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Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Playground for the mind

Vitra, the furniture manufacturer outside Basel, is a marvel.  It’s enterprising and open-minded founders have invited architects from around the world to design various buildings on the factory’s campus.  A two-hour guided tour takes you on an excursion into several drastically different minds.

Frank Gehry’s Vitra Design Museum is his early exercise in angles and protrusions, though on a small scale, compared to his later constructions, and all plastered in white.  His ego is fully present, though:  the Museum floats on its own lawn, with no distractions from its performance.  The site was originally a cherry orchard. Gehry requested the trees around his creation chopped down so as to leave the space fully clear for his design.

Tadao Ando, in his turn, insisted that the cherries be left intact around his conference pavilion to give it beauty and serenity:  one walks past the trees on the way to his hall and sees them through the glass walls inside.  Ando is no less willful than Gehry.  He defines a precise path a visitor must follow en route to his building, a journey intended to create a contemplative frame of mind; and constructs a controlled environment in which the starkness of concrete, wood, and glass compel one to hushed seriousness.  His rise to fame was symbolic of this determination:  to support himself as he strove toward his goal, he made his living as a boxer.

Zaha Hadid’s contribution to the Vitra grounds is a fire station (necessitated by a devastating blaze caused by a lightening that wiped out 60% of the factory).  This was Hadid’s first actually constructed project, and you can see why no one dared to take a risk on her beforehand.  Her vision is resolutely cerebral, and her forms look like cardboard models, insisting on their unsettling shapes regardless of structural plausibility or human needs.  From the sharp, elongated, irregular spaces, to tilting floors, to stark cement or metal walls, the building is not for the faint-hearted.  Interesting to visit, it is harsh to inhabit.  It challenges you with every step and site-line, without giving you any comfort.

A far quieter, though subtly playful pavilion by Álvaro Siza gallantly gestures away from itself and toward its neighbors.  Its red brick walls echo an earlier building nearby, but their plainness is subverted by joist beams used as a decorative dado course.  The exquisite bridge shading the passageway to the adjacent factory floor chivalrically frames Hadid’s firehouse, instead of obscuring it.  Siza inscribes his hall into a harmonious and intriguing ensemble of buildings, rather than loudly insisting on his own uniqueness.

The real delight, though, is Herzog & de Meuron’s showroom—an uneven stack of long black boxes ending in huge house-shaped windows facing in three directions, though fluidly, without rigid geometry—toward Switzerland, Germany, and France (Vitra sits close to the meeting point of the three countries).  Looking out of these windows from inside you see the surrounding lush green vineyards.  The combination of these gorgeous views with the open spaces of the showroom and the different perspectives offered by each floor made me feel like a kid in a toy house—delighted, carefree, curious to run all over and explore.

Vitra is definitely my favorite thing about Basel now:  compared to the staid feeling city, here all is spirit and adventure.

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Lessons from a museum

My day starts with a heartbreaking e-mail from a friend—about the treachery of the world, the baseness of mankind, the pain of violated trust.  Reeling, I go to a museum, wondering whether art has, as they say, a capacity to heal.

Wandering through the Renaissance halls, usually my favorite places, past panels of the German and Swiss masters at the Basel Kunstmuseum, I get no consolation, but some perspective.  In these pictures suffering is inescapable:  Christ is betrayed and hideously tortured on the Cross, the Virgin swoons in death and is mourned by her followers, vibrant maidens are attacked by avaricious skeletons, who, vampire-like, suck the life out of their young victims.  Whatever one might feel about Christian narratives, they capture human torments in relentless detail.  I find this strangely reassuring:  the fact that our individual anguish is not a uniquely meted out punishment, but a condition of existing in this world.

The rooms of those early chroniclers of misery lie next to an exhibition of Giacometti’s small bronzes and paintings.  Here I get relief and pleasure of abstraction I’ve never experienced as intensely as this morning.  Giacometti’s stylized figures grant me a respite from death and pain.  He comforts me with his cerebral world and lifts me out of the rawness of emotion.  I hungrily embrace this escape.

