Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Death, Romance and the Landscape

Time Passing
This piece is a rather odd collection of thoughts. As a jigsaw of unintended connections, it works as a semi coherent whole; from chance encounters with Tower Hamlets cemetery, various books on forests and a romantic landscape exhibition at the weekend. Wild wooded nature is the theme of all these and I've been thinking about how woodlands have been perceived by people at different times. There is a large physical difference between a dilapidated Victorian cemetery, South German primeval native forest, and sketches of pastoral fantasies. However they in turn have provided us, and continue to provide us, with pleasure, escape and a way of passing the time.

The exhibition called, 'A Dialogue with Nature' explores aspects of Romantic landscape drawing in Britain and Germany from its origins in the 1760s to its final flowering in the 1840s. The stunning collection of the Courtauld Institute provided many of the drawings and in the quiet atmosphere of the three rooms you could spend ages with all of them. There were a number that I was particularly drawn to, and in the context of Tower Hamlets Cemetery, Karl Friedrich Lessing's 'Cemetery overtaken by nature' (1837) and Caspar David Friedrich's 'The jakobikirche as a ruin' (1817) and they are most relevant.

According to the curators, 'British and German artists played a major role in transforming the art of landscape in Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.' They continue, 'in an era marked by political upheaval and the questioning of old certainties, they turned a questioning eye on the idealised landscapes prized by their predecessors'. That might be the case but I would say that this transformation was happening centuries before. The presence of ruins in art has been popular since the 1400s, and it usually heralds the dawn of a new age. Nativity scenes often include classical ruins; the triumph of Christianity over a pagan past. However ruins also add aesthetic interest and demonstrates the artists' skill in depicting foliage and architectural remains. 

The architecture in Lessing's beautifully composed sketch isn't quite a ruin, but the vigorous tree (oak) looms over the fragile graves, pushing the chapel into the background. Its roots don't have to be seen, we are aware of the ground beneath us being consumed by nature. The graves will either have to join the tree in the ground, or be pushed out to make way. Although the moon is rising in our faces, some remnants of sun remain. The tree is naturally growing out towards the light, which is highlighted by the white chalk marks on the graves. Their inhabitants, which are darkly housed, have already seen the light of heaven. 

I feel that this is an imaginary grave yard. In comparison to the real overgrown cemetery in Tower Hamlets, it is barren and exposed. The artist has kept greenery to a minimum to emphasise the tree. Unlike the real cemetery, there are no bluebells, flowering comfrey, clinging ivy to soften the scene. The only wildlife is the watchful owl, whereas I heard and saw a multitude of birds and insects..and a friendly ginger cat. Although both scenes, real and imagined are domestic or tamed in proportion, if unchecked, nature is poised to overtake the human. The tree will eventually cause the destruction of the building, and in the cemetery the enthusiastic foliage will crush the already topsy-turvy graves.

What is the reason for make believe destruction? Friedrich's imagining of his home town's church as a ruin is a far more disturbing proposition than the destruction of a graveyard by trees. Images of real churches being destroyed by war and learning that some graves in the cemetery bear shrapnel marks make me uneasy whilst looking at this precise sketch. And that is the point. The artist knows we tread a fine line between security and destruction, so he explores that with a 'what if'. I hope he never experienced the loss which his adoptive city of Dresden was to suffer. 

It is perhaps no great surprise that the first real painter of wild forested landscapes was German. Only recently have I started to explore the importance of the woods from the 1500s onwards, 'the forest was not simply a romantic idea, but a vital landscape without which life would scarcely be possible'.* Whereas I can wander through the nature-reclaimed cemetery and can identify a handful of useful medicinal or edible plants, early moderns would have recognised most or all of them. These romantic sketches from Germany (and Britain) demonstrate their success in the direct study of nature, which is precisely what Durer and Altdorfer were doing centuries earlier.

However it is the forest landscape's sense of place that I really find intellectually fascinating. The Elector took great pleasure in hunting and forest leisurely pursuits, images of the hunt and the jousting tournament are depicted on the wire drawing bench. The marquetry of the same bench is formed of many native species of tree. The designs of the marquetry appear to have been inspired by specialists in Augsburg, The silver drawn on the bench was brought forth from the previously forested mountains of Saxony. Therefore it might be said that the art, materials, object was absolutely rooted in the land of the Elector of Saxony and therefore representative of a place and time. So, and I haven't yet read it, Thomas DaCosta Kauffman's discussion about kunstgeographie is an interesting proposition. 

Largely discredited after the war, German art scholarship had talked about the nationality of art. As the National Gallery's exhibition states 'today art galleries avoid identifying aesthetic qualities with national character'. But what if? What if the representative of the state and people commission a piece of art? Can I not then say that this piece of art is unique to a time and place? This bench with its emphasis on wood, forest, hunting is so specific to the South German principality of Saxony, that it would be remiss of me not to take this art-geography on board.

Which takes me back to the wild cemetery of Tower Hamlets. These mostly nameless people, dead of romantic dead diseases, lie in an untidy resting place because London politics are too convoluted for anyone to take responsibility for them. The taste cultivated from either the 1760s - or since the Doomsday Book and before - decrees that this is actually a perfect place to contemplate your mortality and realise that everything is transient. Even death.

* John Aberth An environmental history of the middle ages, p139

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