- Written by Dr. Diego Sánchez Meca
Contributor: Dr. Diego Sánchez Meca,
She got out of her car, knees together, showing off her elegant high-heel shoes, her skirt cut and her printed silk blouse with a cleavage that left the smooth skin of her neck in full view. This image of Isabelle merged with the other images that were still in my memory, jumping around and crashing into one another over and over again, obstructing the truth and pulling me towards that world of memories previously alive, idealized or simply made up. It was getting dark outside and I was about to reach Sils Maria, in the Swiss High Engadin, to take part in a congress on Nietzschean philosophy, together with a high-level international group of experts.
Her weightless, ethereal hair in the wind and her big blue eyes were the hallmarks of this free and modern woman, someone who moves with independence and who knows how to get the most out of life. At the same time, though, she enjoyed an elevated philosophical and intellectual reputation which inspired admiration in students and teachers alike. It’s impossible to reach the levels of understanding of the difficult topics she has written about without some kind of rigorous asceticism, and her academic career was a testament to her courage and self-discipline. Nonetheless, and in contrast to this, she was also well-known for her desire for fun, for her girl-about-town attitude, and for her ability to mix smoothly with the shadows of the night where, together with all the luxury and glamour, one also finds touches of the banal, the frivolous and, yes, the obscure.
Although this wasn’t the first time she was visiting this incredible location in the Swiss Alps, the landscape of the valley and the sublime mountains made an impression on her once again, to the point where she was naming the peaks to me one by one. On the Northern side, Lagrev and Gravasalna, and to the South, Rosatsch, Corvatsch and Chapütschin. And then of course the lakes: the Campfer, Silvaplana and the Sils, its waters shifting between sapphire blue and turquoise. The colours varied between the light green of the meadows at the base, to the darker green of the great woody masses on the sides of the valley, to the grey of the peaks and the white at the very top, the colours morphing from one to another with magical fluidity: within an hour they would go from the joy of the sunny brightness to the severity of the greyish fog and mist. Among that deep silence, one had the impression of witnessing the birth of the world, since neither the grass nor the earth nor the water seemed to have grown old at all.
Isabelle remembered that during the summers that Nietzsche spent there, between 1881 and 1888, he lived in a rustic lodging that was part of a small group of houses on the valley-side, with balconies full of flowers. After some time, the original village had become a place of luxury for affluent holiday-makers. “Nietzsche”, she would tell me, “would come here to think and to write. He would work in the mornings, take a stroll during the day, and return in the evening with his notebooks full of notes, only to resume working after dinner until well into the night. According to his journals, the strolls he most enjoyed among the many that he took (through the woods, along the shores of the lakes, in the mountains, etc.) were the ones that took him up towards the lookout point, from where one can contemplate the solitary Surlej, lying among the meadows; or even when he went up until he reached the throat of the Fex from where, to the right of Platta, it is possible to view the entire amphitheatre of peaks. How about we go on these strolls ourselves today?”
The congress’ first talk was given by a veteran Italian professor who read out the content of a letter by Nietzsche to his friend Peter Gast from August 1881, in which he wrote, “Here in Sils Maria the most unexpected thoughts strike me. My dear friend! Sometimes I get this strange feeling that I’m one of these machines that explodes. The depth of my emotions makes me shiver and laugh. Sometimes I can’t leave my bedroom simply because my eyes are all red. Why are they so red? Because the previous day, while I was strolling, I had cried too much, not with sadness but with joy. I was singing, I was talking nonsense, I felt full of life again, a feeling I now treasure in myself as others seem to lack it”. It was obvious, the speaker was adding, that Nietzsche needed solitude. He would arrive here full of work projects, only to find his trunks full of books sent to him by his loyal friend Overbeck from Basilea. Here he read Spinoza,and was surprised by the proximity he felt towards him; he dabbled in mechanics, political economy, cosmology, biology and psychology. A great transformation was growing inside of him, and for it to bear fruits he vitally needed solitude. He was fond of saying that he came here to “disappear forever” (der auf ewig Abhandengekommene). But the most important reason was, in fact, that in Sils Maria he could take long strolls and seek out inspiration, because to him — and so he mentions explicitly on more than occasion — his best ideas would come to him when he was climbing the mountain.
Another speaker referred to the inspiration that Nietzsche confessed to have had in Sils Maria that led to his more decisive thought, his most enigmatic and difficult. While taking a walk near the huge monolithic block of the Surlej, a vision came to him, making him shiver and write in his journal: “This was written at 6,000 feet above the rest of men, and in the present time.” What had he seen in this ecstasy, and what was this note hiding?”, the speaker was wondering. From what he told us later, in Ecce Homo, in this vision that had divinely exalted his soul, he thought that he had suddenly grasped the law of the worlds, their eternal return, in a kind of Heraclitean or Pythagorean reminiscence. A very old thought, suddenly uncovered from its oldest most forgotten recesses, just glimpsed in a kind of trance far beyond our daily experiences and the limits of our senses. Some have been quick to point out, “This is proof of the beginning of his madness”. Nonetheless, ended the professor, Nietzsche converted this intuition into a liberating thought with the power to transform us all into superhuman beings.
By the time it was Isabelle’s turn to speak, there was already much anticipation in the room. She began somewhat abruptly, raising her head rhythmically throughout her talk, and smiling indifferently at the end of each small pause: “Totalitarianism,” she began, “is the most successful figure of the solemnity of our faith in being… We could say that it is the exacerbation of the profoundly human tendency to compensate for the wants of being with an overdose of being. We don’t just see this in totalitarianism, however. The fullness of being is affirmed and reaffirmed in all official debates on politics, art, culture, religion, etc., also in our democratic societies. We need an idealized, idealist world, perhaps deified and adorned by a native happiness. And for this reason, those who have ironically insisted in the system’s discordant aspects have been expelled from the circle that is being closed with the same lively enthusiasm with which one attempts to exorcize the devil’s laughter. Nietzsche, lover of these avenues, inspired by these heights, suffered this exclusion, and is still being excluded to this day.”
She continued developing her argument, referring to an irrepressible fight between things and their meanings, between human beings and themselves, calling it the best definition of reality. “For this reason”, she concluded, “this fight is unleashed, and is always accompanied by the desire for lost, unrecoverable harmony, which is the desire that dominates in that construction of worlds in which the inessential takes on the appearance of the essential, and where a false harmony covers up a reality full of noise, dirt and cruelty. Only when it is transfigured in the beauty of an artistic illusion, wrapped in the dream of a myth and of Apollonian measure, can the absurd and terrible character of existence be contemplated, only then can it seduce one to live it.”
The auditorium, now more full of people than in previous talks, showed its satisfaction at the end of the conference with a resounding applause, and the other speakers made complimentary remarks and thought up various questions that Isabelle answered with brilliance and elegance.
“Take me away from here”, she whispered to me, approaching me when the next talk was about to begin. “I need a drink. It’s a matter of life and death”.
We went to a pub and she asked for a large gin and tonic with Citadelle. I complimented her on her success, although I noted that she wasn’t really enjoying it. She seemed indifferent, quickly changed the subject and began pondering the virtues of the botrytis cinerea, a bitter-tasting fungus used to sweeten Santernes wines. Then she added that what she really fancied for dinner were crépinettes scented with Piedmont truffle and ox carpaccio washed down with a good Burgundy or Moselle. And to end the evening tasting a good Krug Millésimé in an ice-cold glass while we gazed at the stars’ reflections on the surface of the lake. “Oh darling!, there’s no place like Paris to live life to the full, there’s no place like Paris to dream of a full life”.
The waiter returned and served her another round, this time pouring blue Bombay Sapphire in a wide glass full of crushed ice, while I stood there looking at her, intrigued by her mystery, an oracle of the occult that I attempted to decipher to sense what it was that she was hiding behind her face, behind her words.
“In love with Nietzsche, perhaps?”, I asked her.