But a show of prints of 19th-century French masters returns me to the visceral.  Daumier’s Abandoned Ariadne, sitting on the shore of Naxos unadorned and no longer loved as Theseus’s ship grows small on the horizon, shows me again that our sufferings are millennia old, and unlikely to go away.  This utter unoriginality of our individual travails has a calming effect on me.  Perhaps it’s my Russian fatalism, the sense that life, like those voracious skeletons in Hans Baldung Grien’s pictures, always lies in wait for us with something awful.  This knowledge does not heal the heartbreak, but it reminds me that my friend today, I yesterday, another soul the day before are not alone in our hurt.  Somehow that helps, just a little bit.

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Rembrandt and his pupils

Curators love their material.  They spend years developing exhibitions, mastering every aspect of a given art form, dreaming big, inevitably scaling things down, massaging, cajoling, and struggling with recalcitrant bureaucrats to secure loans from other museums.  They want to include everything and chafe under the imperative to settle for less as they feel the pressure to present the most comprehensive view of a given subject and to create the next blockbuster.

Blockbusters can be fabulous and fun, but they are also a bane of modern museums and their visitors.  Everything these days has to be a “special exhibition.”  Every time I go to New York and climb up the steps of the Met — the museum par excellence and one I can not skip when I am in town, just as I can’t not pay my respects to the Pantheon in Rome — I feel compelled to labor through three or four palace-sized special exhibitions and have no time or peace of mind left to revisit my old friends in other galleries, not to mention discover something new through ruminative meandering.

The problem with these constantly hyped shows is not only their insistence on claiming your full attention and keeping you entertained at all costs, but also their compunction to be huge — when often the material they showcase would benefit from a much smaller and more pensive display.

Last night I went to the opening of a new exhibition at the Getty Museum: “Drawings by Rembrandt and His Pupils.”  The premise of the show is that Rembrandt ran a very large workshop to which students flocked in great numbers.  They learned by drawing models indoors and outdoors, as well as by studying the master’s compositions.  Hundreds if not thousands of these drawings survive.  Over the centuries they have been attributed to Rembrandt himself, but the curators of this exhibition, their noses glued to the preserved pieces with greater diligence than ever, have distinguished the hands of pupils from that of the master.  In this exhibition the drawings are paired – usually Rembrandt’s sketch on the left, a pupil’s on the right, with an explanatory text in-between walking you through the differences in styles, and usually demonstrating the superiority of Rembrandt —sometimes actual, other times asserted without merit on the assumption that whatever he touched must be superior.

The drawings, many of them, are quite lovely, and Rembrandt indeed was a superb practitioner of his craft.  His hand is sure as in a few strokes he invokes movement and mood, emphasizing the essentials and not fussing with the details—unlike some of his students (Rembrandt’s version of Christ as Gardner Appearing to Mary is on top, Ferdinand Bol’s is below).  There are a couple of drawings in which he corrects his charges, teaching them to imagine more boldly, or model more precisely.  He was clearly a hands-on teacher, drawing form models alongside his students, as one contemporary sketch marvelously shows (at the top of the post), taking them on field trips to the countryside to draw little cottages set among trees.  One senses relationships in these exercises, aspirations, hard work, a master fostering young talent.

The problem is that the curators wanted to demonstrate as many of these interaction  as possible, and so you walk from room to room to room, your eyesight, perception, and patience dulling with each step.  There is a lot to get through, so you start paying less attention, focusing more on the finish line than on the works lining the walls.  The drawings, meanwhile, are intimate and full of thought processes.  If there were fewer of them – say 5 vs. 15 students being covered, you would get the point of the show, but also do justice to it.  Yes, committed viewers will come back several times and study these works slowly, maybe a room at a time.  But honestly, how many visitors will do that?  A tiny minority.  Most of us are too busy to indulge in such luxury.

