Saturday, December 16, 2017

A winding river and a bridge

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Streams, falling from the heights

'Cliffs stand on both sides like parallel walls.  Here it is so narrow, so very narrow, writes one traveller, that one not only sees but actually feels the narrowness, it seems.  A patch of blue sky appears like a ribbon above one's head.  Streams, falling from the heights of the mountains in thin spurts of spray, reminded me of The Abduction of Ganymede, that strange painting by Rembrandt.  Moreover, the pass is illuminated entirely in his taste.  In some places the Terek is eroding the very feet of the cliffs, and rocks are piled high on the road, like a dam.  Not far from the post a small bridge has been boldly thrown across the river.  Standing on it is like being on a mill.  The whole bridge shakes, while the Terek roars, producing a sound like wheels driving a millstone.'
- Alexander Pushkin, A Journey to Azrum at the Time of the 1829 Campaign, trans. Ronald Wilks
This description of Sublime scenery can be found in the Penguin edition of Tales of Belkin and Other Prose Writings, a book I recall really enjoying when it came out in 1998.  I always seem to be drawn to Russian literature as winter closes in (this month I've been reading Vladimir Nabokov and Svetlana Alexievich); the freezing wind yesterday felt like it had come straight off the Siberian steppes.  John Bayley wrote in his introduction that A Journey to Azrum, a valuable fragment of Pushkin's autobiographical writing, had hitherto been 'impossible to find in translation.'  In five short chapters, Pushkin describes his journey south with the Russian army, who were fighting Turkey at the time.  He was not officially allowed to travel beyond Tiflis but ignored this, much to the annoyance of the Tsar.

Rufin Sudkovsky, Darial Gorge, 1884
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Darial Gorge, which Pushkin describes in his book, is a key site in Russian Romanticism.  In Lermontov's poem 'Demon', the River Terek is compared to a roaring lioness, heard by all the mountains beasts and 'eagles in the azure heights.'  This valley, with its mists and menacing crags, is contrasted with the beautiful fertile plain where the Demon first lays eyes on the Georgian princess, Tamara.  Such contrasts were fundamental to Romantic appreciation of nature and had been theorised with reference to great art, so that travellers in search of the picturesque could relate what they saw to, for example, Salvator Rosa (the Sublime) or Claude Lorrain (the Beautiful).  This habit had became the subject of satire by the end of the eighteenth century and Pushkin was clearly aware of it when he refers to Rembrandt.  If you were unfamiliar with Rembrandt's The Abduction of Ganymede, you might think Pushkin was writing in all sincerity of a heroic landscape painting, one in which Zeus, the eagle, swoops on Ganymede from the azure heights, past cliffs and waterfalls.  Instead, well, one can only say that Pushkin, with typical light-heartedness, was taking the piss. 
Rembrandt, The Abduction of Ganymede, 1635
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Friday, December 01, 2017

Withert vines, auld trees, derknin crows

I bought this book at the recent Small Publishers Fair: a selection of classical Chinese verse translated into Scots, with English versions provided as well to help non-Scots speakers.  It was hard to resist this purchase once I had read on the back of it W. N. Herbert's description of the way China's great writers appear in Brian Holton's Scots.  'His roistering Li Bai comes with more than a hint of Burns, while his Qiao Ji seems as rooted in landscape as Hogg is in Holton's beloved Borders.  The oldest named Chinese poet, Qu Yuan, comes across here as one of the aureate makars, Dunbar or Douglas, crossed with something of the shaman.  But it is with the subtle master Du Fu that a deep authentic note of melancholy emerges.'  Here is the first stanza of one of those Qiao Ji poems 'rooted in landscape'.  It is on the theme of scholarly retreat - 'Contented in Idleness', or, in Holton's Scots, 'Fine in Idleset':

Awa in the hills, ablow the wuids
there's a theikit shed wi rashie windaes,
bieldit, lown an bonnie;
green bamboo, emerant pines -
it's fair a pictur.

Reading this book made me wonder whether there is Chinese poetry translated into Welsh, Gaelic, Cornish...  Holton writes that he is currently the only Chinese-Scots translator and would welcome some company.  However, on the St. Andrews University website I came across a cross-cultural translation project that also involved making Scots versions of old Chinese poems.  The participants came up with a version of 'Autumn Thoughts', the most famous short poem by Ma Zhiyuan (c. 1250–1321), a contemporary of Qiao Ji who lived in what is now Beijing.  I have included their translation and a video clip below. 