“It’s difficult to be in love and be productive at the same time”, she answered. Her gaze returned towards an undetermined place, she became quiet and after a pause she added:
“To stand out professionally is difficult. The best thing to do to get attention is to say or do extravagant things.”
The only thing separating us was the glass with ice, which was slowly melting and sticking to the slice of lemon. With a sweet, serene gesture and a look from within, she continued: “The best lovers, if they really are in love, are in a rush to end their torment, and they do everything they can to liberate themselves from it. In order for the relationship to last, one should never swear to be in love. What love does not end up telling itself the little totalitarian story of its harmony, rebuilding a past in line with its aspirations, from which are excluded all doubts, all emptiness, all disappointments and infidelities? I think that, because of this, love — and not knowledge — is where human beings sign their most solemn pact with being. A pact which must be inseparable from parody, because there are no loves in which there is no adaptation to being, in which the misunderstood is not the most important person (the illusion of a full alignment with the other, right there with incommunication, tension and discordance), in which the only existing link is not that of jealousy of compassion, and in which the very idea of love is not continually betrayed by its figures. What I like about Nietzsche’s criticism is that it is still as hurtful and intolerable for many because it unmasks the mystifiers who manipulate and decorate this “reality” with fictions and absolute and totalitarian masks. These impostors don’t care about the truth that all authentic faiths always go hand in hand with doubt, and that the important things in life, like love, are never protected from the erosion of expiration, mistreated because of what we do to them.”
On Saturday, at the end of the congress, we spent a day out to Surlej. The birds flew across the sky at the start of the day while we began our trek up the mountainside. The daylight had a delicate, imperious quality to it, while the lake reflected in its stillness the blue of the sky, a few grey butts that crossed it and the vegetation of its shores. The beauty of the place gave the morning a sort of false euphoria that imposed itself on my imagination, as I remembered the words and conversations with Isabelle. “What beauty!”, she exclaimed, placing the back of her hand on her eyes to cover herself from the sun. Suddenly the sky began to darken and the day started turning into a strange night, bathed in a livid light that seemed to grow from the surface of the lake. An inverted light that was being projected back onto the black butts.
“What inexplicable means is this, do you think”, she said to me, “that converts white into black, the interesting into boring, the risible into essential or the fascinating into fearful? It escapes us. Meaning occupies, and encroaches on, the space of the absurd, the anxious confirmation of nothingness is soon alleviated by the firm weight of what is. This is our most common experience. But then, doubt and skepticism must always remain like the hidden face of our faith and of our original assent to meaning. Nothingness is not the absence of being, but its double interior, its inseparable opposite.”
Once we arrived at the top, the air mixed the fresh outpours of rain with the smells of the woods and the breath of the grass, its humidity quickly evaporating under the sun. From that height, the torsos of the mountains, as if rising up from nothingness, formed delicate, fantastic, imaginary scenes. Small pockets of vegetation floated on the blue mirror of a lake, slightly pushed by the wind, while the trajectory of my butts, reflected on the surface, created the illusion of a world which seems to be endlessly sliding by, but which, in reality, always stays the same, motionless.
- Written by Marina Valcárcel
Author: Marina Valcárcel
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. (Gen 1, 2-3)
CaixaForum Madrid is currently exhibiting 245 polaroids from the Genesis series by Sebastião Salgado (born in Minas Gerais, Brazil, in 1944) until May 4 — an exhibition which serves as a testimony to one of world’s most relevant contemporary photographers. He was awarded the prestigious Príncipe de Asturias de las Artes award in 1998 and during his career he has worked with some of the best photography agencies in the world, such as Sygma, Gamma and Magnum, before setting up his own, Amazonas Images. In this exhibition the photographer shows us the incredible, remote places he visited during his 32 expeditions lasting eight years, just before he turned 70.
The first thing you notice in Salgado’s photography is his powerful aesthetic sense; and his message slowly, gradually seeps through from the images, slow and gradual as elephant’s footprints on the soil. What you see in his photos is an area occupying 46% of the planet, and which to this day is virgin land — the same as it was on the first day, according to Genesis.
We decided to carry out more in-depth research on the theories and biography of this artist, certain as we were that someone like Sebastião Salgado should have much to say about an area of life and of the heart that is only open to those with a certain view of the world. Rhythm, Coherence, Passion. And we suddenly realize that it’s his inner journey that we’re really interested in.
Salgado is a man of clear vision and slow speech; his spoken English has an attractive Brazilian Portuguese hint to it, and his slow speech is not due to linguistic hesitation, but is the sign of a man who has seen much of the world and, more importantly, a man who observes mindfully. You see this in his careful choice of answers, and in how well he expresses them.
Like all good photographers, he has made a pact with slowness. “I walk a lot, I do some of my reporting on foot because I use the time to look around and to feel life, to feel nature. Slowly. If we don’t do it slowly, we end up burning out. Most often, the essence lies in the curves, in the twists and turns of the journey, not in the straight lines.” He compares photographers to hunters because they both live in waiting, fully immersed in their own authentic processes. “We must experience the pleasure of waiting.”
Before the Genesis project, Salgado had focused on photographing people, who he sees in a very different light, broader, more real: a vision we’d like to share with him. “I have learned that, at times, where there is life, there is also death. In Kazakhstan, the same phosphate used in agricultural fertilizer is also used as napalm, an effective combat weapon. In Bangladesh, the same fabric components found in jute are used both for the production of sacks for cereals as well as for the sand-filled sacks used to build trenches in wars. When the jute sack is attacked by bullets, it closes itself thereby keeping the sand inside and protecting the soldiers.”
Listening to his life story, we realized that Salgado is one of those people whose vision of the world and of people we’d like our own children to have. By the time they reach the age when they’re overcome by a powerful natural curiosity about the world and they look for answers in stories and pictures, it would be wonderful to sit them down on the ground, and let them look up and listen to a wise man in front of them, whose eyes, the eyes of a hunter of slow images, are filled with real, genuine stories: “When I was in Ethiopia I travelled 850 km on foot. I discovered that that was the origin of all the fertile land from the banks of the Nile. I travelled to a Christian community, where Egypt’s first jews settled. It was just like landing in the middle of the Old Testament. Rather than being a journey of 850 km, I see it as a journey of 6,000 years inside myself.”
De Mi Tierra a la Tierra (From My Land to the Earth) (La Fábrica) is the title of his memoir, in which he talks about how the Genesis project begins in the Galapagos Islands, following in the footsteps of Darwin and taking the The Voyage of the Beagle as its guide. This is where Salgado learned that man is not the first species gifted with reason. He also describes certain unexpected situations he discovered in the natural world, for example that when the time comes for the common gannet to mate, it’s the female that chooses the male. The males introduce themselves before her, they dance, open their wings and show off their body. When the female makes her decision as to which male to mate, they fly off together for about 15 minutes. One by one, all the females follow this ritual of allowing the males to court them and then choosing one. For the duration of that season, this will be the female’s only mate and the father of its babies.
BLACK-BROWED ALBATROSS IN THE ARCHIPELAGO OF THE WILLIS ISLAND, SOUTH GEORGIA, 2009.
Although the Hebrew name of the first book of the Bible comes from its first word, Beresit (meaning “in the beginning”), its Greek name is Genesis, in reference to the “origin” of the world and of man. Salgado is a non-believer, yet his purpose with the Genesis project is to show “the dignity, the beauty of life in all its aspects. And of course the fact that we all share the same origin.” He told us about the time spent on the Galapagos Islands, about how he once noticed the front legs of an iguana and how his imagination led him to see in them the hand of a Medieval warrior, clad in chain mail. The incident made him suddenly aware of the similarities between species, and led him to decide on the name of the project: Genesis.
Looking at this photo while we were passing through the halls in front of the Botanical Gardens, we all had the same doubt: Is that King Arthur’s hand? Or it could it be Ironman’s?!
SEA IGUANA, GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, ECUADOR, 2004
Salgado was born on a farm in the Brazilian mainland, where he learned to observe and to love the lights around him; he grew up under densely overcast skies and storms through which light would filter. He spent his childhood among large expanses of land, streams, rain seasons and long seasonal migrations among thousands of oxen.
