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  • 01/18/19--09:32: A fine rain was falling
  • 'Any landscape is a condition of the spirit.' -  Henri-Frédéric Amiel

    This is one of those quotes about landscape you come across in a diverse range of books.  It is also available in tweet-friendly images, such as the one below where it is superimposed on a mountain scene.  This longer version is from the translation of Amiel's Journal Intime, published in 1885 by the British novelist Mrs. Humphry Ward.  The whole book can be found on Project Gutenburg, so I have copied from there below the journal entry where Amiel makes his observation.  As can be seen, it was prompted by an autumn day, with leaves on the ground and a few flowers lingering in the garden.  The mountains in the distance were the Alps - Lancy is part of Geneva, the city where Amiel was born and died.  This entry was written when he was thirty-one.  He was a poet and a philosopher but this journal only appeared posthumously. 'It reveals,' according to the Encyclopedia Bitannica, 'a sensitive man of great intellectual ability, struggling for values against the skepticism of the age. Widely translated, it gained Amiel lasting fame.'

     
    October 31, 1852. (Lancy.)—Walked for half an hour in the garden. A fine rain was falling, and the landscape was that of autumn. The sky was hung with various shades of gray, and mists hovered about the distant mountains, a melancholy nature. The leaves were falling on all sides like the last illusions of youth under the tears of irremediable grief. A brood of chattering birds were chasing each other through the Shrubberies, and playing games among the branches, like a knot of hiding schoolboys. The ground strewn with leaves, brown, yellow, and reddish; the trees half-stripped, some more, some less, and decked in ragged splendors of dark-red, scarlet, and yellow; the reddening shrubs and plantations; a few flowers still lingering behind, roses, nasturtiums, dahlias, shedding their petals round them; the bare fields, the thinned hedges; and the fir, the only green thing left, vigorous and stoical, like eternal youth braving decay; all these innumerable and marvelous symbols which forms colors, plants, and living beings, the earth and the sky, yield at all times to the eye which has learned to look for them, charmed and enthralled me. I wielded a poetic wand, and had but to touch a phenomenon to make it render up to me its moral significance. Every landscape is, as it were, a state of the soul, and whoever penetrates into both is astonished to find how much likeness there is in each detail. True poetry is truer than science, because it is synthetic, and seizes at once what the combination of all the sciences is able at most to attain as a final result. The soul of nature is divined by the poet; the man of science, only serves to accumulate materials for its demonstration.
    Ferdinand Hodler, Lake Geneva with the Savoy Alps, 1907

    Mrs Ward's translation of Amiel's Journal was reviewed and praised by the great Victorian critic, Walter Pater.  He quotes Amiel's statement about landscape and the soul in this review (which can be read online).  He also observes that although 'in Switzerland it is easy to be pleased with scenery', there are passages of natural description in Amiel that 'rise to real distinction.'  He gives three examples, on the effects of fog, frost and rain, and I will close here by quoting the last of these:
    August 22, 1873. (Scheveningen).—The weather is rainy, the whole atmosphere gray; it is a time favorable to thought and meditation. I have a liking for such days as these; they revive one’s converse with one’s self and make it possible to live the inner life; they are quiet and peaceful, like a song in a minor key. We are nothing but thought, but we feel our life to its very center. Our very sensations turn to reverie. It is a strange state of mind; it is like those silences in worship which are not the empty moments of devotion, but the full moments, and which are so because at such times the soul, instead of being polarized, dispersed, localized, in a single impression or thought, feels her own totality and is conscious of herself. 
    Vincent Van Gogh, Scheveningen Beach in Stormy Weather, 1882

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    Salomon Gessner, Bucolic Scene, 1767

    My post yesterday was about a nineteenth century French-speaking Swiss writer from Geneva; this one is about an eighteenth century German-speaking Swiss poet from Zurich.  However, as can be seen above, Salomon Gessner (1730-88) was also a visual artist.  Here is a snatch of his poetry, describing autumn. It is taken from an 1809 translation of Gessner's Idylls (1756-72).  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, 'his pastorals were translated into 20 languages, including Welsh, Latin, and Hebrew. The English translation ran through many editions and was admired by the Romantic writers Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, and Wordsworth.'  However, I see from Wikipedia that 'The New International Encyclopædia (1905) finds his writing “insipidly sweet and monotonously melodious,” and attributes Gessner's popularity to the taste of a generation nursed on Rousseau.'
    O'er every vine of gold and purple hue
    The sun its animating lustre threw;
    And every curling branch, whose friendly shade
    Waved o'er his cot, beneath the zephyr play’d.
    Clear was the sky, o'er all the valley's bed
    The low-land vapours like a lake were spread;
    Amidst whose floating surface lightly rear'd
    The mountain tops, like little isles appear'd;
    Where smoaking huts and fruitful groves were seen
    In autumn's richest vest of gold and green.

    Salomon Gessner, Pastoral landscape with two women and a boy
    playing a flute in front of a herm of Pan, 1787

    Gessner was on my mind today as I saw the painting above in the British Museum.  It was in the Prints and Drawings room, in a display of art linked to the sketch by Joseph Anton Koch they recently purchased from the Brian Sewell estate (see my post on it last year).  Gessner's painting was the basis for an 1805 etching by another artist I have discussed here before, Carl Wilhelm Kolbe.  The British Museum also owns an etching by Kolbe of the memorial to Gessner which stands in Zurich's Platspitz Park.  In it, 'a well-dressed couple and child looking at Gessner's tomb in the form of a Greek memorial with a low relief sculpture, set behind a railing in woodland.'

    Carl Wilhelm Kolbe, The Monument to Salomon Gessner in Zurich, c. 1807

    In their current exhibition, the British Museum curators have put Gessner's Pastoral Landscape on show next to a different memorial to Gessner, this one by Johann Heinrich Bleuler.  The etching was published in the year of Gessner's death and shows a memorial to him situated by a lake.  Was it imaginary, like Caspar David Friedrich's proposal for a monument to Goethe?  If not, is there still something resembling this at Lake Klöntal, a permanent presence of a landscape painter in the landscape he painted?  Yes, it would seem there is, according to the local tourism website and you can do a nice walk to it. They describe the origin of the inscription thus: 'Sie wurde ihm von zwei Verehrern gewidmet, die sich 1788 zur Einweihung des Gedenksteins mit Tränen in den Augen um den Hals fielen und küssten.' ('It was dedicated to him by two devotees who fell around the neck and kissed each other in 1788 with tears in their eyes for the inauguration of the memorial stone' - Google Translate). The writing looks quite amateurish and crudely done, but clearly those admirers meant well.

    Johann Heinrich Bleuler, Commemorative stone in memory of Salomon Gessner, 
    at Lake Klöntal, Glarus, 1788

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    I am returning here to a subject I covered over ten years ago, the gardens of the kings of Assyria, because I have been to see the British Museum's exhibition, 'I am Ashurbanipal'.  I ended my previous post by referring to a relief dated 645 which shows King Ashurbanipal and his Queen in the royal park in Nineveh, dining under an arbour of grape vines, with the decapitated head of the conquered king of the Elamites hanging from a nearby tree.  This scene is on show in the current exhibition, mounted with other smaller ones to show how a complete wall might have looked.  You can see this in my photograph above, which I think also gives an indicates of how wonderfully well lit everything is.  The garden landscape in which Ashurbanipal is seen drinking and listening to music contains alternating pine and fruit-bearing date palms, perhaps symbols of Assyria and Babylonia respectively.  And in the foliage, a bird goes after a locust - in his annals, Ashurbanipal likened the Elamites to a swarm of locusts.


    This second photograph shows the royal park created by Ashurbanipal's grandfather Sennacherib, which I also mentioned in my earlier post.  In the new exhibition, coloured light is projected onto this relief, picking out the irrigation channels and trees.  You can see the effect in a gif at the British Museum blog site. I will quote here what this site has to say about the landscape:
    'The gardens at Nineveh were irrigated by an immense canal network built by Ashurbanipal’s grandfather, Sennacherib. He brought water to the city over a great distance using channels and aqueducts to create a year-round oasis of all types of flora. The canals stretched over 50km into the mountains, and Sennacherib boasted about the engineering technology he used. A monumental aqueduct crossing the valley at Jewan, which you can still see the remains of today, was made of over 2 million stones and waterproof cement. The aqueduct was constructed over 500 years before the Romans started building their aqueducts, and was inscribed with the following words: "Sennacherib king of the world king of Assyria. Over a great distance I had a watercourse directed to the environs of Nineveh, joining together the waters… Over steep-sided valleys I spanned an aqueduct of white limestone blocks, I made those waters flow over it."
    Since I wrote my last blog post on the gardens at Nineveh, it has been argued that they were in fact 'the real Hanging Gardens of Babylon'.  Archaeologist Stephanie Dalley first formulated this theory in 1992 and then published a book with new research in 2013.  A Channel 4 documentary was made and her new evidence was widely reported in the news.  It would obviously be helpful to do some more digging, but the site of Nineveh, around Mosul, has been too dangerous to excavate.  Dalley was quoted in 2013 as saying she thought it unlikely that excavations would be possible in her lifetime.  A year later, Daesh overran the area and, as Jonathan Jones says in his review of this exhibition, 'they smashed antiquities in the Mosul Museum and set about demolishing Nineveh itself.'  It is sad to think how much can change in the course of a few years, but at least these remarkable artifacts remain to give us, amongst much else, an idea of the gardens created by the kings of Assyria.

