June 28, 2012
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is like an enormous golden flower blooming by the side of a bridge upon a river. I suppose it would have been a great idea in Norway or Sweden, where the light is muted, where the reflection off of Frank Gehry’s metallic surfaces would have shone on to the surroundings, bringing sunlight into a somber, subdued, darkening winter afternoon. But the Guggenheim is in Bilbao, where the light is a flat white, where there are hardly any shadows, where trees do not line the riverbank, where what one longs for is not glitering golden metallic surfaces reflecting the heat from the pavement and radiating it back on to unsuspecting passersby already wilting under the sun. I don’t know why Gehry chose to build such a monstrosity here of all places.
Why did he choose this particular style of building in a place like Los Angeles (for its Symphony Hall) or for Bilbao, where heat and light are scarcely in demand, where what one longs for is shade and muted colors? Where the sun already blinds you so that you don’t need an over-large, shiny, metallic object towering over you and zapping you with concentrated heat rays?
Modern Bilbao to me looked like a city made by a child out of blocks of Lego. In fact, now that the city is striving to meet Gehry half way, decorating the bridge next to the museum with a bright red screen that looks exactly like a large Logo block, the place looks more like Disneyland than a real city. Perhaps they did get that bright red object out of Legoland, in Germany. Everything in Bilbao is metallic, even the benches at the bust stop, where I nearly got second degree burns on my bottom by sitting down in my sundress. The temperature outside was 40 degrees centigrade even though it was only June.
Everything looked washed out, preposterously artificial and unnatural. And to top this illusion of technology and space age, there stood in front of the Guggenheim museum a sculpture of a puppy dog so garish and large, it made Gehry’s building look diminutive, if such a thing were even possible. Why a puppy dog? Why in front of the museum? Was the idea to make the preposterously large building appear small? Was the aim to humanize it in some way? I really have no idea, not having read anything about it since it was first built.
The fact that the dog was made of real plants growing real flowers in yellow and white and red did not make it any less unnatural. I am not sure who was trying to play a joke on whom. Did someone deliberately try to give the finger to Gehry by allowing this hideous creature to tower over his masterpiece? Or did the city of Bilbao just throw its hands up in the air and say, “We want to be famous, at any cost, even if it is just for our grotesque public monuments.”
Looking at the museum and the dog, I couldn’t help thinking of San Francisco, in gratitude. Our symphony hall and our library are, in comparison, modest and tasteful. Even the De Young Museum, which almost no one I know likes because of its upside down shape and because it looks like a building still under construction, is not as overpowering as Guggenheim Bilbao. Its steel mesh construction blends into the trees of Golden Gate Park.
For me the effect of Bilbao was silly, gaudy, irreverent, and ultimately, unaesthetic.
Much of modern art is like that, I suppose. I struggle to understand it, and then give up. If it doesn’t appeal to me immediately, I wonder why I should bother with it.
Inside was an exhibit by a painter named David Hockney. I knew nothing about him. In the first gallery were his outlandishly large paintings of Yosemite valley made on an I-Pad. The colors were unreal, the proportions too huge. You had to step way away to get any perspective on the pictures. But then I saw a movie about him in the hallway; watched him stand in the cold English countryside – he is from Yorkshire – and try to paint the branch of a tree over and over again. It was then I got fascinated by him. In my eye, I was still seeing the realistic, mystical impressionist paintings I had seen in the D’Orsay only a week or two ago. Comparing them with Hockney’s garish colors and larger than life canvases was hard at first.
But when I went into the gallery displaying his Yorkshire paintings, I got mesmerized. For he had painted the same grove of trees, the same road, the same canopies, over and over again, to reflect the different textures and colors and hues of different seasons. What I loved about Hockney’s work was his dedication to the observation of nature, and to trees in particular. I recalled the group of painters I had met at the Mission in San Juan Batista (made famous by Hitchcock in Vertigo) on way to Pinnacles recently, who explained to me the French Plein Air movement started by the impressionists. Apparently, with the advent of paints in tubes, as opposed to the age old method of mixing them and grinding them from raw materials, and the invention of the steam engine, painters discovered a new freedom. They could now travel to places on trains, paint outdoors, and create their visions of nature, while before, they had strictly drawn portraits. This was how the impressionist movement began. But the fact that the original movement still survives was new to me. I wanted to join the group and make sketches of beautiful places (I can do a decent sketch, particularly from a photograph). One of the old ladies, who had been an art teacher, told me it was acceptable to paint or draw from photographs, in fact, in the beginning stages, that is what they want you to do. So I might do this when I get back to California.
I thought David Hockney has created a new impressionist movement of the twenty first century, one that relies on, what else, technology of course, but one that encourages us to see art and nature with the new millennium’s eye. That is quite a feat. He uses composites of photographs, I-Pad drawings, and other techniques, painting parts of a landscape on multiple canvases and then putting them all together. His work is very technical in some ways, he breaks it down into recognizable pieces so the mystery is gone. At the same time, one wonders how he can keep such massive pieces into his head in order to be able to integrate them.
The other exhibits at the Guggenheim were not worthwhile but I got inspired by David Hockney. I felt as I had felt when I had first gone to the Modern Art Museum in the Smithsonian, right after graduating from Berkeley, and seen works by Alexander Calder, Salvador Dali, Paul Klee, and Miro. I didn’t like all of them, but I began to understand what they were trying to do. When I went to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh (he was born there but never wanted to acknowledge it), I began to understand him a little more too.
So David Hockney introduced me to a new dimension of art. His paintings slowly grew on me and mesmerized me until I wanted to be in that room, surrounded by the large canvases, forever. It was as thrilling as being lost in a real forest.