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  • 07/19/12--00:01: Oppressive Light

  • Two new translations of the poetry of Robert Walser have been published this year. Christopher Middleton's slim volume for New Directions is a beautiful thing, but highly selective (it eschews all of Walser's early lyrics).  The Black Lawrence Press have issued Oppressive Light, a fuller collection of translations by Daniele Pantano starting with 'In the Office' from 1897/8 ('The moon peers in on us. / He sees me as a miserable clerk / languishing under the strict gaze / of my boss...'), and ending with 'Contemplation' (1930), written in the Waldau asylum ('...Life lay by the riverside like a boat / no longer able to sway, to drift.')  Carolyn Forché's introduction to Oppressive Light can be read at Ready Steady Book: 'one enters his language to be enveloped in gentle agonies, dark praise, rays of bright pleasure and the tumult of recognitions regarding selfhood and the fog of self, an ich ohne ich.'  More straightforwardly, Hans Bethge, writing in 1920, found 'lovely, inward-looking, and frequently quite ironic poems that are dreamy and spellbinding'.  He was describing early verse like the title poem, 'Oppresive Light', first published in 1904 while Walser was still living in Switzerland:  'How small life is here / and how big nothingness. / The sky, tired of light, / has given everything to the snow.'


    The last time I wrote about Robert Walser, I described the way nature in his novel The Assistant seems able to speak to a lonely young man, unsure of his place in this world.  In his early poems, Walser can be found walking home, looking down at the snow, recalling his 'delusional and awkward' conversation, or passing through trees with their pleading hands under a sky 'rigid with fear', or wanting to stop but finding that 'the green of the meadows laughed / the smoke rose smiling like smoke, I carried onwards.'  And yet nature can also be a comfort: 'gently the meadows draw / the dead fear out / of my heart, then / everything is still again.'  If these early poems are reminiscent of The Assistant, the later verse reminds me more of Walser's Microscripts, those strange texts written in a radically miniaturised form of a Germanic script, so small that a whole story could fit on the back of a business card.  Landscape remains an important presence - the first poem in this collection from his years in Berne is called 'How the Small Hills Smiled' (1925).  Among these poems' smiling hills, white clouds and green meadows, flags and boats and laughing children, there is always a whisper of sadness.  Nature, he writes in 'Sensation', is a riddle, cheering but failing to calm him.  He can do without it, but would miss the brilliance of its sounds and colours, enshrining them in memory.  The poem concludes on a note of hope: 'it's beautiful everywhere, / as long as we see beauty from within ourselves.'

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    We went along today to see the Olympics torch procession through Stoke Newington, but the big story this week has been around security, with the army drafted in to cover for those G4S guards who have failed 'to materialise'.  Earlier this month residents of a tower block in Leytonstone lost their court case to prevent high velocity missiles being installed on their roof.  There are five other missiles sites, from Epping Forest to Shooter's Hill, along with a helicopter carrier moored on the Thames, Typhoon jets at RAF Northolt, and sniper-carrying Puma helicopters in Ilford. At the Olympics Airspace site you can download a 100-page manual which 'navigates pilots through the various security and operational airspace restrictions in place for the duration of the Games'  A map shows the prohibited zone for model aircraft, which covers the entire city.


    All this makes me wonder how the Met's Air Support Unit, the 'avian police' that Sukhdev Sandhu interviewed for Artangel's Night Haunts project, will fit into the Olympics operations.  He asked one of them to describe the most beautiful thing he had seen at night.  "Oh, where do you begin?  The mist lying in the valleys takes your breath away.  The orange glow of the breaking dawn.  Or sometimes when there's a full moon you can see its reflection in the Thames..."  But these visions are reduced to black-and-white heat traces in the thermal imaging cameras used to scour the city for security threats.  'The thermal imagers themselves, though they're designed to help the police protect the city, produce images that resemble Baghdad, Vietnam - bombing zones for Allied troops. For a moment, London's nocturnal beauty vanishes: the forests seem ash-charred, lit-up areas ghostly apparitions.'

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  • 07/22/12--14:21: Fog Tropes


  • I've embedded above two versions of Fog Tropes, the original for brass sextet and a second version for strings commissioned by the Kronos Quartet.  Ingram Marshall explained the origins of his best known work in an interview with Frank J. Oteri: 'A friend of mine was a performance artist in San Francisco, that's where I was living at the time, asked me to put together what she called a sound score. Not really a piece of music, so much as a bunch of environmental sounds and some electronic music that she could use for a performance piece she was putting together, which had to do with the weather in San Francisco ... So I recorded all of these fog horns and went back to my studio and started making tape loops and basically created a kind of collage of different pitches of fog horns. And some other sounds got in there, you know some buoy ringing, some birds. Lots of birds. Wind sounds.'  Marshall kept a ten minute section to play as a stand-alone tape piece, but the following year, 1981, John Adams suggested he 'juice it up with some trombones and tubas'.  The resulting composition has been performed many times since - 'somebody once did it on a barge floating down a canal in Germany. When the brass players were on the barge and I guess the audience was on the bank. I don't know where the speakers were for the tape part. It's had an interesting history.'

    Fog Tropes featured in a recent survey by The Wire of great bass sounds, along with recordings by some of the other environmental sound artists I've mentioned here before: Alan Lamb, Chris Watson, Jana WinderenOne contributor actually chose a recording of foghorns, having searched the internet for examples of their lonely calls echoing across the water.  Fog Tropes was selected by Brian Morton, who writes that it reminds him of Ray Bradbury's story 'The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms' in which a dinosaur falls in love with a lighthouse. 'It's possible to hear the pneumatic voices of Fog Tropes as the minimalist love songs of a forgotten species, but the music is also admonitory and vaguely threatening, suggesting Alcatraz island in a sea mist, imminent shipwreck, phantom disappearance.'  Alcatraz itself was the subject of another Ingram Marshall project: a 1982 collaboration with the photographer Jim Bengston which evolved into a two hour performance piece.  In liner notes for the resulting record, Marshall says that he visited the island to record 'the sounds of buoys, birds and fog horns as well as singing and gambuh flute playing in some of the resonant spaces of the prison. I also captured the famous roar of the cell doors' mechanized closings - this chorus of metal echoing through the wildly reverberant spaces of Alcatraz is probably the perfect sound print of the desolation and utter finality of the place.'


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    I was going to photograph the view from Westminster Bridge this morning but we've been asked to work from home during the Olympics period, so I took the snaps above with my phone last week.  Two hundred and ten years ago today, Wordsworth admired the city from this same spot, although he dated his famous sonnet September 3rd.  His sister's diary briefly records the moment, a vision of the city seen from the Dover coach, en route to Calais where they would meet Annette Vallon and Wordsworth would see his daughter Caroline for the first time. 'It was a beautiful morning.  The City, St Pauls, with the River & a multitude of little Boats, made a most beautiful sight as we crossed Westminster Bridge.  The houses were not overhung by their cloud of smoke & they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such a pure light that there was even something like the purity of nature's own grand Spectacles.'

    Upon Westminster Bridge,Sept. 3, 1802

    EARTH has not anything to show more fair;
      Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
      A sight so touching in its majesty.
    This city now doth like a garment wear
    The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,         
      Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
      Open unto the fields, and to the sky,—
    All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
    Never did sun more beautifully steep
      In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
    Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
      The river glideth at his own sweet will:
    Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
      And all that mighty heart is lying still!

