Journeys and footprints

On this day in 1497, almost 525 years ago, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama (1460 – 1524) set sail from Lisbon, and after what must have been a grueling journey of 316 days, landed in Calicut, India in May 1498. With this, he changed the course of history.  

Portuguese explorer Vasco do Gama (1460- 1524)

Many western explorers and conquerors had been to India, among them, and perhaps the most famous, was Alexander the Great in 326 BCE who came via the treacherous  Khyber Pass. Vasco da Gama, however, was the first to discover a new sea route from Europe to India, the first European to land in the South Indian port city of Calicut, and the first to open India permanently to colonization by the west. With all the wealth his first voyage created for the King of Portugal, he was sent back two more times – though he did not return the third time. He died in Calicut in 1524. The Portuguese, however, did not leave India until December 1961 – over 4 centuries after Vasco da Gama first set foot in India.

Statue of Vasco da Gama in Vasco da Gama city (aka Vasco city ) in Goa, India.

Portuguese Goa still has over 15000 Portuguese speakers, last names like Souza and Mascharenas, large Catholic community, and its landscape is dotted with centuries old Portuguese mansions, churches, and forts.

Portuguese influence is seen in the 1590 mansion, “The Figueiredo House” designed by Jesuit priests. The mansion – believe it or not – is older than the Taj Mahal by a few decades.

One of Goa’s most famous artists, and founder of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, Francis Newton Souza (1924 – 2002) captured the beauty and simplicity of Portuguese Goa in these soulful and beautiful works from the 1940s and 50s.

Vasco da Gama’s long trip has left an even longer shadow and a deep footprint in this coastal part of India.

Liquid Stone

Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha, responsible for a number of the brutalism inspired buildings in Brazil, died at the age of 92 earlier this week. He was part of the iconic generation of modern Brazilian architects from the Paulista School whose open and airy buildings made of poured concrete dot the urban landscape of Brazil. Because of his contribution to the architecture of Brazil, he was awarded the coveted Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2006.

Chirico’s Shadows

Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico’s (1888 – 1978) works from his highly influential metaphysical period lasted for a few brief years before the start of World War I.

The Enigma of a Day

The works show empty, yet architecturally rich, city landscapes with mesmerizing late afternoon wintertime shadows. That hour of the day when the last remnants of the wintertime sun elongates shadows and invites contemplation about the passage of time. It happens during the last few minutes of daylight during the last few months of the year – perhaps it is that proximity to the end of a recurring cycle which invites contemplation – in this we see the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy in Chirico’s works.

His works are what paintings of dreams would look like- there are symmetrical arches and architectural details with a cubist bent, bright surfaces and dark spaces, empty landscapes with shadows of solitary people or statues of dead people, there is no sense of perspective, wind seems to appear only in certain sections of the painting – smoke from a steam engine billows upwards, while flags fly sideways – looking at his paintings seems to slow down time as one contemplates its passing. They are an enigma – perhaps why he himself named so many of them that way.

The Enigma of a Day

The metaphysical period of Chirico’s artistic career was brief – from 1911 to 1915 – after the war he drifted towards classical work. Yet, this brief period was highly influential in paving the way for surrealism and the works of Magritte and Dali – and Hopper’s empty landscapes – among others.

Looking Out

Once again, we find ourselves in the midst of stay-in orders due to the rising cases of coronavirus across the country. It reminded me of the time earlier this year, when Italians with stay-in orders spent their evenings on the balconies – socially distant yet connected with their neighbors – singing songs together and trying to make the best of a very difficult situation.

This gave me the idea for today’s blog – people in their balconies watching life go by – sometimes wistfully, sometimes happy to be onlookers, sometimes to connect with the outside world, sometimes to disconnect from the world, sometimes spying on others – and occasionally being spied on by others  – like in Caillebotte’s woman looking at and at the same time being looked at by another woman on a balcony across the street!!

Balconies are a special world – a meeting point of the interior world of homes and shelter spaces and the outside world – they can bring a tiny bit of the outside in or take a bit of the inside out – it all depends on the person inhabiting the balcony at any moment in time.

David Hockney, Sur la Terrasse (1971)

Looking out – whether to watch people on city streets, or to become one with nature, or to be mesmerized by the sea…..