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    The Great Polish Map of Scotland
    Source: Wikimedia Commons (John Riddell)

    I have written here before about relief maps, focusing on the impressive set of table-top landscapes made at the behest of Louis XIV.  These were relatively portable, indoor objects, but there is also a history of larger relief maps made outdoors.  Such scaled-down landscapes are subject to the same forces of weathering and erosion as the 'real' landscape in which they are set.  Thus, one of the best-known examples, the Great Polish Map of Scotland, has had to undergo a process of restoration recently.  Its concrete is more vulnerable to frost and rain than the gneiss and granite of the Scottish mountains, but, unlike the Highlands, it can always be repaired and maintained in a relatively pristine state.  The map was constructed in the late 1970s at a hotel owned by the Polish war veteran, Jan Tomasik and designed by cartographer Kazimierz Trafas. Water for the sea, rivers and lochs was diverted from a nearby stream.  There are various photographs online - the one below showing the map in snow is quite striking.

     Aerial view in snow
    Source: Wikimedia Commons (Novemberscot)

    The Great Polish Map of Scotland is 50x40m and has been described as the largest relief map in the world.  However, according to Wikipedia, a site in Ningxia province, China was spotted in 2006 using satellite imagery measuring 900 by 700 metres.  It 'appeared to be a large scale relief model (1:500) of Aksai Chin, a disputed territory between China and India.'  You can find this using Google - I have reproduced the satellite image below.  It is a reminder that the history of relief maps in China, as elsewhere, has always been associated with politics and territorial claims (a map is the territory...)  There are other examples of large-scale relief maps around the world: the Philippines can be seen in reproduced in Rizal Park, Manila, and Guatemala has been scaled down in the 'Mapa en Relieve', as described in an Atlas Obscura article.  Such endeavours have been conceived and executed by scientists rather than artists, but I could imagine some more creative alternatives, relief maps that only partially reproduce a landscape, in order to idealise, reinvent or deconstruct it. 

     A large outdoor relief map in China?

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    Richard Wilson, The Temple of Clitumnus, 
    with the cows drinking from the spring of Clitumnus, 
    near Spoleto, Umbria (detail), 18th century 
    Source: Christies

    I have been re-reading Gilbert Highet, whose Poets in a Landscape (1957) I wrote about in an earlier post about the Springs of Clitumnus.  Highet was drawn to this place through 'two lines of sincere poetry' in an elegy by Sextus Propertius (c. 50/45-15 BCE):
    among the woods where the Clitumnus hides its lovely
      springs, and white oxen bathe in the cool stream
    The rest of this poem, and almost everything else Propertius wrote, is about love and his life in the city of Rome.  However, you can find more landscape in his poetry, in this description of his origins.
    Old Umbria bore you on a famous family-tree,
      I do not lie; the borders of your home
    are these: cloudy Mevania, among rain-soaked fields,
      the Umbrian lake, smiling in summer heat,
    and steep Asisium's wall climbing towards the peak -
      the wall to which your genius has brought fame.
    Mevania is modern Bevagna and the lake was nearby although it was drained long ago and no longer exists. Asisum is Assisi and there are still Roman stones there bearing the Propertius family name.  But, as Highet explains,
    'In Assisi today, everything belongs to the world of St. Francis.  Apart from a few inscriptions and details, there is only a small and elegant Capitoline temple (dedicated to the trinity of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva) above ground to remind the visitor of the world of Propertius, and, below ground, the relics of the Roman Forum.  High above them soar the immense walls and towers of the churches of St. Francis. ... Around the towers of the church of St. Francis, the doves which once were the messengers of Venus now rise, the emanations of a loftier and purer spirit.'
    Giotto (attribution uncertain), St. Francis Preaching to the Birds, 1297-99
    Source: Wikimedia Commons

    Francesco Bernadone - St. Francis - is much more associated with nature than Propertius, through the stories that he preached to the birds and made peace between a wolf and a village.  He is included, albeit 'stretching the point', in Italian Landscape Poems, the 1993 anthology compiled and translated by Alistair Elliot, who sadly died late last year.  The book starts with St. Francis'Canticle of the Sun or Laudes Creaturarum ('Praise of the Creatures'), which is said to have been composed in 1224.  It is in the Umbrian dialect of Italian, rather than the Latin written by Propertius, and is often considered the earliest work of Italian literature.  Here are some lines in praise of the elements: the wind, air and clouds, water ('so helpful and humble, precious and chaste'), fire and finally earth, 'who nourishes and guides us / and brings forth fruit in kinds, with coloured flowers, and grass.'
    Laudato si, mi Signore, per frate Vento
    et per aere et nubilo et sereno et onne tempo,
    per lo quale, a le Tue creature dài sustentamento.

    Laudato si, mi Signore, per sor'Acqua,
    la quale è multo utile et humile et pretiosa et casta.

    Laudato si, mi Signore, per frate Focu,
    per lo quale ennallumini la nocte:
    ed ello è bello et iucundo et robustoso et forte.

    Laudato si, mi Signore, per sora nostra matre Terra,
    la quale ne sustenta et gouerna,
    et produce diuersi fructi con coloriti fior et herba.

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  • 02/13/19--15:13: A view of Magdala
  • Watercolour World is a new online database of documentary watercolours painted before 1900 which launched at the end of January.  You can use filters and search by a keyword, e.g. 'waterfall', which brings up waterfalls in South Australia, Japan, Italy, French Polynesia and so on.  Enter 'Cozens' and you get a selection of watercolours by Cozens (although the first one is a Turner painting 'after J. R. Cozens').  But perhaps the main attraction is a map which you can zoom around and look for specific landmarks or places.  The distribution of watercolours on the map shows that this is a British initiative - there are over 25,000 watercolours for the British Isles but only around 50 for Japan (and those Japanese images are by late nineteenth century British illustrators).  They do have global ambitions, but the emphasis on 'documentary' images means that there is bound to be a bias towards cultures which valued topographic accuracy (either as art or as part of some branch of science).


    Why watercolours and not, say, oil sketches?  Well non-watercolours are allowed in - they include aquatints and pencil sketches, for example, 'at our discretion'.  Perhaps surprisingly, they are happy to have images where the location is unknown, tagging these to the home of the artist.  How do they choose the images?  'We try to select images that have a clear connection to a real person, place or event, that the artist could plausibly have known first-hand. A painting of a battle that happened years before the artist was born would not be included, but an artist's satirical painting of Londoners in a pub would stay.'  As this last comment indicates, the website goes beyond landscape and covers all kinds of subject matter.  I am not sure how they would feel about, artists who were moving away from simple representation, a Cézanne watercolour of Mont Sainte-Victoire, for example.  There are none of these in the database; the only image from this part of Provence is a view of Aix-en-Provence by William Callow dating from 1836.

    William Simpson, Untitled (Magdala), 1868
    British Museum

    I thought I would check out a a part of the world I don't recall featuring before here - Ethiopia.  In addition to a few archaeological drawings, I came upon the view above. It shows 'a vast stretch of bare tableland with winding gullies, and three figures in the foreground on the spur of a hill'.  There is no further context - the website refers you to the British Museum for more information.  In fact William Simpson had gone to Abyssinia as an illustrator for the London Evening News, covering the British Army's punitive campaign against the Ethiopian Emporer, who had captured British hostages.  Simpson arrived at Magdala after the fighting was over - those tiny figures are therefore looking out over a landscape that had recently seen a siege and bombardment.  Before leaving Magdala, the troops were permitted to loot it and some of the artifacts they took found their way eventually into London museums like the British Museum.  An Association For the Return Of the Magdala Ethiopian Treasures was formed in 1999 to lobby for their return to Ethiopia.

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  • 02/15/19--08:35: The Ascent to the Village

  • I was very tempted this week to go to Cafe Oto for Brunhild Ferrari in conversation with David Grubbs, but it was on 14 February and I didn't think this proposal would go down very well.  I did though enjoy reading her 'Epiphany' at the back of February's Wire Magazine, which recalls how she met and started making music with Luc Ferrari (1929-2005). Apparently they bonded over a love of rocks - she loved painting them, he was fascinated by the geology of Corsica, where his father came from.  In the paragraph below she describes their experiments in field recording and mentions two famous landscapes that I have featured here before (in connection with Petrarch and Monet).  I have embedded above a clip of the composition she mentions, Presque Rien No. 1 (1967-70).