    Ten years ago, Shakespeare's Globe and The Wordsworth Trust published a commemorative volume, Earth has not any thing to shew more fair, edited by the Trust's director Peter Woolf and the writers Alice and Peter Oswald.  The book contains thirty-seven poems inspired by Wordsworth's, including a couple of re-writes from the point of view of Dorothy.  Most of the poets write about the modern view, which can now be enjoyed from the London Eye (as in Charles Tomlinson's poem) or, from even higher up, in an aeroplane coming in to land (Kona McPhee).  By contrast, 'Composed Underneath Westminster Bridge' (Denise Riley) looks down at the river itself: barges, pigeons and brown particles 'churning through the tide.'  I first read Wordsworth at school in A Choice of Poets and none of us taught from this to compare and contrast Wordsworth's 'sight so touching in its majesty' with Blake's bleak 'London' would be surprised to encounter a poem here like Matthew Caley's 'No Bulwark', which asks us to 'behold the tableau, two crackheads and their spoonlit underchins / 'neath the doubled alcove of a riverbridge.'  Language itself has become degraded in Peter Finch's 'N Wst Brdg', a re-write of Wordsworth's lines as an extended text message. Edwin Morgan looks into the future in 'Sometime upon Westminster Bridge' and sees a swollen Thames, shattered Barrier and the city left to drown.

    Westminster Bridge on the cover of A Choice of Poets

    In some of the book's other poems, parallels are drawn with different bridges or historical moments on the Thames.  Ciaran Carson makes the link with Monet (who came to England in the autumn of 1870 to escape the Franco-Prussian War), contributing a brief imagistic poem entitled 'Claude Monet, The Thames Below Westminster, 1871', which reproduces in words that famous painting of the Houses of Parliament in the mist. Perhaps unsurprisingly those who work in the Houses of Parliament receive short shrift in this collection: Sean O'Brien imagines the bridge 'speaking truth to power' and Alice Oswald stares at 'the regular waves of apparently motionless motion / under the teetering structures of administration.'  She seems to have little time for the people who work round here... 'the weather trespasses into strip-lit offices / through tiny windows into tiny thoughts'. Peter Oswald is equally bleak, imagining  that 'trickles of thinking mingle with the flow / from pipes of every kind' and seep into the river - 'the squeezed out city's boil of poisons / stirred to one colour by the rush to ocean.'  But it doesn't always feel like this, and those of us who love London, despite everything, will always love Wordsworth's poem for the way it conveys the beauty of certain sunlit mornings, when dull would he be who would pass by such a sight, so touching in its majesty.

    Detail of the plaque on Westminster Bridge

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  • 08/02/12--14:02: An inflatable Stonehenge
  • I'm not sure how big a bouncy castle has to be before it can be considered landscape architecture, but let's assume that Jeremy Deller's Sacrilegequalifies for a mention on this blog.  I've not seen it myself, but the rest of the family went to investigate yesterday as the inflatable Stonehenge is currently installed here in London, on Hampstead Heath.  Mrs Plinius has never actually been to the real Stonehenge so this was her first experience of it: "smaller than you'd think from a distance but very impressive close up and once you're there it's impossible not to bounce around."  Apparently there were a few guards on the look out for over-zealous jumping  - a small group of moshing hipsters received a whistled warning. It sounds to me like those guards in the Sistine Chapel that call for silence every few minutes.  Fortunately there is more space to move around and perform somersaults on Sacrilege than there is in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican.  My wife was pleased to see Jeremy Deller actually there, watching young and old enjoying his artwork, and she congratulated him on not suffering the same monumental error that befell Spinal Tap.

    Jeremy Deller and Plinius the Younger

    "No Human Sacrifice"

    Sacrilege was built for Jeremy Deller by Paul Walkden of Inflatable World Leisure.  The archaeologist/journalist Mike Pitts, who helped build a Foamhenge in 2005 for Channel 4, has written about the project on his blog, Digging Deeper.  They 'replicated the shapes and detailing of the standing sarsens in Nylon PVC, with the textures and lichens painted on by hand. It was damp and overcast when they were there, so the stones’ colours are grey and dark.'  Unsurprisingly, this was very much what the weather was like yesterday and presumably for most days of its national tour.  Early this year there was some controversy over the resemblance between Sacrilege and a 2010 work by Jim Ricks, the Poulnabrone Bouncy Dolmen, a twice-scale replica of the megalithic portal tomb in the Burren; but it all got sorted out amicably.  Perhaps we need more of these structures, hyperreal bouncy simulacra at every prehistoric site, leaving the actual stones to become poetic, overgrown ruins again.  Jeremy Deller is obviously asking questions about the way we convert 'heritage' into interactive fun, but a similar process is going on in art galleries.  I think for his next trick Deller should create an inflatable Spiral Jetty to cheer up all the land art pilgrims turning up now to find a big empty lake and no trace of the submerged sculpture.



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    Claude Monet, Étretat, la porte d'Aval: fishing boats leaving the harbour, c1885

    This post begins with Claude Monet at Étretat, a subject I've covered here before in 'The Cliffs at Etretat' and 'Agitated Sea at Etretat'.  Guy de Maupassant watched the artist in action there in 1885 and described what he was like to the readers of Paris periodical Gil Blas. 'At Étretat I often followed Monet about.  He was not so much a painter as a hunter.  He stalked on ahead, followed by his children and Madame Hoschedé, who carried his canvases, sometimes as many as five or six, representing the subject at different times of the day and with different effects.  He took them up and put them aside in turn, according to the changes in the sky.  Face to face with his subject, the painter lay in wait for the sun and shadows, capturing in a few brushstrokes the ray that fell or the cloud that passed.  I have seen him seize a glittering shadow of light on the white cliff and fix it in a flood of yellow tone which strangely rendered the surprising and fugitive effect of that elusive and dazzling brilliance.  On another occasion he took a downpour beating down on the sea into his hands, and dashed it on the canvas - and succeeded in really painting the rain as it seemed to the eye' (Bernard Denvir, The Encyclopedia of Impressionism).

     Claude Monet, Sunset at Étretat, 1883

    Maupassant lived in Étretat as a child and in 1883 built himself a house there (where, the following year, he finished writing there that most enjoyable novel, Bel Ami).  Just before this return, Maupassant published a sketch in the Gaulois called 'The Englishman of Étretat'.  This described his youthful encounter with the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne at the house of 'a young Englishman of unknown origin' who was rumoured in the village to diet 'exclusively upon monkey (whether, sautéed, roasted, boiled or preserved; no matter)'.  Maupassant was invited to lunch by this eccentric individual after taking part in 'a rescue party formed for a friend of his, carried out to sea'.  The friend was Swinburne, and he proceeded to dazzle Maupassant: 'His words issued forth with a shimmering vitality, galvanised by an imagination both clear and quick, but also hypersensitive and fantastical ... The house where these two men resided was a pleasant, if peculiar abode. The walls were replete with astonishing and strange paintings, veritable expressions of insanity. For instance, if my memory serves me correctly, one watercolour depicted a pink seashell carrying afloat a human skull upon an endless sea, beneath a moon of human form. Here and there were scattered skeletal remains. Particularly of note was a flayed hand; its desiccated skin intact, blackened muscles exposed and ancient traces of blood upon the bright white bone...'

    Gustave Courbet, Cliffs at Étretat, 1870 

    I first came across this story in Charles Sprawson's The Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero, a wonderful book published in 1992 which seems to have been rather overshadowed in recent years by Roger Deakin's Waterlog. Iris Murdoch's review of it sounded to me then charmingly eccentric: 'On hot days in the Oxford summer my husband and I usually manage to slip into the Thames...' Sprawson refers to Iris Murdoch as 'one of the last of the English river swimmers' and twenty years ago it would have been hard to believe that a whole movement would take off and there would be an Outdoor Swimming Society (whose founder was, according to my wife, impressively outdoorsy even when they were studying at Oxford).  Swinburne's passion for wild swimming began long before he went up to Baliol.  Growing up on the Isle of Wight he would float in the sea, 'lapped in the blue waters and the languid summer tides, as though in the Aegean of his Hellenic dream-world'.  Schooldays at Eton fostered a sado-masochistic association between flogging and swimming which surfaces in his later letters: Sprawson quotes one to Lord Houghton (who had already 'corrupted Swinburne by opening up to him his vast pornographic library'), regretting that the Marquis de Sade had not been aware of the punishment to be experienced in the waves of the North Sea.  Swinburne enjoyed some 'delicious bathes in the most dangerous seas in the world' off Guernsey, having travelled there to meet his hero Victor Hugo only to find that he had left three years before.  It was with some exciting passages from Hugo's novel Toilers of the Sea that Swinburne entertained the fishermen rowing him back to safety at Étretat.

