May 2009

The Unfinished "La Sagrada Família"

Of all of Gaudi’s works, I am most familiar with the Casa Mila. (1907; Barcelona, Spain) However, I think that the cathedral La Sagrada Família (also in Barcelona) is the most fascinating of Gaudi’s masterpieces. This cathedral has been under construction since 1882, and will probably be finished in about twenty years from now (which will be around the 100 year anniversary of Gaudi’s death).

Gaudi lived during the turn of the century (fin de siècle) from 1852-1926. His architecture has been classified as Art Nouveau, but really, there isn’t a category or movement which completely fits for the work of this original, innovative thinker. The thing that I like most about Gaudi’s mature style is his fascination with natural forms; his architecture often mimics or recalls things found in nature. Gaudi believed that his buildings were “symbolically a living thing.”1 Although I have never personally been inside a building by Gaudi, I think that his architecture really looks animated and vivacious in photographs. In La Sagrada Família , I love how the inclusion of gables (the triangular shape framing the portals and doorway) follows the Neo-Gothic tradition, but Gaudi has morphed the triangles to appear more naturalistic, as if canopies of stalactites are forming in place of static architecture. (You can see more detail of the gables by enlarging the photograph above.)

This inclusion of stalactites and naturalistic features helps to ease the transition between modernism and traditional Neo-Gothic elements, with the (literal) pinnacle of individualism finding itself in the four towers. 1 I think these towers are so interesting and striking. They are simple paraboloids in shape, with the sides perforated for acoustic reasons (the towers were intended to hold tubular bells). The plan of this church calls for eighteen towers – what a spectacle! You can see a model for the completed church here.

I also think it’s interesting that Gaudi was able to design this cathedral in such a way that it does not employ flying buttresses. However, I think he kind of mimics and alludes to flying buttresses in his decoration of the Passion portal (shown to the left), with the slightly curved supports that lean into the building. Once again, I feel like he is alluding to traditional architecture, but changing it to be original and modern.

The interior of this building will finally open for services sometime next year. It would be fun to go inside then, but I really am excited to go inside when this cathedral is finally completed. Plus, I’m curious to see how much of the final product compares to Gaudi’s original plans.

1 Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 12th ed., vol. 2 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2005), 896.

2 For more information, see Jordi Oliveras. “Gaudí, Antoni.” In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, accessed May 13, 2009).


Alberti and Narcissus

The Renaissance theorist Leon Battista Alberti is well-known for his treatise On Painting.1 It is in this three-book treatise that Alberti wrote his seminal discussion on composition and perspective, discussing how a (framed) painting should be treated as a window on the world.2 (See where I got the title for my blog?) According to Alberti, painting was intended to be illusionistic, realistic, and mimetic.

Alberti wrote a lot of ground-breaking information about painting in his treatise. I recently became aware that Alberti also took some interesting liberties in his treatise, particularly his creation of a new myth that Narcissus was the father of painting.3 At the beginning of Book II, Alberti writes, “Consequently I used to tell my friends that the inventor of painting, according to poets, was Narcissus, who was turned into a flower; for, as painting is the flower of all arts, so the tale of Narcissus fits our purpose perfectly. What is painting but the act of embracing by means of art the surface of a pool?”

Cristelle L. Baskins points out that Alberti doesn’t actually recount a “tale” of Narcissus, but allegorizes the account instead. She writes, “Alberti conflates two aspects of Narcissus’ transformation; the flower and the reflection in the pool both seem to signify the mimetic surface of painting.”4 She goes on to explain, “The canonical interpretation of the Narcissus trope in Alberti takes the reflection of the pool to be analagous to the imitation of surface appearance, stripped of narrative components and concentrating on the physical property of water to reflect an image in the real world, Narcissus’ reflection corroborates our understanding of the naturalistic, illusionistic goals of early Renaissance painting.”5

I would recommend reading Baskin’s article “Echoing Narcissus in Alberti’s ‘Della Pittura.'” I’m still thinking about some references she made to the gaze of Narcissus. She mentioned how Narcissus’ reflection is only available to his own gaze, whereas Narcissus-as-a-flower can only receive the gaze of another person.6

It is interesting to think about these gazes in conjunction with what Lacan has said about narcissism and the mirror phase. I don’t know if one can superimpose Lacanian theory over Alberti’s allegory without difficulty, but if it were possible, what would that mean? Can the ego or self be recognized when one looks at a painting? Are paintings mimetic reflections of the ego? Hmm.

1 There are two early versions of this treatise. De pictura was written in Latin in 1435, and the vernacular Della pittura was written in 1436.

2 Alberti writes, “First of all, on the surface which I am going to paint, I draw a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is seen.” (De pictura, 1.19).

