Sunday, November 27, 2011

Surprise in the Water Tower

Sala Canal de Isabel II
11/26/11 - Calle Santa Engracia, 125

I'd been eying the structure for months, and finally learned its purpose.  The defunct water tower built in 1911 looms over the Canal of Isabel II.  

The Sala Canal de Isabel II

In the 1980s, the circular tower was remodeled inside and took on a new function as a multi-level sala, or hall, for modern photography exhibitions.  The other day I dragged the protesting progeny to the excellent free exhibit “Juan Gatti. Contraluz.”  Do bring a passport or other form of ID to enter the complex; a guard will sign you in at the entrance on Calle Santa Engracia, 125. 

Gatti, an Argentinian graphic artist and photographer, moved to Madrid in 1980, at the beginning of the post-Franco flowering of art and culture known as La Movida.  He found work in Spanish fashion and film, and designed many of the colorful posters for Pedro Almodovar’s movies.  The first level of the exhibit contains Gatti’s inventive commercial work, including Vogue covers and portraits of celebrities.  The remaining 3 levels display his black and white photography on a grand scale.  A trippy, multi-media treat awaits you on the top level, as you sit back on a comfy lounge chair under the water tower’s dome.  My fifteen-year-old enjoyed it so much he stayed for a second viewing.  

They liked it! (Tower entrance)
 The exhibit “Juan Gatti. Contraluz” runs daily until 1 April 2012.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Barefoot Nuns, Eyeballs on a Dish

Monastery of the Barefoot Noblewomen / Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales
11/22/11 – Plaza de las Descalzas, 3

Before it became a refuge for five centuries of barefoot nuns, the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales was a medieval palace of the famously inbred Habsburg royal family.   

Tour entrance at left
Joan of Austria was born in here in 1536.  She was married to a double first cousin in Portugal, who impregnated her and then promptly died.  Joan was called back to Madrid in 1554 by her brother King Phillip II, to rule for him while he lived in England, leaving her baby (named Sebastian—an uncommon moniker at the time) to be raised in Portugal.  She never saw Sebastian again.  In 1559, Joan turned the palace into a convent for women of the royal household, including herself.  She remained single and died at age 38.  Today about 20 nuns reside in the convent unseen, their choice of footwear unknown.

Joan of Austria, age 25

The Monasterio (nun = monja in Spanish) is located close to the center of Madrid.  If you arrive at 11 and can’t get a tour until noon, there are dozens of nearby distractions, including Starbucks and the Chocolatería San Ginés. The building was designed early in the 16th century by royal architect Juan Bautista de Toledo (see my report on the Musem of the Sewers of Peral).  The hour-long, guided tour in Spanish (and perhaps in English, when there are enough takers) costs 7 euros.  The guide speaks very quickly, and lot of basic information is covered, but not what one really wants to know. Where are the nuns? What do they do all day?  Why are there two separate paintings of girls holding dishes of eyeballs?  

Even if you don’t speak a work of Spanish, it is well worth tagging along to inhale the medieval atmosphere: the staircase frescos, family portraits, religious treasures, tiny chapels, and a vast chamber of floor-to-ceiling tapestries based on designs by Rubens. 
Main staircase leading to cloister

Over the centuries, the dowries of noblewomen enriched the convent’s art collection. The most valuable painting here is Caesar’s Money, by Titian.  As for the eyeballs, a quick search of religious symbology in gothic art suggests that the eyeballs are held by Saint Lucy (283-304), a wealthy young girl whose eyes were gouged out as punishment for steadfastly guarding her virginity and refusing to marry a pagan. A fitting subject for a convent of recluses.

