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Friday, August 31, 2007

Suprematism and Constructivism

Suprematist Walls at the Last Futurist Exhibition in Moscow, 1915Suprematism and Constructivism had opposite aims while sharing the same universe: a set of geometric figures.

For Suprematists the aim was to find the transcendent beyond geometry, like Mondrian and De Stijl; to find the essence of art, like Cubists.

For Constructivists the aim was to find the society starting from geometry, like Bauhaus and Futurism; art to change the world; changing the world by starting with art. Walther Gropius wrote in Bauhaus Manifesto that the old forms are in ruins, the benumbed world is shaken up, the old human spirit is invalidated and in flux toward a new form.

Constructivist posterMalevich and Mondrian were in search of a mystical reality. Other artists belonging to Suprematism or De Stijl would not share the same mystical preoccupations, but all of them would try to understand the essence of art and the realm of what is beyond art (also beyond language, beyond reasoning - I would try to talk sometime of Zaum and of Pobeda nad solntzem).

Tatlin, Rodchenko, Klucis, Moholy-Nagy, Marinetti, were enthusiastic about urbanism, industry, and of course politics. Futurists embraced Fascism, Constructivists and Bauhaus embraced Communism. Кто не с нами, тот против нас (Kto ne s nami, tot protiv nas)!

So, aims were opposite, while the artistic universe was the same, for Malevich as well as for Tatlin. No wonder that the artistic results would often be very much alike. All of them would share the same interest for architecture and urbanism. Bauhaus Manifesto declared for all Avant-Garde: the ultimate aim of all creative activity is a building!

No wonder that history of art takes often Suprematists for Constructivists and viceversa.

(Avangarda 20)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Casa Malaparte

Casa Malaparte

My house must be open to the sun, to the wind, and the voice of the sea, just like a Greek temple, and light, light, light everywhere!

The words of Axel Munthe come to mind when you see Casa Malaparte.

Casa Malaparte Tiberius, Axel Munthe, Curzio Malaparte. All three shared this love for Capri, la Isola Bella.

Says Axel Munthe, it is with joy and not with sorrow that my thoughts go back there, where I have lived the happiest years of my life. But it is true I do not like to go there myself anymore - I feel as if I were intruding upon sacred ground, sacred to a past which can never return, when the world was young and the sun was my friend.

Casa Malaparte Both Axel Munthe and Curzio Malaparte left us books. As for Tiberius, the Emperor, what we know about him is from Tacitus. It is a harsh portrait. Axel Munthe would come again and again to the same question, was Tacitus right?

The Story of San Michele was my reading companion when I was about sixteen.

I sprang from the Sorrento sailing-boat on, to the little beach. Swarms of boys were playing about among the upturned boats or bathing their shining bronze bodies in the surf, and old fishermen in red Phrygian caps sat mending their nets, outside their boathouses. I had no time to think, my head was full of rapturous wonder, my heart full of the joy of life, the world was beautiful and I was eighteen.

Just over our heads, riveted to the steep rock like an eagle's nest, stood a little ruined chapel. Its vaulted roof had fallen in, but huge blocks of masonry shaped into an unknown pattern of symmetrical network, still supported its crumbling walls. What is the name of the little chapel?, I asked eagerly? San Michele. San Michele! San Michele! echoed in my heart.

Casa MalaparteI did not know anything about Casa Malaparte. I saw it for the first time in a short film, at the Exhibition on Modernism that was hosted at the Corcoran Gallery. I was astonished by its beauty.

A narrow high cliff over the Gulf of Salerno. The sea is somewhere down, surrounding the cliff. You hear the roar of waves from all sides. Sea and sun. Access is only by boat, then you follow a long staircase cut into the mountain.

Then I found its story. Curzio Malaparte hired Adalberto Libera (an Italian Rationalist architect) to design the house. It was in 1937 or 1938.

It seems that Malaparte rejected at some point the design of Libera and went on with local stonemasons. Anyway, the original idea for the house was of Libera, a red masonry box with reverse pyramidal stairs leading to the roof patio (Wikipedia).

Curzio Malaparte would write in a letter to a friend, people who live in Capri do not know, do not realize (until they leave) the paradise they live in. I have not spent a real summer in Capri since 1938. In 1939 I was in Amalfi, back from Ethiopia, with a rheumatism on my right side that was making me suffer horribly. In 1940 I was on Mont Blanc. In 1941 I was in Russia. In 1942 I was in Lapland; and this year I am in Sweden and Finland. And at least this year, I would like to enjoy Capri's summer in my own house, before I become too old.

Casa Malaparte
These views, with their austere beauty, refuting any compromise with coziness, with nicety, do they echo some parts from the interior universe of Malaparte, some of his thoughts, something he was thinking those years? The war would follow, and he would write Kaputt, and then La Pelle.

Malaparte was his adopted name. Just to distance himself from Bonaparte. Curzio Malaparte, futurist, attracted by modern values like all futurists, attracted by fascism like all futurists, keeping his independence of views and conflicting often with the regime of Mussolini, attracted after the war by communism - he embraced the whole spectrum of radical politics while keeping always his critical attitude, his distances, his independence of views.

Casa Malaparte
After the death of Malaparte the house remained neglected and began to decay.

It took about thirty years till the first serious restoration was initiated.

Meanwhile, in 1963, Godard shot some scenes here, at the Casa Malaparte, for his movie, Le Mépris. It was fortunate, as it is said that the movie has a great cinematography, with well-choreographed long takes.

I haven't yet see Le Mépris, but I saw another movie that was shot in Capri, Blind Light, with Wolfgang Held as cinematographer. An unexpected gem, would say one of the people who saw it and then made this remark on imdb. I keep it as the most beautiful movie made by Pola Rapaport.

Casa Malaparte

Look at these two images: the greatness of an Aztec pyramid!

