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Posts tagged ‘Modernism’

The Gaudi which eluded me: Palau Güell

While I am as familiar with the works of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi as the next Barcelona aficionado, there is one Gaudi masterpiece which has managed to elude me in all of the years I have been visiting the city: the Palau Güell. For many years this was due to extensive renovations of the property which saw it closed to the public both partially and entirely for some 7 years. But latterly I just never seemed to be in the city when the palace was open to the public. But no longer is this unsatisfactory position the case! As soon as our Barcelona trip was booked, the first thing I did was to reserve our entrance to the Gaudi masterpiece, and within hours of our arrival in the city, we had entered its impressive lofty interior. 

The Palau Güell

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Built between 1886 and 1888 in the El Raval neighbourhood of Barcelona, the Palau Güell was in fact one of Gaudi’s earliest works, and the first major collaboration with the industrialist Eusebi Güell who was to become Gaudi’s most significant patron. Although its sombre interiors show somewhat more restraint from the man who was later to go on to design such fantastical masterpieces as the Sagrada Familia and the Casa Mila, the exterior of the house already showed the young architect pushing the boundaries of socially acceptable architecture, filling his facade with magnificently twisted wrought iron, animal forms, and his terrace with his now iconic multi-coloured tile chimneys. 

The famous terrace

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That is not to say that the interiors were boring. Far from it. Past the initial somewhat gloomy entrance which was intended to be the preserve of carriages, the upstairs rooms showed every sign of the virtuosity for which the architect would become know, with magnificently intricate woodwork, wrought iron and personalised furniture heavily influenced by the Moorish design which is so prevalent in Spain as well as the innovations of line and shape which were becoming modish in what was to be known as the modernist or art nouveau era. By far the most spectacular feature of the house is the main atrium: a dazzling space which cuts through the entire height of the house, topped with a dome into which little holes cut are like stars twinkling in space.

The impressive central atrium

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So the house which had long eluded me did its best to impress, and certainly received from me the admiration it deserved. I did however leave somewhat concerned by some of the renovation works undertaken, not least the extent to which staircases have been modernised, for example, with swish inlayed lighting which is clearly out of character with the original house, and worst of all the adaptation of the roof’s famous chimneys such that on one, a contemporary artist has shamelessly attached a tacky toy lizard as some kind of new interpretation of an otherwise perfect Gaudi icon. Why this was allowed I will never know. As they say: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.


February in Paris – Part 3: Sonia Delaunay at MAM

Anyone having a quick peruse of my own personal artwork will know that I am a huge lover of colour. As far as I am concerned, what point is there in having colour available if it is only to be muddied and diminished with blacks and browns? No doubt sharing my opinion were some of the boldest expressionist and modernist painters of the 20th century, whose bold use of colour was at first seen as terribly scandalous but which eventually came to characterise an entire generation of art, when the boundaries of accepted aesthetic values were pushed to new extremes.

Chief amongst them were a tremendous twosome – what today may be termed a “power couple” – two of the greatest proponents of modernist expressionism and of the power and glory of pure colour: Robert and Sonia Delaunay. Together, these two artists, who married in 1910 and in 1912 proclaimed the birth of Simultanism, refocused the attention of the art world on the dynamic power of colour, using the strength and unique characteristics of colours as an end in themselves rather than a means of expressing something else. The paintings and other artworks which resulted are progressively abstract explosions of structured colour which, by virtue of their use of a full panoply of rainbow hues, are full of expressive happiness and boundless energy.

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Of course as is often the case with a power couple, there is often one of the two who history overlooks, and few could argue that it was Sonia who remained in the shadow of her husband for many years during and following their successful careers, a fact which is not ignored by the Museum of Modern Art in Paris (MAM) who were therefore determined to stage a bigger and even more significant Sonia Delaunay retrospective when they opened their Sonia expo a few months ago.

The result is an exhibition which is every bit as full of the Delaunay dynamism and energy as the paintings themselves. It is a show which demonstrates that although it was Robert Delaunay who conceptualised abstraction as a universal language, it was Sonia who experimented with it in all sorts of media, including posters, clothes and objects, and much of the MAM show comprises Sonia’s dapple in fashion, for which she designed countless zany fabrics and original outfits, as well as her determination to include abstraction and colour within the household, and as a backdrop to theatre, parties and other everyday recreational activities.

