constructed of stacked wooden terraces filled with soil and thousands of various living plants, the sculpture arcs nine meters up toward the sky.  It is a social structure. Social because the planted material conveys ideas of evolution and regeneration; the work also cultivates a micro-society of people responsible for its planting and ongoing care.'  You can see images of it in a Brooklyn Rail article which praises her pioneering role, as a land artist more interesting in growing things than excavating new landforms.  However, it also notes that she has been criticised for creating in Tree Mountain a version of mono-agriculture, 'the creatures inhabiting her forests aren’t allowed the kind of complex habitat that would be more to their liking. We now know that trees communicate through their root systems, educating their neighbors. Nature has no voice in Denes’s work.'

Artificial landscapes 
Lois Weinberger works with ruderals (plants growing on waste ground) and for this year's exhibition at Kassel 'he has excavated a “cut” through the park beside the Orangerie and then abandoned it to whatever will emerge.'  You can see a similar work made in Cologne on his website - what makes it interesting is the contrast between the 'wild' weeds and carefully mown park grass.  Twenty years ago for Documenta 10, Weinberger 'planted a garden amongst the railway tracks of Kassel’s central station. The plants were cultivated from seeds of ruderal plants collected throughout Central and Eastern Europe, during and after the collapse of communism. These nomadic survivors, ‘foreign immigrants’ to German soil, flourished amongst the transit lines of ‘Old Europe’, subverting any human projection of territorial sovereignty, or fixed borders, and still do so today' (Tom Trevor, 'Lois Weinberger: The Three Ecologies').

Louis Weinberger, What is Beyond the Plants / Is at One with Them, 1997
Source: Wikimedia Commons (Dietmar Walberg)

Political landscapes
Mexican artist Guillermo Galinda has made instruments from objects found along the U.S. border and for Documenta he is is composing new music scores, 'odes for border crossers'.  The video below shows a more spectacular work about the U.S./Mexican border, Repellent Fence by the Postcommodity collective.  Where borders have come down, there is a fascination in what the landscape retains of societies that have been completely changed.  Ulrich Wüst trained as a town planner and began photographing East Germany in the 1970s.  There were usually no people in his images - 'the sozialistischer Staat der Arbeiter und Bauern is symbolically devoid of its titular workers and farmers.'  Edi Hila lives in Tirana and paints buildings that have been left behind in time.  "In these abandoned houses hope and the desire to inhabit them has departed with the migrant. These houses have been transformed into objects, almost weird and absurd..." 

Disappearing landscapes
Here's a good opening line for one of the catalogue entries.  'In August 1988, four days after appearing in the seminal Freeze exhibition with fellow students at Goldsmiths College of Art, Lala Meredith-Vula left London for the Albanian countryside, where she began to photograph haystacks.'  While the YBAs did their thing, she continued making her photographs in what had been Yugoslavia.  'Their forms are governed by habits of working the land, which are older than nations. The needs of animals and the poetic license of farmers play their parts. Yet, even if haystacks do not belong in the polis, are not political subjects per se, they do bear silent witness to history.'  There is actual hay from another part of Eastern Europe in Documenta, woven into the work of Olaf Holzapfel.  His hay canvases are made with local people in a village on the border between Lower Silesia and Greater Poland (as explained in an article in Frieze).  They are part of a complicated installation, Zawn, with components that 'range the gamut from architectural models of medieval churches and nineteenth-century mine shafts to the writings of Austrian critic Kristian Sotriffer and the graphic work of Hermann Glöckner.'

Landscape as memory
Finally, there is art made from the artist's own memories of places that have undergone profound change.  Abel Rodriguez was born around 1944 in the Colombian Amazon and became an expert in plants.  He was employed by a Dutch NGO, Tropenbos International Colombia, that wanted local experts and later moved to the city, assuming a Western name.  There he began working again with the NGO, creating botanical drawings from memory.  These jungle landscapes 'are the visions of someone who sees the potential of plants as food, material for dwellings and clothing, and for use in sacred rites.'  He doesn't consider his pictures as art, but talks about what they show and how the animals and plants in them behave with the changing seasons.  Fish "start going up the river because they know that the water is going to rise, and they're looking for the overflows to enjoy the abundance of worms and seeds."  Monkeys "stay because they like to look at their reflection, as ugly as it is, in the water."

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Hoar Frost

 Camille Pissarro, Landscape, St. Thomas, 1856
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I was reading in the news the other day about a forthcoming Tate exhibition, Impressionists in London, French artists in exile (1870-1904), which will include two views of Kew by Camille Pissarro that have never been shown in the UK before.  I'm sure it'll be interesting, but I'd have been much more curious to see an exhibition that has just finished at Ordrupgaard in Denmark: Pissarro. A Meeting on St. Thomas.  This 'meeting' was with the Danish Golden Age painter Fritz Melbye, who arrived seeking inspiration on St Thomas - now one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, then part of the Danish West Indies - around 1850.  The young Pissarro had been sent away to school in France but was back working for his father whilst aspiring to become an artist.  The two of them became friends and in 1853 they headed off to Venezuela, where they would spend two years sharing a studio before parting company - Pissarro for France and the birth of Impressionism, Melbye for further adventures in the Caribbean and Far East.  

Pissarro is also the subject of an excellent New York Review of Books article by Julian Bell which discusses two more exhibitions dedicated to his work in Paris.  It begins with one of the paintings that appeared in the first Impressionist Exhibition in 1874, Gelée blanche.  This is now in the Musée d'Orsay, who quote the most scornful response from a contemporary reviewer, Louis Leroy: 'those are sheer scratches of paint uniformly put on a dirty canvas. It has neither head or tail, neither top or bottom, neither front or back.''  It is hard to imagine any treatment of this humble motif that would have pleased such critics, but Pissarro's winter earth, painted without earth colours, must have seemed particularly off putting.  You can't simply enter into this landscape, letting the eye be led into the distance.  Hoar Frost is a world away from Pissarro's carefully composed view of St Thomas.  Its rough paint surface is hard going, like the frosty ground beneath the peasant's feet.

Camille Pissarro, Hoar Frost, 1873
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The whole of Julian Bell's article on Pissarro is well worth reading, but here is how he explains the particular magic of Hoar Frost.  
'Oil painting can turn shadows from nothings into palpable somethings: slabs of rich color. The gently rising Île-de-France farmland depicted in Hoar Frost (Gelée blanche à Ennery) becomes an intricate weaving of russets, blue-greens, umbers, and pale yellows as morning sun shines on it from behind a row of poplars. As you approach the canvas, the bristles that have scuffed it with stiff, clotted brushloads seem to rasp your skin, and you are jolted into a poetry of chill January: a poetry sustained by close plein air observation and resolved with a scrupulous completeness.
'At the same time, you may perhaps register the oddness of the operation. Those long stripes of shadow criss-crossing the ruts and country road are cast by no visible object. The colors of what’s sunlit and the colors of what isn’t meet in stout equivalence on the canvas, but for anyone on the scene—say that trudging peasant with his load of sticks—the former would have priority. We expect grass to be green more than we expect it to be blue. In effect, the shadows spook the comfortable farmland, nagging us with the consideration that a further unseen presence stands beneath the poplars, that of the observing artist.'