This month, I’m writing words and posting images relating to the landscape of memory. I hope to write poems most days and also share photos, quotes, and more prosaic thoughts related in some way to memory, nostalgia, longing for place, remembering and forgetting, landscape, dreamscape, landscape’s memory and memory’s landscape, the intersection of the layered historical physical world with personal memory, the frames that both landscape and memory use to contain and order our focus, the landscape of childhood, the landscape of devastation, how memories lie and tell the truth, the fragmentation of memory, how landscapes shape us and our memories, and so on. All the posts will be linked to the Introductory Page as they are posted. Thanks for visiting.
Today, I’ve got a messy tangle of thoughts about landscape, landscape painting & impressionism, photography, Arcadia (Western idealised landscape), and memory, beginning with a bit of background on the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, a Danish-French Impressionist painter living from 1830 to 1903, the only artist to have shown work at all eight Paris ‘Impressionist’ exhibitions (held from 1874 -1886), a father figure and master for many Impressionists and all four of the major Post-Impressionists: Georges Seurat, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin.
Pissarro was born on the island of St. Thomas (then part of the Danish West Indies) to French-Jewish parents, attending otherwise all-black schools until being sent to boarding school near Paris. He returned to the island at 17, worked as a cargo clerk and drew in his spare time, then travelled with another Dutch artist to Venezuela to sketch for a couple of years before moving to France to draw and paint, eventually seeking out Camille Corot, a pivotal French landscape painter, as a tutor. Corot inspired Pissarro to paint ‘plein air’; as Pissarro later explained it to a student,
“Work at the same time upon sky, water, branches, ground, keeping everything going on an equal basis and unceasingly rework until you have got it. Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression.”
In fact, while Corot reworked his paintings in his studio afterward, “often revising them according to his preconceptions” (per Wikipedia), Pissarro finished his outdoors, usually in one sitting, giving them a more realistic feel. Sometimes his work was criticised as ‘vulgar,’ because he painted what he saw: “rutted and edged hodgepodge of bushes, mounds of earth, and trees in various stages of development.”
I find when I photograph landscapes and other outdoors scenes that I unconsciously seek the conventionally beautiful shot, the one with the light just so, the most aesthetically pleasing frame and subject matter, the nicely composed one, the one that doesn’t show the bramble, the tangle, the trees knocked hither and thither, cars and trash bins in the foreground, and so on.
That is, unless I look for a kind of landscape of devastation, or the vernacular landscape, and then I see it, and I appreciate it as beautiful, too, both for its outward appearance, and for the devastation or banality itself.
Similarly, perhaps, memory: We may seek to construct or frame a plausible, well-balanced landscape, an orderly story of an experience (or a series of experiences, a relationship, a life), and we may even return to our memory-making studios to make it so, revising the experience(s) to match our preconceptions, a la Corot, and this task is made easier because as time moves on we have inevitably lost the first impression, the feeling and sensory observations of that moment, the experience of what we saw. We tend, I think, in memory to unconsciously tidy up our first impressions, add and subtract brushstrokes to create a more harmonious, fathomable, unambiguous picture.
I used to toss my blurry photos until I realised that although they were not coherent images, I liked many of them anyway, and maybe that’s because they remind me of my memory, which blurs and blends time and place into an uncertain wavering haze of colour, texture, pattern. “Lost to the mists of time” sounds a bit mysterious, as though antiquity and the modern world have woven a veil to obscure memory’s landscape.
After the conventional artists’ Salon of the day rejected all their paintings at their 1866 exhibition, Pissarro and some younger artists — including Monet, Manet, Berthe Morisot, Renoir, Degas, Cézanne, and later Gustave Caillebotte, Paul Gauguin, and American painter Mary Cassatt — formed an alternative group, which sponsored a total of eight exhibitions from 1874 to 1886. Their first exhibition shocked and horrified the critics with their “vulgar” and “commonplace” subject matter, such as scenes of street people going about their everyday lives, and their sketchy and incomplete-looking painting (visible brushwork, oh my!).
At first this group of painters was known as ‘Independents’ or the ‘Intransigents’, but by the time of the third exhibit, in 1877, they adopted the name that one critic had given them in 1874, the Impressionists.
Of Pissarro’s work in the 3rd Impressionist Exhibition, where he displayed 22 paintings, the art critic Louis de Fourcaud (writing as Léon de Lora in Le Gaulois) said:
“Seen up close, they are hideous and incomprehensible; seen from a distance, they are incomprehensible and hideous.”