    Victor Hugo, The Octopus,
    a creature that appears in his novel, Toilers of the Sea, 1866

    The lunch Swinburne and his strange friend, George Powell, invited Maupassant to on that memorable day is the subject of an article by Julian Barnes in the excellent Public Domain Review. You can read there fuller details of the English couple's S&M activities with monkeys and servants, based on an account Maupassant gave to Edmond de Goncourt.  Swinburne himself, by contrast, 'memorialised his time on the Normandy coast in two ways. For the rest of his life he kept the “outsize garments” (outsize because he was so tiny) in which the rescuing fishermen had dressed him. And in his 1883 collection, A Century of Roundels, he published a poem called “Past Days”:
    Above the sea and sea-washed town we dwelt,
    We twain together, two brief summers, free
    From heed of hours as light as clouds that melt
    Above the sea.
    The poem is partly a lament – for the dead Powell, and for passing time; also an idyll recreating “the days we had together” among “The Norman downs with bright grey waves for belt” and the “bright small seaward towns”. It is singularly lacking in references to monkey meat or Sadeian practices.'

    Gustave Courbet, The Wave, c. 1869
     
    In 1869, a year after he helped rescue Swinburne from the waves, and long before he was an established writer ,spending time with Monet and his family, Maupassant encountered another visitor to Étretat, Gustave Courbet, and watched him at work in his studio. "In a big empty room, a huge man, corpulent and grubby, was using a kitchen knife to smear gobs of white paint on a big bare canvas. Every so often, he'd go and put his face to the window and stare at the storm. The sea came so close that it seemed to assail the house, covering it in spray and noise. The salt water beat like hail against the window panes and streamed down the walls. On the chimney a bottle of cider next to a glass half full.  From time to time Courbet went and drank a few drops, then he came back to his work.  Now, that work became The Wave, and it created quite a stir in the world."  William Feaver refers to Maupassant's description in a review entitled 'Sea Power' and notes that 'being a romantic, Courbet took the wave personally. "In her fury," he told Victor Hugo, "she reminds me of a caged monster who can devour me. One feels carried away."'

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  • 08/13/12--14:25: The green chaos
  • 'Always the green chaos rather than the printed map' - John Fowles 

    The Tree, the sea, the Cobb

    Last week in Lyme Regis I sought respite from the sweltering heat and hard labour of a sandcastle competition by escaping to The Sanctuary Bookshop, where I bought a copy of the original 1979 edition of John Fowles' The Tree with Frank Horvat's photographs.  Horvat is not known primarily as a landscape photographer and his first published books had the unpromising sounding titles, 'J'aime la Télévision' and 'J'aime la Strip-Tease'.  But in 1976, he writes, "I emerged from a long period of self-doubt, which had led me to question my very involvement in photography, both as a photo-journalist and as a fashion photographer. I spent part of that summer in my small property in Provence, pruning trees and putting on paper the few memories of my childhood that I could recollect. At some point, I realised that most of my memories were somehow connected with branches and leaves, and this gave me the idea of a photographic essay about trees."

    The text John Fowles wrote after seeing Horvat's photographs also begins in childhood, with memories of the fruit trees crammed into his father's suburban garden.  But his father's expertise in cultivating specimens and Horvat's predilection for 'the single tree, the tree in itself' are at odds with Fowles' experience that truth lies 'beyond the canopy and exterior wall of leaves, and beyond the individual.'  Looking through the book you notice that when Horvat shows trees in combination they have a distinctive formal beauty - the intricate overlapping pattern of bare grey plane tree branches, a group of green poplars arranged like a still life.  But Fowles reminds us that real woodland is 'like the sea, sensorily far too various and immense for anything but surfaces or glimpses to be captured.'  He dismisses the paintings of Hobbema as merely 'townscapes composed with trees instead of houses.'  Art, of course, has 'no special obligation to be realistic and naturalistic' but its reluctance to see and portray the world's interconnectedness 'is symptomatic of a long and damaging doubt in man.'

    Meindert Hobbema, Marshy Woodland, c1660

    The book ends with the walk through Wistman's Wood that I've referred to here before.  There Fowles experiences the old urge to classify: 'the botanist in me notices a colony of woodrush, like a dark green wheat among the emerald clitter; then the delicate climbing Corydalis claviculata, with its maidenhair-fern leaves and greenish-white flowers.'  But he sits down among the silent trees and concludes that such a place cannot be described in language: 'it can be known and entered only by each, and in its now; not by you through me, by any you through any me; only by you through yourself, or me through myself.'  More than thirty years later the limits of language are still being discussed and The Tree remains, I think, well worth reading. Barry Lopez, in a recent interview about the book, praises Fowles' understanding of the way 'things are held together': 'When you really immerse yourself in the natural world, no matter how many bird guides or explanations you’ve got about what it is you’re seeing, you’re going to be overwhelmed. And the message is, step into it. Don’t try to define nature. It is not definable or controllable. One of life’s great ecstasies is to step into it.'

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    On the Shetland island of Unst
     
    Before our summer holiday in the Shetland Islands I tried to do some background reading in Shetland's poetry, using the new anthology edited by Kevin MacNeil, These Islands, We Sing.  It includes over twenty poets who have written about Shetland, from Hugh MacDiarmid, who lived at Sudheim ("Sodom") on the island of Whalsay in the thirties, to contemporary writers like Jen Hadfield, winner of the 2008 T. S. Eliot prize.  The poet whose words greet the visitor on the walls of Sumburgh Airport and the Shetland Museum is T. A. Robertson (1909-73), who wrote as Vagaland, the old Norse name for the islands.  There are only two of his poems in the anthology: 'Water-lilies' and 'Kwarna farna?' which means 'Where are you going?' in Norn, the language spoken in the islands until the eighteenth century.  You can read and hear the latter on the Shetland fir Wirds site: it begins with the poet looking out to the shimmer on the sea and listening to the sound of sunken rocks off the coast near Sandness, but it ends reflecting on rural depopulation - 'noo da laand is bare'. 

    Vagaland quote in the Shetland Museum

    We did not make a point of visiting places mentioned in these poems, although we did drive one misty day through the uninhabited moorland to Sandness.  It is a place that will be familiar to anyone who has read Robert Alan Jamieson's Nort Atlantik Drift: Shetlandic poems with translations and introductions in English, accompanied by atmospheric black and white photographs.  Sadly his website http://www.robertalanjamieson.info/ which had downloads of the poems seems no longer to exist.  In contrast to poets like Vagaland, he writes with Scandinavian vowels, as can be seen in the first lines of 'Konstint Starn': 'Simmirdin kam doon aboot da Niep / an up abøn da krug a'Æshnis, / lyght læ owir da nortland læk a hap.' (Summer's dim came down about the cliffs, and up above the crouching body of Eshaness, light lay over the northland like a shawl).'

