Saturday, January 20, 2018

Frail songs by torrents

Yesterday evening I listened yesterday to a recent episode of 'Late Junction' in which Anne Hilde Neset was taken by Jana Winderen to a snowy forest just outside Oslo to discuss field recording. I have embedded a clip of this below, although I'm not sure how long it will be available.  I would actually recommend listening to the whole programme while you can (among other things it includes a wonderful Morton Feldman tribute on what would have been his ninety-second birthday, David Fennessy's 'Piano Trio - Music for the pauses in a conversation between John Cage and Morton Feldman').  Winderen talks about the way the sounds of the forest change completely day by day - sound like light has to be captured instantly or it is gone forever.  She has been waiting many years to catch a particular lake when it is just about freezing.  At that moment the ice is like a drum skin and if you tap it you can hear the sound flying over the surface.  But on the rare occasions when the lake has been in this state, she has happened to be without her equipment. "Then I just have to listen to it with my ears and remember that, recorded in my memory".

After listening to this programme I took up a book, the latest collection of Thomas A Clark's poems, Farm by the Shore.  As I read it, I kept thinking of the deep listening and close attention to landscape that Jana Winderen describes.  Poems refer to the drone of the wind, the water song in leaves, the lapping of little waves, unquiet on quiet.  A small brown bird hidden in glancing light seems to vanish when it stops singing.  There is often a focus on such moments, when what is observed offers an insight into the processes of thought.  'Quicker than tadpoles / in pools the shadows / of tadpoles in pools / or the notion of shadows / of tadpoles in pools.'  There are places, these poems suggest, to which you can retreat to tune the mind or simply find repose in the shadows of trees.  Jana Winderen's recording includes the sound of tadpoles at rest, hibernating in their cold winter pools, waiting for spring.  Waiting is essential for her too, as she "concentrates into the environment" and begins to notice small things or experience chance phenomena like snow falling from a tree.  It is easy to picture Thomas A Clark walking the winter woods and listening to them with similar quiet patience: 'snowflakes on eyelashes / frail songs by torrents.'

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Lichens and Ferns on a Rock Face

Gherardo Cibo, Men Collecting Specimens on a Hillside, 16th century

This illuminated manuscript page shows specimen hunters on an Italian hillside, equipped with sickle, mattock and sack.  They are so intent on their work they seem oblivious to the beautiful sunset behind them.  It was painted by the amateur botanist Gherardo Cibo (1512-1600) who illustrated his own researches in Urbino and incorporated elements of the surrounding landscape into his botanical illustrations.  The example below is one of several that can be seen at the British Library page for 'Additional MS. 22332'.  In addition to the Daphnoides it shows 'a botanist gathering plants on a mountainside and a fortified town and river in the background.'  In other paintings of specimens we see a countrywoman gathering plants, a man sitting on a fallen column, people harvesting olives, a person reading a book and a man hitting a snake with a branch.  But it his distant views that are particularly appealing - a flock of sheep, a weir and watermill, a fortified town, a port, a rocky island, a mountainous landscape.  Cibo's people are in scale with these landscapes; it is the plants that have grown to giant proportions, like a Fumewort under which two young girls are able to sit in the shade and chat.

Gherardo Cibo, Daphne Laureola (Spurge-laurel), 16th century 

I came upon the painting of specimen hunters last week in the 'Herbology' section of the British Library's exhibition Harry Potter: A History of Magic.  There is clearly something magical about the other pictures in the MS too, as Cibo transforms herbs into plants the size of trees.  J. K. Rowling's treatment of landscape is something I can't really discuss as I've not read her books (though I have caught the gist of the story while Mrs Plinius was reading them to our kids and seen bits of the Harry Potter movies). The exhibition is excellent though, whether you're bothered about Harry Potter or not, with many interesting objects and books in addition to the Gherardo Cibo herbal.  However, one manuscript that wasn't on display was the second one by Cibo that the Library owns, 'Additional MS. 22333'.  The images on the British Library page include two seascapes and a landscape, along with the delightful view below, which at first appears to be a typical sixteenth century depiction of the Italian countryside, until you see the outsize lichens and ferns growing over the surface of the rocky hillside.

