Catalan Cathedrals

September 10, 2011

The gothic cathedral style in Catalonia is a bit different from that of France, although you might not know it by looking at the façade of Barcelona’s cathedral.  When you walk in however, the difference is immediately apparent, and you see what is obvious in the plan, that there is no clear crossing making it into the shape of a cross.

Although the photograph below exaggerates the effect, you feel as if you have walked into a giant vaulted shed, and that there is no clear division of space into aisles, although everything does point towards the altar.  The French Gothic plan at the right, below, has a definite crossing aisle that is not present in Catalan Gothic churches.  Note that the crossing in the plan at the top, in Barcelona, is achieved by removing side chapels, not by extending the fabric of the church building outwards.

Why is this peculiar to the region?  It may be the more strongly lingering effect of the classical tradition, flowing from Rome, of the basilica form.  Basilicas are basically long, covered spaces that are rather wide, often with aisles formed by columns.  The are derived from the Roman public buildings used for government and social functions.  Catholic churches at first were simply basilicas with Christian symbols, and many important churches still are called by the name, e.g., Basilica of Saint Peters, the biggest of them all, despite its Christian plan with a crossing and dome at the  intersection.  The basilica form was retained during the Romanesque period, and never abandoned in Italy at all until the Renaissance.  At that point, a great debate ensued over the proper form for churches:  symmetrical with a central dome, which pleased humanist intellectuals but had pagan and Byzantine, i.e. Eastern Orthodox connotations, or the cross-form that was very respectable but associated with Barbarians by the Renaissance intellectuals.

French Gothic cathedrals often have dramatic flying buttresses to hold up their thin walls that are filled with glass, which cannot bear a load.  The outside of the apse of Girona cathedral shows only a few rather puny flying buttresses, and they ‘fly’ nearly horizontally – more like static braces.  The interior of the apse at Narbonne, not all that far from Catalonia, but definitely under the sway of the heretic-slaying northern French by the time this was built, shows the striving for lightness and soaring verticality that is just not part of the Catalan style.

The inside of Girona cathedral is big, but boxy, as is the façade.  The baroque era statuary and the tremendous flight of steps that was added accentuate the drama of its sheer mass.

You can’t talk about cathedrals in Catalonia without mentioning the church of the Sagrada Familia by Gaudi, begun in the late 19th century and scheduled for completion in about thirty years.  Some of the gothic cathedrals took centuries to complete, some were raised in a few generations.  Gaudi had his own style, inspired by gothic, art nouveau, and physics.  The main space of the Sagrada Familia is like no other interior I know or have imagined.  It seems utterly fantastic, like something that belongs in a set for Star Wars, but it is not built of plaster and steel framing – only hard, carved, heavy stones set one on another.  In this space, you seem to be inside a structural skeleton, yet unlike gothic interiors, the ribs and vaults seem to have a life of their own and they extend into and beyond the surfaces they support.

Gaudi favored the catenary arch in his buildings, a form that is developed mathematically, not from aesthetic preference.  They are often referred to as parabolic arches, but they are slightly different, as you can see in the plot below.  A catenary curve is formed when a rope hangs from two points without any load but its own weight.  A parabolic curve is formed when a rope hangs from two points and supports additional loads at even intervals of space, as with the suspension cables on a bridge.  Gaudi felt that the catenary arch, an inverted catenary curve, was best suited to carry the weight of his buildings, and he created this dizzying inverted model of the Sagrada Familia to test his designs.  Each hanging string and weight represents an arch in the stone structure.

Outside, the facades look almost traditional compared to what’s within.


Gaudi too, honored the classical tradition, sometimes in odd places.  Here, in a detail from the pavilion at the Guell Park, is a variation on the Greek Doric motif, complete with drops of water placed on the dentils in the frieze.


