21 December 2015

Effet de Lumiere: The Albertine Reading Room

“Always try to keep a patch of sky above your life.” - Marcel Proust 

Effet de lumiere.  The effect of light.  It's a thing in itself in French in a way that the discrete English words do not convey.    A sense of magic gets lost in translation.
Another term  borrowed from the French is trompe l’oeil.  Literally, meaning to deceive the eye,  it  usually refers to a style of painting where the two dimensional image can also  be interpreted figuratively.

Both of these techniques were used by the artists of Atelier Meriguet Carrere when they designed the Albertine Reading Room for the French Embassy in New York City.  Architect Jacques Garcia was fortunate to have one of the few remaining  mansions designed by Stanford White to work with, the historic Payne Whitney home located on Fifth Avenue.  It has a cousin, one of my favorite places in Manhattan, the bookshop at the Neue Galerie at 1048 Fifth Avenue (at 86th Street), a building originally designed as as a home for a wealthy industrialist,  William Starr Miller, by the firm of Carrere & Hastings who also designed the New York Public library building on Fifth Avenue (at 42nd Street).  The French connection is that Miller ordered the architects to design his townhouse in the style of the French king, Louis XIII.

The Albertine is named for  the elusive female character who gives her name to the sixth volume of Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu - Albertine disparue (1925), translated into English variously as The Sweet Cheat Gone, The Fugitive, and Albertine Gone.   Like its namesake, the reading room is not exactly what it appears to be.  The lustrous mahogany bookcases are actually made from a humble wood that has been stained to a waxy satin finish,  the rich-looking moldings are faux brass, and the panels inlaid on walls and doors  are examples of trompe l'oiel painting.  

“Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see that world multiply itself and we have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists, worlds more different one from the other than those which revolve in infinite space, worlds which, centuries after the extinction of the fire from which their light first emanated, whether it is called Rembrandt or Vermeer, send us still each one its special radiance.” – Marcel Proust

Garcia modeled the heavenly ceiling where the planets orbit the sun  bounded by the houses of the zodiac   after an original music room at Villa Stuck  in Munich Germany designed by the Symbolist painter Franz von Stuck in 1898.  A ravishing blue night sky bends down to touch the tops of the bookcases.  A golden zodiac appears to circle among moving sprays of stars.  The night sky overhead has depth  thanks to a combination of sponge painting and brush stroke while the stars are composed of a judicious mixture of gold paint interspersed with genuine gold leaf.   So, is this a fresco?  Not quite, as no plaster was used in its making.  The zodiac ceiling was painted in the Atelier's Harlem studio, then transferred to the reading room's ceiling.

Albertine Books is  a dual-language  reading room and bookshop, offers cornucopia of French-language books and English translations, with over 14,000 titles from 30 Francophone countries.  Visit the Albertine at 972 Fifth Avenue (at 79th Street) or explore here.

Addendum: Spring 2017.  The Albertine Prize, a reader's choice award for condemnatory French fiction in English is here.

1. John Bartelstone, photographer -  Atelier Meriguet Carrere, designers - The Albertine Reading Room, French Embassy, NYC. 
2. unidentified photographer - Ceiling of the Music Room at Villa Stuck, Bavarian Arts & Crfats Magazine, courtesy University of Heidelberg.

17 December 2015

Objects of Desire: Kacper Kowalski

At first glance, this photograph looks like some strange never-before-seen exploding flower.  Then as you gradually become aware that the "petals" are trees, you may wonder if this is some kind of satellite photo but, no, it seems too close to be transmitted from outer space.

In fact, all the photographs here were taken by a photographer in a glider plane.  Kacper Kowalski takes his pictures from the air while at the same time piloting the plane; no minor feat but then Kowalski has been rated as the second best glider pilot in the world.   He began his working life as an architect but it interfered with his other interests - flying and photography - so he quit his job in 2006.  Since then Kowlaski has become a licensed pilot and paragliding instructor and has received awards for his photography.