 Gherardo Cibo, Lichens and Ferns on a Rock Face, 1584

Saturday, January 06, 2018

The sea like a vortex

"The sixth storm, rain. Just barely saved the boat. The sea like a vortex, the surf like cannon fire. The tent broke. Wonderfully beautiful." - Tove Jansson
In the middle of the Tove Jansson exhibition, which is on for a few more days at Dulwich Picture Gallery, there are three large paintings of waves: Abstract Sea (1963), Weathering (1965), Eight Beaufort (1966).  You can see the first of these reproduced in the Telegraph's review, 'Revelatory show about the Moomins creator'. They were painted after she had returned to painting, in the wake of abstract expressionism and after having spent two decades creating the world of the Moomins.  As Tuula Karjalainen writes in the catalogue, Jansson was at this point 'so committed to storytelling that she usually included a figurative element even in her abstract works.  As subjects, she often selected motifs that in themselves already appeared abstract', hence these studies of the sea.  It was also at this time that she was planning and building her cottage on Klovharun island - the quotation above describes her experience camping there before construction began.  The islands of the Finnish archipelago appear through her art and have become part of the imaginative world of anyone who has loved Moominpappa at Sea or The Summer Book.

Thirty years before these abstract sea paintings, at the beginning of her painting career, Tove Jansson painted landscapes in strong colours which are reminiscent of early twentieth century Primitive, Symbolist and Surrealist artists (looking at them I thought of Rousseau, Munch and Nash).  These inevitably prefigure the later Moomin illustrations, like a set of watercolours in this exhibition showing scenes from The Dangerous Journey (1976).  The most striking of her early landscape compositions is actually called Mysterious Landscape and has no precise date.  Mostly painted in cold shades of blue, it shows ghostly trees lining a path to a white building that reminded me of what I saw last year at dusk in Stockholm's woodland cemetery.  Paths of light lead up dark mountains, bare trees burn bright red, and in the distance there is a moonlit fjord.  It seems to be part of a strange and magical story that at the time, before Moomintroll came along, she was still just telling to herself.

Monday, January 01, 2018

There Lies the Temple

Today I launched a new initiative, to post 365 landscapes on Twitter over the course of 2018.  In doing this I am using a format (see above) which will usually include a telling detail in addition to the main image, in this case a dark idol just beyond the brow of the yellow hill.  Whether people on twitter will find this interesting I am not sure, but it is giving me a chance to look across the whole field of landscape art and share the things I find most interesting.  And by allowing myself only one landscape per artist, it is possible to cover quite a lot of ground in 365 tweets.  I have pretty much planned the selections out already so am able to say now that they are all interesting and (mostly) beautiful artworks - there's been no need to include dull canvasses by second-rate Impressionists or attempt full coverage of all the minor Dutch landscape painters.  The one key rule I am setting myself is only to include artists who died before 1948.  This is obviously for copyright reasons, but also helps restrict the field a bit; in addition to nothing post-war, it means I will not be including anything by artists like Georges Braque, Georgia O'Keeffe or Giorgio de Chirico.  I will mainly focus on painting but will include some work in other media - drawings, photographs, tapestry, stained glass, mosaic.  The coverage will be worldwide, though with an inevitable focus on Western art (the other main tradition is Chinese painting).

One thing that struck me from the outset in doing this was how difficult it would be to achieve adequate representation of women artists.  In Europe, before the late nineteenth century, women painters did not generally specialise in landscape.  One of the images I have lined up for later this month illustrates the point.  It is a pastel sketch of an Alpine lake, made during a summer holiday, by Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, who was renowned throughout Europe as a portrait painter (subjects included Marie Antoinette, Lady Hamilton and Lord Byron).  Another of my selections is by Berthe Morisot, whose best known subjects are her domestic interiors, even though her first appearance at the Paris Salon, in 1864, was with two landscapes.  It is only towards the end of the period that you find professional women landscape painters whose work really stands out, and some of these could be better known - Zdenka Braunerová (1858-38) for example, who will also be featuring in January.  I'd love one day to see an exhibition gathering together a whole range of pre-twentieth century landscape art by women artists.  A fourth one on my list for January is Emily Carr, whose work I featured here following a retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery.  The next post on this blog will be about a more recent artist whose work I saw at Dulwich last week, Tove Jansson.

