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Saturday, October 23, 2021

Indigo fields, sun-warmth

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The NYRB Poets series has a volume devoted to Li Shangyin (c. 813–858) contaiing the work of three translators. All of them have a go at his most famous poem, 'Brocade Zither' (or 'The Opulent Zither' or 'The Patterned Lute)'. I first read the last of these many years ago in A. C. Graham's Poems of the Late T'ang and was intrigued by one particular line: 'On Blue Mountain the sun warms, a smoke issues from the jade.' Graham explained this as a reference to Dai Shulun (732-89) who 'said that the scene presented by a poet is like the smoke which issues from fine jade when the sun is warm on Blue Mountain (Lan-t'ien, "Indigo field"); it can be seen from a distance but not from close to.' Although I understood the idea that poetry presents things imprecisely, like smoke on a mountain, and that its richness cannot be studied at close quarters, I was still a bit baffled by the metaphor.

Lantian (Blue Fields) is in Shaanxi province and is most famous now perhaps for Lantian man, the early hominid species. 'In Lantian,' according to Wikipedia, 'white and greenish nephrite jade is found in small quarries and as pebbles and boulders in the rivers flowing from the Kun-Lun mountain range northward into the Takla-Makan desert area.' There is a specific area called Yushan, Jade Mountain, famous for its fine jade. In recent years the Chinese architect Ma Quingyun has established a winery here (as described at some length in an article in The California Sunday Magazine). Back in the eighth century Dai Shulun was saying that in intense heat, the jade hidden in the rocks of Lantian rises into the air. If this is taken literally, I guess he was referring to fine clouds of jade powder from the quarries. 

It is possible to go further and read into this line of poetry deeper allusions to its elements: heat, smoke, jade. Just to give one example, there is a story of a girl called Purple Jade who returned after death to redeem the reputation of her lover, accused of tomb robbery. Her mother wanted to embrace her spirit but she just turned to smoke. Therefore, as Maja Lavrač writes in 'Li Shangyin and the Art of Poetic Ambiguity', jade can symbolize something unattainable. Li Shangyin may be alluding in his poem to something or someone attractive but inaccessible. And this is done through a single landscape image that simultaneously alludes to the mysterious beauty of poetry.

There is a lot more to say about Li Shangyin of course - see for example an excellent interview with translator Chloe Garcia Roberts at The Critical Flame. But I will simply end here with her own rendering of this single line of Li Shangyin's:

Indigo fields, sun-warmth,
Jade begets smoke

Saturday, October 16, 2021

From sea's wide spring out flows the tide

This is The Book of Taliesin, which I have been reading in the new translation by Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams. Authors and dates for the poems it contains are impossible to identify, although they are ascribed to the shadowy figure of Taliesin, a sixth century bard associated with one or more of the leading royal houses of the Old North. Of course there are no proper landscape descriptions in these poems, but natural imagery occurs within certain lines. An example is the 'Elegy for Cú Roi mac Dáir' which opens with the movement of the tide. The translators note that the second half of the second line below 'employs two words spelt differently but almost identical in pronunciation, as if to suggest that the water and advances and retreats an equal distance, as it would at high or low water':

Dy ffynhawn lydan   dylleinw aches,
dydaw, dyhebcyr,    dybris, dybrys.

From sea's wide spring   out flows the tide:
It advances, retreats,   it smashes, crushes.

The most appealing poem in the book is 'Taliesin's Sweetnesses', a catalogue of the bard's favourite aspects of creation that reminded me of those lists you find in Sei Shōnagon's Pillow Book, such as  her 'Things that make your heart beat fast'. Taliesin's list covers everything from jewellery and mead to 'a cleric in church if he's faithful,' but I've extracted below some things he enjoys in nature. When you put these together - berries, leaks, purple heather, ospreys on the shore, cattle on a sea marsh - you can start to picture the landscape of Wales and western Scotland that a real Taliesin would have known

Sweet are the berries at harvest time;
Sweet, also is wheat on the stem.

Sweet is the sun on clouds in the sky;
Sweet, too, is light on the evening's brow.

Sweet is a thick-maned stallion in a herd;
Sweet, too is the warp of a spider's web.

Sweet are ospreys on shore at high tide;
Sweet too is watching the seagulls play.

Sweet is the garden when leeks are thriving;
Sweet also, is field mustard sprouting.

Sweet is heather when it blossoms purple;
Sweet, too, is a sea marsh for cattle.

Sweet are the fish in the shining lake;
Sweet, too, is water's play of light and dark.

