Friday, March 16, 2018

Feelings from Mountain and Water

Feelings from Mountain and Water (山水情) is essentially an animated ink painting. It is a film about a master of the guqin, an instrument that seems to embody the Chinese landscape, as I have discussed in earlier posts on this blog.  The master and pupil are seen in various shan shui (rivers and mountains) settings, painted in a minimal and near-monochrome style.  We see the changing of the seasons and hear the sound of blowing wind and running water (there is no dialogue).  The camera pans across misty mountains which emerge out of the mist as ink spreads on paper.  I have embedded the film above - it only lasts 20 minutes.

Feelings from Mountain and Water was made in Shanghai in 1988 by the renowned Chinese animator Te Wei (1915-2010).  His ink wash technique, developed in the late fifties, was based on that of painter Qi Baishi (1864-1957), who was in turn influenced by Bada Shanren (1626 - 1705).  There is a fishing scene in Feelings From Mountain and Water that resembles Bada Shanren's Fish and Rocks (1696), a painting I've written about here before and featured today in my regular landscape 'tweet of the day'.  Another influence, evident in The Cowboy's Flute (1963), was the painter Li Keran (1907-89).  It was soon after the release of this film that the Cultural Revolution brought Te Wei's career to a sudden halt and, as Alex Dudok de Wit has written in a piece for the BFI site, he was interned in solitary confinement for a year, beaten, deprived of sleep and obliged to pen self-criticisms.  He kept himself sane by drawing sketches on the glass pane of a table, erasing them when guards approached.  Later he worked on a pig farm with his fellow animator A Da and it was only after Mao's death that they could consider returning to their work.

Feelings from Mountain and Water can now be seen as the culmination of Te Wei's career.  In 1989 he was honoured as one of the four outstanding Chinese filmmakers, and yet, as de Wit writes, 'the artist who had survived the Cultural Revolution did not weather the transition to the market economy, and he did not work in the last two decades of his life.'  Perhaps Te Wei's style of animation will be carried forward by others?  The knowledge that this was his last film gives added poignancy to the final scene involving the old master, in which he plays a qin that is merely a blur of ink, surrounded by layers of mist.  The precious instrument is passed on to his student, who plays it as the master's boat travels up the screen and into the distance until it seemingly fades into the sky.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Nine acres of orchids

'The fluttering swallows leave on their homeward journey;
The forlorn cicada makes no sound;
The wild geese call as they travel southwards;
The partridge chatters with a mournful cry.'
'Jiu bian', 'Nine Changes', is a set of poems attributed to Song Yu, a third century BCE poet about whom little is known.  Charles Hartman has described them as 'the locus classicus for later Chinese poetry of autumnal melancholy.'  David Hawkes translated them in his version of Chu ci (The Songs of the South) the collection in which they have come down to us (the second great source of Chinese poetry, along with The Book of Odes). He contrasts 'Jiu bian' with the great poem that opens the anthology, 'Li sao' ('Encountering Sorrow'), by Qu Yuan.
''Li sao' is full of allegorical flowers, birds and trees, but its author [...] has little time for contemplating the world of nature.  It would be hard to imagine him composing the magnificent threnody to dying nature with which 'Jiu bian' begins.  In 'Jiu bian' we encounter, perhaps for the first time, a fully developed sense of what the Japanese call mono no aware, the pathos of natural objects, which was to be the theme of so much Chinese poetry through the ages.' 
The author of 'Jiu bian' is all too aware of the passing years, expressing sentiments that strike a chord with me in my bleaker moments...
'I have left behind my blossom-burgeoning prime:
Sere and withered, I am full of melancholy.
First autumn heralds with warning of white dew;
Then winter redoubles rigour with bitter frost.'
'Song Yu Mourns Autumn' is a qin tune from the Xilutang Qintong (1525 CE), recorded by John Thompson and available on his wonderful silkqin website.

