May 23, 2011

"Watteau: The Drawings" at the Royal Academy

As I was passing through London on my way back to New York I checked the local gallery listings to see what was on. What a nice surprise to find the first British retrospective of drawings by Jean Antoine Watteau on view right now at the Royal Academy of Arts. Now I am not a connoisseur of old master drawings, but Watteau is special and I couldn't pass up this opportunity to learn more about the artist and his work.

Watteau was born in 1684 to a roof tiler and his wife in Valenciennes, France, an area recently ceded from Flanders. A precocious child, he was studying art in Paris by the the age of eighteen and worked as a commercial artist to practice his craft and hopefully catch the eye of a wealthy patron. His early works included drawings of barber's and draper's shops and a series of fashion plates that were reproduced in print.

The early 1700's marked the final years in the reign of King Louis XIV and the more relaxed period of the French Regency. For the aristocracy, it was an era of more lighthearted pursuits and this was reflected in the art. Watteau earned his reputation by creating a totally new pictorial genre, the fête galante, a spirited portrayal of the upper classes engaged in fun and games usually in a garden or other outdoor setting. Watteau became a master of this form, often incorporating bits from the Italian Commedia dell'Arte and depicting his patrons in Arcadian scenes that implied a harmony between man and nature.

Despite what might be considered frivolous subject matter today, Watteau was by no means a dilettante and his skill as a draftsman remains unparalleled. His early red chalk drawings are exquisitely rendered and he later perfected a technique called trois crayons (three pencils) that involved drawing with a mix of red, black and white chalks often with gouache highlights. In fact, Watteau is probably far better known for his drawings than his oil paintings and his works on paper are coveted by collectors.

Watteau took his inspiration from modern life, although he occasionally drew from history and the Old Masters. A 1715 visit by a delegation from Persia to Louis XIV at Versailles presented a wealth of new material for Watteau who portrayed these exotic guests with great attention to detail. He applied the same care to his depictions of Savoyards, a group of people who came down from the mountains of Savoie during the winter to try to earn a meager living in the cities. In a rare show of sympathy to these indigent people, Watteau focused his depictions on their dignity and humanity rather than their sorry circumstances.

In 1717 Watteau was commissioned to design four oval panels on the theme of the seasons to decorated the dining room of the collector Pierre Crozat. Although unschooled in sketching anatomy, Watteau quickly became very proficient in his drawings of nudes, so much so that he personally destroyed his notebooks before he could be decried as immoral. The drawings that survive show an intimate connection with the models and a sensuality in their portrayal that might very well have been construed as wanton in the early 18th Century.

Later that year Watteau was finally accepted as a full member of the Academie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture but his success was fleeting. Suffering from tuberculosis and left penniless by a bad business deal, Watteau died at the age of 37 in 1721. His life was short but his influence lived on in the work of such painters as Boucher, Reynolds, Gainsborough and Picasso. This exhibition is a fitting tribute to Watteau's superb eye and technical proficiency and a wonderful snapshot of life in the time of The Sun King.

May 20, 2011

A Visit to Santiago de Compostela

In the 1st Century A.D., Saint James, one of the original Apostles, preached throughout Europe ending up in what is now the Province of Galicia in northwestern Spain. According to legend, along the way he rescued a knight from drowning in the sea and the knight resurfaced covered in scallop shells. Saint James then returned to Judea where he was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa. The story continues that his body was recovered by angels who transported him back to Spain on a rudderless ship where he was entombed in stone and interred in a field. Nearly 800 years later, a hermit witnessed a miraculous light and the sound of angels singing that led him to the burial place, and the rest, as they say, is history. Today, Santiago [Saint Iago, or James] de Compostela [Campus Stellae = field of stars] is a destination for Christians on a par with Rome and Jerusalem.

Now the "real" way to visit Santiago de Compostela is to make a pilgrimage that involves at least a 100 kilometer walk along the Portuguese Route, the English Route or the most popular camino francès or French Route that crosses the Pyrenees from France and heads west across northern Spain. Carrying backpacks and walking sticks, often adorned with a scallop shell, modern day pilgrims must collect stamps in a passport, or credencial, along the route to be presented at the final destination to prove they have walked the distance and can truly claim the honor of having made a pilgrimage. How many people make this trek you wonder? Well, last year was a Holy Year in Spain (meaning Saint James' Day, July 25th, fell on a Sunday) and Santiago de Compostela welcomed 300,000 pilgrims in addition to the millions of less dedicated visitors who arrived via car, train or bus, like me.