Consumer Vortex – Lower Broadway

August 15, 2011

A quick subway trip uptown to indulge my preoccupation with shoes and whatnot  (I’m heading out for a ten-day vacation abroad, and I want my feet, the man-earth interface, properly shod) and I find myself debouching from the R-Train right on Lower Broadway, across from one of my favorite NYC buildings!  It’s called the Little Singer Building to distinguish it from the skyscraper, for a while, the world’s highest, that is no longer with us.  A blast from the past of consumer culture, right out of Paris:  the curving Art Nouveau ironwork brings to mind Galeries Lafayette, the great 19th century department store.  (More on the buildings here and here.)

Walking around the area puts one in the center of the tourist, chi-chi, consumer maelström, and it can be overwhelming, but I soldier on.  As I put on my own consumer hat, I chuckle at the thought of my current reading, a fabulous study of the origins and nature of consumer culture.  The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism is a rich and complex analysis that takes off from Weber and ends up at the mall.  The author disposes of the simplistic explanations of consumerism – instinct, manipulation by élite conspiracy, or variations on Veblenesque emulation – and locates the origins of our culture in the latter 18th century (Not much controversy there, think Josiah Wedgewood and his factory, embodying Adam Smith’s dicta on the division of labor.  The two were friends, and Darwin later married into the family.  So many cultural cross-currents at that point in time and space!) and links the ‘spirit’ of our consumerist age to the mutations of protestant theology and the cult of sentimentality.  His argument is brilliant – not sure if I’m convinced yet, but his approach to the questions is the best I have ever come across.

The book is not for casual reading as it is assumes a wide knowledge of 18th century European, especially British, culture, and it makes a very involved and dense argument about religion and culture.  I will try to post a summary of it once I have finished it and digested it somewhat.  Meanwhile, I consume, calm in the knowledge that I must be of my Age, even if I repudiate its values in many ways.  “I shop, therefore I am,” may not apply to me, but shop I must.


A matter of taste, again…

February 7, 2011

Victory Arch - Iran/Iraq War .

Disgusting, vulgar, obscenely kitsch – some of the comments that are heard about Saddam Hussein’s Victor Arch, which is now being restored in Baghdad.  One scholar wrote an entire book on the subject of Saddam’s artistic output. [Edward Said felt that the author, Kanan Makiya, an erstwhile booster of the GWB invasion, had tainted motives for his critical tirade.]

One man’s kitsch is another man’s living room. Tolstoy had the same opinion of Napoleon as we have of Saddam, but Boney is a “great man,” and his monuments are gawked at with admiration and reverence by millions of civilized westerners

Napoleon celebrates Austerlitz


Ruins…ruined…beautiful

November 3, 2010

 The Renaissance humanists found beauty in ruins.   They took what they could dig up.  They thought the best was behind them, and they sought to live up to the ancient ideals.  Was this the first example of stylistic revivalism?

 

Later on, archaeologists got to work on those beautiful ruins.  Enlightenment artists like Piranesi took a methodical interest in the remnants of Classical Civilization, and produced views of it that were part postcard, part scientific document, and part aesthetic reverie.

Finally, the Romantics found ruins beautiful, but only certain kinds of ruins.

Today, the aesthetic back and forth between beauty and ugliness, the sordid and the sublime, the natural and the artificial continues, as always.

Now, there are a bunch of photographers who love to take pictures of industrial decay.  Some call it industrial decay pornHaving spent lots of time in Detroit, I can understand the frustration of the person in this link.  Others are clearly entranced by the aesthetic possibilities of magnificent abandoned sites, as in these pictures on Flickr.  Not sure how they would feel about their subjects if they were simply unemployed with no propsects, after working on the factory line…

This color image is almost over the top, but it looks very much like factories I visited on Doremus Avenue, NJ, which is shown in the B&W image at the top.  Doremus was the center of the chemical industry in the USA during the late 19th and early 20th century. (More images here.)