Nothing than trees and fantastic vegetation, sea, wind with the terrible roar of waves, sun or fog or frightening darkness of night; and Casa Malaparte with the severe greatness of an Aztec pyramid: this is the place for Epiphany.

Casa Malaparte

(Avangarda 20)

Monday, August 27, 2007

Paris - La Maison de Verre

Maison de verre
La Maison de Verre, the Glass House, is in Paris, 31 Rue St-Guillaume. It was built at the beginning of thirties. The architect was Pierre Chareau.

Corbu's Villa Savoye comes to mind, of course. There is however a difference. Villa Savoye was seminal for all that followed in the world of architecture, while la Maison de Verre represents the road not taken: the modernists considered the house as a machine à habiter; la Maison de Verre was une machine lyrique. It had a soul. Even two souls: half of it was conceived to have a male spirit, and the female spirit was considered for the other half.

Grand Salon
Here is the Grand Salon, with the piano. This house is a dream.

The story of the house is fabulous in itself. The owner was a gynecologist who wanted actually to get rid of an unpleasant neighbor, so he decided to build a huge glass monster just in front of the neighbor's window. The gynecologist didn't move there. Sometimes he was having guests who were offered a visit inside the glass house.

The main staircase sheathed in a series of screens
The gynecologist's heirs intended to sell the house to the French State. For various reasons the negotiations were not successful. Eventually an American collector bought the house. The news horrified the whole Paris.

The bookcase with metal shelving has a ladder that slides along the length of the shelves. The cupboards and bookshelves were designed as screens to the second floor
However, as it turned out, that selling was fortunate, actually. The buyer, a Mr. Rubin, was a born collector with a great sense of what art means. He even enrolled at the School of Architecture, at the Columbia University (and he was 48 by that time!), to be prepared for his acquisition, as he felt that La Maison de Verre needed a connoisseur. He did very carefully restorations, keeping always in mind to keep the soul of the house.

Bathroom with movable panels separating the showers and bathtub
Here is a great chronicle of La Maison de Verre. It was written by Nicolai Ouroussoff and appeared in NY Times (by the way, Nicolai Ouroussoff spent some time in La Maison de Verre, together with his girlfriend, before writing the chronicle - it seems that they explored both spirits of the house, he sitting in the male part and she in the female part and then changing places - but read the article and you'll find much more):

No house in France better reflects the magical promise of 20th-century architecture than the Maison de Verre. Tucked behind the solemn porte-cochere of a traditional French residence on Rue Saint-Guillaume, a quiet street in a wealthy Left Bank neighborhood, the 1932 house designed by Pierre Chareau challenges our assumptions about the nature of Modernism. For architects it represents the road not taken: a lyrical machine whose theatricality is the antithesis of the dry functionalist aesthetic that reigned through much of the 20th century.

Its status as a cult object was enhanced by the house’s relative inaccessibility. For decades it was seen only by a handful of scholars and by patients of a gynecologist whose offices took up the first floor. Later it was mostly used as occasional guest quarters for friends of the doctor’s family, who had long since settled into a traditional 18th-century apartment across the courtyard.

So when I heard over dinner here with some friends a year or so ago that the family had sold the house to an American entrepreneur, I was astonished. My dinner companion, an architect who had never met the new owner, lamented the sale as evidence of France’s cultural decline, akin to the construction of Euro Disney. Waving a dismissive hand, she invoked the cliché of the ugly American, pockets stuffed with dollars.

As it turns out, although the buyer, Robert Rubin, made his money on Wall Street, he is far from a crass trophy hunter. After buying the house, he embarked on a painstaking renovation of its intricate — and for its time, ingenious — mechanical systems. He enlisted a corps of architectural historians and graduate students to decipher its secrets. With the first phase of the renovation completed, he plans to open it up eventually for limited tours. In his loving devotion to the house and its historical particulars, he has emerged as a role model for those who seek to preserve an architectural relic without turning it into a mausoleum.

Mr. Rubin, 54, is a born collector. He restored his first car, a Jensen Healy, when he moved to New York City in his early 20s. After racking up money as a commodities trader in the mid-1970s, he turned his eye to bigger prizes, like a 1960s Ferrari 275 GTB and later a rare 1933 Bugatti that had once belonged to King Leopold of Belgium. His fascination with industrial objects eventually led him to the works of Modernist architects like Jean Prouvé and Chareau, whose creations were elaborate Machine Age fantasies.

Approaching his new subject with the zeal of a scholar, Mr. Rubin went back to school in 2001, enrolling at Columbia University’s graduate school of architecture at the age of 48. He worked as a teaching assistant for Kenneth Frampton, the architectural historian who wrote a celebrated textbook on 20th-century Modernism.

Around the same time Mr. Rubin bought Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale, a prefabricated metal shelter conceived in the late 1940s as a prototype for affordable housing in colonial Africa and later erected in the Congo. After a methodical restoration, he organized a series of exhibitions on the Prouvé house, shipping it to Yale and to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Last year he donated it to the Pompidou Center. (By contrast the hotelier André Balazs recently bought a version of the Maison Tropicale at Christie’s, for $5 million and plans to make it the centerpiece of a Caribbean resort.)

Yet nothing Mr. Rubin had collected up to this point could compare — in scale or in the weight of responsibility — to the Maison de Verre. The house is often compared to another early-20th-century masterpiece, Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. Both houses were built in the brief period between the two world wars, the high point of classical Modernism. Both embody that movement’s obsession with hygiene, and the fiercely held notion that a house could function as a tool for physical and psychic healing. But while Le Corbusier’s masterpiece was intended as the expression of a broad vision — a philosophical rejoinder to the squalid disorder of the medieval city — Chareau’s ambitions were more humble.

Born in 1883, he began his career as a draftsman for a traditional English furniture maker in Paris. By the early 1920s he had designed the interiors of some elegantly appointed apartments for wealthy clients and was mostly admired for his furniture designs, elaborate wood and metal pieces with movable parts that reflect a taste for refined machinery.

