Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Odyssean Landscape

Die Odysseeische Landschaft - click to enlarge

I was very struck by this evocative landscape on the cover of the paperback of Freya Stark's classic of travel writing, Ionia: A Quest.

The book's front material credits it only as "a detail of a painting by Emilie Mediz-Pelikian", but a bit of Googling identified it as her 1902 Die Odysseeische Landschaft (The Odyssean Landscape). There's a very small reproduction of it in the catalogue of the Fine Art Photographic Library (AA3652) and a zoomable monochrome image at Bildindex der Kunst und Architektur (Objekt 32012136 - Deutsche Fotothek). The latter gives the artist's name as "Emilie Mediz-Pelikan" (1861-1908) and places the location as "Lokrum, Insel"; that is, the island of Lokrum (called Lacroma by the Italians) in the Adriatic just offshore from Dubrovnik.

I find the vista stunning. I've previously mentioned Jay Appleton's prospect-refuge theory (see Landscapes in mind) - the idea that satisfying landscape images contain a safe place in the foreground, and a view off into uncertain distant prospect in the background. This painting seems to subvert all that. The apparent refuge of the grove is in an extremely precarious location, and it seems to block access to the distance; meanwhile, the actual refuge appears to be in the prospect, where there's lower ground and less precipitous coastline. I'm sure it's symbolic - Mediz-Pelikan was a leading Austrian Symbolist - as the journey of Odysseus home did involve dangerous and temporary refuges en route to the real refuge home at Ithaca. And purely on a personal level, for me it has strong resonances to the western tip of the Isle of Wight.

I'm not convinced that the location is entirely Lokrum. A look at Google Maps and images shows it to be generally rather rounded in profile, not with a great prows of cliff rising as in the foreground of Die Odysseesische Landschaft.  Furthermore, the foreground is identical to Mediz-Pelikan's other 1902 painting Bild auf Lacroma, which shows the same scarily-perched grove on a promontory with nothing but open sea beyond. Evidently Die Odysseeische Landschaft is a composite.

- Ray

Bild auf Lacroma


  1. Looks like a landscape out of Myst.

  2. The smut value of the Odyssey is severely limited because the voluptuous curves of Penelope - background - are almost entirely concealed by the protagonist's pining - middle.

  3. Myst

    Yes. I think it's the combination of island cliffs and the depiction of distance via increasing haze. My scan isn't so great, but on ther cover you can see paths and signs of settlement in the middle and far distance.

  4. JSB> Jay Appleton's prospect-refuge
    JSB> theory ... ... ...
    JSB> This painting seems to subvert
    JSB> all that.

    I respectfully disagree.

    Appleton's thesis is that a satisfying landscape contains both prospect and refuge symbols, both explicit and implied (his words are actually "direct" and "indirect"), often in unstable balance (stable balance can, sometimes, lack tension and thus also viewer interest), across the totality of the frame and sometimes its imagined extensions.

    The view you show contains the central grove as both refuge symbol (place to hide from observation, and also place from which to observe the vista prospects all around) and potential threat symbol (it is impenetrable to vision, and thus could conceal hazards. It sits centally within a variety of pure prospect symbols: high cliffs, open levels, aquatic planes. Furthermore, the viewpoint is high, giving a good prospect out over the whole of the scene with almost no interruption apart from the interior of the grove.

    Finally, the grove can be approached without fear of ambush.