24 June 2009


city as museum as landscape

Matt Williams
I came to Collioure, a small French city on the Mediterranean coast, during a walking trip that took me across the French Pyrenees. Starting from the Atlantic Ocean, my travelling partner and I traversed various sections of the Grand Randonée 10 trail until we reached the sea, just north of the Spanish border. Over the course of the journey I discovered the ‘noble art of walking’ as Thoreau declared it.1 Walking provides a fine-scale experience, revealing the details that would go unnoticed by travellers in cars, buses or trains. These details become central to the walker’s experience. The minute vernacular – door-knobs, house interiors, tiny gardens – is discovered when you enter a town by way of a trail or side-street and not the main road. Walking then became the central mode of travel as my partner and I made decisions as to how and where to spend our time. For two months we moved from place to place primarily on foot and camped in hidden fields, mountainsides or tucked away campgrounds. Thus we arrived in Banyuls sur Mer, the end of our pre-determined travelling plan, and decided to continue walking up the Mediterranean coast. After a day we came to Collioure.
The landscape in this area of France is a hot, dry shade of brown, with white, clay-roofed stucco buildings, dissected by green lines of vineyards. Tall, globe-shaped pine trees bubble over the rolling foothills of the Pyrenees that gently fall into the sea. Cascading pink roses, blue shutters, yellow doors and an ever-changing and endless sky radiate from the brown and white landscape. As I discovered Collioure and its vibrant palette I could see how, after spending time here in the early twentieth century, Henri Matisse and Andre Derain founded the style of painting that became known as Fauvism.2
In Collioure, Matisse and Derain were struck foremost by the quality of the light. ‘Above all, the light. A blonde light, a golden hue that suppresses the shadows’, Derain wrote.3 This light, paired with the brilliantly coloured landscape, encouraged Matisse and Derain in their use of bright, vivid colours in flat tracts, the characteristics of Fauvism. Derain, particularly, found the culture in Collioure a magnificent subject for recording.
The city forms a natural port and is divided in two sections along the coast by a large royal chateau. Jutting into the opening to the sea is a promontory on which sits the picturesque Notre-Dame-des-Anges, a lighthouse converted to a church. Away from the sea, narrow streets are lined with irregularly shaped and brilliantly painted buildings that break to form quiet public spaces. In Derain’s time, the beach was crowded with small, multi-coloured fishing boats and their Catalan captains returning with their daily catch. Today, a few of these boats remain, mainly for historical and tourism purposes, and annually, during July, many boats gather in celebration of Catalan fishing culture. At this time, the sea becomes dotted with white sails and the shore clustered with bright boats and characters.
The legacy of Derain’s and Matisse’s artistic achievements made in Collioure is vivified throughout the city by the placing of reproductions of their work at locations depicted in the paintings. Twenty works are displayed, forming la Chemaine de Fauvisme. This path can be followed, but more often the works are simply encountered casually throughout the city, a way to view the work in a manner not offered by the Centre Pompidou, Musee d’Orsay, or any other museum. This interface, between the painting, viewer and landscape, allows the viewer to make connections between the place and the painting. It allows one to consider how a landscape could be abstracted, what assumptions were made by the painter, what details were glorified or suppressed and to speculate what the painter was trying to express about that landscape in time and space.
Landscapes themselves are cultural creations. They are a phenomenon where human and natural systems coalesce and do not exist until they are interpreted as something beyond their mere physical composition. Landscape painting thus reflects a personal, and by extension, social understanding of our environment through the composition of various elements, real and imaginative, that exist in the world or in our minds.
Collioure is not a static French village clinging to its heritage as tourist promotion. Its arts community continues to thrive, with numerous galleries of recognised artists. The countryside thrives with vineyards producing the regional aperitif Banyuls and its hand-cured anchovies are a French delicacy. It has an everyday life similar to most rural French villages, though its Mediterranean climate and culture provide good reason for a large influx of visitors during the summer. As a gallery, Collioure provides the unique experience of viewing the Matisse and Derain paintings, but it also provides viewers the ability to frame their own paintings and develop their own interpretations of the landscape. At various locations throughout the city empty frames are positioned to provide both prominent and everyday views of the city. These frames allow viewers to stop, dwell upon a scene and develop their own interpretation and abstraction of the landscape.
Collioure, as a city as a museum as a landscape, creates opportunities for greater understanding of landscape and culture by communicating and exhibiting its heritage in situ. Perhaps visitors sharing this experience will begin to develop a greater appreciation for their own daily surroundings. Perhaps they will begin to see their surroundings as worthy of a work of art and the city as a shifting cultural institution that ‘exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment’.4

1 Thoreau, Henry David. Walking. San Franciso: Harper Collins, 1994 2 Freeman, Judi. Fauves. New South Wales: The Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1995
3 Derain quoted in Freeman, 1995.
4 What a museum does, as defined by the International Council of Museums.