I have long been enthralled with the idea of making a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, not entirely for religious reasons but also as a personal test and a period of reflection, however the possibility of spending weeks hiking and away from civilization, and my computer, is not realistic at this time. So when the opportunity to visit Santiago de Compostela in a less pure but considerably quicker way came up, I grabbed it, and rode in modern comfort to this mythical place.

The skyline of Santiago de Compostela is dominated by the towers of its Cathedral that stands on the Praza do Obradoiro in the casco antiguo, or Old Town. Initially constructed in 829 AD, it was destroyed by the Moors in 1000 AD (fortunately the tomb of Saint James was not harmed) and rebuilt in magnificent splendor in the 11th Century. The original Romanesque structure was re-fronted in the 18th Century with a more fashionable Baroque façade now stained ochre with lichen and moss. This is the finish line for pilgrims who have walked the camino for days and weeks and many were overcome with emotion as they looked up to see the statue of Saint James the Pilgrim with a staff and a cloak welcoming them from the top of the Cathedral.

Inside many pilgrims go directly to hug another statue of Saint James, kiss his cloak and to put their hand on the column that also bears his likeness. A staffed row of confessionals awaits any pilgrim who feels the desire to confess and earn a plenary indulgence that purportedly cleanses him of mortal sin in the hope of salvation. There is a special Mass for pilgrims at noon when the Priest reads the names of all who have completed the walk that day and may, if one is really lucky, culminate in the ritual of the botafumeiro (see replica at right). Here, an enormous silver censer is hoisted over the apse and eight men operate ropes that cause it to swing like a pendulum at speeds up to 40 miles per hour to release the perfumed smoke.

Now as I was just a tourist I had a slightly different but very pleasant experience in the Cathedral. I was enthralled with the ornate interior decorated with lots of gilding and huge polychrome angels bearing archers' bows along the ceiling. I took the stairs under the altar to see the crypt where the relics of Saint James and two disciples are contained in a massive silver casket and I visited the museum next door to see other ecclesiastical treasures before exiting through the gift shop to the Plaza de la Quintana.

A short walk around the corner and I was in the Praza das Praterias on the south side of the Cathedral that was once home to many silversmiths and is now the site of some very lovely shops. I was at the edge of the Cathedral enclave and at the beginning of the town with its 15th Century stone arcades built to protect pilgrims who slept in the streets. Today the narrow passageways are lined with boutiques selling everything from fine silver objects to t-shirts sporting the yellow arrow that points the way to Santiago along the routes.

The old town is also famous for its many fish restaurants and I took advantage of the hour to stop in for lunch along the Rua Franco (not named for the dictator but rather the country, France). I feasted on small plates of ham and cheese, chorizo, a sort of potato pancake and octopus with sweet paprika all accompanied by a delightful Galician white wine. It was delicious!

My stay in Santiago de Compostela, indeed my trip to Spain, is nearly over. As I was walking back through the arcades and plazas I was struck by a most unexpected sound - someone was playing the bagpipes! It turns out that the Celtic roots are very deep here in Galicia and as a native Nova Scotian who grew up with bagpipes I took that as a very good sign that one day I will return again, maybe even as a pilgrim!

May 15, 2011

A Visit to The Rock of Gibraltar

The gateway to the Mediterranean, the southernmost point on the Iberian Peninsula and a symbol of solidity since ancient times, the Territory of Gibraltar is a British Protectorate of 2,642 square miles bordering Andalusia, Spain. Visitors to Gibraltar are greeted with Metropolitan Police "Bobbies", double decker buses, prices in Pounds Sterling and a plethora of pubs serving fish & chips and stout!

Of course Gibraltar is most famous for the Rock that has marked the separation between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea for mariners since the beginning of civilization. Originally inhabited by the Phoenicians, it had been occupied briefly by the Carthaginians, Romans and the Visigoth Kingdom of Hispania before coming under Moorish control for seven centuries. In 1462 Spain re-asserted its rule until the Anglo-Dutch of 1704 that ultimately gave Britain dominion after the Treaty of Utrecht.

Gibraltar's location at the tip of Spain and just a stone's throw from Morocco made it an ideal naval base and it played a key part in Lord Nelson's Battle of Trafalgar, the Crimean War and control of the British Empire east of the Suez Canal. Today the economy of Gibraltar is based on tourism, financial services and the shipping industry and its 30,000 inhabitants enjoy a special relationship with both England, the governor, and Spain, the cultural inspiration.