Sunday, October 03, 2021

The Fortress of Königstein


For various reasons it's much harder at the moment for me to go to exhibitions than it used to be, but I did pop down yesterday to the National Gallery to see Bellotto: The Königstein Views Reunited. These five views (two of them in my photograph above) were painted  in 1756-8 when Bellotto was court painter to August III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. I last mentioned Bellotto back in 2007 after I had seen the recently restored Bellotto room of the Royal Palace in Warsaw. I would love one day to visit Königstein which looks still looks spectacular in photographs. The fortress was still being used as a prison until 1922 and among its famous inmates was Frank Wedekind, author of the Lulu plays, who got into trouble for some satirical verses. Here are a few observations on the five views from left to right as they appear in the exhibition:

The Fortress of Königstein: Courtyard with the Brunnenhaus

One of two views inside the fortress. Its rows of railings, windows and chimneys drawing your attention to the painting's lines of perspective. As you get closer your attention is drawn to the figures of guards and gardeners and you begin to wonder about individuals like a beggar leaning against a wall and a man walking along in traditional Polish costume. The light picks out peeling walls, blossoms in the garden and a dog's upturned face.  

The Fortress of Königstein from the North

The first of three broader landscape views, with the castle lit more brightly than the forerground and tiny soldiers visible on its ramparts. The ground sloping up to the castle is interesting in itself, with holes worn into the bare sandstone. Again the figures in the scene suggest unknowable stories - a tired looking herdsman, a coach and horses heading off into the distance...

The Fortress of Königstein from the North-West

Here there is a second mountain, the Lilienstein, repeating the shape of the castle. In the distance a dark rain cloud casts shadows on the plain. The foreground is spotlit like a stage, although the pastoral figures arranged on it seem rather contrived. On the slope below the fortress there is a kind of doorway - the entrance to an underground dungeon.

The Fortress of Königstein from the South-West

This one has a diagonal composition (see photo, right) and the massive sandstone castle wall resembles an impregnable cliff. By this time I was starting to get a feel for the geography of the place, spotting towers from the other paintings and orientating myself imaginatively through the given directions.

The Fortress of Königstein: Courtyard with the Magdalenenburg

The final view includes a building that was apparently home to a 60,000 gallon cask of wine! The figures dotted around range from two gentleman and a lady apparently admiring a carved doorway to some washerwomen laying out laundry. The stained, cracked walls are beautifully painted and the whole scene takes place under a cool blue sky that made me long to be far away from rainy London.


 Bernardo Bellotto, The Fortress of Königstein: Courtyard with the Magdalenenburg, 1756-8


Back in July Jonathan Jones in The Guardian gave this little exhibition a five star review. He claims Bellotto is a 'forgotten artist' and that the Seven Years' War in which he got caught up is a 'little known conflict'... Nevertheless he does make a good point about the atmosphere of these works which I'll quote: 

A delicate white kiosk balances on a cliff edge among green trees, suggesting this has become a pleasure park, but near it is a much older tower from days of feudal war. The fortress appears daunting from certain angles, oddly elegant from others. Which is the real mood: coffee and Handel concerts – or defensive might? The works have an aura of decay that might suggest Dracula’s castle, if there wasn’t so much life here. It looks as if the entire Dresden court are whiling away their time in the castle precincts, waiting for the Prussians to come.

Laura Cumming's review is more informative and I'll conclude with a quote from her about the way these scenes mix landscape with human interest.

Wandering through these scenes, the eye is taken dramatically into a doorway, up to a balcony strewn with washing, or down to the facade of a church and then back out through the landscape to a dark and distant quietude beyond – a faraway land, unknown and stirring, where hermits might be found in caves, or Nosferatu in a haunted castle. ... Trysts succeed and fail; pot plants slowly decline on high windowsills. Carts bring food effortfully up to the fortress. But down below, where we are, at eye level, the rural world continues through the seasons as if the big people had nothing to do with them. And in some profound sense this was true.

Friday, September 03, 2021

Island Zombie


Last year Princeton published this collection of Roni Horn's Iceland writings. The cover image beneath the yellow titles is one of 23 visual editorials she published in 2002 for the weekly culture supplement of Iceland's national daily newspaper (you can see the pinkish paper and newsprint showing through from the next page). It is an interesting choice for a cover as you might expect them to have used one of Roni Horn's photographs, but then this is a collection of her writings. Reading them with few of the familiar images of rocks, pools, icebergs and horizons puts more emphasis on the quality of her words. As a collection of brief reflections they reminded me of other kinds of poetic place writing I've enjoyed, like the Paul Claudel I highlighted here in May. 

