Tag Archives: architecture

The Bower

The pavilion was born in 1572.  Its walls were made of canvas.  And like sails they were held up by a platoon of 40 ships’ masts – seasoned with mists, salt and the voices of fishes.

It was Elizabeth’s pavilion.  A queen for fourteen years, she had grown tired of her palaces:  Whitehall, a pale leviathan; rosy-colored Hampton Court; St. James, which still bore her mother’s initials carved into its guilty stone; Greenwich – where her father was born and Richmond, where she would die.  These buildings were built on history, enmeshed in circumstance and ceremony.  She needed something that reflected her wit, femininity and power – the unexpected whim of England’s unequaled queen.

So when the French envoys were to visit in 1572, with marriage proposals, land and trade agreements in their pockets, Elizabeth decided to entertain them outside.   She hired 500 carpenters and artists to decorate and disguise the canvas walls.  They would create a gallery suitable for those visitors most likely to return home with stories of the handiwork that was raised with a single wave of the Virgin Queen’s arsenic scented hand.

Above tables weakened by plates of spiced meats and sugar paste sculptures of cathedrals and chessboards, boughs of birch and ivy wept from the ceiling.  Roses and honeysuckle were braided in a living fabric that pressed against the walls painted with trompe l’oeil stonework.  The air of the artificial bower bloomed, growing fragrant and green.  It mixed bravely with the sickly rancid scent that rose from the pomanders held close to the visitors’ noses.

The ceiling was painted with the curling vines of an exotic harvest:  pomegranates, melons, cucumbers, grapes, carrots – reminders of the foreign lands within England’s grasp.  Finally, rising out of the greenery, at the very top of the unlikely construction was a sweep of twilight, “spangled with gold and most richly hanged”, marked with constellations and sparks of stars marked with “lights of glass”.  Gilt ornaments and lanterns decorated the deceptive evening, their fey light varnishing the crawling garden.

Elizabeth’s pavilion, the rippling façade of brick and botany, was meant to be used only once.  But it was to remain standing for another ten years.  And in that time the vines had rotted and the flowers had become gangrenous.  Showers of dust, gilt and paint stood hypnotized in the shafts of sunlight piercing the ragged walls.

However, the scent of decay – the sweet repellent aroma from a diabolical boudoir – could somehow still beckon.  Birds hatched through the dilapidated canvas, attracted by the death throes of the suffering forest.

They were tiny envoys, bearing tokens of music, color and spirit.  Their whimsical movements, the audacity of their flight were an inspiration.  Once, within that flimsy architecture, art had dared to imitate life.  And within a decade it would be rescued by it.  A mystery play of metaphysics, aesthetics and semantics had been re-enacted within a forest that was – like a sleeping Eden – in the process of being re-born.

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Like a frothy lady-in-waiting, Art Nouveau emerged as the handmaiden to the Belle Epoch, following in its honeyed footsteps.  Dainty yet flamboyant, it was born out of a madness of grace and unceasing charm.  It mocked symmetry, the foolhardy composition suppressed by balance and proportion.  It was not classic, nor serene – it burst forth in a chaos of beauty, coiling with the whimsy of nature; her spectacular mirth.

It could be seen everywhere during the careless years before the Great War; rich with lethargy and leisure.  It was carved into frescoes of gardens rooted into walls, blossoming into curls so elaborate, they grew into a joyous caricature of the growing, earthy world:

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Jewelry was twisted into bowers of serpents and insects, ornate with gems and enameled hues that rippled like watercolor.

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The faces of women loomed from the depths of moonstone and opal; they hung like stars from frameworks of woven gold.

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Medusas shrieked from engraved combs; gods and goddesses ruled, bold and inalienable, from pendants, brooches and collars.

Art Nouveau was seen in the filigrees that romped throughout architecture, illustration, textiles, silverware, clothing.  Every aspect of the decorative life became a tangle of coils, twisting like ribbons of DNA.   Small Victorian modesty was replaced by the fluidity of Nature’s world, the richness of her seasons, the shameless appreciation of her power.

At no other time would Mucha’s women appear on posters with their hair melting into russet and gold tinted oceans…

or would Cheret be able to paint dancers in a torrent of petticoats and color.

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It was the time of absinthe spoons, their tiny bowels a matrix of wrought silver only large enough to embrace a cube of sugar.

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The silken lilies curling down the velvet-clad back of the Countess of Greffulhe, her shoulders and neck emerging from the sculpted collar like a living flower, is an iconic image of an era that celebrated the soft beauty of pure decoration.

