Guernica, One of the Greatest Works of Modern Art?

Pablo Picasso, 1937, Guernica, protest against...

Pablo Picasso, 1937, Guernica, protest against Fascism (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Guernica was a sleepy Basque village in northern Spain that was unknown to much of the wider world… until April 27, 1937 when it was the target of the world’s first saturation-bombing raid.  General Francisco Franco allowed his fascist ally Hitler to test his new air force’s prowess.   At the time, military aviation was in its infancy and the world hadn’t yet seen massive aerial bombings.  The raid destroyed the town, causing destruction that previously had been unimaginable.

Ruins of Guernica (1937). The Spanish civil wa...

Ruins of Guernica (1937). The Spanish civil war claimed the lives of over half-a-million people. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the time, Pablo Picasso was living in Paris.  When he read the news reports of Guernica, he quit working on other projects and set to work.   He worked on it feverishly and within a few weeks, he created a large mural measuring 87.17 meters (286 square feet).  When we were in Paris, we were surprised to walk out our door and see this plaque nearby.  It says “Pablo Picasso lived in this building from 1936 to 1955. It is in this workshop that he painted ‘Guernica’ in 1937.  It is here also that Balzac centered the action of his novel ‘Le Chef-d’œuvre Inconnu‘.”.

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Picasso exhibited it at the Spanish Pavilion of the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. It turned out to be a masterpiece and is generally regarded as Picasso’s greatest work.   It combines various styles (Cubism, Surrealism and abstraction) to depict and comment on the horrors of war.  It wasn’t an immediate smash.  But over time, people gained an appreciation of its complex symbolism.  People reacted to the humanity depicted and the devastating effects of war on civilians.  It became a rallying-cry-in-paint to the anti-fascist cause.  When we were in Madrid, we made a special trip to the Reina Sofia Museum to see it.  It is incredibly moving and its use of symbolism is astonishing.  For a good analysis/explanation of the painting, click here or here.

Pablo Picasso pintando el Guernica (París, 1937)

Pablo Picasso pintando el Guernica (París, 1937) (Photo credit: Recuerdos de Pandora)

Happy Birthday Picasso!

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The Paris Subway Iconic Signs

DSC_0639_2The Paris Métro‘s art nouveau entrances and art deco candelabras are iconic.  They are almost as readily recognizable as the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe or the Louvre.  The smell of the subway is almost equally iconic, but fortunately not as easily expressed via the internet.  

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A French friend explained to us that for something to be popular in France, it must be beautiful, even if it means sacrificing function.  A lot of Paris’ beauty and charm lies in the elegance of everyday life.  These subway signs are a perfect manifestation of this.

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These “edicule” entrances were designed by the architect, Hector Guimard in 1899.  Some conservative Parisians considered them too fanciful.  Some saw the wrought-iron stems clutching glowing reddish balls, pistils and stamens of flowers, as suggestive. Eventually, acceptance grew.  Nevertheless, they didn’t have the appreciation they enjoy today.  Many of the signs were torn down over the years, in the name of modernization.  Eventually, Paris recognized their beauty, value and symbolic power. In the late 70’s the remaining ones were declared historic landmarks.  At the end of the century, they restored the remaining art nouveau Metro entrances.

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Cool huh?  We aren’t the only ones who think so.  The New York Modern Art Museum bought the old wrought-iron railings from a Metro entrance.  They are on display as a pioneering, beautiful example of art nouveau.

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The Giger Bar, One Cool (And Slightly Surreal) Joint

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Most people have seen Hans Rudolf “Ruedi” Giger‘s work, even if they don’t know who he is.  Giger is best known as the designer for Ridley Scott‘s Alien movies, for which he won an Oscar.   Incredibly creative, he paints and sculpts too.   Giger was way ahead of his time in foreseeing the increasingly close relationship between the human body and machines.

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The Château St. Germain in Gruyères (yep, like the cheese), Switzerland houses the H. R. Giger Museum, which is a permanent repository of his work.  The nearby Giger Bar is a stunning, slightly surreal bar designed by him.   Built in 2003, it was way ahead of its time, foreseeing the increasingly close relationship between the human body and machines.  There are two Giger Bars; the other is in his hometown of Chur in the  Graubünden Canton of Switzerland.

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Giger excels at represent human bodies and machines in a cold, but connected, intriguing way.  Sitting in the bar, you feel like you’re in the belly of the beast.  It is an incredibly imaginative and slightly surreal mixture of skeleton and fantasy.

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While it’s dark, structural and even biomechanical, it’s not cold.   We went early and at an off hour so that we could fully explore the place.   We oohed and aahed as we discovered details everywhere.  It definitely makes for an unforgettable drink.

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The ceiling has the skeletal structure of vertebrae, like a fantastic ossuary.