      The view from Eshaness

    Looking out to sea from the Stevenson lighthouse at Eshaness we were barely able to stand up, the wind was so strong.  I thought then of the poem 'Flans Frae da Haaf' by Laurence Graham: flans are gusts of wind and da haaf is the deep sea beyond coastal waters. Writers in Shetlandic can draw on a rich vocabulary to describe landscape and the effects of weather, as Raman Mundair found on moving to the islands, where she composed 'Stories from the Shoormal': "Shoormal is a lovely word.  It's the meeting point of the sea and the shore." A British version of the Home Ground project to collect and celebrate the language of landscape will need to include many of these Norn words: voe (a sea inlet), ayre (a beach), mool (a headland), scord (a fissure in the skyline of a hill), noost (a hollow place where a boat can be drawn up) and gloup (a blowhole behind a cliff face, derived from Old Norse glup, throat).  It is perhaps surprising that Hugh MacDiarmid didn't make more use of the rich vocabulary on his doorstep, a fact Michael Schmidt has sought to explain (in his '40 Tea Chests' essay) with a nice landscape metaphor.  The Shetland Islands' dialect 'did not, as it were, plug into the larger world upon which he focused; rather like a sea pool, it cupped its flora and fauna beyond the tide of history.'


    MacDiarmid does use 'the old Norn words' in one poem, 'On a Raised Beach', turning to them after trying to convey the essence of the stones on the beach in English: 'ratchel, striae, relationships of tesserae, / innumerable shades of grey, / innumerable shapes, / And beneath them all a stupendous unity.'  There is a memorable ecopoetic statement in this poem: 'we must reconcile ourselves to the stones, / Not the stones to us.'  And, as Louisa Gairn points out in 'MacDiarmid and Ecology', there is a Heideggerian distinction between the 'thing-for-us' and the 'thing-in-itself' when MacDiarmid writes 'there are plenty of ruined buildings in the world but no ruined stones.'  Mark Ryan Smith, another of the poets included in These Islands, We Sing, sees 'On a Raised Beach' as one of the most impressive poems of Shetland: not often considered as such, 'but you have to ask yourself if it could have been written about anywhere but the beach on Linga where MacDiarmid visited.'  The uninhabited island of Linga is described in an essay, 'Life in the Shetlands' that MacDiarmid published in 1934, and I'll end this post with a description of his first night there...

    'There are no trees in the Shetlands, so it was impossible to find any sheltered spot on the surface of the island to lie in; and there is no bracken or long grass, so it was impossible to gather anything to make any sort of bed on my ledge of rock.  A little earlier on it should have been possible to read in the open until well after midnight; indeed there is practically no night.  But by this time the long night of the summer-time had given way to the opposite conditions where there is a very short day.  I had brought with me a volume of Rilke's poems and Theodora Bosanquet's little book on Paul Valéry; but I did not open either of them.  I was too busy; lying for the most part on that rocky ledge with the sound of the sea in my ears and the darkness of the cave (broken only by the yellow flashing of innumerable matches and the red glow of my lit pipe) grateful to my eyes, doing nothing - but what I intended to do, which was sufficiently engrossing to keep me from being lonely or conscious very much of either cold or hunger; for I am a poet myself, or think I am, which explains the whole thing.'


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  • 09/10/12--14:36: Sonata of the Sun
  • Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Sparks II, 1906

    Perhaps the most fitting posthumous tribute to a landscape artist is to name a landmark after them, although I imagine few would wish this to happen.  The Lithuanian composer and painter Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis has been honoured in this way with a plateau in Franz Josef Land, a peak in the Pamir Mountains, and an asteroid that orbits the sun every four years.  Of these, the asteroid may actually be the most appropriate memorial for a Symbolist who depicted moods rather than specific places and reached towards a cosmic vision in series of paintings like Sonata of the Stars and The Creation of the World.  Stars seem to drift in front of misty landscapes in Sparks I-III, small works on paper that can currently be seen in Edinburgh in the exhibition 'Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910'.  The catalogue essay by Richard Thomson quotes a letter Čiurlionis wrote in 1908 to his fiancée: 'I would like to compose a symphony of the murmur of the waves, of the mysterious whisper of a hundred-year forest, of the blinking of the stars, of our songs and of my endless yearning.  I would like to climb to the highest peaks - unattainable to mortals, and to make a wreath of the most beautiful stars to Zose - my wife.' 

    Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Fuga, 1908

    By the time Čiurlionis wrote that letter he had already composed two symphonic poems, The Forest (1901)and The Sea (1907), and was starting work on a new composition, The Creation of the World, based on the paintings he had completed in 1905.  In these years he was moving freely between music and art, fusing the two in synesthetic paintings like the Sonata of the Stars, one of a series that began in 1907 with Sonata of the Sun, with its four parts: 'Allegro', 'Andante', 'Scherzo' and 'Finale'.  In such hybrid works, variation in sound is suggested by the intensity of colour, changes in tempo by the rhythm of lines and shapes.  The treeline on the horizon in Fuga ('Fugue') now looks like the waves of a Soundcloud, recording the underlying harmonies of nature.  Čiurlionis experienced the landscape musically: he wrote of the Carpathians that 'the mountains, though not high, are very melodious.'  But sadly there was little time left to compose himself: in 1910, suffering from exhaustion, he was admitted to the Czerwony Dwór sanatorium.  Although his health began slowly to improve, Čiurlionis caught a cold one day while out walking, contracted pneumonia and died at the age of thirty-five.


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  • 09/14/12--04:32: Before the Kingsland Road

  • Walking down the Kingsland Road last night towards the quadrivium that is Dalston Junction, I was following the route of the old Roman Road that ran north from Londinium to Eboracum via Lindum Colonia. I had come to hear Land Observations, the new project by James Brooks: a sequence of meditative guitar instrumentals collected as Roman Roads IV-XI.  This was part of an event called 'Out of Place' that also included Jo Thomas performing Nature of Habit and the pastoral punk duo Way Through whose songs 'walk the streets of market towns, wait forever at bus stops and lose themselves in edgelands.'  The Land Observations set opened with 'Before the Kingsland Road', which Ben Graham in an excellent review for The Quietus describes as 'motorik at a walking pace, a thrumming bass line anchoring single note specks of radiant guitar that pick out the sights as we go by; forward in motion, backward in time, the past superimposed on the present'.  Each journey - 'Via Flaminia', 'Appian Way', 'Aurelian Way' - begins with a signature loop that runs on through the track whilst fragile tunes emerge and disappear like fragments of Roman architecture.  'It's as much about walking as anything else,' Brooks says in an interview about the project, and as I walked home through the night I thought of the confusion of roads under my feet and the long, straight Roman ideal - in Alice Oswald's phrase, 'a road's road to ride in a dream'. 


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  • 09/14/12--23:00: La femme dans le Paysage

  • In 1994 the Belgian painter Marie Desbarax became bewitched by a certain landscape near the city of Nivelles. A text inspired by the paintings she produced there over the course of a year, 'La femme dans le Paysage,' was written by  François Emmanuel for her exhibition, 'Variations sur un paysage.'  It can be found on the artist's website and was integrated into the writer's collection of thematically related stories, L'invitation au voyage (2003), a book translated last year into English by Justin Vicari for the Dalkey Archive Press.  'Woman in a Landscape' describes a woman captivated by an 'earthly lover'.  Everything she wants is in this landscape, 'everything she needs to nourish her eye, to quench her thirst, to feed her flesh...'  But this is not a lifelong attachment to an extraordinary place, like Nan Shepherd's love for the Cairngorms.  It is a brief, intense affair with somewhere that would not seem particularly special to other people, 'just an acre or two land by the road'.  Every detail, each sprig, chestnut bur and pebble is precious.  She sees musical scales in the alignment of the trees - 'I want the sound of the wind in the poplars on my paper, I want those rustlings, these murmurs.'  Imagining her there with her easel planted in the ground, Emmanuel is reminded of the Chinese artist who had the idea of painting fog and then disappeared inside it.  They never recovered his brushes, 'but he did leave behind a few sketches, a few canvases, proof that the whole story is true.'

    [Footnote: Psychogeographers and Patrick Keiller admirers may enjoy another of the stories in Invitation to a Voyage, 'The Cartographer's Waltz', in which a man sent to map lichen species in Arras meets a mysterious soundscape researcher whilst exploring tunnels under the town.] 