    A couple of years ago Ferrari's four 'Presque Rien' ('Almost Nothing') compositions were reissued by Editions Mego.  Here, from a review by John Kealy, is a description of the fourth.
    Presque Rien No. 4: La Remontée du Village (Almost Nothing No. 4: The Ascent to the Village) seemingly returns to bare elegance of the original work. This is the sound of Ferrari and his wife Brunhild ascending the hill to the Italian town of Ventimiglia and it is remarkably similar to the moods and feelings of the first piece. However, the sleepy isolation of the 1960s countryside has been lost as sounds from nearby televisions and passing scooters permeate the air around Ferrari’s microphones. Gradually, evidence of Ferrari’s tinkering becomes more and more noticeable as he slowly blends the sounds as they were recorded into something more akin to musique concrète. The climax of this is the powerful intrusion of a cow, preposterously embellished by Ferrari to sound super-real.
    Another landscape-related piece reissued by Editions Mego was Petite symphonie intuitive pour un paysage de printemps (1973–1974).  Ferrari's notes explain that this too was based on a walk with his wife.
    'Brunhild and I were in the Gorges du Tarn area. We chose to take a small path that was going up a rocky mountain for about ten kilometres. After a last turn, a totally unexpected landscape opened before my eyes. It was sunset. Before us, a vast plateau spread open with soft curves up to the horizon, up to the sun. The colours ranged from dry grass yellow to purple, in the distance, with the darkness of a few small groves punctuating the space. The almost bare nature was presenting itself to the eye, free from any obstacle. We could see everything. Later, when I recollected this place and the sensations I had experienced there, I tried to compose a music that could revive this memory.'
    The reviewer for Pitchfork thought initially that this sounded like Boards of Canada, but then decided it 'feels more complex than that. For as alien as musique concrète can be, in the hands of Ferrari, he was able to render it into something that felt warmly familiar. Here he paints a stunning vista at dusk, capturing the expansive horizon with sound rather than sight.'

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    The Song Dynasty poet Yang Wanli (1127–1206) currently has a mere three-line entry on Wikipedia and there is no anthology of his verse in translation currently in print.  However, it is easy to pick up a copy of Heaven My Blanket, Earth My Pillow second-hand - something I've done, as you can see above. The book's title comes from a four-line poem which begins 'the pure wind makes me chant poems, / the bright moon urges me to drink.'  There is quite a lot of drinking in these poems (the translations by Jonathan Chaves, published in 1975, perhaps indicate their age by the way he describes this as getting high).  A love of poetry also comes through - for example in the lovely short poem 'Reading by the Window', in which Yang opens a book of Tang Dynasty poetry to find inside a peach blossom petal, still fresh, that had been caught inside the previous spring.  But nature is his main theme and there are examples in this book of what can unhesitatingly be described as 'landscape poems', recalling a view seen from a boat, a mountain temple or a moon viewing terrace. 

    Landscape poems like these may frame the world like a painting but their words are able to convey sound and motion and time passing.  There are two 'Evening Lake Scenes' for example, in the first of which Yang watches geese in Vs and crows in flocks, flying over a lake and taking their time settling down for the night.  In the second he describes the sunset:
    I sit watching the sun set over the lake.
    The sun is not swallowed by mountains or clouds:
    it descends inch by inch, then disappears completely,
    leaving no trace where it sinks into the water.
    In his introduction, Chaves highlights Yang's 'obsession with capturing the momentary changes in natural phenomena'.  This is from a poem recording his impressions as he crossed between Zhedong and Yongfeng on a spring day in 1179.
    The sunlight must be moving the waves by itself;
    the sky is calm, and there is no wind.

    Wu Zhen, Fisherman, c. 1350
    One of the Chinese paintings reproduced as illustrations in Heaven My Blanket, Earth My Pillow

    Yang Wanli is the last poet in David Hinton's anthology, Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poets of Ancient China. Hinton says that 'with him China's rivers-and-mountains poetry had opened up virtually all of its possibilities'. He highlights Yang's adherence to Ch'an Buddhism and the way it gave rise to a 'crystalline attention to things themselves ... The rivers-and-mountains realm was the natural terrain for this attentiveness, as its grandeur so easily calls one from the limitations of self to the expansiveness of a mirror-like empty mind that contains all things.'  Here, to conclude, are four lines from Hinton's translation of a poem Yang wrote after a hike to Universal-Completion Monastery. 
    As our boat lacing mists angles off the cove's willow shores,
    cloud mountains appear and disappear among the willows.

    And the beauty of climbing a mountain while adrift on a lake?
    It's this lake's mind - that gaze holding the mountain utterly.

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  • 02/24/19--01:33: Wild Geese Returning

  • Wild Geese Returning: Chinese Reversible Poems (2011) is an introduction to a form of poetry that can be read in different directions.  Thanks to the way Chinese written characters take meaning from their position in a text, it is possible to write poetry that reads both forwards and backwards, whilst still retaining the formal the rhymes and syllable counts specific to poetic forms.  As it says on the Calligrams site, reversible poetry's 'greatest practitioner, and the focus of this critical anthology, is Su Hui, a woman who, in the fourth century, embroidered a silk for her distant husband consisting of a grid of 840 characters. No one has ever fully explored all of its possibilities, but it is estimated that the poem—and the poems within the poem—may be read as many as twelve thousand ways.'  Michèle Métail is a sinologist and poet who was also the first woman to be elected to the Oulipo back in 1975.  She has studied this underground current in Chinese literature and translated examples by providing French versions (English, in Jody Gladding's recent translation) that go first one way and then another. 

    Su Hui with her great palindrome poem, the Xuanji Tu.

    For this blog, I am particularly interested in landscape poems, and there are plenty of examples in Métail's book.  Wang Rong (468-494), for example, wrote a short 'Reversible Poem Composed in the Imperial Garden'  which begins with mountain peaks and ends with cicadas singing in the trees, and vice versa.  'In contemplating this landscape', Métail writes, we move from the distant to the close and from the close to the distant.'  The imperial garden was the setting for a sequence of reversible quatrains composed in the next century by a gathering of poets in the circle of the emperor of the Liang dynasty, Xiao Gang (503-551).  Xiao himself wrote of clouds over rocky peaks, water flowing through mountain slopes, a pond with swans and trees losing their leaves.  Or, in reverse, leaves flying from the trees, swans gathered on a lake, mountains with veins of water and rock summits dividing the clouds.

    Some of the most famous Chinese poets wrote reversible poems.  The writer I discussed here last week, Yang Wanli, is included in Wild Geese Returning, along with two other Song Dynasty writers I have mentioned on this blog: Wang Anshi and Su Shi.  Wang Anshi (1021-86) wrote 'Thoughts of a Traveler', which begins with geese on a secluded island and ends with the twists and turns of a river, then, twisting back on itself, returns across the landscape to the wild geese at rest.  Su Shi (or Su Dongpo, 1036-1101) wrote poems to be sung in which the second half is the mirror image of the first.  In one of them, there are reminders of the way nature itself produces reversals, in a branch turned upside down, or with reflections in water.  This poem begins with the image of a horse running after fragrances and ends with a light fragrance following a horse.  Su Shi also wrote a sequence on the fours seasons in which each individual line is sung and then reversed.

    The theme of the seasons was also used by a more obscure Song Dynasty poet, Mei Chuang (dates unknown) and landscape imagery can be found within his other four extant reversible poems.  In 'Two Poems Composed on West Lake for Amusement' the reverse reading renders the name West Lake into a description, 'west of the lake'.  The same is true of Gushan, Solitary Mountain, and thus his poem provides new readings for Chinese place names.  Earlier in the Song Dynasty, Qian Weizhi wrote a collection of ninety reversible and circular poems of which six have come down to us.  'Climbing the Pavilion of Great Compassion on a Spring Day' describes an ascent, or, read backwards, a descent.  Circular poems are a separate genre that can be read from any point in one way or the other.  Métail provides eight examples from the forty possibilities in one of Qian's poems.  I will give two below (you have to think of 'kiosk' in its original sense as a garden pavilion).

    Mountains like a point, snow lights the pavilion
    Distant and close, sky turns the kiosk blue.
    Peacefully receiving the moon, the shades shine
    Cold penetrates the shelter in the misty evening.

    Snow punctuates the mountainous shelter
    Evening mist pentrates the cold shades.
    Brilliant moon on the peaceful kiosk
    Blue sky, near and sistant pavilion. 

    After the Song Dynasty there are further isolated examples of these kinds of poem, culminating, it could be said, in the sequence Zhang Yude wrote in the late eighteenth century for the Great Contemplation Pavilion in Xi'an, two hundred and sixty of which survive carved on stone stelas.  But what of contemporary Chinese poets?  Unsurprisingly perhaps, reversible poetry has not featured in recent official histories of Chinese literature, or written except as games or curiosities.  However, Métail is aware of one exception: Xiong Yinzuo, a Chinese writer living in the US who has published collections of Reversible Poems on the Four Seasons (1978) and Reversible Poems from the Ju Hsin Studio (1980).  Sadly, these have not been translated as far as I can see. Métail writes that they are 'devoted to the impressionistic notation of the smallest details of a landscape in order to comprehend the multiple changes at work in the universe, for which the reversible poem remains the most original poetic illustration.' 

