Sunday, November 19, 2017

The stiff-feathered pines shed their darkness

Six years ago I wrote about The Peregrine (1967) and its elusive author, J. A. Baker.  I was prompted in part by the airing of a radio play about him, written by Helen MacDonald.  The book she subsequently published, H is for Hawk, contrasts T. H. White's The Goshawk (1951) with Baker's bleaker vision, his 'awful desire for death' disguised as an elegy for the peregrine.  I also referred to a new edition of Baker's complete works, edited by John Fanshawe, which included the diaries used as source material for The Peregrine.  Fanshawe has been chiefly responsible for assembling the Baker archive at Essex University and in Robert Macfarlane's recent book, Landmarks, he describes the experience of encountering this collection of notebooks, manuscripts, annotated maps and binoculars.  One more thing I mentioned in that earlier post, an album by Lawrence English, is described in an appreciation of Baker, written earlier this year by Robert Macfarlane to mark the fiftieth anniversary of The Peregrine.  Apparently, English sent a copy of The Peregrine to Werner Herzog, who was gripped by it:
'Herzog describes The Peregrine as inducing “ecstasy” in the radical sense of the word: not just entranced or frenzied, but literally beside oneself. There are moments, he notes, “where you can tell that [Baker] has completely entered into the existence of a falcon. And this is what I do when I make a film: I step outside of myself into an ekstasis; in Greek, to step outside of your own body.”  ... The puzzle to me, for years, was why Herzog had not yet filmed The Peregrine. In 2015, I wrote to ask if he was planning to do so. “If anyone can, it should be you,” I said. I sent him a photograph of my local peregrine perched on a church spire, part-gargoyle. Herzog replied within a few hours, generous about my own writing on Baker, but adamant about the book’s adaptability: “A feature film would be very wrong. There are texts that should never be touched. Georg Büchner’s Lenz is one of these cases. In fact, whoever tries to make a feature film of The Peregrine should be shot without trial.”
This story got retold at an LRB Bookshop event last Wednesday.  The event was compèred by the sans pareil Gareth Evans and featured John Fanshawe, Robert Macfarlane and his former student, Hetty Saunders, who got inspired by Baker after taking a course on post-pastoral literature.  She has catalogued the Baker archive and written a fascinating short biography based on what can be gleaned from it.  This book, My House of Sky, includes an evocative selection of archive photographs that take you directly into Baker's world (these pages, incidentally, reminded me of Nick Drake: Remembered for a While, which also reproduced archival material on another intriguing cult figure from the late sixties).  Here is just one example of these pages, a bird watching diary from 1955, the year after J. A. Baker first saw a peregrine falcon.

The archive features a set of photographs that were taken of J. A. Baker's bookshelves.  Only one is included in the biography, along with a brief list of authors he is known to have read (J. G. Ballard is mentioned, but no specific titles).  However, the archive refers to a catalogue John Fanshawe made from the photographs and this can be found online at the Essex University Special Collections website.  His spreadsheet has gaps - for example, he lists as a blank what looks to me, from the indistinct image in My House of Sky, to be the spine of Arthur C. Clarke's Four Great SF Novels (I'm not certain of this identification, but I did spend my youth hunting for SF novels rather than goshawks and peregrines...)  The Ballard books are in the spreadsheet, although not all are named; there were quite a few, from The Drowned World through Crash to Empire of the Sun.  However, aside from these there aren't any startling titles that stand out and the collection is largely as you would expect.  I was slightly surprised in the LRB Bookshop talk when Robert Macfarlane likened Baker to H.D and the Objectivists - there's no evidence in this list of him reading these or any other post-Poundian poets.

My House of Sky also includes photographs of the annotations Baker made to proof-copies of his books, returning to them after they were published to study the effectiveness of his prose.  There are two pages from The Hill of Summer (the less-successful second and final book that he published), showing where he marked metaphors and similes and counted up the verbs and adjectives.  As these are landscape descriptions, it seems fitting to conclude a post on this blog with an example.  Here is the first paragraph of 'May: the Pine Wood', showing Baker's 'M's, 'S's and underlinings.
'The pine wood hides the sun, like a dark northernS god rising in menaceM above the white road that falls steeply to the west, and the small green hills beyond are recedingM into a grey autumnal haze.  The high town silvers in sunlight, and its sky is barbed with curvingM swifts.  But already the night's simplicity is settling uponM the valley.  Under the exoticM flowering of the early lights, a blue Venetian duskM laps at the windows of the shadowed houses.  As I watch, the high townM is extinguished, and its shiningM sky ascends.  The stiff-featheredM pines shed their darkness into the still air.'

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


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.'