Pomerania, the "land by the sea" is a region in northern Poland, most of  it coastal lowlands bordered by the Baltic Sea on the north and a ridge of glacial moraines to the south, with small, contained lakes surrounded by forests.  Archaeological evidence shows that humans inhabited this area in the Bronze Age  thirteen thousand years ago;  Christianity came late, however, arriving in the 12th century CE.   It was in the large port city of Gdansk that the Solidarity movement challenged the Communist regime in the 1980s.  This was where Kacper Kowalski was born in 1977.

Kowalski moves in close and, slowly; his  images which look like puzzle pieces to begin with fit together to tell a story of an old land and the people who have lived and worked there for long.   Forests have been cut back to make way for farming; then again, the water sometimes makes inroads on the land, and people have to move their possessions  and their fowl to higher ground.  Kowalski's many photographs of  new growth forest and farmland under cultivation remind us that whether or not a particular place in inhabited, it is not untouched.  Humans do not exist apart from nature, a false dichotomy that vanishes in the larger view, as is the division of the visible between realism and abstraction.

To see more photographs, Kowalski's book Side Effects (2014) is available in English and prints of his work are at Gallery Warsawa.
Visit the website Kacper Kowalski (in Polish).

25 November 2015

A New Bridge for Old Christianshavn

"I have a student who paints in a very strange way....I try not to influence him." - Peter Severin Kroyer

I. - Silence is the word most often used in connection with the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916).   Hammershoi was a "strange" painter as his teacher, Kroyer, noted early on but that strangeness is more mysterious than received wisdom has it.  Hammershoi himself stated more than once that what attracted him, in both interior and exterior settings, was architectural elements and the relationships between them.  As for the deliberate minimalism of Hammershoi's interiors, the Victorian taste for overstuffed interiors did not become poplar in Scandinavia.  When the Hammershois stayed in London they rented rooms near the British Museum, asking  that knickknacks be removed from the reception room as they distracted from the simplicity of the flat.
Even in his portraits, Hammershoi avoided narrative, as he explained to his brother Svend (also a an artist) in a letter written from London, regular portraits did not interest him.  Of course, this left an opening for speculation that began with Hammershoi's contemporaries and continues to this day.  What we are to make of the empty rooms that reverberate with emotions we cannot pin down?  And what are we to make of the reserve of his human subjects, is it theirs or is it created by the painter?

The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard is also often invoked to explain Hammershoi's paintings.  Kierkegaard's "infinite qualitative distinction"   sounds like what we experience when looking at  a Hammershoi:
"...one may risk saying something infinitely decisive and be quite correct in what one says, and yet, ludicrously enough, say nothing at all. Hence it is a psychologically noteworthy phenomenon, that the absolute disjunction may be used quite disingenuously, precisely for the purpose of evasion." - Soren Kierkegaard, 1846, from Concluding Unscientific Postscript, p. 313, Swenson & Lowrie translation.
But names like Kierkegaard or Hamlet are used as shorthand for anything Danish; the origins of Shakespeare's play Hamlet, Prince of Denmark are broadly Indo-European. 

Vilhelm Hammerhois and Ida Ilsted married in 1891 and lived together  contentedly until the painter died from throat cancer in 1916.  Ida often appeared in interior scenes, usually with her back to the viewer - again not a regular portrait but more a quiet domestic scene.  Interiors of their various Christianshavn apartments (30 Strandgade, 25 Bredgade, 25 Strandgade) are uniformly buildings from previous centuries, their stone facades usually left unpainted.  Even the brick facades that were in common use during the 17th century were painted in colors that imitated stone.