The section of Island Zombie covering her newspaper contributions includes some poignant longer pieces written twenty years ago, at a point when Iceland still had a choice over whether to preserve its landscape from development. The book also has a speech ('My Oz') and samples from her 'Weather Reports You' project in which Icelanders relay terrifying stories of high winds, treacherous seas and blizzards. But the bulk of the book is given over to writings that formed part of Horn's art practice, spanning her years in Iceland, beginning with the texts already published in To Place IV: Pooling Waters (1990-91) and adding others written during the last thirty years.

Some landscapes...

  • On a foggy day in 1979 at Bakkafjörður, she discovered a white stone among the dark rocks on the bank of a stream. The white was almost transparent and it looked as if something dark lay within, a mystery. Writing in 2018 she rolls the stone in the palm of her hand, 'whole, complete, not a fragment of something else.' Over the course of her lifetime, handling the stone, she herself has been a mildly erosive force and feels 'the softness and smoothness of this white rock intensifying over years of intimacy.'  
  • At Dyrhólaey, where she lived for a time in the lighthouse, the cliffs form a city of birds. Approaching the edge, all is quiet but for the sound of the wind, until she reaches a point where suddenly the cacophony of bird sounds emerges, a noise that 'is part of the landscape here, like the bluff itself. It doesn't go away. When I arrive, I become the audience for this geologically scaled performance.' 
  • Standing on the mountain Kerlingarfjöll one warm evening she finds the atmosphere focuses the view like a lens, with everything visible through the thin air. 'Looking around I can see the ocean way out there, in all directions,' she says, reminding me of a magical flight of fantasy in Virginia Woolf's Orlando. She can see each pebble and flower, each lava field and river, simultaneously and without hierarchy. The way the landscape is taking shape is visible in its boiling water, lava fields and tectonic plates and all of this 'takes you one step deeper, beyond appearance, beyond the simple visibility of things.'

Sunday, August 08, 2021

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I was recently given the splendid Thames & Hudson volume STRATA: William Smith's Geological Maps, which has contributions from a range of experts and a short foreword by Robert Macfarlane. The book is a thing of beauty as you can see from the gallery on the T&H website. In addition to Smith's maps, it includes photographs of the fossil collection he amassed, which was fundamental to his understanding of geology and which he arranged on sloping shelves to represent different geological strata. When Smith got into financial trouble he was forced to sell these fossils to the British Museum but twenty years later they remained unopened in their boxes (reminding me of a similar story of indifference from a century later, when Apsley Cherry-Garrard donated to the museum an emperor penguin egg collected in the Antarctic after 'the worst journey in the world'). There is an interesting story of social class running through the book, with Smith having to earn his living from practical work in mining and land improvement and only fully appreciated by the intellectual elite at the end of his life.

From a landscape perspective the most interesting drawings are the panoramic sections that show how strata lie underground and where they emerge on the surface. The example above is on a separate bookmark / legend which comes with the book; its reverse shows the sequence of strata and their colours, ranging from London Clay to Granite, Sicnite and Gneiss. The example below (published in July 1819) shows part of Britain I am familiar with, the chalk downs near Brighton. The text underneath the image here is very practical - 'Much Chalk goes from these Hills by the Ouse Navigation to the interior of Sussex and is there used on the Land either in a crude state or burned to Lime by Wood fires for that purpose. The Sussex Clunch or Gray Chalk like that of the Surry Hills makes an excellent Lime for building in Water.' Colourists were employed for his maps but Smith himself was an enthusiastic draughtsman and STRATA includes a selection of portrait drawings of acquaintances from his sketchbooks. To quote Robert Macfarlane, Smith's great map ' now exists somewhere between artwork, dreamwork and data-set.'



Friday, June 25, 2021

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The oceans and deserts of Vija Celmins are monochrome patterns of pencil marks and brush strokes - no landmarks, just abstract surfaces. She may have looked at particular sites but the artworks only reproduce her photographs, or photographs taken by others - landscape at two removes. Their sources are hidden in titles like Untitled (Desert) and Untitled (Ocean). Nevertheless, the patience and attention needed to make her art seems to ask questions about how closely we attend to the world and really spend time in a particular environment. Observational drawing has a long history - Briony Fer cites the examples of Dürer's Large Piece of Turf and Ruskin's advice in The Elements of Drawing in her essay in Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory (ed. Gary Garrels). But art of this kind is closer to still life than landscape. Celmins' drawings of the sea are each 'a graphic rendering of a ready-made image and not a record of the vastness of the ocean.'    


