This is a virtual presentation of a paper in progress by Prof. David Crouch. Please do not quote without permission from the author
The fluidity of the thing we call landscape
David Crouch, University of Derby
In this paper I combine a consideration of the art work, particularly the paintings, of Peter Lanyon, currently showing 2015-6 at Tate Modern London, with a critical approach to the limitations of Designed ‘landscapes’. Both Lanyon and another subject of my interest, allotment holders, cultivate spaces. Lanyon even referred to his rhythms of gardening, a spade in the earth, as bearing similarities with the rhythms of wielding a brush at a large canvas. Making a painting can be making a landscape; plotholders make theirs, too, literally and metaphorically. My ideas concerning each of these cases kindled from impatience with an identification of landscape with particular early periods of formalised landscape painting and the landscaped gardens of the wealthy, yet more influenced my attention.
I came to allotments through a discovery, first of my own experience in cultivation, then through friends’ allotments and their combination of lives, being close to the earth and a shared approach to what they were doing. I came across Lanyon’s painting by chance and discovered the feel of great resonance in the ways in which Lanyon communicated his relationship with what surrounded him. The two landscapes that I equate here are focused in understanding landscape as our sensuous, felt expressive poetics of being alive and doing and emerging in a nuanced, complex and interrupted atmosphere of their relationships with earth, other life; human beings in their own creativity. Lanyon, not only in his paintings of his experience of encounters when gliding but in his work through the middle years of the nineteenth century alongside people who tend a plot of earth create landscape through what they do, both metaphorically and materially. Their landscapes, changing as any other, are fluid, part-instructed and part in a commingling in their atmospheres. The paper thus considers a wider metaphoric frame of how landscape occurs and is conveyed in people’s voices.
My investigations include allotment gardening, caravanning, the making of community maps and diverse work in the arts, and into the particular space-practice of professional artists, most notably Peter Lanyon (Crouch and Toogood 1999). I consider the artist as a human being, living and feeling. For example, allotments appeal because they challenge the earlier geographical focus on an idea of ‘landscape’, human-other relations, feelings and freedoms. Landscape, for example, had come to be conceptualised as something of paintings in a depictive form of correspondence, of heavily-invested ‘designed’ gardens in so-called ‘great’ estates of the landed. Allotments present a popular participation in affecting space through their distinctive atmospheres literally and figuratively ‘on the ground’ (1997). I introduce insights from these works along the way.
During an exhibition of my abstracted landscape paintings some years ago I was bemused and amused by a couple who looked at them, turned and looked out of the window at sloping hillsides across the road. Their expression was ‘isn’t that a lovely landscape’
The Berkeley landscape geographer who wrote about vernacular landscapes J.B.Jackson wondered ‘Why is it that we have trouble agreeing on the meaning of landscape? The word is [seems] simple enough, and it refers to something we think we understand; and yet to each of us it seems to mean something different.’ He was addressing fellow scholars yet it might equally have spoken to the wide public, the ‘lay reader’ as it were. I suggest that what is often regarded as landscape actually amounts to landshapes.
In this paper I intend to examine the ways through which landscape occurs, although that does require some account of what it is that occurs in landscape. it is also a matter of meaning; what vibes we feel in relation to our surroundings, about values and attitudes therefrom, even the meanings it goes through in the process. I engage several authors who have seasoned my own interpretations.
Peirce and semiEotice, see Ness
Most recently, the anthropologist Sally Ness has drawn my attention more deeply towards the twentieth century philosopher Charles Peirce. Ness’s new book on visitors acting and finding meaning in the Yosemite follows Peirce’s ideas on the ways in which we grasp, literally and metaphorically, the world around us, intimate or expansive. His interests were not in the rigidity of of the way ‘signs’ in our surroundings lead to particular readings. Rather, signs are multi-sensual and similarly available for us to gain feeling and mould meaning. Too often the visual of landscapes is prioritised, the fixed gaze in particular. Ness points to the multi-sensual character of our tactile engagement with what surrounds us. That engagement, however fleeting, is one in which we participate, and multiple feelings can occur in the process. Memory, sensual presence; our emotions at the moment commingle with shards of film, TV, music, art and conversations with but also silent being-with friends and others. Peirce called his way of thinking this through a mode he called semEiotic, rather than the more sign-limited semiotics.
