Revolutions, Large and Small

April 30, 2015

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The Russian Revolution, and the Italian Risorgimento:  two different revolutions.  One, cataclysmic; one, not so much. Transforming Russia from a backward agrarian society into a totalitarian industrial giant.  Transforming the Italian peninsula from a motley of states into a unified “modern” nation.  I indulged my abiding interest in Josef Stalin by watching The Inner Circle (1991) by Andrei Konchalovsky, and I’m prepping for a trip to the Piedmont region of Italy, where The Risorgimento originated, by watching Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) again, and re-reading the novel by Lampedusa on which it is based.

Konchalovsky, who was quite successful within the Soviet cinema world, relates that he offered a bottle of brandy to a projectionist if the man would tell him the opinions of the state censors for whom he was screening his latest film.  The man revealed that he had lots of stories to tell about what Stalin used to say about films!  He was the Kremlin projectionist for years:  Konchalovsky was ready to listen, and The Inner Circle is the story of this Kremlin functionary.

The film has some odd things about it, including a score that seems to grow loud and sentimental at the worst moments, and the fact that all the dialog is in English spoken with Russian accents.  Seems a bit hokey at times.  The problem of subtitles and translation was handled more creatively in The Hunt for Red October, about the only good thing I recall from that film.  Tom Hulce plays the projectionist, and he holds onto his pure country-bumpkin good-Ivan characterization a bit too long, but to anyone familiar with Russian history, he’s still believable.

There is a scene where the film breaks during a screening for Stalin, and the projectionist explains that the projector is a poor copy of an excellent German machine – the head of the Cinema Bureau, responsible for these  things, is standing right there – and has an inferior spring part that caused the break.  Stalin uses the incident to indulge his sadistic bent, lightly bandying with the bureau chief who is sweating profusely, while Beria – head of the secret police – notes sarcastically that someone wasn’t doing their duty.  This is the sort of thing that can end with a bullet to the head administered some random dead of night.  It’s a chilling set-piece of Stalin’s daily modus operandi.  If you want a sense of the brutal moral degradation imposed on the Soviet citizenry by Stalin, apart from the mass murder itself, this is not a bad film to see.

Meanwhile, back in Sicily, The Prince is speaking dubbed Italian in Visconti’s adaptation of The Leopard.  Panned at first, it is now highly rated:  Martin Scorsese, not surprisingly, rates it among the greatest of all films.  Why no surprise?  Because Scorsese, as one critic noted, is no great sociologist, and naturally he is entranced by Visconti’s lush nostalgia for a period of elegance decayed.

Starting to read the novel again, I noted right away that the author’s tone is sharper, more harsh, than the elegiac sentiment of Visconti.  The film is an aesthetic response to the politics of the Risorgimento.  You can say that Visconti was a Marxist (he joined the Communist Party after WWII) but how much of one could he be having made this film?  He loves those aristocrats, their clothes, their nobless oblige, and he loathes the upstart middle class.  He was, of course, the scion of a hugely important Italian aristocratic clan.  And in the end, the film is an adaptation, not a copy of the book – he chooses to emphasize the theme of the Prince dealing with his own mortality, as well as the end of his era, a more personal story. A fine film, a wee bit too long, and I think his talents were better suited for Senso.

The Leopard is often referred to as Italy’s “Gone With The Wind,” a comparison that is an insult to Visconti’s considerable talents and highly developed sensibility.

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Dream Sequence: Ivan meets Joe

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Dream Couple: Delon and Cardinale

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Piazza d’Italia – New Orleans

November 28, 2013

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I remember when this …er..ensemble was created, and the incredible press it got.  “The End of Modernism!!” shouted the critics, and the bravos of the Post-Modern wave.  Eh, what..?

Created to commemorate the contribution of Italian immigrants to New Orleans, not the most prominent group in NOLA consciousness, it’s true, it was declared a masterpiece by some.  What I did not know was that barely a few years later, it was decrepit and unused, a lonely architectural joke in a location where the expected development did not occur.  Some quipped it was the world’s first post-modern ruin.

