Sunday, September 25, 2011

`With Flowers and Grass All Sweet and Green'

In Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants (HarperCollins, 2010), Richard Mabey writes about one of my favorite paintings, Albrecht Dürer's Das große Rasenstück (Large Piece of Turf ). Of the 1503 watercolor he says:

“This is a clump of weeds looked at with such reverent attention that they might have been the flowers of Elysium.
Mabey describes the perspective from which Dürer paints the turf as “not from above, or any other conventionally privileged viewpoint, but from below,” and likens it to John Clare’s habitual “dropping down” to look more attentively at plants or insects. Anyone devoted to the natural world will recognize this craving to observe ants or blue-eyed grass more closely and with greater acuity, though desire outstrips the limits of our senses. Art rooted in intense observation, whether Dürer's, Clare’s or Thoreau’s, can feel more “real” than the phenomena observed. It seems we see better with the aid of a sharp-eyed intermediary. Mabey the naturalist catalogs Dürer's miniature arboretum:
“In the foreground are three rosettes of greater plantain, a weed that has so closely dogged human trackways across the globe that it was also known as Waybread and Traveller’s-foot. They’re surrounded by wisps of meadow-grass. Two dandelion heads, some way past flowering but still topped with yellow, lean leftwards. At the very rear of the painting – and its only concession to the less than commonplace – a few leaflets of burnet-saxifrage are just visible through the mesh of grass leaves…The bottom quarter of the picture is almost entirely devoted to the mottled patch of earth in which the weeds are visibly rooted…It is a visually exquisite and scientifically correct composition. What you are looking at is a miniature ecosystem in which every component, from the damp mud at the base to the seeds on the point of flight, is connected.”
In The Painter as Naturalist (Flammarion, 1991), Madeleine Pinault notes that Dürer's painting is not exclusively a watercolor, that first he drew some of the plants with pen and ink, then retraced them with watercolor and gouache. This lends the image a solidity, an emphatic thereness, further emphasized by the blank abstraction of the background – not the way we see plants and soil in nature. “Dürer,” Pinault reminds us, “was not a scientist, but an artist.”
Today, when I think of Large Piece of Turf, I think of the cover of Fred Chappell’s Spring Garden: New and Selected Poems, published by Louisiana State University Press in 1995. Chaucer-like, with nods to Herrick and Ronsard, Chappell prefaces his vernally celebrative collection with The General Prologue,” including these lines:
“There’s still a bit of summer before the fall—
So here’s that gay rondeau of Maytime weather:

“Summer has ordered his footmen in
To freshen his chateau cheerfully,
To brighten up his tapestry
With flowers and grass all sweet and green.”

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