Yokoyama Taikan, Qu Yuan, 1898
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Qu Yuan, China's first great poet, was banished from the court of King Huai of Chu (who reigned from 328 to 299 BCE) and drowned himself in the River Miluo.  He is now associated with the Dragon Boat Festival, celebrated each year on the anniversary of his death.  'Li sao' may not contain landscape description but it is full of symbolic flowers.  Some of these clearly represent people at the Chu court: 'I thought that orchid could be trusted ... Pepper is full of flattery'.  Here (to swap translators) is Burton Watson's version of a few lines of 'Li sao', comparing Qu's official career to the planting of a garden. 
'In the past I planted nine acres of orchids,
sowed a hundred fields with heliotrope,
set out peonies and cart-halt flowers,
mixed them with asarums and fragrant angelica,
hoping their stems and leaves would flourish and grow firm,
looking for the time when I could reap them.
Though they wither and die, how would that pain me?'
Qu Yuan and Song Yu both often feature in later writing.  'The Poetic Exposition on Gao-tang', for example, was probably written about Song Yu by a Han Dynasty writer.  In Stephen Owen's translation it begins thus:
'Once upon a time King Xiang of Chu visited the high terrace of Yun-meng with Song Yu, when he gazed of toward the lodge of Gao-tang.  Above it was a mass of cloudy vapors, first rising up towering, then suddenly changing its aspect, so that in a moment there were endless transformations...'
Song Yu explains to the king that these are 'the clouds of dawn' which 'billow out like the perpendicular pine' and then 'glow like a comely maiden.'  They recall the goddess who visited a former king of Chu in a dream and made love to him.  On leaving she said she would be 'found on Wu Mountain's sunlit slope, on the steeps of the high hill.  In the early morning I am the clouds of dawn; in the evening I am the passing rain.'  This is the origin of the poetic term for sexual intercourse which you find in Chinese literature, 'clouds and rain.'

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

The calmness of that beauty

I was pleased when Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize last year, partly because I loved The Buried Giant, despite the misgivings of some critics.  Of all his novels, the one that seems to be most universally admired is The Remains of the Day, the story, in Salmon Rushdie's phrase, of 'a man destroyed by the ideas upon which he has built his life.'  It is narrated by the butler Mr Stevens as he slowly makes his way to the West Country on a rare holiday from his duties, hoping to be reunited after twenty years with the former housekeeper of Darlington Hall.  Near the beginning of his journey, he stops the car and climbs a hill to enjoy the view.  His idea of what it is that we appreciate at such moments encapsulates some of the novel's most important themes.  It hints at his misguided allegiance to an outdated idea of Englishness, exaggerated through a lifetime of service and deference, and it exemplifies his belief in the importance of restraint, something that will be shown to have had regrettable consequences for the course of his own life.
'...when I stood on that high ledge this morning and viewed the land before me, I distinctly felt that rare, yet unmistakable feeling - the feeling that one is in the presence of greatness.  We call this land of ours Great Britain, and there may be those who believe this is a somewhat immodest practice. Yet I would venture that the landscape of our country alone would justify the use of this lofty adjective.
  And yet what precisely is this greatness? Just where, or in what, does it lie? I am quite aware it would take a far wiser head than mine to answer such a question, but if I were forced to hazard a guess, I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart.  What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.  In comparison, the sorts of sights offered in such places as Africa and America, though undoubtedly very exciting, would, I am sure, strike the objective viewer as inferior on account of their unseemly demonstrativeness.
   The whole question is very akin to the question that has caused much debate in our profession over the years: what is a 'great' butler?...'

lllustration by Finn Campbell-Notman for
 the Folio edition of The Remains of the Day

Friday, March 02, 2018

Anglers, Mülheim

Last week we went to the reopened Hayward Gallery for its big Andreas Gursky retrospective.  Twenty years ago, everyone seemed to be talking about Gursky: there was, for example, a show at the Serpentine in 1999, and a year earlier he won the Photographers Gallery Citibank Prize (now called the Deutsche Börse Prize).  'This is an artist whose time it appears has come,' wrote Robin Muir, 'as anyone would attest who was held up in the bottleneck of admirers lingering over his floor-to-ceiling pictures at the show of shortlisted Citibank entries in March' (I would have been one of those admirers).  Photographs from that time, like Salerno (1990) and Paris, Montparnasse (1993), have became famous, whilst Rhein II (1999) and 99 Cent II Dyptich (2001) both broke auction records for the world's most expensive photograph (my friend Tom has a print of the latter up in his kitchen and I suspect he is not alone in this...)  All these years later I was curious to see what Gursky has been doing recently and whether he had found new approaches to landscape photography beyond such spectacular, digital-altered compositions as Bahrain I (2005), in which a desert race track was turned into something resembling an abstract painting.