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  • 03/01/19--05:59: The Mountains of Madness
  • 'The last lap of the voyage was vivid and fancy-stirring, great barren peaks of mystery looming up constantly against the west as the low northern sun of noon or the still lower horizon-grazing southern sun of midnight poured its hazy reddish rays over the white snow, bluish ice and water lanes, and black bits of exposed granite slope. Through the desolate summits swept raging intermittent gusts of the terrible antarctic wind; whose cadences sometimes held vague suggestions of a wild and half-sentient musical piping, with notes extending over a wide range, and which for some subconscious mnemonic reason seemed to me disquieting and even dimly terrible. Something about the scene reminded me of the strange and disturbing Asian paintings of Nicholas Roerich, and of the still stranger and more disturbing descriptions of the evilly fabled plateau of Leng which occur in the dreaded Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. I was rather sorry, later on, that I had ever looked into that monstrous book at the college library.'
    - H. P. Lovecraft - At the Mountains of Madness, 1936
    Nicholas Roerich, Milarepa, the One Who Harkened, 1925 

    Nicholas Roerich's 'strange and disturbing' Asian paintings are mentioned several times in Lovecraft's novel.  A character notices 'odd formations on slopes of highest mountains. Great low square blocks with exactly vertical sides, and rectangular lines of low vertical ramparts, like the old Asian castles clinging to steep mountains in Roerich’s paintings.'  Later the narrator says 'There was indeed something hauntingly Roerich-like about this whole unearthly continent of mountainous mystery.' Finally, at the end of the story, after the horror of the mountains of madness is revealed:
    'From these foothills the black, ruin-crusted slopes reared up starkly and hideously against the east, again reminding us of those strange Asian paintings of Nicholas Roerich; and when we thought of the damnable honeycombs inside them, and of the frightful amorphous entities that might have pushed their foetidly squirming way even to the topmost hollow pinnacles, we could not face without panic the prospect of again sailing by those suggestive skyward cave-mouths where the wind made sounds like an evil musical piping over a wide range.'

    Nicholas Roerich, Himalayas, 1933

    Various Lovecraft bloggers have mentioned Roerich and posted images of his art.  One quotes a letter Lovecraft wrote in 1930: "surely Roerich is one of those rare fantastic souls who have glimpsed the grotesque, terrible secrets outside space & beyond time, & who have retained some ability to hint at the marvels they have seen."  Lovecraft was able to see these paintings at the Nicholas Roerich museum, established in New York in 1929.  In that same year Roerich was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize - the Roerich Pact protecting cultural property in war is named after him.  It would be hard to briefly summarise his extraordinary life up until that point - it included a long trip through Russia painting its architecture, set designs for Diaghilev (including The Rite of Spring), the creation of a mystical sect in London and then the epic Journey Through Asia that inspired the paintings Lovecraft admired.  You can read the story of this expedition, in which Roerich hoped to find the hidden land of Shambhala, in an Atlas Obscura article'Why the Soviets Sponsored a Doomed Expedition to a Hollow Earth Kingdom.'  Roerich's own experiences sound very much like those of a Lovecraftian explorer:
    It is said that the closer one approaches to the hidden, hollow-earth city, the more vague their writings become, because Shambhala cannot be described in mere words. In his esoteric book Shambhala the Resplendent, which he was writing along with his more scientific and much drier travel diary, Nicholas began charting another, parallel journey written in stories and riddles. As the expedition went deeper, he increasingly recorded strange manifestations, fires, lights and visions over their camp —though those were mostly left out of his scientifically-minded travel diary. His paintings also became more esoteric, increasingly depicting the messianic King of Shambhala. ... Communication was lost, and the Roerichs were considered dead. [Eventually, after a year, they reemerged in India, having been detained in Tibet where five expedition members died.]   The closest they had gotten to Shambhala, according to Nicholas’ travel diaries, was in the Altai mountains, in the valley of Uimon, when an “Old Believer” proudly showed them the entrance to the subterranean kingdom, now barred with stones.

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    This image of a mystic alone in the mountains recalls the Himalayan paintings of Nicholas Roerich that I discussed in my previous post.  It is a shot from Black Narcissus, the 1947 Technicolor film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, which can currently be seen for free on the BBC iPlayer.  Adam Scovell has written about landscape in this film in a piece for the BFI (the Mr Dean he refers to is the cynical and worldly local British agent, played by David Farrar - 'all bare, hairy legs', in Marina Warner's memorable description):
    Although a large part of it was shot at Pinewood Studios, and at Leonardslee Gardens in Sussex, Black Narcissus is very much a landscape film. The Himalayan topography is a Technicolor dream – vibrant like the hidden fantasies of many of the characters. The dramatic shot of Sister Clodagh ringing the convent’s bell in desperation summarises the film perfectly. In the matte painting of the mountain chasm (by the brilliant Walter Percy Day, with assistance from his sons, Arthur and Thomas), the gulf looks as though it could descend infinitely. But it’s equally the precipice of Sister Clodagh’s inner world. The world of her past passions is an emotional chasm that the landscape around forces her to confront – alongside Mr Dean’s impossibly short shorts, of course.  The camera emphasises this gulf, highlighting the fantastical nature of the landscape and the inner female experience. It’s incredibly fitting that this gulf eventually drags one character to their rocky doom.

    So who was Walter Percy Day, the painter of these mountain scenes?  Born in 1878, he began his career as a conventional painter - you can see examples of his work on the Walter Percy Day website. He turned to cinema in the 1920s, developing his methods first in Britain, then in France (where he worked on Abel Gance's Napoléon), before returning here to make films with Alexander Korda and directors like David Lean, Laurence Olivier and Carol Reed.  The history of matte painting is full of epic landscapes like the mountains of Black Narcissus: jungles and deserts, volcanic islands and alien planets.  Moviegoers could be transported back in time with panoramic shots of ancient Egypt and medieval Europe, Victorian London or Imperial Rome. There are blogs devoted to the subject, such as Matte Shot and MovieMattepainting, and many examples there of paintings by the best-known artists like Albert Whitlock, Alan Maley and Jan Domela.  These artists did not often receive publicity, although Emil Kosa Jr. won an academy award in 1964 for his work on Cleopatra.  Kosa was also a member of the California Scene Painting movement - many matte artists had a parallel career selling their own work.


    Adam Scovell highlights the visual impact of Black Narcissus and of course it is easy to view these scenes in terms of the aesthetics of the Sublime.  An online article by Raphaëlle Costa de Beauregard in the journal Caliban does just this, and also discusses the film's relationship with imperialism.  She mentions the way the Himalayan wind catches the nuns' wimples and cloaks, giving their figures an agitated look. The constant sound of this wind is, for me, one of the most striking aspects of the film, providing an eerie soundscape to all the scenes set on top of the mountain, where one of the nuns, Sister Ruth, slips gradually into madness.  And here there is another connection with Nicholas Roerich and his journey into the high mountains of Asia, and the book it inspired, H. P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness.  Lovecraft describes the evil sound of the wind created by the pinnacles and cave mouths of the mountain range, and his narrator wishes he had wax-stopped ears like Ulysses' men, to keep that 'disturbing wind-piping from my consciousness.'

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  • 03/08/19--09:49: Pastoral Project


  • When Beethoven premiered his Pastoral Symphony in Vienna on December 22, 1808, he wrote that it should be considered "more an expression of feeling than painting." It is a feeling for nature that comes over strongly in his diaries:
    "How delighted I will be to ramble for awhile through the bushes, woods, under trees, through grass, and around rocks. No one can love the country as much as I do. For surely woods, trees, and rocks produce the echo that man desires to hear"
    (quoted in NPR programme notes on the Pastoral Symphony).  
    I have written here before about this 6th Symphony, although the theme of that earlier post was a much more obscure work that it resembled in form, Justin Heinrich Knecht's A Musical Portrait of Nature (1784).  Here, I want to highlight an interesting project that is due to culminate in 2020, Beethoven's 250th anniversary.  The Beethoven Pastoral Project'invites artists from all over the world to form a network through their engagement with Beethoven's 'Pastoral’ Symphony', to 'take a stand against environmental degradation and to stand up for the UN's sustainable development goals and the Paris Agreement with a performance of 'their Pastoral''.  These performances will be on June 5 2020.


    According to a Deutsche Welle, in a Novermber 2017 article shortly after the project launched at COP23 in Bonn, several artists  had already signed on, 'including the Chinese composer and conductor Tan Dun, the American composer Uri Caine, the German jazz musician Gregor Hübner, the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and its principal conductor, Paavo Järvi, as well as the Beethoven Orchestra Bonn and its principal conductor Dirk Kaftan.'  DW later interviewed Dirk Kaftan (great name!) about the project. He described the movements of the symphony, from the first - which is "about exhaling, letting go - and seeing nature as a refuge, a source of harmony and a point of balance" - to the last:
    "Kuhreigen"– a cow waltz. This kind of melody is still played today on the alphorn in Switzerland to encourage cows to produce more milk. You could see this moment as simply a romanticized dream of Swiss milk and high-quality chocolate. But at the time when the Sixth Symphony was written, Switzerland was highly charged politically, and listeners at that time would have associated that with those sounds. Freedom struggles were taking place in Switzerland; just think of William Tell [I think he's referring here to Schiller's 1804 play]. I see this last movement as a hymn to humanity and the power of humans to change things.
    It's hard to tell how the Beethoven Pastoral Project is progressing and whether they have had as many big names as they would have liked signing up to it.  I see that David Rothenberg (who I've mentioned here before) has become involved.  There is not a lot of recent news online, though perhaps people are busy working on their compositions rather than unveiling things in advance.  There are a few video clips on the project site, including one of Paul Barton playing Beethoven an upright piano to four elephants eating a pile of yams (performing classical music to rescued elephants in Thailand is what he does).  It would be a pity if the reputation of Beethoven and the (over)familiarity of the Pastoral Symphony put people off making more original or challenging work for the project.