At the age of 20 he fell in love with his other half, Lélia. They arrived in Paris together in 1970 — they were fleeing the political turmoil in Brazil at the time. During his first European summer and in a Two CV, they drove all the way to Geneva just to purchase some photographic material at a better price. Lélia had to photograph buildings for her classes at the Faculty of Architecture. Although neither of the two had any previous knowledge of photography, they both instantly fell in love with it. And that is how photography became his way of life. He discovered Africa while working as an economist at the World Coffee Organization — he became passionate about the continent and wanted photograph it constantly. He gradually left his day job and began to consider himself a full-time photographer.
As always together with Lélia, they began his other great project: O Instituto Terra. The Brazilian coast, right from its origin, has been covered by an atlantic jungle — around 3,500 km inland — and the land belonging to Salgado’s parents once belonged to this ecosystem. Once political amnesty was reached, the couple decided to return to their country, but on arriving they found themselves having to deal with the issue of deforestation: the well-known perobás (a variety of oak) and other species of trees had been cut down, the fertile lands once covered in pasture had been destroyed, and the flow of water had been let loose on the area with no barriers in place, causing inundations. “Lélia said to me one day, Sebastião, let’s replant the trees” and without any botanical knowledge nor economic means, and feeling very much like city-people in a natural area they didn’t even live in, they bravely decided to embark the adventure. After six months they were involved in the replanting of 2.5m trees of the varieties found in the original jungle, and in the creation of the first Brazilian National Park located in a completely destroyed piece of land. Since then and to this day, the land belonging to his parents has been protected. And with the trees came the animals, such that his beloved childhood became a paradise once more, almost more beautiful than the one he remembered. This spectacle of the recreation of the circle of life was what made Salgado decide to capture with his camera the natural beauty of those places on earth where man has not yet set foot. “Genesis is my love letter to nature.”
O INSTITUTO TERRA, MINAS GERAIS, BRAZIL, in 2001, when the replanting of the Brazilian atlantic jungle began, and in 2013 having reached their goal.
“Photography is my life, it’s my way of living with meaning."
During the making of Genesis, Salgado transitioned from analog to digital photography. Between 2004 and 2008 he used Pentax 6458 cameras and medium format, 4.5 x 6.
He uses monochrome with great dexterity, offering a whole new vision of black and white photography; the tonal variations of his work, the contrast between light and darkness, remind us of the Baroque period and of the works of the great masters of chiaroscuro, such as Rembrandt and Georges de La Tour.
In black and white we seek greater impact. When I was working in colour, the beauty of the blues and the reds seemed like they were erasing the emotion of what had been photographed. It diluted them. With black and white and all its range of greys, Salgado forces us to concentrate on the looks, the attitudes, and the density of the people: “When we see an image in black and white, it pierces us, we assimilate it and, subconsciously, we colour it.” For the photographer the moment of pressing down on the shutter release is unique and magical. Photography is the interpretation of a work in which various elements are linked together: people, the wind, the trees, light, the backgrounds… But in order to see the photography, the photographer must integrate completely with what is around him. It’s wonderful to read how Salgado describes those moments of bliss just before the shutter release: “You know you’re about to witness something unexpected. When you’re at one with the landscape, the moment, the image starts to construct itself in front of your eyes. In order to see it, though, you must be part of the process, and once you achieve this, all the elements start to work together with you… I love just sitting there for hours watching, framing, working deeply with light… You’ve got to love what you do.”
To conclude, here’s an homage to two geniuses and their images.
Sebastião Salgado, Ciega a causa de las tormentas de arena (Blinded by the sandstorms), Mali, 1985. Pablo Picasso, Celestina.
- Written by Elena Cué
Author: Elena Cué
Joana Vasconcelos: "Artists manage to open a new path to beauty". The Portuguese creator conquered Moscow, Venice, Versailles ... where 1,600,000 people visited her exhibition.
In Lisbon, on the banks of the Tagus, is the studio where the artist Joana Vasconcelos (Paris, 1971) deploys all of her creativity. With her I made a tour through the technology rooms, the foundry, architecture and sewing rooms of the world of this Portuguese artist who conquered Versailles.
Elena Cué: Her birth in Paris was a result of the asylum her parents asked for in France when they escaped from the Salazar dictatorship. What configured the presence and affirmation of her roots and identity in her work?
Joana Vasconcelos: The fact that I am a Portuguese artist today is the political outcome of the dictatorship that conditioned many people in Portugal and Spain. My parents were in France and I was born there and the truth is that their life would have remained in France if there had not been the Carnation Revolution (Revolução dos Cravos). I think they would have stayed there and today I would be a French artist. Internet allows the artist to live in their country and to export their work without problems. People reflect their identity, but not only where they come from but also where they are; in other words, the artists can exist in their countries. This allows a person like me, a Portuguese woman, to be in Portugal. It's like another view of art.
What can you tell me about your childhood that has been important in your work?
My childhood was very normal, like all children. What I did that was different was karate for many years. It taught me to be very demanding, to achieve a level of results; it has to do with doing one thing from beginning to end. High competition workouts are very demanding. If we apply this to art, I would say that when I face a challenge or an order, I feel as if I were in a championship, I have to train to get a result. I could have made a career in karate, but there was a time when I wanted to go to art school, and I did both activities together. But after a week in Arco, I went for training session and broke my knee. That was when I understood that I could not continue in karate but that I could use all this training as an artist.
You are an artist committed to human rights and, in particular, the role of women in our society. What do you want to convey with your work, what dialogue are you seeking?
It depends on the work. I'm an artist, we do not think like men. I can be talking about the rights of women but also about beauty, the East, and the piece I did for Macao. It is another concept that has nothing to do with political things, it has to do more with the idea of beauty, volume ... I can be talking about communication. Women are like that, they can do many things at the same time, men can not. Men have a more linear discourse, it is another way of thinking, neither better nor worse, just different. We are like that. It is no longer necessary to have a single discourse.
What has it meant for you to display in Versailles?
I can not answer without telling you two or three things. I am the result of a time, of identities, of a change in the way we look at the world. Versailles could not have happened without first doing the Venice Biennale in 2005 with Rosa Martinez and Maria Corral, because they were in fact the first women at the Venice Biennale and both Spanish. I was the first woman in the Rosa Martinez exhibition and the world realized that I existed as an artist and I am very grateful. I was with Maria Corral in Venice and we said that there are people who are at historic moments and do not realise. This was my case in 2005. Then I did more things that led me to Versailles. In 2005 the world realized I existed but I had no works. Then I did a couple of exhibitions. One of them, in the Garage in Moscow, which was the first group contemporary art exhibition, and I was part of it. It was also a very important moment. Then I did another in the Palazzo Grassi in Venice and was there in front of all the big names: Struth, Jeff Koons, Murakami ... And again I had the chance, much younger and female, to be amidst a group of awesome people. Then I was invited to give an exhibition in Versailles. It would never have been possible if I had not done these international exhibitions where your work is alongside all these great artists of the world, where you have a presence.
You engage in a dialogue between past and present. When do you think that the great change in art takes place?
You were asking me what Versailles meant for me. Versailles changed everything. The exhibition had 1,600,000 visitors. Why? First, I am Portuguese. Second, I do not have a large gallery. Third, I have no great curator behind me. Fourth, no one knows me. 1,600,000 visitors! Jeff Koons had 850,000, Murakami roughly the same and you wonder, why? The truth is that the impact is greater for a woman, and I am also European.
You are closer to our culture ...
It's a culture that I understand, that we share in Europe. I integrated my work, I didn’t confront it with the palace. There was a divine union between the work and the space.
The great beauty of Versailles. Where does beauty lie in art for you?
For me art has to be beautiful. I believe that beauty and art are synonymous. I do not think it resides, I believe it is.
That moment when subject and object are the same ...