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  • 09/20/12--23:36: Plyushkin's garden
  • In May 1922 Vladimir Nabokov sat his finals at Cambridge and was relieved to find that one of the questions asked him to describe Plyushkin's garden in Gogol's Dead Souls.  As Brian Boyd says, this 'perfectly suited his preference for exact knowledge, precise visualisation, detailed recall.' (Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years).  It was a subject Nabokov would return to in the book on Gogol he published in 1944, which opens by describing his great predecessor as 'the strangest prose-poet Russia ever produced.'  Before Gogol, Russian writers described the natural world in conventional eighteenth century language: 'that the sky could be pale green at sunrise, or the snow a rich blue on a cloudless day, would have sounded like heretical nonsense to your so-called "classical" writer.'  Nabokov doubted 'whether any writer, certainly not in Russia, had ever noticed before, to give the most striking instance, the moving pattern of light and shade on the ground under trees or the tricks of colour played by sunlight with leaves.'  Gogol's description of Plyushkin's garden shocked Russian readers 'in much the same way as Manet did the bewhiskered philistines of his day.'

    Gogol's own cover design for Dead Souls

    Nabokov offers his own translation into English of Gogol's description, criticising the poor quality of earlier efforts: Isabel Hapgood (1885) 'heaps blunder upon blunder, turning the Russian "birch" into the non-endemic "beech," the "aspen" into an "ashtree," the "elder" into "lilac," the "dark bird" into a "blackbird"...'  The book has been translated more recently by Robert A. Maguire, who gets the trees right but does use the word blackbird rather than dark bird - does Nabokov mean it should be 'a dark bird'? It's probably not OK to reproduce the whole description here, but I'll quote an extract from the Maguire translation below.  In Dead Souls, the character Plyushkin is a miser whose estate has become overgrown, but in a way that would please Picturesque garden theorists.  Gogol's whole approach to writing has been likened by Susanne Fusso to this garden.  In her book Designing Dead Souls she quotes a friend of the writer who recalled Gogol saying, "if I were a painter, I would choose a special sort of landscape.  What trees and landscapes they paint today! Everything is clear and sorted out; the master has read through it, and the spectator follows him haltingly.  I would enchain tree with tree, entangle the branches, let light show through where no one expects it, that is the kind of landscape I should paint."  So, here is Gogol painting in words to describe Plyushkin's garden:
    '...In places green, sun struck thickets parted to reveal a hollow between them, untouched by light and gaping like a dark maw, it was cast all in shadow, and its black depths afforded but the faintest glimpse of a coursing narrow path, the ruins of a railing, a tumbledown gazebo, a hollow, decayed trunk of a willow, and from behind the willow a gray thicket which thrust out a dense bristly of leaves and twigs, entangled and enmeshed, withered by the fearsome wild, and finally the young branch of a maple that had stretched from one side its green paw – leaves beneath one of which the sun had made its way. Lord knows how, and was turning it suddenly transparent and fiery, a wondrously shining thing in this thick darkness. Off to one side, at the very edge of the garden, several high-reaching aspen, taller than the others, raised enormous crows’ nest on their tremulous crowns. From some of these, branches, broken but not fully detached, hung down with their withered leaves. In a word, all was somehow desolate and splendid, as it is given to neither nature nor art to devise...'

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    Expanding Horizons: Giovanni Battista Lusieri and the Panoramic Landscape, the most exciting art exhibition this year, will shortly be coming to the end of its run at the Scottish National Gallery.  You can be forgiven for not knowing much about Lusieri: scholarly interest in him has been growing but as recently as 1996 he was not deemed important enough to include in the thirty-four volume Macmillan-Grove Dictionary of Art.  His posthumous obscurity would have seemed surprising in 1799, when the 7th Earl of Elgin wrote delightedly at having engaged the 'first painter in Italy' to accompany him to Constantinople'. Lady Elgin thought him superior to any artist working in London - 'high praise indeed', Aidan Weston-Lewis writes in the exhibition catalogue, 'for among the English artists Lord Elgin had approached unsuccessfully to join his embassy were J. M. W. Turner and Thomas Girtin, arguably the two landscape watercolourists held in highest esteem in Britain to this day.'  In Athens, Lusieri became increasingly embroiled in archaeology and the operation to remove sculptures from the Acropolis, only returning properly to painting as an old man in 1817.  Byron encountered him during this period, finding that Lusieri's 'works as far as they go are most beautiful; but they are almost all unfinished.' Lusieri died in 1821 and most of the paintings he had completed in Greece were lost when a ship bringing them back to Elgin was wrecked off the coast of Crete in 1828.

    Giovanni Battista Lusieri, The Bay of Naples from Palazzo Sessa, 1790  
    The Bay of Naples from Palazzo Sessa 
      A few examples might convey why I found Expanding Horizons so fascinating, and the most obvious place to start is with this painting, described accurately in the catalogue as 'one of the most spectacular exhibitions of the art of watercolour ever created.'  It measures nearly nine feet across and took Lusieri nearly two years to complete (1789-90), working from a room at the residence of Sir William Hamilton.  This room, incidentally, was designed by Hamilton with large mirrors to reflect the bay so that, as Wilhelm Tischbein found, 'if you sat on the sofas installed around the room, you imagined you were out of doors, sitting on a rocky peak above sea and land.'  What I think really makes Lusieri's panoramic view so breathtaking is not the incredible detail of the foreground - figures, buildings, boats - but that view out to sea, where the distant water and sky fuse in a haze of brilliant Mediterranean light. 
      View of Rome with St Peter's and the Vatican from the Lower Slopes of Monte Mario
      When Thomas Jones first mentions Lusieri in his memoirs he describes him as a painter of 'tinted drawings' and although this seems an inadequate description of the luminous landscapes Lusieri produced, it does capture the way in which they took shape.  It is thus no surprise to find some exceptionally detailed drawings like this View of Rome, sketched in 1780.  A 'tour de force' according to the curators, in which 'the black chalk is handled with an astonishing range of mark and pressure', and where the real subject seems to be the way the light describes the shape of every stone, leaf and tree root with as much care as it illuminates the dome of St Peter's and walls of the Vatican.
      Panoramic View of Rome from Piazza San Pietro in Montorio on the Janiculum
      These three of the four surviving sheets from a 180 degree panorama of the city lead your eye from St Peters in soft golden sunshine over the rooftops to trees on the outskirts of the city which seem still to be emerging from the grey mist of early morning.  The paintings probably date from 1778-9, and there is an interesting question of precedence because Louis Le Masson painted a very similar panorama of Rome in 1779, commissioned by Louis XVI to decorate the interior of a luxurious dairy he was building for Marie-Antionette (complete with buckets made of Sèvres porcelain) at the Château de Rambouillet.
      Vesuvius during the Eruption of 1794
      In 1787 Lusieri had painted some moonlit views of the Bay of Naples in which the tranquillity of the scene is threatened by the distant orange glow from the volcano.  He was still in Naples for the eruption of 1794 which was, as Sir William Hamilton reported to the Royal Society, the most spectacular since 1631 and AD79 (when the original Plinius, Pliny the Elder lost his life).  It is possible that Lusieri, like Pliny, was out in a boat - the sketch and the watercolour have no foreground save a flat expanse of water.  The dark volcano is dwarfed by an inverted mountain of fiery clouds and smoke pours from the long river of lava, flowing all the way down to the sea.  In 1799, after the Bourbon court had fled Naples, Lusieri found himself in Sicily, appointed to oversee work on its antiquities, a brief foretaste of the work he was about to engage in with Elgin.  There he painted another volcano, a View of Taormina and the Coast Looking South towards Etna, a near-monochrome composition of grey washes which may record the effects of ash darkening everything except the waves breaking on the shore.
      The Temple of Serapis, Pozzuoli  
      This watercolour includes a figure sitting among the broken stones with his head in his hand, like Fuseli's The Artist Overcome by the Grandeur of Antique Remains, and probably similar to the way I was gazing at this painting, the tourist overcome by the grandeur of eighteenth century art.  What is particularly interesting about this subject is the way the temple has become an index of geological change.  'The corrosive action of salt water and lithodomes on the monumental shafts of cipollino marble, as a result of bradyseismic activity (the slow rising and falling of the earth's crust) in the area, can be clearly seen.'
        The Monument to Philopappos
        Although there are relatively few completed paintings from Lusieri's years in Greece, two versions exist of this, a study of the funerary monument to Emperor Trajan's consul in Athens.  One is a watercolour, completed in 1805 and the other, just as beautiful, an oil painting (one of only two that we know of by Lusieri). A contemporary, Edward Daniel Clarke, marvelled at Lusieri's ability to convey 'every grace and beauty of the sculpture, every fair and exquisite proportion, every trace of the injuries of time'.  But Lusieri pays as much attention to the stones at the base of the monument and the grassy slope on which it stands as he does to the frieze of marble figures and the broken statue of Philopappos.  
      At the end of his life, Lusieri was visited in Athens by an Englishman, John Fuller, who remembered the artist, still 'labouring with the greatest exactness and diligence' at a panoramic view of the plain of Attica.  'Day after day did this indefatigable veteran pass on the hill of the Museum; and his meagre figure, his drawing apparatus, and the large umbrella over his head, are as much attached to the spot in the recollections of those who have visited Athens, as the monument of Philopappos itself.'  Lusieri's perfectionism was such that it seemed to Fuller few of his paintings would actually be finished.  When he raised this with the old man, Lusieri said (perhaps with a mischievous smile) 'that colouring was such a fascinating employment he feared if he once began it he should never again have the patience to return to the dry details of outline; and that therefore (though he acknowledged himself to be in his 74th year and with a portfolio crowded with sketches), he reserved it [colouring] as an amusement for his adanced age.  Two mornings afterwards he was found dead in the chair in which he had been left sitting the previous evening, his supper before him, like his drawings, unfinished.'

