Hector Guimard: Metropolitain

Metropolitain

Hector Guimard, Metropolitain, 1900-13, cast iron. National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC.

Guest Blogger:  Amanda

Each city has its own distinctive sign or symbol for its public transportation system, but often its people don’t question the origin of such a familiar landmark. Having been to Paris, I always felt a superseding appreciation for the famous Métropolitain archway in comparison to the ones I see around the D.C. area.  After realizing that a copy of this particular sculpture is in Washington’s National Gallery Sculpture Garden, I became curious about the well-known Parisian symbol and wanted to learn about how this beautiful, mass-produced entryway came to be in the city of lights.

Hector Guimard, a French architect, is well-known for being part of the French Art Nouveau movement during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1896, he entered a competition to win the best design for the Paris Metro stations. While he did not win, he did end up getting a job due to the railway company’s president taking an interest in the Art Nouveau Style. He was eventually commissioned to create the entranceways to the Metro stations in a manner that would be appealing to Parisians and also to ignite interest in the new transportation system. This modernization was a direct result of Baron Haussmann’s plans to create architecture and infrastructure changes in the 1860s, known as Haussmannization. Guimard sought a way to appeal to all passengers by embracing the old and new parts of the city in his architecture.

The appeal of the entrance is in the organic plant form contrasted against the inorganic cast iron of the structure. The cast iron makes us feel the rough exterior of an urban environment, but the ornate and intricate forms of the plants soften the harshness of a modernized city. The station entrances were produced from 1900 to 1913, and ultimately 141 were placed throughout Paris. The three main variations include a basic, open, entrance with railings and a sign flanked by the stalks, or lamps; an enclosed entrance with covered steps, an iron frame, and a butterfly glass roof with decorated enameled lava panels and translucent wired glass; and an entrance with complete pavilions, waiting rooms, arches, and roofs with tiered pyramids. The first type seen in the photo from the National Gallery of Art is the most simple and common with about 90 surviving entrances in Paris today. The Gallery’s Parisian Metro entrance needed to be restored and repainted several times as the layers of paint lifted from the cast iron. So, in order to preserve the layers, the gallery applied corrosion inhibitors and more durable paints that would maintain the aged bronze appearance Guimard intended to create in the early 1900’s.

Hector Guimard’s vision for Paris’ public transportation system included an appreciation for the Art Nouveau movement will live on as city dwellers enter and exit the metro every day. While it takes a second glance to stop and appreciate the considerable sentiment Guimard imbued in the famous entranceway, it does not take more than a passing through the train station to realize that there is a timeless element to the structures that are dispersed throughout the city. The older and historical side of Paris lives on with the new, modernized Paris, and for that we have Guimard’s thoughtful and unique perspective and artistry to thank. 

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Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen: Typewriter Eraser, Scale X

Guest Blogger:  Emily

A first look at Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, may leave viewers mildly confused. Not just an abstract sculpture of a circle with dynamic offshoots, it instead represents a typewriter eraser of monumental size. Why a typewriter eraser? The object has, after all, been out of use for nearly 40 years. Yet that’s just the point Oldenburg and Bruggen try to make. Obsolete objects- like the typewriter eraser- hold much more meaning than simply their tangible form and function. As Americans, we hold objects in almost a reverential position, spurred by the driving materialistic forces that haven’t abated since World War II. More than simply buying to acquire, we base our status, confidence, reputation, and self-worth on the objects we own. Oldenburg and van Bruggen sought to play on this attitude in Typewriter Eraser, Scale X.

Typewriter Eraser, Scale X

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, Model 1998, Fabricated 1999. painted stainless steel and fiberglass. National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC

Our materialism has driven faster progress than ever before. Though there were significant gaps in time between major innovations of the 1900s- radios, household appliances, TVs, and computers- we’ve had eight new versions of the iPhone within the past few years alone. So it’s no wonder why people forget about objects of the decade before, much less objects of half-a-century before, like the poor, unused typewriter eraser.

