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

The Destination Is The Destination 

One rule of polite society which I learned long ago is that, as a general rule of thumb, no one really cares to hear all of the details about your vacation. They want to know that you suffered no mishaps, and that you enjoyed yourself. And of course it’s helpful to have a very quick story or two ready, tailored to the person with whom you are discussing your trip, but that’s about it. So for those of you who were interested enough to follow my Instagram while I was on vacation – and most of my pics were of food rather than sightseeing activities – but not much besides, you may want to leave off reading at this point.

Otherwise, if you care to continue, I want to make just a few observations about travel more generally. For I hate to travel, as it happens, even though I must make the journey to get to where I want to go. My aversion perhaps has something to do with rejecting the old cliché about the journey being the destination, which is often adopted by those who have only a sense of the now and not the later. While I’m certainly interested in how you make the pudding, with all due respect to the cook I’m even more interested in actually eating it.

Part of my aversion to travel is the horror of traveling with other people who, in the present day, largely seem to view this shared activity as a forum for the indulgence of every kind of barbaric form of public behavior imaginable. But for the fact that some authority might still fine them for doing so, I would not be surprised to see the undulating, semi-naked, unkempt travelers who populate most airports and train stations today not bothering to go to the loo at all, but simply relieving themselves in their seats because they are too lazy to stop watching their phones. In that sense, “WALL-E” is, one suspects, a rather prescient film.

There’s also nothing like spending 7 hours in a flying aluminum tube, sharing your row with a couple of bitter Baby Boomers dressed as though they had rolled out of bed a few minutes before. In this case, Mr. and Mrs. Lemon, as I’ll call them, were a very dissatisfied pair indeed. They did nothing but bicker and complain throughout the flight, about things such as the temperature of the meal – which was perfectly fine – or why the covers on the pillows were not soft enough, or why the in-flight Starbucks isn’t as good as that in whatever putrid corner of Manhattan they happen to live in. Thank goodness for the extra gin in premium cattle class.

But let us not put all the blame on travelers, here, for we can’t forget that the people who control the procedural aspects of that journey are often part of the problem. Take travel on the AVE, for example. The AVE runs on the fastest and most extensive high-speed train network in Europe, knitting the major cities of the Iberian Peninsula together at speeds over 300km an hour and connecting them to the rest of Europe via high-speed French rail. The train is a great pleasure to ride, at least on the line I know between Barcelona and Madrid, for in under 3 hours, you can see everything from mountains to deserts, forests to vineyards, sprawling settlements to abandoned castles, from the comfort of wide leather seats with plenty of legroom – and that’s in tourist class.

That being said, it can be difficult to enjoy that journey when you can’t even get the journey started properly thanks to those charged with making it happen demonstrating the kind of gross incompetence that one expects at the Department of Motor Vehicles or The Prado Museum. At the train platform, I was told to go to a particular car, even though my ticket said I was to go to a different numbered car. I was then told on board by another person that this car was incorrect, and that I was to go back to the person who had told me to go there. Said person then told to go back to the same car, and tired of lugging my massive luggage and somewhat large self back and forth I sat down.

I was then told by someone else to leave that car, and to return to the same individual with whom I had started, and was told that no, now I had to go to another car all the way at the back of the next train. Not only had she neglected to explain this previously – twice – this detail was at all clear either from my ticket, or from the numbering of the cars themselves, which were not in ascending or descending chronological order. Bearing in mind that my grasp of Spanish is, while not perfect, at least close enough to native that no one ever addresses me in English when I’m in Spain, you can understand why I suspect, without being 100% sure, that the fault was probably not mine in this instance.

Despite all of the forgoing of course – and these are but two examples – I had a great time, and will likely be going back again in December/January. I’m doing so because, despite what conventional wisdom tells us, the journey really isn’t as important as the destination. I’m traveling not because I want to travel aimlessly. I’m traveling because I have a goal or destination in mind: being where I want to be. There are many things that can and should be learned from the journey itself, via reflection, experiences, and conversations, and I certainly have done so over the years. But the point of traveling is that I want my coffee at my favorite café in Barcelona, more than I want to flip through the in-flight magazine and come across an  interesting article.

You’re certainly welcome to dismiss me for being too rigid or too goal-oriented. But if you want to sit and complain about your corns coming on from how long the corridors are, or whine to your fellow passengers about how the WiFi on board wasn’t as good as what you have at home, you’ll be doing that without me. I’ll be making a bee-line for the exit, and my cab to downtown.

On The Auction Block: A New Velázquez (?)