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    1. 10/05/12--06:28: A Shaded Path
    2. Next month Tate Britain will feature a new display of its works by Ian Hamilton Finlay.  Meanwhile in Edinburgh there are still a few more weeks of 'Ian Hamilton Finlay: Twilight Remembers' at the Ingleby Gallery.  It is worth finding your way there (through the confusion of construction work in and around Edinburgh Waverley) if only to see Carrier Strike!, a short film in which a sea battle a fleet of irons and an ironing board aircraft carrier.  Climb the stairs and you encounter a line of bricks called A Shaded Path, each one stamped with the word 'Virgil' - a pastoral version of Carl Andre's Equivalent VIII. The room contains examples of Finlay's garden sculptures: Three Inscribed Stones bearing the names of Japanese war planes,a stile inspired by De Stijl,a pairs of benches Glade / Grove and a 'milestone' which says simply 'MAN / A PASSERBY'.  Downstairs there is a whole wall devoted to prints and postcards of Finlay's concrete and experimental poetry.  These poems can also be read, along with early verse and prose, later texts and 'detatched sentences', in Ian Hamilton Finlay: Selections, a new anthology edited by Alec Finlay.  I thought I would include here a few extracts from the Introduction that give a sense of Ian Hamilton Finlay's engagement with landscape over the years.


      late 1940s: Finlay left Glasgow with his first wife for the Highlands, where they lived in a whitewashed cottage resembling his later home at Stonypath.  'Druim-na-Cille was "an extraordinary landscape of pines and mountains which I still owe many poems to," and "bittersweet, like a mixture of Heine and Trakl."  ... In these glens he had a dream of 'young men engaged in learned discourse', a vision that would eventually become the garden where the thought of Hegel, Schelling and Heidegger was actualised in herm, stile and wood-path.  ... The more one reflects on his biography the more clear it is that each new landscape of home became, in time, a created landscape, shaped by the memory of a lost idyll.'

      mid 1950s: 'In a rite familiar to Scottish writers, Finlay found refuge on an island, Rousay, one of Orkney's smaller islands.  ... For all its wildness, Rousay has a platonic perfection, its constituent parts - loch, mill and farms; the single road, upon which he worked as a labourer; the rugged coast - were, "being on an island ... like a concrete poem, very particular, very realised."'

      late 1960s: After some years in Edinburgh Finlay wrote to George Mackay Brown that he had found a new home with his partner Sue: "STONYPATH ('Of life' being understood in brackets, no doubt).  I am looking forward to the wildness very much." 'The area around the house was wild, except for an overgrown walled garden at the front, with lilac trees, currant bushes and an old ash - this last Finlay celebrated with a stone plaque 'MARE NOSTRUM' ('Our Sea'), after the Roman Mediterranean: "except on very calm days [...] the ash fills the garden with its sea-sound.  When people ask why so many poems refer to the sea, or comment that it is odd to find so many sea-references so far from the sea itself, I often point to the Ash Tree and say, That is our sea."'

      1970s: The garden at Stonypath took shape. 'Year by year the composed landscape distinguished itself from the wild hillside and the broad waste of the moor.  Finlay extolled the 'slow excitement' of his new art.  His imaginative fancy conjured Stonypath as a belated episode in the English landscape garden tradition - those "quite extraordinary PURE SYMPHONIC creations', in which nature is poeticized, abstracted: pond as Pool, grass as Lawn, sundial gnomon dividing shadow into measure and order.'

      1980s: By 1982 Finlay had renamed his garden 'Little Sparta' and transformed his gallery into a Garden Temple dedicated 'To Apollo: His Music, His Missiles, His Muses.' 'For Finlay, poetics now became secondary to the lightning flash of incitement, which found its apotheosis in Robespiere's protégé Saint-Just, a Spartan Rimbaud or Young Apollo, identified by his flute and blade. ... Balancing the insurrectionary mood are the poet's sober meditations, as the era of rebellion gradually gives way to an era of contemplation, and the garden itself matures to enclose the still shadows of a cypress grove.'

      late 1990s: 'There unfolded a last long autumnal decade whose emblems were the wild flower and the fishing-boat, and whose ideal literary form was the proverb.  Sometimes Finlay expressed puzzlement that he had lost the energy for battles.  In truth his imagination had returned to the pastoral, in poems which recalled the early days at Stonypath, celebrating the moor, with its larks and bog-cotton, and the wild roses that grew by the burn.'

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    3. 10/12/12--06:55: By the Open Sea

    4. A strange work of land art avant la lettre is created in August Strindberg's extraordinary novel By the Open Sea (1889).  Although summer has arrived on the island of Österskär, 'drift-ice was still coming from the north, where an unusually severe winter on the coast had resulted in the formation of bottom-ice, which, drifting south, had so chilled the water that the lower layers of air were denser than those above.  Consequently, refraction had distorted the contours of the skerries and, during the last few days, had produced the most magnificent mirages.' The scientific explanations voiced by Strindberg's doomed anti-hero, the government fisheries inspector Axel Borg, fail to dispel the supernatural ideas of the suspicious islanders.  Maria, the young woman towards whom Borg is attracted (she is staying on the island for the summer for reasons of health), likens the distorted shape of the pink-gneiss skerries to the cliffs of Normandy.  Borg decides he needs to appear to the islanders as some kind of magician simply to gain a hearing. 'He therefore asked the credulous if they would believe that they were seeing a reflection of Italy if they saw an Italian landscape, and when the answer was yes, he determined to combine the useful with the entertaining.  By making a few minor alterations he would produced the promised southern landscape for Miss Maria's birthday, so that when the next mirage occurred this, seen through the colossal magnifying glass provided by the varying density of the layers of air would appear on the horizon greatly magnified.'