I will conclude here with a few more words about Paul Gauguin's painting (sometimes called 'Sacred Mountain'), which shows a marae, or sacred enclosure, in the Marquesas Islands.  It is, like most (perhaps all?) of the landscapes I'll be tweeting about, a product of the artist's imagination.  Gauguin was inspired to paint and sculpt images based on Tahitian traditional religion and the gods that had been suppressed by Chirstian missionaries.  However, as Joseph J. Rishel explains (see the Philadelphia Museum site), 'the fence with its decoration of skulls, the idol on the hill, and the evocation of sacrifice in a thread of smoke ascending before the demanding god have no basis in Tahitian culture, Gauguin has created another kind of paradise in the opulence of his colour and the splendid sensuality of his images.'  Robert Goldwater (Gauguin, 1957) wrote that the artist had painted a kind of 'Olympus bathed in light, somewhere above the world of men. The baleful fence tells us we are shut out from it, and mortal, but the bright flowers remind us that this is still a world of life and lovely colour.'

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Primeval world

Josef Kuwasseg, The Period of the Muschelkalk, c. 1850

This remarkable vision of a prehistoric shoreline was painted by an Austrian landscape painter, Josef Kuwasseg (1799-1859).  The paleobotonist Franz Xaver Unger who commissioned a series of lithographs from him said that such paintings had "that mysterious charm which belongs to the contemplation of the distant past, and to the memory of our dreams."  This painting is reproduced in a sumptuously illustrated (and pricey) new book that I was given for Christmas, Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past.  It traces the ways artists have portrayed scenes from the distant past over the last two centuries, incorporating stylistic elements from Romanticism, Impressionism, Fauvism and Art Nouveau.  The author, New York art critic Zoë Lescaze, also reads into these old pictures of dinosaurs, flying reptiles and neanderthals the politics of paleontology (ongoing battles between rival scientists) and our wider anxieties about war and apocalypse. 

Josef Kuwasseg, Primeval world, c. 1850

I have referred briefly here before to paleoart, in describing an exhibition of John Martin's paintings at Tate Britain.  Martin imagined plesiosaurs attacking an ichthyosaur as if they were engaged in fierce naval combat.  But, 'if Martin's vision of prehistory is a nightmare, Kuwasseg's is a subtle and mysterious dream.  Water appears in every painting, not as a seething arena for reptilian combat, but in flowing rivers, mangrove deltas, jungle waterfalls, and luminous green lagoons.'  It is easy enough to find examples of Joseph Kuwasseg's 'real' landscape painting online, like the one I have included below, a view of the Leopoldsteinersee, a mountain lake in Styria.  Zoë Lescaze writes that in his more conventional landscape art,
'Kuwasseg frequently includes illuminated corridors - rivers, paths, or gaps in the trees - framed by darker houses, rocks, or foliage.  He incorporates these same visual tunnels in his prehistoric vistas, leading the viewers into carboniferous swamps as though they were inviting stretches of the Austrian countryside.'

Josef Kuwasseg, Leopoldsteinersee, no date
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Another landscape painter featured in Paleoart is Heinrich Harder (1858-1935), who designed the remarkable mosaics for the aquarium at Berlin Zoo which were destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943 and then painstakingly restored in 1982.  Examples of his paintings of the German countryside on various auction websites give no indication of the Jugendstil influence in his mosaic designs, with their Hokusai waves and Hodler skies.  The painting of sea lilies below is from a set of collectible cards, 'Animals of the Prehistoric World' (it is atypical as most show examples of megafauna wandering through ancient landscapes).  Several paleoartists have worked on such cards - Harder's were made for a chocolate manufacturer.  When I was growing up we used to get PG Tips tea for the cards, so one of the sources of my own knowledge on dinosaurs was their series Prehistoric Animals (1972). 