An auld sauch, an corbies in the mirk
that haps the burn, the brig, the loan,
traivelled by a shilpit cuddie, gaun
efter the sun that fa's intae the dark
further and further fae hame.

Ma Zhiyuan is a true poet of autumn - his best known play, 'Autumn in the Han Palace', expresses the emperor's sorrow through autumnal imagery.  His poem 'Autumn Thoughts' is a condensed landscape in nine parts - withered vines, old trees, twilight crows, a small bridge, flowing water, people's homes, an ancient road, the west wind and a gaunt horse.  These are followed by an image of the sun sinking, and of a broken-hearted figure on a distant horizon.  Brian Holton includes some of Ma Zhiyuan's autumn poetry in Staunin Ma Lane.  His version of 'Autumn Thoughts' has each element on a line by itself: 'withert vines / auld trees / derknin crows...'  Then the 'gloamin sun / gaun westlins doun' and the man stands alone. 'Hairt sair, hairt sair / she's hauf the warld awa.'

Friday, November 24, 2017

Shy Sculptures

Rachel Whiteread, Chicken Shed, 2017

This post can be read as a sequel to one I wrote nine years ago on Rachel Whiteread's move to making art for the landscape.  In 'Ebbsfleet Landmark' I described her proposal for a monumental sculpture, which would have taken the form of the cast of a house on a mountain of recycled rubble (the winning proposal by Mark Wallinger was never built).  In a postscript I referred to one of her 'Shy Sculptures', casts of sheds and similar structures, the latest of which has been installed in front of Tate Britain as part of their excellent retrospective exhibition.  Last week I went to a talk at the gallery which covered her entire career but touched briefly on these recent works.  She told us that she sees the 'Shy Sculptures' now as an ongoing lifelong project, already encompassing works in Norway, Norfolk and the California desert.  She made a direct comparison with Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty and Walter De Maria's Lightning Field, saying she'd like it if people tried to seek them out, travelling to remote locations like those cultural tourists who head for the American West to experience first-hand the foundational works of land art.

 Rachel Whiteread, Shack, 2016
Tate wall display - photography permitted

Whiteread has described sheds as beautiful things with their own poetry, “they are furniture for people to dream away their lives in.”  Sheds and cabins have fascinated contemporary artists, from Cornelia Parker to Tracey Emin, and they have a long cultural history.  I have often referred here to similar modest structures out in the landscape -  studios, retreats, hermitages. The 'Shy Sculptures' Whiteread made in California preserve the negative space of two 1950s cabins that were abandoned in the desert.  They took five years to make and were commissioned by Jerry Sohn, who is creating a collection of site-specific art that also includes works by Lawrence Weiner and Richard Long.  Whiteread described them in her talk as 'shotgun shacks' which (at least to a British listener, less used to the term) instantly brought to mind Talking Heads' song Once in a Lifetime.  David Byrne's lyrics, like Rachel Whiteread's sculptures, refer to transience and timelessness.

In interviews Whiteread has said she dislikes 'plop art', 'making things and just putting them in places for the sake of it.'  Her 'Shy Sculptures' have to be in the right locations.  It would be interesting to know more about how she thinks they affect the surrounding landscape.  Presumably they will be left to slowly weather into their locations, unlike House, which was bulldozed in 1994.  At the Tate, Whiteread talked again about the huge controversy surrounding House, as well as her bureaucratic struggles over the Vienna holocaust memorial (she is returning to the city this month for the first time since it was finally installed).  I now live in a property rather like House and wish it was still there to visit.  It prompted the best thing I've read by Iain Sinclair, his essay 'The House in the Park: A Psychogeographical Response'.  The villain of this piece, Lib Dem councillor Eric Flounders, reemerged briefly from obscurity ten years later in a Guardian story about the launch party for Cunard's QM2 (where Jimmy Savile 'was sporting an NHS swipe card in the name of Al Pacino alongside his gongs.').  I doubt that Flounders has any regrets.  Rachel Whiteread said she might consider doing another whole-house cast, but it would be pointless to try to recreate House.  Once in a lifetime...