Nothing quite like the childlike joy – filled with anticipation – of looking out..

Nicolas Tarkhoff, Children ad Cat by the Window (1907)

(Sources: Google Arts and Culture, Tate Gallery, Art Institute of Chicago, Christie’s, Van Gogh Museum)

Berlin Wall – MADNESS!!

Last year at this time, I had done quite a few blogs on the Berlin Wall because it was the 30 years since the wall fell. I’m going to redo one of these blogs about a section of the wall with the word MADNESS written on it – with an exciting update!!

Originally Written on October 20, 2019

I am endlessly fascinated by the graffiti on the wall.  It captures the essence of the 1980s and while a majority of the wall and graffiti are gone for good, the images from the 1980s have captured and preserved the essence of that raw, youthful energy forever. This was art on the streets being used as protest. It was the voice of a generation that used the wall as a canvas to reduce some of its horror and make it less threatening. In the words of Thierry Noir, who is the first artist to illegally paint large sections of the Berlin Wall, painting the wall, “subverted this iconic symbol of war into a symbol of hope, granting it real human significance.”

Berlin Wall Graffiti by Thierry Noir (courtesy thierrynoir.com)

One of the remaining sections of the wall has the word MADNESS written in large black letters.  It remains to this day in Berlin in the Topographie des Terrors Center and is visited by the millions of people that go to Berlin annually. It would appear to have been done by someone protesting the madness that was the Berlin Wall. 

However, it turns out the graffiti was done by a member of the British Rock Band called Madness when they visited the wall in the early 80s.  In his twitter feed, Dan Woody Woodgate (one of the band members) writes that in 1980 another band member, Graham Suggs McPherson, climbed on top of a van and wrote MADNESS on the Berlin Wall, which is the same one that exists today.  I was thrilled to see the origin of this fascinating and meaningful word that remains to this day. While most people that see the remaining graffiti naturally conclude that it was a teenager’s commentary on what was going on with the wall and the East German regime, it was actually a band member of a popular 1980s band writing his group’s name on the wall. 

In another fascinating find, as I was scouring Instagram for images of the wall, I actually found this word written on the wall from a 1980s image.  What an interesting coincidence – first I found the origin of the word, and then I found an image of what appears to be the same writing from the 1980s.  What do you think? Is it the same writing or another one?

Berlin Wall Graffiti Image from the 1980s (courtesy Instagram Massimiliano T.P.)

I want it to be the same, but I see the differences in placement and letter sizes.  So maybe not the exact same writing but still an interesting find. 

EXCITING UPDATE

A couple of weeks back I received the following image from the owner of the blog www.madnessontv.com, with a note that the graffiti in the second image was definitely done by the band, as proved by this image:

British rock group Madness right after they wrote their name on the wall!!

Madness were in Berlin in January 1980, and appeared on German TV “Musikladen” on January 10, 1980, and then on another TV show on January 17, 1980. Two of the bandmembers were active in the London graffiti scene before they joined the band. A great big thank you to madnesstv.com for sharing this picture with me!!

(Sources: madnesstv.com, concerts.fandom.com)

le Corbusier

Le Corbusier (1887 – 1965) was one of the most important and influential modern architects of the 20th Century, and is known for his works in the International Style – a style that crossed national boundaries post World War I in Europe.

Villa Savoye outside Paris is the icon of International Style and reflects le Corbusier’s “Purist ideals in its geometric design and avoidance of ornamentation” (Stokstad, Cothern). The house utilizes the 5 points of architecture considered essential for Modern architecture: 1)pilotis (free-standing posts)  that lift the building above the ground, 2)a flat roof that serves as a garden and terrace, 3)open plan interiors, 4)ribbon windows for light an ventilation, and5) a free façade independent of the load bearing structure.

Unite d’Habitation – Marseilles, France

The Cite Radieuse (Radiant City) in Marseilles was le Corbusier’s post World War II multi-family housing project designed under Unite d’ Habitation design principle. It is also the building that inspired brutalist architecture. Completed in 1952, this vertical city of two-story residences and a communal rooftoop garden was built of beton brut because of steel shortages post World War II. The building is considered highly influential in the world of architecture and is one of the most innovative responses to the acute housing shortages after the war.

