25 February 2018

Consider The Olive Tree


















"Nobody knows how long it takes to kill an olive.
Drought, axe, fires, admitted failures.  Hack one down,
grub out a ton of mainroot for fuel, and  next spring
every side-root send up shoots.  A great frost
can leave the trees seedless for years; they revive.
Invading armies will fell them.  They return
through the burnt-out ribs of siege machines.

Only the patient goat, nibbling its way down the ages
has malice to master the olive. Sometimes, they say,
a man finds an orchard, fired and goat-cropped
centuries back.  He settles and fences;
The stumps revive.  His grandchildren family prosper
by the arduous oil-pressing trade.  Then wars
and disease wash over.  Goats return.  The olives
go under, waiting another age.

Their shade lies where Socrates disputed.
Gethsemane's withered groves are bearing yet."

 -  "The Olive Tree" by Mark O'Connor, Collected Poems, Alexandria, (N.S.W.), Hale & Iremonger: 2000.

Perhaps it was because I had been thinking about olive trees, but when I looked at Robin Gowen's painting Shades of Shadows VI, I  thought what a civilized landscape.   The trees and, even more, the hedgerow in the background at right are signs of a well tended meadow.   And the light washing over everything could easily be the light in Provence although it is not.

Writing to his editor, Richard Olney, an American expatriate painter and cookbook author, gave his reasons for living in France and the penultimate one was "the presence of olive trees in the landscape."  A civilized answer

Lost in the labyrinth of history, the Olea europea, or  edible olive, was first collected in the wild, probably in the Levant; certainly it is one of the earliest cultivated crops that we know of.   Evidence that the olive tree was farmed successfully on the island of Crete dates back to c. 3500 B.C.

The oil of the olive has been sacred to many cultures.  By the time of Homer (c. 900 B.C.), olive oil had become a luxury good, used to anoint the human body for ceremonial occasions.  (An olive tree appears in Book XXIII of The Odyssey, being the center post of the marriage bed).    In The Odes (c. 13 B.C.) the Roman poet Horace testified to the olive's delectable qualities as food: "As for me, olive, endives, and smooth mallows provide sustenance.  According to the Bible, it was an olive leaf that the dove brought back to Noah's ark. 

Mark O'Connor (b. 1945) is an Australian poet who has collaborated on projects with nature photographers.

Robin Gowen (b. 1957) is an American artist who was raised in New Hampshire and Nigeria.  In recent years she has moved around the western United States.

Image:
Robn Gowen - Shades of Shadows VI, 2017, Sullivan Goss Gallery, Santa Barbara.

07 February 2018

Gaslight: Jozsef Rippl-Ronai's Park at Night





















"Paris will be very beautiful in autumn...The town here is nothing, at night every thing is black.  I think that plenty of gas, which is after all yellow and orange, brightens the blue, because at night here the sky looks to me - and it's very odd - blacker than Paris.  And if I ever see Paris again, I shall try to paint some of the effects of gaslight on the boulevard."
 - Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, in a letter #500 

Ethereal and atypical, this delicate pastel by Jozsef Rippl-Ronai is suggestive of  much that is specific to the period when it was created (c.1892-95).  If you think of the works being created at the time by the Belgian symbolists, you can imagine its atmosphere is vaguely anxious.  The cluster of tree trunks appear as insubstantial as a group of hovering ghosts.  Rippl-Ronai creates this effect by making them appear as they would in a photographic negative: they are pale against the dark night.  And speaking of the Belgian, we will see similar trees in the 20th century paintings of a another Belgian, Leon Spilliaert (1861-1946), their (primarily) vertical lines suggesting interpretations as various as their individual trunks.

Like William Degouve de Nuncques' pastel Nocturne in the Parc Royale, Brussels, also in the collection of the Musée d'Orsay, Rippl-Ronai's Un parc la nuit is a love letter to artificial illumination.   We moderns may think about light pollution or the Dark Sky Society that supports the mission of astronomers but to people of the 19th century, gaslights offered the tantalizing prospect of nightlife, the nocturnal excitement offered by theaters, cafes, clubs, and bars.  We enjoy Un parc la nuit for the evanescent aesthetic it embodies but it can enrich our experience if we understand some measure of what its contemporaries saw in it.

Although the artist does not identify a location, he was living in Paris at the time and the cast-iron lamp posts peppered the French capitol; there were many thousands of them in place by the 1890s.  Robert Louis Stevenson, an enthusiast of the new lamps, called them "domesticated stars."  When they were superseded  by arc lights, he mourned their passing.  The lights hint at the presence of houses and roads in the distance, or maybe just more gaslights

Jozsef Rippl-Ronai (1861-1927) was from Kaposvar, Hungary.  He arrived in Paris in 1888, where he lived until 1901.  His  painting My Grandmother attracted the interest of Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, and Edouard Vuillard, who invited him into their group Les Nabis (Hebrew for Prophets), where his nickname was, naturally enough, the Hungarian Nabi.  When Rippl-Ronai returned home to Hungary he brought back with him the latest developments in art. Nothing the Hungarian artist ever did rivaled the glitter and magic of Un parc la nuit.

While in France he also became friends with the sculptor Aristide Maillol.  His portrait of Maillol won a gold medal at Vienna in 1914. In 1925, Rippl-Ronai was invited by the Uffizi Gallery in Florence to contribute a self-portrait to their gallery of self-portraits.

To read more about the friendship between Jozsef Rippl-Ronai and Aristide Mailloll.

Image:
Jozsef Rippl-Ronai - Un parc la nuit (A Park at Night), c.1892-185, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.