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).