      Borg rows out to the skerry and begins work by stripping away lichen, leaving a few dark lines so that the rock resembles stratified sedimentary rock.  On the crest of the ridge he fells a few pine trees, isolating the best one so that it will be silhouetted against the sky.  He thins out its crown and trains some of its branches upwards with zinc wire to achieve the look of an Italian stone pine.  A juniper tree is converted into a cypress using an axe and darkened in colour using lamp-black dissolved in water.  At first he had felt rather disgusted with himself for indulging in this activity but as he works he comes to feel 'like a Titan storming creation, correcting its originator's blunders, twisting the earth's axis so that the south turned a few degrees northwards.'  He goes to work with a crowbar, trying to remove slabs of eurite to reveal the marble underneath, eventually resorting to the use of dynamite.  Having thus uncovered what would serve as the facade of a palace, he paints on windows and the outline of a rusticated socle.  He adds a pergola festooned with vines (three poles and some plaited runners of bearberry) and finishes his work by touching the area up with hydrochloric acid diluted with an equal part of water.  'Thus he obtained a gleaming shade of white among the green grass.  This produced an effect of bellis, or galanthus, so characteristic of the Roman Campagna in its 'second spring', which occurs in October after the end of the grape harvest.'

      But that evening is a troubling one: Maria is ill, or appears to be, and Borg, with another kind of magic trick, goes through the motions of curing her.  Tired and confused he walks out into the night, where he is eventually rejoined by Maria.  They talk about their future together but fall silent on reaching a cairn erected in memory of the people drowned in a shipwreck.  Borg already feels a yearning for the time of their initial enchantment, 'the intoxication that blinded, that changed grey to rosy red, that built pedestals, that painted golden rims on cracked porcelain.'  Next morning they are talking over coffee when they become aware that a crowd has gathered looking uneasily out to sea.  Stepping outside they realise immediately that it is not the miraculous mirage Borg had planned.  'They saw swimming on the surface of the sea, in the middle of a clear sunny morning, a colossal moon, deathly white, rising over a churchyard of black cypresses.  The inspector, who had not calculated what the effect would be from this viewpoint, and who did not grasp the hang of the matter swiftly enough, turned deathly pale himself from shock.'  His intended marble palace, partly obscured by the pine tree and projecting rock and with windows painted on too faintly, resembled the face of the moon.  'He had never expected an otherwise law-abiding nature to produce such a monstrous phenomenon.'

         August Strindberg, Double Picture, 1892

      Quotes here are from the 1984 translation by Mary Sandbach, which some publisher like New York Review Books really ought to reissue (Penguin Classics used to have an edition of By the Open Sea but it is no longer in print). 

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    5. 10/19/12--09:22: Wildtrack

    6. To the ICA last night for the London Film Festival Screening of Pat Collins' film Silence.  Like the film I saw at last year's festival, Ben Rivers' Two Years at Sea, it is slow cinema, situated somewhere between documentary and drama.  'The film follows a softly spoken sound recordist, played by co-writer Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde, who wields a mic on a stand rather like a pilgrim would a staff as he treks through bleak and beautiful Irish locations as part of a vague professional assignment to record spaces "away from man-made sound."' As Frances Morgan goes on to say in her article in November's Sight & Sound, 'the idealisation of remoteness, of depopulated or liminal spaces, and of the man (it's rarely a woman) wandering or living among them' has surfaced recently in the work of many writers and film-makers: Sebald, Sinclair, Keiller, Ben Rivers and Robert Macfarlane. But Silence sets up 'a tension between the need for solitude and the responsibility to hear, speak, bear witness to human history.  Ruined houses glimpsed across a bay may seem picturesque, but a fisherman's story of mass economic migration is a corrective to romanticising their decay.  Eoghan describes childhood evenings spent following his father's often dangerous fishing trips via CB radio, an evocative image of sound and its attendant technology connecting humans across the wilderness of the sea.'

      Recording silence in the Burren

      At the brief question and answer session after last night's screening, Pat Collins talked about the film's use of music and improvised dialogue.  In editing the film he wanted to be free to include sounds and imagery that felt right, without being tied to a clear narrative structure. At one point, for example, he cuts to an unnamed poet walking through the mist, reflecting that "the mind turns upon silence" (it is one minute into the trailer embedded above). Elsewhere we hear the voice of cartographer and landscape writer Tim Robinson, the subject of a documentary Collins made last year. In the trailer for that earlier film embedded below you can hear hear Robinson talking about sound and silence. “Sometimes from my doorstep on a still night I become aware that the silence is set in a velvet background like the jewel in a display case. A hushing that, when attended to, becomes ineluctable. It is compounded of the crash of breakers along distant strands variously delayed, attenuated, echoed and re-echoed...”


      Near the start of Silence, there is a scene in a hotel where the barman tries to engage Eoghan in conversation, telling him about a deserted Scottish island where starlings still mimic the mechanical sounds of the lawnmowers once used by its inhabitants. Is this story the sort of thing he is looking for?  Eoghan replies quietly that what he has come to Ireland to find is silence.  The possibility that an anecdote about birdsong might be of more interest than the sounds themselves is a sign perhaps of how much has been written and said about soundscapes in recent years.  It seems only a matter of time before the boom in sound art is accompanied by new narratives centring on the figure of the field recordist, fictional versions of Chris Watson perhaps, who worked on Silence and told its director the Scottish island story. Will these resemble earlier characterisations of landscape painters in nineteenth century literature?  Rose Tremain's story 'Wildtrack' was written in 1986, when the purpose of crouching over a tape recorder in a Suffolk field was to record a soundtrack for use in radio rather than make an art installation or an album for Touch. Her protagonist, like Eoghan in Silence, returns to the places of his childhood and the story becomes more about memory than landscape.  Perhaps this focus is inevitable given the way that recordings preserve and bring back lost time.  Pat Collins has referred to David Toop's idea that sound is ‘a haunting’and his filmends with Eoghan exploring an abandoned house while faint sounds of conversation can be heard: they may be old tapes he made as a child, or ghostly presences, or both.

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    7. 10/23/12--14:04: Dew-Drenched Furze

    8. On my morning walks to the Underground this week I have passed front gardens strewn with delicate dewy cobwebs, as you can see from the photograph above.  I realise there is a beer bottle in this particular bush too, but this, after all, is London, not a remote forest glade (as the great Charles Reznikoff once said, 'this smoky winter morning - / do not despise the green jewel shining among the twigs / because it is a traffic light.')  It must have been on some such autumn morning that John Everett Millais set out to paint Dew-Drenched Furze (1881), a work recently acquired by the Tate.  Millais got his title from In Memoriam, where Tennyson wrote ‘Calm and deep peace on this high wold, / And on the dews that drench the furze, / And all the silvery gossamers / That twinkle into green and gold...’  According to his son, Millais aimed 'to capture the morning sun streaming through a clearing of gorse illuminated by droplets of dew, a subject ‘probably never painted before’, and one that as he begun he feared ‘might be unpaintable.’'  This son, the ornithological artist J.G. Millais, added a cock pheasant in the right foreground of the painting, but this was subsequently removed (no doubt as distracting as a stray beer bottle).  The result is a beautiful and surprisingly abstract landscape painting, which draws the eye over sunlit spider's webs and feathery gorse towards a veil of distant golden mist. 

