Piano Ignobile: An Ugly New Home For Ugly New Art In Spain

With tomorrow’s opening of the Centro Botín, a contemporary arts center in the Spanish city of Santander, the art world will have another ugly space in which to display ugly art, and the architecture world will have another white elephant to fawn over. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Italian starchitect Renzo Piano, perhaps most infamous for the Centre Pompidou in Paris and The Shard in London, this is Piano’s first building in Spain. Hopefully it will also be his last in that country.

In this museum Piano has succeeded in marring the already not-terribly-pretty waterfront of the city of Santander as he has that of other cities, such as his hometown of Genoa. There, in addition to the usual ugly pavilions that one has come to expect from contemporary waterside redevelopments, he constructed a giant terrarium which has nothing at all to do with the sea, and a rather pointless rotating crane with an observation capsule attached. Presumably he did this so you can see just how bad an architect he is from a great height.

While designing the Centro Botín, Piano maintains that he was consciously avoiding the so-called “Bilbao Effect”. As I’ve explained previously, this is a touchstone in contemporary architecture which takes its name from the impact of Frank Gehry’s (awful) Guggenheim Museum in another northern Spanish city, where a singular structure was built to draw in the gawkers, and hopefully revitalize both its neighborhood and the city as a whole. Such a structure has been the unholy grail of mayors, city councils, and museum boards for nearly two decades now.

Unfortunately, Piano’s conscious decision to avoid the showmanship of a Gehry or Zaha Hadid-style building does not mean that he has built a better building. The assymetrical halves of the Centro Botín, with their flimsy-looking posts and exposed gangways, look cheap and shoddy. They resemble an abandoned airport terminal more than a cultural institution built to stand for generations.

Anyone with a basic understanding of construction can tell you that you cannot build a glass structure supported on metal, plop it by the seaside, and expect it to long survive the corrosive effects of salt water and sea air. Keep in mind that Santander is not in the hot and perpetually sunny south of Spain, where it hardly ever rains. Rather, it is in the north of the country, where it rains roughly every other day between October through April, and has an average humidity of over 70%. In addition, furious winter storms come barreling in off the Atlantic with hurricane force winds during the winter months.

Lest you think that this scrivener is alone in his mocking of this building, a Spanish blogger has extensively catalogued some of the weather, public safety, and other concerns that may turn this contemporary carbuncle into a disaster for the city and for the project’s investors. Click through the pages and you can see how the museum will cause a myriad of problems, even as revised from the more blocky, original proposal. Whether or not you can read Spanish, you can clearly see from the illustrations how the net effect of the building will be decidedly negative.

It’s regrettable that the officialdom of Santander has decided to mar the coastline of their city for at least another 30 years or so, until the museum has to be pulled down for structural failure – as will inevitably happen. Fortunately I will never have to see this thing, but personally, it gets rather tiresome reading over and over again about how a spectacular new cultural institution has been built which is utter rubbish. It happens so often that I could probably blog about it every day and never run out of material.

So rather than fight against the inevitable, I can simply chalk up the expense and waste of this structure to the old adage, stupid is as stupid does. Let the contemporary art establishment have its way, and let us laugh at their expense. For when the sea eventually comes in and destroys their latest bibelot, it will at least have the added benefit of destroying a lot of garbage art along with a garbage

​Sacred Art In Sardonic Times: A New Exhibition On 18th Century Parisian Religious Art

For the most part, I’m not hugely interested in the majority of 18th century French painting. I find scraggly landscapes populated with cavorting shepherds, and mythological scenes featuring flower-bedecked nymphs the color of raw prawns to be rather ho-hum. Perhaps because the French taste was so de rigueur at European courts during this period, and frivolous, often sardonic images covered walls, furniture, snuff boxes, and just about everything else, it became overly diluted and, to me, very boring.

So it was interesting to scroll through this article in Apollo Magazine and learn a bit more about some of the religious paintings of the era, which are featured in a new exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris, “Baroque during the Enlightenment: 18th Century Masterpieces in Paris Churches”. As I’ve often commented in these pages, one of the joys of art history is that there is always something new to learn: just when you think you’ve tapped out a particular area of enquiry, something new appears on the radar. A quick run through this PDF press release, which features images of the works included in the exhibition, shows why this is the case.

As Apollo correctly points out, the title of the exhibition is a bit of a misnomer, for most of the images in the show are not really examples of Baroque art. Many of them feature pastel palettes and sweet expressions employed by artists such as Francois Boucher in decorating the boudoirs of royal mistresses like La Pompadour. Some of the images look like still lives of the dainty figurines being produced during the same time period by European porcelain factories like Sèvres or Meissen.

At the same time, for all of the Rococo frou-frou of Nicolas Largillière’s “Nativity” (1730) from Saint-Suplice, there are some works which, when examined individually, are more interesting compositions than one would normally associate with the general frivolity of 18th century French art. David’s physically powerful and visually stark “Christ on the Cross” (1782) for example, now in the Cathedral of Mâcon, is something of a surprise, since David rarely ventured into the realm of sacred art. He is better-known as a history painter, an enthusiastic supporter of the Revolution, and later as Napoleon’s chief artistic propagandist. 

