Sunday, October 15, 2017

The ghats at Haridwar

Sita Ram, The Firoz Shah Minar at Gaur and a Palash tree, 1817

This watercolour is owned by the British Library and is one of several reproduced in a fascinating blog post by J. P. Losty, 'The rediscovery of an unknown Indian artist: Sita Ram's work for the Marquess of Hastings'.  The work of Sita Ram first attracted attention when some paintings of his were sold in 1974, with no real clue as to who he was or who had commissioned them.  From these and a few subsequent discoveries, scholars knew that he must have been working in Calcutta around 1810-15.  It was only in 1995 that his identity was pinned down (see India Today, 'An unknown painter of great talent emerges from the past').  This was when, as Losty writes, the BL was offered
'part of the collection of albums of drawings formed in India by the Marquess of Hastings, the Governor-General of Bengal 1813-23. The ten albums by Sita Ram illustrate Lord and Lady Hastings’ journey from Calcutta to Delhi and back in 1814-15. There were in all 25 albums of drawings in the collection, by Indian, Chinese and British artists. They had been for the last 150 years in the collection of the Marquis of Bute in Scotland, and indeed hitherto unknown and unsuspected.' 
This sort of story always makes you wonder what might still be buried in the homes of our aristocratic families.  I can find no comment from the current Marquess on this discovery; I see from Wikipedia that he is a former racing driver who actually made the Lotus Formula 1 team in 1986.  Sita Ram's paintings are now accesible to all and can be viewed in a handsome-looking book written by Losty for Thames & Hudson, which includes edited highlights of Lord Hastings' journal.

Sita Ram, The ghats at Haridwar, 1814-15

The watercolour above is one of the views Sita Ram painted on the Hastings' journey, showing the the holy city of Haridwar.  The entire seventeen-month trip took the Hastings from Calcutta to the Punjab and back, accompanied by officials, bodyguards and an army battalion.  When they left in 1814 they needed 220 boats.  After they got back, in October 2015, Sita Ram continued to work for Hastings in India. 
'Another two albums of drawings also by Sita Ram contain views in Bengal taken on subsequent tours, one during a sporting expedition to northern Bengal in 1817, and the other during a convalescent tour in the Rajmahal Hills in 1820-21. Sita Ram has matured even more as an artist by then and they contain some of his most beautiful works. With Hastings’ departure from India in 1823, however, Sita Ram disappears from the record and no further work is known from his hand.'

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Luxuriant Forest among Distant Peaks

Li Ch'eng, A Solitary Temple amid Clearing Peaks, Sung Dynasty

In Michael Sullivan's history of Chinese landscape painting, Symbols of Eternity, he describes the predicament of one of the great painters of the early Sung Dynasty.
'Li Ch'eng - unsuccessful aspirant to office, gentleman, poet, recluse - came of a family of Confucian scholars that had gone down in the world.  One wonders what he lived on.  To a persistent patron, owner of a fashionable restaurant in the capital, he is said to have written: "Since antiquity the four social classes have not mixed.  I am a Confucian scholar, and although I paint, I do it only for my own pleasure.  Why should I submit to being a retainer in a great household who grinds and licks his colours and is classed with the hua shih [i.e. men who hold office by virtue of their skill as painters] and other such riffraff?"  Yet he had to live, and did not consider it beneath him to exhibit his paintings in that same restaurant, which the emperor himself patronised.  Li Ch'eng's son and grandson were rather ashamed of him, for in spite of his disclaimer, he was a professional by necessity.  This was a predicament that was to face more and more artists of the scholar class, and the most delicate and indirect ways had to be found to reward them for their work without causing them to lose face as amateurs and gentlemen.'
I wonder how Li thought about that restaurant and its diners.  Mark Rothko apparently said of his murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, "anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine." 

