Monday, March 16, 2009

Rousseau, Alfred Watkins and Landscapes

In a New York Times article today about the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, was this painting, Farm in Les Landes by Théodore Rousseau. It was one of those images that, for me, possesses something ineffable. A tranquility and "rightness" that speaks instantly. I don't have many in my "collection" of this sort of image; they are few and far between.

I have another on my bedroom wall, a colored photograph, I think -- I really don't know, in an old gilt and wide-edged wooden frame. And a book illustrated with many such images, albeit in black and white.

The book is The Old Straight Track by Alfred Watkins. Many of the images which appear in that book can be seen in an online version of his "Early British Trackways, Moats, Mounds, Camps, and Sites". This continues to be one of my all time cherished books (as is John Michell's View Over Atlantis, the book that first led me to Watkins). Watkins, besides being insatiably curious, was also a photographer, for which I am thankful. His landscapes are taken with a good eye and a good heart.

His theory was that ancient inhabitants of Britain, traveling by foot and without navigational aids, created a network of straight lines marked by landscape points and connecting "sacred sites" with one another. A friend recommended Michell's book to me in the late '60s and I think I read it in one sitting. But, the value of that book was that it led me to Watkins and his photographs. Recognizing something out of the ordinary about the images was the start of my "collection".

We are deluged with landscape images--in tourist brochures, television and magazine ads, state web sites, and the like--but the kind of image I speak of is rare. For me, it is as if, when I see such an image, I understand immediately that what I am being shown is some sort of essence of place. A kind of reality that in its utter "realness" opens a window on another world, a timeless one, a proof-of-paradise if you will. The one thing they all possess is a heaviness of tranquility. A rock-solid peacefulness that is not saccharin, not "beautiful" in the blatant manner of spectacular images. I've taken one, only one, of these kinds of images. Books

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