While his depiction of the Crucifixion is more focused on capturing the human form – albeit with strangely disproportionate arms – than in conveying themes such as suffering and redemption, at the same time the artist is consciously harkening back to the work of Baroque artists, particularly the Tenebrists, who specialized in this kind of intense, stripped-down imagery.

Similarly, Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre’s “Martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket” (1748) harkens back to late Renaissance and Baroque models, in particular showing the influence of much earlier Venetian artists such as Veronese for both its composition and coloring. 

Like David however, Pierre doesn’t quite get the details right. The effect of his altarpiece is somewhat spoilt by the overly decorative and frilly French uniforms of the supposedly English henchmen shown attaching the aged Archbishop at Mass. Moreover the expression on the chief attacker’s face is also more comical and pantomime-ish than threatening.

Taken as a whole, these paintings show how the Enlightenment had a pernicious effect on the elites who commissioned them. While some of these pieces are charming and beautifully executed, none of them is particularly inspiring. What we are seeing is mostly play-acting, with the costumes and settings being more important than the story. 

Perhaps the only really moving piece in the entire show is Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié’s painting of the Baroque “Calvary Chapel Of The Church of Saint-Roch” (1765), which shows a hauntingly beautiful sculptural-architectural creation from the end of the Baroque era that was later destroyed by leftists (of course) during the French Revolution. Really, this chapel should be copied and recreated elsewhere. I can’t quite get my mind off that beautifully simple pose of the statue of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the Cross:

While some of the works in this show are now in museums, others are normally still hanging in the churches for which they were originally created. If you know anything about art history, you know that this is something of a rarity, since most works of art at some point end up getting stolen from the Church and shipped off to the national collection under some pretext. To see these examples displayed together therefore, is a rare occurrence, and no doubt worth your time should you happen to find yourself in Paris this summer.

Unseen Sargent: The Boredom Of Madame X

I wanted to share a little gem – well, a few gems – that I stumbled across the other day, while watching a lecture on American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). You’re probably familiar with Sargent’s justly famous “Madame X” (1883-84) now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as it’s become one of the most iconic images in art history; Sargent himself once referred to it as probably “the best thing I have done.” There’s a bit of irony regarding its status as a great American work of art, since Sargent spent the bulk of his time working in Europe, the portrait was painted in Paris, and its subject was a young American social climber who had married a French banker and emigrated to France.

Be that as it may, this image of the statuesque and sultry Madame X, or Madame Pierre Gautreau to give her proper name, has influenced artists, advertisers, and designers for generations. The composition is a deceptively simple one: a young woman in a black evening gown is shown standing next to a small table, whose top she is grasping and slightly leaning upon. It’s become so familiar that we can’t imagine seeing it any other way. What’s interesting to think about however, is that Sargent began with the idea of portraying Madame X sitting down.

By all accounts model and artist at first got on well, since they saw the creation of this painting as a way for both of them as ex-patriate Americans to move up in Parisian high society. Unfortunately for Sargent, his model had rather a short attention span, and it was difficult for him to get to her pose or pay attention to what he wanted for very long. Perhaps this is why he seemed to linger over the idea of portraying her sitting rather than standing, and we have a number of images of her sitting, with or without a book as a prop. Take a look at these sketches, which show some of the ideas that Sargent toyed with when creating this painting (I particularly like this first one):

Seeing these is a bit like seeing a photograph from a movie set during a break in the filming, where Han Solo and Chewbacca are still in costume, but they’re having a chat with George Lucas. We recognize the elements of Sargent’s finished painting – the face with its pointed nose and highly arched brows, the upswept hair, the black mermaid dress with the plunging neckline and the jeweled shoulder straps – but we see them in preparation, not in their final configuration.

I’m reminded a bit in that first sketch of a painting by fellow American ex-pat artist Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), painted a few years before Sargent’s work, which is now in the National Gallery here in Washington. “Little Girl In A Blue Armchair” (1878) displays the kind of languor on the part of the sitter that perhaps Sargent was struggling to capture in his initial design phase. Here, the model has given up all pretense of cooperating. Her puppy has curled up in the next chair, in anticipation of its mistress being told that she now may go out and play. Like Madame X, this little girl has pretty much had it with the whole art thing by this point.

Fortunately for those of us who love his work, Sargent left a wealth of sketches to admire and study, which tell us a great deal about how his technique, and how he came up with the ideas which he later translated into paint. Yet I think these sketches in particular, for arguably his most famous (or infamous) painting are revealing in a different way. They show us not only a great mind at work, but they also show us how, even a century and a half ago, people just could not sit still and pay attention for very long. 

One can only speculate how much time Madame X would have spent on Instagram.