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The stiff-feathered pines shed their darkness

Six years ago I wrote about The Peregrine (1967) and its elusive author, J. A. Baker.  I was prompted in part by the airing of a radio play about him, written by Helen MacDonald.  The book she subsequently published, H is for Hawk, contrasts T. H. White's The Goshawk (1951) with Baker's bleaker vision, his 'awful desire for death' disguised as an elegy for the peregrine.  I also referred to a new edition of Baker's complete works, edited by John Fanshawe, which included the diaries used as source material for The Peregrine.  Fanshawe has been chiefly responsible for assembling the Baker archive at Essex University and in Robert Macfarlane's recent book, Landmarks, he describes the experience of encountering this collection of notebooks, manuscripts, annotated maps and binoculars.  One more thing I mentioned in that earlier post, an album by Lawrence English, is described in an appreciation of Baker, written earlier this year by Robert Macfarlane to mark the fiftieth anniversary of The Peregrine.  Apparently, English sent a copy of The Peregrine to Werner Herzog, who was gripped by it:
'Herzog describes The Peregrine as inducing “ecstasy” in the radical sense of the word: not just entranced or frenzied, but literally beside oneself. There are moments, he notes, “where you can tell that [Baker] has completely entered into the existence of a falcon. And this is what I do when I make a film: I step outside of myself into an ekstasis; in Greek, to step outside of your own body.”  ... The puzzle to me, for years, was why Herzog had not yet filmed The Peregrine. In 2015, I wrote to ask if he was planning to do so. “If anyone can, it should be you,” I said. I sent him a photograph of my local peregrine perched on a church spire, part-gargoyle. Herzog replied within a few hours, generous about my own writing on Baker, but adamant about the book’s adaptability: “A feature film would be very wrong. There are texts that should never be touched. Georg Büchner’s Lenz is one of these cases. In fact, whoever tries to make a feature film of The Peregrine should be shot without trial.”
This story got retold at an LRB Bookshop event last Wednesday.  The event was compèred by the sans pareil Gareth Evans and featured John Fanshawe, Robert Macfarlane and his former student, Hetty Saunders, who got inspired by Baker after taking a course on post-pastoral literature.  She has catalogued the Baker archive and written a fascinating short biography based on what can be gleaned from it.  This book, My House of Sky, includes an evocative selection of archive photographs that take you directly into Baker's world (these pages, incidentally, reminded me of Nick Drake: Remembered for a While, which also reproduced archival material on another intriguing cult figure from the late sixties).  Here is just one example of these pages, a bird watching diary from 1955, the year after J. A. Baker first saw a peregrine falcon.

The archive features a set of photographs that were taken of J. A. Baker's bookshelves.  Only one is included in the biography, along with a brief list of authors he is known to have read (J. G. Ballard is mentioned, but no specific titles).  However, the archive refers to a catalogue John Fanshawe made from the photographs and this can be found online at the Essex University Special Collections website.  His spreadsheet has gaps - for example, he lists as a blank what looks to me, from the indistinct image in My House of Sky, to be the spine of Arthur C. Clarke's Four Great SF Novels (I'm not certain of this identification, but I did spend my youth hunting for SF novels rather than goshawks and peregrines...)  The Ballard books are in the spreadsheet, although not all are named; there were quite a few, from The Drowned World through Crash to Empire of the Sun.  However, aside from these there aren't any startling titles that stand out and the collection is largely as you would expect.  I was slightly surprised in the LRB Bookshop talk when Robert Macfarlane likened Baker to H.D and the Objectivists - there's no evidence in this list of him reading these or any other post-Poundian poets.

My House of Sky also includes photographs of the annotations Baker made to proof-copies of his books, returning to them after they were published to study the effectiveness of his prose.  There are two pages from The Hill of Summer (the less-successful second and final book that he published), showing where he marked metaphors and similes and counted up the verbs and adjectives.  As these are landscape descriptions, it seems fitting to conclude a post on this blog with an example.  Here is the first paragraph of 'May: the Pine Wood', showing Baker's 'M's, 'S's and underlinings.
'The pine wood hides the sun, like a dark northernS god rising in menaceM above the white road that falls steeply to the west, and the small green hills beyond are recedingM into a grey autumnal haze.  The high town silvers in sunlight, and its sky is barbed with curvingM swifts.  But already the night's simplicity is settling uponM the valley.  Under the exoticM flowering of the early lights, a blue Venetian duskM laps at the windows of the shadowed houses.  As I watch, the high townM is extinguished, and its shiningM sky ascends.  The stiff-featheredM pines shed their darkness into the still air.'