The era meandered like an autumn river, rich with color and earthy detritus, following a path of nascent creativity.  Portraits of its fortunate inhabitants were painted with swift brushstrokes, before the wandering, busy imaginations of the subjects called them away.  The harsh linearity of previous decades was eschewed:  gowns, coats, even the liquid shine on patent leather shoes:  no aspect could bear to be harnessed by clarity.  Painters like Sargent…

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and Boldini…

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portrayed their sitters in a bedlam of shifting colors; of gowns swirling like hurricanes, of faces as clear yet as hard to define as reflections in a turbulent sea.  Like Narcissus, they were in love with those reflections, yet on the precipice of an approaching danger.

At first the menace was only a subtle threat.  It was seen in the smudged eyes of Klimt’s portraits; his jagged mosaics that felt like a chain mail of disillusionment.

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It beckoned from Schiele’s figures, sprawled on tangled sheets; the oblique limbs relegated to a coarse reality that presaged the death of sentimentality.

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Yet the Beautiful Age would linger for a while; its gilded culture pulsating and changing shape like a jellyfish – only to sting the onlooker before he turned away.  But its death came; and it was only as a herald to countless more deaths, beginning with a distant assassination in the summer of 1914. When British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time” he no doubt was referring to the darkness of impending despair, the inevitable destruction of war, but surely, he must have given a thought to the end of the golden world which was all he had ever known.  He must have known the fear of ugliness which had begun its approach in an apocalyptic gallop.

But this joyous life, as enchanted as a flower, was not meant to last long.  Rather, it was destined for the memory, where the regret of losing its fey beauty would linger like perfume; where that perfect world could be safely buried and the earthy spirit of Art-Nouveau would live forever.


A Mirror Left Ajar

I bought an armful of books some while ago – and they have been waiting on my counter for me to devour, absorb, love or hate.  Words and pictures, not my own, were just awaiting my judgement:  could anything be more exciting?

One of these I picked up because it promised pretty.  It foretold whimsy, uselessness, shallowness and charm.  Quite like its subject matter:

And before I had even sailed away into it, before I had cast off into its glossy waters, I was stunned by the photograph adorning its frontpiece.  It was something so unexpected, so enchanting, that I believed an act of magic had finally been caught on camera.

The mirror had seemed to dissolve into a frothy atmosphere.  Its solids and backings had melted – it was as if its silvery locks had been left unlatched.  The sunlight seemed to shine outwardly.  I felt as Alice must have just before she had taken her fateful step into a mad, chessboard landscape.

It was as if someone or something behind that mirror had given a breath of life into that lonely, gilded room.

As I went further into the book I discovered how similarly unique the other photographs were.  Decorative items weren't isolated, or individually set aside for their pictures as if posing for their school portraits.  It wasn't necessary for the entire desk, or wall, or house to be visible.  Sometimes only a corner of a secretarire could be seen, or a partial swing of drapery.  A river house was partially obscured by the fog coming off the water.  A white cherub's foot dangled from behind a golden chair, its whitewashed innocence hidden.  Inanimate didn't mean static.

These photos were taken with wit and imagination – yet with understanding as well.  Not a single item was photographed in its entirety, yet they were able to reveal completely Queen Marie's creative frivolitites:  with a shadow, a corner, a glitter of chrystal or a room struggling through a dusty stream of light.

Now for the words.  As I read, I remember thinking that either English was not the authors' first language, or that they merely chose to treat that reliable, earthy language as high-handedly and capriciously as possible.  Like the pictures, meaning was implied, like a sweeping brush stroke heavy with unusual colors.

The reader was challenged to think, and to imagine:

"The magical effect of these materials and their consummate craftsmanship must be completed in our imagination by the vision of voluminous, rustling taffeta, satin or gros de Tours dresses of white, blue or lilac."

"She left behind her, like Cinderella's slipper, objects that were as fantastic as they were unique."

Comparisons were surprising and evocative:  a bed was "as narrow as that of a convent schoolgirl".  The authors were not content with single-worded colors, they were given new depth; an experience and place in the living world: apple-green, lavender-blue, Pompeian red, nasturtium orange.

The phrasing wove a filagree of old and new language:  "It was unique; perfection itself"; "She coveted a gold and silver boudoir on the theme of the iridescent pearl".  An architect was "a faithful interpreter of the queen's desires".

The authors of this gleaming little diamond, it turns out, are French:  Marie-France Boyer and Francois Halard.  And their words and pictures were as ornate, as delightful and as flippant as the ochre boudoirs, delicate pavilions and living mirrors that Marie Antoinette desired.

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