      John Everett Millais, Dew-Drenched Furze, 1881

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    9. 10/26/12--03:40: Deep South
    10. ‘I look for it always, the thick, vespertine gloaming that douses the day’s heat. When it comes, the landscape grows soft and vague, as if inadequately summoned by some shiftless deity, casually neglectful of details. Making a photograph in these conditions is a challenge, even for modern blue-sensitive film, and the resulting image often appears to have been breathed onto the negative, a moist refulgence within deepening shadows.’
      Sally Mann, Deep South (2005)
      Looking through the black and white images in Deep South you see this Southern light, creating a halo round ivy coloured tree trunks, illuminating the mist over a river, or saturating the view of a wooded slope so that the landscape is barely visible at all.  One photograph shows the gateway to what looks like some abandoned antebellum house, trees blurred by light or wind, by the camera’s focal length, by imperfections in the old glass negative she has used, or in some mysterious way by the action of time itself.  She writes that Southerners, like Proust, ‘know love emerges from loss and becomes memory, and that memory informs and enriches art.’ This aesthetic transformation was harder to make however when she travelled further into the Deep South.  'It was impossible for me to drive the vine-hung back roads of Mississippi and not think of the invisible sediment of misery deposited at every turn.’ One image simply shows a nondescript bank of grass and a flat expanse of river. This was taken ‘one serenely mote-floating, balmy, yellowish October afternoon' at the spot from which the fourteen-year old Emmett Till was thrown into the Tallahatchie River.’

      Whilst some of the photographs in this book may seem overly nostalgic or Picturesque, others taken on the Civil War battle fields make use of the antique printing processes in interesting ways.  They look 'authentic', although they differ from the old photographs familiar, for example, from Ken Burns' series The Civil War, in being empty of people.  Dark skies appear almost molten, an expressionist effect resulting from the liquid nature of her wet-plate negatives.  A sombre image of a grey landscape crossed by a wooden fence like a low barricade seems to have two huge dark suns.  Another, in which a black tree looms over a field, is pockmarked in a way that resembles shrapnel damage.  Many are blurred, like the vision of wounded soldiers.  Walking these fields, Mann found that ‘physical traces of the struggle remain. I have a lead minié ball, flattened and deformed, that was picked up at Fredericksburg. The sinuous earthworks still weave through the fields, so well preserved that they appear serviceable for the next civil war. In this peculiar place of stilled time, the spirits seemed to drift up in the fog rising from the fields.’

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      Last year I wrote about one of James Elkins' Art Seminar Series, Landscape Theory, and I'm turning now to one of his other recent books, Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History (2010)I say recent, but the first version of the book was actually completed twenty years ago and he has had a great deal of trouble getting this controversial text accepted for publication.  Hong Kong University Press have issued it with a foreword by Jennifer Purtle which partially deals with the potential objections of skeptical readers affronted at the idea of a non-Chinese reading art theorist asserting that the history of Chinese landscape painting can only be written about in ways that have been developed by Western art historians.  She says Elkins' book is 'brilliant, except for the places where it is dead wrong' (regrettably she leaves the reader none the wiser as to what these places are).  It would be fascinating to read an in depth Art Seminar-style dialogue based on this book (although there is already one called  Is Art History Global?).  I'm not going to address his argument about the inherently Western form of art history here, but will focus instead on the book's other main theme: cross-cultural comparisons.

      Elkins' book begins by problematizing the way early writers on Chinese landscape painting in the West drew comparisons, e.g. between Friedrich's Two Men in Contemplation of the Moon (upside down in the book cover above) and Ma Yuan's Sage Contemplating the Moon.  Jennifer Purtle emphasises these difficulties with reference to contemporary artist Zhang Hongtu's Shan Sui series, where Chinese landscapes are re-painted in the style of Western artists.  If you look at Shitao-Van Gogh (1998) without familiarity with the Shitao composition you will only see a kind of Van Gogh painting. (Incidentally, Zhang Hongtu has more recently been re-painting Chinese landscapes as damaged environments in his pollution series. "Where those masters saw raging waters, I see dry riverbeds. Where they painted clean water, now I am painting the polluted water".)  Elkins is less interested in specific comparisons than in tracing the 'development' of  Chinese landscape painting and mapping it onto Western periods, in part to reveal hidden assumptions in the way art history is constructed.  I've summarised this briefly below because I think it's interesting, but should emphasise that Elkins is aware of how open to criticism this is: 'at one moment it looks as if Chinese art after a certain point is definitely like modernism; and at the next moment it is transparently obvious that such a judgement is projection of Western understanding.'

      Zhao Mengfu, Autumn colours on the Qiao and Hua mountains, 1295

      The Renaissance: Elkins compares the new art historical consciousness of Italian Renaissance artists with that of early Yuan Dynasty landscape painters, both of whom were working with only limited direct knowledge of their famous classical predecessors. Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) crystallised past styles in an analogous way to Alberti, Brunelleschi and Masaccio.  As I explained in an earlier post, Zhao's scroll, The Mind Landscape of Xie Youyu, was based on a much earlier painting, a historical gesture equivalent to the revival of Roman architecture.

      Mannerism: Moving forward to the Four Great Masters of the Yuan, Elkins identifies elements of what 'the twentieth century recognised as mannerism, meaning, in this context, a historical moment that has become conscious and disdainful of recent perfection.'  I have previously contrasted here the 'bland' landscapes of Ni Zan (1301-74), with the 'saturated' spaces of Wang Meng (1308-85).  Ni Zan's 'concept of monotonous restatement' might be seen as a form of mannerism and Wang's 'crowding of tumultuous forms is another mannerist trait.'

      Classicism: By the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Chinese landscape painters like Shen Zhou (1427-1509) and Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) were working at a distance from both the motif itself and antique models of landscape painting, a kind of 'engaged detachment' that Elkins identifies with Poussin.  But as time went on there were more and more schools of art and historical styles, prompting 'a moment of extreme radicalism and unexpectedly strong judgement...'

      Modernism: The landscapes of Dong Qichang (1555-1636) employ distortions and abstractions that might be compared to Cubism.  In his early work Picasso worked through a huge range styles before focusing on Cézanne and Rousseau, and Dong similarly left behind the influence of earlier artists like Ni Zan and Wang Meng before fixing on two: Wang Wei (the great Tang dynasty artist-poet) and Huang Gongwang (oldest of the Four Great Masters, whose role Elkins likens to Cézanne).   

      Dong Qichang, Wanluan Thatched Hall, 1597

      Postmodernism: Many Western historians of Chinese art have treated the landscape painters of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) in a more cursory way than their predecessors.  Schools of art became increasingly short lived and individualists and 'eccentrics' proliferate - artists like Gao Qipei (1660-1734) who painted with his fingernails.  Elkins likens their extreme and narrow strategies to those of Western postmodern artists - Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Wolfgang Laib.  To the extent that Chinese landscape painting ceased to develop radically after the seventeenth century, it may be seen as a precursor of what postmodernism will become, a period 'that arrives when the sequence of historical periods has played itself out.' 

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    11. 11/07/12--13:53: Tongues in trees


    12. I was at the Barbican yesterday for Calixto Bieito's Forests, a World Shakespeare Festival production composed from fragments of Shakespeare's woodland and heath scenes.  'The play takes audiences from As You Like It’s forest of Arden through the moving trees of Macbeth’s Birnam Wood, ending in the bare wilderness of King Lear’s cliffs of Dover: a vivid theatrical journey from the calmness of paradise to the uncertainties of purgatory and finally into the flames of hell.'  In a Guardian interview Bieito says "I became fascinated with how often Shakespeare's characters go into the forest. In Shakespeare, the forest can be many things: a place of self-discovery, a place of magic, a place of darkness. I tried to shape this work as if it were a symphonic poem. You don't have to understand the whole plot. What matters is the strength of the images and the music of the text." It is a great concept and made me wonder about sampling and sequencing landscape moments from other writers, not for  descriptions of nature, but to see what kinds of action is staged in these settings.  In Forests we have cross-dressing, seduction, assault, madness and suicide.  It doesn't all work, as Kate Kellaway's review points out, though, as she says, 'Shakespeare proves tolerant to reinvention, his words pliant as willow.'

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