The great fountain in the Parc de la Ciutadella of Barcelona, by Josep Fontsère, with some minor work by the young Gaudi. The horses on top have been re-gilded now. To me, the wonderful thing about this exuberant and dramatic concoction is the way the vegetation is incorporated as part of the architectural/sculptural ensemble.
In an earlier post on the bible illustrated by Lucas Cranach’s workshop, I added this note:
[Feb. 13] Could it be that this dragon image from Hypnerotomachia Poliphili could be the source of the iconography in the image at the head of this post? A dragon/lizard in the cathedral/temple? How odd that would be as a source of Protestant anti-papal graphics!
Further to the Cranach-Colonna-Bomarzo connection alluded to in my earlier post on Hypnerotomachia:
A reclining statue of a sleeping nymph in Bomarzo; Nymph Reclining by a Fountain by Cranach, also derived from the woodcut image and establishing the influence of the work on him; the likely source of the statue’s form in Hypnerotomachia; elephant statue at Bomarzo probably influenced by the elephant-obelisk in Hypnerotomachia.
One of these days, I’m going to visit the strange Park of the Monsters at Bomarzo, Italy. If I go, will I be greeted and led to the Hell’s Mouth by a sultry nymph with delightful long legs like this one? Will my wife, and all my family obligations and history melt away, my middle age fly off to leave me youthful and desirable, my heightened emotions and vigor to be quenched in a unique, bizarre, erotic embrace within some weird grotto?
Not likely…This renaissance (Mannerist) oddity is nicely photographed and discussed in this fine book which I own. I’ve known about the park for a very long time, but it seems that it was forgotten by Europe for centuries, until being rediscovered and somewhat restored by the efforts of Salvidor Dali and Mario Praz. Popularity followed, and now it’s a “family destination” for tourists.
The image is from a catalog for Schneider’s of Austria, a clothing manufacturer, that was all shot in the garden. What is going on here? Their slogan is “Everywhere at home.” This reminds me of the classic formulations of kitsch consciousness, i.e., that everywhere kitsch-man goes, everywhere he looks, he sees himself. Thus, he is never open to new, genuine, experience. Do I believe this? Ich bin ein kitschmensch!
Fashion advertisement, and in this case, a pretty high-end, classy example of it, trades on all sorts of moods, half-understood cultural allusions, snobbisms, innovations, cultural quotes, etc. to endow the product, the look, with a feeling, a cachet. Moody, hip, sophisticated, mannered, mysterious, cultured, refined and esoteric, sooo European…These are a few of the things this catalog has to say about Schneider’s clothes. And you know what? I buy it, all of it! I want that raincoat I saw in Century 21!! I’m a pretty unremarkable dresser, and I don’t think my appearance turns any heads, but I look at other people’s looks a lot. Sometimes I become fixated on a woman’s coat, a man’s shoes, a purse, a pair of glasses…okay, it’s probably 80/20 when it comes to the time I spend on women/men – it’s not just fashion that catches my eye.
I’ve never been able to figure out or come to terms with exactly what is going on here. It feels dreadfully superficial, even childish or stupid in a way. On the other hand, it feels totally human and natural. Does there have to be a moral evaluation involved?
I told my wife once about an incident when I was twenty years old, and I saw a Panama hat in a window of a shop in Europe during my summer travels there. The “vision” of that hat stayed with me for days. On the long train ride, I imagined myself wearing it in all sorts of situations – how it would make me feel all sorts of ways just by being on my head. (Hats – the mediator of the man-sky interface.) She rolled her eyes. That’s one reason I married her. She keeps me somewhat tethered to reality.
Bring on La Maniera. Hail to La dolce vita!
Gardens in western civilization are heavily weighted with symbolism and mythic allusions. We visit them to vicariously experience Eden, to see a tamed version of Nature, which is fearsome in the raw, to escape the gridiron of the city, to revive our spirits by contact with Mother Earth, and so on. Prospect Park, in Brookly, NY, happens to be in the Park-as-garden-as-Eden mode, as opposed to the more formal gardens you might see in Paris, say. For my money, it is far superior to its much more celebrated brother, both by Olmsted, Central Park in Manhattan.