I found the exhibition interesting and thought-provoking.   It was fascinating to see how hopeful young men arrived in the famous master’s studio and groped for their own style, imitating his, departing from it, seeing things their own way, flying away to forge their own careers.  It was also marvelous to see a series of drawings based on the same model, but seen from slightly different angles by students sitting at different places in the studio.  Not only are their angles of vision different, but the face of the boy they are all trying to capture look entirely unlike in each sketch!  I also enjoyed getting to know Rembrandt as an attentive and conscientious teacher, really paying attention to those who entrusted their education to him and nurturing their development.

I just would have liked to see less of all of it, so as to be able to see more.

http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/rembrandt_drawings/

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In the forest of mixed time

Can the present really illuminate the past?  It seems a popular idea these days to juxtapose old and new art.  At the Accademia in Florence, for example, Michelangelo’s David is, at the moment, surrounded by Mapplethorpe’s photographs.  At the just opened exhibition at the Los Angeles Italian Cultural Institute, Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings share the gallery with Bill Viola’s video installation.  These pairings might seem clever, but they are often stretched to the limit of credulity.  How does a modern video screen showing flowing water make us understand better Leonardo’s ambiguous figure of “The Angel in the flesh” (a modern title, I hasten to add)?  I am quite sure that the Renaissance master would have been baffled by such company.  He would also have chuckled at the hushed and reverential attitude with which modern onlookers gaze at his depiction of a mysteriously smiling young man sporting an enormous erection.  “The Angel in the flesh”?!  Do angels have bodies, not to mention huge phalluses?  If this were the angel that visited Mary, Immaculate Conception would have been even harder to believe.

Art historians are a busy and inventive lot.  I know, I’ve been trained as one myself.  But though I have written several books on the Renaissance, I see them as something of an exercise in self-indulgence.  Because in truth, the art of that period stands perfectly well on its own.  It does not depend on my explanation to be understood and enjoyed.  Contemporary art seems to require this crutch for its very existence.  Without it one would have no clue that the flowing water on Viola’s screen represents “The Last Angel,” nor how in the world it has anything to do with Leonardo’s ithyphallic youth.

Perhaps I am too much of a lover of the Renaissance to be seduced by such modernist updates.  Faced with such forced marriages, I tend to give my full allegiance to old masters.  But I wonder whether those not burdened with excessive art historical knowledge (and they might be the luckier souls, which is another conversation), are unnecessarily distracted from either the old or the new pieces and left to wonder in the artificial wilderness in-between.

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Hello world!

What a joy to discover yourself in possession of new eyes when you’ve assumed that you’ve got the same old pair.  I was in Florence last week and decided that it was time to pay a visit to Michelangelo’s David.  I have not seen him for years:  the Accademia where he lives is always packed with tourists, I always think of something else I need to see first, and I’ve seen him so many times in books, on postcards, in, shall I say “partial” views on aprons and men’s undies sold all over the city, that I could not imagine being in any way surprised or enlightened.  And then a miracle happened.

I walked into the museum on a grey late afternoon, when it was just sprinkled with a few visitors, walked up the corridor between Michelangelo’s Prisoners, and looked up at David, the old, familiar-seeming giant that has been diminished by so much over-exposure.

And it came to me how truly astonishing, jaw-dropping, eye-rubbing he must have looked to the Florentines in 1504 when he was first wheeled out of Michelangelo’s dusty workshop.  There was this HUGE (4-5 meters tall?- I am not sure of the exact size), gorgeous, stark naked youth, the carving of his torso, arms, and legs – pieces of poetry.  Nothing like that has been made and seen in Europe for hundreds of years.  People must have caught their breath and wept gazing at him.

We are so unfortunate, compared to those Florentines back in 1504.  We have been so over-exposed to David, to the Sistine Chapel frescoes, to any number of other Renaissance art icons – or artworks form other art periods.  We take them for granted.  We may be delighted by them, but we are hardly surprised.

Somehow, standing before David that afternoon I felt that sense of wonder of seeing him for the first time.  My trained and tried art historian’s eyes have been given a new sight.  How amazing, how blissful!

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