 Li Ch'eng, Luxuriant Forest among Distant Peaks (detail), Sung Dynasty

Detail of that detail

The paintings here are both attributed to Li - possibly painted by his followers but probably no later than the tenth century.  Attribution of early Chinese paintings is always tricky - there is a story that Mi Fu (1051-1107), who lived only a century after Li Ch'eng (919-67), could locate only two genuine scrolls painted by Li and wondered if in fact any really existed.  Recently the art historian James Cahill caused controversy by suggesting some paintings from this period were twentieth century forgeries.  He thought Li's Reading the Memorial Stele, now in Osaka, was a copy, but valuable nonetheless.  I wrote about that painting here four years ago, after seeing it in an exhibition in London.  The warlord depicted in it trying to decipher the memorial stone, Cao Cao, was the subject of another Some Landscapes post earlier this year.

Here is one more quote concerning Li Ch'eng - Richard M. Barnhart's description of A Solitary Temple amid Clearing Peaks and Luxuriant Forest among Distant Peaks (in an essay in Yale's Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting).  He sees them as wonderfully detailed alternative worlds to escape into, but also models of the new Chinese state.
'Li Ch'eng's works contain rich human and architectural details - temples, villages, bridges, pagodas, wine shops, pavilions and pathways - and constitute deep miniature realms of imaginative construction, dream worlds that one is invited to enter like tray landscapes, or penzai (bonsai in Japanese).  Their compositional structure, however, is the very structure of the new empire of Sung, with the Son of Heaven represented in the dominant central peak, his ministers and associates in the supportive ranges and hills around the central peak, and the entire vast structure as ordered, clear and infinite as the great empire of China itself.  There is no dust or dirt, no violence or disorder, nature is placid and benevolent, controlled by the power and wisdom of the enlightened ruler who has brought humanity to this lofty condition through wise interaction with Heaven.'

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Memoryscapes

I was pleased that Caught by the River made Frozen Air their Book of the Month, although they have now sneaked in a second one - The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris - a book it's been impossible to avoid this week, with coverage everywhere from the reviews pages to the Today programme.  There was a typically rich and thought-provoking essay by Robert Macfarlane on children, nature and reading in The Guardian, and I am tempted to set down my own reflections here, but they would be based on nothing more than personal experiences as a child and parent.

For fans of Macfarlane, The Lost Words will fill a gap while he completes Underland, a book that sounds from scattered interviews to be increasingly ambitious in scope.  Whatever it covers, it is certain to delight in language and the physical challenges of exploring a landscape.  In The Telegraph, two years ago, he described exploring the River Timavo which flows through the karst region of Slovenia and northern Italy. “I descended a 100ft doline, a sort of narrow, eroded vertical channel, with a 70-year-old Italian man called Sergio, who smoked a briarwood pipe all the way down. That was one of the most extreme places I have ever been: a great black river roaring out of a cave mouth on one side and disappearing down a rabbit hole on the other, and the sense of the earth’s surface above us.”

Alojzij Schaffenrath,  Postojna: view of the Great Cave, c. 1821

'The right names, well used, can act as portals.'  A doline is the name for a portal to the underland, and there are others too on the karstic plateau: foiba (a deep inverted funnel), abîme (a vertical shaft) uvala (a collection of sinkholes).  My only experience of descending into this world was on a family holiday to Yugoslavia, when we visited the spectacular Postojna cave system in Slovenia.  It felt as if I had suddenly entered the marvellous subterranean settings of my recent childhood reading: The Silver Chair, The Hobbit, Journey to the Centre of the Earth.  I can still recall the soundscape too - a a strange babel of amplified sound as competing tour groups listened to guides in the different languages of Europe.

As can be seen in the image above, tourism at Postojna stretches back to the early nineteenth century.  When Crown Prince Ferdinand visited in 1819, soon after the main caves were opened, he was greeted with a band and singers.  Perhaps the caves would have been too eerie, experienced in dripping silence.  They have subsequently hosted orchestras, jazz bands and even the La Scala chorus.  There is a long tradition of music making in caves and now, it seems, a new trend for concert halls themselves to be built underground.  I have written about caves and music before, so here I will conclude by returning to the surface and highlighting some recent music made in the karst landscape of Slovenia.


For Memoryscapes, the experimental folk trio Širom returned to the regions of Slovenia they grew up in and improvised outdoors, curious to see how the environment would affect what they played.  The film of the project (embedded below) begins with the construction of some bamboo balafons which they carry down into the hollow of the Bukovnik sinkhole.  As they sit under the trees, the camera pans slowly round, catching motes of light and the slight movement of branches in the breeze.  Watching this made me think that taking children into the woods to make and play instruments would be another way to reconnect them with nature.