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For me, the main success of the MAM show is its collection of Sonia’s paintings which, when seen as a group, vibrate full of the energy and exhilaration which results from bringing together so many electric colours in one room. I particularly love how her consistent use of coloured circles is occasionally adapted to more figurative imagery, such as her abstract image of flamenco dancers, where the use of circles adds to the feel of fast sweeping dance movement. I was also interested to see how the genesis of her work was so much more figurative than it was abstract, but that even from the very beginning, her use of colour remained strong, so that even the simplest of portraits contain a face or skin tone loaded with a palette full of colour.

And it is for this unyielding uninhibited use of colour that I love the work of both Sonia and Robert Delaunay. But right now Sonia’s work is hogging more of the spotlight, an quite rightly too – every person deserves their place in the sun.


Sonia Delaunay: The Colours of Abstraction is only open for another few days at the Musée d’Art Modern de la Ville de Paris, closing on 22 February 2015. But worry not, for come April the retrospective will reopen in London’s Tate Modern, running until August.

Turner Prize winner recalls the quirky originality of the modernist revolution

I adore modernism in art. Just what the genre entails is debatable, but when I think of Modernism, I think of Gaudi’s masterpieces in Barcelona, and the art nouveau of Paris, the rethinking of everyday objects to create masterpieces out of functionality, obliterating corners and straight lines, and emboldening quirky, individual designs over and above the monotonous linear structures inherent of 19th century urban development. The free-thinking spirit of modernism barely visited the shores of England, which was too constrained by the censored expression and elaborate attention to detail embodied by the Victorian era. Then with the two world wars dampening the UK’s embrace of architectural innovation, and the second world war flattening half of the country, the architecture which followed needed to be quick and cheap. Hence the hideous 50s and 60s monsters which now litter the British horizon.

George Shaw

These depressing urban environments, many of which have now fallen into disrepair and face demolition, are the eery subject matter of one nominee of this year’s Turner Prize: George Shaw. His works, such as this one, are painted in enamel paints, akin to those used by model makers, and as a result they exhibit a strange, photorealistic finish which depresses as much as it entices. I’m glad to see that paintings have made it into the Turner prize, and skilfully painted works at that. It’s a far cry from the “readymades” of conceptual art’s previous dictatorship over the prize. But this does not alter the spirit-crushing reaction which this paintings conjure in their audience. I haven’t been to the Prize (it’s location in the far out sticks of Gateshead does not make a visit for a Londoner particularly easy) but from viewing the work online, I am most struck by the photorealistic skill which has been utilised in producing the images. So are they art? Well, there are aspects of artistic composition and balance in these canvases, from the stark tower block background, cut off menancingly mid tower, suggesting the interminable rise of these modern monsters way into the landscape, while in the foreground, light dapples almost elegantly on the stark road surface. This is artistic, and I must say, I like his works. Although I think they’re better suited to a gallery setting: Hang them in your lounge and you’ll be on prozac in no time.

Martin Boyce installation

Martels' Cubist Trees

However it is the winner of this year’s Turner Prize, announced yesterday evening, which most inspires, and for me, Martin Boyce’s take on the urban environment recalls the quirky originality of the modernist revolution. His “installation” is a quietly atmospheric, almost poetic exploration of an autumnal park landscape, a bench like structure dappled with the light which flows through a metal leafy mesh on the ceiling. There are geometic paper leaves on the floor, and further leaves suggested by the mobile structures which appear to reference the whimsical mobiles of Calder. I especially love the slanted wonky litter bin, perfectly completing the urban park environment which has been created, but which also appears, nostalgically, to reflect the spirit of modernism. This reference is concreted (excuse the pun) by the explicit reference to the concrete Modernist garden of the artists Joel and Jan Martel, first shown in the 1925 Exposition des Art Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, a picture of which hangs within Boyce’s installation. This Modernist garden included concrete, geometric trees, their angular motifs seemingly reflected in Boyce’s own structures within the installation.

Norm watering a Cubism "Martel" Tree (2011 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown)

Boyce’s work is no readymade. This has taken skill, and with it he creates undeniable atmosphere and produces a work with all the potential to trigger an emotional response from his audience. How wonderful then that with this year’s Turner Prize, we appear to be moving forward away from conceptual art which, in yesterday’s blog entry, I so bemoaned. As for the other two Turner nominees, in particular Karla Black’s painted bin bags… well, the less said about that, the better…

Karla Black's bin bags