Thus we slip from thinking of the Designer as the fountain of creativity in a landscape to another, fuller world of creativity that is the individual in ways shared with other, human and otherwise. of thinking reveals that everyone and anyone engages in creativity in the very encounter with those landshapes, habitats, buildings and so on.
Landscaped gardens are landscapes in the sense that they too are the outcome of human-nature/landshapes relationships commingling and being made in a presentation, a display, as a show. Yet this free range of feeling and expression drawn from the creativity of the Designer is limited. Indeed, particular periods of landscape design tend to be rigidly constrained, confined in particular rules in each historical timeframe. Moreover they tend to bear no relation to that relationship with the where; the nature and landshapes themselves, and intentionally so. From these constraints it is expected of us that we will seek to comply with those rules in our experience of them. Land, soil and rock, even the population of a village, are dragged away or to another destination; what replaces them can be imported; what was there with which to relate is gone. In art, traditionally its purpose with landscape was representations and correspondence. Turner in particular took this to expressing its poetics.
In an interview in the book Politics and Letters the author and cultural observer Raymond Williams expressed his being unable, on entering the grounds of a landed estate, to avoid reflecting on their frequent background of colonialism with its accompanied slavery, and the ways in which numerous amongst the poor, living as it were the other side of the world from any of these estates, suffered from the low price of alcohol, in the form of gin due to the overproduction of corn, along with the lack of clean water to drink. This certainly echoes my own experience with these places.
The writer and poet John Berger could have been thinking of allotments when he wrote in A Fortunate Man:
‘Sometimes the landscape seems to be less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place. For those who, with its inhabitants, are behind the curtain, the landmarks are no longer geographic but personal.’
Similarly, in his book of essays About Looking: ‘the field that you are standing before appears to have the same proportions as your own life.’ In these words Berger releases landscape from its entrapment in the gaze. Instead, it is revealed to be multiple, commingling. We find our doings, our feelings and our lives resonating in what we encounter as well as our own rhythms through which we do so.
Similarly, the poetic philosopher Bachelard p12
‘… we cover the universe in drawings we have lived.’ Metaphorically he was expressing how we bring ourselves to landscape.
Rhythms are important in cultivation. Raymond Williams expressed this closely in his partly autobiographical book Border Country:
‘One cold afternoon a strip was being made ready for the first planting of runner beans. When he thought it was done, Will fetched the beans and the line, but his grandfather had started raking the strip again, moving incredibly slowly, raking and raking the earth until it seemed he was trying to change its nature. Already there was nothing larger than a marble, but still, endlessly, the raking and fining went on. Though he said nothing, Will doubted whether in the growing it would make any difference. It was less this, he thought, that some ritual of service….. the jobs which satisfied (Will) were those involving an immediate, sharp effect – hauling at a grubbed root, heaving a load of leaves to the heap forcing along a heavy bundle of sticks. To (his grandfather) there seemed all the time in the world, though already the blue damp valley was thickening, and evening was drawing along the valley.’
Williams felt the silent power of rhythmic ritual in the doing, the seasons and weather in his observation of his grandfather, interposed in a largely fictional novel set not far from where he grew up. It is closely felt and familiarly witnessed; observed and felt in equal silence by the semi-autobiographic character Will. He projects onto the ageing man what he knows of him, and renders the feel of the man himself. He attends to the pieces of soil down to its very fragments with the crops it will yield in mind, making it ready. He holds the rake as a friend, relying on his steady rhythm that speaks his respect for the work the rake shares. His ritual of service deepens his respect for all that occurs in this small piece of ground. In changing the nature of the ground the gardener bends the earth in favour of the seeds, yet perhaps only enough for its needs. Indeed, these are very direct and explicit encounters, very close-up. Will’s feel for all this is hesitant because he is aware that his own, younger way of doing things is more robust and vigorous, feeling the pressure of time in a different way. Another kind of rhythm and movement, it is more demonstrably physical, but also it is changing the nature of the stuff of the ground, making it go to or be something different from if he did not attend to it, yet at the same time assisting nature’s survival. Being close to the earth entertains negotiation: leaving plants to grow unruly, worms to do their work. The distinctive feature of cultivation is in being close up.
