(And Some Curious Thin Tetracentennial Men, as well as Some Stone Dwarfs)
The other day, on a business trip (I love saying “business trip”, it makes this cockeyed profession of drawing pictures sound somehow actually respectable) to the Alsace, we took a couple of hours to wander around Colmar before heading home.
Much of what has been built in the 20th century, since we’ve been creating new building materials which are not cut down in forests, cut from quarries, smelted from ore or the product of judicious alchemy – plaster, stucco, brick, ceramic, glass) is a form of denial of time. It takes on little attractiveness with age, simply decrepitude. I doubt there can be a modern equivalent of the Deutsche Romantik movement with what the industrial era has to offer as ephemera. Modern ruins don’t trigger romanticism, it’s hard to imagine Caspar David Friedrich painting abandoned abutments, deserted overpasses and vacant lots with the same unshakeable optimism and unbridled nostalgia.
Now, this is most definitely NOT a criticism of industrial development (inevitable), not a nostalgic rant for things gone by (puerile), but simply a regret for a connection which is lost (paradoxically, in a society obsessed with “connectivity”). Removing a piece of nature and fashioning it into an element of human expression does not negate the material itself, which of course will continue what it has been doing before – gently eroding under wind and rain and frost.
That’s why I was literally stopped in my tracks in Colmar the other day. By a bannister colonnade of the steps of the Koifhus, or Ancienne Douane, doubtlessly many-times-replaced in a warm ochre sandstone. I was transfixed by the transformation of a row of ordinary balusters* into something by Giacometti. (Giacometti Descending a Staircase, even.) Reinforced concrete won’t do that for you.
It seems clear enough to me that modern architecture, for all its advantages and undeniable capacity to house us comfortably, puts us once again slightly out of joint with time. A reinforcement of mortality by an estrangement of sorts from things that age the way nature ages simply leaves us with fewer references and a narrower context. Modern urban decrepitude contains little connectedness with nature, despite brave weeds and scrubby persistent grass in vacant lots. Good post-apocalyptic film sets or big dollars for developers, but no emotional involvement other than mayhap a fleeting case of the blues..
All that curiously coupled with our infatuation with ancient ruins, which we dig up. reassemble, cordon off, pay to admire, work to preserve. (We’re tireless in our efforts to arrest time.) We’re better informed than our ancestors, but we’re certainly no more intelligent, so where DOES that put us?
But, we’ve not lost touch entirely. A little erosion can go a long way.
Warts, Imperfect Pearls and Baroque Thoughts
Baroque is a curious term, familiar by almost more by connotation and innuendo than by actual content and context. Even more curiously, its origins, via a tortuous trail through Portuguese barroco, French Baroque, Spanish barrueco, or Italian barocco are ultimately unknown. (My educated guess is the street.) In 18th-century French it meant “irregular”, from the Portuguese word for an imperfect pearl. A near neighbour is Spanish barucca (wart).
According to Fuseli’s translation of Winkelmann in 1765: “This style in decorations got the epithet of Barroque taste, derived from a word signifying pearls and teeth of unequal size.”
It also appears to be largely a derogatory term, only rehabilitated by art historians in the mid-1800’s, which in itself is ever more curious – how could an art from, which lasted and defined a century and a half of colossal construction – churches, palaces, avenues, in a sweeping urbanism that erased huge tracts of earlier building – be labelled with what is basically a slanderous sobriquet? Perhaps explained by the gulf that existed between the royal and titled families of Europe and their royally taxed peoples – Versailles for example, seen from a tawdry and insalubrious slum that might well have shocked any self-respecting citizen from a few centuries before, may not necessarily have brought kind thoughts and words to mind and tongue. Perhaps explained by the faltering of the faith that made Gothic shoot skywards – Baroque churches are hardly pious and restrained (that is reserved for straight-laced Reformers and three coats of quicklime after the dust settles) with their gilding and profusion of decoration, they seem to look more at themselves than at the face of the Maker. (The most baroque of Baroque edifices are to be found in Meso and South and Meso-America, where unrestrained imperialism financed by a steady flow of pilfered gold and riches takes Baroque on a building spree to the full extent of excess – returning ships riding low in the water, holds foul with gold, also paid for a good number architectural extravagances in Europe – but further enriched by local culture, in the same way that Baroque music in the Americas has an added texture.)
