Thought-Pourri: Everything Old Is New Again Edition

Gentle Reader, I hope that you find these Thursday news roundups as enjoyable to read as I do in putting them together. The one snag that I continue to have is that I find the term “Thought-Pourri” a bit too clever by half. If at some point this feature were to be converted into an email newsletter, which is something I’m thinking about, I’d like to find a snappier title. So the best Christmas gift you could send me this year would be some a suggestion for a better title that both fits with the purpose of this summary of news from the art, architecture, and design worlds, and that has more of a snap to it – just use the “Contact” form located on the site. Thank you in advance!

And so, onward to some news…

New/Old Argument: Aragonese Art

As Catalonia goes to the polls today – again – on regional elections ordered by Madrid, an interesting art story has slipped under the radar amidst all of the coverage over the question of Catalan independence. The medieval Monastery of Santa Maria de Sigena is located in Aragón, the region just west of Catalonia. In the early 1980’s the nuns moved out of their decaying premises, which had been several damaged by leftists during the Spanish Civil War, and found a new home in Barcelona; as part of their move they sold some of the art from their old monastery to the Catalan government. The works – which include several spectacularly decorated Gothic sarcophagi like the one shown below – were put on display for a number of years in a museum in the Catalan city of Lleida, but a few years ago, the Aragonese government sued to try to get them back; in 2015, a trial judge ruled in their favor. The Catalan government appealed, and although the appellate case is still pending, in the wake of the Catalan independence vote and the imposition of direct rule from Madrid, the national police force was sent in and removed the disputed works from the museum.

Sigena

New/Old Building: Noxious Neo-Brutalism

Is Brutalism, a horrible abomination of architecture which has been (rightly) derided from its inception by people with good taste, making a comeback? Award-winning British starchitect Sir David Adjaye of the awful National Museum of African American History and Culture here on the National Mall, (or as I call it, the Sandcrawler from “Star Wars”) has just revealed plans for his first highrise tower in Manhattan, which will be located near the Brookyln Bridge. The 66-story structure will be clad in cast concrete, a material which no doubt will age beautifully in the filthy, polluted atmosphere of New York City, just like all of the other crumbling, horrible Brutalist-era buildings which it evokes. One of the highlights, if you can call it that, will be an interior spa and pool area which described as being inspired by the Baths of Caracalla in Rome which, I suppose if you were color-blind and morbidly depressed you could very loosely claim to be the case, but quite frankly it looks like something out of “Blade Runner”, and not in a good way. (No word on whether Harrison Ford is personally to blame for either of these awful buildings.)

Brooklyn

New/Old Fashion: Romanov Riches

As Russia marks the 100th anniversary of the bloodbath known as the Bolshevik Revolution, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg has just opened a new, permanent exhibition of 130 historic costumes, most of which belonged to members of the ruling Romanov dynasty. Located at the Hermitage’s vast storage and conservation complex in the north end of the city, the new displays features suits, gowns, and other clothing from Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Nicholas II, among many others. Here for example is a ceremonial cloak and waistcoat worn by one of my favorite Russian oligarchs, Emperor Alexander I (1777-1825), who helped to defeat Napoleon.

Alexander

New/Old Resource: Fine Furniture

If you’ve ever been confused by the multitude of design terms used by museum curators, furniture retailers, and antique dealers when shopping or visiting museums and historic homes, you’re not alone. Even those of us who have at least some knowledge of the history of Western furniture can get a bit perplexed when, for example, a catalogue refers to a chair as “transitional” (what’s it transitioning into, a fridge?) While it won’t solve all such problems, a interesting new site (currently in beta) called British and Irish Furniture Makers Online (“BIFMO”) from the Furniture History Society and the University of London hopes to become a major online resource for those who want to learn their Thomas Chippendale from their George Hepplewhite.

cabinet

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Visiting Vicens: Gaudí’s First House Opens To The Public

One of the things I’m hoping to see when I head to Barcelona in a few weeks is the Casa Vicens, the first private home designed by the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926). It was originally built to serve as a weekend retreat for a Barcelona stockbroker, over 125 years ago. The house served as a private residence until as recently as 2014, but as of this November, it has been opened to the public as a museum.

Regular readers will recall that I previously wrote about the ongoing restoration efforts at the Casa Vicens, a house which features a dazzling variety of materials and construction methods, both inside and out. As you can imagine, there had been a lot of wear and tear on the building, as happens in any home that is actually lived in. Yet while parts of the house were altered over the years, visitors to the new museum will still be able to witness many of the extraordinary architectural and design juxtapositions which the young Gaudí was able to pull off.

From the multimedia gallery on the museum’s website, I wanted to point out a few of the amazing details of the house, which was nothing like Barcelona – or indeed the rest of the world for that matter – had ever seen before. Here we see part of the façade of the house, along with its extraordinary gate and sidewalk railing. The color scheme is a mixture of salmon, turquoise, peach, and green, while an unusual range of materials from brick and stone to tile and concrete give some hint of the extraordinary design elements that await the visitor inside. Note also the ornate yet rather modern-looking wrought iron gate, which is composed of a series of panels in the form of palm fronds.

Facade

Once inside, many of the public rooms of the house have spectacular ceilings featuring bright color schemes, which forgo tradition and subtlety in order to achieve maximum impact. For example, this detail shows that Gaudí was quite capable of creating a ceiling design reminiscent of Perpendicular Gothic, which most architects would have left white. Here however, the stucco and tile elements are executed in a cobalt blue and a chartreuse yellow-green.