    Given the link this initiative makes between environmental destruction and the Pastoral Symphony, I thought it would be appropriate to conclude here with a clip from Soylent Green (1973) - the scene in which Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson in his last role) lies listening to the music as he is about to die.  He has chosen euthanasia rather than live any longer in the polluted hell that the planet has become in 2022.  But before he dies, he watches a montage of vanished nature, landscapes he remembers from his youth that nobody will ever see again...


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    Harald Sohlberg, Flower Meadow in the North, 1905
    Images: Wikimedia Commons

    The Dulwich Picture Gallery have done it again with another superb show and catalogue: this time devoted to the Norwegian landscapes paintings of Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935). When I featured him last year in my 'tweet of the day' sequence I chose 'Flower Meadow in the North', with its extraordinary carpet of flowers.  Sohlberg was known for his very precise rendering of detail, against the prevailing impressionist fashion, but he didn't do this everywhere on his canvases, as can be seen here in the way the daisies become a blur of white in the middle ground. 

    The catalogue includes his beautiful study of daisies in pen and pencil - it reminded me of the gentle precision of Laurie Clark's flower drawings.  Looking at the full size painting as opposed to a reproduction, I was really struck by the way the flowers in the foreground seem to float loose from the canvass. Your eye is led from them to those dark bushes which, as the curators point out, resemble an assembly of figures.  Then, beyond these, the silvery-white river and low sun.  It all looks so fresh and modern and yet the frame and label don't look as if they have been cleaned for a century, reminding you of how much time has actually passed since Sohlberg sketched these flowers and view of a river, so as to combine them in his memorable composite image.

     Harald Sohlberg, Winter Night in the Mountains, 1914

    I could talk here about many of Sohlberg's paintings but will focus here on Winter Night in the Mountains, (1914) described by Øivind Storm Bjerke in his catalogue essay as 'arguably the most compelling symbolic expression of the sublime in Norwegian painting'. The exhibition also includes other versions and sketches dating back to 1899, when Sohlberg first visited the mountains on an arduous eight-day ski trekking holiday 'organsied as a kind of polar expedition'.  

    Winter Night in the Mountains is initially most striking for its colours, although this could be said of almost all Sohlberg's paintings.  The blue that dominates the upper half of the painting in 1901 is everywhere in the 1914 version.  Øivind Storm Bjerke discusses the influence of colour symbolism in the nineteenth century, going back to Romanticism and the Blue Flower of Novalis and stretching to Edvard Munch, who had used a reduced palette in his recent paintings.   

    Although Sohlberg's contemporaries were painting mountians (Hodler and Segantini, for example), he was more familiar with the legacy of Norwegian Romantic artists like Johan Christian Dahl and Thomas Fearnley.  What really impresses me about this painting is not the mountain peaks, but that mysterious foreground, framed by branches, which is more or less detailed depending on the version of the painting.  A photograph in the catalogue shows the darker lines to be ridges of distant fir trees.  Sohlberg said of this foreground that it should not be too crowded or too desolate, 'for it is here that the night and the fear in the picture should lie.'

    Harald Sohlberg, Winter Night in the Mountains, 1901

    Rondane and its mountains had already inspired nineteenth century writers, including Ibsen whose Hall of the Mountain King is beneath Rondslottet. Aasmund Olavson Vinje's poem 'At Rondane' (1864) was set to music by Edvard Grieg in 1880 - Sohlberg himself used to play Grieg's piano works and probably knew this piece. And there was Theodor Caspari's book, Norwegian Mountains (1898), with illustrations by contemporary artists.  This included a poem urging the reader to ascend and gaze over the mountain valleys, but also to 'lower your sights' and experience the lichen and mosses growing on the rocks.  This dual vision - far and near - is what Sohlberg achieved so perfectly in paintings like Flower Meadow in the North.

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    • 03/19/19--15:29: A dark and desolate place
    • ... it seems to me that I had a dream
      And in that dream
      I am suddenly woken up by
      the fracas of deafening explosions.
      I open my eyes
      on infinite smoke and fog.
      The incandescence of the ground
      under my feet reveals to me that
      I am in a dark and desolate place.
      With one glance around me I discover
      That I have arrived at the edge
      of the well of hell.

      Zhao Liang’s documentary, Behemoth (2015), on environmental destruction and the blighting of lives in Inner Mongolia, is consciously modelled on Dante's The Divine Comedy.  The black pits created by mining and the fiery furnace in which men toil, shaping lumps of metal, certainly resemble Hell. Later in the film we see the grey industrial Purgatory that has arisen where once the steppe was verdant grassland.  Finally, in a brilliantly ironic touch, we reach Paradise: the ghost city of Ordos, built by developers with the materials that have caused so much suffering to extract, but empty of all life except a solitary street cleaner.  Zhao, interviewed for the Walker Art Centre by someone with the appropriate name of Bosch, said he read The Divine Comedy whilst making the film.  At several points we see a 'guide', walking ahead with a mirror on his back, reflecting the landscape.
      'The pneumoconiosis patients who carry the mirror represent the poet Virgil, who leads Dante. The naked guy in the broken mirror represents “me”—and is also Dante himself. The mirror being carried on the back and the broken mirror echoed each other. The black frame symbolizes death. The broken mirror also symbolizes broken mountains and rivers.'

      A review of the film for The Guardian points to some obvious visual reference points:
      'Panoramic shots of the mines, and the termite trail of trucks that crawl down the side of these gouged-out wounds in the land, evoke iconic photographs by Sebastiao Salgado of the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil. There are also parallels with the work of Edward Burtynsky, whose large-format shots of factories and industrial blight were the subject of Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary Manufactured Landscapes, and with Dorothea Lange’s seminal portraits of Americans displaced by the Great Depression.'
      Some critics have felt that Zhao could have given the workers more of a voice, rather than simply filming them as they worked and later, trying to wash away the filth of the day. But Zhao told The New York Times that he didn't need "to introduce the background of each person specifically. All we know is that this is a group of people who’ve been tossed about on earth and in the end they didn’t get anything. Their bodies are worn out and the environment is damaged. That’s all.”


      Footnote: the lines quoted at the start of this post I found on a movie script site.  I could have used the slightly different English version in the subtitles for the film, but the translation seems less good.

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    • 03/30/19--09:26: Places from the Other Side

    • My favourite parts of Václav Cílek's To Breathe With Birds (2015) are those descriptions of sites in Bohemia that lead off into speculation on the meaning of landscape, and his references to Mitteleuropean culture that are unfamiliar to English readers.  Just one example of the latter: 'the painter Václav Rabas used to say that it is important to find one's own square kilometer of landscape and try to understand it.' A footnote explains that Rabas (1885-1954) was a landscape painter whose artistic focus for several decades was a small agricultural area near Krušovice, a village to the west of Prague.'  The book's twelfth essay, 'Places from the Other Side', is perhaps the best example of his writing on the landscape of the Czech Republic, focusing on sites in the Sudetenland - former kaolin mines, depopulated villages, a musical city where 'trout jump joyfully' above the rivers in summertime...  There are references to Kafka, Borges and Adalbert Stifter but Cilek's focus is on what he experiences.  At a spot where Goethe once picked up phenocrysts of feldspar, Cilek is filled with gratitude by the simple sound of the river in the deepening night.  This region's beautiful old towns - Loket, Úterý, Rabštejn, Slavonice - are fragments of a forgotten dream, like Calvino's Invisible Cities


      The last essay in the book, 'Bees of the Invisible', sets out what Cilek has learned about landscape in his decades as an earth scientist and writer. I will briefly paraphrase his twelve 'rules' here, which 'shouldn't be taken too seriously, because the essence of a place and the essence of a person cannot be captured in a single schema'.
      1. The Rule of Home: we must travel, but we are at home in only one landscape
      2. The Rule of Resonance: finding a small place that resonates for you is better than making a large pilgrimage where you are just a visitor
      3. The Rule of Irreplaceability: certain places and cities cannot be replaced by others
      4. The Rule of Blowing: our spirits are blown to certain places; we must respect these sites and that which moved us to go to them 
      5. The Rule of Various Viewpoints: aesthetic, historical and scientific appreciation of landscape are equally important
      6. The Rule of the Lid - some landscapes are covered, their essence concealed
      7. The Rule of Return - it is necessary to return continually to some sites for them to reveal themselves
      8. The Law of the Slow Approach - certain places require respect and an indirect approach
      9. The Rule of Friendly Teasing - if a landscape responds to active questioning its answers may be misleading
      10. The Rule of Sacred Games - the images a landscape conjures may refer to real events, but they may also be impossible to explain
      11. The Rule of Culmination - the spirit of a place grows and changes over the centuries
      12. and finally, The Rule of Mutual Awakening

      'By traveling to places, we awaken and heal the earth, which repays us. A place in the landscape corresponds to a place in the heart.'