Williams, Matt. 'Collioure' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Matt Williams and On Site review

20 June 2009

The Teatre-Museu Dalí

the architecture and archive

Miriam Jordan and Julian Jason Haladyn

We arrived early in the morning in Figueres, Spain; we had spent the night on a train and got little sleep. It was therefore all the more dreamlike when we came upon the Teatre-Museu Dalí, a surreal mirage at the end of a street, a majestic pink building dotted with triangular loaves of bread and topped with giant eggs. Our reason for visiting Figueres was specifically to see this museum, designed by the Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí to house his artwork, his extensive collection of art – which is displayed as the context for his work, and his crypt. But, more than simply a site that contains Dalí’s artwork, this structure is, as the guide book for the museum notes, ‘a Dalinian piece, a work to which Salvador Dalí, with his typical stubbornness and thoroughness, devoted thirteen years of his life’1. In other words, the museum can be seen as a grand architectural-scale work of art that Dalí produced to present his work in a context that reflected and embodied his artistic interests and motifs.
The Teatre-Museu Dalí was constructed out of the ruined Teatre Principal, an auditorium built in 1849 by the architect Roca Bros, which had been virtually destroyed at the end of the Spanish Civil War; all that remained was ‘a dramatic semi-circular shell of blackened stone’2, which Dalí incorporated into the building of his museum. Although Dalí proposed the idea in 1960, the project was not realised until 1974 when it finally opened to the public. This project represented a significant accomplishment for Dalí, whose ambition to establish a major collection of his work, specifically within his home country of Spain, and his home city of Figueres, was of the utmost importance to him, particularly in terms of the manner in which the location serves to contextualise the artist and his work.

From the moment of our arrival, we entered a Dalinian world; the landscape of the surrounding countryside was like that of so many of the artist’s surrealist depictions and the abundance of pomegranates served as an appropriate frame for Dalí’s kitschy museum, an architectural fantasy that appears to have emerged from the artist’s strange paintings.
The equally quirky interior of the Teatre-Museu Dalí – walls, ceilings, windows, arches, stairwells – function as a canvas for Dalí’s imaginative artistic vision. He rebuilt the stage of the ruined Teatre Principal underneath a latticed dome, which resembles the compound eye of a fly and designed by the Spanish architect Emilio Pérez Piñero. To link the geodesic dome with the supporting vault, Dalí painted the vault with a red lattice, mirroring the lattice of the dome, on a blue ground. The vault painting bleeds into the supporting walls which Dalí covered with blue paint spatters and draped with several of his giant shaped plywood paintings, made specifically for this location: one wall sports an enormous nude titan with a cube for a head squeezing a blue sheet; another wall bears two gigantic hands draping a white sheet over a fluffy cloud, while countless nude figures spill down the walls to the floor.
Dalí covered the back wall of the stage with a huge painting on canvas copied from his original scenery for the 1941 New York production of the ballet Laberinto for which the artist also created the libretto and costumes. The stage is rebuilt as a fantastical stage-set that displays the inherent drama of Dalí’s artwork to its fullest advantage – a quality that can be found in every detail of the elaborate museological construct.
One of the most significant spaces in the museum is the Mae West Hall, which houses Dalí’s room-sized installation Face of Mae West Which Can Be Used As an Apartment (1974) constructed by the artist with the assistance of the architects Óscar Tusquets and Pedro Aldámiz. The museum visitor can survey the optical illusion created with this installation by climbing a set of stairs and peering through a reductive lens, which Dalí positioned beneath the belly of a plastic camel. From this vantage point, the visitor sees Dalí’s literal transformation of a three-dimensional space into a two-dimensional image of Mae West’s face as a drawing room, complete with the ubiquitous sofa lips, Saliva-sofá (1974), constructed by Tusquets from red spongy material. To claim that we had entered the world of Salvador Dalí, in this case, would be a literal description of the experience of this room.
Through his consistent use of the architectural space of the museum to actively frame his artwork, Dalí constructs an life-sized cabinet of curiosities for the visitor to wander through and interact with. Like much of Dalí’s artistic production, the museum is an erotically charged space that at times disorients and creates a feeling of paranoiac unease through the juxtaposition of architectonic space and artworks made out of eclectic objects. Reprising the organisation of Surrealist exhibitions – for example, Rainy Cadillac, located in the middle courtyard, directly references Dalí’s famous Rainy Taxi from the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme – this museum actively defies visitors’ attempts to make sense of this space in any coherent manner. Instead we find ourselves meandering through countless rooms of cultural objects and historical minutiae; an experience epitomised in the Palau del Vent, a series of three rooms filled with oddities, such as a golden gorilla skeleton positioned next to a giant seashell bed supported by curving dragons, both of which are positioned beneath a tapestry reproduction of Dalí’s famous painting The Persistence of Memory.
As an archive, the Teatre-Museu Dalí represents more than a space provided to passively view Dalí’s artwork and collection, but instead exists as an artwork to be actively experienced and remembered. Ironically, we can only remember it as a dream.

