“The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
from Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, 1798 by William Wordsworth
After a visit to John Piper: The Mountains of Wales – Paintings and Drawings from a Private Collection (exhibition at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff until 13 May) I started thinking about what mountain landscapes have meant to us in art and culture. Piper’s Neo Romantic 1940’s images represent the remnants of the 18th century tradition of the ‘sublime’, dark and gloomy, another realm. This is also the darker Tolkien vision of Mordor inspired by the Llanberis slate quarries of North Wales. These mountains emphasize the insignificance of man, an ‘other’ but of a forbidding kind, somewhere to escape from rather than to, although the notion of being uplifted is there in the original meaning of the sublime.
Mountains as a source of liberation, and of spiritual enlightenment drew the next generation. I remember my mother telling stories of her evacuation from Cardiff to the Rhondda valley during World War 2 and how she roamed the surrounding hills – an escape from urban life and also presumably from parental supervision.
David Hockney, with his move to California, was to follow Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac in finding mountains a road to enlightenment as well as an escape from convention and restriction. Enlightenment was to be found in Oriental spiritualism and transposed to their home landscapes. Their emphasis was generally on the airiness and openness of the landscape rather than the heavy oppressiveness of the earlier sublime. Snyder translated the Chinese Cold Mountain poems of Han Shan:
“I settled at Cold Mountain long ago,
Already it seems like years and years.
Freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams
And linger watching things themselves.
Men don’t get this far into the mountains,
White clouds gather and billow.
Thin grass does for a mattress,
The blue sky makes a good quilt.
Happy with a stone under head
Let heaven and earth go about their changes.”
I was struck by the fact that nearly all the landscapes in Hockney’s Royal Academy exhibition, apart from his Yorkshire ones, were of mountains. From ‘Flight into Italy – Swiss Landscape’ of 1962 and ‘Rocky Mountains and Tired Indians’ of 1965 to the vast horizontal canvases of the Grand Canyon accompanied by photocollages the road journey is writ large.
Although his very recent vast vertical iPad prints of Yosemite are shown in a narrow space where they do bear down on the viewer, these do also have the feel of Chinese scroll paintings with wreaths of mist around pines and rock cliffs.
“Such moments when Mind and Matter hold perfect communion,
And wide vistas open to regions hitherto entirely barred,
Will come with irresistible force,
And go, their departure none can hinder.
Hiding, they vanish like a flash of light;
Manifest, they are like sounds arising in mid air.”
from ‘Of inspiration’ in Lu Chi’s essay on Literature, translated by Shih-hsiang Chen in the Penguin Classic ‘Anthology of Chinese Literature’.
My mountain landscapes then were Wales though and the Lake District. Spiritual interests verged into the Celtic as a result and I did a series on stone circles.
Later I was to explore the American landscapes of the Rocky Mountains and New Mexico as well as the Blue Ridge Mountains, including Chimney Rock Park where the film ‘Last of the Mohicans’ was filmed. By this time Native American spiritualism was more of an influence. Interestingly the book ‘Cold Mountain’ by Charles Frazier and the real mountain it is based on are also in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The locations for the film version however were mainly in Romania.
I only have a few recent ‘mountainscapes’ and these seem to reflect a renewed interest in the more ethereal and non specific.
- David Hockney’s landscapes: the wold is not enough (guardian.co.uk)
- Poets on Peaks, a Dharma thing (thewhimsey.wordpress.com)