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      1. 04/06/19--05:23: Banana Plantation
      2. John Dunkley, Banana Plantation, c. 1945

        A recent New York Review of Books introduced me to the art of John Dunkley (1891 - 1947), a self-taught Jamaican painter whose landscapes remind me of Samuel Palmer's.  He was apparently familiar with Blake, Henri Rousseau, Surrealism and even Chinese painting, which was championed by the art historian in charge of the Institute of Jamaica, where Dunkley spent much of his time when he wasn't working as a barber.  In the NYRB article,Sanford Schwartz notes the aptness of the recent exhibition's title, 'John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night': darkness seems to be ever-present in these paintings.  Here is how Schwartz describes Dunkley's landscapes.  
        'They take us less to Jamaica (or to the island of popular imagination) than into the mind of someone who happened to be Jamaican. Dunkley’s pictures, which generally are not of particular places in his country, are in many instances like crosses between little theater sets and the creations of a landscape architect. The painter’s characters, so to speak, are meaty plants, assertive leaves, and cumbrous rosettes (or clusters of leaves), which he makes resemble heads of enormous cauliflowers. There are tidy stone walls, brand-new-looking log fences, and strange cut-down trees, which stick out here and there like baseball bats and can strike viewers, we read in the catalog, as “unabashedly phallic.”
        [... His backgrounds] are marked by roads or canals—or allées, river beds, shoreline bluffs, or walkways—that swerve, or zoom off in straight lines, into complete darkness. Next to the stilled and emphatic vegetable life at center stage, these many routes to or from somewhere provide a welcome cursive elegance and sense of movement. We are not sure if they represent invitations to depart from our garden world or stand for uncertainties that our garden world keeps us from facing.'
        As this exhibition won't be crossing the Atlantic, I can't see Dunkley's intriguing-sounding paintings for myself.  However, here is another description of them, from a review in the New York Times by Roberta Smith (the eminent art critic, nothing to do with the British artist Bob and Roberta Smith):
        'Working in a faded-tapestry palette of mostly black, dark brown and white tinted with green, rose and yellow, he energized his images with disorienting shifts in scale, perspective and form. Bushes and trees suggest large vegetables or flowers; chopped-off tree trunks intimate water pipes, corncobs or phalluses. The branches they sprout are often trees unto themselves. Numerous paths and lanes disappear into dark forests or tunnels while reinforcing the flatness of the canvas. The paint textures range from a thick stucco (used mostly for sheep) to a thinned-down Impressionism (thatches of strokes that denote either grassy banks or overflowing water). Sexual tensions abound, along with a mood that has been called melancholy or gloomy.'
         John Dunkley, Back to Nature, 1939

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      3. 04/12/19--09:34: The Living Stones

      4. The Living Stones (1957) is one of two illustrated travelogues written by surrealist Ithell Colquhoun in the mid 1950s and recently re-published by Peter Owen. They now come with a foreword by comedian and Colquhoun fan Stewart Lee (who, funnily enough, doesn’t mention the negative view of jokes and comedy she expresses on p212 of The Living Stones).  It is easy to see why they have been reprinted now, in a period where so many people have been delving into folk rituals, ancient stones and hidden landscapes.  The Living Stones is an exploration of what we would now call the psychogeography of West Cornwall.  Ithell Colquhoun may be most familiar as an artist (her 1938 painting Scilla in the Tate is a well known example of bodily forms as landscape - two rocks like a woman’s thighs and a patch of seaweed resembling pubic hair), but she was also prominent in esoteric circles. Lee calls her a gnostic travel guide and says that her drawings and cryptic titles originally drew him to buy these volumes, as part of ‘the long-standing folk-mystic second-hand book bender I’m still on.’

        I will quote here from the penultimate chapter, ‘Hills of Michael’, in which Colquhoun describes what she calls ‘the ancient centres of Michael-force.’  One Michaelmas Day she climbed a hill to find Chapel Carn Brea, only to find that ‘the summit was littered with dismal reminders of the war, when a radar station had been established here.’
        Disused defences collect about them a miasma-like aura which infects them almost physically; this happens to no other buildings in the same degree. Whether this emanation is due to the residues of hatred, fear, boredom and sex-frustration left by the servicemen who have been stationed in them I do not know, but they constitute a centre of astral pestilence. For this reason alone they should be destroyed, but since a plea for their liquidation based on such grounds would be disregarded, one can only point out their deleterious effect on amenity, which is serious enough.  
        Turning from this ‘unsavoury debris’ she looked towards a small granite carn and felt drawn to it as ‘the chief remaining vortex of the Michael-force on this much impaired centre’.
        Here, perhaps, was the site of that Chapel of St Michael de Bree, which was granted in 1396 by the Mount’s prior to the hermit Ralph de Bolouhal. He kept a light burning in it for the guidance of travellers and fisherman by night, While during the hours of light its whitewashed walls would serve, like those of many coastal shrines, as a day mark. Leaning against the massive boulders or reclining in the shelter they afforded from a wind which otherwise would have made me cough, I mused for an hour, enveloped in air, space and sunlight.

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      5. 04/18/19--06:47: Apotheosis

      6. It could be argued that John and Yoko made a form of landscape art in Apotheosis (1970), their seventeen minute experimental film of the view from an ascending balloon.  It was shot in December 1969, on a snowy day in Lavenham, Suffolk.  At the beginning you hear the balloon being inflated and see John and Yoko in hooded outfits.  It then becomes clear that the camera is mounted in the balloon, which rises out of the market place until you can see white fields and black trees that could have come from a Bruegel  painting.  This landscape gets progressively whiter and more indistinct until it eventually disappears.  After several minutes, the balloon emerges above the clouds which, in the words of Jonas Mekas, 'opened up like a huge poem, you could see the tops of the clouds, all beautifully enveloped by sun, stretching into infinity.'


        Back in 2010, TheEast Anglian Daily Times published an article about the film and interviewed people who were there that day, such as Roger Deacon, manager of a local building firm, who remembers helping to lift the famous couple out of their balloon.
        'John and Yoko didn’t take off on the flight, climbing out of the basket after the photographs to oversee the launch – to shouts of “chicken!” from the gathered crowd – while their collaborator and cameraman, Nic Knowland (himself a Suffolk man, originally from Debenham), ensured the shoot was carried out to their requirements.'
        In his essay 'Walking on thin Ice: The Films of Yoko Ono', Daryl Chin compares Apotheosis to the contemporary work of Michael Snow (La Région Centrale, Snow's celebrated three-hour film of an uninhabited mountainous landscape, made with a robotic camera, was shot in September 1970).  However, TheEast Anglian Daily Times was not impressed by Apotheosis
        'The best thing you could say about it is that it left the people of Lavenham - and Yoko - with some bizarre and brilliant memories (“We always have a laugh about it,” says Roger Deacon. “Not many people can say they’ve had their hands around Yoko Ono!”)
        Other than that, it was a lot of hot air.'

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      7. 04/21/19--00:39: The Grand Canal
      8. When I first saw Canaletto's paintings in the National Gallery, like A Regatta on the Grand Canal, I was interested in their vivid detail but dismayed by the way the water was painted.  It wasn't just that the little white waves looked so unrealistic in comparison to the buildings and figures - something stylised to suggest that Venice is a kind of giant stage set might have been appropriate.  It was more that they seemed to have been slapped on in an almost childish manner, as if all that work on the rest of the painting had been spoiled by an artist who had left the water to last and not really known how to deal with it. 

         Canaletto, A Regatta on the Grand Canal (detail), c. 1740

        Occasionally in childhood you carry the conviction that something which is supposed to be admirable is flawed, and it is satisfying to find out later that your original intuition was probably correct.  John Ruskin thought these waves monotonous, but in Modern Painters (vol. 2, 1846), he also took Canaletto to task for the way he dealt with reflection, breaking one of the rules for painting water outlined in the book.  Here is what Ruskin wrote, and I have included below an example of a painting that I think illustrates his point.
        Among all the pictures of Canaletto, which I have ever seen, and they are not a few, I remember but one or two where there is any variation from one method of treatment of the water. He almost always covers the whole space of it with one monotonous ripple, composed of a coat of well-chosen, but perfectly opaque and smooth sea-green, covered with a certain number, I cannot state the exact average, but it varies from three hundred and fifty to four hundred and upwards, according to the extent of canvas to be covered, of white concave touches, which are very properly symbolical of ripple.

        And, as the canal retires back from the eye, he very geometrically diminishes the size of his ripples, until he arrives at an even field of apparently smooth water. By our sixth rule, this rippling water as it retires should show more and more of the reflection of the sky above it, and less and less of that of objects beyond it, until, at two or three hundred yards down the canal, the whole field of water should be one even grey or blue, the colour of the sky receiving no reflections whatever of other objects. What does Canaletto do? Exactly in proportion as he retires, he displays more and more of the reflection of objects, and less and less of the sky, until, three hundred yards away, all the houses are reflected as clear and sharp as in a quiet lake.

        Canaletto, The Grand Canal, 
        Looking North-East from Palazzo Balbi to the Rialto Bridge, c. 1724
        This, again, is wilful and inexcusable violation of truth, of which the reason, as in the last case, is the painter's consciousness of weakness. It is one of the most difficult things in the world to express the light reflection of the blue sky on a distant ripple, and to make the eye understand the cause of the colour, and the motion of the apparently smooth water, especially where there are buildings above to be reflected, for the eye never understands the want of the reflection. But it is the easiest and most agreeable thing in the world to give the inverted image: it occupies a vast space of otherwise troublesome distance in the simplest way possible, and is understood by the eye at once. Hence Canaletto is glad, as any other inferior workman would be, not to say obliged, to give the reflections in the distance. But when he comes up close to the spectator, he finds the smooth surface just as troublesome near, as the ripple would have been far off. It is a very nervous thing for an ignorant artist to have a great space of vacant smooth water to deal with, close to him, too far down to take reflections from buildings, and yet which must be made to look flat and retiring and transparent. Canaletto, with his sea-green, did not at all feel himself equal to anything of this kind, and had therefore no resource but in the white touches above described, which occupy the alarming space without any troublesome necessity for knowledge or invention, and supply by their gradual diminution some means of expressing retirement of surface. It is easily understood, therefore, why he should adopt this system, which is just what any awkward workman would naturally cling to, trusting to the inaccuracy of observation of the public to secure him from detection.