Ceiling

Here we see one of the public rooms of the house, with another extraordinary ceiling – this time of scallop shells and roses. The walls are covered with faux marble wainscoting below, and two-tone cranberry red plasterwork of vines up above. This room gives onto a tiled loggia, where the openings are simplified forms of architectural shapes that one would expect to see in Islamic buildings.

Interior

Head upstairs to one of the bathrooms, normally one of the more utilitarian areas of a house, and the unusual juxtapositions continue. Here, the architect places modern-looking corbels and compound support beams above a Pompeian red plaster wall with arcade detailing, baby blue and white checkerboard tile wainscoting, a slim chair rail border composed of tiles decorated with quinces and leaves, and bright yellow flowers festooned across the ceiling panels. Considered individually, none of these things should go together, and yet the overall effect is that of an ancient Roman bath somewhere in Provence

Bathroom

Finally, up on the roof of the house, we can admire a detail which hardly anyone would have ever seen up close, even when the house was filled with guests. The maids would have come up here to perform tasks requiring sunshine and breezes, such as drying the household laundry or beating the dust out of rugs. They would have seen not only the colorful elements of the building’s façade, but also this almost Mid-Century Modern railing of flowers contained within simplified, circular vines. The delicate design belies the sturdy, wrought iron craftsmanship that went into their execution.

Railing

Now, if you find all of this too much to take, don’t worry about it. Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by this house, but I understand that it may not be to everyone’s taste. And truth be told, I wouldn’t want to live in it, myself. (Where would I hang all the paintings?)

That being said however, you certainly can’t call the Casa Vicens a boring piece of architecture or design. The young Gaudí, with his first major commission to complete, and his patron, a man who clearly didn’t fear trying something bold and original in his own home, managed to create a truly unique house, and to do so with a great deal of self-confidence and aplomb. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to finally have a wander around the place.

Thought-Pourri: Garish Gods Edition

I received a very gracious email this week from Dr. Diana Kleiner at Yale University, thanking me for my positive review of her survey course on Roman Architecture. She wanted me to let my readers know that the course is also available at Coursera, and those who wish to do so can make it a more fully interactive experience there with class assignments, projects, and the like. Again, even if you have only a passing interest in architecture, I strongly recommend this course as both highly interesting and informative, whether you want to understand the types of concrete construction or dome engineering methods employed by the Ancient Romans, or you just want to know the best spots for gelato in the Eternal City (Dr. Kleiner’s got you covered, there.)

And now, on to the news.

Classical Colors

Speaking of classical architecture, San Francisco’s Legion of Honor has just opened a fascinating new exhibition titled “Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World”. Many ancient buildings and the sculptures that decorated them were decorated with vibrant, sometimes garish colors that have faded or disappeared over time, but today scientists can use advanced technology to present us with fairly accurate approximations of what these things originally looked like. For most people it’s rather startling to realize that the stark, white or gray public buildings which we commonly see around our cities and towns, though often based on classical originals, would be considered unfinished by someone from ancient Knossos, Athens, or Rome, thanks to their lack of color. The exhibition runs through January 7, 2018.

Exhibit

Mini Murillo

Meanwhile here on the East Coast, The Frick in New York has just opened a small show on portraiture by the great Old Master painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682). One of the most popular and influential artists of his time, particularly in the area of religious painting, Murillo is among the most important painters of Spain’s artistic Golden Age of the late 16th to early 18th centuries. While he painted very few portraits, this compact exhibition at The Frick contains 5 of them, including three members of the upper classes in the Seville of Murillo’s day, as well as the only two self-portraits of the artist known to exist. They display a kind of restrained genius and lack of overt sentimentality which makes them particularly appealing to a present-day audience. Murillo: The Self Portraits at The Frick runs through February 4, 2018, and then will head to the National Gallery in London.

Murillo

Strasbourg Shuffle

Last week, the French city of Strasbourg symbolically returned two paintings to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. I write, “symbolically”, because thanks to existing cultural repatriation agreements between Austria and France, the pictures are going to stay where they are for now, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg. The works in question are a “Landscape with Mercury and Argus” attributed to the Flemish Renaissance painter Lucas Gassel (1499-1570), and a fantastical landscape painting with animals (including an American Bison?) being rampant all over the place titled “The Earthly Paradise” by the Dutch Mannerist painter Roelandt Savery ( 1576-1639). Neither of these artists is particularly important, frankly, though perhaps Savery is comparatively better-known, thanks to his several rather extraordinarily luxurious depictions of the dodo bird. Curiously, these paintings were looted from the Vienna museum by the Nazis during the Anschluss, in order to decorate the Reichskanzler headquarters in Berlin, but no one quite seems to know how they ended up in Alsace-Lorraine after the war.

Gassel

Paradiso

Valuing Vigée Le Brun

Regular readers will recall my review in The Federalist of the major Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) retrospective at The Met last year, which included most of the best royal and aristocratic portraits created by Queen Marie Antoinette’s favorite painter. Perhaps in the wake of heightened awareness of the artist generated by that show, Christie’s New York has just auctioned a (very beautiful) self-portrait of the (very beautiful) artist for over $1.5 million: more than three times its estimated sales price. The picture was painted in Vienna in 1794, one of several cities where Vigée Le Brun and her daughter lived after fleeing the French Revolution. While not a record sales price for the artist, the result at least suggests the possibility that greater awareness of the artist’s work among potential collectors, thanks in part to the 2016 exhibition, has correspondingly led to an increase in the perceived monetary value of her work: a well-documented phenomenon in the art trade.

LeBrun