Our moments of landscape creativity come when we lean up from a bending job, suddenly realising our surroundings, our landscape put together in our own emotion. In this lies the aesthetic of the allotment, a tumble of feelings, of things ‘out there’ but also inside us, composed in our own way. In his lines ‘and trellises of redly flowering beans’ the poet Tomlinson points to the visual delight of one of the crops his father grew and tended that also became a metaphor of memory for him. Something of that tending emerges, conveyed in the poem in contrast with the place that smoked like hell along the industrial valley below the plot. The allotment is a richly growing, productive place; a hiding place; welcoming, fecund and alive. These components of the wider aesthetics in the steps of cultivation may not be for the gardening manual, but they are our own. They combine visual assessment with the wider feeling of doing.
The allotment is a space of so many things: materials, growing, actions, friendships. It is a landscape of production and recreation; and an annex to the kitchen. There is a seasonal dynamic to the landscape. In this there is also variation in human activity and plotholders affect the experience of things. This is a distinct aesthetics that combines the activity, the relations, the feelings, the values at play: love, hard work, effort, care; the investment and return of more than just time.
Typically landscape is depicted, imagined as without figures, and a landscape not possible if it is a working landscape. Yet landscape occurs or happens in and through our lives, our living. The paintings that Van Gogh made did not erase the labour and bent bodies of people working the land. To present the landscape the plotholder makes, their labour and their feelings can be grasped in what they have done. Landscape happens when we express our feeling in relation with it and its component life, materials, movements and so on, and returns us back to thinking through the experience and feel of working close to the earth. We express it in tending the plot, dragging the end-of-year runner beans to the compost heap, piling a stack of manure, double digging; in all the work to be done, as well as the contemplative joy of simply taking a break. It is also made in conversation back home with family and friends, with other holders and beyond. We might even make a mental sketch of things comprising all that we sense, a kind of composing or composting what we feel.
Imposing character through design presumed that over recent centuries ‘ordinary people’ leant gardening from plant collectors and the gardens of the owners of landed estates and their huge houses that were made by the garden designers for their wealthy owners. These influences on popular awareness were underpinned by paintings of those lands that came to be iconic landscapes. I wonder if this was the case. May it not be more likely that threads and continuities of what, how and where to grow emerged through what was going on more locally, in the modest, even humble home garden, the allotment, the ordinary unromanticised cottage gardens, each with their own mixture of locally flowering herbs amidst crops and tolerated wild flowers transported by birds or self-sown? Learning through experience and what makes sense can be too often overlooked. These home gardeners cultivated rather than Designed, in much the same way as plotholders do now. Friends and family and of course neighbouring plotholders have a further influence, pervasive, more intimate and given with growing tips more likely to suit our ground.
The diarist, journalist and allotment holder Michael Hyde wondered:
‘It is perhaps a pity that Capability Brown gave his entire life to beautifying the vast acres surrounding those eighteenth-century stately homes. Our debt to him might then have been even greater if he had devoted a little of his undoubted genius to the designing of his own back garden. He would, I feel sure, have ousted the fashion of planting vegetables in long rows, as being too formal and Italianate. He would have planted them in clumps. Reached by labyrinthine paths….’.
Hyde wrote with humour, and this is an example of that humour’s irony.
Manor Gardens, in Stratford, East London had to be erased for the London Olympics in 2012. A huge swathe of land along the city’s Lea Valley became part of a landscaping scheme. It just happened that there was an allotment site, very well cultivated by its plotholders, amidst this larger area. The designers considered it to be in the way, perhaps because they feared its marks of individualism. It was cleared away and the remaining emptiness added into the wider grand scheme. They felt therefore that the site had become landscaped. The designers lacked a grasp of the liveliness and rich texture that the well maintained site could offer their bland effort. A new site was provided out of the way. The site cleared, the plotholders had to leave. Their allotments gone, their years of cultivation there were lost.
The landscape that is felt emerges through the felt character of doing. Landscape can feel intense or calm; soft or powerful, borne in and through our own imagination in feelings of belonging and also of detachment. To ‘feel’ landscape reveals the poetry of our engagement with or in the world around us. It is a way to imagine one`s place in the world. The aesthetics of allotments is less in the view than in the doing; it is not done primarily for display. Landscape as part of a process that emerges in our practice, in what we do. A landscaped garden has been through such a process, yet in particular ways, resembling the demeanour of a trainee surveyor; purely objective, detached.