The Maison de Verre itself has been described as an elaborate piece of furniture. It was commissioned in the late 1920s by Dr. Jean Dalsace and his wife, Annie, who had bought the site, an existing 18th-century hôtel particulier, but were unable to evict the woman who lived on the top floor. As a result Chareau was obliged to carve out his creation underneath her apartment. Viewed from just inside the courtyard the house looks like a glowing translucent box, its great glass-block facade embedded in the 18th-century fabric and capped by the old one-story apartment level above.

The house’s poetic force has resonated through decades. Chareau conceived its interior as a delicate composition of interlocking forms, with the two-story private quarters seeming to float atop the doctor’s office on the first floor. Upon entering, you can either descend a few steps into the doctor’s waiting room or turn back and climb a broad staircase. From there you turn again before stepping up into the double-height grand salon of the private quarters, which is illuminated through the towering glass block wall.

The series of turns is a shrewd strategy. With each step the old Paris — the world of medieval squares and 19th-century boulevards — grows more distant, allowing you to become enveloped in Chareau’s fantasy. A towering metal bookcase of small richly bound volumes stands along the salon’s back wall. Stairs lead to a narrow balcony that frames two sides of the salon and continues on to the bedrooms. The only views of the outside world are at the back of the house, which overlooks a small private garden.

The house has been compared to a Surrealist artwork, a theater stage and an operating room. That effect is animated by the play of light. During the day the facade has a strange milky glow; at night floodlights illuminate the wall from the outdoors, so that it glows like a lantern, bathing the salon in amber light. A single-story dining room and a smaller salon are set just off this central space, so that you are always conscious of its dramatic scale.

But the house is above all an exquisite machine. Chareau worked closely with Louis Dalbet, a talented ironworker, and the house’s detailing has as much in common with centuries-old craft traditions as with the efficiency of the 20th-century assembly line. Big curved perforated metal screens at the bottom of the entry stair rotate to shut the apartment off from the office below. A rolling ladder set along the salon bookcase is fabricated from a single piece of steel pipe and inlayed with wood. The glistening brass window casements at the back of the house are assembled from the window panels of a passenger train.

The Maison de Verre had a profound impact on generations of architects who were seeking to free themselves from the rigid orthodoxies of mainstream Modernism. Richard Rogers, a designer with Renzo Piano of the 1976 Pompidou Center, with its exposed tubes and bright colors, was captivated by the house when he first saw it in the early 1960s. A quarter-century later architects like Ben van Berkel would visit to try to decipher the uncannily fluid relationship between the house’s spaces for work and play, for public and private life.

The house stayed in the Dalsace family for more than 70 years. In the 1980s Dr. Dalsace’s daughter, Aline Vellay, and her husband considered selling it to the French government. Their thought was that it might be turned into a national landmark, as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye was decades ago. But the government did not take them up on it.

Mr. Rubin and his wife, Stéphane, approached the family in 2004 at the suggestion of a mutual friend and bought it for an undisclosed price in 2006.

“I think they finally sold it to me because of what I had done with the Maison Tropicale,” he told me recently in an interview in his apartment on Central Park West. “It was a very heavy responsibility to have.”

Although he loved the house, he added, “I didn’t want to fetishize it.”

The notion of owning a Modernist landmark has been fashionable for decades now. The usual impulse was to embark on a multimillion-dollar top-to-bottom renovation, then move into an immaculate architectural gem, upgraded with a SubZero refrigerator and a Viking stove.

The problem with this template is that something always gets lost: the essential character, the gently worn eccentricities, the patina that accumulates over time. French preservationists call this unrenovated state “dans son jus” — literally, “in its juice.” When it is erased wholesale, the result can be sterile and artificial, like radical cosmetic surgery.

To avoid that possibility Mr. Rubin approached his task deliberately. He began by slowly restoring the house’s mechanical systems, first the electrical wiring, and then the original heating and plumbing systems. The outdoor spotlights, most of which had been lowered or taken down decades ago, were restored to their original position on a steel frame in the courtyard. He also bought a fancy new stove.

But he left many of the most visible scars untouched: the worn textiles and dulled metal surfaces as well as some of the structural alterations made over the years. He decided not to polish the perforated panels in the salon. The old rubber flooring, whose pattern of small disks looks cracked and worn down in some places, is still there.

“The whole question of originality and restoration always bugged me,” Mr. Rubin said. “It started with cars. My Bugatti was originally a Grand Prix car, and then Bugatti painted the car black. But the exhaust had blown some of it off, and you could see original blue factory paint underneath. I kept that. I thought if you restore it, you lose its soul. You need to feel some direct connection to the past.”

I recently had the chance to test this idea firsthand. For a few days this summer Mr. Rubin let me stay there with my girlfriend. The visit fulfilled a fantasy, but it was also a concession to various editors who have suggested that I briefly live in a house and then write about it. (Usually this suggestion arises from one of the tiredest clichés in architecture: that the more unorthodox a house is, the more difficult it is to live in.)

We arrived at the house in the late morning after a long flight from New York. A housekeeper greeted us at the door and methodically took us through the rooms. Light switches. Check. Bathrooms. Check. Where to hang our clothing. Check.

As we strode through the house, I was reminded of an essay by Mr. Frampton that compared the house to Marcel Duchamp’s 1923 “Large Glass” (“The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even”). Like Duchamp’s work, he wrote, the house is separated into male and female zones, with the downstairs office offset by the bedrooms upstairs. These worlds leak into each other at carefully controlled points. A narrow retractable ship’s stair links the female realm to the main floor; a hidden stairway leads from the office to an upstairs study.

But the assignment of gender roles could just as easily be reversed. As the day wore on, my friend and I found ourselves locked in a gentle pas de deux, slipping in and out of rooms, yet always coming back to the grand salon, which seemed to arrest us momentarily in space. We began to appreciate the house’s elasticity, allowing for varying degrees of solitude and intimacy.