Yes. I think very much about the time, the emotion, the intensity ... I believe very much in the truth, in the idea that there are no lies, that communication is direct and sincere. If you look at these pieces they are not hidden, they are not isolated from the visitor, they are here present. And then you have many laws of understanding, you can look for this or that, but the truth is that they are hidden behind a theory. Then you can generate your own, but you do not need theory to exist. Beauty does not need theory, beauty is.
The big question, what is the concept of art for Joana Vasconcelos?
I think that art is what we are describing. It is the ability to generate a dimension of beauty and new light, that is, to me it is more interesting to talk about works than artists because those who are artists are the ones who manage, through one or many works, it depends, to open a new way for beauty, for understanding the world and to have a new perspective on the world. Art is the need to represent ourselves in complete freedom, art is the ability to keep the world alive, to keep our construction as human beings alive. This is why 1,600,000 people visited my exhibition because I represented Europe in a natural way. And when you are in a crisis it is more important that the artist should be in your country and represent your culture because otherwise, as in the Palaeolithic, you do not know what happened to the tribe that did not do the drawing, you know about the one that did. I not only represent my country but also this idea of common culture that we create in Europe.
I remember our first meeting in Venice. The connection between Lisbon and Venice through a ferry turned into a work of art after being covered by its wool, fabrics and crochet and the famous Portuguese tiles was an amazing experience.
Yes, the boat was the most complex and difficult project I had ever done. It took us a year. We did not have much budget either and the truth is that my country helped me, companies and individuals sent me money and it ended up being a movement of support to get me to Venice. It is at times of crisis when people want to have a say, when they want to be represented and not lose their identity. It was a national project. I had to reflect what Lisbon is today, which elements are specific to our identity, like the tiles, what we have in common with Venice, like the boats, the river, the fact that we are two tourist cities, the fact that in the 15th century we were strongly connected. There is a historical connection but also a contemporary one. For me, the connection was the water, for Lisbon and Venice water has complete control over the city. Then I took the boat and we transformed it. It was an amazing life experience. It is possible to do everything you think. It was sincere because people realize and help you. We must continue representing ourselves in the world. I came to Venice because the Portuguese wanted to come and I'm very grateful. It was all tough, the transport, the opening ... but we managed.
- Written by Elena Cué
Author: Elena Cué
Architect Jean Nouvel Invites Us into His Creative Thought Process and Discusses His Current Battle over the Paris Philharmonic
The Paris studio of architect, Jean Nouvel (b. 1945, Fumel, France), serves as the meeting place for our interview. Nouvel is one of the key members of an exclusive group of architects, which has been honored with the most significant architecture awards in the world, including The Imperial Prize of Japan, The RIBA Royal Gold Medal, The Pritzker Prize, The Aga Khan Award, and The Wolf Foundation Arts Prize.
Elena Cué: The anti-Le Corbusier architect Claude Parent was your mentor when you were starting out at the age of 21. Please tell me about what meeting him meant for your career.
You were actively involved in May 68 with a radical stance against the educational model of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. What were the things you demanded?
Jean Nouvel: I felt that his studio was one of the most creative at that time. He and his partner, Paul Virilio, created a space where a new approach to architecture could evolve. Paul became a very well-known philosopher and thinker of the time. I joined the intellectual rebellion of "May 68" and it certainly impacted my architectural style in terms of its criticism of the way in which French cities have traditionally been constructed. Later on, I joined with them to create the "March 1976 Movement," which demanded that the design of French cities no longer follow the same traditional model. Soon after, the architecture trade union was formed. It was a time of intellectual excitement.
EC: How would you define your architectural thought?
JN: I think it's similar to the solidification of a cultural experience, which means that ultimately, every generation has a job to do. Cities are made from an assortment of constructed testimonies, which reflect the things that each generation specifically liked, the different techniques that were used at that time, and their relationship with art. I've spent my life fighting against certain forms of academicism. It's true that there's an actual entity that's devoted to reproducing models from the past—the worst things from the worst situations and then making them pastiche. A pastiche, in reality, is always a degradation of what was true at an earlier time. It's like a ghost or a faint remnant of the past. I believe that every place deserves careful consideration.
In my opinion, every project is the start of an adventure, and clearly, I never seem to know where I'm going. I don't start with a preconceived idea. I always begin with a hope that the place, the experience, and the people with whom I am going to find myself at that moment are all going to contribute something completely unique. This sort of precision and nonconformity serve as an attack on the concept of cloning. Along these lines, there is something that has made the situation even worse—the development of information technology. Nowadays, the guidelines for creating any kind of project are readily available. As a result, you can design a building in a few hours based upon these predetermined criteria. It doesn't matter if they're residences, offices, or shopping malls. You select from what already exists, adjust a few elements, and just like that, it's done. Unfortunately, there isn't any gray area. There isn't enough thought, planning, or love in the designs that come about like that. They're automated and don't have any soul.
EC: In your work, as you say, you try to create a space that would be the mental extension of what is seen, a space of seduction, veiling and unveiling, looking and going unseen, concealing, light and shadow, mystery. How much is there of the erotic in your work?
JN: When there isn't mystery, there isn't seduction. Architecture is a mystery that must be preserved. If everything is revealed at once, nothing will ever happen organically. Without a doubt, concealing is one of the elements of eroticism and therefore, of erotic architecture. So, if we look at the Cartier Foundation, for example, you have two parallel, clear glass panels on a surface creating a mysterious uncertainty because of the way it plays with the reflections of the trees and the clouds.
There are also situations where you can play with the presence of nature to the point that you wonder if it's really a garden, for example. A garden is where thousands of natural species have reproduced and are coexisting together. All of these things, as well as the interference with the sun and the rain, create certain sensations that we aren't used to feeling. It's a form of simplicity that truly hides an enormous complexity and this complexity is what distinguishes that specific location. The reflections and the porosity of the emerald-colored glass make it so that you can hardly see what's behind. When you put blinds on the inside, it appears as if the landscape is printed on them.
Essentially, one attempts to choose ways of concealing, ways of showing, ways of hiding, ways of saying things or not saying things, and ways of suggesting things, but not ever formulating them. That is architectural eroticism.
EC: You work is highly heterogeneous, your buildings adapt to the space, context and culture with which they will coexist. For each project, in what factors do you seek your inspiration?
JN: In life and situations. I believe in situational architecture. Circumstances don't only relate to the actual place, but also to the aspects of an encounter or an appearance. In this regard, I'm considered a "situationist," but I don't think you can design a building just like that. A building isn't a sculpture and it typically doesn't change places. Some are relocated, but that's very rare and I feel like those situations are completely unpredictable. For that reason, we are always searching for anything that can impact a project and change it, which means that we must respond to lots of questions and concerns. You have to realize that architects are always considered to be incompetent and yet their work in and of itself must be highly competent. Every time I'm asked a question, I have to view it as if I'm coming from the opposite perspective and there are a lot of things I just don't know. For that reason, we are obligated to listen, to take into account, and to understand all aspects of the question at hand, every single time. Essentially, you must always combine the outside perspective with the inner viewpoint.
EC: So, what is your perspective?
JN: Mine is generally from the outside in. Sometimes it can be from the inside out, but that's rare. I'm always looking for exteriors. Someone that knows a location or a profession very well has inner vision. If you visit a city that you've never seen before, you're able to see things without noticing every single detail. Something quite poetic and pleasing can be emphasized, highlighted, and revisited by those who are on the inside. The architect's first task is what I call catalysis; in other words, it means to put things in their place. When the catalyst is present, things usually materialize with just a tiny spark. Then, there's the job of harmoniously combining all of those elements that, oftentimes, are contradictory. You must try to establish unity or synergy.
EC: The first time I met you, you were disappointed with the end-result of the enlargement of the Museo Reina Sofía. Can you explain what disappointed you?