Allotments transcend the many details that are found across the plots and give a kind of glow that transcends the gaze we make, perhaps especially in the warm light of summer. The feeling can vary through the year. This is a special kind of landscape. The feeling is one that is up close; an impression of commingling with the vegetation and its fruits, supporting twigs, in smells and touch.
In my painting Picking Peas I sought to express something of the feeling of being amongst the crops themselves. I had been feeling around the pea plants, head down, my hands searching for the swelling pods amongst the supporting sticks and the fresh green leaves that surrounded me, brushing against me with the promise of the crop.
Yet feelings for familiar somewheres we encounter can be suddenly very different, surprising, disorientating. It was the unexpected that caused the mid twentieth century abstraction artist Peter Lanyon to feel a deep admiration in disorientation. He discovered a deep reviving emotion as he visited places he knew very well, had walked from childhood, finding home-places vibrate in him in a very different way. He visited and revisited a series of his familiar haunts in Cornwall’s western tip. Sometimes the change of colour and register in his encounter owed something to the weather, an intense wetting of the ground interrupting footfall or a momentary swerve of the wind. It would occur also due to a change of his own temperament. The old haunts he now came across ‘unawares’, as though he had never been there before, never sketched them endlessly: they were no longer secure in the feelings he found. He produced some of his most stirring images in this way, from these feelings. I don’t think that it is duration of immersion or repetitions of visits that sculpt the security of an embedded retrospective encounter.
Lanyon throws himself into the spaces where he is also participating, contributing in making and doing:
“The sea was piling in on the shore, the waves on top of one another, almost as if one were seeing it through a telephoto lens, the high tall waves behind the shorter ones in-shore … I walked along the beach and this was on my right hand side at that time. Then I climbed up onto the Western Hill via the rocks so that the sea descended to my right and then I went up the side of the Western Hill, behind the rocks. The sea then became something down beside my feet.”
He would roll over, bend to tie his shoelaces, in a way purposefully to alert him to the changing shapes, colours, movement changing the forms and juxtapositions around him. Lines on his paintings refer particularly to the shifting, smearing marks of movement rather than boundaries.
Lanyon’s most loved artistic inspiration was in Turner. Turner loosened from the rules; let open his feelings; felt the colours and the working of shapes that were, to him, alive. Lanyon disparaged the term landscape in painting because he was after the encircling eruptions, gentle and strong. He called them environments.
“The sea section becomes more amorphous, the hill more structured … Cubist … The whole thing becomes blue, with a little sea on the right hand side … land at left; little ‘bits’ of sea at the other three sides … . I found an ease … I found that things were happening, that flowers looking at me were actually happening … things were stronger, that a car, for instance, sitting by a house had an extraordinary sitting power. A gate was agitated with its bars, that a house was standing up gaunt beside me that the road as I went back up into the town was hedged either side, but the sea was on one side, and was blowing up over the hedge and all the small grasses were moving, moving with a curious blowing, twisting dropping action. Now, that’s the sign to me that there is a fusion, that there is an interest being created that connects this thing growing in yourself. I can pin it to the place as it were, and the place clicks with me … to establish itself in time and space.”
The space is not merely a painting or construction; it is in the swirl of affects – even of an unsettled gate, his attitudes concerning the terrible experience of miners in terrible conditions of labour and the owners who pressed these onto them; along with his recall of geological history, that also stirs his feeling, makes its affects and their effects are felt.
Unlike the plotholders Lanyon was, of course, an artist, trained to observe, assess and interpret. But he mined his own way of doing things. His particular abstraction in both his art and his talk of what was happening is penetrating and well honed. He was committed to communication. More self-conscious interpretation of his own atmospheres is to be expected. However, it is in amongst the elements to which he refers, in his own body-movement, tensions and intensities; his vertigo-driven over-sensitivities, perhaps; his awareness of his relation between body and rock, sea and so on that, stripping back the explicitness of actions, doings, memory, identity and feelings it is possible to enunciate something of the articulations and relationalities that, instead of the interpretation once pervasive in art thinking of formal relationships, animate the way he is feeling space, through wandering and touching; imagining, making expression of feeling through the materials of artworking. Sites and spaces with which he was long familiar he ‘came across umawares’, in a day of different feeling. He threw himself, both literally and metaphorically, into his ‘environments’, rolling on the ground, bending to tie his shoelaces, turning and feeling the changing wind as well the ‘movement’ of what was around him. His space and spacing were done with both feet, and not with the objective visually-led measurement of either the Renaissance painter or the trainee surveyor.