3 Narcissus was a vain, ego-centric figure from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. You can read a little about the Narcissus mythology here. Caravaggio’s Narcissus (c. 1597-99) is shown above.

4 Cristelle L. Baskins, “Echoing Narcissus in Alberti’s ‘Della Pittura,” Oxford Art Journal 16, no. 1 (1993): 25.

5 Ibid., 26.

6 Ibid., 25.

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Washer Women

I think everyone has some kind of dream in which their worst fears are realized. Apparently, my worst fear revolves around being unprepared to teach an art history lecture. Last night, I dreamed that I went to go visit my past professors at my alma mater. It was the first day of summer term, and I discovered upon arrival that I was slated to teach a course that began that very afternoon! The title of the course seminar was “Washer Women in Art,” and it was supposed to cover all the extant depictions of laundresses. I started to scramble around campus, trying to find materials for the class, but I couldn’t think of any paintings to include in the slide list. I kept thinking, “I can’t think of any paintings of washer women,” and “If any paintings exist, they probably are Dutch from the 17th century.”

Needless to say, I woke up in a panic.

Naturally, I had to find out today if there are any paintings of laundresses. And there are. A lot. (Though not really any Dutch ones from 17th century, much to my subconscious’ chagrin!) Here are a couple of my favorites:

Chardin, The Laundress, 1733

 This book points out how the laundress does not wear a hoop skirt or any other fashionable clothing of the Rococo period – Chardin was interested in painting the domestic life of an ordinary French woman.

Greuze, The Laundress, 1761
Denis Diederot said of the laundress in this painting, “She’s a rascal I wouldn’t trust an inch.” The Getty has published a whole book about this painting, comparing this provocative laundress to other paintings of laundresses by Greuze.

Camille Pissarro, Washer Woman, 1880

Martin Driscoll, The Washer Woman. I was not familiar with this contemporary artist before my quest to find laundress paintings, but I think this work is very nice. You can look at more of Driscoll’s paintings on his website. (Thanks to the Anne P, I also learned that this painting is inspired by William Orpen’s “The Wash House” (1905) located at the National Gallery of Ireland.)
Degas, Laundresses Carrying Linen in Town, c. 1876-78

Degas, Women Ironing (Les Rapasseuses), also called “The Laundresses,” 1884

Most paintings of laundresses come from the 19th century Impressionists, and I’ve included a few of them above. (I left out thishideous one by Renoir, click on the link only if you dare.) It makes sense that the Impressionists would be interested in laundresses; they liked subject matter that revolved around French urban life.Really, there probably are enough paintings of laundresses that one could hold a couple of classes on the subject (though probably not for the length of a term). Unfortunately, I haven’t found a lot of scholarship on laundress paintings. I wonder if this subject matter would appeal to feminist art historians.Has anyone else ever had a panic dream involving art history? If it also involves washer women and laundresses, we must be twins separated at birth.


Transforming the Book

Last weekend I went to this really fantastic exhibition at the Bellevue Arts Museum (BAM). All of the artists in this exhibition create their art out of printed books and book covers. Using books as a medium for sculptures gives new definition to the word “volume,” doesn’t it?

I particularly liked this work on the left, Petra, by Guy Laramée (2007). I’ve always thought Petra was a fascinating place (I’ve even blogged about it here, where you can see a picture of the actual treasury that inspired Laramée). Another work in the show by Laramée consisted of two rows of stacked Encyclopedia Brittanicas, with one side of each row carved like a canyon. (You can see a picture of the piece and an artist statement here).

There was also a striking work by the Scottish artist Georgia Russell. Most of Russell’s works involve cutting books, book covers, and photographs. The one shown here, Leurs Secrets (2007) is similar to the one in the BAM’s show. You can see more of Russell’s work here.

The exhibition also had some “excavated books” by James Allen. I thought this one, Churches of our Fathers (2007) was especially beautiful and striking.

You really should check out Jennifer Shoshbin’s altered books too. A few of these were in the show too. Her style and idea are an interesting mixture of vintage and contemporary, which is really fun.

It was interesting to go to this show and think about the history of books and print. My husband is a graphic designer, and we often have talked about the demise of printed books and printed material. I wonder how long it will take for most books to be produced online or through digital format (which is sad, since I love holding books and flipping through their pages). In a way, using books as an artistic medium in this show (and placing those books in a museum, the place where artifacts are preserved) seemed to historicize printed books even more. And some of the words used to describe the art (e.g. “excavated”) further antiquated the book medium. Although I loved this show (I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who lives in the Seattle area), I also couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness for the future of books and printed material.

What do you think about these artists and their works? What do you think about the demise of printed books?


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.