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A844 Preparatory Reading Notes - Schama 'Landscape & Memory'

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 24 Jun 2018, 19:23

A844 - Preparatory Reading


Schama, S. (2004) Landscape and Memory London, Harper Perrenial

How does it reflect on A843 themes?

In a book so wide, it reflects on all, much more than its title suggests – this is about so much more than the meaning of ‘landscape’ (defined etymologically 10) in painting, sculpture, architecture and land planning (urban, rural or suburban). To me it is best read as a book about myths and mythology (575) that define, delimit and understand the nature of ‘space’ and ‘spaces’ as concepts, phenomena (in art and experience) and life (gardens and homes widely understood such that it includes Thoreau’s Walden).


Pressed, I’d name two: the nature of ‘place’ as an encultured space (geography and institutions), and iconography.


1.      Starting with iconography, for me it is important that no art historian is given more total credence as a teller of explanatory stories than any other kind of sage. I was fascinated by the treatment of Warburg, for instance, since it locates his thought biographically – in his experience of mental ill-health- as well as socially and historically - and yet uses it purposefully and well (17f. 210). The same goes for others from other disciplines – Fraser (208f.), Schlegel, 236 and perhaps less sympathetically Jung (209 – I also find it difficult to explain away the latter’s collaboration with the Nazis and his undoubted anti-Semitism). Iconography in Schama cannot be explained, as it is  so often, solely according to Neo-Platonic models and their medieval inheritors (these are after all often iconologies used to justify absolutism and/or elitism – the superior intellection and understanding of an initiated person, class or clerisy (300) ). Meanings shift with history and the reflection of power dynamics in ideas and meanings – this includes the Neo-Platonists but not exclusively as in some uses of iconology to determine final and authoritative meanings of works of art.

2.      There is too much to say about places as enculturated spaces (spaces designed into the ideas and terminologies of privileged or sacral spaces) – it runs throughout the book whether in explicating Kew Gardens, Versailles, a Bernini fountain (302c.), the ’origin’ of architecture in the Gothic (228ff) or other ‘sacral space’ (7ff.) where sacral is understood in the widest sense as a place imbued with meaning and the sources of emotive attachment – forests, rivers or mountains, or groves of sequoia (189).

How do I predict that it might foreshadow A844 themes?

I can’t see it as having a role as a source of ‘theory’ as such since Schama is so pragmatic in his interpretative methodologies. The connection of the idea of ‘sacral space’ to culturally shaped and re-shaped ‘memory’ (of persons or nations) will be invaluable in Block 1 & 2. However, it might help in understanding how issues of conservation and heritage are understood and critiqued (Block 1), as well as the nature of myths of national origin or teleology. It will very much allow for work on how images and ‘narratives’ intersect and interact, whether in the analysis of Anselm Kiefer, Turner (359ff, 461) or suburban spatial planning (c. 573). Of course the key role will be in Block 3 together with Benedict Anderson & Mumford – but here on ‘landscape design’

What are the books key themes and narratives?

It claims its meaning is about the ways in which the boundaries of internal cognition and external shaped and to-be-shaped forms interact (574) but I haven’t got my head round that yet.

For me, it will be useful as a book about the importance of ‘awareness-of-mythologies’ as a means of understanding ideas that animate form, content and their interaction in art or place-making / space-shaping, whether on canvas or in other worlds where tangible phenomena matter (institutions, architecture, land interventions and so on).

The key metaphors are:

1.      Appropriations of wood and trees in spatial definitions, and conceptions of form and design – the idea of roots and links even perhaps (working on that). The acculturation of wildness and wildernesses in gardens, landscapes, painting etc.

2.      Appropriation of fluid metamorphoses between water, blood, creation and destruction (257ff) into mythologies of ‘circulation’ (258) in, for instance, church liturgy (baptism 264), searching origins (275) and fluid connections (275, 338 – Baroque). As a model of personal development & historical progression – flow 365, 359-362 – wonderful on Turner.

3.      The importance of heights, depths (profundity in culture 450) and the idea of the sublime before (Salvator Rosa 453) and after Burke. Appropriation of the idea of chasms to understand the relationship between effects of visual arts and psychology – 424, Leonardo, 474ff  Cozens, 508 Ruskin)


How does the book relate to the analysis of art and architecture?

Schama does not separate art from other expressions and articulations of the human story and so this may here be an empty question. Of course, it is such a huge book it has ideas applicable to individual artists or groups of artists or motifs in art (Arminius, Hannibal). For me it was most useful in understanding broad differentiations of art between cultures (Chinese mountain painting & space 408, pagan v. Christian 215), the changing perception of landscape through mythologies even in one artist – Sandby drawing Rannoch moor c. 467. The Catholic nature of the understanding of artist is a delight so that acknowledge ‘masters’  are mixed with ones less acknowledge – merely because the tell a story about a motif differently (Cozens again – whom I want to know more about 474-7)

Any other points!

This book is very wide in its scope and perhaps neither consistently pursues one thesis nor sustains the full coherence outlined at its conclusion (574,577). There are sections it is possible to pass-over quickly that don’t feel totally ‘necessary’ (at least for the moment of reading) and that makes it feel like a looser rag-bag than a sustained intellectual achievement (such as you feel in Mumford). Nevertheless with that there are parts that sweep you along both in terms of their narrative and their intellectual fruitfulness and promise. For me this illustrates what I believe to be Schama’s characteristic belief in history as a set of human stories in which we are shaped and which we shape that no one grand theory will ever e4xplain satisfactorily, whether the explanation be Neo-Platonic (272, 274-8, 300) , Hebraic or Christian redemptive, or Marxist (260f). As I see it, the most stimulating discussion is in the first section (on Forests) where its true intellectual heart lies – in its opposition to myths that set out to be all-explaining, whether from the perspective of religion, ‘science’ (as contemporaneously understood at different points in history), folklore or world-theory and that covers in particular ‘myths of origin’ or SOURCE (81, 85, 267, 275, 288) as well as any allied teleological theories.  All theories are welcome and additive to the narratives that form history in Schama (whether at the level of myth, biography or national destiny – most frighteningly in Hitler’s ‘vengeance’ against the Jews).

PS. I understand why Schama is sometimes called perverse. He allows camp humour to overcome him into sharing anti-gay jokes (as always – should go down well on this course – about Walpole), a Whig who liked to have, ‘a silk-eared sycophantic “Tory” in his lap.’ 448 (Tory was Walpole’s little dog). Feminine men always get the slap!

Other Preparatory Reading

Benedict Anderson Imagined Communities (click to see in new window)

Lewis Mumford The City in History (click to see in new window)

Conway & Roenisch Understanding Architecture (click to see in new window)

Elkins & Naef (Eds.) What is an Image? (click to see in new window)

Moxey, K. (2013) Visual Time: The Image in History (click to see in new window)

Aynsley & Grant (Eds.) Imagined Interiors (click to see in new window)

Boswell & Evans (eds.) Representing the Nation (click to see in new window)

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