This self-conscious pastiche has learned a bit too much from Las Vegas and Robert Venturi’s take on it, for my taste.  Fine for the backyard of a trendy summer house or an architect’s getaway, but as a node in a downtown urban redevelopment scheme?  As this interesting recap of the birth, death, and rebirth of the plaza quoted:

 Lake Douglas, a New Orleans resident and a long-standing contributor to this magazine, may have said it best 25 years ago in a piece for Architectural Review. “[The piazza] is a wonderful, capricious architectural joke that one cannot appreciate unless one has a sense of humor to match the architects’, one understands the elements of classical architecture and the confused state of contemporary architecture, and one is privy to the customs of New Orleans,”

Douglas wrote. “Perhaps with the Italian Piazza, pop architecture has advanced into elite architecture, and that may be the ultimate architectural joke.”

It’s all been refurbished now, to the tune of one million dollars, and it looks pretty much as when it was unveiled.  It sits in a lot  between a giant hotel and, I think a parking lot.  Not exactly an eye-catching spot.  Maybe in better weather there is more life to it, but for me, happening on it by chance and instantly recalling the picture of it on a magazine cover years ago, it was as if Disneyland had just landed in front of my car in New Orleans.


False-Front Fad

May 18, 2013

In architecture, the Renaissance was a bit of a fad.  Suddenly, the Gothic style represented barbarity and uncouth, crude, and deficient aesthetics.  Later on, John Ruskin would disagree, and deplore the wholesale abandonment of medieval styles and craftsmanship in favor of the reigning form of the classical temple front.

The changes in church facades show the faddish aspect of the Humanist wave in all its glory.

Here’s a church front in Padua:  simple brick, with the shape of a standard Roman Basilica – high central aisle with two lower sides aisles.

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Here is a huge church in Venice with roughly the same form, but some gothic ornament added.

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The Renaissance came, found facades of brick, and like Augustus and Rome, left them of marble.  Pagan temple facades abound, covering the brickwork of the Christian temples.  Architects worked for generations on novel combinations of columns, pediments, hiding the form of the basilica or reflecting it in the shape of the facade.  This example pretty much masks the side aisles with a nearly square front.

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Eventually the thrill of imitating the ancients began to wear thin, and architects went in search of new excitement, including dynamic Baroque styling, and little ‘jokes’ that their sophisticated patrons would enjoy.  Notice the pediment over the main front door that is broken into three pieces, something that would have made Palladio vomit.

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Potemkin Quoins of the Suburban Realm

February 1, 2013

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I see a lot of this sort of architectural gimcrackery around my neighborhood.  It’s all EPS, expanded polystyrene foam.  The illustration below isn’t all that different from sales materials of 19th century Victorian gingerbread builders, but they used factory-cut wooden ornament. (Sometimes wood posed as structural stone.)

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I am especially taken with quoins; I have always liked them, the massive, protectors of the corners of buildings.

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Adolf Loos knew it all, and denounced it with his characteristic verve in this essay from Ver Sacrum (1898), Potemkin Village.  He was attacking the new Ringstrasse of Vienna, with its neo (pseudo) baroque splendor.

Yes, literally nail on! For these Renaissance and Baroque palaces are not actu­ally made out of the material of which they seem. Some pretend that they are made of stone, like the Roman and Tuscan palaces; others of stucco, like the buildings of the Viennese Baroque. But they are neither. Their ornamental details, their corbels, festoons, cartouches, and denticulation, are nailed-on poured cement. Of course, this technique too, which comes into use for the first time in this century, is perfectly legitimate. But it does not do to use it with forms whose origin is intimately bound up with a specific material simply because no technical difficulties stand in the way. It would have been the artist’s task to find a new formal language for new materials. Everything else is imitation.


Warhol’s Work

December 19, 2012

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Watching the movie Capote (2005) yesterday, and it was pretty good, I got to thinking of Warhol.  Turns out he was fascinated by Capote and his portrait on the back of his first book.  Seems a lot of people were taken by the photo, and it became as much, or more of a cause célèbre than the book itself.  Warhol wrote fan letters to Capote and called his first gallery show Fifteen Drawings Based on the Writings of Truman Capote.  

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Yes, I think the visual influences are clear.

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There’s a scene in the movie when Capote is talking to the New Yorker editor, William Shawn, after his successful preview reading from In Cold Blood:  he asks breathlessly, “Should we do more readings?”  Shawn replies that they should not; they will let people talk about the book, build interest.  “Let them do the work.