Now I have to admit that I knew very little about Gibraltar when I arrived there the other day, but I came away very impressed with the rich history and its unique situation due in large part to the geography of the region. The Rock of Gibraltar, or as Greek legend has it, one of the two Pillars of Hercules (the other being Morocco's Mont Abyla), dominates the landscape both physically and sentimentally, but there is more to Gibraltar than The Rock.

A walk along the waterfront takes me to "Irish Town", a quaint section of narrow streets and low, tile-clad houses, all with the requisite Spanish balconies looking onto the lanes. Farther along I came to the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, an unimposing structure with a heavily Moorish flavor that serves as the seat of the Anglican Diocese in Europe. Near the Cathedral is the Museum of Gibraltar that offers a charming history - natural, political, military and cultural - of the region including the archeological remains of a Moorish bathhouse. On I went, past the cemetery where many sailors who perished in the Battle of Trafalgar are buried (Lord Nelson himself was preserved in a barrel of wine and transported to England to be laid to rest), past the Governor's Mansion where John Lennon and Yoko Ono were married, to the Botanical Gardens to wait for the gondola that would take visitors up the 1,400 foot elevation to the summit of The Rock.

A six-minute ride and there we were - on top of The Rock of Gibraltar! Needless to say the view was impressive with Spain on one side, Africa on the other and two major bodies of water as the dividers. But the most amazing sights of all were the only true native inhabitants of the area - the famous Barbary Macaques, or Apes as they are more commonly referred to. Superstition holds that if the monkeys ever leave, so will the British, but they seemed to be thriving, and rather enjoying their habitat, so there is probably no need for concern.

Back down The Rock and a little more exploring through the delightful old town before it was time to leave. Unfortunately I did not have time to visit Europa Point, Gibraltar's southernmost tip, or The Great Siege Tunnels, excavated during the Spanish War of Succession and used most recently during World War II, but I enjoyed my brief visit enormously and have a new appreciation for anything as "Solid as The Rock of Gibraltar"!

May 14, 2011

A Walk in the Footsteps of Antoni Gaudí

¡Hola from the beautiful port city of Barcelona - 2,000 years old and a fabulous combination of Gothic and Modern, Moorish and Spanish, traditional and avant-garde!

The capital of Catalonia has many famous sons and daughters including the artists Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, opera singers Montserrat Caballé and José Carreras and cellist Pablo Casals, but none is as renowned or as overwhelmingly identified with the city as the Moderniste architect Antoni Gaudí. So, with limited time to explore this multi-faceted city I decided to focus on this singular citizen and set off on an all-day walking tour of Gaudí's marvelous edifices.

It was easy to start - the first stop turned out to be just a few meters from my hotel! Palau Güell (1886-1888) was built as a private residence for Gaudí's great patron, textile baron Count Eusebi de Güell and was the project that catapulted the architect's career. Unfortunately, at the time of my visit the interior was closed to the public due to renovation so I could only admire it from the outside. A monumental entrance with parabolic arches, fanciful iron gates and doors and decorated with the Catalan coat of arms topped by a helmet with a winged dragon was a pretty good hint that this was not an ordinary home. But the best evidence came when I looked up and saw the multi-colored ceramic chimney pots like a crazy topiary crown!

Turning left onto the central promenade of old Barcelona, La Rambla, I cruised along with a sea of populace past flower stalls, human statues, men selling bizarre noise makers and a few covert games of three-card Monte, up to the Plaça de Catalunya and the Passeig de Gràcia. Here the crowd thinned out and the boutiques got fancier and after a short walk I came to what is probably Guadí's most famous private commission, Casa Batilló. Originally constructed in 1877, the townhouse was purchased by the Batlló Family who requested a total remodeling by Gaudí during 1904-1906. The façade of the building is surreal. Known locally as the Casa dels ossos (House of Bones) there is not a single straight line to be found. Rather, the onlooker can imagine anything from a skeleton to an underwater kingdom to a dragon's scales. A warped exterior wall of carved sandstone is covered in a mosaic of broken ceramic tiles with irregularly shaped windows and balconies set in.

I was delighted to discover that the house is now open to the public and offers tours of the interior enhanced by an excellent audio guide. Not surprisingly the outrageous exterior carnival of shapes and colors was echoed on the inside but with one very important detail. Despite the seeming impracticality of the design, Gaudí was actually very thoughtful and creative in his attention to creature comforts. For example, each of the sinuously carved doors and windows was outfitted with a discreet ventilation screen that could be opened or closed to allow the circulation of air. Gaudí also used architecture to express his religious devotion and the house is not only furnished with a convertible chapel on the parlor floor, it also bears many symbols of Christianity such as a roof line representation of the Dragon of Evil impaled on St. George's cross and a turret with anagrams of Jesus, Mary and Joseph and Gaudí's unique four-armed cross.

