A few months ago, I began an ambitious newsletter about landscape. Landscape and story, or perhaps memory, or even myth, since the three are branches of the same tree.
Naturally, I didn’t get as far as I wished, in fact, not very far at all. As usual, ambition is all very well, but I’m already struggling to keep pace with a company of decidedly determined dwarves; aspirations of other kinds must necessarily be set aside until suitable opportunities for straying off the path present themselves. (More prosaically, the day job is quite intense and the inclination to wander away with other quests in mind often reluctantly needs to be postponed.)
Nevertheless, I spend a good deal of time walking. Usually along the edge of the sea, principally because that’s where wind waves rock and tree do their long dance. Principally because that’s where instant and eternity have the best chance of being juxtaposed.
There are so many images in a landscape, my mind has trouble holding them all, because when you go out walking, you have to take your pictures with you, pack them, along with the water bottle and lunch. Tucked away in the pack is an imaginary catalogue of paintings, engravings, stories and visions, a guide if you like, a vademecum of possibilities.
Now, I’m not trying to fill an album, like those stamps you stick down over a halftone vignette until each page is completed. I’ve not got a list I’m checking twice, I just want the opportunity to seize those coincidences of light and form that evoke inspiration. It’s a way of connecting the dots in reverse. We don’t see things as they are, but as we are.
You see, it’s all about entelechy. Or maybe apophenia. Unless of course, it’s pareidolia. At any rate, it’s about packed lunches. And seeing things.
Sepulcher in Pale and Porphyry
Had Aubrey Beardsley had time or inclination to dabble in colours, I’d like to imagine that he would have chosen suitably sepulchral shades, and perhaps painted a dark and opaque lake, symbolizing the end of magic, as once-shining Excalibur disappears beneath its surface, magic leaving the world.
“Excalibur being reclaimed by the Lady of the Lake”. Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) for the Dent edition (1893-4) of Caxton’s imprint “Le Morte D’Arthur”.
Low land east of White Rock towards Dolphin Bay.
All the paintings I store in my head are myth-landscapes, idealized backgrounds imagined for the purposes of drama and narrative. As such, they are not real, but imagined, inspired in part perhaps by real places, more likely inspired simply by a working knowledge of their elements – sea, sky, forest and field – to create new landscapes unlike any to hand.
And why on earth in New Zealand, which has no real history attached to the land beyond the rich myths of the Maori? Well*, because few countries have acquired simultaneously – and so suddenly – both a real and a mythical presence in the eyes of the modern world. If the spectacular landscape of New Zealand lends itself so perfectly to the unfolding of Bilbo’s adventures and Frodo’s epic journey through the majestic panoramas of Middle Earth, there surely follows a moment to muse on the enduring existence of other enchanted realms, steeped in saga and sorcery, perceived through the prism of a photographer’s lens and an artist’s eye.
Or something like that. Please bear with me. Applied Apophenia and Practical Pareidolia are relatively new disciplines.
All the Wood’s a Stage
The forest is almost a deus ex machina, a stage effect destined to abolish distance by silhouetting itself against the sky, and placing impenetrable depths in front of the horizon, that same distance that separates the hero from other men, that make the difficulties he faces insurmountable for all but a hero. The distortion of space is extraordinary, an infinity can be contained in the dark under the forest eaves. This is of course not measured in miles, but in eons, the perilous wood so dear to modern mythmakers like Robert Holdstock.
“Lancelot approaching the Castle of Astolat”. Illustration by Gustave Doré (1832 – 1883) for The Story of Elaine, the Lily Maid of Astolat, published by E. Moxon, London c. 1879
Woods south of Pukerua Bay
The links between mythology and landscape are particularly strong (to the apopheniac’s perceivably dysmorphic eye) in the peculiar shapes of branches, roots and boulders contorted by fierce winds and torrential rains, twisted and eroded over time. The resultant fanciful associations with ancient lore and legend, often beheld fleetingly from the corner of one’s eye, or at least in a certain way of looking or seeing – the unusual angle, the unexpected approach – offer a more appealing interpretation of their origins than the prosaic explanations of science, although no doubt geologists would disagree. They would be well inspired to; this is about eidos, not erosion; about phantasmagorical structures and sources of legend, not the history of the Earth’s formation.
I’m looking forward to the “outing” – naturally, it will be imagery gleaned over three years of a diligent dilettante’s searching (longer if Peter suddenly decides a tetralogy is more appealing than a trilogy), but I’m hoping that my thoughts will follow my feet not only into real landscapes but into mythical ones, and that the bridges between the two, and the rapprochement with the visions of long-vanished artists (the world in their eyes) will become clear, like the clouds that part, suddenly revealing an unexpected vista.
However, I’m a pertinacious pilgrim. Nonetheless, the day job only leaves weekends free (for now at least) but the signposts are materializing along hitherto trackless pathways, and through the tangled and brambly wilderness of thought and memory a discernible trajectory will eventually emerge. I hope.
I’ve packed a lunch at any rate.
*Well, because I happen to be here, and it is an extraordinary landscape on which one’s own fantasies seem effortless to transpose.
With thanks, as ever, to Ann Carling, for her diligent research and editing.
AND SOMETHING ELSE ENTIRELY
I recently did a stint as contest judge for a digital art community (which was, happily, right up my alley, as the subject was one I enjoy: dragons).
The contest and the results, with my comments, are here. I’d like to thank the organizers for inviting me to take part, and above all, all the talented artists who must have stayed up very very late finishing such lovely work.