Here are a few of those paintings:
To use Fourcaud’s description of Pissarro’s landscapes, my memories are certainly incomprehensible, and perhaps even hideous, in some senses of the word: grim, macabre, weird, incongruous, unnatural, unlovely. They’re messy — incomplete, sketchy, unresolved, unfocused — which is what I think art critics reacted to when they looked at Pissarro’s paintings in the 3rd exhibition. He was painting what he saw and felt, his impression, not adding or removing elements to create another, perhaps more comprehensible, impression altogether.
I like this idea of impressionism, of allowing the initial sensory impression of the moment, the experience, to reach the mind, body, and soul, to pay close attention to it — messy though it may be, both ordered & chaotic, appealing and repellent, ambiguous — even though it will be overtaken inevitably by layering experiences that alter the first impression.
Memory begins in the moment of the original event, but it doesn’t really end there. In that way it’s not like an impressionist painting (or most paintings, which are painted and finished), though it might be like our experience of a painting, which changes each time we view it, because we have changed.
In Matthew Stadler’s novel Landscape: Memory (199), a character is painting a landscape he had seen several years earlier:
“The painting develops slowly, over time, as Maxwell recalls and explores his memory. As he paints, he confronts the discrepancy between the view of memory as a static reproduction and what his own experience is telling him. He writes: . . . ‘if my memory ought to be an accurate replica of the original experience, if that was so, my painting was hopelessly inaccurate. It was a bad painting of a fuzzy memory. But I preferred to think that memory is never frozen, nor should it be. My painting was a successful rendering of the dynamic memory that had simply begun with the original event. . . . My painting, I figured, was so very accurate in its depiction of this memory that it would inevitably look wrong when compared to the original model.’” (in “Memory and Landscape in the Work of James Wright” by Richard P. Gabriel)
Simon Schama, in his tome Landscape and Memory (1995), writes about the ideal of arcadia, an idealised outdoor place, often a landscaped place (even when attempting to imitate the wildness of wilderness):
“There have always been two kinds of arcadia: shaggy and smooth, dark and light; a place of bucolic leisure and a place of primitive panic. … Arguably, both kinds of arcadia, the idyllic as well as the wild, are landscapes of the urban imagination, though clearly answering to different needs. It’s tempting to see the two arcadias perennially defined against each other; from the idea of the park (wilderness or pastoral) to the philosophy of the front yard (industrially kempt or drifted with buttercups and clover); civility and harmony or integrity and unruliness? … But as unreconcilable as the two ideas of arcadia appear to be, their long history suggests that they are, in fact, mutually sustaining.”
Over centuries the Western conception of the idealised landscape bounces back and forth between “something approaching Versailles, with clipt hedges and trellis work” (as Horace Walpole sneered), a place of bucolic contentment, sheep grazing placidly in the trimmed parkland, and on the other side the forest of Fontainebleau, a sort of forest primeval of “hollows, dark valleys, the thickest woods,” where denseness, darkness, shadows, and danger lurked, “a place that might be rugged or treacherous. ‘If scarcely picturesque,’ wrote [Etienne Pivert de] Senancour [in 1833], then the silence and … the ‘mute waste’ corresponded nicely to the state of his soul.”
In a June 1995 New York Times article by Mel Gussow titled “Into Arcadia With Simon Schama,” Central Park in Manhattan is suggested to represent “the double-sided nature of the Arcadian concept. The dreamlike version is, [Schama] said, ‘a place of effortless bucolic sweetness, where you can lie on your back and smell the grass while there’s a faint noise of people hitting balls with bats.’ The nightmare version is ‘a slightly scary, sinister, dense place of sex and death.'” Apparently, this was how Frederick Law Olmsted and his collaborator, Calvert Vaux, planned it, both “rugged, fierce, luxuriant” and a place of “silence, peace and repose.”
(above, images of Central Park)
The word landscape, Schama says, “originally came from the Dutch and had to do with making pictures. From the earliest time, it has been loaded with wishful thinking. All the images we have of Yosemite are of Edenic places’ .…”
“Mr. Schama recently did a five-part series based on his book for the BBC, with the last film dealing with Arcadia. It begins with a landscape that could be either England or Italy: ‘Haze over the meadow, sheep nibbling grass. Then the camera pulls back. The first line you hear me say, not from the book, is, “Arcadia has always been a pretty lie.” That’s because of the notion that there’s nobody around doing any of the work. The camera pans back and shows an abandoned tea party which has been invaded by insects.'”
“Memory is both beautiful and deceptive, both sweet and perilous. It need not be any one thing” — Troy Jollimore in the New York Times, Nov. 2019, reviewing Charles Wright’s Oblivion Banjo
Featured image: impressionistic photo of spouse on island in frozen Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire, 22 Feb. 2015