Is it the romance of industry that draws them?  The Ozymandias outlook?  Fascination with decadence?  Purely aesthetic possibilities of texture, space, tone?  The image at the bottom left looks positively Piranesian, while the one on the right is simply depressing in its presentation of utter decreptitude.  Would these subjects be interesting to anyone but engineers if they were functioning and in good repair?  (I know there are photographers of contemporary industry too…)

Plowden was making a statement, a plea, with his photographs of American wastelands, but these images seem contemplative and a bit voyeuristic.  At least on the Web, I find very little interest in what the subjects actually are, what they were for,  only how they look.

 

Coming full circle, sort of, we have the image below which shows not ruins, but a functioning geothermal plant in Iceland.  No ice to be seen; bathers and boaters frolic in this Edenic scene from Dante’s Inferno.  An absolutely mind-bending union of thematic opposites.


Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

June 16, 2010

While the mariners were landing in the New World (see previous post), the Renaissance intellectual literati were carrying on with their pagan wet dream in a dream.  Published in 1499, and a bestseller for centuries, I just finished Hypnerotomachia Poliphili [other posts] and I can confidently say that it is the weirdest book I have read.  Here are a few samples of the text which, as the translator tells us in his forward, has been considerably pruned of invented words and bizarre phrases to make it flow better for the modern reader.

One of the many architectural wonders Poliphilio dreams, and describes at tremendous length:

The threshold of the doorway was made from an immense leek-green stone, whose tough surface was marred with a scattering of white, black, and grey spots and various other indistinct stains.  The straight antis-columns rested on this, standing one pace form the edge of the threshold with their inner sides smooth and lustrous but their outer faces notably carved.  There was not sight of hinges either on the threshold, or above, nor any indications of iron hooks retaining the half-capitals which were of the same stone.  Above this there curved the arched beam or semicircle, with the requisite lineaments and measured fascias of the beam, namely balls or berries and spindles, arranged by tens as if threaded on a string; dog’s ears; sinuous or lapped rinceaux in antique style, with their stalks.  The spine, wedge, or keystone of the arch was worthy of admiration for its bold and subtle design and its elegant finish, which make it a splendid sight to see.

In his dream, Poliphilio meets an enticing nymph:

The white breasts were left voluptuously open as far as to reveal the round nipples,  The little virginal body rested on straight legs, and little feet, some of the bare within antique sandals what were held on by golden thongs that passed between the bi and the middle toes, near the little toe, and right around the heel, to join neatly above the instep in an artistic bow.  Some were in shoes, tightly fastened with golden hooks: others wore boots with soles of crimson and other gay colors, such as were never seen on Gaius Caligula, the first to wear them.  Some had high boots slit around their with and fleshy calves; others, slippers with masterly fasteners of gold and silk. Many wore antique Sicyonian shoes, and a few had fine silken socks, with golden laces decorated with gems.

Still in his dream, he finds Polia, and is invited into a pagan love-fest:

Does Mars dream?

Take your pleasure of me for a all days to come, and you will feel comfort and contentment that make you forget your former torments and past misfortunes:  they will dissolve under my caresses and kindnesses just as the mists, rising and thickening from the all-ruling earth are dispersed by forceful winds, as dust-motes float and vanish in the air.  Now take this amorous kiss’ (here he embraced me in virginal fashion) as the gauge of my inflamed heart, conceived from my excessive love.”  And as he hugged me tightly, my little round purple mouth mingled its moisture with his , savoring sucking, and giving the sweetest little bites as our tongues entwined around each other.

There is much sighing, some dying, some reviving, then dying more, then sighing, and loving and entwining.  But in the end, Poliphilio awakes, and it’s all over.  He curses the jealous sun that rose and ended his nightime bliss.


Belles Heures

March 27, 2010

Yesterday evening, I took a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the new exhibit of the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry.

I find it hard not to confuse this manuscript with the perhaps more famous, Très Riches Heures, which is known for its beautiful scenes illustrating the progression of the seasons on a medieval estate.  This manuscript, also a prayer book, features illuminations of The Passion, St. Jerome, and St. Catherine, who refused to be broken, on the wheel or otherwise.