The shiny brick floor of the cloister is not original, but the Talavera tiles that line the walls and chapels are authentic, and beautiful.  The cloister on the second floor looks down upon a symmetrical garden of orange trees and a fountain. One fully expects a unicorn to canter by. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Yves Saint Laurent, Out and About

Fundación Mapfre: Yves Saint Laurent Retrospective
11/20/11 – Paseo de Recoletas, 23

November turns out to be a wet month in Madrid.  Every bar along the street glows invitingly.  It’s not cold by midwestern standards, but dogs are wearing sweaters, and prams navigate the sidewalks like barges, their tiny passengers snug under clear plastic rain shields.  Even on a rainy Sunday there’s plenty to do.  Mapfre—a Spanish insurance company that sponsors cultural exhibits on a regular basis—is hosting a free retrospective on the influential French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent (1936-2008).   

The precocious Saint Laurent took over the House of Dior in Paris at age 21.   He popularized the trapeze dress, safari jacket, tuxedo suit for women, and see-through evening wear.  He scandalized the critics in 1971 with clothes reminiscent of prostitutes in Nazi-occupied Paris.  Saint Laurent was also the first designer to use ethnic models in his runway shows.   

There is little here about Yves the man. His disastrous experience in the French army during the Algerian war of independence, his addictions, and his private life are not on display.  A replica of his modest work-table and studio shows only a few of Saint Laurent’s obsessions—a passion for art, and for his French bulldog “Moujik” (as documented by Andy Warhol, below).

Though he rarely traveled beyond his villa in Morocco, Saint Laurent drew inspiration from world cultures.  I’m old enough to remember the splash he made in 1976 with his Russia-inspired collection.  

When I arrived in Moscow in 1985, I think I expected to see Russian women dressed like that; in reality, the economy dictated a wardrobe of soviet drab—with the exception of fur hats, whose exuberance exceeded anything Saint Laurent could conjure.  The lower floor of the exhibit chronicles the creative process, with four decades of Saint Laurent’s sketches and fabric samples.  How dispiriting to see in detail the rise and fall of 1980s shoulder pads.  During the flower of my youth, styles were so awful.  And now Spain won’t let me forget: the 1980s gem El Coche Fantástico (Knight Rider, starring David Hasselhoff) plays daily on Spanish television.  

On Sunday evening I saw “The Help” at Cinema Verdi, one of the few theaters in town that shows foreign movies with subtitles instead of dubbing.  The American South has always seemed like another country, and in this film, set on the brink of the Civil Rights era, it’s truly alien.  Ladies of the Junior League wear hometown versions of Dior’s “New Look,” their waists still as girdled as their outlook on life.  I find myself wondering about attitudes toward race in Spain.  During “The Help,” there were sniffles all around. Some things are universal.  

The Yves Saint Laurent Retrospective runs until 8 January 2012. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Art, Where Beer Once Brewed

ABC Museum of Drawing and Illustration / Museo ABC de Dibujo y Ilustración
11/12/11 – Calle Amaniel, 29-31

The ABC Museum is so new that the image on Google Maps shows a façade still covered in graffiti.  Architects have remodeled this 1900 building (the first Mahou beer factory in Madrid) inside and out.  Except for one wall of red brick, not a hint of brewery remains.  Tucked into a narrow side street, the remodeled exterior succeeds.  The courtyard has a cool, shattered-pavement vibe.  

ABC Museum courtyard

Street view

Inside, the walls are white, and sparsely covered.  Though the museum boasts in its literature of a permanent collection, the galleries are reserved for temporary shows.  The latest exhibit, “The Elegance of the Drawing: Chronicle of Paris,” is a straight-forward presentation of over 700 fashion illustrations by Carlos Sáenz de Tejada during his time in the City of Light, 1931-36.  Docents were leading groups of 5-year-old tots and their parents through the exhibit, part of the museum’s Saturday programming for families.  Given the subject matter, the attention span of these children was most impressive. 

Exhibit space, "The Elegance of of the Drawing"

A Spaniard born in Tangier in 1897, Tejada started out as an avant-garde painter and designer for the theater, but in 1926 switched to a more practical career.  Later in life, he taught drawing and illustration at the School of Fine Arts in Madrid, where he died in 1958.  The coveted “look” for women throughout the 1930s was long, languid, and decidedly glam.  Tejada worked for the most prestigious fashion designers and magazines of his time.   

I'd wear it!