On Mt Tolminski Migovec, the music is harsher and the surroundings cold and inhospitable.  In a mountain hut they do some more percussion with pots and pans (it looks like this would get annoying pretty quickly, as I know from having heard my own sons try it).  In the final segment, they sit surrounded by a sea of yellow flowers; if the music was as pretty as the visuals it would be too much to take.  The film ends by a watermill, with an insistent rhythmic sound, like hundreds of squeaky gears and cog wheels.  Eventually the music fades and breaks apart, leaving nothing but sunlight on the water.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Elegant Rocks and Sparse Trees

 Zhao Mengfu, Autumn Colours on the Qiao and Hua Mountains, 1296

Back to normal now, for blog post number 1,001, and at this time of year it seems appropriate to admire these Autumn Colours on the Qiao and Hua Mountains.  Most of the trees in this marshy landscape are still green, as they are here in London as I write this, but the red seal marks added to the handscroll cover the sky like wind-blown maple leaves.  This is the best known work of Zhao Mengfu, who was able to observe the seasons change around these mountains after becoming governor of Jinan in 1293.  Mount Qiao and Mount Hua lie to the north of the city and can be seen in the video clip below.  This scroll was painted after Zhao had returned south, for a friend whose family came from Shandong.  It offered a new way forward for Chinese art, neither naturalistic or idealised, referring back to older 'antique' styles - specifically that of Dong Yuan (d. 962) who, founder of the distinct southern Jiangnan style.  Dong was said (by the great Song dynasty scientist/polymath Shen Kuo) to be 'particularly skilled in painting the mists of autumn and distant views'.


Zhao Mengfu is an artist I have referred to here three times before: first in connection with his scroll, The Mind Landscape of Xie Youyu; secondly as exemplifying, in his interest in recovering older styles, a kind of Renaissance attitude analogous to Italian quattrocento artists; and thirdly for a painting owned by the Met, Twin Pines, Level Distance.  I have not however mentioned one of the most interesting facts about Zhao, that he was married to an artist prominent in her own right, the painter, poet and calligrapher Guan Daosheng.  Guan seems to have taken up painting around the time they were living in Jinan (which was, incidentally, the city where China's greatest female poet, Li Qingzhao, lived two centuries earlier).  Guan worked in various genres but became known for her bamboo painting.  She qualifies for a mention on this blog because, instead of depicting individual branches, she tended to paint thickets and set them in landscapes.  In the example below, the bamboo in the background is covered in a band of mist.  She wrote on the scroll that it had actually been painted "in a boat on the green waves of the lake."

 Guan Daosheng, Bamboo Groves in Mist and Rain (detail), 1308

Chinese bamboo paintings are cropped close-ups of landscape, with rocks and old trees as likely to feature as bamboo plants.  Zhao Mengfu himself produced a marvellous example, Elegant Rocks and Spare Trees, which included a quatrain arguing that "calligraphy and painting have always been the same".  Although this is painting, not writing, the brushstrokes resemble calligraphy: broad ones ('flying white') for the rocks, blunt ones ('seal script') for the branches, spiky and tapered ones ('late clerical script') for the foliage.  Bamboo was a symbol of the scholar, surviving through difficult times.  Zhao Mengfu himself initially resisted the lure of Kublia Khan but elected to work for the new administration, an act that affected his later reputation.  He would not be numbered among the Four Masters of the Yuan dynasty, although one of those artists, Wang Meng, was his grandson.  Zhao Mengfu died in 1322, three years after Guan Daosheng, a wife whose "manner was winning… [and]… intelligence clear as moonlight."

Zhao Mengu, Elegant Rocks and Sparse Trees, Yuan Dynasty

Monday, September 18, 2017

Frozen Air


For this, the 1000th entry on this blog, I am pleased to announce... a book.