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      9. 05/03/19--08:28: The Lithuanian forests
      10. ..."What do you think?" He knelt and showed his drawing.
        Telimena studied his efforts with much grace,
        Though clearly she was a connoisseur.  Her praise
        Was sparing, but she encouraged him generously.
        "Bravo!" she said. "You've great ability.
        Though never forget: an artist has a duty
        To seek out nature's loveliness.  Oh, the beauty
        Of Italy's skies!  Of Rome's imperial
        Rose gardens! Tibur's ancient waterfall,
        Pausilippo's fearsome tunnel!  Now that's a land
        For art!  This place is pitiful my friend!"
        'This place' was Lithuania, setting for the epic poem, Pan Tadeusz, which has been newly translated by Bill Johnston and published in a beautiful edition by Archipelago. My quotation exemplifies a scene often encountered in early nineteenth century literature, where a 'connoisseur' (usually male) is unable to see beyond classical ideals of landscape and appreciate what is in front of them. The conversation between Telimena and the artist, a wealthy young Count, turns to the 'azure skies' of Italy whilst all around them 'the Lithuanian woods stretch limitless'.  Pan Tadeusz, the story's hero and a simple young man who 'still felt nature's draw', urges the Count to paint the trees surrounding them. Tadeusz cares little for "those skies of Italy / All clear and blue - they look like stagnant water! Wind and rain are surely so much better. / Look up right now..." and he goes on to describe the variety and endless beauty of the clouds.

        In addition to its forests and skies, Pan Tadeusz celebrates the music, clothing, food and customs of Lithuania in a plot that dramatises the cause of Polish nationalism (Poland and Lithuania had existed as a powerful joint state in Europe before being carved up by its neighbours).  The book was set in Lithuania but written in Polish from Paris, where Adam Mickiewicz (who was actually born in what is now Belarus) had gone to live. Reading Pan Tadeusz I was conscious of the influence of Scott, Byron and Pushkin, but it also reminds me of Turgenev, while Bill Johnston sees elements of Thomas Hardy.  Some of the poem's most famous scenes lend themselves to landscape illustration, such as the bear hunt (below), or a mushroom picking excursion in which the young men look for chanterelles and the ladies seek 'the slim boletus known / In song as the mushroom's general.'

        Franciszek Kosttrzevski, Hunting scene in 'Pan Tadeusz', 1886

        It is not possible now to write about Pan Tadeusz without referring to Landscape and Memory, which opens with Simon Schama in the puszcza, the woodland wilderness that has become the 'consolatory myth of sylvan countryside that would endure uncontaminated whatever disasters befell the Polish state'.  He discusses Pan Tadeusz and the life of Adam Mickiewicz at some length, showing how, for example, 'no writer before Mickiewicz had described the etiology of the ancient forest with such a keen eye, or worked harder to convey its shifting zones of light and darkness.'  Beyond its tangle of broken trunks there are deep ponds 'half overgrown with grass' where 'the water has a bloody, rust-red sheen / While wisps of noxious smoke rise from within.'  But at the centre of the forest, Mickiewicz imagined a hidden world, ruled by bears, aurochs and bison, where 'decorousness prevails' and an unarmed man would be left unharmed.  Schama pictures Mickiewicz writing this in his Paris apartment, where it was a 'landscape of memory, seen through a lead-pane window: grey houses metamorphosing into timber ruins, the streets invaded by the forest primeval; an unattainable Lithuania governed by bison, a commonwealth of perfect justice and peace, impregnable behind palisades of splintered hornbeam.'

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        Katie Paterson, Inside this desert lies the tiniest grain of sand, 2010
        Photography was permitted: this is my photograph of her photograph

        We recently took the train down to Margate to see the exhibitionA place that exists only in moonlight: Katie Paterson & J.M.W. Turner.  I last mentioned Paterson's work here nearly ten years ago when I saw her talk at a conference:
        She described a work completed only last week,Inside this desert lies the tiniest grain of sand, which had involved returning to the Sahara desert a grain of sand that had been chiseled to 0.00005mm using the techniques of nanotechnology.  At extreme magnification the grain of sand resembled a planet and presumably the chiseling process could have created some nano-land art - a microscopic Spiral Jetty or near invisible Double Negative.  The point was made (by Brian Dillon) that she brings a necessary sense of humour to art that deals with cosmic scales of space and time. 
        As can be seen above, the Turner Contemporary exhibition included a large black and white photograph of this work, showing the artist returning her tiny artwork to the desert.

        Most of Paterson's work has been on a cosmic or planetary scale and therefore doesn't really qualify as landscape art.  For example,
        • Fossil Necklace (2013), my favourite piece in the show, in which time is considered as a circle of beads, charting the evolution of life on earth from its monocellular origins. You can view every bead individually on the artist's website
        •  
        • Earth-Moon-Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon) (2007), where Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was translated into Morse code and sent to the Moon and back. Craters on the moon fragmented the signal, leaving gaps in the music.
        • The Cosmic Spectrum (2019), a colour wheel designed to show the colour of the universe at each point in its development (the exhibit was broken and didn't rotate when we were there, but this might have made it easier for us to study it).  It resembles Olafur Eliasson's Turner Colour Experiments, shown at the Tate in 2014 (see my earlier post).
        Turner's work was interspersed with Paterson's and included some marvellous studies inspired by light, such as Moonlight on the River(1826)and ? Boats at Sea (c. 1830-45), both from the Tate's collection.

         J. M. W. Turner, Moonlight on the River, 1826

         J. M. W. Turner, ? Boats at Sea, c. 1830-45

        There is also a new book, A place that exists only in moonlight, published to coincide with the exhibition but oddly not on sale at the gallery itself (you have to send off for it and I have not (yet) done this).  It comprises short texts that describe artworks that can exist only in the imagination.  Some were placed on the wall, like the one below, which reads like a landscape haiku.  These reminded me of the work of her fellow Scottish artist-poets Thomas A. Clark and Alec Finlay.  As instructions for art projects, they are like the walking proposals of Richard Long, or indeed any of those texts of conceptual artists, writers and composers who have been interested in exploring space and time, light and substance.  Just one example that springs to mind as I write this: La Monte Young's Composition 1960 #15: 'This piece is little whirlpools out in the middle of the ocean.'  Someone could compile an anthology of such works, although they would probably seem less inspiring out of context.  Among the 'Ideas' on Katie Paterson's website, I particularly like A beach made with dust from spiral galaxies, Gravity released one unit at a time and, of course, A place that exists only in moonlight.


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      11. 05/06/19--11:11: Roden Crater

      12. I thought I would follow up my last post on Katie Paterson with something about James Turrell, whose light works I was reminded of when looking at her Light Bulb to Simulate Moonlight (2008).  I have been reading James Turrell: A Retrospective, a sumptuously produced book which I should think gets as close as possible to giving a sense of what his artworks look like, even though they are nearly impossible to describe in two dimensional photography and words on a page. It is interesting how often the word 'landscape' is used in the book, even though what is usually being described is a perceptual environment or spaces from which to observe the sky.  Of course Turrell is a contemporary of the American land artists and it is easy to relate his magnum opus, Roden Crater, to their more monumental earthworks.  Turrell himself has said, 'I am not an Earth artist, I'm totally involved in the sky.'  But works like Observatory by Robert Morris (1971) and Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels (1973-6), which are aligned with the solstice, can be seen as precursors to Roden Crater.

        Roden Crater
        Source: Wikimedia Commons

        It was clear from the book that Turrell's career hinges on that famous flight in 1974 when he located the setting for what has become his life's work. An experienced pilot, Turrell used a Guggenheim Foundation to fuel his plane and scoured the western states to find 'a solitary cinder cone or a butte' that would allow him to create the perfect space from which to experience the phenomenon of 'celestial vaulting'.  Work continues at Roden Crater - there are plans for a Fumarole, for example, which will look like a giant eye.  A pool will act as a lens and light from the sky will pass over it through an aperture.  'At night, the still water will focus images of the stars onto a floor of black volcanic cinder underneath such that a visitor might have the experience of walking on light from the stars.  The bowl shape of the bath's bronze-and-glass bottom is complemented by a small invisible antenna on the aperture's edge that effectively turns it into a simple radio telescope.  Bathers will be able to submerge their ears under the water to hear the ancient static radio noise emitted from the portion of the sky visible through the aperture.'

        Some of the inspirations for Turrell's work, and some of the phenomena he has explored in his art:
        Skyspaces - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry - blackout curtains - the desert landscapes drawn by George Herriman in his 1940s Krazy Kat cartoons - the view from the Apollo spacecraft - Plato's Cave - Ganzfelds - Minimalism - Perceptual Cells - Blake's 'doors of perception' - Quakerism - the temple at Borobudur - Mesoamerican pyramids - emblemata depicting effects of light in a 1636 book by Guilielmus Hesius - Jun'ichirō Tanizaki'sIn Praise of Shadows - Buddhism's 'embrace of the void'...
        Of course Turrell is familiar with the ways light has been used in the history of art, but his whole practice has been to work with light, rather than merely representing it.