But what happens when we take a moment out of our busy, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses’ lifestyle to think and reflect on items of the past? This may sound like an odd idea- perhaps one that even encourages materialism- yet it plays right into the message that Oldenburg and Bruggen make in Typewriter Eraser, Scale X. It is an undeniable fact that objects play a major role in our lives, so it naturally follows that we should have significant memories attached to them. Such is the case with Oldenburg. This typewriter eraser is a remnant of Oldenburg’s childhood; Oldenburg was inspired to sculpt the work because of his fond memories of playing in his father’s office as a child in the 1930s. The typewriter eraser falls gracefully to the ground, the tips of its strands curving towards the sky, trying to slow it down. Oldenburg’s noble rendering of this object allows the viewer to feel the same love for the typewriter eraser that Oldenburg himself once felt. Such remembrances ensure that although old objects may not always be remembered, they will never be forgotten.

Marc Chagall: Orphée

Orphee mosaic

Orphee, Marc Chagall, 1971, mosaic. National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. Washington, DC

Guest Blogger:  Amanda and Emily

We entered the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden in search of specific works that we had already researched. It was cold out, and we weren’t really looking to spend a lot of time exploring outside- we wanted to take the pictures and move indoors. At one point, a glint of light caught our eyes from the back corner of the garden and we were curious where this was coming from. The Orphée, a mosaic by Marc Chagall sits tucked away underneath mossy trees just inside of a wrought-iron fence. It gives the viewer the sense of privacy and intimacy of a private garden within one of the most renowned art galleries in the United States. In fact, after further research, we found out that the work was recently installed in November 2013, and appears as it has for the past 40 years in Evelyn and John Nef’s garden in Georgetown.

Evelyn and John Nef enjoyed a lifelong friendship with Marc Chagall, who gifted this work of art to the couple in the late 1960’s as an installation for their garden. The Nefs and Chagalls would vacation together every year on the French Riviera. They would go out to dinner to celebrate Evelyn and Marc’s July birthdays, and Chagall often doodled on the menu cards as tokens for the Nefs to bring home. He also illustrated over forty books for Evelyn, along with smaller drawings which she kept and bequeathed to the National Gallery of Art. Chagall visited the Nef’s home in 1968, with the intention of creating a work of art to adorn their home. However, he quickly realized that Evelyn’s meticulously decorated interior could be improved no further and decided to make a mosaic for the garden instead.

Chagall designed the mosaic in France and in 1971 commissioned Lino Melano, an Italian mosaicist, to execute his design, which was unveiled on a November evening later that year. The mosaic is characteristic of Chagall’s work- surreal, confusing, and beautifully disjointed. There are images of Orpheus, the Three Graces, a cluster of immigrants (a personal reference to Chagall and Nef’s Jewish heritage), skyscrapers, Pegasus, an angel, and a couple resting under a tree. This last image prompted Evelyn to ask Chagall if the image was meant to represent her and John, to which the artist coyly replied, “If you like.”

Even if the couple depicted is not intended to concretely symbolize Evelyn and John, Chagall’s style unwittingly alludes to Evelyn’s unconventional approach to life. To the average viewer, Chagall’s work- influenced by surrealism and fantasy movements often appears to have no rhyme or reason. It seems as if as soon as Chagall finished one image of a work, he immediately moved onto the next without a second thought. This idea of constant change and reinvention perfectly sums up Evelyn’s own story; from a puppeteer to a psychologist, an Arctic researcher to an art patron, and a financial expert to a fitness buff, Evelyn embraced every opportunity that life threw at her, carving her own exceptional path. More than anything else, Evelyn was dominated by curiosity an eagerness to master anything and everything. This desire to collect information, ideas, and works of art led her to amass a substantial collection that included works by Renoir, Picasso, Leger, Kandinsky, and her beloved Chagall mosaic. Because she had enjoyed the mosaic’s light in her garden every day since 1971, she wanted to share this joy with others, and bequeathed the work to the National Gallery before her passing in 2009. While it was an arduous task to undertake, the Gallery spent 3 years preparing, removing, cleaning, and installing the mosaic in the sculpture garden. It made its debut this past November and will be formally unveiled this coming spring.

Vincent van Gogh: Green Wheat Fields, Auvers

Guest Blogger:  Emily

When Mrs. Rachel Lambert Mellon, the 103-year-old widow of millionaire philanthropist Paul Mellon, used to sit before the living room fireplace of her sprawling estate in Upperville, Virginia, she gazed at a 2×3 foot, exquisitely painted, and intimately unframed “pure landscape” by none other than Vincent van Gogh. Her eyes would feast on the impossibly valuable painting, entitled Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, which Vincent van Gogh finished in the spring of 1890, just months before his death in July. But recently, as part of a substantial gift that includes $75 million and precious works by Monet, Manet, Renoir, Cézanne, and van Gogh, Mrs. Mellon relinquished her ownership of Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, and presented it instead to the National Gallery of Art for public enjoyment.