Many of the recent works on show at the Hayward are fictionalised tableaux, a new direction certainly, but not as immediately likeable as his early work.  I confess I struggled to get the point of SH I, in which a superhero (Iron Man) and his love interest are seen embracing on a tropical beach.  But Gursky is also still photographing scenes of the technological sublime, such as Les Mées (2016), a striking view of a solar farm covering a hillside in France that is reproduced on the exhibition poster (above).  The most recent photograph in the show is also a landscape image, Utah (2017), and it certainly impressed The Guardian's critic, Laura Cumming:
'The show’s masterpiece is unlike almost anything Gursky has made before. It is a new work, a single shot of some prefab houses skimmed on a mobile phone while driving through Utah. The photograph registers the speed of the car racing through the landscape – and modern life – in all its random glitches and blurs. At the same time, the houses look perilously ephemeral against the ancient mountains behind them. This fragile little thing, a spontaneous and disposable shot, is enlarged to the size of a cinema screen – a monumental homage to the mobile phone and the outsize role it plays in depicting our times'
Leaving the exhibition I found myself thinking how much I still love Gursky's earliest photographs.  They reminded me of my most recent trip to The Photographers Gallery, to see 'Wim Wenders' Polaroids', although of course Gursky's views of West Germany are on a much larger scale.  Anglers, Mülheim (1989), for example, is an impressive take on our modern landscape, a place neither urban or rural.  Greg Hilty described it well in his essay for the catalogue of another 1990s exhibition, Tate Liverpool's 'Andreas Gursky: Images' (1995).
'Two groups of fishermen sit on the banks of a quiet river, some distance apart, in uneasy relation to each other and to their pseudo-idyllic surroundings.  In the distance we glimpse a motorway bridge, leading into the space behind the trees in front of which the anglers sit.  We know we're on the fringes of a town, we can hear the cars in the distance, smell the pollution of the river, almost pick out litter in the woods.  The site, like those in other works from the period, is on the margins in both social and pictorial terms.  What meaning the picture holds derives not from any incident portrayed, but from the relation of what we see to what we cannot see, but understand to be there.'

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Jones Beach Piece

Next month a Joan Jonas retrospective is due to open at Tate Modern - you can read an interview in Tate Etc.  I should probably wait and see this before writing about her work here, but I just found the beginnings of a blog post I started years ago on her Jones Beach Piece and it got me looking online again to see what there is to be read about her work.  My original interest in Jones Beach Piece was an idea that it might have constituted a new form of landscape art, one in which the landscape is used to separate the art from the audience.  The beach was not just the setting for a performance, it was a medium through which the art had to be perceived.  The performers were deliberately situating themselves in a subordinate role to the landscape, like those small figures of shepherds in seventeenth century pastoral paintings.  Here's how she described her early outdoor performances in Interview Magazine.
'The first performance outdoors happened at Jones Beach [Jones Beach Piece, 1970]. It was based on the idea of how our perception of image and movement is altered by distance. A group of us performed a series of choreographed movements and signals with simple props such as a six-foot metal hoop, a ladder, a rope, a bag of shells, and a shovel. For instance, Susan Rothenberg, tied into the hoop, was rolled about by George Trakas and John Erdman. The audience was a quarter of a mile away. Performers stood at different distances from the audience and clapped blocks of wood together over their heads. The farther away, the greater the sound delay.
We next performed this work on the empty lots and the docks of the Lower West Side. It was called Delay Delay [1972]. We performed similar actions signaling to each other and the audience—who was situated on what is now the roof of Richard Serra’s loft building—from the farthest ends of the docks and the edges of the lots. Carol Gooden and Gordon Matta-Clark spent the entire performance painting a big circle and a line in the street below. Their dog sat nearby watching. Cars would slowly approach, slow down, and drive by carefully. During these performances, we were never interfered with. It was a different time.'
Ah, would that we could all have experienced New York City in the seventies!  That Interview interview is worth reading in full for quotes like this: "I remember Gordon Matta-Clark liked to wrestle..."

