Monday, November 29, 2010

Lluis Masriera, Versatile Catalonian

The painting shown above, Ombres reflectides (1920) was one of the more interesting ones I noticed while making a mad dash (not recommended) through Barcelona's Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (Wikipedia entry here and Web site here.)

It's by Lluis Masriera (1872-1958). I couldn't find much biographical information about him during a brief Google search other than this Wikipedia entry (in Spanish) and a blog post by a antiques advisor here. The latter is informal and includes at least one factual error (a 1906 commission from Queen Victoria was impossible because the monarch had died five years earlier).

At any rate, it turns out that Masriera is better known for his jewelry design than his painting. An example of the former is shown below.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Morning in the Fez Medina

Never let a good pixel go to waste, sez I.

What follows are some snapshots taken while touring the market area of the Medina district of Fez, Morocco. (I'm writing this in Las Vegas, and might later post some pix of this equally exotic locale.)

As we were about to enter the Medina I noticed yet another load of tourists that likely were headed there too.

It's early. The place has yet to come to life, so there's plenty of room in the passageways.

If I were a publicist, I'd call the Medina a "covered urban mall" -- clearly, the covering here is to shade the sun rather than shield from rain.

When in carpet country, it's a near-impossibility for a tour group not to get steered into a rug emporium. That's the Big Guy launching his spiel.

Although small carts could traverse some passages, the main means of moving goods through the Medina is the donkey. The lower image is blurred because those donkeys move at a good clip. When they head your direction, you plaster yourself against the nearest wall.

Morocco is cat country. As you can see, they tend to be lean, not fluffy.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

When Ornamentation Approaches Overkill

European cities that had late 19th century growth spurts bequeathed us buildings and even entire neighborhoods in Art Nouveau architecture. There are a some exceptions that come to mind: London and Berlin aren't known for that style. But Barcelona definitely falls into the Art Nouveau camp.

I'll have more to say about exteriors later, but for starters will begin with an interior -- that of the Palau de la Música Catalana.


This is the grand stairway. Not nearly on the scale of that of Paris' Opéra Garnier, but what else is?

A detail shot of the banister. Note that the little pillars are made of glass.

Interior doorway.

Above are views of ceilings and light fixtures.

Here is the stage area. Note the sculptures below the organ: detail photos are next.

Can there be such a thing as too much decoration? Modernist theorists of the early 20th century held that ornament of any kind must be avoided; Adolf Loos went so far as to equate ornament with a sort of crime.

I take the position that ornament can serve as a link to human predispositions formed by evolution in nature settings -- that we are attuned to the vegetation tangles of the natural environment in non-Arctic, non-desert places.

Moreover, ornament can be functional in theater interiors. This is because it provides a distraction for audience members waiting for a performance to begin. The grand movie houses of the 1920s had all sorts of carvings of treasure galleons, Egyptians tombs, Roman forums and any number of other items depending on the theater's design theme, to entertain waiting patrons. Today's stripped-down cinemas resort to flashing advertising on the screen as the audience assembles.

To return to the question posed, I have to say that the Palau is indeed over-decorated and lacks a theme for the decoration it has. But boy is it entertaining!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Awkward Years: Car Styling 1935-38

The decade of the Great Depression was one of frantic creativity as many manufacturers pushed experimentation to the forefront in an effort to find sales in a stagnant market. This was especially true for the American automobile industry as can be seen by comparing cars from the beginning and conclusion of that economically dark decade.

Above are Chevrolets from 1930 and 1941. The 1930 model is a boxy assemblage of visually discrete parts (hood, passenger compartment, fenders, headlights, etc.) whereas the 1941 is integrated, smooth and lacks awkwardness.

Between those two model years was a transition where, feature by feature, car styling evolved from one convention to a distinctly different one. Below is a gallery of photos showing cars of various makes for model years 1935-38, the midpoint of the transition and the point where awkwardness was maximized.

Most of the cars look roughly similar. That's partly because General Motors was the acknowledged style leader (and had by far the largest market share) and the other companies tended to shy away from being too different from GM for fear sales might suffer. Other reasons were technical, having to do with learning how to shape steel sheets into compound-curve forms using mass-production methods -- something of little matter in the 1920s and earlier.

1935 De Soto Airflow

1935 Pontiac

1936 Buick

1936 Nash

1937 Chrysler Imperial

1937 Graham

1937 Hudson

1938 Oldsmobile Six

Friday, November 19, 2010

Football Program Covers

The end of the American college football season is nigh. For no special reason, this brings to mind the game program publication featuring team rosters surrounded by college sports-related articles and advertising. More specifically, I think of program covers from the days when illustration -- rather than photography -- was in flower.

So without further delay, I offer a smattering of such covers gleaned from the Internet for your weekend entertainment.

The typical cover showed a football scene, as might be expected.

A slight difficulty had to do with the fact that many cover illustrations came from publishers' files and weren't specific to the teams covered in the program. Here, the team in blue does represent Michigan colors, though the helmets aren't decorated in traditional Michigan style. Their opponents are not wearing Michigan State colors.

The blackout effect on this cover is a steal from Coles Phillips who, sadly, had died two before this program was hawked at the stadium.

This is from 1928. It has a vaguely Cubist look to it -- a dash of modernity for the traditional Big Game between the Bay Area rivals.

Popular illustrator Russell Patterson contributed the art for this Yale-Army game program.

Now for some twists. Columbia University is in New York City and Yale is in New Haven, Connecticut. So here we see Lions fans descending on the Yale Bowl by car, plane and speedboat.