Green Wheat Fields, Auvers

Vincent van Gogh, Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890, oil painting. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Though the National Gallery of Art already has eight other van Gogh oil paintings, Green Wheat Fields, Auvers proves a priceless complement to the rest of the collection as a demonstration of van Gogh’s virtuoso brushwork and an exploration of his frame of mind just prior to his oft-examined death. Van Gogh painted his portrait of the rolling hills and sky while in voluntary treatment at an asylum in Saint-Rémy. Though van Gogh created Green Wheat Fields, Auvers during what is commonly thought of as the bleakest and most turbulent months of his career; his beautiful rendering of a windswept landscape offers a different perspective on this stage of his life. Van Gogh was undoubtedly depressed, as evidenced by his voluntary confinement and suicide, at age 37, just months later, but still extracted joy and wonder from the natural world. His clouds seem to curve and dance through the sky just above the luscious grass, which bends and waves in a frolicking spring breeze. The cool coloring of the sky and field- light greens and purples, complete with rich blues- radiate calmness, while small bursts of yellow in the flowers add an exuberant, hopeful touch to the work. Absent are the people, technology, and buildings that are the hallmarks of the society that so destroyed van Gogh; instead, the comforting presence of Mother Nature shines through, familiarly turning the dark dearth of winter into the bright vitality of spring. Despite his struggles with inner feelings of despair and inadequacy, coupled with his lack of professional success, van Gogh could not help being absorbed in the beauty of the Auvers landscapes, to which Green Wheat Fields, Auvers is a testament.

David Smith: Pittsburgh Landscape

Pittsburgh Landscape

David Smith, Pittsburgh Landscape, 1954, painter steel. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC

Guest Blogger:  Mari

Many people view painted art and sculpture as two entities, as did many artists in the early 20th century. David Smith, however, saw paintings and sculptures as the same form; sculpture was simply painting given a third dimension. In his opinion, sculptures were metal “drawing[s] in space.” He saw no difference between sculptures and paintings beyond their technical execution.

This philosophy can clearly be seen in Pittsburgh Landscape. Housed in the Hirshhorn’s sculpture garden and created in 1954, the piece was originally crafted as a gift for G. David Thompson and was to be used as a guard rail for a terrace outside Thompson’s home. Thompson, a collector of modern art, was the president of Pittsburgh Steel at the time. Thus, Smith’s use of painted steel in Pittsburgh Landscape is very fitting not only for the city it depicts but also the man it was for. The piece is composed of delicate metal tracery rather than solid forms. This is meant to define the empty space rather than detract attention from it. The abstract composition of the sculpture creates a sense of rhythm and pattern that is found in a dynamic landscape, such as a city skyline, seen from a distance. The piece’s composition was inspired by Pablo Picasso and Julio González’s post-Cubist constructed metal sculptures, which are what drove Smith to begin experimenting with metal sculpture earlier in his career. Eventually, Pittsburgh Landscape found its way into the hands of Joseph H. Hirshhorn who donated it to the museum bearing his name in 1972.

Smith was heavily influenced by Surrealism and is considered to be the first American artist who took an interest in metal abstract sculpture and began creating his own works in this style. His life experiences help to explain his expertise in this medium. He gained skills from welding metal in an automobile factory that contributed greatly to his artistic talent. In addition, Smith set up his studio next to an iron forge and would often use scrap metal and parts of machines found there in his sculptures. In 1965 he was appointed to the National Council on the Arts by President Lyndon B. Johnson before tragically dying in a car crash that spring. Smith’s legacy and works, still widely popular today, earned him a prominent place in American art history and will continue to inspire others in years to come.