The large windows at 30 Strandgade faced the harbor, visible between wings of the Asiatic Company Building across the street. The Hammershois lived there from 1898 to 1909.  The rooms opened on one another through a series of doors, rather than being organized around a central hall.  Most importantly. large windows filled the rooms with light    While they were in London in November 1912, their "dream" apartment at 25 Strangade in the Asiatic Company Building became  available.  They rented it, sight unseen.
Copenhagen's "gray overcoat" is the product of the soft northern light and the muted colors of its buildings. Depending on your viewpoint, the typical grayness of the air enveloping Copenhagen is either severe or dreamlike.  Its similarity to the skies over London could explain why Hammershois felt more at home there than anywhere else they traveled to.   Hammemrshoi wrote home that he could never digest the elaborate decoration of Paris or Rome, if he spent the rest of his life there; he knew exactly what - and how much - stimulation he needed in order to paint.

Christian IV (1577-1648) was the Danish King as master-builder; his town and city projects fill up the fingers of both hands and then some and still exist in Sweden, Norway, and Germany as well as in Denmark.  Christianshavn began as a program to fortify  the capitol city of Copenhagen in 1612.  To this end, earthen embankments were built up in the marshy area between the city and the island of Amager to its east.  Christian employed Johan Semp to create an urban plan for Christianshavn in 1617.  By 1639 it had become an established  merchant enclave.

Strandgade (Beach Street) extended  the full length of the island, following the harbor front.  Semp’s original intention was to build along one side of the street across from the water, leaving the beach side to provide private harbor facilities for the lot owners who could  transfer goods from ships to their warehouses.

Painting Tranquility: Masterworks by Vilhelm Hammershoi from SMK - The National Gallery of Denmark is on view at Scandinavia House in New York City from 24 November 2015 to 27 February 2016.

II. -  In Christianshavn there are canals around every corner.   Warehouses and the ships that come and go, depositing their cargoes, are interspersed with residential apartments in a manner that modern zoning regulations have all but banished.
A city crisis-crossed by canals is a city in need of bridges.  Earlier this year Cirkelbroen, or Circle Bridge, was built by Studio Olafur Eliaason near Christianshavn's south end. The five  circular platforms are a pedestrian bridge that will become part of a larger pedestrian route around the Copenhagen harbor.   The color red connects the bridge to the brick buildings at the side while the masts pay tribute the shipping trade that shaped and supported Christianshavn from its beginning.

Eliasson believes that art makes life better,  a vision similar in spirit to the philosopher Horace's dictum that the purpose of art is to delight and instruct.  At the moment this is an unfashionable notion at every level.  Nevertheless, Eliasson says “I hope that these people will use Cirkelbroen as a meeting place, and that the zigzag design of the bridge will make them reduce their speed and take a break. To hesitate on our way is to engage in bodily thought.”   Like Kierkegaard, a century and a half ago, who walked the streets of Copenhagen in order, he said, to compose his thoughts. 

Note: Olafur Eliasson was born in 1967 and grew up in Iceland and Denmark. After studying at Royal Acadmey of Fine  Arts in Copenhagen he established  Studio Olafur Eliasson in Berlin where ninety  people including  architects, computer programmers, art historians, and cooks work together on projects.  Eliasson’s Your waste of time was an installation at MoMA PS1 last year that consisted of several chunks cut from an Icelandic glacier, installed in a refrigerated gallery where they were on display for nearly four months. 

By the way there is more3 about Hammershoi on this site here and here and here  and here.

1. Vilhelm Hamme3rshoi - The  Old Christianborg Palace - Late Autumn, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen.
2. Vilhelm Hammershoi - The Christianshavn Canal, 1905, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen.
 3. Vilhelm Hammershoi - View of the Old Asiatic Company from 30 Strandgade, 1902, on loan to the Ordrupgaard Museum, Copenhagen.
4. Vilhelm Hammershoi - The Old Christianborg Castle, 1907, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen.
5. Anders Sune Berg - Cirkelbroen (The Circle Bridge) by Olafur Eliaason, Copenhagen, 2015, Studio Olafur Eliasson.
6.  Anders Sune Berg - Cirkelbroen at Night, 2015, Studio Olafur Eliasson.