This effect was amplified by the play of light and sound. By turning on and off the various floodlights outside, you could adjust the mood of the entire house. When the lights are dimmed, for example, the house becomes less theatrical, more tender. Voices too travel through the rooms, so that you are always faintly aware of the presence of the other.

It wasn’t until we arose the next morning, however, that we fully understood Chareau’s choreography. The bathroom floor is raised in certain areas so that as we crossed it, we could catch occasional glimpses of each other before suddenly dropping back out of view.

A pair of perforated metal panels that divide the shower and bath can swing open, enabling us to chat with each other as we bathed. When they were closed, you could see the outline of a human silhouette moving behind the screen. It was the same dance we had performed around the central salon, now brought to its most intimate scale. The experience drove home how liberating the house must have felt during those first years, when it still hummed with life, with Mr. and Mrs. Dalsace circling into and out of each other’s orbit. The house was a perfect balance between the need for companionship and solitude, a utopia of the senses.

Alas, Chareau barely got to witness his greatest accomplishment. A few years after the house was completed the Germans marched into Paris, and Chareau — like the Dalsaces, a member of the city’s Jewish intellectual elite — fled. He traveled to Marseilles, then Morocco, and finally New York, where he arrived penniless and unknown.

In the mid-1940s the artist Robert Motherwell commissioned him to design a small studio house in the Hamptons. (That structure — an innovative experiment in low-cost construction that resembled a Quonset hut — was callously demolished in 1985.) Even Motherwell would later admit that, like most people in New York, he had never been fully aware of Chareau’s accomplishments.

Chareau never received another commission after that, surviving partly on what money his wife could earn giving cooking lessons to wealthy Americans. In an attempt to resurrect his reputation, he reached out in 1950 to the director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris. Around the same time he began negotiating with the Museum of Modern Art about a possible New York show of his work.

The Paris show never materialized. And Philip Johnson, the mercurial director of MoMA’s architecture department, who had just completed his own Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., vetoed an exhibition. By the end of 1950 Chareau was dead.

And now it is an American who has taken it upon himself to preserve the jewel of his legacy.

A Passage overlooking the Garden

Yes, la Maison de Verre is a dream. Though I'll tell you something, my greatest dream would be Casa Malaparte. I'll come to it.

(Avangarda 20)

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A few words about James Tenney

James TenneyI listened several times the CD with music by James Tenney and I ordered a book written by him about Gestalt Music. Probably after reading it I will know something more about this stuff. What I know so far is that Tenney has a theory about sounds, he used the term of clang, to designate a sound with all his characteristics (like pitch or volume), also he studied the influence of determined or random variations on these characteristics over music quality.

I listened meanwhile excerpts from Conlon Nancarrow, Charles Ives and Erik Satie. Satie is probably a more familiar name. Anyway, his music seems to me more accessible. As he had lived long before the others, the public had enough time to understand his compositions.

Interim, the first movie of Brakhage, is scored by Tenney. The movie was made in 52. Brakhage was nineteen, Tenney was eighteen. I watched it again yesterday. It seemed to me that the music was in the style of Erik Satie's Gymnopedies.

Another movie by Brakhage scored by Tenney is Desistfilm, made sometime in 53 or 54. Here music is much more difficult, alike to later compositions of Tenney.

The CD has pieces composed in the sixties. Tenney studied at the University of Illinois; the reason he had gone there was that they had all kind of devices for experimental music. He started there to compose music on the computer and became active in music algorithm development.

The CD starts with a tape collage of Blue Suede Shoes (the rock that was composed by Carl Perkins and was performed also by Presley). So Tenney created the variations on the rock by using the techniques of tape music - he took the tape record and processed it by speed changes, reversal, head echo, filtering, and the like. There are four variations: the first is worked on the drums, omitting voice; the second introduces some higher pitched timbres in dialog with the sounds from the first section, and you begin to recognize the original score; the third section has the voice much clearer; the last variation takes the voice in contrapuntal relationship with the other sounds. It is deconstruction and reconstruction from samples.

The rockability is kept - however Tenney takes care to shock us now and then with unexpected rhythm breaks.

I enjoyed mostly the second piece from the CD, Noise Study - it renders the noise of wind on a beach. No musical sound at all, only noise. It’s superb.

Actually Tenney rendered the noise made by cars in a tunnel – only for me it’s more like wind.

The next piece on the CD is named Dialogue - and it is actually a dialog between noise bands and pure tones. Tenney had a theory of equivalence; actually this was for him the most general principle in modern music: all sounds are equivalent; it means there are no musical sounds and non-musical sounds, just sounds, and any sound can potentially be in a musical structure. Dialogue is actually an attempt to follow this principle of equivalence: tones and noise were in dialog, as pairs.

The piece that follows, Phases, dedicated to Edgar Varèse is really difficult; it needs several auditions to become a bit accessible. After some auditions I would say that it has the delicacy of the music of Erik Satie (only it operates with totally different sounds, of course). It makes no concession to the public: it is Tenney himself.

A piece for player-piano is very interesting. A player-piano has a perforated tape reader (or a magnetic reader, or computer interface); the reader commands a pneumatic or electric mechanism to activate the keys – the music is on the tape (or on the computer). Basically the player-piano could execute scores that would claim a high degree of virtuosity from a pianist. Conlon Nancarrow was the great composer for player-piano – I’m waiting for one of his CDs.

A performer could play interactively on a player-piano – kind of jam session – that performer is a pianolist.

But let’s come back to Tenney‘s CD – Ergodos II is dedicated to John Cage; it’s very much like the Phases for Edgar Varèse. Ergodic is the term Tenney coined to designate the modern music. He was persuaded by the idea that other terms were emphasizing what the modern music was not that what it was: atonal music, interesting experiment, etc.