JN: I wasn't happy. This often happens with me. Sometimes, contracts are not entirely clear and businesses have intentions that are not necessarily the same as ours. It's always been like that, but before, architects had a certain level of power that would get them respect in these kinds of situations. As time passed and the economy advanced, things became much more complicated, like how things are today. Perhaps, at the Reina Sofía, I wasn't happy about some of the conditions that were set forth in stone, but I'm generally not dissatisfied with the profound nature of the project. What bothered me most was that the Council promised to do a bunch of things. There was a study done by Álvaro Siza where the traffic in front of the Reina Sofía would be redirected underground. So, the project was carried out based upon the hypothesis that this would be accomplished. Well, what that means is that the pedestrians are not going to have the same relationship with the building and, further more, there is a sound effect caused by the noise from the street, which bounces off the roof and is heard inside where the original calmness has been lost forever. It's simply not possible to have the same tranquility that was originally envisioned
EC: You have commented that in your building for the Cartier Foundation you mix real and virtual images using glass panes and light to trick the senses. Your aesthetic principles are reminiscent of the artist James Turrel, who explores the perception of space by using light to modify that perception. Are you interested in this artist’s train of thought?
JN: I am really interested in Turrel. He's someone that works with light, nothingness, and location. He's an artist that completely plays with locations. His works simply can't be moved to different places. Their meaning derives entirely from their locations. I'm not talking about the core of the design, which obviously is very close to his vision of the world. I'm referring to the way in which his designs are positioned in order to frame the sky or to capture and create light thereby altering the classification and contours of the location. I really like artists that work according to the situation at hand rather than simply focusing on a few objects that they don't really know where to put. As a result of the commercialized advancement of art, I think that there's a kind of truth to art that is best expressed when the works are done in their original location. They either belong to a place architecturally well or geographically well. Needless to say, all of James Turrel's work involving perspective and light has clearly inspired me for a very long time.
EC: You've designed a lot of buildings in Spain. Which one of them did you enjoy the most?
JN: Because of what I've explained to you, I really don't want to tell you which one. What I can say is that I can't put the Agbar Tower in Madrid. It just wouldn't work. So, for example, people that don't know Barcelona see the Agbar Tower in international magazines and they don't understand it at all. The Agbar Tower is completely Catalonian. It simply can't exist in another location. Its formal design has been utilized by Catalonian architects for many centuries and was inspired by Monserrat's mountainous peaks, which have been shaped by the wind. The phallic nature of Monserrat's peaks is impressive. The fact that the Tower has been designed on an urban scale never seen before and that it's also colored makes it a tribute to Gaudí. The Catalonians and Barcelonians readily acknowledge that the building represents their culture and, at the same time, understand that it was formed from their DNA. On the other hand, the international community only sees the phallic symbol as a suggestion of sexual provocativeness and nothing more.
EC: The recently installed Paris Philharmonic opened to the public without your work being finished, and yet it's been an overwhelming success. What can you tell me about this project?
JN: The Philharmonic is a drama and a melodrama. It's the kind of project where normally, everything is in line for success. I feel that it's a project that demonstrates an innovative arrangement of a room on a musical level, a room that successfully defends the use of inside space as well as its emphasis on musical symbolism. Everyone recognizes that. Unfortunately, the building itself isn't finished, obviously. For political and financial reasons, they've done something that's never been done in France since all public buildings are made by a public entity that controls the use of funds. This project was carried out by a private association that decided to hide the rise in cost and, for that reason, they pushed me aside. All of this might seem rather tragic, but in my opinion, it doesn't really feel that way because I'm used to suffering when it comes to my profession. I'm here to defend the pleasure of all music lovers and the artistic aspirations that all of the children will have, thanks to this building. For that reason, I'm going to fight to the end in order to settle this so that the building is completed correctly and no one accuses me of any atrocities about the way in which it was finished, its details, or about the public spaces that surround it. I'm involved in one of the toughest battles of my life.
- Written by Marina Valcárcel
"The nerve pathways are something fixed, finished, unchanged.
Everything may die, nothing rebirthed "
Santiago Ramón y Cajal.
Frank O. Gehry in front of a blank page. The terrifying moment of creation. Feeling afraid, waiting for inspiration, stalled by emptiness. Nights of uncertainty. Conceiving an idea: suffering and ecstasy.
We are our brains. The mind is the result of dialogue between each of our hundred billion neurons. How would the impulsive lines of ink appear, led by the right hemisphere of the brain, where Gehry began to dance on paper in one long, winding movement to illuminate what would be the profile of the Guggenheim museum Bilbao?
We think in the head of a genius.
Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain, 1991-1997.
Let us return to the illumination. It is the time when the paper of an artist begins to fill with projectiles: papers flying above the tables with crumpled despair; rough reports of more or less tight balls, containing unfinished sentences, ideas that were lost on the path from the head to the hand; sketches and drawings that do not work.
When Frank Gehry is asked where his imagination comes up from, he rests his pen on the desk, looks up from his glasses, and lets suspense fly in his studio until that gaze drops. Gehry is well aware of his Jewish ancestry, always down to earth, to reality, and says: "Inspiration is in that bin. Look in there, think of the caves, spaces, textures containing that trash". Much of his reflection is there. Writers, painters throw their errors into a basket. Gehry shows his, he wrinkles pieces of paper and transforms them into towers and palaces for music, hospitals made of metal forms that seem to melt under the sun, office buildings embracing dance.
He converts his dream ladder for Vitrainto into the same spiral, the life on a paper. Nothing dies: from the smooth wrapper leaf there is the outcome of a final sketch, to the less valued, relegated to the bottom of a trash can.
Lou Ruvo Clinic, Las Vegas, Nevada, United States of America, 2005-2010.
Frank Gehry (Toronto, 1929), winner of the 1989 Pritzker Prize, is probably the world's most wanted living architect. At 85 years old, he has become a total cultural protagonist. In Spain he has received the Prince of Asturias Award. In Paris, as well as the devoted retrospective to him by the Centre Pompidou, he inaugurated the new headquarters of the Louis Vuitton foundation and decorated the windows of their stores.
When in 1997 he completed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao this architect-inventor-artist, who likes to say that many of the grooves are tribute to Don Quixote, found himself in a similar position to that of Miguel Ángel after his speech in San Pedro of the Vatican: revolutionist of contemporary architecture.
The strength of Gehry - described by the experts - lies in the motion that he embeds within the architecture, in his ability to create that movement from something inert. It is a contemporary cubism that serves to transform a line of twisted metal skin against the sky and glare of the sun, in a factory of feelings and infinite perplexity for its viewers.
Louis Vuitton Foundation, Paris, France, 2005-2014.
Far from feeling that his career as an architect is coming to an end, Gehry recently shocked the world by presenting one of the most complex buildings of his life, another twist of his imagination: that capacity to lead the human eye to sensations, forms and alternative structures. On 27th October he launched his last sailboat: Louis Vuitton Foundation of the Bois de Boulogne, Paris, a developed building designed to promote culture and art, a great museum in which to present collections of permanent contemporary art, temporary exhibitions, entertainment... Bernard Arnault, chairman of Louis Vuitton-Moët-Hennessy, after visiting the Guggenheim in Bilbao, just wanted it to be Frank Gehry to draw his dream.
If Bilbao came from steel, Gehry does not disappoint here in his quest to integrate his buildings in the atmosphere and where they belong. In Bois de Boulogne, the weight of green, the tradition of the nineteenth century greenhouses and configuration of the nearby Jardin d'Acclimatation, 1860, Napoleon III, Gehry approached the pattern of a transparent building. As in Bilbao, there are many similarities: from the igloo to the cloud, to the wings of an insect. "Ultimately, beauty is in the eye" says Gehry, fed up with comparisons between forms and competition between limits of architectural sculpture in their designs.
There are 12 curved glass candles, with wooden gear, inflated by the wind which Gehry, in his passion for sailing, stacks without a hull under the Parisian sky surrounded by ponds and Indian chestnuts and spans the wind which seems willing to go flying over the Parisian mansard so admired by Gehry and whose impact can be followed at the Museum of Art Weisman, in Minneapolis, or the Stata Center, in Boston. "The history of Paris is the history of architecture," says Jean Nouvel.