Charles Marville

Guest Blogger:  Amanda and Emily

After hearing about the Charles Marville exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, we were excited to go view the black and white French photography. While the collection features works from throughout Marville’s career, the curator focused on his documentation of the Haussmannization of Paris- the implementation of Baron Haussmann’s architectural and infrastructural plans to modernize the city-  from the 1850s into the early 1870s. But by walking through the rooms of photos, we found that Marville did much more than simply document the city’s modern transformation. While Haussmannization improved the city’s transportation, layout, and sanitation, it displaced much of the “Old Paris,” leaving poor city dwellers without homes and with overall feelings of disappointment and frustration. Through his work, Marville seems to pay homage to the older parts of the city while embracing the new version of Paris that we know today.

One of the hallmarks of Marville’s artistry is his innovative use of light. He beautifully renders this effect in his photograph, Sky Study, in which he makes the bright sky and delicate overhanging clouds his subject, providing the viewer with a reference point in the spire atop a domed building in the background. Within this work, where he captures the nuances of natural light, he conveys the message that while Paris may be a changing city, its people still live under the same sun and marvel at the same clouds. Although Parisian officials ordered the construction of a “new Paris,”  they could not demolish the city’s distinctive history and trademark spirit.

Sky Study can be viewed at –  http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/265131

While he communicates such sentiments in many of his works, Marville equally explores the cultural mores of the transforming city. As a representation of the social stratification, he photographed a series of lampposts placed on street corners throughout Paris. The lampposts were one of the later products of Haussmannization, intended to light the city for purposes of safety and comfort. What is interesting about the series is that at first glance, each lamp looks alike, but upon a closer look, each one has its own unique characteristics. We found out that the more ornate lampposts were placed in upscale neighborhoods and areas, while the plainer ones resided in the poorer neighborhoods. So, Marville’s documentation of the lampposts is actually symbolic of a microcosm of the widening gap between the social classes of Paris.

 Hotel de la Marine (lamppost) can be viewed at –http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/press/exh/3209/annonucement.html

It is ironic that most people today have the same attitude towards the current Paris that Marville had towards the one displaced during the 1850s. But while his nostalgia is for the city of his youth, the one in which his memories were rooted, ours is for the city that grew out of its destruction. Inevitably, all cities transform at a faster clip than that to which their people can comfortably adjust. Therefore, the Parisian citizens’ resilience in spite of the never-ending, merciless evolution of the city speaks to humans’ ability to adapt and flourish with the faith that out of the chaos of today will emerge a more promising tomorrow.

Barry Flanagan: Thinker on a Rock

Thinker on a Rock

Barry Flanagan, Thinker on a Rock. Bronze. 1997. National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC

Guest Blogger:  Amanda

While The Thinker was crafted by Rodin around 1880, Welsh sculptor Barry Flanagan sculpted his own Thinker on a Rock inspired by Rodin’s work about a century later in 1997. Cast in bronze, a hare, not a man, with an elongated and thin form, sits atop a rock in the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden. The hare’s long ears seem to extend upwards with its lanky, thin body hunched over in contemplation. While it may at first seem odd and unusual that a hare is sitting in such a humanlike position, Flanagan is actually known for his hare motif, which dominates his sculptures that are displayed in cities including Washington, D.C., London, Madrid, Dublin, and Chicago.

Barry Flanagan did not always sculpt hares. Initially, he sculpted with materials such as clay and sand after studying in London during the 1960’s. It was not until the late 1970’s that the artist met his inspiration when he saw a hare running on a field in England. He was interested in the elastic and elongated qualities of the hare, and this became his central and distinctive focus for the next three decades, which is not surprising given his reputation for being a unique artist of his time. With this said,  Flanagan set himself apart from his peers by focusing on theater and installation arts instead of Minimalist and Conceptual Art.  Neither artist nor viewer can deny the humor in the hare form being likened to human poses and characteristics. Flanagan certainly saw the humor and wit in depicting such a serious pose by Rodin and transforming it into animal form.

When walking up to the sculpture in the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., there is something odd yet comforting about seeing a hare in human form. The hare rests its chin upon its hand and its elbow upon its knee as humans so often do when lost in thought. Its long ears stretch in each direction, balancing the lanky form of the hare’s arms and legs. The eyes of the hare seem to stare back at the viewer in contemplation of what it is thinking as well as in uncertainty of the viewer. While this depiction is humorous in comparison to Rodin’s piece, Flanagan’s use of the hare form does have its ways of grabbing the viewer’s attention, getting them to stop, and think for a moment.