Back out onto the Passeig de Gràcia and a short walk up to the corner of Carrer de Provença to see Gaudí's massive five-story building Casa Milà, better known as La Pedrera (The Stone Quarry). Built between 1906-1910 for a wealthy widow and her new husband, the exterior features the same undulating lines and elaborate ironwork as Casa Batlló but is not as sublimely whimsical. Tours of the interior including the rooftop chimney park and a restored apartment are also available but I was running late and still had a long walk to get to my next destination, Gaudí's magnificent cathedral Temple Expiatori de La Sagrada Familia.

Begun in 1882 and still very much a construction site, Antoni Gaudí's Sagrada Familia was conceived as a virtual "Bible in Stone" and has become the very symbol of the City of Barcelona. The exterior is highlighted with shell-like towers, often topped with Gaudí's signature colored ceramic finials, which stand guard over the three façades dedicated to The Nativity, The Passion and the Glory of Jesus. The interior resembles a forest with tree-like columns reaching high up to the ceiling where an oculus sheds light upon the altar. The stained glass windows are vividly colored in oranges, greens and reds and the overall effect is much lighter and more transporting than most traditional Gothic cathedrals. Consecrated last November, the anticipated completion date is still at least 20 years in the future, but this work in progress is a must-see on any visit to the city.

It's nearly three o'clock and time for lunch! Heading back to the Diagonal I came across an appealing tapas bar and sat down to a delicious feast of little plates of ham and olives and cheese and octopus and some things I'm not sure what they were, all washed down with a perfect local beer. Restored, it was time for the climb up to Barcelona's answer to Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens, Parc Güell.

Intended to become a residential estate in the style of an English garden city, the project did not succeed and the venture was turned into a public park instead. Today both residents and visitors come to enjoy the view from sculpted gardens and recreation areas all decorated with Gaudí's signature broken ceramic tile mosaics. There is also a museum dedicated to the master in what had been the Park's show house that was actually occupied by Gaudí from 1906 to 1926, the year he died in an ignominious tram accident.

Finally it's time to head downhill to the last stop on the tour. Just off the Carrer Gran de Gràcia, on the Carrer Carolines, is the Casa Vicens, an example of Gaudí's early work done in the Orientalist style. Built as a private residence, the dwelling comprises four floors with Moorish arches and tile decorations on three façades. It has turrets, a fountain and a large garden and is surrounded by a wall featuring Gaudí's characteristic ironwork and floral themes. The home remains in private hands with no public access so I had to be content with gazing from across the street!

Although it is still sunny and warm it has been a long day and I covered a lot of kilometers on my Gaudí expedition. It's time to go back to the hotel to have a little rest before dinner in one of Barcelona's many fabulous restaurants. I will be leaving here tomorrow but please check back for the next stop in my Iberian Itinerary! ¡Adios!

May 05, 2011

"Rooms With A View" at the Met

One exhibition that has been high on my "to see" list is the very popular "Rooms With a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century" now being presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And this glorious spring afternoon seemed like the perfect time to walk through Central Park to visit the museum and see what everyone was talking about.

This small but very elegant show presents the work of about forty artists, mostly Northern European, many of whom are practically unheard of on this side of the Atlantic. A real pity it turns out as these exquisitely rendered drawings and paintings are not only quite beautiful but are at the same time intriguing and extremely intimate.

The exhibition explores the Romantic theme of the open window - a metaphor for longing, for escape, for the unattainable. Almost voyeuristic in nature, the visitor experiences an intimate peek into a private domain with the added perspective of a glimpse into the world beyond. There are paintings of decorated rooms with figures sewing, reading, working and looking out at the world, of spartan rooms with no distraction but the view through an open window and of artists' studios with painters working at easels or drawing on sketchpads. All convey the same feelings of confinement, contemplation and division.

The star of the show is the German artist Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) (see "Woman at the Window" top right) whose mastery of the genre inspired followers such as Georg Friedrich Kersting (see "Caspar David Friedrich in his Studio" right), Adolf Menzel and Martinus Rørbye (see "View From the Artist's Window" upper left). All aspired to convey the "picture within a picture", or "story within a story" that captivated the imagination of the 19th Century, and now the 21st Century audience. Which goes to show that some themes are always modern, no matter what the circumstances. The interiors and the fashions may change but the view from inside looking out remains. "Rooms With a View" can be seen at The Met until the Fourth of July.