Then come Fabric for Che and For Anne (Rising) – both sound as the score is continuously ascending; it seems that the illusion of perpetual glissando is made by using for each sequence infra and ultra frequencies at the beginning and end.

I’ll come back on this stuff.

(By Brakhage)

(Musica Nova)


Tuesday, August 21, 2007


young Stan Brakhage

Some say Desistfilm is the third movie of Stan Brakhage. Some say it is his fifth or even sixth film. Anyway, the guy was twenty, and crazy about movies, as he would remain for all his life.

It seems that Desistfilm was made by chance. At least so it goes, the story. Brakhage had to project some movies at a party and there was not enough stuff to be shown. As he had four rolls of gun camera film from WWII, he decided to go to the party and shoot there a new movie on the spot.

Yvonne Fair was there, also James Tenney, and Walt Newcomb, Larry Jordan, Bob Benson and Alex Austin. By that time they were just a band of young beatniks, playing together in the movies of Brakhage (most of them had played in Unglassed Windows Cast a Terrible Reflection). Well, in that evening all of them were crazily drunk.

Bob Benson would continue to play in movies of Brakhage for some years, before switching to TV. Yvonne Fair and Walt Newcomb played wonderfully in a couple of movies made by Brakhage, then they gave up; unfortunately, their faces were so expressive. Larry Jordan would become well known in the circles of underground cinema with his animated collage films, and James Tenney would be one of the greatest names in the computer music.

Only in that evening all of them were totally drunk. And each one was there on its own, unable to observe the others. The music was crazy, the piano sounded like a saw cutting some metal. Some of them were trying to say something with inarticulate voices and were giving up immediately as no one was able to end a sentence and nobody was able to listen. Walt was trying to build a tower of books, in vain, Yvonne was trying to spool some wool, just to get caught in it. Larry was doing his best to light a cigarette, with four matches that he was trying to keep in one of his hands, arranged in some kind of a circle. Everyone was smoking heavily and drinking as these two seemed to be there the only things with some sense.

Bob was trying in vain to play a mandolin, then he gave up, unbuttoned his trousers and started to clean of lint his navel, probably as an act of increasing his inner knowledge through self awareness: it seems by that time he had profound existentialist views, so he could be certain only about himself.

Stan got quickly drunk by himself, and the camera became drunk, following drunkards with drunk eyes.

Well, that's the way the story goes. The story of how was made a six-minutes movie, at a party with drunk youngsters, sometime in the fifties, somewhere in Colorado.

It is a very important movie, for some reasons.

It is the first time when Brakhage's camera becomes definitely subjective. Instead of telling a story from outside, here the observer becomes part of the story; instead of seeing the scene from outside, here the camera becomes part of the scene: and so the movie is rather a story about the way the story is perceived. Brakhage did not know the movies of Dziga Vertov by that time, however he was following the same path.

It is the first movie of Brakhage where camera becomes truly part of himself, and he becomes part of his camera. And here Vertov comes again in mind. Only it is something special at Brakhage: if he is part of his camera, and camera is part of him, then camera enters his life and his life becomes his movies. You see his movies, you see him. And he would find the courage and the honesty to tell us everything, about birth and about death, about sex and all kind of intimacy, about fears and about enthusiasms, about craziness - and it would be impossible for him to do otherwise, because he was bound by his camera. And after many years, he would get rid even of his camera - his great movies of the eighties and nineties would be hand painted directly on the film. His immersion in the world of his movies would become total.

Darragh O'Donoghue considers that Desistfilm is a prototype horror movie, shot through with the quicksilver sensibilities of Cocteau and Epstein (Senses of Cinema). I would say that it is rather voyeuristic, as it carries an almost unbearable sense of intimacy. This is the great art of Brakhage: the closeness of filmmaker, camera and scene. Each one, filmmaker, camera, scene are observing each other with minutia. It results a universe where people, objects and time are alike, loosing any solid ground, floating somehow in space, behaving unexpectedly and being just scary; a universe where nobody can be in control; and it results a horrible feeling of claustrophobia and of paranoia.

And why this title, Desistfilm? Well, for the beat generation of the fifties, rebels without a cause, even existentialism wasn't worth to exist any more.

(By Brakhage)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Washington Color School

Kenneth Noland - April, 1960
When I saw firstly this April painted by Kenneth Noland I thought at the Targets of Jasper Jones, only Noland is different, with his delicacy of the blue. While Jones is in search for the place of the objects becoming images and symbols and loosing their concrete reality, Noland is rather preoccupied with understanding the place of the spaces within the universe: spaces of light blue and dark blue, and green, and yellow, spaces fighting with other spaces, each one trying to impose its color over the other .

Here is another painting by Noland, where the spaces gave up their fight - there is a suggestion of a goal here, a goal to be fulfilled by these spaces, arranged in perfect shape, V behind V, behind V, light yellow and bright yellow, and light gray, and black, and red...

Kenneth Noland - Untitled, 1978
In the paintings of Gene Davis spaces became stripes. He was persuaded with finding equivalences between musical and pictorial rhythms. I was looking at his Red Devil, made in 1959: each of the stripes would have no meaning if we were to forget the whole, each stripe had meaning only related to the others: and the relation was the rhythm, the pictorial rhythm.

Gene Davis - Red Devil, 1959
Phillips Collection hosted an exhibition of the artists known as belonging to the Washington Color School. This exhibition was for me an interesting road from Noland and Gene Davis to Paul Reed. I will explain a bit later what I mean.

Anyway, I found on this road Willem de Looper, with Kiri Te and Sur, in which he follows Rothko, only I know that he tried also other directions.

Willem de Looper - Kiri Te, 1972
Willem de Looper - Sur, 1975

There was then Sam Gilliam. Look at his Red Petals. The first association to be made would go to Georgia O'Keeffe: at Phillips you'll find a Pattern of Leaves created by her. She declared once that only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, we get at the real meaning of things (Phillips).