        According to the Christine Y. Kim in James Turrell: A Retrospective, there are now more than seventy-five Skyspaces around the world, enclosed chambers with an opening that lets visitors contemplate the sky.  You can find photographs of these online - the one I have included below is in Switzerland and actually shows the view out through its door (I guess if the spectacle of the sky starts to pall, you can still contemplate the Alps).  There are some spectacular looking Skyspaces in sunny places like Napa Valley, California.  Photographs of the Skyspace in Yorkshire Sculpture Park (which I mentioned here once before) show a damp patch of floor where the rain has entered.  Another British example is Cat Cairn (2000), in Northumberland, built with natural stone to blend into the landscape (the Kielder website explains that Turrell has recently upgraded the lighting system for this work).  Back in 2000 Monty Don wrote in The Observer about his experience of Cat Cairn.  'The experience of sitting quietly (albeit freezing) is enormously satisfying and enriching, even though sensation is stripped down and pared back as far as it will go without being diminished. All superfluities are abandoned. I would love this in my garden.'


        James Turrell, Skyspace, Piz Uter, (inside) - 2005
        Source: Wikimedia Commons: Kamahele

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      13. 05/12/19--04:56: The Garden or Evening Mists

      14. Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists is a novel that circles round various mysteries: the life and death of a Japanese garden designer, Aritomo, living after the war in exile in Malaya, and the location and purpose of a prison camp that he may have had some connection with.  The narrator of the novel, Yun Ling, a survivor of this camp, wants to create a garden in memory of her sister, who died there.  This sister had developed a fascination with Japanese gardens on a visit to Kyoto before the war.  Yun Ling goes to visit Aritomo, with the intention of asking him to design a memorial garden, but instead she becomes his apprentice, lover and then the inheritor of his own garden.  Aritomo begins her training with a copy of the Sakuteiki (which I mentioned here once before), written by Tachibana no Toshitsuna in the eleventh century, and explains to her various principles of Japanese gardening, such as shakkei ('borrowed scenery').  Later she writes that 'Aritomo could never resist employing the principles of Borrowed Scenery in everything he did' and the reader suspects something significant in this, that the landscape beyond the garden has some kind of special significance linked to their memories.

        When Aritomo first explains shakkei to Yun Ling, he mentions Tenryuji, "Temple of the Sky Dragon, the first garden to ever use the techniques of shakkei."  Here's what I said about this garden, designed by the great poet Musō Soseki (1275-1351), in another earlier post
        'The temple of Tenryū-ji, was built by the shogun Ashikaga Takauji in memory of the emperor whom he had deposed.  Musō wrote a sequence of poems about the landscape garden he helped create there, 'Ten Scenes in the Dragon of Heaven Temple.'  Some of these scenes have survived the centuries, like the lake Sōgen-chi where moonlight still strikes the waters in the dead of night; others have gone, like Dragon-Gate House where Musō observed the most transient of images, two passing puffs of cloud.'
        Aritomo goes on to list the four approaches to shakkei:  "Enshaku - distant borrowing - took in the mountains and the hills; Rinshaku used the features from a neighbour's property; Fushaku took from the terrain; and Gyoshaku brought in the clouds, the wind and the rain."  Years later, looking again at their garden, Yun Ling wonders whether the wind and clouds and ever changing light had been part of Aritomo's design.  And if the mists were an element of shakkei too, gradually thickening and erasing the distant mountains.

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      15. 05/18/19--02:41: A shower has not long passed

      16. In a recent clear-out my mother passed on to me this 1950 publication on Constable.  At first I took it to be an exhibition catalogue but it is actually a short booklet concerning the V&A's superb collection of Constables, based on a gift made by the artist's daughter in 1888.  There are thirty-three black and white reproductions - I've included one of the paintings featured below.  The book cost one shilling and a note in the back says that copies 'may be had from the Victoria and Albert Museum bookstall and from H.M. Stationery Office...'  I've always read this as 'Her Majesty's' but of course in 1950 it would have been His Majesty's Stationery Office.  In the United States of America it could be obtained 'from the British Information Services, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York.'  The publication is 'Small Picture Book No. 23' - a quick search online reveals other V&A titles in this series covering, for example Adam Silver (no. 35), English Chintz (No. 22), Toys (No. 63), English Prehistoric Pottery (No. 28) and Glass Table-Ware (No. 1).

        John Constable, Study for The Leaping Horse, c. 1825

        The paintings in the book are preceded by a wonderful series of quotes, many of which will be very familiar to those with an interest in Constable (some have been used on this blog in the past). Here are ten of them

        • "The landscape painter must walk in the fields with an humble mind. No arrogant man was ever permitted to see nature in her beauty."
        • "The world is wide; no two days are alike, nor even two hours; neither were there ever two leaves of a tree alike since the creation of the world; and the genuine productions of art, like those of nature, are all distinct from each other.'
        • "Light - dews - breezes - bloom - and freshness; not one of which has yet been perfected on the canvas of any painter in the world."
        • "I never did admire the Autumnal tints, even in nature, so little of a painter am I in the eye of commonplace connoisseurship.  I love the exhilarating freshness of Spring." 
        • "The landscape of Gainsborough is soothing, tender and affecting. The stillness of noon, the depths of twilight, and the dews and pearls of the morning are all to be found on the canvases of this most benevolent and kind-hearted man.  On looking at them, we find tears in our eyes, and know not what brings them."

         J. M. W. Turner, The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and the Sibyl, 1823
        • "Turner is stark mad with ability.  The picture (the Bay of Baiae) seems painted with saffron and indigo." 
        • "Brightness was the characteristic excellence of Claude; brightness, independent on colour, for what colour is there here?" (holding up a glass of water).
        • "What were the habits of Claude and the Poussins? Though surrounded with palaces filled with pictures, they made the fields their chief places of study."
        •  "... some 'high-minded' members [of the Royal Academy] who stickel for the 'elevated and noble' walks of art - i.e. preferring the shaggy posteriors of a Satyr to the moral feeling of Landscape."
        • "I have seen an affecting picture this morning by Ruysdael; it haunts my mind and clings to my heart, and stands between you and me while I am talking to you; it is a water-mill; a man and boy are cutting rushes in the running stream (the tail-water); the whole so true, clean, and fresh, and as brisk as champagne; a shower has not long passed."

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      17. 05/25/19--13:56: The Shore of Sumiyoshi
      18. Tawaraya Sōtatsu, The Beach at Sumiyoshi,
        from the 'Tales of Ise', c. 1600-40
        The Cleveland Museum of Art

        In the highly refined Heian dynasty culture of ninth century Japan, landscape was admired in ways that would not be seen in the West for nearly a thousand years.  Consider the 68th episode of The Tales of Ise (c. 900), concerning the journey to Izumi of the poet Ariwara no Narihira (825-80).  At Sumiyoshi beach, 'he was so moved by the scenery that he dismounted from his horse and sat down again and again to enjoy the lovely views.  One of his party proposed: 'Compose a poem with the phrase "the shore of Sumiyoshi" in it.'  The resulting poem in its five brief lines combines autumn and spring imagery, chrysanthemums, wild geese and the sea.

        Katsukawa Shunshô, Snow Scene Like a Flowering Grove
        from the series 'Tales of Ise in Fashionable Brocade Prints', c. 1770-73 
        Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

        Peter Macmillan's recent (2016) translation of The Tales of Ise is a pleasure to read and includes fascinating explanatory material.  He notes, for example, that 'Episodes 66, 67 and 68 are all set along the shores of Osaka Bay and feature beautiful poems on the local scenery.'  In the 66th tale, 'The Sea of Life', Narihura stops with his friends by the shore and composes a poem on the boats in the bay, 'carrying us across / the sorrow-filled sea of life.'  And in the 67th, 'Snow Blossom', they see Mount Ikoma, revealed when the sky cleared.  Only then were he and his friends able to see 'the woods in snow blossom', the 'pristine white snow ' on the branches of the trees. I have included an eighteenth century illustration of this scene above.

        Tawaraya Sōtatsu,  Noblemen Viewing the Nunobiki Waterfall,
         from the 'Tales of Ise', c. 1600-40
        Minneapolis Institute of Art

        Another episode involving admiration of scenery is 'Travels in Ashiya' (no. 87) - its theme, according to Peter Macmillan, is 'how excursions and the pleasures of the landscape can fill the heart with delight.'  The hero and his companions decide to climb the mountain to see the Nunobiki Waterfall. 
        'The rock face was a good two hundred feet high and fifty feet wide, and the water pouring over it made it look as if its whole surface was covered in rippling silk.  A rock the size of a round straw mat jutted out from the top of the falls, and water cascaded over it in huge drops the size of chestnuts and mandarin oranges.  The man invited everyone there to compose a poem on the waterfall...' 
        The resulting poems are good, but not as beautiful as the poem composed on their way home, as night fell and they could see firelight on the sea:
        Are those stars on a cloudless night
        or fireflies on the riverbank,
        or are they the lights
        of the fishermen's fires
        in the direction of our home?