Heinrich Harder, Sea Lilies, c. 1920
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Recalling now my childhood fascination with dinosaurs, I would say it was stimulated by a range of sources, from films like The Land That Time Forgot to trips to see the skeletons at the Natural History Museum and Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins' wonderful old sculptures in Crystal Palace Park (see below).  When it came to paleoart though, my main inspiration was Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Reptiles (1960), illustrated by Rudolph Zallinger, an artist best known for The Age of Reptiles, a fresco for the Peabody Museum's Great Hall.  There are scanned images from this book at the blog Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs (I try not to include in copyright stuff here).  By the 1960s Zallinger was working on a new fresco for the Peabody, completed the year I was born, called The Age of the Mammals.  'In this sixty-foot mural,' Zoë Lescaze writes, 'the pumpkin-orange earth crackles against a brilliant blue sky. Trees run the autumnal gamut with red, green and golden foliage.  The animals, pounce, stalk, scavenge, forage, and flee.'
Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, Iguanadons at Crystal Palace, 1854
My own photograph from a visit in 2008

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Landscape of the Megaliths

Lucas de Heere, Stonehenge, c. 1572
Images: Wikimedia Commons

In British Art: Ancient Landscapes, a catalogue published last year for an exhibition at The Salisbury Museum, Sam Smiles describes the history of artistic engagement with Britain's ancient stone circles and chalk figures.  It goes roughly as follows:
  • In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, illustrations to accompany the writings of early antiquarians like William Stukeley.  The first known painting was by a Flemish artist, Lucas de Heere.
  • From the mid eighteenth century, topographical engravings and watercolours by artists like Thomas Hearne and Samual Prout.
  • Romantic era paintings of Celtic bards and druids, along with the stone circles in William Blake's vision of Albion.
    William Blake, Milton: a Poem, c. 1811
    "All things begin & end in Albion's ancient Druid rocky shore: But now the Starry Heavens are fled from the mighty limbs of Albion."  

  • Also at this time, dramatically composed paintings of Stonehenge with Sublime, stormy skies by the great figures in British landscape art: Girtin, Turner, Constable.
  • Then relatively few Victorian paintings, but a revival of interest among the Neo-Romantics - Paul Nash, John Piper, Henry Moore - who drew on Surrealism, Primitivism and abstract art, but also took an interest in the findings of twentieth century archaeology.
  • In the inter-war years, sights like Stonehenge, The Long Man of Wilmington were celebrated in Shell posters and their strong, simple forms made them ideal subjects for prints and watercolours by contemporary artists like Eric Ravilious.
  • After the war attention turned to urban subjects but there was a revivial of interest in the late sixties and new forms of engaging with the monuments: the walks of Richard Long, Derek Jarman's film, Journey to Avebury.  
  • Finally, the present day, and it is surprising that the exhibition couldn't find more recent artworks shaped by psychogeography, hauntology and modern antiquarianism.  The story currently ends with Jeremy Deller, whose bouncy Stonehenge I featured here back in 2012.

    John Constable, Stonehenge, 1835

Postscript 27/12/17

After putting a link to this post on Twitter, the excellent @BL_prints alerted me to a Sam Smiles piece on their blog, which tells the story above up to the early nineteenth century.  Here's a brief extract for you, his final two paragraphs, with an image from the BL website
The aesthetic presentation of prehistoric structures was most successful when their massiveness and monumentality was heightened by the artist’s approach. The topographer John Britton recruited very capable artists to illustrate his numerous publications: the title page of the third volume of his survey The Beauties of Wiltshire (1825) includes an engraving of 1812, based on a drawing by John Sell Cotman. The subject is the cromlech on Marlborough Downs known as the Devil’s Den and the impact of the image relies on close focus, a low horizon and a stormy sky.
This tendency to exaggerate the sublimity associated with these monuments, concentrating on their enigmatic, even weird presence in the landscape, ran the risk of removing them from topography completely. The key instance of this approach is probably JMW Turner’s watercolour of Stonehenge, engraved in 1829 for Charles Heath’s Picturesque Views in England and Wales (1827–38). Turner had visited the site at least twice, in 1799 and 1811, and had studied it carefully. His watercolour, however, sacrifices detail for theatrical effect as Stonehenge becomes the setting for a spectacular thunderstorm, with sheep killed by lightning, their shepherd struck down and his dog howling at the sky. Here, then, topography’s ideal of the accurate record surrenders almost completely to the artistic impulse.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

