Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Did the Impressionists Invent Modern Architecture?

Dallas and Fort Worth are blessed with a few of the country’s best art museums. Even with the impressive contributions by Renzo Piano and Tadao Ando, it is Louis Kahn’s Kimbel Art Museum which has garnered the most affection by locals as well as by architectural critics since its completion in the early seventies. The building is quite modest in size, which allows the art within to be exhibited at an intimate level. The travertine walls and the smooth concrete cycloid vaults above create a comforting and familiar environment counter to most museum’s blank white walls and ambiguous natural lighting. If it weren’t for the art within, most art museums seem to suffer from bland and obscure spaces, lacking tactile quality, and providing no way to encourage a meaningful relationship between the viewer and the architecture.

Last week I made my way to Fort Worth to see the Paul Gauguin exhibit. It showcased his early work before producing his better known Post-impressionist paintings. The exhibit was therefore a show of impressionism through the efforts of one man; how his style was influenced by the great masters of the genre and how he diverged towards his own style. Like most amateur art lovers, I enjoy Impressionism for its simple beauty and its celebration of natural phenomena like light and wind that seem to enliven the most mundane subjects. Gauguin’s impressionistic efforts were descent, but not remarkable compared to his friends Pissaro and Monet and even Cezanne. Still, Gauguin’s gentle tendency towards greater abstraction revealed in these early works made me realize another thing I liked about Impressionist painting, particularly during the latter phase of the movement.

The paintings revealed a simple truth about our environment: all that we see around us is merely an assembly of volumes, colors and textures bathed in light and air. What was painted still mattered, but their significance and meaning was deliberately more ambiguous, with the painter instead focusing on abstraction through technique.

Cezanne, more than his follower Gauguin, was a master of revealing the visceral world as the interplay of masses, surfaces and light. It is no coincidence that his paintings inspired the first Cubist painters, even as most of the public prefers Cezanne’s representational style of familiar scenes over the aggressively fractured abstract compositions of Cubism. Still, Gauguin’s efforts were enough remind me what importance this has on my preferences regarding art but particularly architecture. His streetscapes and landscapes depicting village rooftops and gardens have this reassuringly pleasant quality about them, as if to make me realize what an ideal architectural and urban space should be. I am not saying that we should imitate the French village and architectural vernaculars of the nineteenth century, but rather learn from the organic and harmonious interplay between nature, solids, and color and the effects of light. If you stare at the paintings long enough, you get lost the repetitive rhythms of primary shapes, of suggested textures, and rich shadows. It’s as if the world were made a singular kind of quilt that could be manipulated to look like any kind of surface imaginable but also maintain an unchanging quality that visually ties all the surfaces together.

It’s important to remember that such abstracted scenes tend to draw the viewer into imagining ideal places. There was much in those painting that were not presented as they did not serve the artists’ compositional intentions. But it was those very abstractions that permitted the viewer to notice our surrounding environment as a phenomenological event, the constant interaction of primary natural elements and forces. The tendency towards greater abstraction in later art led to nature being depicted as an abstract composition of forms, not as an intelligible combination of phenomena. Forms in all their abstract glory took precedence over objects, over forces in nature, as fragments of suggested objects floated, and depth and shadow became elements to be manipulated regardless of the way the viewer sees the world around him or her.

The ascendancy of abstract art at the beginning of the twentieth century foretold the imminent rise of the Modernist school of architecture. Abstraction became a fundamental part of the strategy towards creating a new way to build, emphasizing surface, materiality, and volumes and the interplay of planes and solids rather than the superficial dressing of a façade that wraps a simple masonry box. It makes sense that the earliest Modernists dabbled in painting, often producing Cubist-inspired works. Le Corbusier himself was as much a disciplined painter as he was an architect and deeply engaged in the avant-garde art world of Paris in his time. His Cubist explorations, along with his original observations during his travel as a youth, led him to declare about architecture which was just as true about late Impressionist art:

“Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light; light and shade reveal these forms; cubes, cones, spheres, cylinders or pyramids are the great primary forms which light reveals to advantage…”

Were the Impressionist masters therefore the first Modern architects? Some of Gauguin’s paintings I saw as well those of his contemporaries (Monet’s study Rouen cathedral) seem to suggest that they helped shape the preoccupation of architecture in the twentieth century. It was from the drive to create buildings as abstractions for abstraction’s sake, with little regard to nature that Modern architecture became unpalatable to the general public.

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