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Clouds Rising from the Green Sea

Clouds Rising from the Green Sea

Ten Thousand Riplets on the Yangzi

The Waving Surface of the Autumn Flood

These beautiful images are from the Water Album, twelve studies made by the great Southern Song  painter Ma Yuan (c. 1160–65 – 1225).  They have always been admired and were adorned with admiring colophons by various Ming Dynasty connoisseurs from the late fifteenth century.  They were recently 're-made' by an artist, Zhang Hongtu, whose paintings question whether Ma Yuan would have been able to paint such views now, standing 'before today's rivers and lakes, fouled by chemical toxins and industrial waste.'  As Richard Edwards points out in The Heart of Ma Yuan: The Search for a Southern Song Aesthetic, Ma Yuan's calligraphic depictions of water are all based on a contradiction - lines alone are used to convey an ever changing, constantly moving element that seems impossible to describe in this way.  The titles of each one were added to the album by Empress Yang and dated 1222.  Edwards lists them in his book in a slightly different translation from the one used online for these images, but both sound good.  In sequence they resemble a poem on the properties of water as it forms pools and lakes, passes through rivers and enters the 'vast blue sea'.

Waves Weave Winds of Gold
Light Breeze over Lake Dongting
Layers of Waves, Towering Breakers
Winter Pool, Clear and Shoal
The Yangzi River - Boundless Expanse
The Yellow River - Churning Currents
Autumn Waters - Waves Ever Returning
Clouds Born of the Vast Blue Sea
Lake Glow, Rain Suffused
Clouds Unfurling, A Wave Breaking
A Rising Sun Warms the Mountains
Gossamer Waves - Drifting, Drifting

The Yellow River Breaches its Course

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich

Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament Sunlight Effect (Le Parlement effet de soleil), 1903

Tate Britain's new exhibition, Impressionists in London, has been criticised as misleading, including non-Impressionist French artists who were working in England at the same time.  Jonathan Jones called it 'a desiccated seminar in third-rate history', 'the worst show about the impressionists I have ever seen.'  Suitably forewarned, I nonetheless came away from this show feeling it was well worth a visit.  There are four whole rooms devoted to impressionist landscape paintings of London and its suburbs, including Monet's marvellous Thames Series.  And Londoners at least will find the scenes painted by Tissot and 'the mediocrities Alphonse Legros and Jules Dalou' of at least passing interest for what they show of the city and its history.  Jones concludes his review grudgingly admitting it is worth buying a ticket, if only to see the 'artist who does shine through this pea souper', Camille Pissarro.  Whilst it seems perverse not to consider the Monets the highlight of the show (Leicester Square at Night is astonishing), the works of Pissarro on display are indeed fascinating.  Here I'll focus briefly on one of them, Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich.

Camille Pissarro, Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich, 1871

I discussed Pissarro here only recently, referring to his early landscape paintings in the Dutch West Indies and Venezuela.  Perhaps it's the name, but Dulwich sounds a lot less exotic.  It is very familiar to me from all the train trips I've made down to the Dulwich Picture Gallery.  Pissarro also painted views nearby, around Norwood and Sydenham, south London suburbs that had only recently been Surrey villages.  Many of these locations have barely changed since - the huge wave of late nineteenth century housebuilding left London with the streets we live in today.  My own home, where I'm writing this, is part of a terrace built in 1871-3, so would have been under construction when Pissarro was in England.  There are still train stations in Dulwich but not this one: Lordship Lane Station closed in 1954 (it had been heavily damaged in the Blitz).  In this painting it is only six years old and the railway looks freshly cut into green countryside.  The train heads towards us like the black engine in Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844), its smoke polluting the pale sky.  But it looks rather insignificant and unthreatening, as if what had seemed extraordinary to Turner was now merely commonplace.

A few years ago Michael Glover wrote an article in The Independent's 'Great Works' series devoted to this painting.  Here is how he sums up the appeal of this modest but moving landscape. 
'The painting itself is rooted in its own sense of its ordinariness. No part of it is more important than any other part. It is a masterful act of casual deployment of unmatched skills. It is also a beautifully muted painting tonally, which perfectly seizes a certain kind of slightly melancholy, drizzle-blighted English atmosphere – muffled, slightly dingy, damp-feeling greens give way to rusty browns, greys. Everything feels a little like a part of everything else. It all feels and looks so unshocking, so anti-picturesque in the solidity of its there-ness, you might say ... It feels terribly truthful in the way that the ever onward, undemonstrative drabness of life is truthful.'