Only the Red Petals of Gilliam call other name in mind: a filmmaker, Stan Brakhage and his Dante Quartet. A movie of six minutes only, and hand painted, like so many of the works of Brakhage. It is of a painstaking beauty, and it expresses a closed-eye vision; and here is also the secret of the Red Petals of Gilliam: it is a pursuit of his interior states, it is programmatically subjective. Hypnagogic versus anagogic: it was the anagogic, the transcendental what Georgia O'Keeffe was looking for, while Gilliam (and Brakhage) were trying to express their own perception, as close to the total openness as possible.

Dante had been an obsession for Brakhage since high school. And after long years of reading various translations of the Divine Comedy, Brakhage realized that the words were no more necessary: he had the pictorial image of the whole poem. The cercles of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise were now image, color, and rhythm: and Brakhage started to work on his movie. It took a good couple of years to make a movie of six minutes: images hand-painted on the film, in vivid colors, and editing them to make them dance, dilate, contract. Editing like composing tape music: changing speeds, inversing, filtering. There are moments the image implodes, collapses, it remains the empty screen, then it explodes again in a symphony of colors. The Quartet: four progressive stages, Hell Itself, Hell Spit Flexion, Purgation, Existence is Song. The journey starts in Hell

Nel mezzo del cammin
di nostra vita,
mi ritrovai per
una selva oscura...

and you pull up yourself, stage by stage, up to the place where you discover the sense of life: Existence is Song. The movie was finished in 1987.

Sam Gilliam - Red Petals
Alma Thomas, with her Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, made in 1968: the stripes from the works of Gene Davis became here pieces of mosaic. An universe of tiny spaces with random shapes. If you consider these pieces of mosaic as microstructures, the whole is much more than the sum of the components. You should consider each piece also as an event that evolves randomly and change the global behavior: so you will see each time the mosaic differently.

Alma Thomas - Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, 1968
At Howard Mehring the spaces were no more vertical. They were trying to make agreements with each other, compromising on color and position. Each one had to guard the boundaries, to gain the right for a reserved tiny spot in the center. And this organization of spaces was suggesting the beginning of a story: the painting was subtly trying to leave abstractionism.

Howard Mehring - Untitled
As I was approaching the end of the road through the exhibition I found two acrylics of Thomas Downing: Dream Rate and Tsivory. The real objects had been abandoned by abstractionists, and for good reason; circles and stripes had taken their place - now the circles were starting to look for a story of their own, they were becoming objects.

Thomas Downing - Dream Rate, 1962
Thomas Downing - Tsivory, 1972

And at the end of the road I found Paul Reed with his No 22A: now the circles were clear objects and there was a clear plot. Abstractionism was now synthesizing its own objects. Yes, it was the end of the road. For the Washingtonian colorists it was the ultimate stage, as in Brakhage's movie: Existence is Song.

Paul Reed - No 22A, 1963

(By Brakhage)

(Contemporary Art)

Monday, August 13, 2007

Gabriela Banu - A Coruña, Legende cu Pirati

A Coruna

In preumblarile noastre prin Galicia nu puteam rata ocazia unei vizite la malul Atlanticului, chiar daca acest Atlantic nu se lasa zarit decat la orizont, departe, daca vrei sa-l admiri de pe malurile Spaniei. Asa ca din Santiago de Compostela am luat trenul regional – adica un fel de personal prin costul biletului, nu prin viteza care nu scadea sub 120 km pe ora – si in circa 30 de minute am ajuns in orasul-port A Coruña.

Prima impresie – prima exclamatie: ce frumos e! Apa si pe dreapta, si pe stanga, de nu stiai care e oceanul si care estuarul fluviului, numit aici nu estuar, ci ria, deoarece seamana cu fiordurile scandinave, dar e facut din apa dulce si apa sarata, este extrem de intins ca suprafata si intra foarte adanc in uscat. Am aflat de indata de la ghid: orasul e situat pe un fel de peninsula, pe dreapta se afla ria, pe stanga – oceanul. A fost din totdeauna loc de acostare si de prada pentru pirati – mai ales pentru corsarii englezi, sustinuti, dupa cum se stie, de insasi regina Elisabeta, spune ghidul cu naduf, si ne conduce in piata centrala a orasului, Plaza Maria Pita, unde se ridica statuia unei femei in atitudine razboinica.

Este Maria Pita, sotia unui comerciant bogat din orasul de sus – cartierul bogatilor era in orasul de sus, iar al marinarilor si pescarilor saraci, in orasul de jos. A fost contemporana cu piratul Francis Drake (de fapt, amiral in marina englezilor), care a atacat, inca o data, orasul, si a ajuns la partea de sus, ucigandu-l si pe sotul acestei femei. Atunci Maria Pita a pus mana pe sabia sotului si a chemat la lupta pe toti cei ramasi vii in orasul de sus, inclusiv vaduvele, si au reusit sa-i alunge pe pirati.

Va sa zica, VICTORIE pentru femei, in primul rand! Miscarea feminista mondiala nu stie prea multe despre eroinele ei, ar trebui sa se faca ceva in sensul acesta... La noi, au sters-o de pe tablita bulevardului care-i purta numele pe Ana Ipatescu, singura femeie care a dat numele unei strazi principale din Bucuresti...