1 J.L. Giménez-Frontín. Teatre-Museu Dalí. Madrid: Tusquets/Electa Guides, 1997. p 9
2 Giménez-Frontín, p 13

Jordan, Miriam and Julian Jason Haladyn. 'Surreality' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Miriam Jordan, Julian Jason Haladyn and On Site review

19 June 2009

La Musée Rodin, Paris

House and Home

Jordan Ellis
Beside the grand golden dome of Les Invalides in Paris, sits a relatively more subtle house. It is hidden by an old wall inset with a modern stone and glass entrance and the sign Musée Rodin. While this house/museum and grounds are surrounded by a high, hiding curtain, the art inside is the opposite. The separation of art to viewer (voice to listener) is as transparent as the spaces are to the art within: here is not the submissiveness of the modernist white box, nor the fight for attention provided by many new gem galleries — intuitively I feel a historical similarity, a cohesion in the relationship between space and object. But is there really such a relationship? From where I stand with my digital camera and space-age mind I am looking for more than just an old thing and an older thing.

The older thing (house-museum) is the Hôtel Biron, built in 1728-30, and not home to artist Auguste Rodin for its first two centuries. It lived lifetimes in possession of many people before taking its current role. In its penultimate (to date) existence, it was hotel to several prominent artists, such as Henri Matisse and Jean Cocteau, with Rodin moving in, in 1908, in admiration. Quickly, Rodin began to place his sculptures in the garden; he drew and painted on the walls; there was always some physical relationship between his art and his space. But it is just another old house, no? What interests me is the question: would his work have been realised differently if he had lived in another space, another place?

I am reminded of Salvador Dalì’s house in Catalunya, truly of his mind. It is not so much that he was influenced by his surroundings, but rather that he formed his world as an illustration of his imagination. So, in this surrealistic building there is no segregation between object/space because they were constructed coincidentally. Rodin, on the other hand, had little control over his surroundings, which may be why, in 1911, he began to consign his life’s work to the French state upon condition that a museum be devoted to him at the site of the Biron. Could the museum be as confident in its artistic holdings if it was at another site, like so many other artist museums that are continents-removed from the place of artistic creation; is this relationship little more than historical efficiency and regional politic?

Outside the house is the garden, a small-scale formal layout of pathways, parterres and fountains. Along the path, and at nodal points, are cast sculptures of human characters forever locked in personal or relative tension. If art and its ‘poetics can be articulated only in a broad collaboration and over time’, then while the object remains quantifiably the same, how we see it is forever changing. Perhaps this regular French garden works in favour of Rodin, then. Its iconic and historic conventionality converges with Rodin’s figures, so that over time the viewer increasingly sees a kind of correctness about the placement.

Inside the house lies what we might call the soft arts; paintings, marble and clay objects formed in contrast to the cast-bronze garden figures. The precarious craft of these objects is reflected in the delicate fabrication of detail on walls and ceilings; nonetheless, the solid construction of the building protects the brittle art works. Any building could [hopefully] do this. What is special about this building that makes the art belong here? If the artist’s intention cannot be immediately read, then we must look at his story: ‘there can be no narrative without a narrator and a listener’ writes Roland Barthes, and it is not the canonic form, but rather the regulated transformations that truly matter. It is not what the artist wanted us to see a century after his death, but the transformation of meaning with each new visitor. By neither hiding in the shadow, nor dominating the object, the museum lends itself to an adaptable narrative. Rodin did not necessarily make art specifically for his surroundings, but that does not guarantee dichotomy or offense between one and the other.

I will not intuit Rodin’s intentions, inspirations and the degree to which this hotel influenced his work. As Mies wrote, ‘the visible is only the final step of a historical form, its fulfillment […] then it breaks off and a new world arises’.

What I hear now is not what necessarily what was spoken a century ago. While I am thankful that enough care was taken to keep the house looking as it did when Rodin claimed it as the proper venue for his work, I expect it should not remain this way forever. Whether this building could house any other art collection, and whether this art collection would be the same elsewhere, I will say only that Auguste Rodin thought it appropriate that his artistic expression have a home in the Biron, and while the building may not look like a Rodin sculpture, I certainly appreciate the dialogue between object/space, in/out, and all other sides.

Ellis, Jordan. 'House and Home' On Site review, no. 20 Winter 2008
©Jordan Ellis and On Site review