Well, nobody could accuse Capote of not doing his work.  As one character in the film remarks, “You’re nothing if not hard-working.”  But then there’s Warhol…

I think Warhol realized that popular culture in the early 1960s was ready to step lightly over the homosexual bar, and Capote’s unabashedly affected and effeminate manner were probably an inspiration to him.  His great insight was that if he just played himself straight, people would not know how to accept – process – his personality, and would assume he was ironical, sophisticated, in other words, an artist.  Then he could do the things he most wanted to do: get rich; hobnob with the rich and famous; be famous; and play with pictures other people made, while others did his publicity and produced critical laurels and justifications for him. He was dead on, and his blockbuster success was the proof.  The only irony was that he assumed others would assume he was an ironist, and he was happy to let them.

There’s really not  much to Warhol’s work, unless you enjoy his colors and designs, at least, not much that isn’t created and put there by others.  But that never mattered to him.


Thomas Kinkade – Artist for the People

April 11, 2012

Thomas Kinkade, the “most collected,” “most successful,” most this-and-that artist of America today died a few days ago.  I come here neither to bury, praise, or damn him, but only to mull over the curious intersection of aesthetic and cultural issues that his work occupies.  His paintings bring to mind Walter Benjamin, of course, whom I have belittled in an earlier post.  I should read his work again since I refer to it so often: perhaps I would have a more favorable opinion today.  At any rate, Balzac may have said it best when he foresaw the pickle of modern art in the advancing machine age:

While working for the masses, modern industry progressively destroys works of art that had been as personal for the buyer as for the creator.  Nowadays, we have products; we no longer have works.

And products a-plenty we have by Kinkade!  I believe he rarely sold his original oils, but the reproductions, the franchises for furniture, dinnerware, galleries, pillows, and other items are a business with annual revenue in the many tens of millions of dollars.  He is an artist who is scorned by the ‘critical establishment’, although he claims the hostility is a one-way thing: he loves Franz Kline and Rothko.  The word ‘kitsch‘ comes up frequently in evaluations of his oeuvre.  (Beware, one man’s kitsch is another man’s living room!)

The image at the top is typical of a large number of his paintings, a serene landscape, while others are religious, genre, or even sci-fi almost surreal. One of the few art critics sympathetic to his work quips that he is a ‘conceptual’ artist because his work is driven by his desire to give visual form to his ideas and values:  Christianity; family; patriotism, among them.  Other academics cite the eerie similarity of his career to that of Andy Warhol, who referred to his studio as The Factory, and who made no qualms about blurring or completely rejecting the line between Art and Commerce. (see Heaven on Earth)

Kinkade’s art is a perfect target for the satire of Komar and Melamid, purveyors of ‘nostalgic realism,’ who also did a market resarch project to determine what paintings people want, and created images to meet the need.  Kinkade, judging by his commercial success, has the talent to sniff out what people want and need on their walls without the benefit of professional pollsters.  He acknowledges this, and is proud of it.  As far as he is concerned, what is the point of artists having contempt for the taste of most people on the planet?  Doesn’t he have a point?  It’s just that I would rather look at older art, skipping the contemporary stuff, instead of Kinkade’s art.  But let’s look at a few…

The two images below are very typical of his work, and I cannot bear to look at them.  I find them simply ugly, boring, meretricious, and profoundly irritating.  They are chock full of symbolism according to Kinkadists.  So are Renaissance landscapes and action scenes.  I was just looking at an engraving by Durer of Adam and Eve that Panofsky analyses in terms of the animals signifying the four humours of the body, among other things.  Personally, that rather arcane aspect of art history never interested me.

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The seascape below on the left, the style is that of the bulk of his work, strikes me as soporific.  I feel I’ve seen it in countless waiting rooms.  Not painful to see, but nothing interesting.  The one on the right is simply weird, and not too exciting given the terrifying nature of the monster.  It’s a bit too literal for me. [Note:  comments by Sledpress lead me to wonder if this is not actually a Kinkade.]