Among the more recent works Joan Jonas has made, there are two worth mentioning here which were inspired by Iceland. Volcano Saga was originally narrated by the artist but then turned into a video piece, with Tilda Swinton in the role of Guðrún from the thirteenth century Laxdaela Saga.  More recently she has developed Reanimation, a work inspired by the Halldór Laxness novel Under the Glacier.  Neither of these source books has much about Iceland's landscape, although the sites of Laxdaela Saga have become landmarks and there are some brief descriptions in Laxness.  It is hard though to imagine making art about Iceland that does not feature its glaciers, lava flows and sea cliffs, and both Jonas installations included scenes shot around the island.  You can watch Volcano Saga in the embedded clip above, and here is a description in The New Yorker of 'Reanimation.'
'What began as a lecture-performance at M.I.T., in 2010, has evolved into a multiscreen extravaganza surrounding a sculpture of dangling prismatic crystals, which sends flashes of light darting onto projections of glacial landscapes and the occasional seal, filmed in an archipelago in the Arctic Circle. Jonas also appears onscreen, drawing with black ink and with ice. The spellbinding piece is non-narrative, with no sense of beginning or end. As long as you remain in this world, Jonas seems to suggest, you’re still just passing through.'
My copies of Laxdaela Saga  - a Folio edition of the Magnusson/Pálsson translation with Peter Pendrey wood-cuts - and Under the Glacier, with one of those evocative Louisa Matthíasdóttir paintings that Vintage use for the covers of their Laxness translations.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Schmadribach Falls

Joseph Anton Koch, The Schmadribach Waterfall above Lauterbrunnen, c. 1793

Last month the Evening Standard carried a headline saying that 'The British Museum just bought a drawing for £68,000'.  The article (illustrated with a later painting rather than the actual pen and ink sketch) explained that 'an 18th-century drawing by Austrian Romantic artist Joseph Anton Koch — forgotten for over a century until it was discovered by the Standard’s late art critic Brian Sewell – has been bought by the British Museum for £68,750.'  Following its sale at Christies, a temporary export ban was put in place.  This means that you can read online various government statements about it, including one from the Arts Minister himself: 'This striking study for Joseph Anton Koch’s most celebrated landscape shows why this leading Romantic painter was so highly regarded by British artists.'

 Joseph Anton Koch, The Schmadribach Falls, 1821-22

There is an Arts Council PDF of the expert's report, which discusses Koch's drawing in relation to the export ban Waverley criteria.  Here is its explanation of the particular significance in art historical terms of The Schmadribach Waterfall, which Koch developed into two oil paintings, one now in Munich, the other in Leipzig.
'Koch’s Schmadribach Waterfall fundamentally revised the previously accepted norms of landscape. Seemingly inspired by Albrecht Altdorfer’s Battle of Alexander (1529, Munich, Alte Pinakothek), he envisaged a panoramic ‘world landscape’ embodying the entirety of nature’s system as well as man’s place within it. Koch’s interpretation of Alpine scenery was more influential on the next generation of artists than the formulations of C.D. Friedrich or J.M.W. Turner. For example, Ludwig Richter (1803-84) paid direct homage to The Schmadribach Waterfall in his The Watzmann (1824, Munich, Neue Pinakothek).
Adrian Ludwig Richter, The Watzmann, c. 1824

I would love to know more about how Brian Sewell came upon this sketch.  The expert report notes only that 'the provenance of this drawing is unknown prior to its ownership by the well-known art critic Brian Sewell (1931-2015).'  A bit more information can be found in an article by Christies chairman Noël Annesley from the time of the posthumous sale:
'A notable discovery of Brian’s, and a demonstration of his flair for spotting rarities, is a meticulously drawn view from 1794 of the Schmadribach waterfall near Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland, a favourite subject of Joseph-Anton Koch. I do not know how it was previously described, but Brian recognised its authorship because of his interest in German Romantic art. This had been quickened many years before at the Courtauld, and then through visiting an extensive Arts Council exhibition in 1963 devoted to Koch and other members of the so-called Nazarene School which had previously been neglected in Britain.'
Looking at what else was on sale from his collection, I see there was a whole range of landscape sketches costing a lot less than £68,000.  If I'd had £10,000 to spare I might have been able to pick up a couple myself...  One can dream, although I have to admit that such valuable objects wouldn't really be safe in our house, where they would be at risk of being knocked off the wall during a lightsaber fight, splattered with Warhammer paint or hit by a flying emoji cushion.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Sleeping Dragon Ridge