A page from Vija Celmins: To Fix the Image in Memory showing moon drawings from 1968-9

One sentence from another essay in this book by Russell Ferguson particularly struck me. In discussing Celmins' early paintings he suggests that 'T.V. (1964) shows an everyday object from the studio - a television set - but a very contemporary one: this is probably one of the earliest representations of a TV in painting.' If this is true it is remarkable to think that art can have ignored such an important object in people's lives for twenty years. One could also say that in the late sixties Celmins was one of the first artists to depict the landscape of the moon, although her drawings of NASA photographs are clearly at second hand, deliberately reproducing the blurring and imperfections in the source images. In this way they are quite different from the pastel drawing John Russell made nearly two centuries earlier using a telescope, which despite the vast distance was based on direct observation. 


John Russell,  The Face of the Moon, 1793-97

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Knowing the East

Paul Claudel (1868 - 1955) joined the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs after university, where he had begun writing poetry and attending Mallarmé's 'Tuesdays', and in 1895 was made vice-consul in Shanghai, following junior postings in Boston and New York. He would spend the rest of his life as a prominent diplomat and writer, although I suspect that in England he is a lot less well known than his sister Camille (portrayed in the 1988 film Camille Claudel by Isabelle Adjani). When he arrived in the Far East he began composing prose poetry; the first one was written in Ceylon before he reached his destination in China. Some of these poems were sent home and published in outlets lke La Revue de Paris and La Revue blanche. Claudel returned in 1899 intending to become a priest, and his book Connaisance de l'Est came out in 1900. But having abandoned his religious vocation and returned to China, he supplemented this volume with a smaller group of poems written in the period up to 1905. 

No doubt Knowing the East can be read critically in terms of Orientalism and French imperialism, but I found a lot of beauty in these poems. Some titles: 'The City at Night', 'Sea Thoughts', 'The Sadness of Water', 'Noon Tide', 'Hours in the Garden', 'Libation to the Coming Day'. Things I was reminded of as I read them: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Francis Ponge, Lafdacio Hearn, Victor Segalen, Empire of Signs, Invisible Cities. This quote, from their translator James Lawler, summarises my first impressions of the book.

'With what pleasure do we savour these landscapes, this continent so far removed from our own: coconut palms, banyans, Japanese pines; the Yang-tse of 'Drifting', 'The River', 'Halt on the Canal'; Confucian, Buddhist, and Shinto temples and tombs; hermitages, suspended houses; crushing heat, night as clear as day; festivals for the dead, a festival for the rivers; wheat harvests, rice harvests; torrential rain, apocalyptic storms; cities that seem chaotic but have a concealed pattern and sense, 'flayed' Chinese gardens, the Shogun's golden ark. One may label the images picturesque but that is not the way I read them. I recall Julien Green saying of Claudel that he was a man "who had known how to live elsewhere," words I take to mean that we do not find a quest for oddness but affectionate deployment fold by fold of a reality the poet comes to know.'

In keeping with the theme of my blog, here are a few examples of how Claudel treats landscape in his poems:

  • Stopping to survey the mountains that surround him, he measures with his eyes the route he will take. As he walks, he savours the slow passage of time and thinks about 'the bridge still to cross in the quiet peace of the afternoon pause, these hills to go up and down, this valley to traverse.' He already sees the rock where he will watch the sunset.  
  • One December day, 'a dark cloud covers the entire sky and fills the mountain's irregular clefts with haze: you would think it dovetailed to the horizon.' He sweeps the quiet countryside with his hand, caressing the hyacinth plains, the tufts of black pines, and he checks with his fingers the 'details embedded in the weft and mist of this winter day - a row of trees, a village.' 
  • On the vast yellow river he thinks about the nature of water. 'As the segments of a parallelogram come together and meet, so water expresses the force of a landscape reduced to its geometrical lines.' Each drop expresses this as it finds the lowest point of a given area. 'All water draws us, and certainly this river...' 
  • He describes knocking on a small black door somewhere in Shanghai and being led through a succession of corridors to a garden. He follows a labyrinthine path until he can look down on 'the poem of the roofs'. Later he reaches 'the edge of the pond, where the stems of dead lotus flowers emerge from the still waters. The silence is deep like that of a forest crossroads in winter.'
  • And in a Tokyo shop, he finds himself looking at miniature landscapes (bonkei). 'Here is the rice field in spring; in the distance, the hill fringed with trees (they are moss). Here is the sea with its archipelagos and capes; by the artifice of two stones, one black, the other red and seemingly worn and porous ... Even the iridescence of the many-coloured waters is captured by this bed of motley pebbles covered by the contents of two carafes.'