Okay, with these images below, we have evidence that Kinkade can certainly paint.  Both are rather attractive, though I find the one on the left to be a visual cliché for calendars and more office waiting rooms.  It is very much in the style of Andrew Wyeth, I think, and boy, is he popular!  I like the one on the right, but it is unusual in his catalogue. Technique is only part of being an artist, though a part too much scorned in the modern era.  On the other hand, as professor once remarked to me, we have Bougouereau, who we might call a great painter, and a lousy artist.

Below, a workmanlike urban landscape: glowing, unremarkable, and dull; a rural scene in Guatemala that captures some sense of the place, almost plein air impressionistic – pretty good, but atypical of his production.

The image on the left below is pretty good:  I happen to have a weakness for that type of color and light.  Kinkade is called, or refers to himself as The Painter of Light, a monniker that the Impressionists would have been happy with.  So too would the Luminists of the turn of the 20th century period.  The image on the right by Maxfield Parrish shows Kinkades stylistic pedigree, I think, but he would never include figures in such a bewitching state of languor.

The Whitney Museum of Art in NYC scorns Kinkade, and the hostility is returned.  He’d like to build his own museum (an anti-art museum, to his critics) right next door.  But as Heaven on Earth points out, The Whitney began as an institution championing American Regionalism – Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, Reginald Marsh, etc. – against the effete strains of European modernism, an art historical irony.  Kinkade has affinities with this sort of art, as shown by his American slice-of-life image of the Indianapolis 500.  Reginald Marsh painted crowd scenes of American’s at play, but he was very prone to showing sex and violence, not in Kinkade’s line.

So Kinkade gives people what they want, and what they want is based on their unchallenged preconceptions.  Does art always have to be new?  Must it épater le bourgeois always?  (And are Kinkade’s buyers actually the same group as the bourgeois  so reviled by the avant garde?  One critic locates his market square in the working class, whatever that is these days in America.  That’s a nice culturo-politico irony too.) Where is it written that art must challenge the ideas of the day?  That’s a prejudice of the avant garde that developed during the 19th century and that is shot through with intellectual and political elitism, even when it’s directed at championing what it sees as the causes of the masses.

Much of the “great art” that is universally applauded by the cognoscenti, even as they condescend to it from the pinnacle of today’s art, was produced exactly as Kinkade’s was.  That is, for patrons who knew what they wanted, and wanted nothing else. Much of the art then was boring, and we don’t see it in museums:  we see only the best of it.  Think of all those Dutch still-lifes and landscapes: they aren’t all masterpieces!  Some of them seem to have been churned out pretty much by the numbers.  Kinkade simply adapts that approach to the age of consumerism, and broadens the reach of his patronage to include everyone!

Behind the critical disdain for his work is usually an intense strain of snobbism and elitism, and a failure to acknowledge that these days, we are all part of a market, a lifestyle segment, a target demographic, even if we don’t embrace the fact, even if we are acutely aware of the fact, even if it is a very small and select group after all.  Scorn and ridicule are out of place here.  If people like this stuff, then…so what?  If you find it boring, spend your time and money elsewhere.  Is there anything new under the sun here that should get you all hot and bothered?


Form and Function

October 13, 2011

Some comments by Monsieur Savage and A Minimalist apropos of my posts on Steve Jobs and Thoreau got me thinking more about form and function, the twin rails on which design evolution runs.  It’s a fraught topic, not least because it is so maddeningly difficult to pin down the categories.  Sort of like the debate over form and content in art – are they really separate?  Is the message truly distinct from the medium?  This ideas get reduced to slogans that guide and support fads and fashions in architecture, design, and the art world, but there is substance behind them.  And with the rise of digital technology, the whole relationship is being questioned.

The idea that form and function in nature are closely related probably occurred to the first person who looked closely at living things, and Darwinism takes it for granted:  forms evolve because they function in a way that promotes survival of the genes that produce them, or the species in which they are present, depending on your flavor of Darwin.  Once we get into culture, the whole idea gets confused.  In architecture, there are three notions related to this:  ornament is crime; functionalism; and form follows function.

Ornament is Crime was a famous essay by the early 20th century architect, Adolf Loos.  The phrase is often assumed to be the guiding idea behind functionalism, the philosophy that buildings, and designed objects, should have forms that reflect their function, their use, and that ornament is an outmoded, irrelevant, distracting, and even immoral deviation from this creed.  After all, what does ornament do?  Well, Loos’ buildings, though quite austere on the outside, were plush on the inside, and patterned materials were often present.