More than 3,600 glass panels produce that feeling of transparence which integrate the inner and outer, constantly linking water, forest, the inside garden and producing continuous changes in the outside light: "Once we finished talking about the double skin, glass and iceberg, I likened the idea of composing a living façade, that would change, not only with light and shadows, but also with the ability to light up differently".
Louis Vuitton Foundation, Paris, France, 2005-2014.
Among his earliest memories, he must have been eight years old, Gehry clearly remembers his grandmother buying bags of chips for the stove. And again he returns to the feeling of happiness that those pieces of wood lying on the ground to build gave, apart from the worlds of cities and rings of roads. He enjoyed this in the same way that his memories took him to the times in which he painted alongside his father. At the age of 13, in the Hebrew school, he drew a picture of Theodore Herzl shortly which shortly after would be hung on the blackboard. The rabbi told his mother in yiddish that her son had goldene hänt: golden hands.
His studies of perspective, and later of ceramic at the University of California, pushed him towards architecture. From his time at university, he recalls how an afternoon of 1946 was at a conference that many years later would keep turning inside his head. The speaker was an older man with white hair: Gehry was fascinated by the power of design but paid no attention to his name. Years later learned that this was Alvar Aalto, the great Finnish architect whose work has influenced his.
During the 60s, in Los Angeles, he became involved in the California Art scene befriending artists like Ed Rushca, Richard Serra, Claes Oldenburg, Larry Bell and Ron Davis, later to discover the works of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. He envied them for their creative freedom.
Aerospace Museum of California, Los Angeles, United States of America, 1982- 1984.
"Those artists did not feel bound by tradition, they were not out of a school, nor in the orthodox sense, deep intellectuals. They did what they wanted, manipulating materials, they had no boundaries," Gehry said. He came of modernism, a school of thought that mocks decoration. As a result of that, it was the materials that became his means of expression: he began using poor materials like cardboard - an influence of Rauschenberg-, corrugated sheet metal or chicken wire. Gehry wanted to convey this sense of newness and freedom in architecture. To try, risk, do something never seen before. He was considering the idea of mixing architecture without restrictions as concrete and immovable as the laws of physics. At this time he was mainly engaged in the design of housing within an architecture that has been called eccentric domestic.
Gehry Residence, Santa Monica, United States of America, 1977- 1978.
In the long documentary that Sydney Pollack does with Gehry on his life, there is a shot in which the two friends are talking in the kitchen of his home in Santa Monica. It was one of the highlights of his career. "When I bought it I saw that I must do something before we moved in. I liked the idea of leaving the house intact, and not changing it. It occurred to me to build another house around it. We were told that the house had ghosts. I decided they were to be Cubist ghosts. I wanted the windows to give the impression that they climbed from the ground". On the table they are speaking, the roof is broken into a large peaked window, and from there, at night, the effects of the car lights and traffic lights are distorted and the moon is reflected in the wrong place. He immediately began to hammer the roof of the bathroom, opening a gap with light as he could not see well in the mirror where he shaved.
Vitra Design Museum, Weil-Am-Rhein, Germany, 1987-1989, 2003.
Between 1987 and 1989 he built the Vitra Design Museum in Germany. It was a great break in his career, in a way, creating a new order. Gehry had planned an outdoor spiral staircase. He enjoyed the shapes he obtained by drawing but never thought they could be included in a building. He started playing with the staircase in the form of snake: he likened the contrast with the straight edges of the other volumes. He tried to express it through descriptive geometry but the construction was not accurate. He could not play with curved forms, he had to be restricted to the lack of freedom. The new movements he tried to express, took him to the computer. It is the 80s in California. And the outbreak of the software world came, of Steve Jobs at Apple, in his garage in 1976. In 1984 the company launched the Macintosh 128K, the first personal computer that used a mouse.
Parallel in time to the construction of Vitra, the Gehry studio was working on the project for the fish of the Olympic Village in Barcelona (1986-1992); a massive structure with sinuous stone forms, glass and steel. It was for this project for which they began working with CATIA, a computer program design, manufacturing and engineering by Dassault Systèmes to project complex shapes for the aerospace industry. This tool transformed the working system and Gehryś designs, facilitating the study of models with free and flexible forms and its projection in construction plans allowing it to be more daring, a little more and a little more... And so to support in its sculptural concept.
Bilbao, the Walt Disney auditorium, the building of DZ Bank... would not have been possible without this system.
GOLDBERG AND THE FISH
Gehry often described his work as fish. The idea of the fish is recurrent in his life and in his work, his sinuous curves appear endlessly in buildings, furniture and lighting designs. Its scales came one day by accident when working with a piece of concrete that fell and broke into pieces, those pieces made him think of the scales of a fish and since then he introduced them into his buildings.
"My colleagues were obsessed with Greek temples. You know, the postmodern era, in 1980 and after. Well, it was the great fashion, to reconstruct the past. So I thought: Greek temples are anthropomorphic. 300 million years ago there were only fish. If you have to go back, if one is so afraid to go forward, if you must go back, we can step back 300 million years. Why stay in Greece?" ... From then, he started drawing fish.
In this way, the fish also became the memories of his toddler years. His grandmother bought carps that she kept alive in the bathtub of her home to prepare the gelfiltre, a traditional Jewish dish for the Sabbath.
The future Gehry, Frank Owen Goldberg, was the only Jewish child from school. From a young age he had to face the scorn of his peers. He was called fish face. In 1954, when he was 25 years old and had two daughters, he changed his last name to Gehry as he was pushed by his former wife, Anita, "It took me five years, when I was presented as Frank Gehry, I added, before I was Goldberg".
He also tells us about how he designed his own name, "Goldberg has, I'll draw it, a G descending, then o, l, d, b, e, r, g that goes back down. That is why Gehry has a G descending, and then e, h, r, with a y at the and end, also descending".
Growing up in a Jewish family and the study of the Talmud, the first expression is why?, it is the source that drives him to wonder every doubt in life.
With regard to image resource that comes into mind when thinking of his works, Gehry feels fascination for fabrics. The fabrics and its folds. In the early 90s, on a trip to Dijon in France's Burgundy, Gehry was fascinated by a stone fountain carved by a Dutch sculptor of the fourteenth century, Claus Sluter. In it,the monumental figures of the mourner's hooded monk sunder the tomb of Philip the Bold, causing him such emotion that he had to concentrate to study the chasubles that hid the heads of monks. The cloths eventually mutated to become the "horse head" of Gehry for the DZ Bank.
Claus Sluter, Tomb of Philip the Bold, Museum of Fine Arts, Dijon, France.
DZ Bank, Berlin, Germany, 1995-2001.
The influence of the weight of the fabric, its folds, are static; such as the tubular falls of the Tunic Charioteer of Delphi, or swollen by the wind, and the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Bernini, express not only the shape and movement of a rigid material, but - Gehry tries it - through those sculpted cloths, the expression channeled many emotions.
The Maggie's Centre was designed to recall the memory of his friend, the Scottish designer Maggie Keswick Jenks, who died of cancer in 1995.
This building is meant to be a meeting place for patients. It is the first building that, in 2003, Gehry projects in the UK. Seeing the sketches for Charles Jencks, husband of Maggie exclaimed: "This will be your Ronchamp" referring to the legendary Le Corbusier chapel in Franche-Comté. That ambitious comparison blocked Gehry who underwent a period of doubt and crisis in the rush of the plans. Until one day, Gehry himself says, that: "Maggie came to my dreams and said, 'Frank, what you did was a little extravagant". Thereafter, Gehry did not stop drawing. He found a sense of a building away from the spiritual connotations of Ronchamp, also more intimate: at the end of the day there should be a place where people go to feel comfortable and welcome "for a cup of tea and to mourn". So Gehry devised that tower as if it were a lighthouse and covered the main body with a corrugated roof. This time and for this coverage, his memory led him to take his trunk stored with images, a painting by Vermeer in which the undulating folds of her shawl reminded him of his friend Maggie.