The manuscript has been disassembled for restoration, and before putting it back together, it is being exhibited as individual pages, so you can see both sides in upright glass holders – magnifying glasses are available!  Soon, it will return to its bound state, and visitors will be able to view only two pages, chosen by the curator, at time.

Aside from the dazzling ornamentation of the pages, the pictures are alternately dramatic, poignant, and even humorous.  Viewing them all is totally exhausting, and of course, they were not meant to be viewed this way at all.  The books were meditative/prayer aids, intended to be read one page at a time, a few each day, year after year.

Among my favorite images, with links:

A lovely image showing a crescent moon, and an almost 3-D effect of some angels in reddish hues.

St. Jerome tempted by some dancing girls.

A fanatical Christian, accosted by a loose woman who fondles his thigh.  Rather than be seduced, he bites off his tongue so that the pain will drive away temptation.

St. Jerome listening to a scholar discourse on the classics.  Jerome was torn by his love of Greek and Latin literature and its conflicts with his Christian faith.

St. Jerome is tricked by his colleagues into wearing a woman’s dress.  He is so absorbed in meditation, he puts it on without realizing that his fellow monks have switched his clothing.

There is also a current exhibit of a series of small statues in alabaster depicting a procession of mourners at the funerals of two Burgundian noblemen, the same ones who commissioned the books of hours, I believe.  This figures are placed around the base of two elaborate raised platforms, inside a series of ornately carved gothic niches.

They are displayed in two parallel rows on a simple base in the Metropolitan while their home museum in France is restored.  This means that they are visible completely in the round.  They display a wide variety of costumes and physical manifestations of their grief, all with great realism.  You can view each figure at this link.  The figures have been digitally scanned in the round, so you can actually rotate each virtual figure in your web brower – fantastic!

After leaving the museum, I took a bus downtown to Penn Station, and stopped to look at the new pedestrian mall that has taken over Broadway around 34th street.  Even on a cold night, it is wonderful.  To stand in the middle of a street in Manhattan, with the view that affords, and not have to dodge traffic!

A view of a mysterious moon near the Deco spire of the Empire State Building from the Broadway mall.

Nowadays, we have our own form of illuminations, as followers of Walter Benjamin might say.  A store window advertisement got a felicitous double effect from the reflection in the back of a chromium chair.  And a snap of a hard working artist, creating the dazzling festivals of desire along the street scape.

T0urists doing what they do, recording their ephemeral presence in my phenomenal world.


Les Biches – Chabrol (1968)

March 4, 2010

Got to hand it to Chabrol, he knew how to keep politics and art separate when he wanted to.  1968, and what does he make, a jewel-like exercise in psychological storytelling.

Les Biches means, the does, or fawns, and also the girls, or chicks, with connotations of bad girls.  One is a street artist who draws fawns on the sidewalk, and is picked up by Stéphane Audran, a rich, bored, bi-sexual ice queen.  The other girl is a bit of cipher, and she becomes absorbed by, and obsessed with the identity of her keeper.  There’s a bit of Hitchcock’s Vertigo here – one woman being transformed into another, albeit from very different motives.  There’s not much suspense – the end is clearly foreshadowed early on – and the male character in this dysfunctional ménage is rather ambiguous:  what will he do at the end when he arrives to find that the double has killed his lover…accept her as a replacement?

The cool, precise aesthetic that is the draw of this film struck me forcibly during this brief sequence showing Frédéric rising from her bed, dressed in immaculate white pyjamas, in her rather spartan bedroom.  Look at how she gets up – she doesn’t bend her back at all!  Her posture is ramrod straight.  It looks as if she is sliding off the bed quite naturally, but every element of her movement is controlled and thought out, like a model, an actress, a creation.

This blogger gives an extended treatment in the same vein to the climactic murder scene, focusing on the precise camera work and editing of Chabrol.

 


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