The potentially big news in the art market this week is the discovery of a previously unknown work by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), the greatest of all Spanish painters. The painting will be auctioned in Madrid today, and while the auction house is being extremely cautious about attribution, at least one expert in Spanish painting of the 17th and 18th centuries has declared it to be by the Old Master. While I’m certainly not a qualified art expert when it comes to deciding whether or not a particular artist created a particular work, there are a number of factors that make me feel comfortable with this attribution, and one in particular which I’m surprised that no one has mentioned in the art press.

The painting in question depicts a young girl in 17th century costume, her hands folded in prayer. X-rays of the picture reveal that she was originally crowned by a halo of stars, which was painted out at some point in the past. This suggests that it is a representation of the Virgin Mary as a child. It is common when making a visual reference to the Immaculate Conception, the Catholic dogma that Mary was conceived without Original Sin, to use the iconography described in Revelation 12:1 of the woman clothed with the sun, with a crown of stars on her head. It is a device that Velázquez himself used, as the news reports have pointed out.

There is also something about the eyes in this picture that strike me as being very Velázquez. Particularly in his representations of children and animals, Velázquez’ eyes tend to be unexpectedly soulful. If you look closely at the eyes of the little princess standing in the center of his masterpiece “Las Meninas” in The Prado, or the eyes of both the little prince and his puppy in the “Portrait of Prince Felipe Prospero” in Vienna, there is a depth and directness in the gaze, slightly tinged with melancholy. This sense of gravitas sets the painter apart from the more smiley, sunshiny images of children that we’re used to seeing.

While both the crown of stars and the expression of the eyes would tend to fit with Velázquez’ style, what has not been mentioned in the reporting I’ve seen so far on this story is this painting’s possible relation to an entirely different picture of his. When I first saw images of this piece, I was immediately struck by its relation to another early work by Velázquez, “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary”, which is now in the National Gallery in London. Not only is there a significant amount of technical similarity, but if the expert in this case is correct, they were created roughly at the same time and in the same place.

In the “House of Martha and Mary”, take a good look at the servant girl in the foreground, being directed by the old woman standing behind her. You can see that the girl seems rather melancholy, as she goes about making garlic paste in the mortar and pestle. More importantly for our purposes however, take a look at her pouting lips, the shading of her slightly cleft chin, and even the shape of her head, and you’ll notice that they are very similar to those of the young girl in the newly-discovered painting – they could even be sisters.

Not only do I find this an important visual clue, but given the dating of these two pictures and their relationship to what was going on at the artist’s life at the time, they make perfect sense. The little girl in the mystery picture is believed to have been painted in 1617, while the servant girl was painted in 1618. The timing of this is significant from the point of view of Velázquez’ artistic development.

Young artists completing their apprenticeships with established masters tend to re-use compositions that they are more comfortable with at the start of their careers, developing their own unique styles later on. It is why, for example, that Raphael’s earlier images of the Madonna and Child draw upon models created by his master, Perugino. It is only after he gained independence, experience, and self-confidence, that Raphael took the lessons that he had learned from emulating his master, combining them with his own native genius and observational skills, and began creating the unique, more individualized images of Mary holding the Christ Child that first made him famous and highly sought after as an artist.

In 1612, Velázquez began his apprenticeship with the painter Francisco Pacheco in Seville, an artist whose treatise on religious iconography and painterly technique made him the most influential expert on these matters within Spain at the time. By copying the style of his teacher, and learning his techniques and attitudes toward art, Velázquez would have absorbed the skills needed to eventually go out and set up his own shop, much as today a cabinetmaker or ironworker would do once they complete their vocational training. Velázquez finished his studies with Pacheco in early 1618, at about the same time that he married Pacheco’s daughter Juana; the couple moved from Seville to Madrid a few years later, where the young master’s style would begin undergoing a significant transformation.

If Velázquez was still learning at the time that the earlier of these two pictures was painted, then it would make sense that he would reuse certain elements of the earlier composition in a later work. Thus the shape of the head, the features, shading, and so on that we see in the picture of the young girl, were available for him to reuse in the features of the serving girl. Again, this is just a theory on my part, and no doubt an actual expert can poke holes in it, but I think the similarities are too obvious and the timing too perfect to ignore.

Time will tell whether this discovery comes to be widely accepted as a work by Velázquez or not, but I suspect that the sale price at the end of the auction will give us an idea of what the general feeling is within Spain. Given the very strict Spanish export restrictions on works of art that are over 100 years old, the likelihood of this painting leaving Spain for a foreign collection is extremely remote. However whether it disappears back into a private collection, or whether it becomes the property of a public museum, it would seem to be an important link between the end of the artist’s apprenticeship, and his emergence as a master painter in his own right.