Maggie's Center, Dundee, Scotland, 2003.
GUGGENHEIM BILBAO: CATHEDRAL OF THE 20th CENTURY.
The classic Greek spoke to us of the drawing, of the imago, the phantasma traced by the brush of fantasy, where the term comes to Castilian imagination. How was that day, at that hour, the head of Frank O. Gehry? What is surprising, says Frederic Migayrou, is his way of dreaming the work from scratch. Those early drawings, so mysterious, already contained a masterpiece. "Why did I have to spend two years designing a building that was already there?".
Gehry took Berta, his second wife, to Bilbao. Berta is Panamanian and Gehry wanted to dig into the bowels of the city, to find his character. She became his guide and his tongue to understand the Pais Vasco. He wanted to understand what was happening at the time. The Bilbao crisis, its economic decline, the disappearance of its shipyards...
Far from the light, Californian coast and urban, the first thing that puzzled Bilbao was its steel profile, their industrial cohesion mine, port, cranes, large ships coming and going, the trading. Everything seemed to colour the landscape in metallic shades, steel oxide clouds and mercury from its estuary. The reflections. The sounds.
Then, he did not stop until he knew something of its history, its art: the Basque architecture, political drama, terrorism. He fell in love with the city, its loyal people, the food, the pacharan and its green hills. They wanted to buy a house there, but were not well received. To the Gehry couple, Bilbao gave them the understanding that they were only interested in them to leave there museum there. No more.
Meanwhile, Gehry was dreaming of the building. He analysed the solar difficulty, wedged between the sea inlet, flown by the Salve Bridge. He wanted it to be "very Bilbao, very Basque, that hardness that I found so attractive". He had to leave the blackness of the estuary. The Nervion giant emerges from the waters as a fragmented spacecraft parts to fly with the wind of the Cantabrian Sea, luck of projection of a human dipper made of titanium tapes. After having climbed the hills surrounding Bilbao and having pointed out the exact location of the museum -"it must be there"-, Gehry looks at the place where the museum will be built, this time from the top of his hotel room. The journey begins from his head to the ink, from the ink to the titanium. His work is, as so often, intuitive. It is then when still on paper, with the letterhead of the Hotel López de Haro, he produces his first scribbles. The human brain is the most complex object in the solar system. Even today no one can explain how a kilo and a half of matter, protein and fat, can have ideas arise from it. From material to the immaterial.
Bilbao was a pioneer in building sailboats with a steel hull. The shipbuilding industry was based on steel. The Gehry museum resembles a futuristic sailboat floating on the river with all sails. Depending on the time of day, clouds, rain, night or sun, the building turns golden tones into silver tones. It is the effect of the titanium. Bilbao was, initially, designed in stainless steel. But all tests and models that were developed after the drawings did not give well on cloudy days. Against the grey sky of Bilbao, the stainless steel died in matt and dark tones. Back in California, Gehry found a piece of titanium in his studio that hung outdoors, when the effect of the rain turned it gold, as what happened in Bilbao, he cried out and gave an emphatic smile to heaven. This metal itself conveyed feeling.
With the Guggenheim, Gehry wanted to offer the city a new, eco building, which would be integrated into its own history and geography but would have a different impression. In which it would enoble the city and project an icon. "I think the communities crave an identity. The buildings have an identity in history. The Parthenon in Athens effect lasted for more than 24 centuries and lasts today. The Saint Peter in Rome has endured for more than five centuries. The people feel identified with buildings and return to them".
He would have liked to stay in Bilbao, contributing to the new design for the banks of the river. He had clear ideas, but he was accounted for. He had studied and understood the city and its architecture, he was not in accordance with the subsequent repercussions around the Nervion. It seemed that the true Basque spirit had not arisen: all those gardens, these excessive lights that had nothing to do with the merits of the Basque soul. Frank Gehry left part of his heart in Bilbao. Years later, looking at those first drawings he surprised himself: "One may recognise the signatures: at the end of this building comes from me. But this is different to everything I have ever done." Perhaps that is it.
Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain, 1991-1997.
INTERVIEW WITH FRANK O. GEHRY
M.V: Most of the buildings are constructed from metal: the world of reflections, changes in light, night and day. The headquarters of the foundation Vuitton is another example, this time, transparent. You no longer build only in brick or stone.
Over the years your buildings reflect light, they absorb. What mystery transmits the light?
F.G: Natural light is free so I always say we should use it. We know the path of the sun and the moon and we know how light plays with shapes, building shapes. I don’t know about the mystery part.
M.V: What is your favorite moment in the process of creation, the most exciting? Is it the first drawing, the final model?
F.G: Working with the client to understand their needs, their dreams and to help them realize it. The technical stuff we do brings care in constructability: from care in budget control, care in responsibility to energy issues. We also respect neighbors and work with contexts.
M.V: In the history of architecture, religion also claims its space. In Spain, we have examples like Córdoba: on a Roman temple a Visigoth church is built; on this, the Omeyas construct the actual mosque; and early sixteenth century, a Christian basilica was added to the Muslim center construction. In the early years of Frank Gehry, a large space is occupied to Hebraic studies and patient Talmud reading. Among his buildings there are auditoriums, hospitals, warehouses, banks and especially museums.
Would you have liked to face a great religious monument?
M.V: Julian Schnabel, his friend, says that Bilbao has the proportions of Luxor.
Have the architectural proportions varied since then?
F.G: Yes. That architecture exudes power. Today we try to exude friendship, community, and positive feelings.
M.V: Your creations seem to ride more and more towards lightness: do you remember Don Quixote, charging at a gallop against windmills 1991-1997. Its buildings are wrapped by metal sheets or candles that go out flying. We think the 12 candles of Paris, or in the Rioja winery as the headdress of a woman made of metal coloured ribbons that can fly among the vineyards. You are an admirer of Bernini recognizing the way which his paintings seem light, malleable, overblown by the wind: the Ecstasy of St. Teresa.
Will this architecture endure this obsession? Up to what point, for you, is lightness inseparable of beauty?
F.G: When it loses gravitas.
M.V: It has been over 20 years since the Guggenheim of Bilbao was built. You have created the museum and have converted it into the symbol of the city, the great transformer of Bilbao. The locals have been given the luck of the identity with its Guggenheim museum.
What is Bilbao for you today?
F.G: Bilbao is a place I cherish. The work led me to many friends. The one person who seems to be left out of all the questions is Tom Krens. Tom was director of the museum, was my partner in developing this project and deserves a big credit for his vision and his trust in me.
- Written by Dr. Diego Sánchez Meca
Contributor: Dr. Diego Sánchez Meca,
It was Hermann Hesse, together with a few other authors, who showed me from a very early age that literature is the refinement and perfectioning of life that is achieved through the kind of internalization often found in fine art. Internalizing does not mean reducing narratable external events to their minimum; rather, it means combining a series of events with a specific narrative message, within that apparent stopping of time that, again, we often encounter in fine art.
Hesse’s novels and short stories do not simply reconstruct events; they explore a wide range of existential and spiritual meanings through allegorical mediations and myths.
Many of his works show us entire new worlds and periods of time that seem to have never existed. His anti-heroes are symbols of misfortune, thrown out and left to rot in the ignominy of history from where they linger and stare back at us until our eyes hurt. It seems like Hesse wants to escape from the metaphysical-rhetorical optimism of classic European and Western humanism in order to defend the insoluble, inexorable union between pessimism and humanity. The way I see it, this is precisely what many of his allegories try to express — they are aimed at the source of a kind of happiness that is not quite of this world, but only because to achieve it requires a kind of inner transformation that intensifies the experience of the spirit. This is one way of extracting from Hesse’s books the spiritual richness within them, and of interpreting the self-reflexive, expressive mediations of his writings as new ways of understanding and practicing art.
