Class 2 – Found Landscapes, 17 Feb.
Links, images and my notes from the class are below.
Places of the Mind: British watercolour landscapes, 1850-1950 at British Museum.
Architecture of Landscapes at Arthouse1.
Laura Oldfield Ford at The Showroom.
Where Art Meets Literature symposium at DRAF.
Screening of London Overground at London Transport Museum.
- This can be anything, but what I’d prefer is if there is something you’re working on that includes in part writing about landscape, and we can work on honing that part with some of these strategies
- Whether you’re not sure of what to do, or just want to tell me what you’re going to do, let’s set up a way to communicate this week.
Talk on Found Landscapes: the uncanny and the eerie
I was talking last week about the Unseen Landscapes world into which Nash entered in the early 20th century, and I want to go a bit further into some aspects of that. Nash enters at the tail end of a moment steeped in ideas of antiquity and archaeology, and an uncertain sense of loss. There is an idea floating in the ether, beginning at the end of the 19th C. and continues today, that something once known has been forgotten, and that its remnants haunt the landscapes of Britain.
A few examples:
In many of the best known and best loved of MR James’ stories, the narrative revolves around a piece of antiquity discovered by the protagonist which holds some kind of power which we don’t understand and cannot control. (O Whistle and I’ll Come To You BBC adaptation, or the original story.)
The Old Straight Track, ancient roadways, what would eventually become the spiritualized version of ‘ley lines’.
Excavations at Avebury, Stonehenge: Ruin-Lust
Nash visited Avebury, the spectacular stone circle near to but greatly overshadowing Stonehenge.
We can see some of these interests in antiquity, archaeology and, essentially, ‘the old ways’ in the subjects Nash chooses for some of his photographs…
Remember that the industrial revolution, for all of its advantages, left massive gaps in the psyche of Europe and, in particular, Britain by so rapidly changing the relationship between people and the landscape (among other relationships). One important aspect of this is a radical reversal of the role of memory in our lives, the result being the impression of an intense and rapid forgetting.
The landscape, and in particular the quote-unquote ‘natural’ landscape, plays an important role in this by being a bystander that, in the viewpoint of the artist or writer, has witnessed this drama of forgetting play out, and remains, when allowed to remain extant, as a reminder and a memory-holder.
Ye fields, ye scenes so dear to Lubin’s eye,
Ye meadow-blooms, ye pasture-flowers, farewel!
Ye banish’d trees, ye make me deeply sigh,—
Enclosure came, and all your glories fell:
Even the old oak that crowned yon rifled dell,
Whose age had made it sacred to the view,
Not long was left his children’s fate to tell;
Where ignorance and wealth their course pursue,
Each tree must tumble down—old “Lea-close Oak,” adieu!
– John Clare, “The Village Minstrel,” verse 96.
Clare loves trees as much as Nash, and writes of them as secret-keepers and memory totems; the oak whose ‘age had made it sacred to the view’, for example. He and Nash both personify trees – Nash says that he paints trees as if they were people; believes, in fact, that they are, in a way – and Clare regrets the passing of them and their memories. Nash paints wood eerily, as archetypes, broken off from the trees, signifying not just the wood or the trees but what those trees knew – what they have seen, which in all likelihood, we haven’t – and its disassociation and dissolution.
What we discover then, at the triumph of modernity into which Nash enters, is a corner of the culture that feels a profound sense of loss though it knows not for what. And in a world in which objects and people are becoming reversed in their life expectancy – people required to remember things, as opposed to vice-versa – there is an extra sense of importance and intensity given to objects, whether they are part of the landscape or simply placed within it, that don’t have a temporal setting; objects that signify some attachment to another time, and which signal to us the once-presence of something else.
Schopenhauer wrote that, in moments of nostalgia, ‘Time mocks us by wearing the mask of space; and if we travel to the spot, we can see how much we have been deceived.’
We become nostalgic for something about a physical site, but are quickly disillusioned once we discover that time has changed that physical site and none of our memories are quick there. What Nash is seeking in this quote we mentioned last week is a new kind of artistic alchemy that can release the magical potential of the landscape, often through objects. The alchemy of the landscape is to forge an equation that negates Schopenhauer’s: that, actually, we can discover memory within the landscape by replacing nostalgia with mythology.
Myfanwy Evans wrote of Paul Nash that he had “no interest in the past as past, but in the accumulated intenseness of the past as present.” Of this, Michael Bracewell has said: ‘Nash’s work establishes a relationship with the landscape as history, and the identification of a slippage between two states, the past and the present, that becomes a central tenet of British art’s relationship with the presence of magic in the modern world.’
One way that Nash represented this intenseness was with found objects. Certainly in his photographs, but also in his paintings, in which objects found in the landscape – either real or imagined but archetypal such as in Swanage – become the lightning rod; the manifestation of that intenseness. These ‘Found Landscapes’ are totemic references to an eerie or uncanny presence in the landscape.
The uncanny, according to Freud, is that which is simultaneously familiar and terrible. Another way it’s been described, however, is – to probably mangle the concept – the secret of the home which shouldn’t have been revealed, yet has been.
In terms of landscape, I tend to think of this uncanny status as being related to the dualistic view of humanity and nature: that ‘natural’ and ‘man-made’ are separate things. And we can see that in some of Nash’s photographs, in which he frames a single found object within a landscape. The idea of an uncanny landscape such as in Nash’s photographs is that this place which should be ‘home’ is suddenly rendered ‘off’.
How can we do the same thing in writing?
But if the uncanny is that familiar turned inexplicably horrifying – a revealed secret that should’ve remained unrevealed; a shibboleth that should’ve remained unspoken; the terror of the double, of the rearranged, of lapses in nature and temporality – then the eerie is about that which remains concealed, if just barely. Eeriness is that feeling of being watched by an unknown force, be it benign or malevolent.
Nash uses his totemic found objects, in part, to represent an intensity of feeling and memory associated with a place – the accumulation of pasts, the landscape as palimpsest. And he uses them to ground us; to stake us into a particular place in a way that modernity has loosed us from.
[[Berger quote, up/down axis]]
Again: How can we do the same thing in writing?
Roger Cardinal writes that, in Nash’s later work, ‘an object must be encouraged to disclose its magical affinities with other objects lest it collapse into nullity.’ There’s something powerful to be learned here as a writer: that it is through intense working and reworking of the anomalous aspects of a landscape – any place, any setting, really – that we can release these uncanny and eerie affinities that allow a landscape to perform its real duties: not to be the background to our work, but to be, in fact, the work itself.
One way he does it is by creating images of ‘poised’ (rather than ‘posed’) objects: inanimate objects, unused tools, non-drifting driftwood, falling and fallen tree limbs that are visualized in a manner that implies their actions and uses while allowing them to remain uncanny or eerie in their inaction.