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.