Dar sa ne intoarcem in A Coruña, pe cheiul dinspre Atlantic: daca te apropii de apa in portul de agrement al orasului, o sa vezi pesti mari de peste 60 cm lungime inotand intr-o apa albastru-verzui de o mare frumusete... Oare cum or fi facut astia, ca la noi in portul Constanta... Desigur, pe mal – palmieri langa stejari, o Spanie verde care contrazice tot ce ne inchipuiam noi despre aceasta tara; pe toata lungimea acestei faleze stancoase circula un tramvai-bijuterie: un singur vagon, cu aspect de vehicul de la 1890, lustruit si vopsit in culori vesele, te indeamna sa-l explorezi si din el, sa descoperi peisajul. Costa 1 euro, si merita: inauntru, bancute din sipci de lemn lacuit, manere de alama stralucitoare, geamuri moderne dar cu forma fin de siecle: sus, pe langa tavan, are si o franghie care duce la un clopot: cand vrei sa cobori, tragi semnalul! Vatmanul nu are cabina, sta pe un taburet rotund si inalt, are un fel de volan metalic, stralucitor intre uneltele de condus, dar si un sistem electronic, pitit pe dupa acest volan...

Inaintam incet, scartaind, si vedem cum se profileaza pe cer un turn cam patrat, facut din blocuri mari de piatra; ca sa nu va inchipuiti ca primii vizitatori ai orasului au fost piratii, va vom spune ca acesta e Farul lui Hercule... Farul lui Hercule dovedeste ca pamanturile acestea au fost cunoscute inca din vechime – desi ma indoiesc ca insusi eroul lui Homer ar fi venit aici (cam prea multe locuri il revendica)... Oricum, e un monument cu 360 de trepte – cine are suflu, e invitat sa le suie si nu va regreta: privelistea este extraordinara...

Tramvaiul ne descopera apoi mici plaje ascunse intre stanci, amenajate unele pentru doritorii de plaja, altele pentru pasionatii de sporturi nautice cu motor.

tramvai la Coruna

Daca parasim cheiul si ne indreptam privirea spre oras, descoperim o parte moderna, cu blocuri foarte inalte, albe, avand, toate, ceea ce noi romanii numim balcoane inchise, dar care de fapt sunt pridvoare, sau verande, dupa cum le numesc spaniolii: sunt toate la fel – albe, cu geamuri multe si mici – si formeaza un ansamblu arhitectural deosebit. Se pare ca dateaza din cele mai vechi timpuri – sec. XIV cel putin – si istoria lor e ciudata: locuitorii orasului erau fie pescari, fie agricultori care-si aveau pamantul in apropierea orasului. Iarna aici e vijelioasa si ploioasa – nu friguroasa! – asa ca agricultorii aveau nevoie de un spatiu unde sa-si depoziteze o parte din recolta – iar pescarii, de un spatiu unde sa-si puna navoadele la iernat! Oricum, ideea de balcon inchis dupa model spaniol e estetica, nu ca ghiveciul romanesc, fiecare dupa capul lui, isi inchide balconul, si pana la urma blocurile par sa fie dotate cu...cotete!

Orasul vechi are farmecul oraselor medievale spaniole – stradute stramte, povarnite, cladiri construite din blocuri de piatra – dar locul cel mai straniu imi pare a fi gradina in care spaniolii au ridicat un monument unui comandant englez care, cu pretul vietii lui, si-a salvat oamenii, tinandu-i pe loc pe invadatorii francezi ai lui Napoleon pana ce soldatii englezi au reusit sa se imbarce cu totii, in portul din apropiere. Este un episod tulbure din istoria spaniolilor, deorece insusi regele Spaniei a abdicat in favoarea fratelui lui Napoleon si a permis trupelor franceze sa inainteze. Numai ca poporul nu a acceptat decizia monarhului si a opus rezistenta peste tot unde a fost posibil. Aici, in A Coruña, se spune ca insusi comandantul francez le-a spus spaniolilor ca englezul merita un monument. Ceea ce s-a si facut.

Dar a propos de istoria orasului: exista un episod cu multa culoare care explica avantul economic al asezarii, si anume: prin sec. XVI-XVII, dupa descoperirea Americii, un principe spaniol urma sa se casatoreasca cu descendenta Casei de Austria – asa fusese stabilit pe cai diplomatice. Sosind momentul in care principele trebuia sa se duca la curtea austriaca – la prima intalnire, care va sa zica, deci trebuia sa faca o impresie super, nu-i asa? – familia regala si Consilul coroanei ajung la concluzia ca nu sunt bani pentru finantarea calatoriei... Asta nu trebuie sa mire pe nimeni, se stie ca imperiul spaniol era doar carausul aurului incasilor, care se oprea, fara execeptie, la bancherii din Tarile de Jos...

Atunci, Principele nostru se gandeste sa mai faca o incercare si se indreapta spre A Coruña, unde convoaca pe mai-marii orasului, El Cabildo (Consiliul) si le cere bani. Acestia – minune! – hotarasc sa-i dea banii necesari, si principele isi rezolva cu brio problema. Drept rasplata, cand se intoarce la Madrid, ofera portului A Coruña monopolul mirodeniilor care veneau din Indii...

Ne-am luat adio de la legende, de la istorii si de la privelistea marina tocmai cand oceanul a inceput sa ne trimita un vant in rafale, stopit cu picaturi fine de ploaie...

Gabriela Banu

Thursday, August 09, 2007

By Brakhage

Stan Brakhage
If Maya Deren invented the American avant-garde cinema, Stan Brakhage realized its potential. Unquestionably the most important living avant-garde filmmaker, Brakhage single-handedly transformed the schism separating the avant-garde from classical filmmaking into a chasm. And the ultimate consequences have yet to be resolved; his films appear nearly as radical today as the day he made them (Senses of Cinema).

Stan Brakhage was 70 when he passed away, in 2003. He had made almost 400 movies, with durations from tens of seconds up to 4 hours. His last one, from 2003, Work in Progress (actually it was the penultimate - two rolls of 16 mm film left by him to be continued later, as he had started the work at his Chinese Series).

I've seen so far five of his movies. All are among his early ones, made in 1953-1954. He was looking for his own way between Neo-Realism and Surrealism: these short movies (between ten and some twenty minutes each) were depicting a sordid universe subtly tensioned by the expectancy of a poetic miracle: Rossellini and Cocteau. Fellini would craft such a world in his movies.