If you have liked some of what I have written here over the years I think you should enjoy it.  It is not a reprint of anything on the blog, though it does refer to artists and writers I have featured here (including Peter Lanyon, the subject of my 500th post).  Here is the description, taken from the Amazon page where you can order it.
At the edge of England the land ends suddenly in high chalk cliffs. From the beach at Cuckmere Haven, they stand like frozen air, silent above the waves that are gradually undermining them. Here the landscape seems timeless, reduced to its basic elements: rock, water, air and sunlight. But the cliffs have a remarkable history and an uncertain future. They continue to inspire painters and composers, photographers and filmmakers, poets and nature writers. In this sequence of short linked texts and photographs, Andrew Ray explores the Seven Sisters to consider the meaning of this extraordinary landscape.
You will be able to read some short extracts on Caught by the River starting tomorrow and if you don't fancy Amazon you can buy it from their shop.

As for the future of this blog - I am as fascinated by all this as I ever was and have no plans to stop at the first thousand posts...

Postscript 22/9/17: 
You can read a review by Ken Worpole of Frozen Air at The New English Landscape.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The yellow blossoms of autumn

Eight poems entitled, simply, 'Landscape':


1. 'Landscape' by Robert Gray

A walk over sandhills by the sea, turning inland, then wading through dead grass and along railway tracks in the heat of noon, hearing the immense quiet of the bush that dilates on the light hammering sound of a bell-miner. 
'Landscape' is an early poem by Robert Gray and is (I assume) about the north coast of New South Wales where he grew up.  He has said 'the landscape you like is the landscape in which your senses first open, the landscape you’re born into… That’s why Wordsworth is right: it’s the landscape of childhood that captures, that influences you for the rest of your life'.  I have recently been reading Gray's collected poems, Cumulus.  A Sydney Review of Books article on this book discusses his debt to Wordsworth, and the influence of Asian poetry, evident in Gray's translations of haiku and his own short imagist poems.

2. 'Landscape' by Charles Baudelaire

A dream of gardens, bluish horizons, water weeping in alabaster basins, birds singing and lovers kissing. 
In 'Paysage', one of the Tableaux Parisiens in Les Fleures du Mal (1857), Baudelaire pictures a bedroom where he could look out over the city and gaze at the night sky, at least until winter comes with its dreary snows - then he would shut out the world and live in this perfect imaginary landscape.  There are many translations of course, including one by John Ashbery who sadly died earlier this month.  Ashbery actually wrote his own poem with the title 'Landscape', included in his early collection The Tennis Court Oath.  I have to admit I would struggle to explain what it's about - it certainly has nothing to do with scenic description.  You can hear Ashbery read it in a recording accessible via Ubuweb.

Georges Antoine Rochegross, Tableaux Parisiens illustration, 1917 


3.  'Landscape' by Charles Marie René Leconte de Lisle

Olive trees, wild roses, flowering laburnum and a shepherd at rest; in the distance, fields of ripe wheat, paths through terebinth trees, woods, hills and a sparkling sea. 
Another idyllic landscape is evoked in one of Leconte de Lisle's Poèmes antiques (1852).  It is the only one of the poems in this list that mentions an actual location, Agrigento, which is in Sicily, where Theocritus lived and set his Idylls.  I was going to include here a poem by another Parnassian writer, Paul Verlaine.  However, as I explained in an earlier post, 'Landscape' is C.F. Macintyre's own title for a poem Verlaine called ‘Dans l’interminable ennui de la plaine’.

4. 'Landscape' by Federico García Lorca

A field of olive trees and above it a foundering sky of dark rain where the grey air ripples. 
This beautiful short poem deserves quoting in full, at least in Spanish where there are no copyright issues.  It was written when Lorca was twenty-three and published in Poem of the Deep Song, a book inspired by Andalucian gypsy music.  It suggests both an actual 'motionless sunset' that Lorca witnessed and an imaginary landscape inspired by the music of the siguiriya.  'To me,' he wrote, 'the gypsy siguiriya had always evoked (I am an incurable lyricist) an endless road, a road without crossroads, ending at the pulsing fountain of the child Poetry.'