Yosa Buson, Liu Bei visited Zhuge Liang in his hermitage three times, 18th century
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This beautiful winter scene was painted by the great Japanese haiku poet and artist, Yosa Buson.  It depicts a famous moment in Three Kingdoms, the epic Chinese novel describing real events at the end of the Han Dynasty.  The warlord Liu Bei has come to the 'thatched hut' of Zhuge Liang, the 'Crouching Dragon', to ask whether he will join him as an advisor.  Liu Bei is accompanied in this painting by his two oath brothers, Guan Yu (traditionally depicted with a red face and luxurious beard) and Zhang Fei.  These three and Zhuge Liang (also known as Kongming) have been depicted over and over again in books, plays, films, comic books and video games, along with their adversary Cao Cao (whose poetry I wrote about here last year).  Zhuge Liang was revered as a Chinese Ulysses, a great tactician, minister and inventor.  Moss Roberts, the translator of Three Kingdoms, describes him as a combination of Machiavelli, Clausewitz and Leonardo da Vinci.  But when Liu Bei came to call on him in the year 207, he was just a young scholar with a brilliant reputation.

Dai Jin, Looking Three Times at the Thatched Hut, Early Ming Dynasty
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The painting above, is by Dai Jin (Tai Chin) and dates from roughly the same period as the Three Kingdoms. Dai Jin's hanging scroll shows the same three characters being met at the gate by a boy, while Kongming can be glimpsed inside.  The titles of these pictures refer to the fact that Liu Bei made three trips to the thatched hut before Kongming made an appearance.  The first time he was told by the young boy that the master was not around and that his movements were uncertain.  On the second attempt, in the dead of winter, he encountered Kongming's brother but again was told that the master was away.  On the third, Liu Bei and his brothers were kept waiting while the scholar slept, but finally got to talk to him.  They found him to be a tall man 'with a face like gleaming jade and a plaited silken band around his head.  Cloaked in crane down, he had the buoyant air of a spiritual transcendent.'
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Xuande (Liu Bei) Visits Kongming Three Times in the Snow, 1853

This story is as well known in Japan and Korea as it is is in China, as can be seen by two more Japanese images of Liu Bei's journey.  The woodblock print above is by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, from a series called A Popular Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  The one below is by the last great master of the ukiyo-e print, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi ('Gentoku' and 'Kômei' are the Japanese versions of  Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang).  The Fitzwilliam curators note that Kongming is shown by Yoshitosi 'on the right poring over learned texts: in the absence of lamps, diligent scholars in ancient China were supposed to have read by the light of fireflies or by the reflected luminescence of snow, which they brought in from outside.' 

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Gentoku visits Kômei in the snow, 1883

I will end this post with some lines from the novel itself, in Moss Roberts' translation.  On their first journey, Liu Bei and his brothers are directed to Sleeping Dragon Ridge:
'The twisting, turning ridge bears heavy clouds;
The frothing, churning stream is liquid jade.
Caught between the rocks, this dragon winds;
Shadowed by the pines, this phoenix hides.
A wattle gate half-screens a thatched retreat:
Undisturbed the recluse sits within.'
On their second journey, 'dense, somber clouds covered the sky.  The brothers rode into a cutting northern wind.  A heavy snow made the mountains gleam like arrowheads of white jade and gave the wood a silvery sheen.'  After being disappointed again, Liu Bei sets off back.
'Pear-petal flakes descending from the skies,
Antic willow puffs darting at his eyes,
He turns and halts to view the scene behind:
Banked with snow, the silvered ridges shine.'
On the third visit, he finally gains admittance and talks to Zhuge Yiang, who describes to him a three stage plan to reunite the Han empire.  Liu Bei rises from his mat and joins his hands together in gratitude, saying 'Master, you have opened the thicket that barred my view and have made me feel as if clouds and mist have parted and I have gained the blue sky.'