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Once upon a time (the 1980’s), there was another Giger Bar in Tokoyo.  Unfortunately Giger wasn’t as involved in that one.  Its design was constrained by earthquake codes.  Perhaps most damagingly, it became a hangout for the Yakuza.  Giger disowned it and never even entered.

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By the way, Giger is spelled with only one ‘e’.  Hans Geiger, known for his work on the radiation measuring known as the Geiger Counter, was German.

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My Visit To Louisana And Why The Dane’s Might Be The World’s Nicest People

 

When we were in Denmark, I decided to go see Louisiana (not the state), a modern art museum about 45 minutes outside of Copenhagen.  I found the train station, purchased tickets and was off.   At the third stop, a creepy guy got on and sat across from me.  It wasn’t long before he was mumbling under his breath.  He tried out various inappropriate words in different languages to see which got a reaction from me.

He also stared and moaned disturbingly at the paper with pictures of Denmark’s new female prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt. She’s an attractive lady, but c’mon it’s the prime minister. Show some respect.

When he realized I knew English, he continued in English.  There weren’t empty seats so, I ignored him and kept my nose in my book.  Eventually it was too much and I asked him to “please stop doing that and be quiet”.  He said “no English, no Danish”.  The liar.  He knew a plethora of choice English words; I’d just heard them.  I was so focused on looking at my book and ignoring him that I missed my stop!  Uh-oh.

I got off (so did he by the way – yuck) and tried to figure out what to do.  Luckily, there was a 7-11.  A 7-11?  Yes a 7-11, here they also serve as train stations/ticket agents in smaller towns.  A young woman was behind the counter.  I explained to her what had happened and was sure to note the words he had said about her newly elected prime minister while leafing through the paper.  She got someone to cover for her, took me to the conductor, explained what had happened and got me a free ride to the museum!  I couldn’t have been more grateful. Take my word for it, the Danes are nice. Unbelievably nice. When I saw the museum, I was blown away.  It was amazing.* *Everyone has his or her “things”. Modern art and Danish design are two of mine. I still think that anyone would be impressed by and enjoy this place.  It’s got a beautiful seaside setting, nice cafeteria and thought-provoking art.  If you take a guided tour (or can subtly follow one as I did), the guides do a great job of explaining what you are seeing and putting it in context.

 

Van Gogh In Saint-Rémy De Provence

 

After cutting off part of his left ear in Arles, Vincent van Gogh voluntarily committed himself to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, a psychiatric asylum in Saint-Rémy de Provence.  The year was extremely difficult for Van Gogh.  Although he was incapacitated at times,  it was also one of his most creative periods and he produced over 150 paintings during his year at Saint-Rémy.  When he was able to paint, he produced many of his best works.  His landscapes from this period are particularly groundbreaking.

As long as he remained stable, the doctors allowed Vincent to paint and he converted an adjacent cell into a studio. Initially, he was not allowed to leave the asylum grounds.  He painted what he saw from the room (minus the bars on the window).  We saw the asylum’s walled garden replete with irises, lilacs, and ivy-covered trees. Having seen Van Gogh’s paintings, it was hauntingly familiar.

Although it’s not fancy or high-tech, the exhibits teach you about Van Gogh’s life, his mental illness, how he came to Arles, his treatment there, how mental illnesses were treated at the time and his painting.  On our way out to walk the grounds, he said that Van Gogh is now his favorite painter (I’m not sure that he had one before).

Irises exemplifies Van Gogh’s trademark vivid colors and daring brush strokes.  It was one of his early paintings there.  Influenced by Japanese wood blocks, it lacks the higher tension in his later works.  He called it “the lightning conductor for my illness” because he believed that he could avoid further breakdowns by continuing to paint.  Unfortunately this was not so and after painting this, he suffered his first major “attack” at the asylum.

Irises, 1889, Getty Center, Los Angeles

Irises, 1889, Getty Center, Los Angeles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When he was permitted to leave the grounds, he painted the nearby wheatfields, olive groves, and cypress trees of the surrounding countryside.  The Olive Trees, by Vincent Van Gogh, depicts an olive grove just outside the grounds of the asylum in Saint-Rémy.

The museum has plaques at spots where Van Gogh painted, explaining the painting and the view.  They make well-known spots easy to find.  Some spots are so iconic you immediately recognize them even without the plaques.  Seeing the olive groves or the beds of irises, we were filled with awe at Van Gogh’s ability to capture the feeling and essence of them.

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Olive-trees (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We went to St. Rémy not knowing what to expect.  Although it was raining to hard to see much of the town, it was a wonderful surprise and a powerful, moving experience (kind of like Van Gogh’s paintings).  It was something we will remember forever and we even learned a little something.