Tejada liked to include dogs

Tejada’s illustrations also appeared in American newspapers, such as the New York American (“A Paper for People Who Think”).  The culture page for 16 April 1931 features an illustration by Tejada under the banner “Frock of Shimmering Silver Cloth Is Sterling Spring Choice for Wear in Evening.”  The rest of the page contains some fascinating distractions—including enlightened advice, doled out by Arthur Dean, Sc.D., Parents’ Councelor [sic], for the parents of teen daughters who stay out dancing until 4 o’clock in the morning and return home in the cars of unknown young men.
After viewing the exhibit, I stopped in at J & J Books and Coffee, a few blocks away on Calle Espirito Santo, 47.  The cellar is lined with shelves of used paperbacks in English, the largest collection I’ve seen yet in Madrid.  Three battered copies of Eat, Pray, Love!  Upstairs at the coffee bar, an English gent bemoaned the price of doing business in Spain, while an American woman with an MBA nodded in sympathy.  In a corner, an older woman conversed with a large dog.  I left with Sue Grafton and Curtis Sittenfeld in my bag.  Every so often, we all need to wag the mother tongue.  

The exhibit “La Elegancia del Dibujo” runs until 26 February 2012.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

This Lump of Coal's for You, USSR

11/3/11 - La Casa Encendida
“Red Cavalry. Creation and Power in Soviet Russia, 1917 - 1945”

Early Soviet artists and writers were caught up in a monumental project to remake the world.  A free exhibit at the cultural center La Casa Encendida illuminates the role of theater, music, art, film, industrial design and mass spectacle in the heady years of post-revolutionary Russia, before Stalin brutally stole the show.  

La Casa Encendida. Ronda Valencia, 2

Part of a year-long cultural exchange with Russia, "Red Cavalry" complements the exhibit of Aleksandr Deineka's work at the Juan March Foundation.  A generation has passed since the Soviet Union sputtered to an end in 1991, and these concurrent exhibits provide new revelations.  It's also useful in "Red Cavalry" to view avant-garde works from the 1920s together with later soviet art, such as Wilhelm Lukin's 1938 still-life of a lump of coal.  Old black-and-white film footage is priceless. The smiling pioneer girl looks like she's enjoying the camera's attention, but some of the others are merely tolerating the marching as best they can.  And what is H.G. Wells doing with Stalin on the Kremlin balcony? 

Trans: "The smoke from smokestacks is the breath of Soviet Russia"

Malevich, Meyerhold, Shostakovich and Eisenstein are represented, as well as Rodchenko, Mayakovsky, and Deineka’s portrait of Mayakovsky (caught in the act of painting propaganda).  Some unexpected items include a 1927 chess set by Vasili Guriev. Chess pieces representing the “Capitalist World” square off against “Soviet Russia.”

All the capitalists have pot-bellies

But there are more obscure finds, like a season pass to—get this—Lenin’s tomb, made out in 1924 to Anatoly Lunacharsky, first Soviet People’s Commissar of Education and Enlightenment.  The card reads (in my translation): “Permanent pass, the right to unobstructed entrance to the tomb of V.I. Lenin at any time.”  Who knew this kind of document existed?  For some reason we also see Lunacharsky’s margin doodles from a Ministry of Education meeting in the late 1920s—odd faces, a pig, and can it be…it is…the head of a French bulldog!  One last Lunacharsky tidbit.  He was appointed ambassador to Spain, but died on route to Madrid, in 1933. As one of Stalin’s men, it’s a miracle he lived that long.

Highlights include Arthur Landsberg's colorful painting of a set design for Gogol's play "The Inspector General" (containing every cliche of Russian life--samovar, orthodox church, bottle of vodka, piece of herring, cigarette); a copy of Fyodor Gladkov's aptly-named 1930 novel Cement (I read it in graduate school, such memories); and a funny painting by Ivan Vladimirov called "Foreign Tourists in Leningrad" (1937), in which the foreign ladies peer through lorgnettes from the back of their sedan.

The exhibit at La Casa Encendida runs from October 7 through January 15, 2012.