A winding river and a bridge

Jan Van Eyck, The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (detail - full picture below), c. 1435-7
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this year I discussed a miniature in Christopher de Hamel's Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts.  Here I want to share a quote from his earlier book, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts (1986, revised 1994).  Its subject, way a landscape is transmitted and through successive works of art, is one I have touched on before in connection with Albrecht Dürer.  The way repetition introduces change is something that has fascinated modern artists, from Warhol's screen prints to Basinski's Disintegration Loops, although in this case the alterations are more deliberate.  The quote is quite long but it it conveys what is so appealing about de Hamel's writing, both highly accessible and rigorously scholarly.  (Incidentally, my parents saw him deliver a talk earlier this month, where he described his discovery of what may be the actual book Thomas Becket was carrying when he was assassinated.)  Here, de Hamel is discussing a Paris-based illuminator called the Bedford Master, named for two books he made for the Duke of Bedford, Henry V's brother and regent of France following the victory at Agincourt.  But the story (probably) begins with one of the greatest fifteenth century paintings, Jan van Eyck's The Madonna and Chancellor Rolin, now in the Louvre.

'In the background, seen over the rampart and battlements of a castle, is a marvellous distant view of a winding river and a bridge with people hurrying across and (if one peers closely) a castle on an island and little rowing boats and a landings stage.  It was painted about 1435-7.  The view is now famous as one of the earliest examples of landscape painting.  The Bedford Master must have admired it too, perhaps in Rolin's house where the original was probably kept until it was bequeathed to the church at Autun.  The same landscape was copied almost exactly, even to the little boats and the bends in the river, into the backgrounds of several miniatures from the circle of the Bedford Master such as the former Marquess of Bute MS. 93, fol. 105r, and the mid-fifteenth century Hours of Jean Dunois in the British Library (Yates Thompson MS 3, fol. 162r).  It was adapted slightly for Bedford miniatures such as Malibu, J. Paul Getty Museum, MS. Ludwig IX.6, fol. 100r, where the fortified bridge has contracted into part of a castle.  Nicolas Rolin has been transmogrified into David in penance.  In this case, one can assume that Jan Van Eyck had invented the design, unless, of course, he was consciously copying a Bedford Master Book of Hours and was depicting Rolin as penitent.  The scene gets gradually transformed in other manuscripts into the usual view from the palace of King David in the miniature to illustrate the Penitential Psalms in northern France and then in Flanders.  The battlements stay on but the river becomes a lake and then a courtyard (still with little people hurrying to and fro) in the Ghent/Bruges Books of Hours of the sixteenth century.  The Bedford Master's sketch of a detail in a portrait that interested him was transformed remarkably, over a hundred years, as one illuminator after another duplicated and adapted the original pattern.'
The circle of the Bedford Master, Idleness in the Penitential Psalms, mid 15th century

I have found online one of the examples quoted above, the British Library MS, but cannot find images of the others (they are in private collections).  I will end here instead with another painting, less closely copied but still clearly inspired by Van Eyck.  This is Rogier van Der Weyden's wonderful Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, painted just a few years later in around 1440.  The original is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and would be one of the first things I'd head for if I ever get to go there (I can't write this without thinking of Jonathan Richman's song 'Girlfriend'...)  But there are three other versions of it, in Bruges, Munich and St Petersburg.  The figures looking out over the landscape, it's been suggested, refer to the paragone debate, drawing our attention to the ability of painting to convey a vista like this, in a way that sculpture, the art of three dimensions, cannot.  It is as if they are admiring the artistry of Van der Weyden in creating the world they themselves inhabit.  In Van Eyck's painting, the figure looking over the parapet on the right may be the artist himself - the man in the National Gallery's possible-self-portrait is wearing a similar red turban.  In the British Library MS. there is only one man gazing onto the landscape; the second is riding along on a donkey, the personification of idleness with his head in his hand.  But both are wearing versions of Van Eyck's red turban.  

Rogier van Der Weyden, Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, c. 1440
Source: Wikimedia Commons