In different ways, these individual stories each articulate the feeling of the individual in relationally with a whole web of evident liveliness that overspills classical confinement of process and practice. intimate lives, wide concerns and values; little fruits, oppression, small wonders; memory unsettling, discomfort and exhilaration of salty winds, bending, turning, even rolling over, feeling part of a collective practice and … in all of the gaps between these things there is the spark, multiple, commingling and colliding, breaking, splitting, smoothing. Across this diverse gathering of voices it is possible to track the meshwork and expression of doing and feeling, and its expressive poetics. This is how landscape occurs. Belonging or disorientation can come with it.
I have sought to develop something of an understanding of the vibrancy of the occurrence of landscape. Lives and feelings feature prominently in this narrative because I think they do in the unpicking of landscape evoked in the words, mood, feelings, values and attitudes of the individuals who appear here, appear in life witnessed in participatory observation. It is easy to impose our thoughts upon what others say and do, move and reflect, and my guilt may be shared here. Yet it is in the intimate attention to what and how something is said and done, whispered and avoided, that it becomes possible to offer a story of landscape in our lives and that of others. This creative liveliness of our participation in making landscape with here and there, unsung or not, happens in a matter of flirting, in which the swirl of things acts upon us and vice versa. Unstable, fluid
In an article for The Clearing I wrote about my trip to Iceland, often regarded as a magical place full of wonder. For me, on this visit, I found it the bleak side of awe:
Each morning before breakfast I walked outside my lodging. The wind seared my wakefulness and my feet studied the damp and slippery ground. Yet the sky was friendly, blue-cool; smiling with me. Being surrounded by thick-bodied slabs of rock on almost three sides crowded me in, half blocked out the austere beauty of their steep slopes; with their three strip colours helped by the sunshine: grey-brown, yellow and white at the top. I felt strangely in the presence of broad spaces, but still hemmed in. Each component, in its distinctive features, broods with the potential of feeling ravishing. Yet each refuses me – or I am insensitive to, or self-protective of its poetics. I came away with fragments of feeling: impressions, recollections, but little elation. Those sites I had visited do not ‘come to life’ in my memory. No heightened awareness that might be called spiritual, no stirring energy.
I can ‘set’ a place for once and for all, coloured in feelings and depth. Yet even the ‘for all’ can be agitated. Once calm, almost avuncular, it can become unsettled in my mood. The sought after memories shuffle. I can lay it back into its familiarity and suspect secure repetition. This ‘laying to rest’ in Iceland did happen in little moments, as in my early morning walks near the north coast. Yet to recall that is difficult. I work at it; agitation and that sense of bleakness return and almost overwhelm. Those flickers turn out to be unreliable: a landfold, reverberations of life, stumpy trees, grass blowing, an awareness of gentle movement. Of course, the poetics of or, perhaps, in landscape can be solemn too.
We discover, cultivate and agitate a feeling of landscape, as it grows, in us. We can bask in it; we may seek to hold onto it in a way we particularly value. It may recur in our experience elsewhere. Comparisons can influence the feeling of each other. Over time in different situations that way we wanted to value it may change.
Art and everyday life act in dynamic conversation. Landscape emerges in the commingling of many things. Sight is there, but along with all our senses, our emotional feel at the time. As Ness writes, it is possible, perhaps always, to discover our encounters as beyond the limits of prescribed acts and their feelings, and in ‘a realm of pure experience’. Touch and the sound of landscape emerge and merge with memories, popular everyday talk amongst friends, wider culture. Landscape occurs in felt smudges, smears, kaleidoscope, a multi-sensual expressive poetics of potential becoming afresh. It all comes from the expression of individuals in the way they work the ground. This can be a creative process that comes through a responsive attitude and feeling towards land, growing, landscape. Landscape is a flexible, fluid process that can happen in everyday life anywhere, any time and through the way we relate to what is around us, what we notice and its sites, in a manner of flirting; often tentative, hesitant, working something out. Hence we flirt with landscape, in landshapes to create landscape in our expressive poetics. As one plotholder said to me that the enjoyment is ‘to be outside seeing the way seasons affect the earth, how important rain is. What happens when the sun shines, it makes us real’. The possibility of landscape is constantly available, changing with our own actions, relations and feeling.