An accidental beauty


Mounds, Norfolk (2013)

Along with Grant Gee’s haunting new film, Innocence of Memories, based on Orhan Pamuk’s 2008 novel The Museum of Innocence, there is an exhibition displaying a small section of Pamuk’s legendary Istanbul museum currently on show at Somerset House in London; admission is free.

Pamuk remains pre-occupied with the power of objects to trigger associations, believing that ‘things’ in themselves possess qualities which allow us to remember, dream and even hope outside of the passage of time. In the vitrines exhibited here – in an appropriately gloomy basement – are primarily domestic objects: matchboxes, food packaging, photographs, patent medicine bottles, toys, cigarette butts and perfume bottles. These objects and icons, rescued from everyday life, evoke and represent the lives of the novel’s characters during the period in which The Museum of Innocence is set, though they are clearly dear to Pamuk and his memories of life in Istanbul during the same period.

A short text accompanies the display, in which the novelist (who had once studied to be a painter) proposed a link between the world of such domestic objects and the wider Turkish landscape. Pamuk writes that he came to this understanding,

‘…after many years of collecting objects, of visualizing and sketching cabinet layouts as if I were writing theatrical stage directions. Looking at the photographs we took during this process, I realized that I was doing what the Istanbul landscape painters I so admired did: looking for an accidental beauty in the convergence of trees, electrical cables and pylons, ships clouds, objects and people. The greatest happiness is when the eye discovers beauty where neither the mind conceived nor the hand intended any.’

There is a clear echo here of Rilke’s lines from the Ninth Duino Elegy:

‘Perhaps we are here in order to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit tree, window – at most: column, tower…’

In Britain the debate about modern landscape aesthetics rolls on with, most recently, garden writer Anna Pavord, describing in her new book, Landskipping, how she went out of her way to try to love the Norfolk coastal fens – and failed. For Pavord the wooded hills and valleys of Herefordshire, where she grew up, and of Dorset, where she has lived for more than 40 years, have set the standard for what one might value and cherish. She is not, however, a Romantic, coming from a farming background, and feeling more at home with the writings of William Cobbett – who always had an eye for the working countryside which produced so much of the necessities of life – than with the poets and tourists. One chapter details the changing demand in field crops – rape, flax, linseed – and very recently, to poppies, now apparently grown in the UK under stringent conditions for the pharmaceutical industry’s need to produce more morphine. Who knew?

Is it just a matter of personal taste, or familiarity, which decides that one person thinks the sunny uplands are the only place to be, whereas another person cleaves to the forests, or the fens? Pamuk’s delight in the accidental beauty of juxtaposition, between the rural and the industrial, or people and things, now seems more appropriate to the age in which we live. The arbitrary juxtapositions which provide Pamuk with his small epiphanies, are what in photographic terms Roland Barthes once described as ‘the trouvaille or lucky find’: a particular moment when incongruous objects and settings imaginatively cohere.

Too often now the generic term landscape is vague and unhelpful, producing confusion – and category errors – rather than clarity. There is the landscape once termed ‘natural’ (though very few places in the world have escaped the imprint of human activity), but mostly associated with agricultural work. There are the landscapes which are clearly man-made, and associated with the rise of industrialism, the urban world and great transport networks. But there are also the designed landscapes produced by garden designers and landscape architects, specifically to produce particular emotional effects, or to evoke historical antecedents. And there is also the landscape as a constructed ideal, most evident in the work of painters such as Claude. All have their different discourses and uses, but there are more questions than answers when discussion elides too easily between them.

And then of course there is nature writing – we could be here for days.

KW/Mounds, Norfolk (2013) © Jason Orton