This 1941 Penn-Army program salutes fans rather than the teams themselves. The cadets wear traditional West Point gray -- but what about the girl? She's wearing Penn's Red and Blue and could be a real Penn student because Penn was one Ivy school that admitted women in those days.

What does that Indian have to do with the Dartmouth-Stanford game? At the time, both teams were called the Indians. Since then, political correctness caused both schools to forgo the image of bravery and fighting ability and slink off into innocuous color-related names such as The Cardinal (Stanford).

The scene at a college football game isn't all players. Here the cover artist salutes the female fan. (There's truth to this. Back when I was in college I happened to be sitting in front of some players' wives one game and took a real beating somewhat in the matter illustrated.)

Another featured female. It's a huge stretch from football game day, but I suppose the cheesecake made it worthwhile.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Albert von Keller: Spirits in Seattle

Seattle's Frye Art Museum is an odd duck in the art museum zoo. Founded by the owner of a meat packing company (along with his wife), it offers free admission and a permanent collection of Munich-centric painting from roughly 1875-1910. The bequest stipulated that some of this "founding collection" be on display at all times.

(The collection includes painting by Friedrich von Kaulbach, Wilhelm Leibl, Franz von Lenbach, Franz von Stuck (including one of his famous "Sin" paintings) and Fritz von Uhde. There are non-German works from that era including three paintings by William Bouguereau. A list of items in the collection is here.)

Traditionally, the Frye was Seattle's bastion of representational art. But a new management regime has in recent years fielded exhibits featuring seriously bad postmodern "art" in various media. There are some exceptions, however. Within the last two or three years the Frye had shows on the Munich Secession and 1900-vintage art from the University of Washington's Henry Gallery which nowadays stresses modernism.

Moreover, the Frye is currently showing (through 2 January 2011) paintings by Albert von Keller (1844-1920) that largely deal with spiritualism and the occult. The museum's Web blurb on Keller and the exhibit is here.

To me, spiritualism and the occult are curiosities of little interest. But many folks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took them seriously, as did Keller.

Keller's work is different enough to be interesting. Whiffs of expressionism, unusual colors schemes (often enough, brownish reds) and more than a dab of sex attract attention from more conventional (and perhaps better) paintings by others.

Below are some paintings to be found in the exhibit plus two extras for your entertainment.

Die Traumtänzerin Madeleine (The Dream-Dancer) - ca. 1904

Im Mondschein (In Moonlight) - 1894

Kassandra - 1911 (Gisela von Wehner)

In Erwartung - 1912 (Gisela von Wehner)

Gisella von Wehner mit Tochter Ilka - ca. 1906

Hoellenfart (Journey to Hell) - 1912

End of the Evening

Gisela von Wehner - ca. 1907

Monday, November 15, 2010

What Garnier Created, Chagall Desecrated

Fifty years ago, French Culture Minister André Malraux pulled the trigger, commissioning Marc Chagall to create a new ceiling painting for the Paris opera house that's today best known by the name Opéra Garnier.

The "Garnier" in the name comes from the name of its architect Charles Garnier; it's also known as the Palais Garnier, the title used in the building's Wikipedia entry, here.

The teacher of my undergraduate History of Architecture class hated the place. It was "dishonest" in that its metal framing was covered by ornate stone surfaces. And that grand staircase? ... an abomination of utterly superfluous ornamentation, a confusing mix of different marbles, all of it intended for the pleasure of Louis-Napoléon's aristocracy. That dolt Garnier should have been inspired by the iron-and-glass train sheds at those gares popping up on the right bank not so far from the opera site: those structures were honest, true to their materials and function.

By the time I actually visited the Opéra Garnier the architectural history teacher's work had long since rung hollow. I enjoyed the building. Sure, it probably was a bit over-done, but that was part of its charm.

However, there was one jarring note: that replacement ceiling painting by Chagall. I found Chagall's ceiling totally out of character with the rest of the auditorium it covers.

What could Malraux have been thinking? I suspect it was the groupthink of the late 1950s that included my architectural history indoctrination. Modernism is the only true path; the 19th century was a crazed attempt to preserve classical forms while technological change was sweeping away their underpinnings; the uncomprehending masses need re-education in order for them to comprehend these truths that really ought to be obvious.

Worse for me, even in the days when I'd pretty much bought into modernist ideology, I never thought that Chagall was more than a second- or even third-rate artist. I'll probably get around to writing a post dealing with him, so for now just accept that I'm biased against the guy's work.

So what was there before Chagall worked his magic? About what one would expect: A ceiling filled with classical figures swirling around up there where looking at it strains one's neck and where it's hard to figure out what's going on anyway. Note that this is the case for ceiling art in general.

The original painting was done by Jules-Eugène Lenepveu and titled "The Muses and the Hours of the Day and Night."

And its sad fate? Apparently it still exists. It can be found under Chagall's painting according to this source.

The last link is a comprehensive account of the building and the art it contains and is well worth browsing. I would have extracted some quotes from it, but the poster guarded it with some strongly-worded copyright warnings that made me chicken out. Let me add that he too is not amused by the Chagall ceiling.

To illustrate what's at stake, below are a study for the original ceiling and a photo showing most of the Chagall ceiling.

Postcard view of the opera house, early 1900s.

Lenepveu ceiling; study or reproduction.

Chagall ceiling.

Finally, I need to mention that in order to fully understand the controversy, you need to tour the opera house and view the present ceiling in the context of both the rest of the room and entire building.