 

Arles, Better Than New

After our whirlwind tour of France’s Côte d’Azur (Cannes, Antibes, Villefranche, Nice, Eze, the Grande Corniche, St. Paul-de-Vence, and Vence), we headed back from the coast to Provence.  Arles was a cultural and religious centre during the late Roman Empire.  During the dark ages, it fell under the control of the Muslim Saracens, the Franks and even experienced Viking raids.  The turbulence didn’t last and the town regained political and economic prominence.  For centuries Arles was a major port on the Rhône.  With the advent of the railroad in the 19th century, Arles became something of a backwater while nearby Marseille (with it’s seaport) exploded. Today, Arles is gently loved and its decay is part of its charm.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Arles is that even though it is filled with old, even ancient buildings and surrounded by history, it doesn’t stay rooted in the past.  It isn’t, nor does it want to be, a time capsule.  The ancient buildings house very current shops restaurants and exhibitions.   Arles is vibrant.  It manages to be lively and active without being stressful.  We loved its relaxed vibe.  After having been in the Cote d’Azur, it was a nice change to visit a town that had more locals than tourists.

We weren’t the only ones who fell under Arles’ spell.  Our friend, Hokie, at The Swiss Watch Blog, recommended it.  The movie Ronin was partially filmed in Arles.  It stars Jean Reno (an iconic French actor who you probably know from The Da Vinci Code, Mission: Impossible, and Hotel Rwanda) and Robert De Niro.  This caper film has wonderful cinematography an unforgettable car chase.  John Frankenheimer filmed Ronin’s shoot-out in Arles.  Vincent Van Gogh lived, painted, drank and cut off an ear here.   There are placards all over the city at sites where Arles appears in his paintings.  Who hasn’t seen the painting Cafe Terrace at Night which the cafe below?

We walked along the Rhone River from the Roman Museum into town before losing ourselves in its history and narrow alleyways.  Thanks for the recommendation Hokie.  We loved Arles.

A Giant Spider Traveling The World

When I visited Geneva on my apartment hunting trip, I spent an afternoon in Bern, Switzerland. In front of the parliment building, there was a fantastic statute of a giant spider. When we moved to Geneva a month later, the sculpture had moved here!  It made me curious and I wanted to learn more.
The spider gets around; it is better traveled than us. The statute first appeared as part of an exhibition as part of the Tate Modern in London (below).
Since then, it has vacationed in fantastic spots all over the world. Temporary locations include:

Permanent locations of bronze cast replicas include:

Maman has been well received in each place and has become very popular.* It’s easy to see why.  The sculpture photographs well, children love to play around its legs and it’s a hit with art connoisseurs.

 
It was made by French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois. Before passing away in 2010 at age 98, she was the world’s highest paid living female artist. The sculpture is called “Maman“. The spider’s sac contains 26 marble eggs.  You can see them looking up from underneath the spider.
It’s called “Maman” and is an homage to her mother who worked as a restorer of tapestries in Paris (get it, spiders weave webs, her mom rewove tapestries).
She made a giant spider statue for her mother, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that she had daddy issues. When she was a child, she learned that her tyrannical, sadistic, father was having a long-term affair with her live-in nanny!  Insert Freud jokes here.  She spent her career exorcising these demons.  Much of her work dealt with revenge, feminism, women’s roles and power.
She saw spiders as clever, protective, life-giving and useful.  Others see it/them as both frightening and/or threatening.
*Maman has its own Facebook page with its picture in different locations.
 

Alberto Giacometti Slept Here

The other day, I was walking down a street in our neighborhood (Geneva‘s Eaux-Vives) and I saw this plaque.  Being an art fan, I knew immediately who this was.  Since he’s not a huge art fan, I had to explain why I was so excited to him.
 
It says “Here lived from 1943 to 1945 Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966 Swiss Sculptor and Painter”.  I knew that he was Swiss, but never imagined that I’d live in the same neighborhood that he did.   He had been living in Paris, but when the Nazis occupied France, he returned to neutral Switzerland.
Alberto Giacometti is perhaps the most important of the modern humanist artists.  His works are especially interesting because they are complex, show conflict and portray a depth of human emotion.  For example, the figure is simultaneously flat and rounded, strong and fragile, stark but filled with humanity, abstract fragments are put together make a whole…  The skin of his figures crumbles and crawls but the figure remains invincibly upright.
Many artists were impacted by the World Wars.  Some say Giacometti showed human beings holding their own in the midst of war’s devestation, humanity surviving the trauma.
At some point his eyes started to glaze over, so I knew I had to make it more interesting for him.  I’ll do it for you too.   At 16, he contracted the mumps which rendered him sterile.  Let’s just say that this damage to his left him with some lingering issues with women, the body, what it means to be a man, etc.
By the way, a version of this one “The Walking Man” sold for over $104,000,000, making it one of the most expensive works ever sold!