Sometimes Mother Nature intrudes on our little faux naturel versions of au naturel living, and often, we people don’t like it one bit. The New York Times had an article the other day about a swan spat, involving two families of mute swans (they make noise, but they’re called mute). One male patriarch is trying to run the other family off his turf, and he’s getting pretty agressive about it. Some local residents are horrified, and they are trying to redress this imbalance of forces by helping the persecuted family of swans and cygnets. (Oh yes, they are all sooo cute!) Park officials and workers, wisely, are refusing to get involved, and want nature to act this out on its own. The woman in the video at the link provided above teaches literature at Hunter College. I wonder what her specialty is – English Romantic poetry?
I recall a personal experience in that twin Edenic enclave, across Flatbush Avenue from Prospect Park, the utterly gorgeous Brooklyn Botannical Gardens. There is a large and beautiful Japanese garden within it, and the centerpiece is a sizable pond with some ornamental posts. During one visit when I walked by the pond, there was a large crowd of visitors ooohing and aaahing so I went to see what the commotion was about. Several families of ducks were swimming about with their very young ducklings, fluffy and brown, kept close.
As I was leaving that day, I passed by the pond again, and as I approached it, I passed several people leaving with stricken faces. Some children were crying. What was the problem? I went to the edge of the pond amidst people shaking their heads and turning away in disgust or confusion. On one of the ornamental posts in the pond was a Black Capped Night Heron, often seen roosting there. In its large and powerful beak, it was holding a duckling that it was maneuvering down its gullet.
It was a teachable moment.
On my daily commute up Route 17 in northern New Jersey, past the gas stations, the Home Depot, the biggest shopping mall in the northeast, past the Bed, Bath and Beyonds, I go by a little Exxon gas station with a ‘landscaped’ waterfall near its entrance. It’s pretty big, and most of the year the water gurgles happily over the rocks, but recently it’s been frozen over, which is kind of attractive. Today, it appears that it was turned off, and it was bone dry. Kitsch, certainly. That word covers a broad spectrum of ideas from bad taste to a spirited denunciation of a zeitgeist that is surfeited with images and tawdry, specious, and dispiriting ripoffs of art. I used to get very overwrought about kitsch, but now, I think it’s not too important. What’s wrong with it, anyway? That little fountain draws on a venerable western cultural tradition stretching back to classical grottoes, through renaissance grottes, to rococo pleasure caves, and on to Disneyland. Think of the romantic, splendid ruins and hidden vales in the greatest English landscape gardens. Think of the ravine in the masterpiece by Olmstead and Vaux, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. But just drawing on an artistic tradition doesn’t make art. Kitsch is the lazy man’s way to art – refer to, copy, imitate, but say nothing interesting. In the end, what’s wrong with that knock-off cataract on the highway is that it’s deadly dull. Like all cliches, it buries a kernel of truth and inspiration beneath a mountain of banal repetition.
Yes, fountains and waterfalls are intrinsically fascinating, and only a snob would attempt to claim otherwise. And as a civil engineer in the drainage business, I can attest that from my earliest days, the sight of moving water has been one of my greatest joys. If Exxon had put a real fountain there, even a boring traditional one, that would have been better. Or a pile of concrete rubble with water gushing over it – that would be a sight to see! But no, today, our rich and profligate production-consumption machine churns out stuff for our homes and landscapes, and you can buy a waterfall for your desk, your yard, or your business from a catalog. Do these consumers think of the tradition they have bought for their divertissement? There’s a link to Bonsai, the aesthetic of the reproduction of nature in miniature, the now fashionable zen, and so much more.
The best thing about kitsch is that it always can serve as the starting point for getting into some really good stuff.