Is not pattern a form of ornament?  Should not carpets be simply solid colors?  And of course, just what is the function of a carpet?  To decorate  a room or to make it warm and comfy?  Both?  You see where this is going.  The colors of a peacock may have a strict evolutionary function in sexual selection – can we say the same for the profusion of ornament in human culture?  Or…is the demarcation of status, creation of lifestyles and consumption communities a valid function that ornament and style serve?  In the end, there is no escape from style.

Escaping style, and history, and the history of style is what is behind so much of the late 19th, early 20th century avant-garde.  If architecture were true to its function, so the story went, it would be timeless, instead of being encrusted with useless doodads that reflect the passing taste of the day.  Thus, Louis Sullivan’s phrase, form ever follows function, was distilled into the oracular form:  form follows function.

That small change, ‘ever’, is significant, I think.  Sullivan was coming from a cultural background that was filled with contemplation of natural forms, romantic notions of vitalism, organicism, German nature-philosophy, the excitement of Art Nouveau’s reworking of natural forms in ornament, and he struggled to distill this into a coherent aesthetic for the new building form of the skyscraper.  The word ‘ever’ implies that he is gathering this insight from observation of what has and does happen in the world – yes, life-forms do follow their function.  And the sloganeering modernists created the avant-garde ukase, form follows function.  It must, it does, and it shall…always!

Sloganeering produces herds that follow, and clever exploiters.  Raymond Loewy was one of the most successful designers of the 20th century, but he is criticized for mere styling.  That is, he created forms that looked good, seemed functionally derived, but were actually just stylish wrappers for the functional innards – salesmanship, not design.  Inside that Art Deco Moderne shell, there is just the same old locomotive as before.

These three works by the modern masters, Gropius and Mies van der Rohe show the more serious side of the functionalist aesthetic.  It produced some handsome buildings, not to mention furniture.  (Any architect angling for the moniker of Modern Master had to produce a chair design.  How better to display one’s grasp of form following function?  What is not often realized today, is that these notions were behind much design of the 18th century, when ornament was anything but subdued.)

And the debate is still on, I think, as to just how functional-rationalist (in Violet le Duc’s terms) were the builders of the gothic cathedrals.  Were the flying buttresses, the rib vaults, the spacing of arches, all dictated by structural logic, or was there a purely experiential/aesthetic motivation to some of them? Robert Mark, a professor of structural engineering tried to settle the argument with a series of modeling analyses using polarized light and plexiglass sheets  in the 1970s.  Today, it would all be done on a computer screen!

This post starts with an outrageous fashion image, fashion being the stylistic element of clothing, a most functional class of objects.  But of course, it’s easy to keep warm, especially with cheap materials abundant today, so that the exact how of it becomes the why of it!  I’ll end with Sullivan, who gave us the famous and much mis-used phrase.

The general look of his most influential building, The Guaranty (Prudential) Building in Buffalo, NY, seems quite modern.  It’s of brick and terra-cotta – glass curtain walls were not possible then – and it clearly honors the steel frame within with its strong horizontal and vertical lines.  It nods to tradition with a tripartite façade that echoes the form of a classical column: plinth; shaft; capital.  It also has a very un-modernist cornice.  (Le Corbusier declared, death to the cornice!)  But…it is covered with ornament, and beautiful ornament it is!  In fact, the ornament even seems to echo function in a way.  The massive corner of the cornice is held up by a spread of foliage that springs from a slender column-trunk.  Ornament follows function?  Sullivan was so much more subtle than many of his followers.  Less is more is too easy compared to this.

While the digital age may seem to divorce form and function in the realm of consumer products at least, I think it doesn’t do that at all.  When there is no mechanism to house, just a bunch of cards and chips of similar shape and appearance, the form is all about the user interface.  This is an old lesson that has simply become more important as the machines do more and more complex things.  It’s an old lesson that has never been properly learned by many designers of basic objects.  Whenever I come to a glass door with a handle that can be pushed or pulled, and I have to think (or read a sign) to figure out whether to push or pull to go through it, I think, a decently designed handle would not cause this confusion.