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29 March 2010

Old Masters

Drawing A Crowd

I have drawn in Italy since my student days almost 30 years ago. While at first I was anxious about Italians staring over my shoulder while I worked, a compliment or two went a long way to emboldening me to draw in places where crowds couldn’t be avoided. On a Gabriel Prize in France ten years after graduation I drew in the packed corridors of the Louvre, where I was jostled, filmed by Japanese tourists, and occasionally complimented. As I have grown more sure in my abilities, I have begun to relish my role as a sort of “performance artist,” since what I do is just rare enough that I see my role as partly evangelical, spreading the word about the value of drawing after the Old Masters.

In that light nothing gives me greater satisfaction than to draw a crowd of kids when I’m at work in Italy. Italian children, still largely uncorrupted by the crush of technology that buries most American kids, are instinctively fascinated by someone drawing: I can almost guarantee that Italian pre-teens will pull their parents to watch me at work, and they are not shy about expressing admiration (imagining, no doubt, that I am much more famous than I am in fact). Other kids in other places have stopped to watch me at work, but nowhere else as consistently. I believe many children, with encouragement (or at least without discouragement) from their parents, love to draw, and associate being artistic with being able to draw (i.e. represent) accurately what they see. Representational art is natural, proper to us: we have to be taught to “like” non-representational art, and since we naturally appreciate representational art we also naturally appreciate those who do it well (the Old Masters) over the moderns who mostly do not.

This anecdotal experience is related in my mind with its antipode: the hard sell of Modern art, the blockbuster push of shows like Philadelphia’s Picasso, tied in with products for sale in the shops and even the restaurant. One gets the sense that the Philadelphia Museum of Art is almost embarrassed by its pre-nineteenth century collections, so patently un-hip, stuffy, out of step with our new millennium. Taking advantage recently of a free afternoon in the City of Brotherly Love, I decided to spend it at the Museum, where the signs announced late openings on Friday evenings until 8:45pm. Paying to park in the new lot (free parking until recently was the norm), I forked over the exorbitant $16 admission fee (I skipped the special Picasso admission, to the ticket seller’s surprise), confirmed that I could leave the premises (to see the restored Waterworks) and return, and headed straight to the stairs, past Pablo and up to the Renaissance-and-after wing (the north wing, fyi). I happily drew for a couple of hours (no audience), then took a break to see the Waterworks, thinking I’d return to draw for another hour or so, then treat myself to dinner at the Museum’s restaurant. After visiting the medieval wing (top floor south) I returned to the Renaissance to draw after a terracotta bust by Benedetto da Maiano; not five minutes into it a guard stood over my shoulder, not to watch but to tell me it was time to leave the galleries—the entire upstairs closes at 5pm! This while Picasso was happily open, the great main floor lobby outside the show turned into a boisterous “cabaret” with music and drinks. No doubt covered by the dust of the past I shuffled down to the restaurant.
My server announced the menu’s special entrée was a rice dish invented for Picasso; I ordered the crab cakes.

11 March 2010

Un-Modern Architecture? The Problem with the Word “Traditional”

A friend (an academic, and not an architect) recently passed a book along to me that deserves a wider audience than it no doubt received. Hans Ibelings’ UNMODERN ARCHITECTURE: Contemporary Traditionalism in the Netherlands (NAI Publishers; from the Open Library) is a remarkably objective look at a phenomenon (or a fascination, as the series of which it’s part is called Fascinations) he posits as opposed to the subject of his previous book in the series, SUPERMODERNISM. Ibelings is certainly the only non-partisan architecture critic I’ve come across who can discuss the idea of traditionalism today in ways that are both sympathetic and properly critical (modernists and traditionalists tend to be mostly incapable of one or the other). I’ll let the author speak for himself, but suffice it to say he tackles important issues few have addressed to date, namely standards within tradition, traditionalism’s lack of historical consciousness, the problem of nostalgia, and the lack of real continuity in the tradition. Following are some excerpts:

Traditionalist architecture is like organic food. Once, there was nothing else, and the adjectives were unnecessary. Not anymore: it can no longer be taken for granted that something builds on tradition or is produced in an ecologically responsible way.

—p. 13

Breaking with traditions used to be evidence of radicalism. In the course of the twentieth century, however, innovation has become the norm to such an extent that it has become a new tradition. These days it requires more self-will to be a traditionalist than to surf along on the successive waves of what remains of avant-gardism.

—p. 19

The quality of something that builds on previous forms is much more difficult to gauge [than one that aspires to innovation]. For what should it be judged on if it is not innovative? If it is to be judged on what it represents within its own genre, then it is not only a question of the correct application of the rules, but also of the sense of (and talent for) composition, proportions, refinement in colour, use of materials and detailing. And this immediately sets the bar quite high. The imperfections of the unprecedented experiment can be muffled with the mantle of the love of experimentation, but anything that builds on tradition must measure up against great predecessors.

—p. 30

[F]or tradition, both to the traditionalists of that period (between the World Wars) and those of today, consists only of a vaguely identifiable architectonic past. That past encompasses on the one hand ‘ordinary’ architecture, indicated by the word vernacular, and on the other hand what can loosely be described as classic, timeless architecture.

—p. 47

The foundation of contemporary traditionalism in architecture and urban design lies in European post-modernism, which developed starting in the late 1960s. This is true not only of what is now taking place in Europe, but also of what is going on in the United States under the aegis of New Urbanism. Remarkably little attention is being paid to this in the United States. What’s more, the dominance of the United States has even led to the New Urbanism that took shape there in the early 1990s now being exported to Europe. (In this regard, New Urbanism is not much different from Starbucks, which has been trying to find a niche in the European market with an American interpretation of the European café).

—p. 55

Ibelings’ perceptive observations deserve to be read in full, but allow me to make an observation: the crux of his book hangs on the nature of “tradition,” or being “traditional” today, and the paradoxes, occasional hypocrisy, and inevitable shortcomings of that position he charts as well as its appealing aspects. I would say this: “traditional” is an essentially useless word to define what classicists like myself and a few others (Thomas Rajkovich being one) are about: traditionalism only attempts to distinguish itself from modernism, but embodies no standards or aspirations proper to itself. Instead, a humanist approach to the classical language privileges the rhetorical capacity of that language, valuing not only the rigor inherent in great past achievements but the capacity to say something new. If there is a vital cultural future in recovering our past capacity to build well, it is there and only there.