El campo
de olivos
se abre y se cierra
como un abanico.
Sobre el olivar
hay un cielo hundido
y una lluvia oscura
de luceros fríos.
Tiembla junco y penumbra
a la orilla del río.
Se riza el aire gris.
Los olivos,
están cargados
de gritos.
Una bandada
de pájaros cautivos,
que mueven sus larguísimas
colas en lo sombrío


5. 'Landscape' by Georg Trakl

Shepherds return to an autumn village: a horse rears up, a doe feeezes at the edge of the forest and yellow blossoms bend over the blue countenance of a pond. 
The poem appeared posthumously in Sebastian in Traum (1915), Trakl having died of an overdose in a hospital in Cracow, exhausted after tending to soldiers wounded at the battle of Grodek.  Ludwig Wittgenstein, also serving on the Eastern front, had come to Cracow to see him but arrived just a few days too late.  Robert Bly mentions those yellow flowers in an essay on 'The Silence of Georg Trakl': 'The German language has a word for deliberately keeping silence, which English does not have. Trakl uses this word “schweigen” often. When he says “the flowers/Bend without words over the blue pond”, we realise that the flowers have a voice, and that Trakl hears it. They keep their silence in the poems.' 

6. 'Landscape' by Rolf Dieter Brinkmann

A soot-covered tree, a wrecked car, defunct shoes in leafless shrubs, a fly-tipped sofa, a pair of stockings in a bough, a rusty bicycle frame. 
This is a vision of the edgelands - the kind of modern landscape George Shaw has been painting recently.  Brinkman was not much older than Trakl when he died in London in 1975, the victim of a hit-and-run driver.  His posthumously published Rom Blicke expanded the form of his writing beyond poems like this one to include photographs and documents.  In this book landscape was 'portrayed in a radically disillusionary way: as space where human life is shaped by capitalism, stupidity and egoism' (Monika Schmitz-Emans, in an essay 'The Book as Landscape').

7. 'Landscape' by John Hewitt
Not a 'fine view': for a countryman, a sequence of signs and underpinning this, good corn, summer grazing for sheep free of scab and fallow acres waiting for the lint.
Carol Rumens selected this as a poem of the week in The Guardian a couple of years ago.  She notes that lint is another word for flax, once the most significant crop in Northern Ireland, where Hewitt lived (a bar in Belfast is named after him).  The poem is an admonition to the reader, 'to understand any beautiful landscape in its utilitarian and social dimensions: to learn the names of places and people, and to value their language, as this poem, modestly, undemonstratively, has valued it.'

8. 'Landscape' by Dorothy Parker
A field of white lace, birch trees leaping and bending, hills of green and purple, breezes running fingers through the grass. 
But this idyll is flat and grey 'because a lad a mile away / has little need of me.'  I've always liked the idea of Dorothy Parker but found a lot of her writing, like this, not really to my taste.  I include it here though to acknowledge the uncomfortable fact that all the names above are male.  Perhaps this is not only a reflection of the limitations of my reading - maybe women writers have generally been too creativity to write a poem and end up calling it, simply, 'Landscape.'

These then are some 'Landscapes', written by poets from Australia, France, Réunion, Spain, Austria, Germany, Northern Ireland and America.  And for Some Landscapes, this is actually the 999th entry I have written and posted.  Over the years this blog has covered, like these eight poems, the rural and the urban, the pastoral and the post-pastoral, closely observed topography and places that could only be explored in a dream. 

Tomorrow I have a special announcement to coincide with my 1,000th post.

Friday, September 15, 2017

This snow has never melted

Anon (once attributed to Guo Xi), Mount Emei under Heavy Snow, 17th century

Mount Omei, or Emei, in Sichuan province, is one of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China and has often featured in Chinese poetry.  Li Po spent the early part of his life (before 725) in Sichuan and wrote a 'Song of Mount Omei's Moon', that would later be quoted by Su Shi in one of his own poems.  Su Shi was actually born near the foot of the mountain, in 1037, but spent his life being moved from one post to another, getting further and further away until he eventually found himself living on the island of Hainan (he died, back on the mainland, four years later).  Fan Ch'eng-ta, one of the 'Four Masters of Southern Sung Poetry', specialising in the field-and-gardens genre, described Mount Emei in his Diary of a Boat Trip to Wu (1177).  The higher he got, the colder it was - intensely so at night.  Reaching Brilliant Cliff he looked down into the clouds and glimpsed halos of coloured light.  Further on he could see the mountain range that stretches West, until it eventually becomes the Himalayas:
'Lofty, rugged, carved, sliced; scores, perhaps a hundred peaks in all.  When the rising sun first illuminates them, the snow glistens like shiny silver, shimmering in the light of the dawn.  From antiquity to the present, this snow has never melted.  These mountains extend all the way to the land of India and to tributary kingdoms along the border for a distance of I don't know how many thousands of li.  It looks like it is spread out on a table before one.  This spectacular, unique, unsurpassable view was truly the crowning one of my entire life.' 