The city within a city boasts a kindergarten gym, and paddling pool on the roof deck, as well as shops , medical facilities, and a hotel inside the building. In all le Corbusier designed and built five Unite’ d Habitation housing developments in a span of 15 years– in Marseilles, Reze, Berlin, Briey-en-Foret and Firminy. These all-inclusive housing complexes represented an extraordinary moment in the development of housing in the 20th century.

(Images courtesy le Corbusier foundation).

Mosaics of Labor

I find these monumental Soviet era mosaics very attractive and thought provoking – the bright colors, the immense detail in the work, and of course the stories they tell of an era that has ended. They are of course propaganda mosaics – but if we can set that aside for a minute and just appreciate the intricate work that has gone into making them – they really are quite remarkable. Ex-USSR countries like Georgia and Ukraine seem to be filled with these mosaics, though many are in a dilapidated state.

Most of these are celebrating labor since working class people were supposed to be the ruling class according to Karl Marx. These mosaics were public art and decorated the exterior walls of school, factories, government building, and residential blocks, and celebrated the everyday working-class heroes on a larger than life scale. Much of this public art and cultural heritage of an era has been destroyed after the end of communism – but the ones that remain serve as a testament to that era.

(Images courtesy Socialist Realism Art websites & Instagram)

Camille Pissarro – Haussmann’s Gift to Paris

While Haussmann created the City of Lights, Pissarro painted it as it glowed in this light from morning until night, from spring until snow.

Haussmannization of Paris

Paris at the dawn of the 19th Century was a very different city from the one that closed out the century – a medieval, overcrowded, dark city with narrow streets was transformed into an light and airy city that radiated out of the Arc de Triomphe with wide boulevards flanked by Chestnut trees and beautiful buildings made of white Lutetian limestone and adorned with carvings and wrought iron balconies. The two people responsible for this transformation were Emperor Napoleon III (nephew of the Napoleon) and Georges-Eugene Haussmann.

It was a match made in heaven for these two – they gutted the city with little regard for its present or past residents and displaced 350,000 residents and over 6 million graves. And while people complained endlessly about the endless construction and the endless cost – out of all this finally arose the beautiful City of Lights we know today.

It is to the brilliant Prefect of the Seine, Baron Haussmann, that Paris owes much of its beauty. The buildings that line the wide boulevards are called Haussmanns and are one of Paris’s most defining features. Each apartment building was five stories high, with a nonnegotiable uniform exterior façade – its height in proportion to the width of the boulevard. The interiors could vary according to the owner’s preference.

The ground floor had high ceilings and was for retail stores and offices, the first or mezzanine floor had low ceilings and was for storage for the first floor. The most desirable floor was the second floor or the noble floor, which had beautiful windows and wrought iron balconies. The third and fourth floor had smaller balconies and windows. Each building has a uniform 45-degree mansard roof.

Artist Gustave Caillebotte seemed to love the newly transformed Paris as well!!

The Bruts of Boston

If one can tear themselves away from the cobblestoned beauty of Quincy market, from the culinary delights of Faneuil Hall, and from the narrow streets of the Italian North End that is practically bursting at its seams with history, and head towards Government center and City Hall in what was known as Scollay Square, one will come face to face with these gargantuan, yet lyrical, concrete giants of brutalism.

The post-World War II era put Boston on a path to reinvigorate itself and tear off the shackles of narrow cobblestones streets and old brownstone buildings. Brutalism architecture with its honest, concrete, progressive look seemed to fit the bill.

Brutalism is a sub-genre of modernist architecture that lasted from 1950s to mid-70s. It is so called not because of the “brutish” appearance of the building but is taken from the French term for raw concrete, “beton brut.” It was mostly used for government buildings, schools, and public housing built after World War II.  Brutalism is characterized by the blocky appearance of buildings that most often have a recurring geometric design and are built with massive amounts of poured concrete.

Boston City Hall and the Government Center buildings stand a stone’s throw from the Quincy market – but centuries separate these two sites architecturally. Other buildings followed -including the State Street Bank, Boston Five Cents Savings Bank, the Harbor Towers and the MIT Hermann Building. Today Boston boasts the largest concentration of brutalist architecture in the US.

Government Center Building

(All imges courtesy of Boston Magazine and Architectural Digest websites).