It’s true that, today, many of Hesse’s novels feel rather distanced from our modern sensibilities: they almost feel like symbols whose role is to “represent”, at least in the Schopenhauerian sense of the word. The poetic distance of novels such as Demian, Beneath the Wheel, Narcissus and Goldmund, Rosshalde, Steppenwolf or Siddharta is, in fact, an ironic one, one which expresses a worthy critique of that unquestioned dogma: that there should be no pain in the world of representation.
In other words, the irony that is the anachronism of Hesse in our contemporary world is due to his positioning himself halfway between an allegorical short story about the soul of the modern European and a phenomenology of the disgraced conscience of the generic Human Being, who appeals to the highest, most seductive form of art as a parody secretly turned against itself. In this sense, detailing the exaggeration and the extremism so characteristic of Hesse’s spiritualism, this notion has a long history, because it reflects the intellectual disposition of those who grind their teeth in proud modesty while passionately seeking truth in beauty, as many philosophers and artists have done and will continue doing.
- Written by Elena Cué
Author: Elena Cué
The international contemporary art fair, ArcoMadrid, will open its doors on February 25th, in association with Colombia, as an invited nation.
The Fernando Botero (Medellín, Colombia - 1932) art collection is one of the 50 most important museum collections in the world. As a palette, paint, and brush artist, his hands have never stopped working. His figurative art draws out the form and essence of his subjects, provoking a higher sense of sensuality, flexibility and grandeur. Reality is transformed through his imagination: sometimes into kindness, other times into scathing violence. The sculptures, paintings and drawings have created a relevant artistic production, whose objective is “to create a formal opulence.” These powerful figures, whether in marble or bronze, have been on exhibition in the most important venues in the world, such as: The Champs Elysees in Paris, Park Avenue in New York, The Grand Canal in Venice, and The Paseo de Recoletos in Madrid.
The still-lifes, the bull fighting, the circus, the religion and the eroticism make up an extensive theme rooted in Latin America — specifically in his native country — with a manifest skill in drawing and color. The beautiful and the violent combine together in the Boterian imagery that brings us closer to Colombia’ssoul through a nostalgic reminiscence.
Through his studies in Montecarlo, with views of the Mediterranean sea and his characteristic lighting, we can draw closer to the soul of this magnificent artist.
Elena Cué: His knowledge about art history is plentiful and has unquestionably influenced his art work. Do you believe that an artist can be complete without being influenced by culture?
Fernando Botero: A great artist is born from a profound knowledge of the tradition and problems of painting. However, there are many works in which freshness and audacity surprise, as can be seen in popular art and in certain examples of modern art.
E.C: You have said that “art is a permanent accusation.” Do you believe an artist has a moral duty to use his work to point out and denounce injustices in this devastating world?
F.B: The only duty an artist has is in the quality of the art. There is no moral obligation to denounce. An artist confronted with a tremendous injustice sometimes feels inclined to say something. Denouncing the situation is the artist’s choice.
E.C: Goya’s influence in your paintings is evident. The series of engravings, “Casualties of War” ("Los desastres de la guerra") totally reveals a dramatic cruelty and barbaric humanity. Your work includes a series about the crimes that occurred in the Iraqi jail of Abu Ghraib after the United States attacks in 2001. In this world of cyber-technology, events are ephemeral, since the new always replaces the old, in contrast to art which is powerful and timeless, making it more applicable. Why did you choose this precise series of crimes?
F.B: I did not choose this series of crimes, it was impossible to ignore them: just like Iraqi prisoners being tortured by Americans, in the Abu Ghraib jail - the same place where Sadam Hussein was tortured. Or, the violence in Colombia which left thousands of victims, on both sides, and displaced people, and since this happened in my country, it was especially painful for me.
E.C: Goya already stated that illustration didn't make barbarism disappear. Do you believe there is hope in this respect?
F.B: It is not possible for art to resolve situations which are basically political. The artist shows the situation that exists like a “permanent denunciation.” Nobody would recall the small village, Guernica, which was bombed, if it were not for Picasso.
E.C: Wisdom comes from a long life. What do you believe is the meaning of life?
F.B: The meaning of life is different for everyone. Some take on a hedonist attitude. For others, there is a necessity for spiritual or cultural fulfillment based on discipline.
E.C: You have already embraced the life of an artist in every possible way, in all of its complexities. What counsel would you give the younger generations of artists?
F.B: An artist is born like a priest is born. If they are born an artist, I would tell them art is not a game, it is something very serious which completely requires everything you have to give.
E.C: With an aesthetic technique as identifiable as yours, in which reality is expressed through a volumetric sensuality, what opinion do you have of the English artist, Beryl Cook, whose work reflects a seemingly jovial nature with an aesthetic sense very similar to yours?
F.B: This is the first time I have heard of Beryl Cook.
E.C: Your artistic production has beentypecast as “Magic Realism” determined by the importance of the myths in Latin-America, as well as the “New Figurative”artcharacterized by a return to the informal methods of figurative painting. Do you agree with this description?
F.B: Magic Realism, definitely not, because in my works nothing is magic. I paint about things which are unlikely but not impossible. In my pieces, nobody flies and nothing impossible happens.
Art is always an exaggeration in some sense; in color, in form, even in theme, etc… but it has always been this way. It is the same with the nature of some works by Giotto or Massacio, or the color of life as expressed by Van Gogh.
It could be a new figurative work. It is probable because we have inherited the liberty from abstract art, and we have a liberty in terms of shapes. Color and space involves thinking, not realism.
E.C: What literature works have influenced and helped in the type of works you paint?
F.B: I do not believe that other arts can influence painting - sometimes a vulgar image or a piece of popular art have more affect in the sensitivity of the painter than a masterpiece of literature. Since the very beginning I intuitively had an interest in exaggerating sizes.
E.C: What importance does sketching have in your painting?
F.B: It is of utmost importance. Sketching is almost everything. It is the painter’s identity, his style, his conviction, and then color is just a gift to the drawing.
E.C: The generous donation of more than 200 works from your own collection to the Botero Museum in Bogotá, and almost 20 others to the Antioquía Museum in Medellín is exemplary.
What have your motivation and satisfaction been in this respect?
F.B: The donation I made to Columbia from my collection, and from many of my works, is one of the best ideas I ever had in my life. The public’s enjoyment is the best reward.
E.C: The millennial Hindu book, Kama Sutra, about the art of love in its spiritual and sexual fullness is reinvented by your imagination in Boterosutra. Which artists, from your point of view, have the best ability to represent love?
F.B: Eroticism has made great plastic manifestation all over the Orient, in Persia, Japan, India, etc. I did my Boterosutra series using more imagination than memory, trying as always to make the artistic expression more important than the theme - the rhythm of drawing, the subtle modeling, the application of color were the dominant elements in this series. The theme is extraordinary and unique because only in loving the human body can you make postures which could only be repeated in the circus.
E.C: Nietzsche, in The Birth of a Tragedy, writes “it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.” Is the art, as stated by Nietzsche, the metaphysical activity of life? For an artist like you, would this metaphysics be the only way we can make our avatars existence tolerable?
F.B: I have never read Nietzsche, but I do believe that the artist presents a world as the metaphysics of art. The artist presents, through his work in general, a more beautiful loving world that makes the “avatars of our existence,” as you said, more tolerable.
E.C: The study of the relationship of an artist’s biography and work has been a constant throughout the history of art. The Colombian history, social and political reality are expressed through your career. How do you see your country evolving right now? What vision do you have for spreading your national cultural identity?
F.B: The work of an artist, in its totality, is like a self portrait – in my country, in between great dramas, there has been an economic evolution and culturally positive advancements. I believe in the importance of the roots in an artist’s work. That ‘something’ that comes from the motherland is what gives works their touch of honesty.
E.C: What have been the most important moments of your life?
F.B: The most important moments of my life have always been connected to my work. They were moments in which I felt I accomplished something unexpected.
E.C: What do you have left to do?
F.B: Learn to paint.