Last month I was surprised to encounter a fragment of Mt Emei, perched on the summit of a mountain in Switzerland.  This 8 ton lump of basalt, the Emei Stone, was installed on the top of Mt. Rigi in 2015, a year after a Rigi Stone was 'inagurated' on Mt Emei.  They are meant to 'symbolise the cultural and touristic collaboration' between the two mountains.  An explanatory board refers to these landscapes like global corporations, with the exchange symbolising 'the valuable and long-standing partnership between RIGI and EMEI.'  I had not been to Switzerland for a while and was surprised by the number of Chinese tour groups.  There are visitors too from other parts of Asia.  At the bottom of Mount Titlis, a high, snow-capped peak near Rigi, you encounter the inviting smell of Indian street food on sale at the Spice Bistro.  And at its summit, you can take a selfie with cardboard cutout stars of the famous Bollywood film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), which was set in Switzerland (though not actually on Titlis).  The appeal of the Alps for Bollywood directors is discussed in an article for The Smithsonian and the Indian fascination with Switzerland is explored in an interestingby


Mount Rigi became a major tourist destination in the nineteenth century, in part because it is easy to get to from Lucerne.  A Telegraph article on this phenomenon made the connection with Turner's Blue Rigi, a centrepiece of the Tate's 2014 Late Turner show (looking back I see I wrote at the time about Turner's Italian landscapes rather than the exhibition's views of the Alps).  Rigi developed a special appeal, and
'so great was this charisma, that within a couple of decades of Turner’s visit, a stay in Lucerne and an ascent of The Rigi were among the most desirable experiences for any traveller to Continental Europe. In 1857 the first grand hotel opened at the summit, and by 1860 there were 1,000 horses and numerous guides and sedan chairs stationed at the foot of the mountain in Weggis. The highlight of Thomas Cook’s first group tour to Switzerland, in 1863, was an ascent of The Rigi to watch the sunrise, and in 1868 Queen Victoria herself came here, to be carried up to the hotel in a chair, and woken before dawn for the same view.

J.M.W. Turner, The Blue Rigi, Sunrise, c. 1841-42
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mount Emei has a much longer tradition of tourism than Mount Rigi, centred on its temples and the 'silver world' - a sea of clouds - visible from its summit.  In the Qing Dynasty, the poet Tan Zhongyue named ten scenic attractions, including 'Blue Sky After Snowfall on the Great Plateau', 'Crystal Waters and Autumn Winds', and 'Felicitous Light on the Golden Summit'.  Today, the UNESCO World Heritage site acknowledges the threat posed by visitor numbers ('there are numerous drink stands and souvenir stalls which detract from the natural atmosphere of the mountain'), but also notes that 'as a sacred place, Mount Emei has benefited from a long-standing and traditional regime of conservation and restoration.'


A thousand years ago, back in the Song Synasty, Fan Ch'eng-ta's does not mention encountering any other sight-seers.  Perhaps he had the view to himself.  Turner never tried making the ascent of Rigi, possibly put off by the prospect of tourists.  In J. M. W. Turner: A Wonderful Range of Mind, John Gage suggests that 'it may be that he felt the Rigi was already too popular a vantage point, and he did not want to share his experiences with the two or three hundred other tourists who were said to congregate daily on the summit for the dawn.'  Gage quotes an earlier traveller, Henry Matthews, who did make the ascent and what he saw is reminiscent of Fan Ch'eng-ta's vision of dawn on Mt. Emei.  Matthews found it a 'magnificent spectacle' and concluded that experiencing a sunrise on Rigi 'forms an epoch in one's life, which can never be forgotten.'

J.M.W. Turner, The Red Rigi, 1842
Source: Wikimedia Commons