In many ways, it is an abandonment of form for a surfeit of decoration (rococco abandons even pretense, and relies on meringue – pastry applied to architecture). Structure is everywhere engulfed by embellishment, peppered with putti and smothered with stucco.
That’s why popular art in architecture from that period always seems so intriguing. There must be thousands of long thin men from the 17th and early 18th centuries starting down from cornerposts throughout Europe. With their willingness to scrunch their shoulders up and dangle their arms in front of their tube-like torsos and turn their squared toes inward, accepting the limitations of structure and working within those strictures, popular figurative Baroque can be awkward, ill-poised, elongated and curiously aloof. They also often seem to have a ferocious mein, these long thin men, they don’t look benevolent or amenable, they are stern and a little frightening, something of the ogre in them despite their emaciated silhouettes. None of the sack-of-potatoes physiques so dear to the Renaissance and taken up again by Rubens with such gusto, little of the relaxed Classical nudity, not a hint of the desperate lightness and frivolity of the early 1700’s, this crowd are of a hungrier, harsher, buttoned-at-the-collar kind. It’s hard imagining them in the same world as Fragonard’s Swing** when upper-crust Baroque had lost all semblance of gravitas and taken the rocaille garden path of Rococco (a distinction they blithely left to be made much much later by art historians).
Left, centre: Riquewihr. Hard to tell what characters these may be, one with his costume of leaves or feathers (perhaps a Wild Man) the other with his apron and tools.
Right: Riquewihr. Even harder, a moustachio’d man with a jug and goblet. His lower limbs seem to hesitate between conventional ornement and the tentacles of an octopus.
Left: Colmar, La Maison des Têtes, 1609. A thoroughly disquieting individual, with his bonhomous countenance, jester’s gear, seeming lack of arms and cloven hoves below shackled ankles. The whole facade is filled with heads of all sorts, 102 in all.
Centre: Colmar. Another dour-looking fellow, equally from 1609.
Right: Riquewihr. Female figure with tentacles on the same house as her masculin counterpart. Most unusual, especially given that the Alsace is not exactly a maritime region.
Where is this going? Well, I remember with regret the lengthy course on Baroque art and architecture I suffered through in my first year of university: a seemingly endless parade of sprawling über-decorated salons and monumental staircases. No long thin men staring down from cornerposts over narrow cobbled streets. Nobody made any introductions, let us get to know the generations of anonymous local carvers that translated into low relief their view of a less lofty world than the one seen from the Baldacchino in Saint-Peter’s or the Galerie des Glaces. I would have wished to know them a little better through their art, in a time when multitudes were leaving (and taking along that same art in their toolboxes) for the Americas, when the world was being triangulated by Mercator, when exotic tales of the southern seas were certainly subjects of conversation, incredulity and gruff dismissal. It’s a shame. Their presence, a few of their words and thoughts, even with their emaciated cheeks, hard eyes and pinched lips, would have been most welcome.
Some Unusual Dwarfs
These fellows are also in Riquewihr, where we were on another little trip last fall to see the Leo Schnug exhibition (another grander one is planned for this year in Strasbourg; more on that in a few months’ time) and they seemed somehow more at home decorating a Lord ofhe Rings movie set than a fountain. Alas, there was a profusion of bulky and lethargic tourists decorating the fountain’s rim, so it was hard to get photos, but I’ve vowed to return. And find out when they were sculpted.
Not Quite There, and Not Quite Back Again
The Swiss televison didn’t quite manage to show the documentary, having programmed it jut after downhill skiing, which of course went overtime. They slotted something shorter in to plug the gap, and have tentatively rescheduled “There And Back Again” for April 4th. To be confirmed.
* Forgive me a digression, but baluster is a word from the same period – the early 17th century: from French balustre, from Italian balaustro, from balaust(r)a ‘wild pomegranate flower’ (via Latin from Greek balaustion), so named because part of the pillar resembles the curving calyx tube of the flower.
** Fragonard was quite a flirt himself: compare the poses of the principal figures in Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” in the Sistine Chapel to those in “The Swing”. From the spark of life to a flying slipper and petticoats – quite a lot of water under history’s bridge.