Brakhage would go later on a radical way, and he would reconsider totally the specific of the cinematic art. I am waiting for a dvd with 26 of his movies, spread over all his life, so I'll come back to talk about him.

Click here for a list of his movies to be seen on the web.


Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Gabriela Banu - O anume Noapte a Sfantului Iacob

Portico de la Gloria

Santiago isi incepe marea sarbatoare inca din ajun; de fapt, 25 iulie e o tripla sarbatoare: a sfantului din calendar, a sfantului ca patron spiritual al intregii Spanii, dar si a Galiciei, provincie autonoma, cu limba proprie si guvern regional.

In seara de 24 iulie, in piata "Obradoiro" (Piata Mesterilor, in limba galiciana) - piata principala a oricarui oras spaniol, de obicei numita Plaza Mayor - lumea se strange in fata catedralei pentru a sarbatori victoria crestinilor impotriva maurilor lui Almanzor. Acestia, in sec. XIV, au ajuns pana la Santiago, l-au cucerit si au lasat catedrala neatinsa, dar I-au furat clopotele pe care le-au topit si le-au facut fantani la moscheea din Granada. Doua sute de ani mai tarziu, cand spaniolii au reusit sa recucereasca toata peninsula de la arabi, au luat fantanile de bronz si le-au re-transformat in clopote, spre deliciul unui tip cu umor, care a intrebat inocent: "Asa ca acum clopotele dau si apa, nu?"

Dar sa ne intoarcem in Piata: este ora noua si ceva, iar spectacolul este anuntat la unsprezece. Ce ma mira: in anul de gratie 2007, intr-o lume impartita intre ateism si fanatism religios, lumea vine "ca la Mecca" aici, dar in piata nu intra oricine: trei gealati carora eu - mai maruntica de statura, le ajungeam cam pana pe la brau - privesc "de sus" multimea, ce se imbulzeste la intrarea printre doua colturi de cladiri: nu treci cu rucsac in spate, si nici daca ai ceva suspect; un domn foarte blond, de vreo 50 de ani, e respins la "control", nu stiu din ce pricina.

Pana la urma reusim sa intram - suntem vreo 20.000 de suflete acolo - unii stau pe jos asteptand sa inceapa, altii se strecoara cu mare grija sa nu calce pe vreun pelerin; ni s-a spus ca in seara asta "se da foc la fatada catedralei", care - intr-adevar - este imbracata intr-un fel de "carton" care urmeaza conturul romanic al edificiului, toate turnuletele, golurile ferestrelor si plinurile coloanelor. S-a lasat, in sfarsit inserarea - aici noaptea vine cu adevarat pe la douasprezece, si soarele rasare pe la sapte, de aia or fi spaniolii asa de noctambuli…

Si deodata -21 de salve de tun - asurzitoare, trase de undeva din spatele pietei. Spre catedrala pornesc limbi de flacari multicolore - artificii, desigur, desi cam inspaimantatoare! Din turnuri tâsnesc flacari rosii, verzi, galbene, arii din Schubert, Mozard, Beethoven plutesc prin aer, iar fatada devine ecran pentru un joc de lumini care proiecteaza alte si alte catedrale spaniole si europene. Alta salva de flacari asediaza catedrala, in timp ce pe cer apar artificii "adevarate", intr-un joc ametitor. "Incredibil, niciodata n-am vazut asa ceva, este ceva extraordinar", se aude in jurul meu, inclusiv de la localnici care ma asigura ca "in fiecare an e altfel", dar ca anul asta parca n-a fost niciodata…

Si apropo de localnici: doua doamne bine, de vreo 50 de ani (fiecare!), asculta cum vorbim - eu cu familia mea, in romana; comentam, tot asteptand sa inceapa festivitatea, un film vazut in ajun, "Labirintul faunului" de Guillermo Toro, despre care o sa va povestesc mai incolo. Una din ele se intoarce si ne spune: "Vorbiti romaneste, nu?" Noi, surprinsi, confirmam, si eu ii povestesc cum am ajuns acolo, fiindca "romanii nu prea vin ca pelerini", zisese ea. "Dar e limba literara, sau un fel de dialect?", vrea ea sa stie, si mie mi se aprinde beculetul: probabil a auzit cine stie pe cine vorbind româneste, si poate identifica limba romana, desi e clar ca a auzit "altfel" de limba pana acum.

Spectacolul a durat doua ore, dupa care nebunia din piata s-a revarsat peste tot orasul: zeci de mii de oameni se miscau in pas de melc pe stradutele medievale din orasul vechi, se opreau la terasele resturantelor, in parcurile unde venise "Luna Park", pe pajistile de un verde inchis, peste tot. Nici urma de masina, imi zic eu - ce oameni destepti! Explicatia insa era alta: pe stradutele laterale care intrau-ieseau din oras, masinile asteptau bara la bara, fara a putea sa treaca vreuna - era blocaj general!

Gabriela Banu

Modernism in Central Europe

Janusz Maria Brzeski - Metal, before 1931
Janusz Maria Brzeski - Metal

(Modernism in Central Europe - Exhibition at the Washington National Gallery)

No copies were preserved from a movie made by Janusz Maria Brzeski in 1933. The title was Beton, emblematic for the spirit animating the Avant-Garde of the Twenties in Central Europe. It was a great generation: Bauhaus and Constructivism, Devetsil, the experimental films trying to find new structures for the cinematic language, the huge achievements in photography, the search for a new synthesis in art...

The photo-exhibition currently on view at the Washington National Gallery is impressive - four rooms with tens and tens of art works gathered from galleries and collections all over Europe.

I'd start the talk with Karel Kasparik and his gorgeous Proz, and I'd go on with a Still Life of Josef Sudek, who believed in photography love for banal objects.
And then it would be the place for the Abeceda, as it was reinvented by the Surrealists from Devetsil.

(Avangarda 20)